In 2008 I found out about the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) because, with 7 days before beginning my summer camp job, I decided to go on a 670 mile bike ride. Thankfully most of my friends at the time were equally insane, and I found two who were more than happy to join me.
The trip started with a train ride from Syracuse, NY to Chicago, IL. The three of us got into Chicago Union Station early in the morning. Shaking off a night of rough sleep on the train, we passed around a Crank Bros multitool, tightening headsets, adjusting saddles, and fiddling with brakes until everything was working correctly. This was only the second time that I had travelled with a bicycle and had to unbox it, build it, and load it up with gear in the middle of a well-travelled city center. (I have probably done this nearly 10 times since then, most recently at the airport in Santiago, Chile.)
The next part of our journey was to take public transportation out of Chicago and into Indiana. A few weeks before the ride we'd purchased maps from the ACA to guide us across the midwestern states on our odyssey back to Ithaca, NY. (When I told my boss that I was going to be taking a bike ride before camp started, she told me that she had worked with the ACA in Missoula, MT in it's early years. Looking back, there seems to be a sort of slinky effect with my bike connections. Everyone that I meet has a connection to someone else or something else that is important to me in the cycling world. Don't be fooled, this is a much smaller planet than you think!)
In Gary, Indiana I fitted the bike map to my handlebars and we started the flat ride east, slowly leaving the smoke stacks of Gary behind us. There wasn’t one hill in sight, and nothing but corn and soy fields on the horizon. Navigating the straight roads was easy, and the ACA maps were a time saver. Not only did they lay out the route step by step, but there was also information about every little town within 10 miles of the route. This allowed us to plan our stops effectively because nothing is worse than getting into the place you planned to camp after 10 hours of riding only to realize that there is no food or water. (This happened to me once with a group of middle schoolers and I had to bike out 20 miles to the nearest gas station to buy pasta while they set up camp.) With a plan to bike about 100 miles a day, we were confident that we would have no trouble getting to Central NY in 7 days.
By the time we reached Ohio, slightly sunburned and extremely sore, we longed for hills and a change in landscape. The back roads could go on for miles without a rise, bend or intersection. These kinds of roads are only nice in theory. In reality you could fall asleep while riding, wake up and not have missed a thing. Despite all this, we were still having fun.
By the 4th day we'd already done more than 300 miles, so our timing was looking good. Then there was a crack. Well, there had been a crack the whole time, but this was an audible crack in Eli's carbon fiber fork. We knew this was inevitable, but we'd hoped it would hold out for the week. At this point we were in eastern Ohio, and the last shop that we'd seem was a ma and pa creamery 25 miles back. This was before people used their cell phones for anything but calls. We couldn't just look up the nearest bike shop, so we waved down a car and asked where we could find a mechanic. Just a few miles away there was a man who had a little hobby shop in his garage. (Not the sort of thing google maps would have been able to help us with anyway!)
We managed to find the garage. The old man that worked in this space was definitely a tinker and sometimes what you really need is a tinkerer, not a bike mechanic. He was excited to problem solve our situation, and had no interest in selling us anything. With the resources that he had, he lashed some metal braces onto the fork to give it extra support. "Hopefully that'll take ya the rest of the way!" He crowed as we set out a few hours later.
The repair set us back about 40 miles, and we didn't have time to waste on this trip, so we rode well past sunset. Finally stopping at a church, we puttered around with headlamps, set up our tent in the woods and fell asleep. In the morning we calculated the miles we had left to get to Erie, PA. We weren't going to make it before dark. Biking in rural Ohio at night was one thing, but Erie is a big city. We couldn't roll in at 11pm. We decided the only option was to call the friend who we were staying with and ask her to pick us up a few miles outside the city. Her car was a sedan with a small boot and a snug back seat. Somehow we convinced her that she could fit our bodies and bikes in her little car.
Eighty miles later we met her at a gas station on the outskirts of Erie. Amazingly we fit 6 pannier bags, 3 bikes and 4 people into her Honda Civic size sedan. We hadn't showered in 5 days and we were also stiff from biking, so the ride was rough, but better than the alternative.
We didn’t even unload the gear when we got to the house. I fact, it was nice to be away from our dirty bike stuff, and have some space to ourselves. Apart from one lucky night where a farmer had invited us to sleep in his shed, we'd been squishing 3 people into a 2-person tent, so a large carpeted floor was wonderful.
The next morning we assembled our bikes to ride the final day and a half. The five wheels that we retrieved from the car left us scratching our heads. Somehow we had lost a wheel in the process of getting to Erie. Luke called the gas station and they said they hadn’t found a wheel. Eli and I figured someone had trashed it, but Luke wouldn’t believe it. Before we could convince him that trip was over, he jumped on Eli’s bike with the cracked fork and rode 20 miles back to the gas station. He called from the road. Apparently there were two gas stations across the street from each other and we had called the wrong one. The wheel was exactly where he left it, leaning up against a pump! Without wasting a moment he strapped the wheel to his backpack and turned around, pushing against a head wind the whole way back to Erie.
With 230 miles to go and a day left, the trip was over. We had to give in and get a ride back to Ithaca, NY so that I didn’t miss my first day of work. However, more than 420 miles in 5 days without losing our gear or minds for that matter was certainly something to be proud of. Since then I have learned to always plan for things to go wrong on bike tours. Here are the 5 to remember about bike touring:
Stories from the road and bike shops en route.
Author: Sylvie Froncek
I've ridden thousands of miles, led group bike tours, taught maintenance classes and started bike collectives, all in an attempt to share what I love with great people. Read about my adventures and tell me about yours!