What Bicycle Touring Taught Me - Katie
Katie and her boyfriend, Rob, just finished their first-ever cross country bicycle tour across the United States. Here's what she learned about herself, her partner, her family, and her values along the way.
"I’ve gained this trust that things will work out."
What did you learn about yourself on tour?
I am a bit of a planner and can lose composure when things go awry. The trip taught me that I have the capacity to be less regimented about my life without everything falling apart.
A few months after the trip, we flew out for a wedding and I made no arrangements for our accommodations after the ceremony. Friends and acquaintances alike were confused and discomforted that we had arrived without a place to stay. I had trusted we could find what we needed last minute, and we did. I wouldn’t have been able to do this before our trip. I’ve gained this trust that things will work out. Yes, sometimes it all doesn’t work out as cleanly as you might like, but it’s rare, if ever, that the worst case scenarios happen.
What did you learn about bike touring?
I had never done a bike tour before so I learned everything, and in learning everything, I learned that anyone has the capacity to bike tour. When we started, I expected that the other tourers we’d see on the road would be stone-muscled machines grinding over a hundred miles a day. In reality, the “choose your own adventure” mentality of bike touring meant we saw a broad spectrum of riders. In choosing your own adventure, you can choose what is significant for you whether that’s pushing the limits of fitness or experiencing America through small town diner pies or both. We saw people of all ages and abilities. That’s the beauty and the secret of bike touring: anyone can do it.
"When you've fully accepted your tenuous place in your surroundings, you've learned to bike tour."
Once I figured that out, my reservations and mental blocks about the whole experience were eased. You can learn on the fly and regardless of how well you plan, you won’t be prepared. There’s a humbling comfort in consistently being put in your place. The natural elements are your constant, unpredictable companions. You will feel on top of the world, and you will feel bested by it. This feels preachy to say, in an over-the-top “Karate Kid” sensei kind of way, but when you've fully accepted your tenuous place in your surroundings, you've learned to bike tour.
Did family/friends express concern for your safety? How did you respond to them?
Yes, definitely. The most interesting response that I saw was with older generations. It seemed that in growing older, you have a choice: to feel that age leads to limitations or to see your life post-job and post-kids as an opportunity to experience new adventure.
Some of my older relatives were the most openly concerned about safety, yet others were the most supportive. One of my aunts sent a care package filled with items like a pen, paper, and sanitary wipes that were both thoughtful and practical.
Along the trip, we stayed with countless retirees and saw many more on the road with us. I came away from the trip inspired by these individuals who chose to live some of their great adventures and generosities during retirement. Our society can be youth-obsessed, so it was nice to see the converse: embracing age and its opportunities; the freedom of retirement, savings from work, as leverage for more extreme adventure.
The most common response to our trip was more of a disconnect than pushback. This was a trip clearly outside of comfort zones and the norm (for us too), and many people lacked the vocabulary to discuss it. You can’t engage in conversation or criticism if you don’t know the questions to ask or the buttons to push. I got this mostly from my parents whose concern manifested a bit like ambivalence. I think they were worried but didn’t want to seem overbearing, so that approach led to some detachment. They were supportive when they could be (my mom sent and coordinated many care package deliveries), but were mostly hands-off.
"I've learned that if I’m scared of something, then it’s usually worth doing."
What advice would you offer to a woman who wants to try bike touring, but is hesitant to do so?
I am a naturally anxious person who frets about lots of things, and I can be easily intimidated. I was intimidated by this trip and I’m still intimidated by the idea of future trips, but I have learned that if I’m scared of something, then it’s usually worth doing. This mantra continues to be true in my life.
I’m not going to tell you to “not be intimidated.” Do it in spite of the intimidation.
What activity, besides cycling, helps you be a better cyclist?
I enjoy running and yoga. I’m not great about stretching, so I like restorative yoga for relaxation and also to loosen up my tight muscles. In my mind, yoga is a better and more fun version of stretching.
What are some things that help you feel more comfortable as a cyclist?
With city riding, wide roads and paths really improve the riding experience. Since Boston is an older city, the roads are pretty narrow and were laid out in the days of carriages, so there are many places that can be challenging for cyclists. That being said, the Boston area is making a concerted effort to be more cycling friendly, so I don’t want to fault the community. To me, they are just starting with a slightly more challenging problem with their old, narrow road system.
In Boston, I have gotten doored, so having a bit of extra space means a lot. Now, I usually leave ample room between my bike and parked cars and consciously pay attention to whether someone is inside a parallel parked car. These are all things that I didn’t pay a ton of attention to before the door-ing.
More importantly, and this sounds silly to say, but being nice and friendly to other cyclists goes a long way. In most areas, pedestrians and motorists alike can be adversarial to bicyclists, so a pet peeve of mine is when cyclists are petty to one another. We’re already outcasts and it’s hard enough on the road, so I’d like to adopt the mentality that all cyclists are in this together. I can sometimes get frustrated but I try to make an effort to be friendly and forgiving to other cyclists because I really remember and appreciate the small kindnesses that other cyclists have given me on the road.
Where do you see bicycle culture heading in the future?
I really enjoy the current trends favoring comfort and accessibility. Bike shares are becoming more common as is a push for bike infrastructure. I was impressed by how many places that we saw last summer, cities and small towns alike, that had put some effort into creating bike infrastructure. It may have only been some lines on the road in many cases, but this is still progress.
"In the end, I think biking is about bringing people joy. The wider the biking audience, the more people get to experience this joy."
I grew up associating biking with fitness, so it’s nice to see the societal definition expanding with more people commuting, touring or enjoying casual afternoon rides on bike share bikes. In the end, I think biking is about bringing people joy. The wider the biking audience, the more people who get to experience this joy.
On a deeper level, I think that embracing comfort means that people choose a bike that suits them and that they enjoy riding, which leads to a wider diversity of set-ups and feeds into the expanding definition of who we see as a “biker.” It’s not all middle-aged men in spandex anymore. It’s also not all about pretending that fixie or single speeds are fun and easy bikes for all occasions. “No thank you” to climbing hills without my granny gears.
What are some of your favorite memories from that trip?
The most special memories for me are the somewhat unremarkable. Yes, those monumental moments: the Rockies, National Parks, and mountain passes were expectedly incredible, but it’s the little moments of kindness that are the most impenetrable memories. There are so many.
At the moment, our days in Bay City, Michigan stick out. We arrived in town for our rest day and were welcomed into the community almost immediately by John, who worked as a bartender in the pub where we ate our dinner. That night we criss-crossed Bay City streets on an informal bike tour, ending with a house party. When we rose the next day, we stopped into the local bike shop where we already knew the staff. Whenever I pass through a new place, I picture what my life would look like there. Who would my friends be? What would my day-to-day look like? In Bay City, John and Crystal gave us the opportunity to experience that within 36 hours.
Is traveling by bike something you want to do again? Why or Why not?
I do, but I might need a break. It’s been long enough now that I can think poetically and fondly about our time despite the challenges. It’s easy to forget the days where you would hit a wall and not want to ride, or chamois butter just didn’t solve your problems anymore. I need some time to rebuild my resilience.
I have started plotting my next, shorter adventure. With our recent move to Seattle, I have been eyeing a shorter, likely week-long trip around the Olympics. I say that I need a break, but I just bought a book with route maps that I’m anxious to flip through, so this trip will likely happen this summer. I’m aiming for a solo experience now that I have the confidence of the cross-country trip. Solo is a fundamentally different form of travel so I’m curious to experience just how different it can be.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
I'm new to the area, and I would love to get connected with any women interested in riding or willing to share lady-centric bike riding resources in Seattle. I'm pretty internet private/non-existent, but we did put together a blog for a our trip that's still up: wherearerobandkatie.wordpress.com
Katie is a self-described "Northeasterner on the outside (Boston roots), a Midwesterner at heart (Minnesota-raised), and a recent transplant to the Pacific Northwest." By day, she’s a research scientist working on augmented reality for Oculus. Outside work, Katie's passionate about eating (particularly sweets), coffee, adventure, and lady-led rock and punk music. Her short-term dream is to settle in Seattle with a garage workshop and a house full of thriving (i.e. not dead) houseplants.
You can read more about Katie and other awesome cycling women in The Interviews.