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The Lowdown on Cross-Country Touring

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The Lowdown on Cross-Country Touring


Cross-Country Touring


From Wende Cragg: Magazine article about bicycle touring across the United States. By Vaughan Webb. Bicycling Magazine, pages 38-42, 60. April 1980.


Wende Cragg


Bicycling Magazine



Added by Natalie King





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Title: "The Lowdown on Cross-Country Touring: Bicycle Touring Promises and Delivers a Lot -- But Not Necessarily a Rose Garden"
Byline: Vaughan Webb
Text: [Page 38] "I know, I know. You have seen dozens of articles on coast-to-coast bicycle tours, each filled to the brim with the romanticism of such a trip. The glossy, color photographs reek with beauty, and the captions to these pictures read like Shakespearean sonnets. The players are so kind, so gentle, so full of the joy of life that you begin to wonder if a normal person could stand so much wholesome company for two months. Well, wonder no more, for in the next few pages the truth will be revealed for the first time along with some practical instructions for making the trip as it should be made, that is, will a small, unorganized group of good friends.

When I first suggested riding a bicycle from Oregon to Virginia, I questioned whether such an undertaking was actually possible for myself and my companions. To my surprise I had an immediate taker, and within a few months another agreed to join us. We were not serious bikers then or now. Neither of my compatriots had ridden more than five miles total in the past ten years. And we were not physical fitness fanatics. We were simply drawn to the prospects of an unusual adventure, and that we found.

During the winter months prior to our trip, we browsed like all tourists through catalogs and magazines, finding little more than astounding prices and the type of travelog described above. (Most of these articles were written about the summer of 1976, the big year for the TransAmerica Trail.) We studied the lists of items previous riders had taken and delighted in cutting them down to a sensible size. Gradually we made our decisions on equipment -- price dominating our choices. By the end of April, my companions were squirming for comfort on their newly purchased machines, as we made our only practice trip of 120 miles with light loads. We now felt ready to deal with the problems of the cross-country journey.


At home in Virginia, we faced the three major problems confronting any touring cyclist at the outset of a ride. The first of these involved time. How do you get enough free time to ride a bicycle 4,000 miles? At best we figured on ten weeks, and as might be expected, many of the riders we met on the road were college students taking advantage of summer vacation. Though the three of us worked full-time, the solution was obvious. We quit our jobs. (In the end our tour totaled 56 riding days and five full rest days, much to the dismay of those who had bet against seeing us for three months.)

The second problem was one of money. How much was this going to cost? As mentioned above, the previous literature on such trips dealt largely with Bikecentennial tours where finances were generally handled through an initial fee. Therefore all we could do was guess on a budget and save as much as possible during the winter and spring. Tough the excursion took less time than we had planned, we all spent more money than anticipated, mostly on food. Our costs for living on the road for 61 days fell between $500 or $600 per person, and in most cases we were reasonably frugal. Not included in this figure were funds spent on major equipment you must have before you can even begin pedaling such as tools, sleeping bag, panniers, some sort of tent, and the bike itself. Along the way one or all of us picked up gloves, helmets, riding shorts, T-shirts, tires, tubes, and spokes. Also left out of this price was the cost of getting ourselves and our bicycles to Oregon, the third major problem confronting us from the start.

Regardless of where you live, you must plan on transportation either to the beginning or from the end of your route, or both. Of course, you could eliminate the conflict by riding in a gigantic circle or by doing like one east-to-west rider we spoke with who was planning to settle in Oregon once he arrived there. Though our home is near the eastern tail of the TransAmerica Trail, we wanted to ride west

[Page 40] to east in order to take advantage of the prevailing winds. Flying seemed too expensive, as did driving a car and selling it once we reached our starting point. Hitching a ride with a bicycle was out of the question (though other cyclists were forced to do so when hit by mechanical problems miles from the nearest bike shop). The cheapest, dependable alternative was the bus.

Having previously traveled long distances on the bus, I would rather walk, but another romanticized travelog article in an earlier issue of this magazine (Bicycling, February 1976) assured us that this was the way to go. Without argument the price was right, $69 between any two points in the country (this has since gone up), and we could layover to see friends at any stop. The ticket agent -- you never see them on a bus -- confirmed that a properly boxed bicycle would count as luggage and would be placed on the vehicle the passenger boarded even if freight had to be taken off to make room. (Try telling that to the fellows on the loading dock!) He did suggest that we supervise the loading and unloading to prevent damage.

As we expected, the bus proved to be a mobile zoo from the start. Never mind the difficulties of sleeping while sitting up. Never mind the outrageously overpriced junk food you have no alternative but to buy in the station. Never mind the babies that cry all night or the unsupervised children who turn the aisle into a playground complete with toys and trash. Never mind the fact that every connection is late -- up to two hours -- and that the passengers must stand in line just to be sure of getting a seat.

Claiming he had no room for our bicycles, our first driver initially refused to accept us. As it turned out, there was enough empty cargo space to accomodate a small car. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, we were forced to leave the bikes behind in order to get ourselves on the bu. Arriving in Eugene, Oregon, we waited eight hours before they finally appeared. Surprisingly they were free from any damage other than one bent derailleur. And we were lucky. A rider who joined our trio in Colorado did not see his bicycle for two weeks after his bus ride home, and the damages to it amounted to more than $100. I would not suggest this means of long-distance transportation to anyone, especially if a bicycle is involved. Those cyclists who had flown seemed to have pleasanter experiences, although the danger of damage during loading still exists.


Once traveling, certainly no two groups of tourists will have the same adventures, but the accounts of the situations of others may help prepare for yours. Every cyclist we encountered had his day broken down to a routine of eating, riding, and sleeping. Each group handled these three aspects of the trip in its own way.

Before we started, we never imagined the importance food would take in our day. It provided the nourishment necessary for the constant physical activity of cycling, but more importantly it also served as a pleasant addiction to a rest stop or a reward for reaching a certain point, particularly if you could sit back in a cafe while someone else cooked. Every tourist agreed on the value of breakfast. Some preferred a large meal as soon as they awoke, but our party usually started with food we were carrying (cereal, fruit, or peanut butter or jelly sandwiches) and then rode 20 or 30 miles before eating eggs or pancakes in a diner. We nibbled steadily the rest of the day, stopping, it seemed, at every grocery store to buy yogurt, juice, milk, and more fruit. we quickly learned that our Bikecentennial maps were not perfect; some stores existed only in the minds of the map-maker, and we found it wise to carry extra food just in case.

If we were lucky enough to end the day in a sizeable town, we sometimes sought out the type of restaurant offering an all-you-can-eat salad bar. You become accustomed to people staring as you repeatedly empty every container. Despite such gorging sprees, we ate a healthier diet than ever before, and this along with the exercise trimmed 25 pounds off one member and 16 off the other. As the Bikecentennial bulletin states, you will never be healthier than when you finish such a tour.


As to riding habits, each person has his own, and much of what is said may not apply to your style. Mileages and speeds vary extremely depending on a variety of factors including wind, heat, terrain, and mood. We left Girard, Kansas, early one morning with every intention of riding deep into Missouri; 15 miles later we entered Pittsburg's finest downtown bar (Washington's Cigar Store -- coldest beer in town), and that was it for the day. Elsewhere on the plains we sometimes rode well over 100 miles a day. We crossed paths with two British women who were finished riding their 50-mile quota by noon everyday, yet on two occasions we were still pedaling at 10 PM. Obviously times and distances are a matter of preference, but you will not ride long with someone whose habits differ greatly from your own.

Generally most riders were leaving by seven in the morning and finishing by mid- or late afternoon. In the Cascades or the Rockies riding early might require every piece of clothing you have, while in the Midwest you might start out wearing nothing but shoes and shorts. To beat the Kansas heat our group sometimes began riding before dawn, stopping in a town around midday to spend the remainder of the afternoon snoozing in the air-conditioned quiet of the public library or swimming in the municipal pool. Overall we averaged close to 80 miles per day, a decidedly longer distance than the Bikecentennial groups we passed.

Regardless of how long or far you might ride in a day, several points will become clear early in your trip. Everyone does not love you, even when you are riding on the far edge of the shoulder. Expect to be cursed at least once every few days and not necessarily by an impatient driver. Smart mouths seem to be evenly distributed among all age and social groups, though they fail to realize that nearly everything shouted from a passing car is a garbled slur to the cyclist.

On one point everyone seemed to agree: avoid gravel roads. For some perverse reason the TransAmerica Trail includes unpaved stretches in Colorado, Kansas, and Indiana, and at least one alternate road in Oregon. Not one cyclist spoke kindly about these riding conditions. Indeed the one tourist we passed who had injured himself in a fall had done so in Indiana gravel, and a forest warden in Baker, Oregon, told us of "rescuing" four different groups, one with a flat tire on every bicycle, from the unpaved section of the trail in his state.

Using a regular road map, you can plan around hazardous regions or even design a complete, cross-country tour. The TransAmerica Trail is certainly not the only route for cycling across the United States, and few people were following it exactly. Perhaps its greatest advantage lies in the thorough maps and guidebooks available for a reasonable fee; they are the most valuable for riding in the West, where towns, stores, and water supplies are more widely scattered than in some areas -- Kansas, for instance -- and it may not include the scenic spots that most interest you. And a few cyclists noted that off the trail people consider you more of a novelty and thus are more hospitable.

Finally, expect to break down at the most inopportune times and places. Know something about the mechanics of a bicycle before you start to tour. If you have never changed a broken spoke, at least read how and carry the tools and parts needed to do the job. I only heard that dreaded ping four times over the entire journey while another cyclist snapped more than 15 spokes in the first two weeks of riding. Still another tourist managed to replace a spoke on the freewheel side without a freewheel tool; he did not know there even was such a thing.

Tires, too, will wear out steadily, and carrying an extra will save you the trouble of bouncing down the road with duct tape wrapped around your wheel, looking like some mythical hillbilly. (You would be surprised, however, at how well that amazing tape holds up under 40 or 50 miles riding.) Likewise a spare tube can put you back on the road quickly when the sun is on broil and the only shade falls from your own sweat-soaked body. Given the distances between repair shops, you will probably learn more than you will ever want to know about bicycles before you are sleeping in your own bed again.


After a day when all of your expectations have materialized, after you have risen before the sun and pedaled until dusk, after you have cursed and been cursed, after you have careened through the ditch and heard the vicious hiss of your deflating tire, after you have knocked an inch or two off of your wrinkled road map, you now wonder
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[Page 60] (Continued from page 42)
where to sleep. Someone along the way had mentioned having his tent run over by a gang of motorcyclists. Was it here? and there is not a campground for miles.

Fear not, particularly if you feel lucky. The opportunities are all around. Out of 60 nights we spent 17 in fee campgrounds, and all but two of those were west of the plains. On those other 43 nights, there was either no campground available or we found better, often cheaper facilities. By saving money through fee lodging, we were able to splurge on a cheap motel now and then when the rain showed no mercy and the people no hospitality.

An excellent place to check is the municipal park if you are fortunate enough to end your ride in town. Kansas cities in particular were exceptionally generous in this regard, and most offered complimentary, cold showers at the public pool. Many of these parks were equippped with bathrooms, running water, and picnic shelters for escaping that midnight cloudburst. At times we contacted the local police to prevent being locked up or run off after dark, but usually someone on the street could direct us to an area where "no one'll bother ya."

Churches are another possibility, many of them accustomed to having cyclists camping on the lawn. In our experiences we found the pastor's name posted in front of the church, and a phone call would bring him over to open the bathrooms for our use. Naturally, honesty and cordiality are the keys to such generosity, and we took great care to leave free camping areas as we found them.

The cyclist with a little luck often enjoys the hospitalities of strangers he may meet, and while we turned down a few offers, we frequently accepted an invitation to camp in a yard, bathe in a hot shower, or enjoy a free meal. In bars, grocery stores, and gas stations, people were interested in our undertaking, and an inquiry about a nearby place to stay was ofttimes all the hint needed to solicit an offer. Through such encounters we spent time with a variety of unforgettable characters, including the motorcycle king of Saratoga, Wyoming; a gold miner in Council, Idaho; and the only liberal ever to hold the office of student body president at the University of Pittsburgh. The beauty of these people far surpasses the scenery that surrounds them. Here, too, the benefits of a small group of riders shine through for few people are willing to open their homes to a crowd of tourists.

In some instances camping is inconvenient or impractical. Rain may have soaked your every belonging, or you do not want to sit and guard your eqipment on a rest day. At these times the cyclist should seek out the dingiest motel around. Look for the type of lodging your family always passed by on vacation, and you may be surprised at the bargains and hospitality you receive. For $10 our trio secured a room at the Grangeville (Idaho) Hotel complete with hot plate, sink, and refrigerator. In Pueblo, Colorado, I would recommend the Gaines Hotel, where we put five riders in a room for $7.50, and the hostess threw in an additional room just for our bicycles. The price, comfort, and security of such places easily outweigh the walk down the hall to the bathroom, the lack of air-conditioning, the creaky floors, the peeling walls, and the inevitable toss of the coin to determine who sleeps on the floor. It may not be the Hilton, but after two weeks outdoors, it feels just as good.


When it is all over and the gear is piled away in a basement corner, time will hone the sharp edges off of the emotions and sensations, the cursing and laughing, the straining and relaxing, and these factors will blend together to create a new state of mind concerning this country and yourself. You will have an appreciation for the true size of this land that cannot be earned through motorized travel. And you will realize just how many miles and acres are apparent wasteland to the unconditioned passerby.

Many people will believe you have spent your time at play like a child riding endlessly around the block, but you cannot convey the drudgery of long, uneventful miles. The bad times make the best stories, but the non-riding listener cannot really relate. You will know that nearly everyone could physically make the trip, given enough time, but you will feel a pride in having made the effort and having succeeded in a project that relatively few people have accomplished. You passed through all of that wholesomeness and lived to tell about it.

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