Bicycle Touring as a New Couple - Katie
Last summer, Katie and her boyfriend Rob pedaled across the United States. They'd hatched their plan as a new couple, after they'd been dating just a few months. When they left the East Coast, bound for Seattle, they'd been together for a year. Their cross-country adventure wasn't all rainbows and butterflies: Katie and Rob shared difficult moments and huge rewards, sometimes both in the same day. My interview with Katie continues as she describes what it was like to cycle across the country with her sweetheart.
Tell us about the experience of touring with your partner. What was one of the hardest parts of cycling with him?
I underestimated how much fitness, pace, and trip preferences play into such an extended journey. On short trips, a small difference in natural pace might be acceptable, but these minor imbalances can become difficult with time.
Rob naturally pedals faster but I was in better physical shape at the beginning of the trip. All this meant that we were happily similar for a week before I started having difficulty keeping up with Rob. I should have realized this and communicated more openly, but instead I was mildly uncomfortable trying to keep up for a while. This is unfortunately where both of our pitfalls are, as those native to the Northeast. My way of dealing with feelings is with a classic Northeasterner mentality: feelings are to hold on to until death! We never exploded at each other (feelings are for suppressing), so there were lots of little quiet frustrations that never got aired.
It’s only been recently that I became comfortable enough to confess to Rob that I was quietly angry with him, for being so strong and only growing stronger, while I perceived my own natural pace as a sign of weakness.
Do you have advice for touring couples who ride at different speeds?
We learned from more experienced bikers later that the best way to deal with mismatched pace is through load adjustment. Rob started to take on a heavier load, our speeds evened out and we could both still bike in a way that felt natural.
If you are a relatively fresh couple going into this, expect that the magic will be broken. When we started the trip, we had been dating for about a year. There were moments of shame where I knew Rob was seeing me at my worst and vice versa was true for him.
There’s a lot of weight in the minutiae of the day-to-day in a long trip, and moments can crescendo quickly. Most of our shameful moments were usually a reaction to something minor that was, more deeply, a response to pre-existing conditions that had been building.
"When we started the trip, we'd been dating for about a year. There were moments of shame where I knew Rob was seeing me at my worst..."
Not to pressure you, but.. could you give us an example of one of those ‘shameful moments’?
On one of many hot days, we had promised ourselves a short ride and a rest in town followed by a motel overnight, where we could freeze ourselves to the point of discomfort to overcompensate for the heat wave. I was excited to pull out my long johns, blast Seinfeld reruns on TBS, and lay motionless on a bed (a bed!) for an extended period of time. Instead, after a lovely lunch at a local farm stand, we decided to push to the next campsite to cut down on our mileage the next day instead of returning to town and the luxury of a motel. I was not mentally prepared. Also the campsite was partway up a climb that was one of our five substantial mountain passes of the trip, and we started at the highest heat of the day.
After looking forward to a promised respite, this was not what I wanted. I quickly noticed this during the climb. We were less than a few miles from our destination when I abruptly pulled to the side and threw my bike into the sand. I sat there and tried not to cry. I felt like a child who lost their temper, and my shame only grew worse as I could watch Rob seeing me in this moment. It was a tiny thing but the result of too many back-to-back days in the heat without a rest. We learned in these moments.
What was your greatest challenge on that bike tour?
I got bitten by a tick when we were visiting my parents in Minnesota. I had been so vigilant up to that point, avoiding grassy areas at campsites, checking my body regularly. When we were finally indoors at my parents’ house, I let my guard down. One day, on our lovely, first multi-day break from riding, I laid down in the grass in the yard of my family home. The next day I felt a tick lodged in the small of my back in the shower. I didn’t want to deal with it.
We set off the next day and kept riding, each day the ring around the bite growing slightly larger. When we were staying at a family friends’ cabin in a lake town in western Minnesota, Rob finally said something. I couldn’t see it, but the bite was enough to inspire worry and the family we stayed with was generous enough to drive me to a clinic to pick up antibiotics.
A casually-mentioned side effect to antibiotics is sun sensitivity. I didn’t think much of it initially, thinking that I would compensate with extra layers and sunscreen. But then we hit the plains, and an unrelenting heat wave. Minus the tree or two that we found, seemingly always surrounded by chest high brambles, there was no shade and no clouds. Also “sun sensitivity” was a misleading term, a more accurate term would be “sun allergy.” Despite painting my exposed skin white with sunscreen at hourly intervals throughout the day, every inch of my body was burned and continued to burn. I got sunburn through my clothing.
"My face was obscured by a red bandana that made me look like a goofy old time-y bank robber..."
Eventually the only solution was to accept that I was going to shed a layer of skin, like a disgusting reptile, and that everything needed to be covered at all times. All the while, this was in heat that exceeded 100F daily. The head cold and seasonal allergy combination that somehow also cropped up at around the same time didn’t help either.
I wheezed slowly through melting hot miles with a headwind covered head to toe (hands and face included). My face was obscured by a red bandana that made me look like a goofy old time-y bank robber, enough so that cyclists and strangers alike along the way had no qualms immediately laying into me on my mysterious, B movie look. My response was to ask about the nearest saloon.
Eventually, after a little over two weeks and the end of antibiotics, my skin became less sensitive. After the heat and stuffiness of being bundled up in the plains, I could breathe for the rest of the trip.
Oh my God. That is gnarly! How did you find the desire to keep going?
We had this mantra along the way, and we repeated “this is just what we do now” to ourselves on a consistent basis. “What we do now” was biking onward, so when external challenges presented themselves, we continued to do “what we do now.” It’s a silly phrase looking back on it, but it provided steadiness during turbulent times. After a few weeks (really days), you know how to bike forward so it makes sense to respond to challenge by doing what you do best: continuing to move. Biking is your new life so you will continue to live it.
What were some of the good times with Rob?
In the end, all these challenges felt minor compared to the relative comfort, safety and fun that comes with riding with a partner. We had so much fun. Rob brought a Bluetooth speaker on the trip, so we commonly sang and danced on our bikes. One of our favorite pastimes was a term we liked to call “Veddering,” where we would listen to Pearl Jam and theatrically mimic Eddie Vedder’s moans and groans. (If you are looking for a song heavy with “Veddering”, we recommend the Into the Wild soundtrack. There is an entire song with no words, only the soothing gutteral sounds of Eddie Vedder.)
"In the end, all these challenges felt minor compared to the relative comfort, safety and fun that comes with riding with a partner."
“Veddering,” like some of our other trip pastimes, would make me laugh so hard that I couldn’t physically ride my bike. Off the bike, Rob’s ability to sleep on his back, with his arms folded across his chest like a vampire, gave me no shortage of giggle fits.