27.08.13

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.

Water

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 🙂 ).

26.08.13

37 days and one year later: part 3: mileage, elevation, and scenery

This is part three 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. This post discusses mileage, elevation, and the state-by-state scenery.

Mileage and elevation change

Excluding the first day, my daily mileage ranged from a low of 57.63mi to a high of 161.47mi. For the first “half” (psychologically) of the trip til Pueblo, I aimed to not lose ground from my overall target pace but didn’t sweat falling slightly short, and I averaged slightly under 100mi/day (even including that farce of a first day). Nevada’s emptiness strongly regimented my stops and pace. At one point I faced three ~70mi stretches between water, with further logistical challenges beyond: given my time constraints, I had to do two in a 135mi day, then the last plus a bit more the next day. But normally I biked shorter distances til the TransAmerica.

The end of the Western Express in Pueblo marked the start of the Great Plains, where I began to make up lost mileage. In Kansas I discovered 120-130mi was my maximum sustainable pace if I didn’t adjust my schedule to start earlier. Any further and the next day would be an invariably “short” 90-100mi. 120mi let me start somewhat later in the morning (I am absolutely not a morning person), eat reasonable lunches and dinners (if sometimes as gas station takeout), and read awhile before a decent night’s sleep. With more focus I might have started earlier and biked further. But I was on vacation, and I was, er, relaxing. If strict discipline wasn’t necessary, I wouldn’t force it.

That said, 120mi wasn’t always possible. The Missouri section had no difficult elevation, but it did have the Ozarks with an unrelenting sawtooth profile: not enough to exhaust, but enough to slow down the entire day. I eventually gave up on playing mileage catchup til Illinois and settled for not losing ground with ~100mi days.

Elevation profile from Cedar City, Utah to the top of a 4000ft, 25mi climb
Cedar City, UT to the red line is around 25mi: uphill but comfortably gradual

East of the Mississippi had arguably more difficult elevation than west. (Carson Pass might be an exception, as a very long ascent so close to the start.) Virginia’s section has more total elevation gain than any other state’s section. Eastern ascents were shorter but much steeper: nothing that couldn’t be handled shifting to lowest gear and spinning, but more exhausting. The steepest lengthy climb was around 4mi/2500ft to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. In contrast the climb to the Continental Divide was 10.5mi/2800ft.

Scenery and attractions

A view across to Marin from underneath the right side of the Golden Gate bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge, and the start of my trip

California was the least interesting of the western states. The first hundred miles from San Francisco were mostly flat and unvarying: not bad at the start, but still not interesting. The gradual multi-day climb to Carson Pass had its attractions, particularly along California’s SR 88. But California was a short and mostly undistinguished state to bike through, at least along this route.

Of the western states, Nevada was the most majestically desolate. Pass through a basin (carefully winding between mountains), climb to a pass, descend to a basin, and repeat through the entire state. All around were mountains and emptiness; it was the state where I felt most truly alone. (Which as an introvert I consider not a bad thing.) The climbs were never particularly steep, and the descents never astonishingly so, yet I hit ~40mph most days through it. Strangely, of all the states I passed through, I think Nevada is the one I’d most want to return to on bike, even tho it has “nothing” to recommend it.

The road stretches straight for miles into the distance, through flatland bordered in the distance by minor mountain ranges
Nevada’s scenery doesn’t change very quickly, but it’s all beautiful like this

Utah and the mountainous portions of Colorado were much more varied: good in their own ways, yet not in Nevada’s unique way. After that initial 84mi waterless stretch (from just in Nevada to well into Utah), I encountered irrigated farmland, red sandstone rock formations, and a good variety of desert vegetation. The empty stretches didn’t have the consistency of terrain that Nevada’s did. I did pass through emptiness, but that emptiness carved across mountainsides, descended into and out of valleys, and passed through several national parks with incredible scenery. Nevada’s uniqueness aside, Utah and Colorado were the best states of the trip.

This arid, rugged Utah landscape nonetheless has a smattering of green scrub, and a canyon in the distance shelters trees and bushes
A sampling of Utah’s varied vegetation and scenery

West of Pueblo turned into the Great Plains: the tail end of Colorado, and Kansas. The riding is basically flat, with mercurially-shifting prairie winds kicking in to keep things interesting. Even crosswinds that aren’t actually impeding you can really sap energy. The Colorado portion wasn’t particularly different from the Kansas portion, except that the local towns along CO-96 banded together to create the Prairie Horizons Trail — a naming and sprucing up of the stretch to particularly accommodate touring cyclists, complete with map listing services at locations along the way. It was definitely a nice touch. 🙂 Kansas was much the same, excepting that the route traveled many different roads, slowly cutting south as it crossed the state. Both routes were notable for their sheer emptiness: not in the desolate manner of Nevada, but in the way that, leaving one town, you could see the grain elevator in the next town, and the utter lack of anything but fields of grain before it.

Sunset in Kansas
Sunset colors in Kansas as nighttime riding beckons

Missouri was my least favorite state for two reasons. I’ve already mentioned its sawtooth climbs and descents. The second reason is that Missouri was one of only two states where I was ever aggressively chased by dogs. This was not a rare occurrence: it happened multiple times, including a couple times in complete darkness. Fortunately, I was able to bike just fast enough that dogs that appeared to have every intention of attacking me could only just keep pace with me til I left their home ranges. I evaded them all, but always with a fast-pounding heart afterward. Missouri did have Al’s Place, the nicest hostel of the entire trip — a former (converted) jail run as a hostel for cross-country cyclists.

A signed Tyler Hamilton Tour of Missouri jersey; written across it are "Olympic Gold Medalist" and "US Pro Champion '08"
A jersey that, er, “graces” Al’s Place; my timing seeing it on August 12 was impeccable

Illinois was a short and sweet state I passed through in about a day, near the southern tip. It had the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at start and end to recommend it, but it was mostly uneventful. It played host to the worst rainstorm of the trip, which passed over me during a brief gas station stop. I delayed leaving an extra fifteen minutes to avoid biking in briefly-torrential rain; it would have been impossible to see through it while riding. Its other attraction was the milk shake at Rose Kountry Kitchen in Cave-In-Rock. I ordered it sight unseen before looking at a menu. When I looked at the menu I discovered there were two sizes; I quickly upgraded my request to the 32-ounce (!) size, to much astonishment from the restaurant staff. There’s nothing better than that many calories, as ice cream, while biking.

Looking back toward Cave-In-Rock, Illinois from the public ferry across the Ohio River
The ferry across the Ohio was one of my more unique moments of travel

Kentucky, sad to say, was at times the grungiest state of the trip. The graffiti on the state welcome sign just past the Ohio didn’t bode well. And the many run-down homes and trailer homes on the many back roads on which I traveled only confirmed this. And Kentucky’s dogs were probably the worst of the entire trip. TransAm cyclists told me of other cyclists who’d had to get stitches from dog bites suffered in Kentucky. I evaded any bites, but as in Missouri, it was very stressful doing so. The best part of Kentucky, however, was the Utica Fire Department, which lets cyclists stay in the volunteer fire station overnight; I particularly appreciated it after a ~142mi day. I just wish I’d been able to say hi to more firefighters while I was there.

A welcome-to-Kentucky sign with spray paint graffiti across it
Welcome to Kentucky 😐

Virginia presented the Appalachians, the Atlantic, and the end of the trip. Virginia’s route paralleled the Appalachian Trail for awhile, giving me the opportunity to briefly revisit many places I’d visited four years before. I stopped early in Damascus, partly from tiredness, partly to stay at The Place, a hostel I’d visited while hiking the A.T., partly for a good dinner, and partly to make an early start on the mother of all days the next day. (More on that later.) My mileage worked out just right so that my last day was a pleasurable hundred miles into Yorktown — made slightly hectic by two broken rear spokes with 25mi remaining, yet leaving me several hours in the evening for a good dinner, ice cream, and a beer. Grace Episcopal Church hosted me as a cyclist on this last night, giving me an opportunity to wash laundry and clean myself up before heading to Norfolk to fly back to California the next day. (Yes, this cut it close, but I was fairly sure it was always going to be that way.)

Next time, mileage extremes and water.

24.08.13

37 days and one year later: part 1: the start and choosing a route

One year ago, after 37 days of biking around ~3875mi total starting in San Francisco, I reached Yorktown, VA to finish biking across the country. An exact day-to-day accounting would likely bog down in uninteresting logistics (particularly given the way I traveled — other approaches would likely yield more interesting day-by-day commentary). Instead, I’m going to cover a variety of topics of interest from the trip, in somewhat random order, in series. If you want a very cursory, sometimes out-of-order account of the trip, reading approximately July 18 to August 25 of my Twitter stream covers it.

Me in the traditional arms-upraised pose, next to my bike and (appropriately) the Victory Monument at Yorktown, with the Chesapeake Bay (and the Atlantic Ocean) in the background
The secret to my speed: obviously the cycling jersey

An inauspicious start

The trip got off to a bumpy start the Tuesday night before I planned to leave. I planned to ride my spiffy, super-light carbon-fiber racing bike. I use it for regular transport, so I waited to get a final tune-up til the last minute, picking it up the evening before I departed. I began loading it with panniers and gear. Racing bikes don’t have mounts for carrying gear, so I’d use a seatpost rack (with correspondingly light ~16-pound load). When I began attaching the rack, I noticed the clamp matched a much smaller-diameter seatpost. Looking at how the clamp would make contact with the seatpost, it suddenly occurred to me that attaching a seatpost rack to a carbon fiber seatpost might not be a good idea. Carbon fiber is strong along its length, not laterally: the clamp could easily crush the seatpost.

A red carbon-fiber racing bike
Shiny! But really not the thing to use for touring

Wednesday morning, I asked the bike shop if they had an aluminum seatpost of the right size. They wouldn’t have one til Friday. Other local shops didn’t have any, either. Replacing the seatpost was out.

Seeing no other options…I went to the first bike shop, bought a non-carbon road bike that fit me, walked home with it, transferred gear and pedals to it, and biked to Caltrain to head to San Francisco to start the trip.

Thus I crossed the country on a bike I bought the day I left.

Me standing underneath a "Welcome to Illinois" sign, with my bike leaning against the sign just next to me; a sign with directions to a mental health center is just visible
Too bad that mental health center wasn’t closer to the start of the trip, there might have been hope for me then

This is crazy. But not quite as crazy as it sounds. I’d purchased a 2012 Scattante R-570; I’d previously owned the 2010 version, so I knew I’d be comfortable. And months before, I’d considered getting a touring-oriented bike for extra carrying capacity. But I’ve never spent money very easily. I had the money, but I didn’t want to spend it if I didn’t have to.

Now I was in a “have to” situation. Riding a totally untested bike would rightly scare most people to death. Most people would probably cancel the trip or substantially change plans. But my philosophy is that what must be done, can be done. So I did it.

Other than lost biking time (day 1 was 23.76mi route miles rather than the ~100mi I’d intended — no small loss, but not huge, either), all I lost was the ability to buy the bike on sale for ~$160 less. It could have been worse.

Choosing a route

I traveled pretty much entirely with the aid of the Adventure Cycling Association‘s route maps. I considered finding my own route, but I discarded the idea for lack of time and being unsure I’d enjoy route-planning. In hindsight this was clearly the right choice. Unless you enjoy route-planning for its own sake, buy existing cycling maps. You’ll get better routes, and more cycling-useful information, than you can create on the fly. (Plus GPS units cost hundreds of dollars and must be charged every night.)

Route profile for the section of road from Grover to Lake Powell in Utah
A profile from an ACA map, that’s likely harder to find outside of prepared maps

The 4200-mile TransAmerica Trail goes from Oregon into Montana, southeast to Pueblo in Colorado, then east to Virginia and the coast. It’s the most well-known and commonly-used cross-country route. The 1580-mile Western Express goes from San Francisco to Pueblo. Most people do the TransAmerica because it avoids much waterless desert and elevation change. For me, convenience and available time made the Western Express and eastern TransAmerica a no-brainer.

A definite perk to using an existing route is that the roads will be good for cycling. Often I was on relatively empty back roads, or on state roads with light traffic. The worst roads were in the Rockies in Colorado, likely because of the terrain. The worst regularly-bad road occurred between Cimarron and Sapinero along US-50: a narrow, winding stretch of road with little shoulder and a bunch of RV traffic, where I should have occasionally taken the entire lane rather than let anyone unsafely pass me. Colorado also had the worst irregularly-bad stretches of road, along CO-145 due to road construction. There were two two-mile stretches of riding through gravel where roads were being re-oiled, which I rode through (what choice did I have?) past Motorcycles use extreme caution signs on 700×23 tires (less than an inch wide). Good times. And the stretch from Telluride to Placerville had so much construction dust I sometimes couldn’t see ten feet; I had to stop and turn on head and tail lights to be visible. But generally, ignoring these rare exceptions, the roads were great.

Next time, the daily grind and shelter.

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