Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Amazing Race 23, Episode 2 (FAQ: Travel by Bicycle)

Iquique (Chile) - Santiago (Chile) - San Alfonso (Chile)

FAQ: Travel by Bicycle

Phil Keoghan, the host of The Amazing Race, is a serious bicyclist, and has used his influence as co-producer of the reality-TV show to get the racers onto bicycles at some point in almost every season.

In this week's episode, that meant mountain biking, without helmets but with all their luggage on their backs, down a rocky dirt road to a salt mine (where they had to perform other tasks) and back.

Phil's stable of bicycles ("track, road, TT [time trial], mountain, street, fixie, single speed, retro") doesn't include a touring or cargo bicycle. Perhaps he doesn't realize how top-heavy and unstable one is riding a bicycle with a full-sized backpack. I'd do it for a short distance, slowly, if necessary. But it's not a way I'd choose to travel for any significant distance. (The same goes for trying to ride on the back of a motorcycle taxi with a full-sized backpack, although I've seen many tourists do that.)

Similarly, I've sometimes ridden a rented or borrowed bike around town without a helmet, but I always ask if a helmet is available when I rent or borrow a bike. Helmets are cheap and there's no excuse for the reality-TV producers not to provide them for members of the cast, especially for off-road riding in what is, after all, a race.

My partner would probably be dead if she hadn't been wearing a helmet when she crashed last year. She keeps the battered helmet on her classroom wall as an object lesson for her students:

Battered bicycle helmet
Would you rather these gouges were in your helmet or in your head?

Many bicyclists worry primarily about being hit by motorized vehicles, but a sizable percentage of bicyclists' injuries and deaths are in solo crashes, and helmets are at least as critical for off-road and mountain bikers as for road riders surrounded by motorized traffic.

These are minor quibbles, though. I'm always pleased to see the racers on bikes, and to see The Amazing Race reminding viewers how useful bicycles can be for local transportation.

Phil Keoghan also promotes bicycling for long-distance transportation. In 2009, Phil and his friend the triathlete Ben Cornell spent Phil's break between filming of seasons 14 and 15 of "The Amazing Race" on a ride across the USA to raise money for research and treatment of multiple sclerosis. Phil also produced a documentary movie about this trip, The Ride, which continues to be used as a fundraiser for MS treatment and research.

This summer, after the filming of The Amazing Race 23 and while I was bicycling two-thirds of the way across the USA and Canada, Ben and Phil were attempting a ride as long as, and more difficult than, their 2009 crossing of the USA: a 3200-mile ride around France on the same route and on the same daily schedule as the 1928 Tour de France, on antique single-speed bicycles.

(One of their motorized support vehicles carried spare rear wheels with different-sized cogs, so they were able to change gears, within limits, by swapping wheels -- as were the racers in the 1928 Tour de France. Some bicycle tourists choose single-speed bicycles for simplicity, although I wouldn't. Dervla Murphy -- perhaps the greatest bicycle traveller, and in my opinion the greatest bicycle travel writer, of the 20th century -- rode from the English Channel to India in 1963 on a single-speed bicycle, after removing the original derailleur from her bike as unnecessarily complex and a potential point of mechanical failure. She didn't learn to use derailleur gears and shifters until she bought herself a new mountain bike as 60th-birthday present for the trip through Africa recounted in The Ukimwi Road and South from the Limpopo.)

Despite a motorized escort including Phil's family, other support staff, and a film crew, Phil's video blog shows him, Ben, and their team facing some of the same issues as bicyclists travelling cross country on their own, from having to track down a local shop able to repair their bikes to struggling to find through routes that don't lead onto superhighways with heavy truck traffic and no shoulders.

Road sign: "Partageons la route!"
How do you say "Share the Road!" in French?

Some of our experiences trying to follow parts of the original 1913 route of the Lincoln Highway this summer were similar to those of Ben, Phil, and their team in trying to trace the historic route of the 1928 Tour de France.

In a few respects, however, you might get the wrong idea about travel by bicycle from watching Phil's video blog or the movie he's making about "Le Ride" [sic] around France:

Do you need to be young, strong, and physically fit to travel by bicycle?

Absolutely not!

People in the USA are accustomed to thinking of bicycles as "sports equipment" rather than as "vehicles". Notice how bikes are categorized, for example, by eBay or Amazon.com. So we assume that one has to be an athlete to ride a bike.

But the mechanics of bicycling, provided you have suitable gears, allow you to ride at whatever level of energy output you find comfortable, from a rate of work comparable to that of a slow walk to a jog or a sprint.

"Why are so many bicyclists in the USA working as hard as if they were running?" is actually a common question for visitors from Amsterdam, Berlin, or other places where typical city bicyclists don't work hard enough to break a sweat, but use their bicycles merely to go faster and get places with less effort than if they were walking, at the level of effort of a leisurely stroll.

I prefer bicycling to walking because I'm lazy. A bicycle is an incredibly efficient labor-saving machine, enabling you to go much further, much faster, and with much less effort than you could on foot. If you are physically capable of pedestrian sightseeing (at as slow a pace and with as frequent and lengthy rest stops as you choose), you have all the physical ability it takes to get from town to town by bicycle.

You might be able to ride some type of a bicycle even if you can't walk very far. The late bicycle expert Sheldon Brown, whom I met on club rides with the Charles River Wheelmen in the early 1980s, lost his ability to balance a conventional bicycle as his MS progressed but but kept riding a recumbent trike until shortly before his death.

(Sheldon Brown and his family lived and travelled extensively in France, and his published oeuvre includes French-English and English-French dictionaries of bicycle terminology and additional tips and advice on French-made bicycles and bicycling in France. Many of his observations about French vélo-culture are applicable, in my experience, to bicycling elsewhere in the Francophonie as well.)

Ben and Phil, on their ride around France, had to be in great physical shape and ride hard all day with very few breaks in order to cover the same distance each day as the 1928 Tour de France racers. But that was only because they were trying to maintain the pace not just of any bicycle race, but of the world's greatest and most grueling multi-day stage race.

As Phil acknowledges, he and Ben had a significant advantage over the 1928 Tour de France racers in getting to ride almost entirely on paved roads. Asphalt or concrete road surfaces were largely unknown in rural France in 1928. The short sections of the 1928 Tour de France ridden on cobblestones or Belgian block "pavés" would have been the easier stretches compared to the muddy, rocky dirt roads of most of the route.

Roads in the USA began to be paved, primarily for, and as a result of political activism by, bicyclists, towards the end of the 19th century. Most early motor vehicles were designed primarily for unpaved roads. The Lincoln Highway was still unpaved when it was designated as the first continuous transcontinental highway in 1913, and wouldn't become the first continuous paved transcontinental highway until 1938.

Even with the advantage of smooth pavement, however, Ben and Phil's riding mileages, day after day for three weeks, are an impressive accomplishment. It's easy to be intimidated by stories like this of exceptional journeys, but they aren't the norm. Most bicycle tourists travel more slowly.

Ben and Phil rode as much as 200 miles (more than 300 km) on some days. I consider myself a reasonably strong rider, but the furthest I've ever ridden in a day is about 200 km (125 miles), and that was when I was in my early twenties, weighed 50 pounds less than I do now, and was riding 30 miles every weekday on my commute to work.

In the USA east of the Missouri River, you rarely have to go more than 30 miles to find a motel. Crossing the flatter two-thirds of North America this summer, my partner and I averaged 40-45 miles per day.

An unscientific but interesting survey of bicycle travellers on CrazyGuyOnABike.com (the leading hosting site for bicycle travel blogs, and a great place to find descriptions of riding conditions in a place you are considering travelling by bike) found that most bike tourists never rode more than 80 miles in a day, while 30% averaged less than 50 miles a day. Your speed and daily mileage may be low, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun travelling by bike (as long as you and any travelling companions can agree on a pace).

Is it easier to travel by bicycle in a "supported" group?

Maybe, but only if you are very sure of the pace you want to maintain, and if nothing unexpected (weather, illness, etc.) happens to make you want to change your planned pace. If you're unsure of your physical ability, it may be easier to ride on your own.

The most compelling reason to travel with a supported group would be if you plan to get far from any bike shops, and you aren't confident of being able either to deal with routine mechanical issues on your own or to hitch a ride to the nearest bike shop for help. But while bikes can and do break down, you can learn enough in a few classes (probably offered by a local bike shop or community bike-repair workshop) to deal with any of the most common mechanical problems: flat tires, broken chains, and brake and derailleur adjustments.

Bikes sold by bike shops are made to last for decades, and for tens of thousands of miles. A decent bike -- even one 30 or 40 years old -- that's just been overhauled and fitted with new tires and brake pads should be able to go a few thousand miles with no maintenance other than periodic lubrication of the chain. (This doesn't apply to the "throwaway" bikes sold at stores like Walmart or Target, which have an expected life of no more than a couple of hundred miles and aren't constructed to be maintainable or repairable when they break down. I'll talk more about how to find the right bike for touring in a future column, But if your budget for a bike is less than about US$500, maybe $700, you will be better off with a quality second-hand bike than with a new "toy" bike from a department store.)

Wheels can fail, or get wrecked in a crash that leaves the bike otherwise rideable. But in a pinch, if you can't get to a bike shop, you can get an entire replacement mail-order wheel delivered overnight. The most common disabling mechanical problem is a broken spoke. But if your wheels have enough spokes (my touring bike has a 40-spoke rear wheel and a 36-spoke front wheel, compared to 32, 28, or fewer spokes on many new "road" bikes) and sturdy enough rims, you can keep riding with one or two broken spokes until you get to a bike shop that can replace the broken spoke(s). At worst, you'll need to adjust the brakes and/or re-tension a few of the remaining spokes (yes, I carry a spoke wrench) to keep the brakes from rubbing.

Machine-made wheels with fewer spokes and thinner rims may be cheaper and lighter, but that's likely to be a false economy. "Wheels are definitely one place on the bike where money will be well spent," says CrazyGuyOnABIke.com founder Neil Gunton, and I agree.

Maruishi TA18 bicycle
My c. 1984 Maruishi TA18 Tour-Ace, "Ticonderoga", on the Raccoon River Valley Trail en route to Des Moines, Iowa

It's nice to have a motorized support vehicle to carry your luggage, but that makes less difference than you might think.

On level ground, a modicum of well-balanced luggage (and/or a heavier bike) makes little difference to the amount of effort it takes to maintain a given steady speed. Weight makes more difference on sustained climbs, but the amount of luggage you can carry on a bicycle (up to perhaps 30-40 lbs. before it begins to impair the handling of a bike designed for "loaded" touring) is a small fraction of the total weight of the assemblage of bike, rider, and luggage.

The only place the weight of luggage on your bike makes a big difference is in stop-and-go city riding. People think that heavy bikes are OK for short distances around town, while lightweight bikes are better suited for long rides in the country, but that fails to take into account the energy cost of accelerating back up to speed after every traffic signal.

Keeping down the weight of your bike (and everything attached to it) is most important in the city, least important on uninterrupted long rides. That's why the fad for stripped-down fixed-gear track bikes for road use began with New York City bike messengers, and why getting in and out of big cities (unless there are bike routes with few required stops) is so tiring for loaded bicycle tourists. I draw the line short of a track bike on the street, although I've ridden single-speeds with freewheels and brakes (worth their weight in safety) extensively. But my lightest bike is the one I use for the shortest rides in the city.

How much of a bicyclist's energy output goes to overcome friction and how much to overcome aerodynamic drag, at a constant speed, has been extensively studied. But urban bicyclists don't ride at a constant speed, and I know of no scientific data on the percentage of a typical city bicyclist's effort that's wasted in braking at traffic signals.

What's needed are standard "city" and "country" cycles of typical bicycle acceleration, cruise, and deceleration speed and distance, like those developed for the EPA for measuring motor vehicle fuel consumption. Only on the basis of such profiles could we figure out how much of real-world bicyclists' energy goes into stopping and starting (including both linear and rotational kinetic energy), and thus how much importance should be given to, e.g. lighter bikes and wheels for city use, or bike routes with fewer required stops and adequate sight lines to permit coasting to a stop rather than having to brake.

But I digress. The down side of bicycle touring with a support vehicle to carry your gear is that it usually requires riding in a group with prearranged overnight stopping points. You are committed to get that far each day, no matter what happens. If you've underestimated how far you will want to ride each day, you'll end up spending a lot of time riding in the "sag wagon", which may not be much fun.

Over and over in his video blog, Phil Keoghan stresses how much more difficult and less fun it was to have to ride the distances he and Ben had committed themselves to, regardless of what happened each day and without being able to adjust their route or take time to enjoy the places, people, and unexpected opportunities along the way.

On your own, in a region where possible places to stay are close enough together, you have considerable flexibility to set your own pace, one day at a time, including starting your trip slowly and adjusting your daily distance, day by day and week by week, as you work yourself into better shape.

A third possibility, intermediate between planning your route as you go and travelling in a group with a prearranged itinerary, is to travel by yourself but to follow a route someone else has mapped out as well-suited for bicycling, such as those plotted by the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA, originally the Bikecentennial organization) in the USA. That saves you daily route planning, but leaves you free to vary daily distances and pick stopping places (from among those on the route) as you go.

The ACA maps and guides to services along the way are useful as long as you stick to their routes. But like all strip maps, they become useless as soon as you diverge from their route -- and thus discourage you from such diversions.

We also found a different sort of welcome this summer when our route chanced to follow portions of ACA or similar routes. Along a designated bicycle touring route, bicyclists are welcomed as a category of tourists. Anywhere else, travelling bicyclists are welcomed in a different way, as visitors (and often as objects of special curiosity and interest) but not usually as "tourists" and more often as guests and objects of hospitality than as potential customers.

We started our ride this summer by meeting up with the start of the Bicycle Ride Across Nebraska (BRAN). For almost 500 miles, we had routes expertly selected and marked for us, a truck to carry our luggage, food and rest stops at regular intervals, and places to stay prearranged:

tents and bicycles on football field
BRAN camp on the Kimball [Nebraska] Junior/Senior High School football practice field

We thought this support might be necessary in sparsely-populated Nebraska (it probably wasn't, at least on the route we followed), but it meant we were committed to the daily pace of the group. That made this the most physically difficult week of our trip. We had to keep going -- or take a ride in the van -- regardless of how hard it was raining or the wind was blowing, how tired or sore we were, or what we encountered that might have made us want to stop, linger, explore, or diverge from the planned route.

Once we were on our own, we usually picked out a tentative route each day with at least two or three potential places to stay at different distances.

We almost never made reservations in advance, and only once in two months were we unable to find anywhere to stay in a town where we had planned to stop. Our maps showed three motels in St. Johns, Michigan, but two had either closed or been converted to housing by the week or month for agricultural laborers -- a common transition for older and off-the-Interstate motels. The one remaining motel in St. Johns was fully booked with construction and road workers by the time we got to town. We had to ride another 15 miles or so to a motel along the Interstate in Dewitt (through rain, into a headwind, and in fading daylight) to find a vacant room.

That was unpleasant, but bearable. We never went so far and let ourselves get so tired that we couldn't have made it to the next motel if necessary. It was a risk we knew we were taking, and that we were prepared to take for the flexibility to stop sooner, or go further, each day, according to how we felt and the conditions of the roads, the weather, and our bodies.

On our own, we were able to go more slowly than any supported tour or group ride would likely have gone. We were unsure of our physical fitness, and afraid to start out on a long-distance bike tour on our own, but we shouldn't have been. Neither should you.

Having reservations or going with a supported group on a prearranged itinerary may seem "safer", but as with so many other types of travel, it can make a bike tour more difficult. I'll talk more in future columns about how we prepared for our trip, and what we learned and would do differently. But the biggest hurdle was just deciding to get on our bikes and do it.

Bon voyage, et bonne randonnée!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 6 October 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

Hooray for bikes! I'd really like to see more of the discussion of bikes as tools rather than toys. I'm a committed bike commuter. (This BART strike is killing me.) I don't have to go far, never more than 15 miles in a day with multiple errands. But I also never have to go to a gym. Although I spend so much more time commuting, I'm actually saving a lot of time over all. And I'm a much happier person when I get to my destination. I never have to look for parking! My husband and 13 year old daughter commute by bike as well. (My 16 year old son has an appointment for his driver's license and wants a car. We tried.) When traveling around the world my family saw that for the vast majority of the world the bike is a necessary tool. I'd love to see our country switch to that view of bikes as well.

Posted by: Annie Mohler, 18 October 2013, 10:53 (10:53 AM)
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