Note: For those of you not interested in cycling, you may way want to skip the next couple of posts.
Still here, enjoying Austin for a few more days. Over my cup o’ joe this morning, I thought I’d try to help others who might be considering a ride by sharing some of the things I’ve learned so far. I’ll break it down into two posts, non-mechanical and mechanical.
1. Don’t be a slave to (bike) fashion. When you begin cycling as a recreational rider, it’s normal to avoid traditional clothing like spandex riding shorts and tight fitting jerseys. It feels silly at first. But, as you transition to more serious riding, you begin to understand that there are good reasons for this type of clothing – avoidance of chaffing, reduction of wind resistance and comfort among them. However, when you are riding through small rural towns that don’t have a culture of cycling, you need to be aware of how strange (and possibly offensive) your attire looks. A few weeks ago, I stopped in a crowded little grocery store in Mississippi. I walked to the counter in my full biking regalia – helmet, multicolored jersey, tight black shorts, funky biking socks – and asked if they had any Desitin. The clerk took a long look in my direction. After an awkward few silent moments, I looked over my shoulder to see behind me three or four large men – think size 18 neck, minimum – giving me the “you’re not from around here, are ya?” stare. Then, it dawned on me that to these hard working farmers and ranchers the idea of recreational cycling was as alien as a gym membership and my clothes made matters worse. Since then, I’ve learned to carry long pants and a lose fitting shirt in my front panniers. Whenever I stop, I throw those over my bike gear before I enter anywhere.
2. Read the landscape. It’s getting dark. You’ve put in a long day and are trying to determine whether you are close to the town that is your destination. The first thing to look for is a water tower. Many small towns still rely on them and in flat areas they can be seen for several miles. Other things to look for are cemeteries and salvage yards. These are generally located on the far outskirts of town. When you see them, you know you are getting close. Regrettably, you can often determine what commercial establishments are in a town by looking at the trash on the side of the road. A Walmart bag, Starbucks cup or McDonald’s wrapper give you an idea of what is ahead.
3. Do your homework. For the most part, I’ve been using the ACA maps. They’re well done, easy to understand and thorough. But, they only provide a narrow view of the few miles on either side of the suggested route. So, purchase a state map. It will help you find alternative routes and places to visit or camp that the ACA map may not include. Also, the crazyguyonabike website contains journals from others touring the US and abroad. Sometimes you can find someone who is riding the route a few days ahead of you and glean helpful information by reading their blogs.
4. WiFi is nearly ubiquitous. Just as the adult entertainment industry is largely responsible for richer web interfaces, you can thank long-haul truckers and snowbirds in RVs for driving adoption of WiFi around the United States. I’ve been surprised that even the smallest hotel, RV park and even some state campgrounds now have WiFi access. (Annoyingly, the more expensive the hotel, the more likely you will be charged for access.) This increased connectivity allows you to research what is ahead on your journey (see no. 3 above).
5. Use multiple sources. If you were asked to provide directions to the nearest hotel or campground, could you do it? Probably, not. Yet, for some reason, when you cycle through smaller towns you expect everyone to know this information. The reality is that you don’t use these types of lodging in the place where you live – why would you need to? But, people still want to help and often will guess when giving information. As a result, when you ask for directions, ask multiple people. There is nothing more frustrating than being at the end of a long, tiring ride and given incorrect directions that cause you to unnecessarily ride another five or ten miles.
6. Eat at the bar. If you are riding solo, sitting alone in a restaurant feels awkward and isolating. People are reluctant to approach when you are at a table by yourself. Instead, I’ve found that the best thing to do is to ask for a menu and sit at the bar. You can converse with the bartender – a great source of local knowledge – and possibly get the opportunity to meet with the locals.
7. Wave to everyone. Many of us go through life not wanting to bother others. That’s fine, but a wave is a simple gesture that indicates that you are receptive to connecting. While riding through Louisiana, I saw an older man sitting on his porch looking at me with a stern glaze. I gave him a slight wave and for a few seconds he didn’t respond. Then he gestured to me to ride over to him. I did and he ended up warning me about some heavy road construction and suggesting an alternative route. Aside from these types of benefits, it’s good to be an ambassador for other cyclists.