The 5 most important lessons I learned on my first bicycle tour

  1. It’s OK to pamper yourself.
  2. Over planning can be worse than under planning.
  3. It’s all about the people and places.
  4. Remember that it is supposed to be fun.
  5. Learn along the way.

“Mistakes, obviously, show us what needs improving. Without mistakes, how would we know what we had to work on?” — Peter McWilliams

Peter McWilliams was the author of some of the most popular self-help books. The above quote comes from one of his books in his Life 101 series. It is the single statement that sums up the biggest lesson I learned on my first bicycle tour. I made mistakes and that was not a bad thing. Each of my mistakes was a valuable lesson that I can use on future tours. Here is a list of five lessons I learned and the mistakes that led to them.

It’s OK to pamper yourself.

At the end of my second day of touring, my pal Chuck and I were pretty beat up. We were flatlander cyclists who had spent a day cycling in a constant uphill grind. After taking inventory of ourselves, we made the decision to spend the night at a B&B. We had planned that guy-thing type of trip where were camped along the rivers and prepared our food over campfires.

My first reaction was that of defeat. It was so early in the tour, and we were already taking the “easy” way out. It turned out to be the best decision we made on the tour. We had an enjoyable dinner and evening planning our remaining tour and reflecting on our experiences to date. We woke up rested the next morning and much more energized and focused on what we had to do to make the tour a success. Sometimes a little luxury and pampering make all of the difference in the world.

Over planning can be worse than under planning.

I am an analytical animal. I spent months visiting forums and web sites. I purchased several books on long distance cycling and bicycle touring. I built long and detailed lists of supplies I would need on the tour. When we cycled out of The Waterfront in Pittsburgh, I was loaded with 70-80 pounds of supplies; way too much. It didn’t take long on my first uphill day to feel the pain of over planning.

In my B&B bedroom on the second night of the tour, I was forced to look objectively at my supplies. Chuck and I had decided to mail back un-needed supplies. I had to ask myself a very important question, “Do I really need this for the rest of my tour?” After rummaging through and reorganizing my panniers, I came up with 25+ pounds of unnecessary supplies that I mailed back home the next morning. I learned that planning is indeed important, but I didn’t need to plan for every possible scenario.

It’s all about the people and places.

I set out on this tour looking at it as somewhat of a race from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. I thought it was all about achieving something I never imagined possible and taking my cycling to the next step. I budgeted 9 days to accomplish this feat and defined success as crossing milepost 0 in Georgetown in 9 days or less.

I had not given much thought about the people and places I would encounter on the tour. Looking back post-tour, it was these people and places that truly defined the tour. My fondest memories come from people in the diners, B&Bs, and other small town businesses I visited. Fellow bicyclists, both local and long distance tourists, all had interesting stories and experiences to share.

I admit I am no speed demon. Casual touring fits me like a glove. I don’t understand the cyclist who only looks down at their handlebars as they hurry though some of the most beautiful scenery and welcoming small towns with only a casual glance up now and then. I think they miss the whole point of bicycle touring.

Remember that it is supposed to be fun.

50 miles X 7 days = 350 miles. That’s the formula that I set out on this tour with in my mind. This relates very much to my analytical planner side. Defining a successful tour meant dividing the tour’s distance into equal doable chucks of distance on a daily basis. I forgot the “fun” factor in this equation.

The fun factor basically accounts for those stops along a waterfall, conversations at trailheads, the hour in the coffee shop, and other traditional tourist activities. It also says that if you want to linger longer and cut the day short that you should feel free to do just that. Chuck and I learned that our comfortable mileage for a day was between 40 – 50 miles. It allowed us to stop for photos, conversations, ample breaks, meals and most importantly FUN. I reminded myself that this was my vacation and like any vacation, the goal should be to have an enjoyable time.

Learn along the way.

I was a novice bicycle tourist and not a long distance cyclist setting out on a 325+ mile tour. I acknowledged from the start that mistakes were definitely going to happen. The biggest mistake I made was underestimating the distance I needed to cover in the time I had allocated. The reality of my endurance and cycling skills came into play on this ride.

After two days of cycling, it was obvious that something had to give. The time and distance was just not adding up. We decided to skip 60 miles of the C&O Canal Trail east of Cumberland. My Pal Aaron from Cumberland drove us forward to Fort Frederick. This was a hard pill for Chuck and me to swallow. We wanted to cycle every possible mile of the trail. That was success. Anything less was failure.

The above illustrates a difficult but necessary choice we had to make on this tour. Should we continue the tour across the whole C&O Canal Trail consuming all of our vacation days or should we shave some miles off allowing us a day to enjoy Washington D.C.? We used our hands-on education on the trail to arrive at the decision to shave off 60 miles and enjoy a day in our nation’s Capitol as a reward for our efforts.

There were more subtle opportunities for learning on the way. I spoke earlier of people on the trail. Through conversations with experienced bicycle tourists we met, we gained a wealth of knowledge. Most of these folks didn’t even realize how valuable their stories and information about their tour was to new tourists like Chuck and I.

That about sums up my top five lessons learned. Keep in mind that they are from a bicycle touring novice. I am interested in hearing from seasoned tourists what lessons they would share with others. I know I have a lot of knowledge to be gained.

  1. Hi Tom,

    Very nice reflections on your journey this summer.

    I had a great time at GOBA this year and then did a 3 day min-tour to Pean-n-Peak New York in July.


  2. Mike, I definitely have GOBA in my future. I look forward to seeing where it is this year. Chuck and I are looking at tours for next summer. The Peak-n-Peak tour sounds nice.

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