Final Mile: Five Myths of Bicycle Touring

Jun 14th, 2022

This article first appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

Okay, enough already with the grand wonderments of bicycle touring. I just finished a 3,118-mile bike ride from San Diego to Savannah, crossing parts of California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, and I’d like to share some of the myths of touring.

Myth 1: Your endless hunger will be met with an endlessly wonderful feast.

Reality: You will in fact be gloriously hungry, but too frequently the principal attribute of the food in front of you will be your own starvation. Those cute little roadside cafés with perfectly grilled Reubens and freshly baked apple pies? They exist. But often they’re separated by 500 miles of criminally indifferent hash browns.

Myth 2: Ride from west to east to take advantage of the prevailing westerly winds.

Reality: This is helpful mainly for people riding at 35,000 feet. Conditions on the ground are far more variable. For example, after being pelted by chunks of sod, bales of tumbleweed, and gale-force easterly winds for a week in Texas and Oklahoma, I checked with the National Climate Data Center, which reported that in North Texas, “The prevailing wind direction in this area is from the southeast.” In other words, ride whichever way you want.

Myth 3: Bicycle touring brings people closer together.

Reality: As Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.” I rode across America with a dear old friend and bike buddy who remains both. But no one is immune to the fatigue that comes with cross-country touring, and each of us discovered new and profound ways in which the other guy is annoying. (A woman named Blanche, who runs the tiny Knox Hotel in Nahunta, Georgia, told us she regularly gets cycle touring guests and said, “Quite often it’s clear they have had enough of each other.” My friend and I simultaneously said, “Tell me about it.”)

Myth 4: Bike Route signs are meaningful.

Reality: Some local governments will post Bike Route signs on NASCAR tracks if it ups their bike-friendly mileage. Let’s consider, say, Texas. Its official regulations define a sign-worthy roadway as one that “is open to motor vehicle travel and upon which no bicycle lane is designated.” (Italics mine.) Use Street View on Google Maps for a reality check and assume — regardless of route maps and Bike Route signage — that at least a quarter of a cross-country ride will be on busy, shoulderless roads, many with rumble strips.

Myth 5: Local knowledge is invaluable.

Reality: No one wants to seem uninformed, and people will tell you absolutely anything. Several Coloradans told us a piece of highway was “pretty flat.” We had more than 2,000 feet of elevation change that day. A motel owner said there was nowhere to stay for the next 110 miles so we camped next to the highway — a mere five miles from a B&B that made its own caramel rolls. In tiny Chama, New Mexico, we asked a number of local residents (more than two, probably fewer than six) to describe the highway to Taos. We asked them that question, it should be noted, while wearing bike helmets and holding bikes. Their answers were invariably along the lines of “Very pretty highway. You’ll like it.” They — like the Rand McNally Road Atlas — forgot to mention the snow-covered, 10,300-foot pass along the way. We assumed either 1) they’d never left town, or 2) this was a little bit of fun they have with cyclists. Either way, double- or triple-check advice from random people on the street.

Bonus Myth: Presta valve air hose adaptors work at America’s gas stations.

Reality: Don’t bet on it.

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