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I had only biked 45 miles once in my life prior to this trip. Here are the most practical lessons I learned after a 500 mile bike tour.
Well, I’ve done it. I set out to cycle 500 miles and I was able to accomplish the goal in 9 days. This was my first attempt at at a long distance bike ride (commonly known as bike touring) over multiple days. I wasn’t even sure I would make it, but I was excited to try. Here I am though! Writing about the longest, most difficult physical challenge I’ve ever completed. Would I do it again? I can’t wait!
Here are the most important 12 things I learned on my first bike tour:
1. Cycling isn’t hard.
To be honest, I like running but I haven’t run more than 8 miles in a couple of years. Why? Because after 5 miles I am a sweaty horse, gasping for air. Cycling isn’t like that. It’s a feat of persistence, more than a physical challenge (unless you’re trying to make some crazy good time, which…err, I definitely wasn’t. I was moving at turtle’s pace.). If you can bike, cycling 500 miles is totally doable without much training. While I’m relatively physically active and bike 10 miles a couple of times a week during the summer months, I’ve only biked 45 miles once in my life prior to this trip.
2. Cars can be nerve-racking.
My biggest safety issue was not the curious creep I met along the way. Instead, it was the drivers. It wasn’t even the truckers! Truckers are actually quite understanding of cyclists and always try to make space between the rider and their monstrous vehicle. For some reason, it was always the jerks in pickup trucks. Talk stereotypes that ring true. I lost count of the times they passed inches away from my body. They could have easily killed me if I had lost my balance for a second, and it was incredibly scary. (side note: if you’re wondering why cyclists ride on the road even if the road has a shoulder, it’s because there’s a ton of glass and debris on the side of the road. It’s easy to get your tire punctured, and then, you may be stranded. Stranded is better than dead, but it’s a hard choice to make since the odds of getting a tear in your tire are very much against you).
As time did go on I begin to feel more comfortable with cars passing. It’s just something I think I will eventually get used to but if you have the opportunity to take side roads with less traffic I highly recommend! The peace and tranquility is worth the few extra miles.
3. Relatively low pain/risk of injury.
Now, I’m not a doctor, and I’m fortunate enough to be very healthy, so take this with a grain of salt. But, the only dangerous pain I felt was knee pain, and frequent stretching helped to eliminate it. Of course, because cycling is not physically difficult (read no. 1) it’s also easy to overdo it. I had a few days where I cycled nearly 70 miles, and at the end of the day, I was like ‘meh, push comes to shove, I think I could do another 30’. In reality, even if I could, that definitely wouldn’t be healthy for my knees.
4. Good gear matters, but it isn’t everything.
I honestly don’t like experts. My life dream is to create a movement of anti-purists that just prove experts wrong all the time. Experts are entitled and close-minded because they’ve typically spent too much money on gear and too much time in the gym and they’ll tell you that’s the way you have to do it. No thanks. Get out there and just do it. I did my 500 mile bike in my 3-year old $30 sneakers. Sure, it may have been easier with proper shoes, better seat and an ultra-light bike. But nobody can tell me that it isn’t possible to do this without those things. If you wait for just the right moment, when you have just the right equipment and lots of money in the bank, you’ll never do it. Those are self-imposed barriers. Ignore them. Better yet, crush them and forget about them.
5. Google for bikes sucks.
American Cycling Association maps are expensive, can be outdated and the route doesn’t pass through cities. The Greenway site/navigation SUCKS. As a side project in the next few months, I’m planning to do more research on other options. If nothing better exists, I’ll build an app where bike tour route information is crowdsourced.
6. You become a minimalist, appreciating life more than ever.
I’m not sure what it is – maybe the 2 pairs of underwear you wear over and over, the rain that soaks your only change of clothes, or maybe the countless carcasses you see on the road- but cycling makes you reflect on your life a lot. You quickly realize that you don’t need much to live and be happy, and as the miles pass, you realize that everything is temporary, and the present moment is really all that you have. For me, long-distance cycling was a shortcut to meditation.
7. Your enemy number 1 is the wind.
There were times when it felt like I was climbing a steep hill, grinding with all the power of my legs, when in reality, I was actually going downhill. It was a total eye opening experience when it came to wind and cycling. Side wind is arguably even worse, especially when you’re on a bridge. It legit feels like you’re gonna tip over, fall in the river and become food for Nemo.
Some words of advice, drop down a gear or two in order to maintain a smooth, steady cadence (pedal rotation). Try getting low so you act less like a sail. If all this fails just embrace the wind and think about how strong of a cyclist you’re going to be. You can also always plan to ride another day if timing allows for it.
8. Take it day by day.
At first, the 500 miles seemed so damn daunting. Part of me thought I’d fail. Then, I just started planning one day at a time- just 60 miles I have to get through, that’s it. I’d split those 60 miles into 3 pieces where I’d have longer breaks for meals. So, all I had to do at any given time was just 20 miles. I’d stop approximately 3 times for a water break, so 20 miles became only 7 miles. In the last 20 miles, I’d be so tired that I only wanted to go to the next sign on the road. I can thank my 12-year old nephew for that tip. He runs with me sometimes (he’s on a bike, I run) and he always says ‘just make it to the next mailbox, that’s all you gotta do, Magda!’
9. Practical tip 1: Always carry more water than you think you’ll need.
There were at least a couple of times I ran out and one of these times resulted in severe dehydration. If you see an opportunity to fill your water bottles even if they aren’t empty take it.
10. Practical tip 2: You’ll need lots of batteries.
Aside from water, spare battery packs to charge your phone are a must, even if they weigh a ton. You might end up looking at your phone for directions more often than you think which is a sure fire way to drain your battery.
11. Practical tip 3: Keep your backpack light or don’t wear one at all.
If it’s heavy, your shoulders and back will hurt like hell. I made that mistake in the first couple of days, then, I moved heavier stuff to my saddlebags. You don’t really feel the weight when it’s on your bike, but you do feel it when it’s on your back. Removing your backpack all together is even better and greatly reduces your chance of back pain while on a bike tour.
12. Lastly, when I finished, the first thing I felt was this weird emptiness.
I didn’t feel happiness or a sense of accomplishment. I totally forgot to take a triumphant photo as I was handing off my bike to be flown back home. I legit didn’t know what to do with myself for the rest of the day, and the next day I got up at 6 AM ready to cycle again. Once I reminded myself that I was done, my second thought was: okay, so… how about a new challenge? 1,000 mile bike tour, anyone?
This post was originally published on zigzagging.world, where Magda blogs about fitness, travel and her adventures in New York City.