Posts

What I’ve Learned Cycle Touring 7,000 Miles on a Vegan Diet

Pedaling up Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park cycle touring

This post first appeared here on Mind Body Green.

Over the past two summers, Chelsea and I have cycled 7,000 miles through 14 countries. No sag wagon, no designated route—just leg power, our bikes, gear, and desire for adventure.

During our travels, we accept local advice and hospitality, wake up open to each day’s surprises, and wing it whenever possible. But one thing we are always adamantly consistent about is our food. For ethical, health, and environmental reasons, we choose not to eat any animal products.

The bike tours were challenging, eye-opening, fantastic—a full range of emotions every day. From headwinds to breathtaking views to searing heat to idyllic European villages to crumbling rural towns, we pedaled through it all. Navigating cobblestone cycle paths in France was a pain; finding great vegan food while burning 5,000 calories per day proved to be a simple aspect of the trip.

Here’s what thousands of miles and a couple million pedal strokes of cycle touring on a vegan diet has taught me:

Few people are surprised about your food choices

Special diets are everywhere now, and most people know someone on one. “Oh, my cousin is gluten-free” or “my brother eats Paleo” was a common refrain. Tiny cafés in Nebraska (not exactly a vegan stronghold) easily accommodated our needs by piling vegetables on hash browns.

Getting enough protein is not an issue

Even biking 50 to 80 miles per day, my body repaired itself and built muscle. I trimmed fat, but my leg muscles grew. I even added muscle to my upper body by doing daily upper-body workouts. When people ask me where I get my protein, I can honestly say that I simply eat lots of plants. No powders, no supplements—just real food. I’m more concerned about fiber—only 3 percent of people eat enough each day, versus 97 percent of people who get enough protein.

Just over the pass in Glacier National Park.

My energy levels were firing

Unlike the days when I’d eat a giant sandwich with cheese and meat and sink into an afternoon stupor, plants don’t bog down my body. A veggie burrito or big salad crafted from ingredients in any grocery store keeps my system cranking. I was biking eight hours a day and still had energy to do push-ups each night.

Recovery was super fast

I rebounded and recovered quickly from physical efforts that would have previously sidelined me for a couple of days. Since a plant-based diet leads to lower inflammation, faster recovery from athletic events or workouts is an added bonus.

Many top athletes are vegan

I was attracted to a vegan lifestyle by the potential health benefits. Badass vegan athletes like UFC fighter Mac Danzig, ultra-marathoners like Scott Jurek, and triathletes like Rich Roll inspired me to give it a shot. While I wasn’t cranking out record-smashing 100-mile runs or choke-holds, I noticed an increase in performance.

Seeing and smelling animal feedlots opened my eyes to the plight of animals

Biking past stinking feedlots in the rolling hills of Iowa and Austria was gnarly. Getting buzzed by animal transport trucks on their way to slaughterhouses reinforced my desire to completely opt out of animal agriculture.

The excellent bike paths of Slovenia with the Julian Alps in the background.

Western Europe is a plant eater’s paradise

Countries like Belgium, Spain, and Germany are years ahead of the U.S. in terms of vegan awareness and availability of plant-based alternatives. Grocery stores stock inexpensive organic produce, and almost every restaurant server knew the word vegan, even in rural villages. Big cities are a plant-eater’s promised land—Prague has 26 vegetarian restaurants!

We didn’t have to worry about refrigerating food

This is a small thing only a cycle tourist will appreciate. When we were pedaling through the middle of nowhere for days at a time, unspoiled food was a big deal.

Both Europe and the United States grow amazing amounts of corn and soy

I knew the Midwest U.S. was a breadbasket. It was a surprise to discover the same in Europe, where much of the countryside is used for crop production. Between the two, we spent literally two months cycling past fields of corn and soy—90 percent of it aimed for animal consumption.

Traveling made us vegan ambassadors

In some areas, we were the first vegans anyone had met. “Wait, no cheese on your pizza?” People were incredibly nice and also intrigued by our food choices. Many asked questions. Our goal was to be knowledgeable and speak from a place of conviction (animal rights) or data (health and environmental facts). The biggest thing? To be genuinely friendly and meet people at their comfort level.

Touring through the Adirondack Mountains of New York on a perfect fall day.

After thousands of miles of cycle touring, our belief in a vegan lifestyle has never been stronger. Few choices affect personal health, the environment, and animal welfare as much as opting out of animal agriculture does. Meat and dairy consumption is declining, restaurants are increasingly catering to vegans, and vegan alternatives like Beyond Meat are flourishing. Traveling as a vegetarian or vegan will only get easier.

As Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary says, “This lifestyle is not about deprivation; it’s about living inspired.” I encourage people to check out movements like Meatless Mondays or the 30-Day Vegan Challenge. See how your body feels and adopt what works for you. Then get out there on your bike and start training for your next (or first) bike tour.

I plan on pedaling thousands more miles as a vegan, so maybe I’ll see you out there!

13 Countries, 2 Flats – European Bike Tour Stats and Favorites

Sudtirol bike path magic

I’m one of those weirdos who loves tracking numbers. They help me understand and frame the world, my data-gobbling brain dining happily when served courses of city populations, distances traveled, workout stats, or even Quicken files tracking our spending. I’ve dialed this back over the past few years to avoid turning into Spock, but still find it fun.

Did I mention that we’re done with our summer bike tour of Europe? We are! And since I enjoyed compiling stats for our 2014 U.S. tour, I repeated it this time – welcome to the summary of our 3.5 month bicycle tour through Europe in 2015. We’re currently relaxing post-trip (i.e not biking) in New York City before we head west to Idaho (on a plane). 

The route! Starting in London, we pedaled 2,500 miles, took a couple ferries, and hopped on a few trains.

The route! Starting in London, we pedaled 2,500 miles, took a couple ferries, and hopped on a few trains, finishing in Prague.

This tour we aimed to mix cycling with maximum enjoyment, a shift from the mostly physical challenge of last year. To accomplish that, we rode less mileage and parked the bikes for more days off. Both touring styles are worthwhile, but I had more fun during this European cycle tour thanks to mixing up the activities.

Below is the breakdown, a compilation of favorite places, distances and time on the bike, and other random tidbits. Data can’t fully capture the experience, but perhaps it helps an aspiring cycle tourist wrap their head around the hard data and think, “hey, I could do that.” (You can!)

Onward.

A big brdige span over the River Drau in SE Austria.

A big bridge span over the River Drau in SE Austria.

All the Info

  • Total distance ridden: 2,440 miles (3,935 kilometers), the same distance as flying from San Francisco to Hawaii, London to Toronto, or Amsterdam to Timbuktu.
  • Number of countries we pedaled in: 13 (almost as many as the 15 states as we crossed during last year’s U.S. tour).
  • Favorite cycling area: Italy’s NE Sudtirol region, followed closely by Slovenia (which still wins my favorite country award). Ah, the Alps are so fantastic!
  • Biggest surprise about Europe: there is a ton of farmland and animal agriculture, which I hadn’t encountered during previous travels since I kept to metropolitan Europe. Corn fields are everywhere and the stink of animal feedlots tinted the air in many areas of the continent. Some countries (Belgium, parts of eastern France, and Hungary) hinted of the American Midwest in terms of their crops and landscapes.

    The hilly southern edge of Austria still had corn!

    The hilly southern edge of Austria still had corn!

  • Total days touring: 103 (June 13 – September 23, 2015)
  • Days pedaling: 64
  • Days NOT bike touring: 39, almost 40% of the trip. Compared to last year’s U.S. ride (only 18 days off), our aim for Europe was more time to explore, relax, and hang with people we met along the way. We gave ourselves permission to laze about, explore cities with friends, lace up the running shoes, sit in cafes and read, or mountain bike. Mixing it up was very fun, and we’ll aim for this style of touring in the future.

    Hiking (followed by swimming) on a rest day at Lake Bohinj, Slovenia.

    Hiking (followed by swimming) on a rest day at Lake Bohinj, Slovenia.

  • Average time pedaling each day: 3.8 hours, barely a part-time job.
  • Extra calories burned per day: 3,000-5,000. I ate almost non-stop (but what’s new).
  • Average distance per day: 38 miles (61 km), close to our initial plan of 40 miles per day.
  • Total pedal strokes: 934,000, give or take a few.
  • Longest day: 55.7 miles (90 km) and 5.25 hours of pedaling in Slovenia.
  • Elevation gain: 85,754 feet (138,000 m). That’s 16 miles straight up, but only 1,355 feet per day on average.
  • Number of cycling networks traversed: 11, though I’m probably missing a few. Europe has fantastic cycle networks and resources for cycle touring.

    Bike in German=rad. Perfect.

    Bike in German=rad. Perfect.

  • Days without a shower: Zero! Ah, Europe, the lap of luxury.
  • Number of other bike tourists encountered: Hundreds! Compared to the U.S., where we went 61 days without seeing another cycle tourist, Europe was a buzzing hive of activity. We’d see at least a few long-distance tourers per day and dozens of people out for day rides.
  • Favorite things about touring in Europe:
    • Well-signed, no-car bike paths made route planning easy, plus lowered stress levels since we rarely spent time fencing with big trucks.
    • Frequent towns or cities, which meant easy logistics for water, food, and lodging. Even the tiniest villages had historic guest houses or inns, so we stayed in cities far more than our U.S. tour. Lodging values were fantastic too.

      Colmar in the Alsace region. We stayed with a friend of mine I hadn't seen since studying abroad in Sweden.

      Colmar in the Alsace region. We stayed with a friend of mine I hadn’t seen since studying abroad in Sweden.

  • Things I missed about the U.S.:
    • The wide open wilderness of the States dwarfs the nature in Europe. The U.S. is BIG, and though it makes logistics tougher, pedaling for hours in the middle of nowhere carries a special magic. The east side of Glacier en route to Canada comes to mind.
    • Communication created some headaches. With 10 languages over three months (none of them Spanish, argh!), the constant roadblock to speaking with people sometimes made us feel frustrated and isolated. I acknowledge that I have no room to bitch since people were accommodating, friendly, and spoke pretty good English (along with French, German, Dutch…).
  • Longest continuous climb: 11 miles from Austria up up up to the Czech Republic. This was also our biggest elevation day at 3,500’, though an honorable mention goes to the hilly Ardennes region of Belgium for working us over.
  • Steepest climb: multiple 19% passes in the Alps. The toughest pass was from Austria up to Slovenia, a 6-mile onslaught so consistently steep it was almost laughable, followed closely by Resia Pass from Italy into Austria. (Moral: don’t try to cross the Austrian border!)

    Top of the pass from Italy into Austria.

    Top of the pass from Italy into Austria. We stayed in the lakeside village (Resia) for a few nights.

  • Most memorable song along the way: A cheery five a.m. wake-up whistled rendition of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” on the ferry ride from England to Holland.
  • Oldest accommodation: a 1,000 year-old monastery in England featuring a fun, challenging obstacle course. We stopped for a couple nights to celebrate my 33rd birthday, but my attempts to beat the obstacle course record were thwarted by old age.
  • Most countries biked in during one day: three – Luxembourg/Germany/France, Italy/Switzerland/Austria
  • Hottest temperature: 110℉ in Venice – our weather app said “feels like 125℉.” We agreed.
  • Numbers of days over 95℉: ~30, plus a handful over 100 as Europe busted through many heat records. We made two personal videos documenting our vow to never bike tour in July-August again unless it’s in Scandinavia or a place with outdoor A/C and lakes every three miles.

    Wheat fields in Germany.

    Wheat fields in Germany.

  • Most scoops of gelato in one day: Six each, a three-visit day to our favorite vegan-friendly gelateria in Rovinj, Croatia when temps soared to triple digits. Cycle touring and burning a few thousand extra calories per day has its perks.
  • Swimming-in-humidity award: Hungary, where we got up at five a.m. to beat the heat.
  • Favorite cathedral: the stunning Strasbourg spires. We happened to be there for the  booming sound and light show celebrating the 1,000 year anniversary of the cathedral.
    Strasbourg cathedral
  • Most days off in a row: Eight, including no-bikes-allowed Venice and five days relaxing in Croatia with our buddies to avoid scathing heat.
  • Flat tires: Two for C, 0 for D.
  • Tires replaced: Always an FAQ from people we meet… But not a single one! C’s rear tire was getting a bit thin by the end, which is why she picked up two quick flats with just a week left in our trip. My rear tire (a Schwalbe Marathon) now has 7,000 miles on it and is going strong.
  • Other bike troubles: Two broken spokes for my bike thanks to cobblestone beatings. The rear wheel on my tough Salsa Fargo managed to survive a week of pedaling before we found a bike shop and ate lunch as the delightful old-school, long-haired owner in cutoff jean shorts grooved to jazz and fixed my rear wheel.

    Austrian sunflowers

    Austrian sunflowers

  • Number of push ups done to avoid turning into an all-I-do-is-bike upper body wimpo:  6,035. (Yes, I track weird things.) Since cycling is so exclusively lower body, I also did pull ups (usually at kids’ playgrounds), core work and elastic band exercises to stay physically balanced. I highly recommend doing this while on tour, not to mention stretching frequently so hamstrings don’t shrink to one-third their previous length.
  • Probability of returning to Europe with bikes: 100%
On the other side of the pass from Slovenia to Austria. The couple who took this picture was 1) headed up and 2) not as happy in their flex shot.

On the other side of the pass from Slovenia to Austria. The couple of bike tourists who took this picture were 1) headed up and 2) not happy about it.

Thanks to all the new friends who fed us, housed us, and generally brightened our day along the way!

Thanks to all the friends who fed us, housed us, and generally brightened our day along the way!

Advice for a New Long-Distance Bicycle Tourist

Cycling through vino in France

This post is for the person dreaming of hopping on a bicycle and embarking on a self-powered journey. All you need are limbs for propulsion, a bike to haul gear, and a dash of audacity.

The hardest advice for me to follow is my own, but the below is rooted in my personal cycle touring experience. Prior to last summer, I’d done two weekend cycle tour jaunts. Then we ripped off the training wheel Band-Aid and rode 4,000 miles through the U.S. in 2014. I’m sure a few of our friends wondered whether we’d make it. Heck, we wondered if we’d make it. Yet we survived (and enjoyed) our trip. Now here we are, nine countries into a bike tour through Europe, with many miles and lessons picked up up along the way.

Crossing into France from Germany on the Euro Velo 5 bike route.

Crossing into France from Germany on the Euro Velo 5 bike route.

Bike touring is a wild, wonderful way to travel, and everyone’s experience is different. Take whichever nuggets of advice speak to you and ignore the rest. May tailwinds find you wherever you pedal.

    • You don’t need a special bike. Don’t let lack of a shiny, brand-new touring setup stop you from hitting the road. You can tour on almost any bike. A $100 yard sale bike or $4,000 titanium rig both have two wheels. Same thing for tents, stoves, sleeping bags and pads; you don’t need the ultra-light version. Logistics are quite simple. Just get out there and pedal. As a bonus, the heavier the gear, the more calories you burn and the more you get to eat.
    • Say yes to invitations. Always accept when someone invites you to join them for a meal or to stay at their home. (Unless they’re wearing a hockey mask and carrying a running chainsaw.) The best parts of touring include unplanned, serendipitous meetings with people. I’d never have flown in a seaplane in New York if shaking my head was my reaction to an invitation.
    • It’s your trip, so ride only as much as you desire. That century you want to crank out for bragging rights? It only matters to you. Nobody cares how quickly you finish the tour, the average number of miles per day, or the total elevation ridden. (Well, nobody except your addicted-to-Crossfit friend who needs NUMBERS, damn it, to wrap their head around any accomplishment.) But everyone else? They want to know the craziest and coolest places or people that you met along the way. How the trip made you feel. Which vista made your heart sing, and maybe a tale of the wettest, worst day on the road. But the mileage? Thirty per day is fine, and so is 100. Take what feels good and go with that. Feel free to curse under your breath when a 23 year old and his friend rip by you like drag racers. Their speed, and your plodding uphill grind, are both a-ok.
      Villages along an old canal
    • Accept that not everyone identifies with what you’re doing. As my uncle Steven respectfully commented after we’d ridden to Chicago, “I think you’re insane!” Also, people who don’t tour have no idea why you’re doing it, but they’ll have a story about another cycle tourist doing something way cooler than you such as riding a vintage Big Wheel around the world while building orphanages along the way. Accept that the random dude in Indiana with a story to tell isn’t trying to trump your experience; he’s merely looking for common ground. Laugh and go with it.
    • Eat real food. Lots of it. Hunger will become an annoying companion who taps you on the shoulder every hour – “just sayin’ heyyyy.” Try to consume healthy whole foods and not just Poptarts. Your body is working hard and good food is important. I am amazed how many grocery stores in the middle of nowhere have ingredients for a crisp, hearty salad. Feel free to eat your body weight in chocolate here and there too.

      Chelsea's vegan enchiladas plus wine from the French region of Alsatia.

      Chelsea’s vegan enchiladas plus wine from the French region of Alsace.

    • Your butt is going to hurt from all the hours grinding on a saddle. Get over your pride early and grease up. Vasoline works great and you can find it in any gas station. Learn to apply lube discreetly, such as by the side of a busy highway at rush hour with your back turned to the road. Most policeman have bigger fish to fry than indecent public self-groping.
    • Pack light, but bring a couple comfort items. A few luxuries from home go a long way. Bring a Kindle reader, a journal, coffee making equipment or tech to stay connected. I recommend leaving your teddy bear at home unless he’s the trip mascot, and certainly if you won him at the county fair and he outweighs your bike.
    • Audiobooks and podcasts will preserve your sanity on the long, tough days. Anyone who claims they don’t need these magical devices are too Zen to need a bike (levitation is faster for travel) or haven’t tried them yet. I borrow books digitally from the library, and podcasts are always free.
    • Keep things in perspective as shit goes awry. Travel opens you up to life’s randomness; bicycle touring doubly so. Weather, be it rain, heat, cold, or wind. Hills. Flat tires. Closed grocery stores from 2-5 (seriously Europe?). Hosts cancelling at the last minute. Some days will go to plan, and others will pour rain and your bike will tip over while you’re getting directions, carefully distributing all your electronics into a puddle. Accept that best-laid intentions are mere dandelion puffs in a stiff breeze, and also that swearing loudly in a foreign land makes you look like a moron. You are lucky enough to bike tour. Try to appreciate it, even when all you want to do is kick your bike into a ditch and stick your thumb out to hitchhike.

      The worst days are canceled by brilliant cities like Colmar, France.

      The worst days are canceled by brilliant cities like Colmar, France.

    • People want to help you. They’ll wonder what the heck you’re doing riding a bicycle in the middle of nowhere – “what’d you do, get a DUI?” – but someone you’d never talk to in your hometown will be your champion. They’ll buy you a burrito in a restaurant in Valentine, Nebraska or offer a spare tube for a flat repair in Los Angeles. Even the guy with an old beater truck plastered with NoBama stickers will rescue you when bike trouble occurs, not to mention break out his stash of prized bourbon later that evening.
    • None of your friends will have any idea where you are or how hard that day in the wind/rain/sun/hailstones felt. Know they love you and support your trip, but accept that life goes on in your absence and that you will be disconnected from the day-to-day of many people in your life. Send goofy videos of you escaping from a thunderstorm, or sing off-key happy birthday messages, but don’t expect anyone to catch every post. And don’t take it personally when people you expected to follow along have no desire to keep track of you.

      The day-to-day of touring. This wonderful, cool fountain near the Swiss border in France felt delightful.

      The day-to-day of touring. This wonderful, cool fountain near the Swiss border in France felt delightful.

    • Send your mom a note whenever you can letting her know you’re ok. She’ll love it.
    • Embrace safety. Endorse your inner cyborg and get a helmet or bar-end mirror to keep track of your riding partner and, more importantly, texting teenagers. You don’t look cool in Spandex anyway. I feel naked on a bike without one. Oh, and get a bell or horn for your bike. Yelling “on your left” invariably makes people step into your path, especially when you don’t speak the language. Everyone knows what a bell means.

      Car-free bike routes are absolutely the best.

      Car-free bike routes like this one in France are fantastic.

    • This isn’t a beach vacation. Bike touring is physically and emotionally challenging. Some day whip by like summer vacations on a Slip-N-Slide, while others drag like a Saturday spent taking the SAT’s. On the toughest days, make sure to stop to run through a sprinkler or goof around on a random piece of playground equipment. Pull over to moo at cute baby cows or play fetch with a dog at a picnic area. There’s no hurry.
    • Cherish your days off. Unless you are aiming to win Race Across America, don’t ride every day. Enjoy and explore a cool city with new friends. Sit around. Go for a run and see if your muscles remember what not biking feels like. Read a book. Call a friend or write a blog post. The more I cycle tour, the better I appreciate days to relax and absorb a place at a slower speed.

There are 237 excuses for staying put. Careers. Student loans. Love interests. Family. Pets. Societal norms. Fear. All of that is real, but in a decade, you’ll remember and cherish the memories of pedaling the world and expanding your horizons.

Your current life can probably pause, but the new you itching to break out, to have an adventure, won’t wait forever. Feed the explorer inside you before it calcifies and forgets how to run wild. Let that explorer bellow like a bull moose as you sweep down a mountain pass.

Just go. No reason needed other than your desire to wander. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”

The imposing, giant Strasbourg cathedral.

The imposing, giant Strasbourg cathedral.

We happened to catch the 1,000 year millennial of the Strasbourg cathedral. This light show detailed each statue and window on the enormous cathedral.

We happened to catch the 1,000 year millennial of the cathedral. This light show detailed each statue and window on the enormous building.

Cyborgs on Bikes – Bike Touring Video (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of 4 of the video series documenting our 101 day trip cycling across the the U.S. in the summer of 2014. If you missed Part 2, click here to check it out. This section covers from Indiana to the middle of upstate New York.

A gorgeous night on Fletcher Lake in Indiana. Jumped in for a swim and then we watched lightning on the horizon before camping out under a giant maple tree and listening to the rain on the tent.

A gorgeous night on Fletcher Lake in Indiana. Jumped in for a swim and then we watched lightning on the horizon before camping out under a giant maple tree and listening to the rain on the tent.

Three thousand miles into the tour, we are like cyborgs on bikes. With day-to-day routines nailed (except for my elusive rain jacket, which hides in the bottom of a pannier during storms) and legs forged from steely dragon’s teeth, we zip east. Most days, we don’t even break a sweat (<–dirty lie, even cyborgs sweat in 90% humidity).

At this point, we’re both starting to think about Maine, a far-distant mirage in our minds for the first 2/3 of the trip. The realization that we might actually complete the tour without our bodies breaking down feels great. But first, we finish out Indiana, head up toward Cleveland and then skirt along the southern edge of Lake Erie all the way to Niagara Falls before heading east into upstate New York. The magnitude of the effort to get this far sank in as the fall colors of New York beckoned from afar and the days cooled off, a welcome change.

A little metal barn in the middle of nowhere on a back country road in Indiana.

A little metal barn in the middle of nowhere on a back country road in Indiana. Sad news: C’s rainbow socks wore out by the end of the trip. 🙁

You’ll notice I’m goofier in this series. Believe me, all videos are off-the-cuff and I (obviously) don’t employ a joke writer. I think you’ll get a couple chuckles at our random antics as we roll from nowhere Indiana all the way into the NE. If nothing else, it’s a good picture of what the terrain looks like!

Here’s the movie link for email subscribers, or click play below on the embedded video if you visit the site directly. Enjoy.

Dakota

P.S. There are a few more photos below the movie if you want to check those out first.

Between the motorcycle rallies and car shows, we learned quite a bit about vehicles. (Not.)

Between all the motorcycle rallies and car shows we biked through, we learned quite a bit about vehicles. Ok, not really.

A family fishes off a bridge in Ohio.

The thing to do (apparently) in Grand Rapids, Ohio is to go fishing at sunset off a small dam in town.

Cold beans by the side of the road. Accessed with an old-school can opener, no less.

Cold beans by the side of the road (on a hot day at least). Accessed with an old-school can opener, no less.

Always fun to find covered bridges!

Always fun to find covered bridges! This one is in Roann, Indiana.

Punching Through the Midwest – Bike Touring Video (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of 4 of the video series documenting our 101 day trip cycling across the the U.S. in the summer of 2014. If you missed Part 1, click here to check it out. This section covers from Spearfish, South Dakota all the way to the Indiana border. Straight through the heart of the Midwest in summer like true masochists. 

Corn crop

We didn’t plan to bike through the Midwest in August. It just worked out that way. Our timing, framed around hitting New England during peak fall colors, meant we had to spend some time in the sweltering summer. To echo Vonnegut, so it goes… Trade-offs are part of living.

After clearing Montana, we headed south through the Black Hills of South Dakota. Instead of highways, we spent a few days on the Mickelson Trail, which is a 110-mile gravel trail that cuts right through the heart of the area near Mt. Rushmore. Timing it perfectly (not), we managed to hit the area just as 500,000 motorcycles descended like loud, buzzing bees for the Sturgis Rally. I think I heard, “Put an engine on that thing!” almost as much as “I could never do what you’re doing.”

Foggy morning in Nebraska in the corn fields.

Foggy morning in Nebraska in the corn fields.

I asked a bartender in Cody, NE (pop 154) if they knew anyone who might take us in for the night since a big storm was rolling in. Isla helped us out and her cheery granddaughter made us laugh and laugh.

I asked a bartender in Cody, NE (pop 154) if they knew anyone who might take us in for the night since a big storm was rolling in. Isla helped us out and her cheery granddaughter made us laugh and laugh.

The Midwest gets a bad rap sometimes, and part of it is a bit undeserved. Take Nebraska, for instance. I think most people picture horribly flat, ugly terrain stretching for miles. Flat? On the highways, yes. Country roads were rolling and nice. Ugly? Not in the NW part of the state in the pretty, rolling Sand Hills region. We lucked out and fog was more prevalent than crushing sun for the first half of Nebraska. Clear, hot skies came as we neared Omaha, as did gnarly traffic. My advice is to avoid big cities whenever possible if you go touring because navigating them on bicycle is often difficult or just plain nerve-wracking.

Iowa’s surprise was constant rolling steep hills, not flat corn country. We toiled up them through temperatures soaring into the high 90’s in humidity so thick we could have backstroked in it. Locals were kind, generous and excited to talk to us. A new idea (to us) was Casey’s, a gas station chain also featuring pizza ovens. We ate no-cheese, veggie pizza ($12.74 with tax) and scored ice cubes for our water bottles frequently to survive. That convenience was unfortunately offset by the stink of factory farms and the doomed animals inside them that permeated the air in many stretches of the state. An up-close, visceral look at the underbelly of our food system.

Up close and personal with a soy bean field.

Up close and personal with a soy bean field.

In eastern Iowa, road shoulders were 10 feet wide to accommodate the large Amish population and their buggies, which whisk along behind quickly trotting horses. We stopped at Stringtown Grocery, an Amish establishment featuring re-bagged bulk goods branded under the store’s name. And then we hit a big milestone – The Mississippi River! I stared at the flat brown flowing waters and thought of the Louisiana Purchase. To think that a huge chunk of land west of this grand body of water at one point wasn’t even part of the United States before France sold it to us. 2,300 miles on our bikes to get here and we were barely half way to Maine.

Scenery past the Mississippi was the cliche Midwest fare. Rather non-descript days pedaling through the corn and soy fields of Illinois blend together into podcasts and audiobooks that curbed the monotony a bit. Long days in the sun melded into one big mass of states starting with I as we left Iowa for Illinois and Indiana.

Corn fields and a rusty silo to hold the bounty.

Corn fields and a rusty silo to hold the bounty.

Our ability to forget difficult trials is powerful. This portion of our tour is scarcely three months ago and yet feels so long ago. The events of August in the Midwest are already softer in my mind. Memories of days where we had to linger in a gas station to let our internal temperatures cool down are slipping away. The sun’s fangs are blunted and the sauna of the humidity diminishes. Even the sameness of the landscape – corn, soy, repeat – looks better in the pictures.

What remains etched in stone is a mental confidence that we persevered as a team, pushing through conditions we normally would choose to avoid at all costs. The crucible of the Midwest forged our relationship into a stronger bond. For that reason alone, this tough section of the tour was worth it.

Enough chit chat. How about that video?! Email subscribers: click here for Part 2 of 4. Visitors to the website, just click play below in the embedded video. Enjoy…and see you shortly in Part 3!

Cheers,

Dakota

 

Away We Spin Into the Unknown

A sunset ride in Capital Reef National Park.

A sunset ride in Capital Reef National Park.

It’s easy to do something that turns you into the Cheshire Cat of Glee. Everyone has that activity that lights up their soul and makes them smile ear-to-ear. Recently, mountain biking the best trails in the west does that for me, rolling up to a trailhead in the van and careening off into the distance eyes aglow. During the last eight months, I’ve had some of the most content moments of my life ripping along twisty trails or halfway through a ride eating lunch with a splendid vista.

And now, gears are shifting. We are parking the van at Chelsea’s parents’ near Moscow, Idaho and depart in two days on the next phase of our adventure: biking 4,500 miles cross-country to Maine! We’re embarking with just our touring bikes, a tent and other camping gear for an unsupported trek that will take us along the Canadian border. We’ll pedal north through eastern Washington, then turn east to cross Idaho, Montana, the Great Plains and Great Lakes, then meander all the way to Bar Harbor, Maine (Acadia National Park).

Waiiiit a second Dakota, you’re thinking. Why the HECK are you trading the fun of mountain biking for cruising slowly along on a loaded touring bike all the way across the country this summer? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! You’re the guy in a van, don’t change things up on us. Not fair!

Pretending I know how to ride in Fruita, Colorado. GO here.

Pretending I know how to ride in Fruita, Colorado. GO here.

Frankly, life being so good is exactly why I’m down for a new course. As I’ve alluded to in past writing, anything great will eventually grow stale without introducing new challenge to the mix. Whether that’s a shift in careers, a fresh hobby or a challenge like this one (totally Chelsea’s idea, by the way), leaning into the unknown creates that adrenaline-fueled excitement. Everything and everyone has New Relationship Energy when you’re just getting started.

What to expect of the ride? Neither of us has toured longer than five days straight! Thousands of miles is a LONG way to ride a bicycle, and my mind, body, soul and relationship will be tested along the way. Even at 50 miles a day, 4,500 miles is three months straight pedaling up mountains, across plains and through forests hauling all our gear. And the bad stuff! What if we get hit by a drunk oil truck driver in North Dakota? What if bears eat our food, then our bikes and tents with us inside? What if this is the hottest, craziest tornado summer of the last 100 years?! A bike helmet doesn’t save you when a giant Walmart truck drops from the sky.

Cruising the bike-only path (20 miles!) in Grand Teton National Park. Best backdrop for a ride I've seen on this trip.

Cruising the bike-only path (20 miles!) in Grand Teton National Park. Best backdrop for a ride I’ve seen on this trip.

Ohhhh, the bad stuff, that indistinct terror of the unknown. Often, we fear anything new, jumping to the worst case in our mind first instead of the best case. Think of anytime you’ve told family and friends about a big undertaking. A few will celebrate the new journey – “wow, that’s amazing!” And the majority will dig through every anecdote and news story that they’ve ever encountered to offer words of warning. “My cousin Rick tried that and barely survived,” or “My buddy’s uncle’s co-worker just sits in a corner staring blankly after a trip like yours.”

I can’t imagine what early settler’s heard from their safety-minded friends. I’m exaggerating…but you know what I’m saying. Everyone in your life cares about keeping you safe and away from harm and often the first response is one of concern and cautionary tales, however far-fetched. Rather than “have fun!” it’s “be safe.” Perhaps it stems from bygone days when our ancestors could only pass down wisdom via stories, and so warnings like that literally could save lives. “Thag, you steer clear of those TrampleYourAssasauruses in the summer, your uncle SlagHeap was mashed by one.”

Well, I have news. These days, life is safe! We in developed countries live in a world so ridiculously luxurious that people run 100 miles for fun and can fly (safely) around the planet on a whim for an insanely low price relative to bygone days. A hailstorm or flat tire in the middle of nowhere is a test, yet certainly not the end of our existence.

Cruising the most-excellent trail in Dixie Canyon near Bryce Canyon National Park.

Cruising the excellent car-free trail in Dixie Canyon near Bryce Canyon National Park.

None of this is to say that I’m tough. I’m totally leery of the negative things that could happen; they crop up in my mind on an hourly basis. Testing our new tent on the back deck at C’s parent’s house in the country, the sound of a bear roaring nearby at midnight transfixed us in our sleeping bags for a couple minutes as we pictured the headline: “Dumb city slicker couple mauled in tent ten feet from house.” Mild terror until C’s dad starting laughing and turned off the iPad nature app featuring grizzly growls. Ohhh he’s quite the joker, her dad. Now I have to wash my sleeping bag!

Really though, we shall see how this goes. Dude, I’ve been driving around the country in my luxury German vehicle with a fridge and hot water boiler. I have wireless internet everywhere I go, and my favorite Synergy kombucha is almost always available. Our biggest roadblock, finding healthy plant-based food, is entirely a personal choice. Hmmm, can I actually do this?! Trading my comfy Sprinter van and mattress for a tent and sleeping pad? My stereo system for headphones? Accelerator for a pair of pedals and a bike seat? This sounds like a serious pain in the butt (literally, I’m sure).

And that’s why I’m game. I can always return to the van, or our house, to be coddled by the comforts of modern society. I can hop on a plane to Hawaii for a week in the sun, or drive to the beach for a weekend out of the city. But first, I’m spinning off into the Rocky Mountains to find some tent-eating bears. There will be trials of logistics and weather, plus the hangry (hungry+angry) moments when I don’t eat enough and Chelsea has to fend me off with a bike pump. (She calls that alter-ego NARG. Picture an ugly, surly monster with no logic or empathy.) Headwinds will batter the core of my convictions in the Great Plains and afternoon rain will perhaps dampen my spirits. It’s going to be hard…and so bodaciously rad! (The 80s live on.)

Totally unrelated to bike touring... Just a pretty shot from Grand Teton!

Totally unrelated to bike touring… Just a pretty shot from Grand Teton!

I know this: I’m going to emerge a stronger person with a new sense of what our bodies and minds can accomplish when we say “DO THIS” and set off on a big adventure. The best case is more confidence in the reality that testing our limits results in growth in directions we never expect. (Certainly in my quads.) And I suspect seeing new territory at bike-touring speed, and meeting kind, amazing people along the way, will light me up and crack my face into a big grin just like when I’m mountain biking.

Right now, it feels riskier to not keep mixing fresh horizons and new adventures into our lives, and this is simply the newest escapade. Living a life of no regrets is my guiding star, and so I grab my bike and point the front tire east. To Maine, I say! As a wise world traveler we met in Yellowstone told us, ““Be good, and if you can’t be good, be careful, and if you can’t do that, be really good!”

Getting our respective skips on outside the Adventure Cycling Association in Missoula (they have maps and bike touring gear and hey, we were in the area). Yes, Chelsea will always be more graceful and less nerdy than I could ever hope to be. And she has cool colored cycling socks.

Getting our respective skips on outside the Adventure Cycling Association in Missoula (they have maps and bike touring gear and hey, we were in the area). Yes, Chelsea will always be more graceful and less nerdy than I could ever hope to be. And she has cool colored cycling socks.

Friends and blog readers (one and the same): Drop us a line with your favorite places across the northern U.S.! If you have family or buddies anywhere along our route, please put us in touch. Meeting people during our travels is absolutely our favorite part of being vagabonds. I’ll be updating the trip map along the way, so follow along to see if we accidentally wander into the Arctic Circle (not part of the plan).

Pedal on,

Dakota & Chelsea


If you enjoyed this post and want to follow along with our journey, check out the free newsletter!


 

We'll see lots of wheat waving under sunsets on our trip!

We’ll see lots of wheat waving under sunsets on our trip!

Spinning South – Bike Touring from Anaheim to San Diego

The spring bloom!

The spring bloom!

Surprise, let’s go pedal our bikes for a few days! Bike touring along the SoCal coast from the Los Angeles area to San Diego was a last-minute plan I threw together for Chelsea’s birthday. Some people whisk their wives away for a weekend in Vegas, but you know that’s not the way we roll. Planning consisted of buying Amtrak tickets the day before departure and booking a few places on Airbnb spaced evenly along the way. Lacking camping gear, credit card touring was the name of the game.

All aboard on the Surfliner! Heading north from San Diego. Thanks to the hurried conductor who took this shot.

All aboard on the Surfliner! Heading north from San Diego. Thanks to the hurried conductor who took this shot.

Executing a short touring trip is surprisingly easy. Stuff a couple changes of clothing and some food in panniers, load up your bike and head out the door. The hard part (for me) is relaxing into a slower pace, rather than my usual hammering away as hard as I can. After all, touring is about seeing and experiencing a place at a slower speed, not blazing through in a full downhill tuck. I’m coming around to this, and hauling 30-50 pounds of gear, water and food diminishes the thrill of sprinting on a bike anyway. Standing up to race on a baby-elephant-of-a-bike lacks the thrill and responsiveness of cranking uphill on a 16 pound carbon ride!

For me, touring distills the varied emotions of travel into potent vials. Standing above an ocean cliff, you sniff a shot of salty air, pelican dives, sunshine and waves. Zipping along a car-free path mainlines freedom and the reward of pumping legs and heart. And the most mediocre of meals is a sultan’s decadent feast after four hours of hard cycling hauling loaded panniers. The smell of car exhaust mixes in, but at the end of the day, kicking back with tired legs with your feet in the sand, the positive memories abound. It’s a hard-earned respite, and that makes all the difference. Plus, there is something so rewarding about pedaling your way from city to city as you meander toward a distant target.

Pausing to watch surfers near San Clemente.

Pausing to watch surfers near San Clemente.

It’s not for everyone. I met a guy named Ramon while out mountain biking amid the red rocks of Sedona and he asked me, “No offense, but what’s fun about road biking, especially touring?” An insightful question. At this point in my life, I certainly prefer twisting singletrack to a workout on a road bike given the choice. Then again, variety keeps things spicy! Still, there is plenty that sounds terrible to many people about touring: traffic, incredibly hard physical work, getting stuck in the elements, navigating the logistics of route finding and where to stay, staying on top of fueling your cranking engine, pressing on through tired legs and a snarling stomach when all you want to do is stop pedaling a bike.

Our tour started with a bike ride to Amtrak train station in San Diego, which we rode to the stop in Anaheim right next to Angels Stadium. I realized this was my first ride on a train in the US, which is odd considering I spent six days straight on the Trans-Siberian across Russia/Mongolia and hours on them elsewhere. Each train has reservations for only a few passengers with bikes, so if you do this, make sure to check! I wasn’t impressed with the bike rack system on the train, but at least there is something there. The clickety-clack of the train rumbling north was melodic, a concerto highlighted with frequent views of the waves and sand of the Pacific Ocean. They don’t call it the Surf Liner for nothing!

Crossing the Santa Ana River on the bike trail.

Crossing the Santa Ana River on the bike trail.

From the halo of Angels Stadium, we jumped right on the Santa Ana River Trail, yet another of the awesome car-free, no-street-crossing paved paths along a river in Los Angeles just like the one we took for our L.A. bike tour. From there, our route simply followed the Pacific Coast Highway south all the way to San Diego, about 110 miles to the south. Lots of pausing at view points or beaches, if only to grab a handful of snacks or to drink in a compelling vista.

Heading into Torrey Pines.

Heading into Torrey Pines.

Snippets of the journey, little memories lodged in my mind, include:

  • Spinning along the bike path in Newport Beach through dozens of people on cruiser bikes with surf boards, tourists scurrying across and others sitting on their decks enjoying views of the water.
Riding the beach path near San Clemente.

Riding the beach path near San Clemente.

  • Lounging in a hot tub during an earthquake, ripples of water cascading from side to side as concerned residents stuck their heads out the doors. (All good, not a big one.)
  • Eating delicious vegan mushroom and onion fare at Z-Pizza after hard hours of hills along the coast. We were in a shopping complex with a parking lot stacked full of Mercedes, Land Rovers and a couple Maserati’s, with shops where dresses cost more than my bike and people oozed wealth from their pores. Yet a well-dressed dude says, “That looks like fun!” and tells his friend he wants to bike tour sometime.
Mmmm, pizza.

Mmmm, pizza.

  • Munching hummus and pita at the Oceanside beach at the end of a day, then walking the long, crowded pier at sunset holding hands and watching other tourists, surfers and pelicans.
Sunset walk on the pier in Oceanside.

Sunset walk on the pier in Oceanside.

  • Stuck in a crush of traffic in Laguna Beach with no bike lane and nowhere to hide except the sidewalk. My wiser half finds a nice side street to ride on while I battle cars for a few blocks before joining her. Sometimes, the direct route submits you to all types of pain a little detour fixes nicely. We’ve found that riding up a giant climb is well worth it instead of riding on a flat, highly-trafficked route.
  • Staying in a hotel under renovation where one half of the building (directly across from our room) was stripped down to bare studs and HVAC ductwork hung from the ceiling in the lobby. Funny that Hotels.com didn’t mention this… (Our room was wonderful and about ⅓ what we would have paid otherwise.)
  • Descending a twisty sidewalk from bluff view down down down to a harbor as the sun hovered low.
  • Burning legs heading up the steep two-mile climb of Torrey Pines north of San Diego, and then another three big ascents to bring us home.
  • ID checks by baby-faced soldiers at the military base we rode through for a solid hour, cascading views of the ocean along the way.
You don't see this sign very often. (Crossing through the military base.)

You don’t see this sign very often. (Crossing through the military base.)

  • Riding a flowery path through a neighborhood, spring scents in the air.

All in all, this ~100 mile ride was a great way to ring in Chelsea’s birthday and another successful tour! We are both itching to try something longer, and with our backpacking gear recently flown south by Chelsea’s parents and added to the mix of equipment in the van, we are scoping out fun potential trips in Utah and Colorado when not rampaging on mountain bikes or hiking in slot canyons.

Checking the view at lovely Torrey Pines before a tough climb into San Diego.

Checking the view at lovely Torrey Pines before a tough climb into San Diego.

Perhaps the neatest thing about touring is that ANYONE can do it. I’ve seen 10-speeds from the 80s loaded up touring 1,500 miles on the coast, and mountain bikes towing trailers, and everything in between. All you have to do is pedal. I don’t at all consider myself an experienced bike tourer, but have loved all trips we’ve taken. My Lemond Poprad cyclocross bike doesn’t have enough climbing gears and the rims aren’t designed for hauling weight, but I just get out there and give it a shot and my impatient, love-to-go-fast mentality falls into a zone where I cruise at a lower speed and enjoy it.

You can tour too! Grab a bike, do a little online research, and hit the road. Hopefully we’ll see you out there.

Spin on,

Dakota

Sunset beach walk the day before Chelsea's birthday.

Sunset beach walk the day before Chelsea’s birthday.

Chelsea taking a load off after a long day of hills. Home again, or at least back at the van!

Chelsea taking a load off after a long day of hills. Home again, or at least back at the van!