37 days and one year later: part 8: mechanical problems and other surprises

(Hmm, seems I forgot August 31 was a day when scheduling these posts. :-) Subsequent posts will return to the one-a-day schedule.)

This is part eight of a series of posts discussing various aspects of a bike trip I did across the United States in 2012. Part one discussed the start of the trip and choosing a route. Part two discussed my daily routine and nightly shelter. Part three discussed general mileage, elevation encountered, and state-by-state scenery. Part four discussed mileage extremes and water. Part five discussed food. Part six discussed elevation extremes, particularly crossing the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass. Part seven discussed how I used down time and how I kept electronics charged. This post discusses mechanical issues and other surprises.

Mechanical problems

Tires and tubes

I replaced five bike inner tubes over the entire trip, and I replaced one tire about 750mi in after a catastrophic flat. After I returned I talked to someone who’d done a different cross-country route who’d had closer to a dozen flats. I’d have expected closer to a dozen flats than five for the trip, and no catastrophic flat (although I wouldn’t have been surprised to wear out a tire). As I carried two spare tubs and one spare tire, none of these mishaps presented any real issue. (Although after the catastrophic flat, I did just barely make it into the bike shop in the next town for a new backup tire and spare tube, before it closed for the day.)


I anticipated possibly having to deal with broken spokes at some point or another, so I carried a round of replacements: one front, one back. Properly truing spokes is a black art, but I could probably fake it til I made it to a bike shop. The first time I broke a spoke, I heard a metallic snap but didn’t recognize it as a broken spoke. I only learned about it a couple hours later when the bike shop in Pueblo asked if I wanted it fixed. (Good timing on my part!)

The second broken spoke happened about twenty-five miles from the end of the trip — and it was actually two rear spokes. I didn’t have that many replacements, and I also, er, discovered I didn’t have the tools to remove the rear cassette to replace even one of them. (*whistles innocently* There aren’t many road-ready tools for doing this, actually, as cassette removal on the go is a very uncommon thing to have to do. These suggestions are about what I’m aware of now, but with no big trips planned, I’m not in a huge rush to pick one.) Beyond that, tho, I’d been told at a shop in Kansas that I really needed a new rear wheel. (They didn’t have any, but they said their jury-rigged fix might last til the end of the trip.) So ideally I didn’t want to install new spokes for only twenty-five miles. I removed the broken spokes and gingerly biked to a bike shop in Williamsburg, where I asked about just finishing the trip without them. The bike shop thought it could work if no more spokes broke, handed me a business card with phone number just in case, and advised me to avoid bumps and potholes. :-) This was a slightly frazzled way to end the trip, a couple hours later than expected, but it worked out.

Miscellaneous surprises

Traveling light

I knew, entering the trip, that I would be traveling very light. I would be (heh) on a non-touring bike; my seatpost rack limited me to 25 pounds in panniers; and I wouldn’t carry much on my back except water, repair tools, and sundries. I could do this because I’m comfortable traveling light as a backpacker. Doubtless many cyclists are backpackers, but I expected to be at the lighter end of the crowd. I did not expect to be the lightest. Every other long-distance cyclist I saw was on an apparently heavier bike with both front and rear panniers. I expected to see a cyclist or two touring with rear panniers (possibly even less in more-populated areas). I saw none. I don’t know how to explain this.

Me striking the flexing-arm-muscles pose in front of a statue of Popeye, with my bike behind; the bike has two rear panniers, and I'm wearing a mostly-hidden Platypus backpack, and that's all the gear I took
Striking the reportedly-traditional pose by Popeye on entering Illinois; those two panniers and water bladder backpack were all I carried

Locking up the bike

In normal life I carry a bike U-lock with me everywhere I go, locking up my bike whenever I have to leave it. I did the same on this trip, expecting I’d often leave it unattended while in stores and the like. In practice I did this, but as my route traveled through mostly lightly-populated areas, I only used it once, during a ninety-minute stop at a library in Kansas. (I didn’t lock it while in campgrounds, and in hotels I kept it with me in my room.) I’ve read stories of others biking across the country who’ve had bikes stolen, so it is a danger. Yet given what I saw and experienced, I’d consider leaving it behind were I to do this ride again.

Staying off-net

I despise phones in general and cell phones in particular. But for this trip, it seemed important to have one to be able to call ahead to arrange lodging as I traveled. So I set up a one-month prepaid plan with T-Mobile, to renew at the end of the month. This was actually a huge mistake, as I quickly learned that T-Mobile’s coverage outside metro areas is very sparse. (Data especially, but even call service was often light to non-existent.) In the west I was told by various people that Verizon or AT&T would work well in different places, and in the east apparently both worked equally well. It happens that T-Mobile’s being primarily an urban network is common knowledge to anyone in Silicon Valley with a cell phone. But that doesn’t include me, so I got to learn something. :-)

As my data plan frequently didn’t work, or worked poorly, I used numerous apps with little data access. I was surprised how poorly many apps worked. Navigating through screens that downloaded data often didn’t cache that data: going forward and backward might require reloading just-viewed data. Goodreads was the biggest offender in this regard. Mobile developers: offline performance matters! Don’t sell it short just because you live in a San Francisco world of ubiquitous, high-quality, high-speed data. Vast swaths of the country are entirely unlike San Francisco in this regard.

Next time, health.


37 days and one year later: part 7: down time and keeping everything charged

This is part seven of a series of posts discussing various aspects of a bike trip I did across the United States in 2012. Part one discussed the start of the trip and choosing a route. Part two discussed my daily routine and nightly shelter. Part three discussed general mileage, elevation encountered, and state-by-state scenery. Part four discussed mileage extremes and water. Part five discussed food. Part six discussed elevation extremes, particularly crossing the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass. This post discusses what I did when I was off my bike each day, and how I kept various electronics charged.

Reading during down time

I biked seven to nine hours a day most days, but as long as I roughly kept moving, I’d have down time each day beyond what I’d need for eating and sleeping. With space and weight at a premium, the obvious answer was an ebook reader. So I finally went and got a Kindle: a touch version with 3G, as I expected I might often be places without wifi. I definitely put it to good use, reading these books while gone:

The Kindle worked extremely well as entertainment: minimal weight and volume, a very wide selection, and (via a case with built-in light) amenable to use anywhere, including inside a tent in darkness. I’d often pull it out over lunch and do some reading while eating, and a handful of times I stopped mid-day and sat and read for awhile. But most of my reading happened just before I went to sleep. I carried headphones and listened to music previously loaded on the Kindle as I read, sometimes. Amazon wasn’t kidding when they called it “experimental”: not even the slightest bit of control over the organization of music, just a single linear playlist based entirely on file creation times. It was adequate, but it certainly wasn’t fully satisfactory.


One issue presented by reading on a Kindle, and by a phone, and by a rechargeable-battery-powered head light with ~3h life (depending on mode), and by a camera with rechargeable battery, was a constant need for power outlets to recharge everything. I barely used (and shouldn’t have brought) the camera, so charging that was never an issue. The others I plugged in every chance I got at the end of the day.

The light needed recharging most often, depending on my recent evening cycling hours. Generally, however, I didn’t bike too long after dark, so the head light never ran too low on me. (I did have two consecutive days with night riding in Kansas where I ran it down to near-empty the second night, and I had a weak backup light ready for use when needed. But I timed it near-perfectly to arrive probably 15-30 minutes before my main light ran out of battery, so I never used the backup, except as a makeshift flashlight when camping.)

I used the phone, plugged in, as an alarm clock when I stayed in motels. (I used my watch for this when camping, due to battery concerns.) Except when plugged in, I turned the phone on only to take pictures or make calls, so its battery didn’t require particular recharging diligence.

The Kindle, of course, required the least recharging effort. Its non-power-drawing screen, and my turning off wireless use, let it do fine with only an occasional recharge. (Although I’m sure the light in the case compensated to some extent for its low power consumption.)

Had I used a GPS unit, I’d have had to plug that in as well, and I’d have needed to charge it more often than I needed to charge anything else I carried. Charging everything else was a minor hassle; I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with the same thing for a GPS unit too. (Although, to be fair, maps have their own problems. In addition to requiring a modicum of effort to not have to carry all ten maps for the full route the entire way, I lost one map out the back pocket of my cycling jersey one day, resulting in an uncomfortable day or so until I found a replacement.)

Next time, mechanical problems and assorted surprises.


37 days and one year later: part 6: elevation extremes and Monarch Pass

This is part six of a series of posts discussing various aspects of a bike trip I did across the United States in 2012. Part one discussed the start of the trip and choosing a route. Part two discussed my daily routine and nightly shelter. Part three discussed general mileage, elevation encountered, and state-by-state scenery. Part four discussed mileage extremes and water. Part five discussed food. This post discusses the elevation and ascents I encountered, particularly how I traversed Monarch Pass.

Elevation extremes

The first elevation extreme, Carson Pass, was perhaps the hardest: not for its height, which is only mid-8000s feet, but for its earliness and the length of the ascent. A gradual ascent, but still a long, energy-sapping ascent. Approaching it later in the trip, I’d probably have found it easier.

The Carson Pass elevation sign: 8574ft
Only 8500ft? Weaksauce

Kentucky and Virginia had the steepest ascents: never ascending particularly far, but lasting long enough that reaching the top was a relief. If someone wanted to do hill training, setting aside high-altitude benefits, he’d likely be better off training in the Appalachians than in the western states, surprisingly.

Colorado reached the highest elevation of any state. Passing over the highest point at the Continental Divide was possibly the best, and stupidest, part of the entire trip.

Monarch Pass

As usual, I started biking late that morning, and by early afternoon I’d only covered about 40mi. But then I turned it on, reaching the base of the climb to Monarch Pass at 18:15 at ~90mi. From here it was only 10.5mi/2800ft to a tourist store with snacks at the top, then a few miles’ descent to a turnoff to Monarch Campground where I planned to stop. The store closed at 20:00, but if I kept moving I could reach the top before then.

Everything went well with this plan until around 19:00, when it began to rain. Rain is an excellent way to cool down. But in cloudy weather at 10000ft in chill temperatures, it was the last thing I wanted. I didn’t have warm clothes, only the arm warmers I wore constantly (mostly for sun protection), cycling jersey and shorts, and leg warmers if I’d taken the time to put them on (can’t remember if I did — I think I decided that stopping and putting them on, when the rain started, would leave me worse off than continuing to bike would). What to do? It really wasn’t a choice: I had to keep shivering my way to the store before it closed.

I reached the top around 19:52, comfortably just in time, and immediately went inside to snack and warm up. I was doubtless now hypothermic. But between warmth and food, I’d be fine. I got a hot chocolate, a quarter pound of fudge (okay, four ounces, but they sold it as a quarter pound!), and — this was the worst idea in the world, but I’m a sucker for the flavor, so I had to have some — a small cone of peppermint ice cream. After consuming those while slowly warming up, I headed back outside — it was now completely dark and still raining — and began the bike ride down to the campground.

A fully-transparent image, i.e. I was too cold/tired/etc. to take any picture at all
One of the many pictures I took time to take at Monarch Pass

The trip down was dangerous, putting it mildly. The descent was steep and thoroughly wet from the rain. And while I had lights, I also didn’t have very good motor control through my cycling gloves in the cold. I knew I would quickly return to hypothermia, and my hands would only get worse. If I fell or something happened, I was going to be in very deep trouble. So I took it very slow, braking every second or so to not gain speed. I could not afford to crash.

After some period of time between five and twenty minutes, I saw signs for the turnoff to the campground and took it. I proceeded down the road maybe a couple thousand feet without seeing signs for the campground, so I started to worry. Was I on the right road? I was, but I wasn’t sure enough to go too far down it without being certain, so I returned to US-50 and continued to descend. (I knew I had options further down US-50 if that turnoff was the one I wanted.) By this point I was definitely back into hypothermia, and I knew that I was unquestionably staying at the very first place I saw. A short time later I reached Monarch Lodge, where I rolled my bike up, leaned it against an outside wall, and went in and asked mumbled to ask if they had rooms. They did and pointed me to the hot tub and sauna as I obviously needed to warm up. (I was sufficiently cold that the typically-cool pool at the motel actually felt warm when I jumped in it before jumping into the hot tub.) I quickly made use of them and returned to normal body temperature.

Good idea, bad idea

Monarch Pass, done that way, was the second-stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life. (The only thing stupider was walking 51 miles in a day for the Four State Challenge, because I had no good reason at all to do it. It was a totally arbitrary challenge done for no reason except its existence.) It was somewhat pointlessly dangerous, and it might have been nice to experience the full downhill from Monarch Pass at full speed, without missing five or so miles of it in rainy hypothermic darkness. (The first forty miles of the next day were downhill at an average 24mph, so I still got plenty of downhill. ;-) )

But hypothermia and unanticipated rain aside, I knew what I was doing. I knew the condition I was in, and that I had to get warm as soon as possible after reaching the campground or stopping elsewhere. I knew the margins for error in reaching the Monarch Pass store and in descending. And I made the utmost efforts to respect them by pushing hard to reach the pass on time and then to descend as quickly as safely practicable. It was unquestionably dangerous, but it was entirely manageable danger, that I managed with no real issue. If I had to do it over again, I’d do it the exact same way without regrets. (Although I’d definitely give more thought to the possibility of cold rain at elevation, and after-dark riding through it. Not considering that did make for a bit of discomfort, but it didn’t add that much risk, so long as I was careful.)

Next time, down time and keeping electronics charged.


37 days and one year later: part 5: food

This is part five of a series of posts discussing various aspects of a bike trip I did across the United States in 2012. Part one discussed the start of the trip and choosing a route. Part two discussed my daily routine and nightly shelter. Part three discussed general mileage, elevation encountered, and state-by-state scenery. Part four discussed mileage extremes and water. This post discusses what I ate during my trip, before, during, and after biking.


Some people when touring will purchase food in grocery stores and cook with a backpacking stove or similar. This saves money over eating in restaurants, but it requires more time and effort, and it’s extra weight to carry. My goal was to bike across the country, and really nothing more: particularly, not to bike across the country while camping. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just wasn’t a goal this trip.) So I did whatever made sense where I was. In the western parts where I didn’t try to bike quite so far each day, I usually had time to eat in a restaurant for lunch or dinner, perhaps both if I was in the right place. But it depended where I was, and whether anything was available.

It wasn’t uncommon for me to eat out of small food supplies rustled up from a general store. This became much more common after I passed Pueblo, when I reached smoother terrain and needed to make up for lost mileage. By the last couple weeks, I was fairly regularly eating out of gas stations. It wasn’t ideal, and it was not high cuisine, but it got the job done.

The best meal of the entire trip was doubtless the barbecue dinner I had at K&A Chuckwagon in Monticello, UT. The large quantity and variety of traditional Western dishes left me contentedly stuffed. They even gave me a loaf of bread and honey butter to carry and eat the next day — a much-appreciated change from constant candy bars. (Seriously: parents, if you have a kid who likes candy too much, take him on a trip like this with only candy bars to eat for energy. He’ll get so sick of them eventually that he’ll never enjoy eating them again. [Which isn't to say I've reached that point, exactly, but I very rarely eat a candy bar for anything other than energy while exercising, these days.]) If you’re passing through, you absolutely must eat at K&A Chuckwagon. You might also consider staying at Inn at the Canyons, literally across the street. They have a pool, unlike one other place in town they’ll let you take your bike in your room, and you can’t ask for a shorter walk to food after a long day of cycling.


I noticed very quickly that if I hadn’t had breakfast, or a good approximation to it, I dragged in the morning. I always dragged in the morning — I’m not a morning person, and I never really tried to consistently start the day early. But on days when I didn’t have much to eat in the morning, it was noticeably worse. Unfortunately, sometimes this came with the terrain: if there was no place around to eat, I made do with whatever I’d purchased the previous day.

Energy during the day

While cycling I survived on a constant stream of candy bars. Snickers and peanut butter Snickers in particular are generally the best candy bars for this, because they have the most calories per ounce. (Although, it looks like chocolate-peanut-butter-Twix may have recently usurped this throne, judging by experience from my last backpacking trip.) And as the calories are peanut-based, they’re at least slightly more complex and long-lasting than the sugar calories in most candy. (Probably not as good as an actual energy bar, but who wants to eat those? Ugh, they taste awful.) I carried a few to half a dozen candy bars pretty much constantly, depending on planned mileage.

I didn’t plan on it, but often when I stopped to use a bathroom at a gas station, I had more than enough candy for the day’s ride. I had to find something else to nominally pay for the bathroom, and as often as not I’d pick up a Powerade or similar, to break up the monotony of plain water. This worked reasonably well, but I found that it didn’t take much of it for the citric acid in it to trigger mild heartburn. I eased off somewhat after I noticed the correlation, but it was the simplest solution to the problem, so I kept buying them in lesser quantities as I went.

Milk shake mania

On the go, the best recurring snack was doubtless milk shakes. Cold, lots and lots of calories, full of water to rehydrate, lots of flavors — what’s not to like? I stopped at ice cream stores and local soda fountains for shakes (and perhaps lunch) when I had time. But many more times I enjoyed a shake at a gas station, courtesy of the amazing f’real experience. Their concept is a fountain-drink-sized cups mostly filled with ice cream (or blended fruit, but those had fewer calories, so I stuck to the ice cream), in any of various flavors. Then each store has an machine that will add milk and mix up a shake for you. What could possibly be better? (I will admit, however, to wondering who else possibly enjoys these things, as they ranged from 300-700 calories — even crazier than the count in a king-sized [pardon me, "two to go"] candy bar. That’s a huge number of calories to enjoy, not even as an entire meal!) f’real seemed to exist more often in the west than in the east, sadly. And I was particularly disappointed to see that the main gas-station chain in the central states, Casey’s General Store, didn’t have them at all. They’d have made a lot of money off me if they did! (And I wouldn’t have deliberately avoided them hoping to find f’real at other stores.)

An empty plastic milk shake cup
Mm, milk shakes

One thing I wish I’d seen while biking was a Cold Stone. I don’t particularly care one way or another for Cold Stone. It’s not bad, but honestly, I don’t really truly notice the higher-quality ice cream enough to make it worth paying for it, usually. But shortly after I returned from the trip I happened to visit a Cold Stone, and I observed that the posted calorie range for a milk shake ranged from ~700 calories up to 2000 calories. I have no idea how you could possibly make a 2000 calorie milk shake! But it would have been about perfect for me, on this trip. (I wonder whether I’d have needed to eat anything else the entire day!)


Most people at restaurants order food with fewer calories. Subway prominently advertises calorie counts on everything, for example. I always find these numbers highly amusing on trips like this, because I’m constantly aiming to maximize calorie count as obscenely as I possibly can. :-) Low fat? Sugar-free? Pshaw. Pass the butter!

Next time, elevation extremes, Monarch Pass in particular.


37 days and one year later: part 4: mileage extremes and water

This is part four of a series of posts discussing various aspects of a bike trip I did across the United States in 2012. Part one discussed the start of the trip and choosing a route. Part two discussed my daily routine and nightly shelter. Part three discussed general mileage, elevation encountered, and state-by-state scenery. This post discusses my mileage extremes, and how I dealt with water, particularly in deserts in the west.

Mileage extremes

My shortest non-starting day was 57.63mi in Utah, after the day featuring the longest waterless stretch of the trip (84mi). The motel I stayed at had a very late checkout time, and I was exhausted from the previous day (notwithstanding the multiple meals I ate as dinner at the adjacent 24-hour diner) and stayed past noon. A late-afternoon catastrophic flat cut short any thought of pushing further that day. (It would have been a bad idea anyway, as the next stretch was the 4000ft/25mi stretch in part three.)

A flat tire with a length-wise gash in it about the size of a quarter
He’s dead, Jim

My longest day was 161.47mi from Damascus, VA to Daleville, VA. Five days from the end, I had ~560mi to go, a reasonable closing pace. But a slow start and slowness all day for no particular reason found me only 80mi further, just outside Damascus before dinnertime. As noted earlier, I’d stayed in Damascus when hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I’d visited the town during Trail Days 2009. I had fond memories of the town and would enjoy stopping, even if it was somewhat early. So I resolved to make up the difference by starting super-early the next day. And make up, I did. From start at 0600 to 1100 in Wytheville I put in a solid 80mi. I stopped at the library to book a flight, then to eat lunch. When I looked at a map, I realized I could possibly make it to Daleville — another place I’d visited on the Appalachian Trail. I finished lunch, then hopped on the bike around 1300 and continued with only minor stops to Daleville, arriving ~21:45, to stay at the same motel I’d stayed at four years before. It was a long day, but it wasn’t as tiring as you’d think: I averaged ~15mph for ~11.5h riding, and the distance was more a matter of biking longer than of pushing harder.


Many cyclists get by with water bottles. Some go further with Camelbak or other water bladders on their backs, for greater convenience and capacity. I was traveling through vast expanses of western desert: water would be a huge concern.

Before the trip I used a 100-ounce water bladder when riding. Bladders range from 30-100 ounces, making mine a bit large. But it’s just right for longer trips, such as the fifty miles from Mountain View to Santa Cruz; I usually run near empty by the end of that route. This trip, I’d face much longer distances than 50 miles between water sources, in harsher weather and terrain — several 60-75mi stretches and one 84mi stretch. Based on the Santa Cruz precedent, I bought a second (!) 100-ounce bladder for the trip.

Two bladders worked surprisingly well for all those longer distances. My first taste of empty desert was for the relatively flat fifty miles from Fallon to Middlegate Station in Nevada. As I had little idea how fast I’d consume water, I cautiously filled both bladders in Fallon. I sucked dry on the first one as Middlegate Station came into view, telling me that two ounces per mile was about right in easier desert. (I still fully filled both for the long stretches, to be safe, but I had an idea how fast I’d consume water during them.)

Low-lying scrub brush and desert, with hills in the background
Not too many water faucets out here, even if that doesn’t stop that antelope (?)

The longest waterless stretch was 84mi (as far as I knew — turns out there was a water hose for cyclists about halfway that I didn’t know about :-( ), from Baker, NV to Milford, UT. After thirty miles in the morning, I ate lunch in Baker, then left with 200oz. water on my back at around noon-ish. I did myself no favors leaving during the heat of the day, but the Baker grocery store’s opening time, and then the allure of lunch, tempted me into it. (Never underestimate what a good meal can do for energy or morale.) Very quickly I encountered the first real headwinds of the trip, sapping energy more than the heat did. But I kept biking and eating well-melted candy bars, and I kept moving. I emptied one 100oz. water bladder short of 40mi, leaving me slightly worried. But even when water’s scarce, it’s generally better to be hydrated than dehydrated, so I swapped bladders and kept drinking. Eventually I eased up on water to try to stretch it out further, but at mile 72 I sucked dry — well ahead of the distance I’d expect to ride on that water, although not horribly far for the peaks I’d climbed. But I’d successfully stretched the water to my immediate goal: the top of the last pass of the day. So I hunkered down, closed my mouth, and pedaled and coasted downhill the remaining twelve miles. I was thirsty by Milford, but not uncomfortably so: I’d survived the worst of the droughts. It was about the most comfortable way I can imagine to run out of water in the desert.

Next time, food (not that I haven’t been mentioning it every chance I’ve gotten already, I’m sure :-) ).

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