Getting Started on a Bicycle

As challenging as riding a bicycle across the country can sometimes be (things like mountains, head winds, rain, intense sun, and—mosquitoes come to mind), it’s also unbelievably simple.

Just you, the open road, and a pair of pedals.

The simplicity of traveling by bicycle is immensely attractive to us. Once, while enjoying a beverage outside our small tent, we watched what may have been the world’s largest RV (with the worlds largest SUV in tow) come roaring into our campground.

The beast was so large, that it was unable to manuever around the corner and into its designated spot. The driver wrestled with the steering, then fought with the vehicle hitch, before eventually giving up, leaving the beast where it landed, and disappearing inside for the night.

The next morning, as Emir and I rolled up our sleeping bags and loaded our bikes, the driver of the RV woke up everyone in the park with a roaring engine while attempting to get back on the road.

Emir and I watched with bewildered amusement. “Why would anyone want to drive that thing? I’m guessing it gets 6 miles to the gallon. Yikes.

We took great pleasure in being able to shove our tent in a bag, load everything on the back of our bicycles, and pedal off into adventure.

In the beginning, neither of us had a clue. I mean, we’d obviously ridden bikes in our life times, but as an adult, whenever we thought about cycling, the only things that came to mind were racing (a la Lance Armstrong) or BMX/mountain biking. (Neither of which held any appeal to us, whatsoever.)

Eventually, we discovered the idea of riding a bicycle as a means of travel, and we were smitten. We bought bikes and started commuting around town on two wheels, and soon after found ourselves atop the continental divide on steel horses made by Surly.

As we started to learn more about cycling and bicycle touring specifically, we learned a few surprising things:

  • You don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to get on a bike. In fact, you don’t even have to be an accomplished athlete of any kind to pull off a cross-country tour, let alone a weekend ride through the park. Not by a long shot. Anyone can do it. Seriously.
  • Adventurous souls of all ages have ridden their bikes on tours of all lengths, from a weekend trip, a regional tour, or all the way across the country (or even world!). We read about them in every issue of Adventure Cycling magazine. Young kids through adults well into their 70’s and beyond have been there, done that. And if the spirit moves you, you can too.
  • You don’t have to be sans-child or an empty-nester either. Here’s a great list of resources, tips, and ideas for life on two wheels—as a family. (There are tons of blogs from families who are riding around the world with young ones is tow—anything is possible!)

If you’re interested and don’t know where to start, here are a few ideas:

  • Start small by commuting around town. (Even in winter? You bet! Check out these stories from University of Nebraska students who commute on their bikes all winter long!) Don’t have a bike yet? Keep on reading (see below), visit your local bike shop, or check out awesome companies like Public to get your hands on some wheels and start cruising. (You could even build your own from companies like Republic!)
  • Let someone else do all the planning, then just show up for the adventure! Sound too good to be true? Check with your local university. For example, the University of Nebraska’s Outdoor Adventure program leads professionally guided tours with all the support and assistance you need to get your feet wet (not only in cycling, but also a number of other exciting adventures) without having to buy all the equipment or plan the whole thing yourself, and—you don’t have to be a university student to participate either. Anyone in the community is welcome to join in on the fun!
  • Explore your community. Emir and I did our first long distance “practice ride” by biking 25 miles to a nearby town for lunch before heading 25 miles back. Sound too far to do in one day? Make it an overnight and stay at a bed & breakfast. Want to start even simpler? Pack a picnic and bike across town to enjoy it in the park.
  • Join Adventure Cycling. Their member magazine is pure inspiration tossed with an invaluable amount of resources. This was quite possibly the most useful resource we had in preparing for our trip. They literally took us from zero to heroic 3200 mile finish! Between their magazine and website, Adventure Cycling helped us with everything from our route, to choosing gear, to believing we could actually pull this trip off. We love them.
  • Check out super helpful blog-sites like Bicycle Touring Pro. More resources, ideas, and inspiration than you could ever ask for!

Whatever kind of riding you plan to do (commuting around the city, training for a race, preparing for a long distance tour, or off-roading), it helps to have the right kind of bike. Emir and I are definitely not experts (seriously, so be sure to do your own research too), but here’s what we’ve come to learn about the different categories of bikes:

Cruiser Bikes: Great for commuting around town, these bikes usually have a more upright posture and come with a variety of different gear options (from single-speed on up). The more gears it has, the easier it is to tow heavy things (like groceries, kids, etc.) and handle challenging terrain like hills. If this sounds like your cup of tea, check out these drool worthy bikes from Public. (Seriously. Yum.) What I love about Public is that a lot of great features like fenders (to keep water/mud off of your clothes) and chain guards (to keep your legs and clothes grease-free) come standard on their bikes. The colors are awesome too. (The C7 design is a step-through, making it easy to hop on/off even in a skirt!)

Mountain Bikes: Made with off-roading in mind (riding on dirt and trails, not just paved roads), mountain bikes feature some pretty niffy suspension systems for more generous shock absorption. The geometry (the shape and structure of the bike that affects your body posture and positioning while riding) is different and some people prefer the fit.

Road Bikes: Built for racing, these are usually made of aluminum to keep the weight to an absolute minimum. (Visit your local bike shop and try lifting one to see for yourself, it’s mind blowing how light they are!) Because aluminum is pretty deficient in the shock absorbing category, these bikes are intended for smooth, paved roads and may not be as comfortable if you plan to spend hours and hours per day on your bike (as in a cross-country tour).

Touring Bikes: Crafted from steel, these bikes are made specifically for long rides (like biking across the country) and can handle carrying some serious weight (a set of loaded panniers). The steel makes a touring bike frames more shock absorbent than the aluminum frames found in road bikes, and though they’re also heavier, our Long Haul Truckers are still light enough that I can easily lift my bike over my head. It’s been over 3200 miles and we have no complaints—except that it would’ve been nice to have kickstands. Seriously. (The Europeans we met have ’em on their touring bikes, what gives?). Surlys are pretty well respected in the bicycle touring world and by far, the vast majority of the touring cyclists we’ve met have been riding Surly Long Haul Truckers.

Folding Bikes: Imagine landing in a new, exciting city and being able to explore it on two wheels! Made to be entirely portable, these tiny, but fully functioning bikes can easily join you on a commuter train, inside your car, or even on an airplane (with no extra fee!). Bringing a regular-sized bike on a plane with you means having to dismantle it quite a bit (requiring some bicycle mechanical know-how) to make it fit in a box you can check without paying an over-size fee. Meanwhile, you can check a folding bike with your regular luggage on airlines like Southwest for free. (On other airlines, you would just pay the regular checked baggage fee.) Curious? Check out Citizen for great fold-able options. (They do an especially awesome job of explaining what makes fold-able bikes so fun.)Additional folding bike options worth checking out include Brompton and Bike Friday.

Of course, you can buy any bike and use it however you’d like. We use our Surlys commuting around town at home too and they’re great. (I do have my eye on the C7 from Public though, as climbing over the cross-bar on my Surly is tricky in a dress! But I think my very next bicycle purchase will be a pair of fold-able bikes to take with us on other trips!)

No matter what kind of riding you’re interested in, if you want to explore life on two wheels (whether around the world, or just around town)—you can!

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  1. Great job on your tour. You are living a great story! Thanks for your kind words about Outdoor Adventures.
    Pedal On.

  2. Rosemary

    Really informative post guys! I’m almost convinced that I could do some bike touring.

    I seriously hope you are considering your next book to be “The [UN]TOUR : 3200 Miles of Adventure & Inspiration” or something like that. :-)

  3. Pingback: We Did It! 3200 Miles from Sea to Shining Sea! | The [UN]tour

  4. Great job on your tour! Amazing information, trying to convince my girlfriend of undertaking an adventure of this caliber. Especially appreciate your video discussing how you pack your panniers. :)

  5. Moses Wehmann

    Cycling is widely regarded as a very effective and efficient mode of transportation[5] optimal for short to moderate distances. Bicycles provide numerous benefits by comparison with motor vehicles, including the sustained physical exercise necessarily involved in cycling, that cycling involves a reduced consumption of fossil fuels, less air or noise pollution, much reduced traffic congestion, easier parking, greater maneuverability, and access to both roads and paths.`,

    See all of the latest short article at our very own blog page

  6. Derek

    What sort of wheels you use on your long haul trucker 26 or 700c?

    • plicanic

      26. :)

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2 classes, 8 cities, 3100 miles, and—a pair of bicycles.

Professional photographer Khara Plicanic and her husband Emir proudly completed a coast-to-coast bicycle tour (from California to Florida!) on a mission to educate and inspire everyone with a camera. This is their story.

 Start Date: 10/17/2011

 End Date: 12/21/2011