Bike touring lessons

Three weeks ago I left for a bike tour through the San Juans and Whidbey Island, up in the Puget Sound north of Seattle. I’d like to share the whole story, but I haven’t had a stretch of concentration long enough to start writing about it. I do have a few snippets, however. This was the longest tour I’ve done yet, at five days with a median distance of 33 miles per day (total of 170 miles). I also planned and went on the trip alone, so naturally I got some things a little bit wrong—but all that means is, lessons have been learned for next time.

What I learned from my trip:

1. Bring mosquito repellent if you’re going near the woods. This should have been obvious, what with the Northern Hemisphere being in summertime. But I had figured that mosquitoes wouldn’t be a problem on the coast, so I didn’t bring protection. In the first couple days, along the rocky shores or among the farmlands of the San Juans, no mosquitoes came to bother me. Instead, they had a secret meeting and planned an ambush at the forested campground in the northeastern corner of Lopez Island, where I had hoped to relax for the night. They were so vicious that I zipped myself into my tent and had granola bars for dinner, rather than staying outside and cooking. 

The next evening, another mob of them got me as I biked through South Whidbey State Park. I held onto my bike with one hand and swatted mosquitoes with the other. Once I got to the campground, they dissipated, but by then I had a leg full of painful welts and itchy bites everywhere else on my body.

2. Use a generous amount of chamois cream. If you’re not a cyclist, I’ll let you Google that unfamiliar term; then you will understand. I experienced my first saddle sores on this trip. Perhaps they weren’t full-blown, but they were unpleasant.

3. Reapply sunscreen throughout the day. Like mosquitoes, this should have been extremely obvious. But I was irresponsible, and wound up with skin redder than I would have liked.

4. Don’t bring a whole jar of Adams peanut butter. That stuff is delicious, but thin and runny. Also it’s supposed to live in the refrigerator, not inside a bike bucket under constant sun.

5. Know how many miles you’ll be riding per day. Parts of my trip were spontaneous. Using a map attached to my handlebars, I decided on the fly which roads to take to get to my nightly destinations and waypoints. Before I left I had looked up the bicycling directions on Google Maps to get a rough idea of the mileage I’d be doing; however, those weren’t exactly the directions I wanted to follow on the ground. On Whidbey Island this resulted in a 58-mile day, which was ten miles longer than I’d expected and caused a lot of “Am I there yet??” frustration.

6. Eat and snack and eat and snack. The aforementioned 58-mile day wouldn’t have been so hard if I’d kept myself regularly nourished on the road. Instead, I bonked as I had never bonked before. (It sounds like I’m talking about sex, but o-ho! I am not.) It felt like I had the flu. At the end of the day I forced myself to eat a protein-packed dinner, despite an upset stomach, and crawled into bed feeling like hell. A good night of sleep, though, had me ready to go the next morning.

7. Use a large-scale map to navigate urban areas. Bear with me please: A large-scale map is one that shows less actual distance per unit of map distance, meaning that you see less area with more detail. A small-scale map is one that shows more area with less detail. I used the latter as I tried to finish my trip by riding to Seattle from the town of Mukilteo. It was a Google Map with Google directions, which may have been my second mistake. Being unfamiliar with the suburbs north of Seattle, I readily got lost. A wrong turn toward Edmonds yielded some extra views of the Olympic Mountains, but took me about ten miles out of my way. By 5:00 in the evening I’d been biking for eight hours, I was still 12 miles outside of Seattle, and I couldn’t find my way back to the nice-looking Interurban Trail that was supposed to take me into the city. So, I parked myself in front of a rundown convenience store and called a taxi. I recommend doing this in case of emergency only. It’ll cost you, and you might … oh, let’s just say … get your fender stay bent by the trunk lid.

8. Your Mileage May Vary. I pushed myself a bit too hard in the last two days, in part because I felt I had something to prove. I hear about people doing 60, 70, 80 miles per day on tour. A fellow I met on San Juan Island called it “a slow day” when he had biked 60 miles. But in truth, I am relatively slow—and especially so on a gear-laden bike traversing hills and battling stiff breezes from the ocean. On top of having that fact driven home, I realized how much I enjoy stopping at towns and other attractions along the way. I missed my chance to visit a winery and pie shop on Whidbey because I reached it at 6:00 PM and still had several miles to go before hitting the campground. Next time I’ll be a bit more conservative, because hell, it’s my vacation and I have nothing to prove to anybody.

9. Don’t use Dr. Bronner’s to wash clothes. I think this is how I finally messed up the sporty-but-cute tank top I’d been wearing for the entire trip. While on the road I rinsed my clothes here and there, but didn’t have the opportunity to launder them. And in Seattle, the night before I returned home, my apartment for the night had no laundry facilities. I decided to wash my biking outfit in the bathroom sink using the Dr. Bronner’s soap I always take with me. The clothes dried overnight. In the morning, my sage green shirt looked like it had been streaked with liquid bleach.

10. Bike touring is THE BEST. In between the tough spots (which were brief) I was incredibly happy. I need to do more of this. And so do you.

P1010681_travel

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2 Comments

  1. Mike C.

     /  August 24, 2013

    Hey Kristen – Super glad to hear about your solo touring adventure of the San Juan Isles! Sounds like you had a few minor challenges and are the wiser for it now. Interesting note about Dr. B’s as a laundry detergent. I used Dr. B’s regularly to wash my clothes on my last bike tour and didn’t experience any bleaching. Maybe it’s the fabric? I tend to only wear synthetics when bike touring.

    I have tentative plans for a similar trip in Sept. I hope you’ll blog a bit more about some of the aspects of your trip that you really enjoyed and recommend to others!

    Cheers!,

    Mike C.

  2. kristenpdx

     /  August 24, 2013

    Interesting! It must have been the fabric, I guess, because I washed my skirt too and it was fine. The skirt is more synthetic than the tank top. I think the top is mostly cotton.

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