Thoughts On Cycle Touring, and Doing So In Australia

Watch for the train, the slippery road, the curve ahead, note that bikes should take special care, please slow down, and now here come the train tracks!...
At the end of my Oz-tralian leg of cycle touring, it seemed an appropriate time to reflect on this art of travel. Two good-sized hauls by bike (Québéc-New Brunswick-Maine in June-July, New South Wales-Victoria-Tasmania in November-January) had summed up some 4500km or so, now packaged and ready for the history books. These two trips in the span of seven months had followed some short runs in the previous Seattle summer, too. Those consisted initially of several 1- and 2-night forays in the greater Seattle area, followed by a 10-night run in Seattle's nearby San Juan Islands. Hell, I'm an expert now. Well, enough so, anyway.

Accordingly, with such weighty experience, one does come to some conclusions about the proper bike, gear, rules of engagement, length of trip, type of trip, season of trip, "why" of the trip and so on. Mileage definitely varies in each aspect, and so do the parameters as experience is gained. But I feel justified in feeling that I'm officially one of the "club" (of cycle tourists) these days.

It must be noted that every member of the club has his or her own objectives and rulebooks, however. There are things I do (carry a trumpet, for example) that others would never think of, and there are trips that I've had related to me that I wouldn't dream of either. For example, you won't find me essentially living on my bike for 2 or 3 years, cycling across Turkmenistan, pedaling in sandals, etc. I have met such people; I'm not one of them. And so it goes.

The bike and the gear turned out to be one of the easier riddles to solve. Foodwise, I carry enough to get me through until the next supermarket, and I always carry a stable of basics onboard like a little bread, peanut butter and jelly (I am American after all), "trail mix" stuff of some ilk, and fruit. I try not to overstock the bike, but I provision for at least one extra day of "regular" food should things go awry.

As it might now be obvious from my writings (yes! - read them ALL!), I don't cycle so far away from civilization that I need worry about not being able to contact anyone within a day's time. While this isn't terribly adventurous in one sense, it's my comfort zone.

In a similar vein, I no longer carry cooking equipment, either (ever since the Canada-U.S. trip). When it comes to cooking, I hate to even make the effort without a proper kitchen and spice rack at hand. I can be a snob that way. Yet somehow - and fortunately - I simultaneously find that I don't mind eating out of a can or paper bag on occasion. That's no big whoop - a café is never that far away per the design of my routes. They make for great rest stops as well and, besides, I enjoy eating an average of one meal a day cooked locally.

Not carrying the cooking gear is a direct result of being very weight conscious on the bike. All cycle tourists weigh the weight of their rig mentally, not wanting to pull around more junk than they have to. This makes sense when you are underway and feel the sway of the beast, or struggle to come to speed. Still, I confess I haven't a clue as to what any of my stuff weighs however much I can attest to being consistently queried about that. I only know that I don't carry much.

In this weighty regard, I have found myself exceptional. To date I've only found one other cyclist (met in Percé, Québéc) traveling as light as I. Since he used to race for Team Canada in the Olympics, perhaps I'm in good company. Not that I'll be racing and pushing myself to any extreme like that, but hey: light is might.

What's my rig like? Tank you berry much for axing. Well, lemme tell ya: I carry nothing up front - thus keeping the front wheel agile - but I'm neither loathe to carry a (quite) small handlebar bag on the handlebars for convenience. The large one I carried on my handlebars for the Québéc-New Brunswick-Maine bruise cruise just simply hasn't been substituted yet. Plus I'm cheap and lazy: I'd look for a bargain, and very undeterminedly (in my lazy fashion of avoiding shopping at all costs) at that.

Otherwise my bike is merely outfitted with a rear rack to carry panniers, plus a couple of bottle holders on the frame to carry toward a liter of water. I clip in with my shoes, so SPD pedals are onboard, too. A couple of tiny accessories attached to the seat post above and below the main top bar clip to the bike to carry emergency repair gear - I consider that a necessity. Finally, above the panniers rest my tent and sleeping bag, with the trumpet riding on top of it all like Granny did on the Beverly Hillbillies truck. She was a Ryan, too, after all.

Admittedly it's rather ungainly-looking once the trumpet is strapped on, but even that gets worse when a swank plastic trash bag (now dotted with bits of duct tape to repair holes) envelops the sleeping bag. Oh well - hilbilly logic meets hillbilly look. The main worry for me actually lies instead in the quicker (and thus uneven) wear of the rear tire as a result of such loading. This entails that it eventually gets switched with the front, but it also means being ever-vigilant when leaning the bike against something. It's plain dangerous to just park my rig and walk away without a second thought: the front tire loves to kick away and upset the whole thing when not in motion. This is the obvious consequence to carrying a feather up front and an anvil in back. Nevertheless, IN motion my little beastie handles quite nicely and accelerates quickly. The free front wheel is a big deal as I gear for RIDING, not PARKING.

Some cyclists like to carry enough spares (of everything) for every occasion and every emergency, but not me. I'm willing to throw my fate a bit to the wind on complete disaster. When that happens, I'll probably be the first guy waving my hands at the side of the road. This is in direct contrast to some of the extremely prepared and resourceful German cycle tourists I have met, each of whom would severely frown on allowing for this possibility. I realize this, and I'll accordingly go to hell for it. However, I DO figure that a properly prepared bike (that is maintained) should obviate such need. Ah HA! How 'bout THAT for American ingenuity! (And laziness.)

The real disaster lies in getting hit by a car or truck anyway: I frankly expect to end any bike tour on that sour note. So sure - a spare brake cable, a spare shifter cable, a tire pump, an extra tube, a patch kit, levers and a multitool allen wrench. I pack those on board each and all. Then I'll top that with thick tires to severely lessen the unusual (but not rare enough) case of shards rendering a tire unto trash. But that's about it.

Beyond those bike-specific items, I carry a full range of cycle clothing for cold and hot weather: shorts, long tights, short and long sleeve jerseys, ankle socks and SPD shoes. I have a few sets of camping clothes in cotton for a little variety, and for when washing isn't an attractive ($4 or $5 a load just isn't palatable) or available option. Rounding my attire out, I ALWAYS have some reading material (at least a couple of books), miscellaneous camping gear (such as fleece gloves and hat), a pocket knife and a headlamp, cables for electronic devices (beyond the devices themselves: shaver, camera, iPod, celphone these days). Small note and sketch pads, pens/pencils and, of course, toiletries round it out. Bottom line: ya gotta stay warm and have things to do (trumpet, write, music) when the weather or the mood goes sour.

The brilliant thing about cycle touring is the independence and freedom of it, no doubt. Anywhere can be home, decisions can be made on a dime, and stopping is the least of hassles for any reason whatsoever. For that reason I believe most of cycle touring is best done alone. Yes, alone. Such independence means that you can find your own rhythm and whim. That's a beautiful thing, not otherwise possible. Who wants to wait for others or be waited on during a long day of riding? Generally, not me. Not that cycling with others for spells isn't bad - it's nice to have company - but I think in many aspects cycle touring is a great solo effort, especially nice when there IS that company at the end of the day to share the stories with. One can cycle alone within a group context too, it should be noted.

Cycle touring solo, among other things, makes one more approachable. Just as is the case with being a lone backpacker, the lone cyclist is always seen as far more amenable to discourse. A couple or group form a unit that somehow instills a feeling of keepaway in others that is not completely explainable, but it's nevertheless palpable. The trumpet is my own wacky angle on top of that, making me officially a freak show. It often draws 'em in like flies, which I generally take as a good thing. Still - I have no plans to complete the circus act of riding WHILE I play the trumpet. Stay tuned, I suppose - I might get bored or ornery, not for the first time.

The romantic view of cycle touring is all about the rolling (downhill, one would think) through beautiful countryside in prime weather. The birds sing, there's a fresh scent in the air, and views abound. That's completely true. Moreover, you can sing along to your iPod (or inner voices) and moo back at the cows.

There ARE those magic moments when you are spinning along and the realization hits you just how beautiful nature is. Or perhaps architecture, even. At the pace of the bicycle you do get to drink from that cup, and plenty of times. You just can't maintain that high indefinitely - that's worth remembering, too.

Downhills mean uphills, and distances mean kilometers must be covered. There's no getting around that. The good news is that one quickly learns to harden to the climbs, and one only (generally) need to cover as many kilometers as you FEEL in a day. Both of these can be further ameliorated by that dreaded word PLANNING, but I don't tend to go there myself. One CAN choose a route that doesn't involve climbing any Mt. Everests. One can also plan routes with cafés every 5km. Your trip, your call.

For all my experience I've created my rules of daily engagement to obey - or else. These currently number four: 1) no riding in thunderstorms/heavy rain (you'd think I would have never done this in the first place, but it took a few "events" to solidify its inclusion), 2) always arrive in town/camp an hour or two before dark (ditto on the previous parenthesized commentary), 3) limit the number of kilometers per day (currently 80 or so, but sometimes it does have to be broken for any number of reasons, such as predicted foul weather or catching an airplane).

My most recent addition is Rule #4: limit the size of the trip to something both achievable and, VERY IMPORTANTLY, likely to be of a duration that keeps a healthy mindset. I've found that two months is pushing it, as is 2500km. 4-6 weeks and 1500km sounds like a nice tour these days to me. That healthy mindset can receive some wrinkles along the way, too, that's for sure. Do I really want/have to backtrack much (on a missed direction)? That's a question that comes up here and there when even just a little bit lost. You already know the answer.

Annoyances, yes they exist. Here's a big one: you might have to box and partially disassemble your bike for plane/bus/train/air transport. It throws independence out the window when you need a taxi (and a special-sized one at that) to just reach your other chosen forms of transport. This is something that only seems to be getting worse with companies making more demands as they fear more litigation over damage. On a related note, you also always have a good chunk of gear to find a place to store safely, often in an inconvenient place. Some hostel rooms are teeny, and many don't have ample lockers available. This can be a pain at times.

Continuing with annoyances, it's sometimes necessary to mentally note if you are getting enough salt, sugar, protein, etc. over the course of a full day of riding. You won't always have access to a great variety of food, nor a decent kitchen to cook in. Beyond that, dehydration can sneak up on you (something I'm super aware of as a trumpet player) as well. Water is never a question but a MUST. As a consequence of such food and drink, there is always that other nagging question: where's a reasonable (clean!) toilet?

So many details makes one quickly become an expert at sussing (figuring) things out. When I roll into a town, I've already formed the subconscious habit of making quick mental notes of public toilets, the library (free internet sometimes, plus a toilet and newspapers), restaurants, cafés, pubs, bakeries, hostels, campgrounds, parks. It gets to the point that you don't even know that you are making the list. Those are all the places that I will spend some time in for one reason or another, if not in this town then the next. For me in particular, a busking trumpet player, I'm also looking out for accoustics, foot traffic, and practice places away from such hubbub, too. In Australia I was particularly looking for shade.

The best reason of all to cycle tour trumps all such pesky details, though. It's all about the PEOPLE you meet. For a solo endeavor, you constantly meet people whether you like to or not. I like to, so there ya go. Ask for directions, and you'll often get a bit of geography or history in the process: "take a turn over where the tin mine used to be - did you know that this town used to be five times this size? - all the kids are moving away (sigh) - that's over by the fancy café where all the rich folks from outta town go... but WE'd never go there - remember when we used to catch fish this big? You can still get them if... - there's a market this Saturday - Did you know that there's a music conservatorium in that neighborhood? - ...all the cyclists seem to stay over there for some reason... - the guy at the bakery knows the trails back there..."

People can be very generous with their time, their houses, their showers, coffee, beer, food, space, etc. In fact, it's the rare person who isn't at least friendly. There aren't that many people willing to take the effort to cycle tour, and that doesn't go unnoticed. Fortunately it's been the case that almost all drivers have been respectful of my space, even as I hug the edge of theirs. It's only been the rare exception of someone that's brushed me by - but even that can be pretty successfully countered by looking over the shoulder at oncoming cars when in isolated areas. That proactive move seems to put the honesty back into folks.

One group of people you inevitably will meet is that of other cycle tourists. It seems an unwritten rule that we stop in our travels immediately upon noticing one another out in the sticks (and often in town). One rider or the other always will take the initiative to cross over the centerline to chat.

Sometimes you actually have to remember to get fully off the road, as conversation usually starts before the bikes even halt. Stories are exchanged about what lies ahead in either direction, but usually not with the intent of revealing all. Special dangers or attractions always merit a comment, but the bulk of the talk is about the route being taken, highlight experiences, and the inevitable inspection of rigs that occurs along with the conversation. "What the hell is that strapped on back there, an instrument? A trumpet?" Apparently so.

Well, that's a bit of the flavor of the thing. Now it's your turn to (as sung by Queen, naturally, but feel free to join in) GET ON YOUR BIKE AND RIDE!


Okay - not satisfied, you cretin? You want more? Okay, then: here's a little bit more. Some wordage about cycling in OZ:

In two months of cycling Oz, I met about fourteen cycle tourers on the road. About half of them were German, and half of those were nuts. I mean that they chose (much) bigger challenges than I did, of course. I'm just a puny American who wouldn't think of crossing the Nullaboor or north-of-Perth for weeks on end where both water is scarce and the scenery doesn't change. Something about the German psyche equates self-punishment with challenge, it appears. I dunno. Other than those guys, though, it was a couple of Brits, four Canadians, and two Americans. No Aussies. Just the demographics of my particular tour, that's all.

Sun and dehydration are huge factors in Oz. Hell, I don't think I even saw any sunscreen with a rating below spf30 anywhere I looked. The intensity is full bore (especially in Tasmania as far as direct sun), and dryness is always quick to establish itself. Add in the wind, and that on the flattest continent, and you can get more extremes on a day-in-day-out basis than most places. On the other hand, there are no really long hill climbs. And there is not as much rain to contend with on average, either.

Although there was the odd ute (short for utility truck, aka the Aussie pickup truck, a little different and wider than the US counterpart) that tried to brush me to the side of the road, my experience with Aussie drivers wasn't much different than it was in Canada or the U.S. Sure, there was the random nasty trucker, or kids yelling out the window at me as they passed, but... whatever.

In general people just bemusedly looked at me as if I was an idiot for being on a bicycle between towns. That guys DOES know a car would do it quicker, doesn't he? Often they would actually want clarification in conversation upon finding out that I was on a bike touring some of Australia: "You're doing it on a PUSHbike?" There was something about the way they exclaimed PUSH in incredulity that was funny, yet VERY consistent. Every time I heard someone exclaim that I couldn't stop an image of me pushing a bike loaded with anvils up a steep hill, for days on end. "A PUSHbike?!?" Why, yes.

Other Oz-tralian realities: I heard more birds chirping than anywhere previous in my lifetime... yet there was much more roadkill, too. By that I mean that they were REALLY chirpy birds and it was LOTS of big dead wildlife (like kangaroos and wallabies.) Ah, that special sound of a wallaby being devoured by 1000 flies as I passed it by! QUITE loud and unpleasant, in case you were wondering.

Far more typical instead, fortunately, were the myriad of sounds critters made moving into the bush as I rode by. This was especially true on hot and sunny days, with heaps of lizards (and some snakes) "running" for cover. More amusing was the odd echidna cowering quickly into a ball of spikes after it FINALLY realized that I had stopped and was staring at it.

Because it bears mention, I should also mention the following: there are loads of public toilets in every town in Oz. In fact, I would say that Oz "does" public toilets awfully well, availability-wise. Perhaps this is especially as it seems that there are no laws for small places serving food needing to otherwise have them. Here's what I'm trying to say, I guess: don't feel compelled to buy a coffee just to find a place to do your business. The café probably won't have one in the first place, so you'll probably just be taking that business elsewhere, anyway.

Lastly, DUH!, you MUST remember that you ride on the left side of the road. This means that every biking instinct you have (including brakes, unless you get them switched) has to be reversed. So start looking over that right shoulder (instead of the left) Have fun.

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