These are not lessons from a bike-touring expert by any stretch of the imagination. As a couple we’ve gone on three multi-day “sheets and showers” bike tours so far:
- Seattle to Lake Stevens and surrounding area: I planned this four-day outing as a test of touring a few years ago.
- Great Allegheny Passage/C&O Canal Towpath: We worked with Sara Petyk at Noble Invention, who did an incredible job on our itinerary and all arrangements.
- Northwest Washington/Victoria, BC/San Juan Islands Loop: I planned this 13-day trip.
Lists of FAQS about bike touring are not an original theme — below I’ve linked several posts with how-to advice to help you consider whether touring is for you or to help you choose gear, route, and so forth. This isn’t one of those. Think of this more as a series of questions you might want to ask yourself and discuss with your travel partner(s), not your bike touring checklist.
My questions here focus on how you broker preferences that may potentially differ between riding partners. The classic phrase about riding tandems is that wherever your relationship is going, a tandem will take you there faster. Not having ridden a tandem with my sweetie yet, I’ll nonetheless venture a guess that bike touring provides similar opportunities.
How many miles per day? Are all miles created equal? (Spoiler: They’re not)
This one is obvious but worth talking about first since the answers will shape every other decision. If you’re not of equal riding ability this is the question that can make one of you feel like this is Not Fun unless you’ve agreed on the parameters.
If you think you want to undertake more miles or more climbing than you usually ride, are you going to train for this in advance? If you don’t, is someone going to say “I told you so” when you ask to stop? (Free relationship advice: Don’t do that. You’re not a coach, you’re a friend or partner. Being right does not make you more lovable.)
Can you build in the flexibility to stop sooner if this extra challenge proves to be unmanageable? Do you incorporate a rest day the next day as a buffer for your legs and other important parts?
As far as the type of mileage involved, Hubs is a very strong climber and will always choose the more direct route. I might accept the trade-offs of adding a couple of miles if it flattens the grade quite a bit. I’m also not too proud to get off and push my bike up a really steep incline if my legs just don’t believe in themselves.
What is each day going to be about?
This one I learned on that first tour. I thought of it as a four-day weekend that involved biking to a B&B that had nice soft sheets; lounging and reading my Kindle and maybe sitting by the lake, then going out to eat; and riding back home in a couple of days. For me the biking was transportation.
We rode from our then-home in northeast Seattle up to the B&B in Lake Stevens, unpacked our stuff, went out to dinner, and went to bed on those soft sheets.
The next morning Hubs got up and said, “Where are we riding today?” Uhhhh, riding? Okay, let me get my smartphone out and see what the options might be. So each day ended up being an out-and-back ride somewhere chosen for the pure sake of having a destination/turn-around point. Who knew a vacation didn’t involve sitting and resting?
Not that I didn’t enjoy the riding, mind you — just that we had never actually discussed what was going to happen each day and we had very different assumptions going in.
Now, if you know for sure you’re moving from Point A to Point B and sleeping in a different town each night, that’s a bit more obvious, although discussing departure time expectations and what you’ll be doing in each place is helpful; see the next question.
If you’re doing more of a hub and spoke plan — staying in the same place for multiple nights — you’ll want to discuss whether each day has a specific activity, how much you plan in advance vs playing it by ear, and what to do if one person has one preference and the other wants to, oh, I don’t know, sleep in because this is a vacation.
What do you like to do with slack time?
This is not quite the same question as what each day is about, although it’s close. On this last trip we ended up with a couple of days that had more hours to fill with non-riding than I had really thought through.
I like antique stores, art galleries and museums. Hubs can take a certain amount of time spent in these, but none of them are exactly his go-to pursuits. And when you have all your stuff with you, you also have the question of what you’ll do with the bags, which are more than you want to carry through a place full of breakable items.
I’m always carrying an electronic reading device and can easily spend a whole day reading. Hubs reads physical books you have to carry. I bought him a big paperback in Victoria that he dove into and he had a tablet on which he could do some programming, so he had a few options.
If the answer really is that you don’t want to end up with slack time, or you want it to fall when one of you can comfortably hang out in your room while the other goes out and does stuff, plan the itinerary accordingly.
How do you respond to changes in route?
If you like to have your exact day planned and deviations will upset you, what are you going to do when a deviation occurs? Note I did not use the word “if”.
On our most recent trip my dear Sweet Hubs had our entire route mapped and loaded into his Garmin before we ever left. I carry a smartphone. If we got off track or something seemed funny about the route my preference was to stop, pull out my phone, and figure out where we were and what the options might be, including ones that might eliminate miles or climbing or backtracking.
I also didn’t assume that our plan was perfect to begin with. On any trip you might run into road construction detours, a local with advice for (what they think is) a better route, or signage to a new bit of bike infrastructure that hasn’t yet showed up in Google Maps.
Hubs isn’t a big fan of changes in the plan. I’ve been known to read my phone map the wrong way around and have us backtrack and then backtrack on the backtrack. And the Garmin beeps at you periodically if you’re not on the route. Not that any of this is annoying or anything.
Highly relevant additional question: Did you both step through the entire route and agree to it in advance?
For our trip through northwest Washington I did a fast mapping just to get a sense of mileage between towns in order to plan our overall itinerary. Hubs took that and drilled down to the more detailed route. I didn’t look closely at it or I would have caught a few things that I would have wanted to do differently.
It also would have been a good idea to use Google Street View where we could, although it doesn’t have trails (yet — hear this, Google?). We did in a few places that seemed confusing and that was really helpful when we got to those places. But in other places that seemed pretty straightforward, if we had looked at the actual character of the street we might have looked for other options.
What kind of infrastructure do you prefer?
I like trails. I like the more scenic setting they usually offer, the lack of motor vehicle proximity and noise, and if they’re rail-trails I really, really like the fact that they’re no more than a 3% grade.
Hubs, on the other hand, would rather ride on the highway shoulder next to logging trucks than deal with winding trails on which people stop abruptly to marvel at the view (yours truly included), dogs run loose, and those scenic trees’ root heaves create bumps that can jar a pannier right off your rack.
So if you’re heading somewhere that has multiple infrastructure options available, what are you going to ride on and how are you going to decide? Whose comfort level is the deciding factor? (This last question applies to lots more than the infrastructure, for that matter.)
How often, where and why will you typically stop?
Over our years of day rides together Hubs has learned that I like to take pictures for blog posts. On the GAP/C&O trip he quickly fell into saying, “Do you want to take a picture here?”
When you don’t know what lies around each corner and thus don’t know when you might want to exclaim in delight, “Oh, how pretty! Stop a minute” it can be frustrating for the person whose preference it is to look at his average miles-per-hour pace and try to get somewhere, especially if you just took a picture on the last scenic trestle and this scenic trestle is not notably different.
So discuss this.
I also need to stop sometimes just to stop. If we’ve been riding for a couple of hours my legs want a break. Rather than ride clear into the Discomfort Close to Bonking Why Didn’t You Say Something Sooner Zone I’ve learned to say that I’m going to need a stop at the top of the next hill, or whatever visual marker I can pick out.
What’s the plan if you get separated?
Does one of you stay in place while the other backtracks or roams? Do you call or do you text? How long a separation is grounds for concern? What happens if you think someone is ahead of you and they’re actually behind you (especially a problem if the stronger rider is the one in front so the gap is growing)? If this is a deliberate separation, for example if one of you wants to sit and read and the other wants to poke around in dusty antique shops, do you both have a sense of how long this is going to go on?
By the way, if the answer to how you reconnect is “call” is your ringer actually on? I don’t know about you but I don’t plan to take any calls while I’m riding — or while I’m on vacation, for that matter, unless it’s one of our kids — so my ringer is always off.
Who decides? How do you decide?
My sister-in-law Lisa told me that when she and my brother Don went on vacation they took turns day by day being in charge and making the decisions. This way if one of you loves sitting and resting, the other loves exploring every last tourist attraction in sight, you each get what you want at least part of the time. And it pays to be understanding on the day you’re in charge because the next day you won’t be in charge.
On our tours so far we haven’t had a zillion things that needed to be decided each day. We’ve always been good at picking out restaurants that make both of us pretty happy (one vegetarian, one omnivore), although we had a couple on this trip that didn’t quite hit the mark (not that we could have known in advance and we had reviewed the menus together). With the unanticipated slack time we just talked through the options and decided, which works for us.
I’d just say that whatever decision-making patterns you already have in a relationship, they’re going to be magnified on a bike trip. You have more unknowns, more variables, more stress, and under stress we’re all likely to revert to familiar patterns.
I know, for example, that Hubs likes to have things decided further in advance than I find necessary. Part of this is that he wants to anticipate and meet my needs. So if I “abruptly” say, “I’m hungry now, let’s stop for dinner instead of riding past this restaurant” he’s going to want to know why I didn’t say something sooner. Well, I didn’t know I was going to be quite so hungry at this point on the ride. And now I know. And he can always, always eat. So there’s no problem.
Bike touring how-to advice
- Bike Touring 101: From the good folks at Adventure Cycling Association, who know of what they speak, answers to some of the FAQs you may have
- 47 Travel Tips to Plan Your First Bike Tour: Light on specific solutions but includes some things I hadn’t thought of
- 6 Easy Steps to Start Bike Touring: Quick list of things to consider about what type of touring you want to do
- Planning Your First Big Bike Trip? Ask Yourself These 7 Critical Questions First: By “big” he means reeeaaallly long bike trips. Like months. Like quit-your-day-job bike trips.
- Crazy Guy on a Bike: Whatever else you read, be sure to check here for stories about the places you’re considering riding. Great community of supportive people