The making of a bicycle tourist

Bicycle touring first presented itself to me in October 2013 during a month spent in Portland, OR, learning how to fix bikes. As someone with a lifelong obsession with all things bike as well as travel, I don’t know why I never knew about it before. Regardless, It was in Velo Cult, having a beer or three and flipping through old issues of Adventure Cyclist, where touring’s claws dug in to me. I returned to Cincinnati dead set on hitting the road the following spring on the way back to that Pacific Northwest oasis where people in their thirties go to retire. Reality set in though – I was only rocking a singlespeed commuter at the time, and I was a little short on touring gear, like panniers, a tent, sleeping bag…meaning I had none of it. I was even shorter on cash to get the gear and cover food costs on the road. My aspirations had to wait, but they never went too far from the forefront in my head.

I started teaching and working on bikes, and things were…ok? Looking back, however, I was pretty bored. Teaching was intellectually stimulating, and on the best days I got my students to think about the world differently (not sure how many “best days” there were). Working on bikes was very satisfying, but being around bikes all day drove home the fact that I was basically a working stiff who wasn’t doing what I could to turn my own bicycle dreams into reality. Taking advantage of an employee discount, I sold some guitars and got an honest to goodness touring bicycle, one that weighed in just under 30 pounds and could handle the long haul.

I was beyond excited to conquer the roads with my new touring bike as the winter was breaking last April. On my first real ride with it, however, I got a pretty traumatic dose of humility shoved down my throat: while trying to avoid excessive debris in a protected bike lane at night, my wheels caught the three-inch curb on the side of the road and I was thrown over my handlebars while cruising along at around 20mph. 911, ambulance, ER, the whole deal. I had shattered my right collarbone into four pieces requiring corrective surgery, complete with a steel plate and seven screws. Upshot: I’m decidedly bionic, and I’ll set off metal detectors at airports for the rest of my life…win?

It’s easy to joke about now, but the accident and following recovery were extremely difficult for me. I had never felt that kind of physical pain before. Not even close. Perhaps the bigger toll, however, was mostly taken on my head. Being unable to function physically and relegated to a recliner alone in my apartment for the better part of two months where the slightest movement would have me wincing in pain quickly began to break me down.

I fought hard to get myself back together, though, both physically and mentally. One pesky little affliction did persist despite my progress back to normalcy, and that was a fear of my bike. While understandable on a certain level, I was very uneasy about getting back in the saddle. Once my surgeon gave me the all clear at the end of last June, I fixed up my bike (not a whole lot was wrong with it; my body took nearly all the damage) and got back on it. My first rides were short and timid, and whatever humility I had mustered through recovery had to be tapped into in order to not beat myself up over how weak I had become. Some of my first rides were from a buddy’s place in downtown Cincinnati to the movie theater to see the simulcast from the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago over the July 4th weekend. Other than getting my mind blown by the incredible music and the party-by-proxy I got from those shows, riding to and from them were when my fear melted away. I felt like the kid I was twenty or so years before when I first headed out of the inoculated suburban neighborhood I grew up in and onto the roads further afield.

I went back to work with a schedule heavy in 11-7 shifts, and with the oppressive heat and humidity Cincinnati endures in the summer, I opted to start riding my bike downtown at night. Those streets were (and remain) my favorite place to ride. I still had work to do to get whatever fitness I had back and to build up more, and I realized I had to be patient with myself in how I progressed. My first rides rarely lasted more than an hour, but gradually, little by little, I eventually was out on my bike until three or four in the morning. Those nights were some of the best I’ve ever had while riding.

What made them so great? I did away with misguided quantitative obsessions and data-heavy nonsense and just. Rode. My. Bike. I didn’t care how fast I was going, I didn’t care how many miles I covered, and I sure as hell wasn’t keeping track of my pedal cadence. Preoccupations with calories burned and heart rate target zones gave way to shear child-like pleasure. I was consumed by the joy of finally being able to embrace the very activity that I’d loved all my life yet broke me months before. Even more importantly, my riding became meditative and a practice in mindfulness. Self criticism gave way to focusing on my breathing, what my bike was doing under me, and my immediate surroundings. I was able to recognize something I may have felt on a bike in the past, but was never consciously aware of: aside from all the known virtues of bicycles for transportation and exercise, they are unmatched as tools to help one live in the moment and embrace the present. At the time this was something I desperately needed, and I’m beyond grateful to have learned that lesson.

I’m sharing all this now because everything you just read set me on the path to actually loading down my bike and hitting the road for a place far away from where I started that morning. That’s exactly what I did in September 2015, with a handful of overnight trips leading up to my first multi-day tour. How did those go down? Well, keep reading to find out.

-J

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