Just Add Adventure!
Words by Erica Schwanke, Photography by Chris Lee
At least you brought this rain jacket. And you’ve got wool socks in your dry bag. And there will be whiskey and a hot shower at the end of this.
These were the thoughts running through my head as I worked my way to the top of the final climb on day two of a five-day, 345 mile trip on the east coast. Day two was the day the rains came in, the “big rain” as the locals called it, and I’d spent most of the day reminding myself that it could be worse. At least I was wearing gloves, and while they weren’t much help themselves they were helping the hard warmers I’d bought at a roadside deli do their job. I took a lot of comfort knowing that if nothing else I could still squeeze the brakes on the next wet descent, as these little chemical pouches insured that there would be feeling in my hands. That and the certainty of disk brakes helped reassure me I’d get there in one piece. Wherever “there” was.
I’d started this trip with four other women and shared desire: to spend 5 days on the bike having an adventure. To us, this meant we’d opt for self-supported over sag, gravel trail over paved road, roadside deli’s run by colorful locals and inexpensive motels over fine-dining and luxury accommodations. While the five of us made our way from New Hampshire to Maine on that rainy day, we took comfort in two things: the knowledge that we were real life living the New Hampshire state moto, “Live Free or Die” and that thanks to our shared packing lists and well-researched preparation we’d finish this windy and cold day with everything we needed to recover before starting again the next morning.
To make a trip such as this a success, packing is essential. An 80 mile day on the swiftest of bikes can be a challenge, but when you’re fully loaded with a set destination, comfort is key. The first component is the obvious component. The bike. For this, we wanted something that would handle the gravel without slowing us down too much on the pavement and that could be fully loaded down but maintain good handling. We chose the Specialized Dolce Evo: a women specific, capable road bike came with everything we’d need: rack mounts, wide tire clearance, a relaxed geometry for those long days, fender mounts for the rainy days, and disc brakes for the loose gravel descents and wet roads.
Now to the gear. While I’m not a stranger to multi-day bike trips as I began to pack for this one I realized I was a bit of a babe-in-the-woods. I live in California which, as everyone who has a TV or internet connection knows, has been in a drought for so long that most of us have forgotten how to dress for rain. While I dug into the deep parts of my wardrobe for my rain gear, I thought to my days as a hardened midwesterner who would ride my trusty steel track bike in 30 below wind chills. What was important then would be important now: a wicking layer and a wind proof/water resistant layer, leg warmers and wool socks, gloves, eye wear, and a hat.
Alright, that had me covered for the cold days. But the forecast wasn’t only calling for rain and I remembered from my trip up the east coast the year prior that there would be hot and humid days too. Again, the lack of rain in California meant that I hadn’t seen the words “hot” and “humid” next to each other in quite some time, but I knew that minimal and breathable clothing was a must. That and lots of sunscreen.
While pouring sunscreen into a travel sized container, I remembered an email from my soon-to-be travel companion Sarah. She’d just come back from a two week self-supported trip and had offered once piece of advice: if it doesn’t have two purposes, don’t bring it. I didn’t have much left to lose but after a hard look at my gridded clothing, I pulled the jeans out of the mix in favor of leggings, because while I wouldn’t be caught dead in yoga pants at a bar in San Francisco, I figured I could pull them off in rural Maine where I doubted any young fashionistas would snicker at my beanie covered helmet hair and wrinkled Rapha track jacket. I could also sleep in these pants. Two birds, one yoga pant, as they say.
I still, however, insisted on hauling a copy of Charles Dickens’ On Travel all 345 miles. Maybe it a holdup associated with my guilt of not really utilizing my English degree, or an attempt to be introspective. But whatever my logic was, it was faulty and I should have left it at home. I also made room for Pop-Its in jersey pockets on the daily and while one could argue that they served no essential purpose their quick and unexpected snaps as well as the increasingly competitive towline sprints broke up the long days and kept everyone on their toes. And after all, we’re doing this because is fun, right? And whats more fun than fireworks?
Next was nutrition. The best piece of advice I’ve ever received for long trips like this was to eat every hour. Knowing I was in for long days on the bike and not wanting to rely entirely on gas station “nutrition,” I packed a handful of few-ingredient, easily digestible energy bars. I’m a big fan of Bearded Brothers Energy Bars as their raw, organic bars fit the criteria and have savory options. I’m also a pretty big fan of Red Vines and those would make the cut too. I figured this paired with a few pieces of fruit and two big water bottles would get me from breakfast to end of day dinner without the hanger bear catching up to me. Because lets be real - I’m nice until I’m hungry.
Now after swapping out my favorite sweater for a more packable jacket, my boots for more lightweight shoes, and refilling all of my travel sized containers, I was almost done. Last, but so very far from least, were the tools. No matter how sturdy your steed, shit happens. For flats, I packed two tubes and a patch kit, two CO2 cartridges, two tire levers, and a hand pump just in case I had a really, really bad flat day. For the rest, I opted for a do-most multi tool with a variety of sizes of hex keys, phillips and bladed screwdriver, spoke wrench, and chain breaker. I’d normally add an extra brake cable, shifter cable, master-link, and two spokes but knowing that my traveling companions were carrying those and that’d we never be terribly far from a bike shop, I left those at home.
Standing over the grid of gear on my back deck, I felt pretty good. The only thing left was to pick a bag and try to pack it all in. As far as weight distribution goes, I’d been given lots of conflicting advice. I’d tried a few set-ups on short trips in the weeks prior and decided I preferred a more even distribution of weight. For this trip, I wanted to split my gear between a stuff sac and handlebar bag on the front and roomy saddle bag in the back. While I was sure to make a few mistakes in what to put where early in the trip, I knew I’d eventually get a pretty good system down.
I’d started by putting my end of day gear (vans, leggings, dry socks, clean underwear, t-shirt) in my water proof stuff sack. Since getting in and out of the stuff sack is difficult, I’d aim to only pack things I wouldn’t need until we’d reached our destination. Next, I’d pack my clean riding clothes, arm/leg warmers, base layers, toiletries, and book in my saddle bag, placing my rain jacket on top for easy access if needed. Finally my wallet, extra maps, food, phone, phone charger and battery pack, and bike lights would be placed in the handlebar bag as it is the most easily accessible. Sarah, the most experienced adventure biker in the bunch, suggested clipping a paper map to the top of the handle bar bag just in case ‘Hal’ as I affectionately call my Garmin, failed me.
Lastly, to dress for the day. Base layers are key, a heavy one for the cold days and light for the warm, followed by jersey, and shorts. I prefer shorts over bib for tours if soley because of the ease it allows with the frequent squatting in the woods (we’re staying hydrated, remember). Next, a light and comfortable helmet, eye wear to keep the bugs and dirt out, a few snacks in one pocket and the Pop-its in the other (don’t worry, I didn’t forget about those). Finally, some thin, wicking socks and durable, easy to walk in bike shoes. And with that, all thats left to do is consult the map, get on the bike, and ride.
While I’m still learning the ins and outs of touring myself, I do have one bit of advice I offer with some certainty. There’s a Woody Allen quote my dad loves to reference in moments like these. “Erica,” he’ll say “80% of success is showing up.” And while I appreciate the sentiment and find it often to be true, I’d argue that 80% of success is being prepared. So pack well, prepare for the worst, and let your preparedness give you confidence and reassurance. There are two things that are arguably more important than any of the physical things you’ll strap to your bike every morning: confidence and a positive mental attitude. No multi-use jacket or high-tech wicking material got us from the mountains of Vermont to the coast of Maine; that can only be credited to our volition and our legs. The rest just kept us comfortable (and stylin’) the whole way.