Last week 15 TBR affiliates unplugged our lives and went on an unsupported bike tour to Maine. Long-distance bike touring is one of my favorite things to do, period. If I had forgotten that, I now remember it clearly. It combines the physical challenge of daily distance riding, with the adventures of DIY camping, navigational nerdiness (gps is definitely cheating!), roadside maintenance, and all-around self-suffiency. On bike tour, the daily grind is suspended…. it is just you, your bike, the road, your gear, and that day’s destination. ……. and in this case, 14 other awesome people!
TBRs Second Annual Bike Tour.... resting somewhere in New Hampshire
When planning this trip, I was expecting 5-10 people to be interested and able to commit. When 15 had committed, I was admittedly worried. Experience has taught me that each additional rider in an unsupported group increases the chance of something going wrong… more flats, broken chains and spokes, injuries, mental breakdowns, dehydration, et cetera. This is just statistics, but somehow it feels like more than that. I was nervous.
Avoiding Petersburg Pass via Rte. 346 into Pownal, VT
After the first day, we had literally climbed a mountain. Whitcomb mountain, east of North Adams, and despite heat, exhaustion, and being denied water at a restaurant halfway up the mountain, the group was in great spirits. It was 5 miles of steep climb, complete with a swtichback, and event a false ‘west summit’ to fool everyone into thinking it was over 3/4 of the way through. Everyone was proud of themselves. I probably didn’t show it, but I was pretty much beside myself with amazement, and loving every rider. My worries faded. I knew this group could pull this off.
At the summit of Whitcomb Mountain West of North Adams, MA
I was impressed by the stamina and pace of the newbies. We were riding fast, covering ground, drafting one another, and very few mechanical problems. So, there we are camping on our third night out… we had picked a not-so-stealthy spot to ‘stealth’ camp next to a lake – arrived late, and didn’t set up the tents until after dark to avoid getting kicked out. I forgot to mention that at this point, we are only 14 in all. Tristan, a new TBR volunteer, had to work the day we left, so he left a day late. As we are bedding down to a nice night’s rest in our roadside picnic area-now-campground, Through infrequent text messages, we deduce that Tristan is still riding…. into the night! And low and behold, he arrives (!!!) at 3:15 AM, having ridden over 120 miles. I hear him pull up, and get out of my tent to greet him, but i am half-asleep and he is delirious. He puts up his hammock and within an hour, at dawn, cops arrive to alert us that we must have all our tents removed by 7am – which was a good motivator, and much better than a fine. So, Tristan gets barely any sleep, but he joins the crew anyway, and we are up and at it for our biggest day yet – just over 80 miles to Wells, ME.
Police arrive to our guerilla campground somewhere in NH around 5am
There were some important lessons learned too. Like on day three when our google ‘bike’ directions had us turn on to an ‘abandoned railroad’ grade. Great, you might think, Rails to Trails! – free of automobiles AND hills. Well, trail can mean a lot of things, and at the beginning it was OK, but definitely a mountain bike trail. We were only supposed to be on it for a couple miles, so we stuck with it, despite some folks in the group running narrow 25mm tires, and pretty much everyone carrying at least 40 lbs. of gear.
Fixing some broken spokes in Goffstown. Gotta love the panniers emptied on to the ground.
The trail began to become tighter…. then it was legitimately single track… and there we are 15 people, many of us on recycled 80s road bikes carrying camping gear – totally off-roading. It was actually fun…. and then the trail ended. No, it did not hit a road, it just stopped being a trail about 2 miles in. I bushwacked ahead to see if it started up again, and eventually we realized that about 100 yds from the ‘end’ of the trail there was an old railroad bridge over a stream… only… the bridge was not there anymore! More props to this awesome group. There was no complaining, no moaning, just solutions. Everyone unpacked their bikes (a chore that you usually only have to do once a day), and we formed a human chain through the stream and passed bikes and gear across to the other side, from where we were able to walk to a road. Oh, the lesson? It’s something about reliance on technology or google.
Passing Bikes and Gear across a stream somewhere in New Hampshire
The concepts of distance, time, and even location are redefined when on bike tour. You learn very quickly that the world relies on directions relating to gas powered travel, grossly underestimating the time it takes to get anywhere or how far anything is. Road signs themselves are inaccurate, a few miles off here and there providing you with miles on the bike you weren’t expecting.
Bike Touring... the way life should be?
Bike tour provides a person with the ability to experience in a realistic way how little one needs to survive outside of normal living conditions. You learn that you can be very happy, if not exponentially more happy only having the possessions that fit on your bike. Every object has a place and a purpose, and you learn to love the simplicity and efficiency.
I always carry the fun-meter on tour. Great Food, 40 mph downhills, and swimming holes seem to MAX it out. Hills, Poison Ivy, Police, Knee pain, etc. make for less fun.
The daily routine becomes zen like after a few days. The complexity of modern living and the forced roles of our economic dependence vanish. The day contains packing, riding, eating, drinking, and sleeping. It is rare to experience anything like this in adulthood. It provides a level of meditative self analysis that is welcome and life changing.
Tristan and I on our *empty* bikes on the coast of Maine - night 4
On the way home our numbers thinned. A couple people got a ride home in a car from Maine. Four others biked south to Boston and Providence, leaving seven of us headed back to Troy. We cooked it! we did the ride in 3 days this time, with consistent 80 mile days, however Erica began to have pretty severe knee pain and stopped in Fitchburg, and then Elizabeth became also worried about knee pain and stopped at relatives in Pittsfield. Four of us pedaled into Troy on Sunday morning. It was a bit anti-climatic considering the adventures of the preceding days, but I was personally thrilled to have made it with no flats, no mechanicals, and very little knee issues (which I was worried about from past tours).
Dylan's steed.... zero gallons/mile x 500 miles = zero gallons!
Now the group is in withdrawal. The urge to ride on is strong, but realistically, as eye-opening, challenging, or even subversive as bike touring might be, it is ultimately vacation. Yes, the coolest freakin way to vacate ever!, but still vacation. The work that TBR does is still here when we get home. There are still heaps of bikes to be worked on and people who want to fix and ride them. We are still living in a frightening, oppressive, and destructive civilization that somehow didn’t matter quite as much for that week on the road. I find myself daydreaming of the day when car culture has sputtered to a halt, and what we now call ‘bike touring’ is just how you get somewhere.
Photos by Elizabeth Press (see the entire flickr set), Andrew Lynn, & Erica Redling
Italicized text by Ryan Jenkins