Depending on the time of year, I assiduously apply myself to a broad spectrum of outdoor activities—running, climbing, skiing, and biking. Obviously, my deepest experience-base is as a runner. However, seven years ago, injuries initially forced me to seek out other modes of mountain motion. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate all of these activities on their own merits, not simply as cross-training for my previously primary sport of running.
For me, cycling has always been the least intrinsically inspiring of these four sports. The actual kinesiology of it is quite linear and inherently mechanical. [I’ve only just begun to find the motivation to pursue pure trail riding—perhaps the most engaging style of cycling—with the kind of focus required to graduate beyond the I’m-disproportionately-worried-about-falling-over stage.] Given 100% health, biking is typically the last of those four modes of motion that I would voluntarily choose on any given day.
And yet. Bike touring is magical. It imbues the activity with a pragmatic purpose that is empowering on an elemental level. I always thought that running was the most simple, most pure, most unfettered mode of travel. You can do it virtually anywhere—a road or trail is often not even mandatory. It only requires a pair of shoes, and sometimes not even that. However—and the last seven years have made this maddeningly clear—this runner is frustratingly limited by his body. The built-in ground-impact of running is abusive; it is very destructive to log big miles day after day after day. Carrying more than 15 lbs is virtually prohibitive, and that’s true for almost anyone.
Bikes remedy all of those downsides. There is no repetitive impact (keep the rubber side down!). Gear and supplies are easily strapped to the bike’s frame, further taking stress off your body. The mechanical advantage of gear ratios allows for an efficient and constant output of energy (and downhills are nearly free!).
In my opinion, bikes’ two biggest disadvantages—mechanical breakdowns (happily, bikes are pretty simple and repairs are a highly learnable skill) and the near-absolute need for an at least mildly constructed or improved surface (yes, a bummer)—are acceptable cons for the radical freedom they provide. If you give your body consistent water, calories, and sleep, you’re essentially only limited by your imagination and motivation. You can cover great distances with relatively little effort or skill and at a speed that is still perfect for getting a genuine feel for the terrain and communities you’re traveling through.
I find the self-sufficiency of all this to be highly seductive, and—in a predominantly automobile-centric society—not insignificantly counterculture. A bike tourist is an oddity and anomaly that inherently—whether one intends to or not—questions the status quo of human transport. Bike riding is radical freedom. And a subversive act.
And people sense this. The reaction to a bike tourist tends to fall into two camps:
1) jealousy—the perceived freedom is obvious;
2) cyclists as threat—it seems the biggest, ugliest, dirtiest automobiles are the only ones that ever try and run you off the road (obviously, this is not always true).
Yet, that freedom is so compelling. While out touring, people always want to chat. They want to know where you came from and where you’re going. It seems that they’re trying to get just a sip of that idealized freedom they imagine exists when your life is contained upon two wheels.
That feeling of being cut loose—autonomous and self-sufficient, free to ride and sleep anywhere—is what motivates my cycling. Combining it with the equally satisfying but different freedoms of foot-travel—running, climbing, peak-bagging—further augments the experience. Races are an interesting and entertaining side-diversion of cycling—I enjoy intense, all-out efforts in all of those aforementioned four sports—but, for me, bike touring is where it’s at.
Hailey and I did a lot of touring in 2019—eight trips total for us together with a few more solo for me—and there will assuredly be more in 2020. I’m looking forward to it.