#mytrailangel

On the first day of my solo bike tour last summer, I lost my wallet. On the second day of my solo bike tour last summer, I realized that I lost my wallet. Somehow, in a thirsty delirium while climbing West through the Kootenays on my way out of Banff, I had managed to drop it somewhere in a roadside hotel where I had stopped to ask for a water refill. I didn’t know that at the time, or even for another 6 months, when my wallet miraculously showed up in the mail.

My journal entries from days 2 and 3 relayed some choice words to myself for being so careless with something so important, questioning my sanity and capability of completing another 1300 miles of solo touring, and intense gratitude that I still had my passport, an old driver’s license, and a credit card (albeit one that was not accepted anywhere in Canada). 

It’s pretty tiring to ride 80+ miles a day on a loaded touring bike in the middle of the summer. It’s downright exhausting to do that while also trying to keep panic at bay, mentally sprinting through every possible course of action to make some sort of plan, and tacking on an extra 25 miles of detour to get to a Western Union.

In the late afternoon of day 3, I pulled over to stretch and rummage for a snack at a small roadside pullout overlooking a river. A sweet older gentleman approached me to say hello, and said that he had passed me earlier in the day so it seemed I was going on ‘quite a journey’. I laughed weakly and told him that it had already been quite the adventure. Although I was starting to mentally accept my situation, my voice broke when I said the words out loud that I had lost my wallet the first day and was still figuring out how to resolve my situation. The man immediately expressed concern and without seeming to even think twice, pressed some bills into my hand as I tried to regain my composure, mortified that I had started to tear up when really, as I assured him, I was totally ok. 

Joseph, as he introduced himself, insisted that I accept it. With tears in his own eyes, he explained to me that he and his wife had been married for over 40 years of marriage and had wonderful adventures together all over the world before she passed away. He told me, ‘those were the happiest years of my life. Now it’s your turn to go and see the world’.

Thankfully, my luck turned around after meeting this ‘trail angel’, as they are called. I was able to get my money order the next day, and kept Joseph’s cash tucked in my passport, where it remains, a sacred relic of a roadside miracle. It will come with me back to Canada when it’s safe to travel internationally again, and I will find some way to use it that pays it forward to another adventurer. 

This post was written as a submission to Adventure Cycling Association‘s call for Trail Angel stories. Stay tuned to their social media sites for more stories!

#mytrailangel

I want to buy a bicycle, I want to buy a bike

Every year when the weather starts to turn from ‘eternal hibernation’ to ‘life is good again’, I seem to get more questions along the lines of “so I’m thinking about getting a bike… where do I start?”

 

This is the best question you could ask me, and given the chance I’ll definitely talk your face off about it, but I try to keep in mind how far down the rabbit hole I’ve gone, and to channel my mindset from when I was bike-curious and exploring options without having any more than a very rudimentary understanding of what I was looking at. So with that in mind, I’ve tried to put this in layperson’s language so I can impart what I wish I knew years ago.

  1. You get what you pay for, so while you don’t necessarily need to go out and get all the bells and whistles, keep in mind that a bike from Walmart or other big box store will almost always be heavy, questionably assembled, and have low quality parts where it matters (resulting in a grindy, cumbersome, less fun ride). If you can stay flexible on price until you decide what you want to achieve with your bike purchase, you’re more likely to end up satisfied with your purchase in the end and less likely to have an unloved bike hanging out collecting dust in your garage.

  2. Ask yourself what kind of riding you want to do. Commuting to work or replacing some short distance car errands? Casual riding on paved trails or around the neighborhood? Do you want to be able to cut through dirt or gravel areas without wiping out? Are you looking to get a workout or would you prefer to sit upright and stay more comfortable? Do you want to be able to pull a trailer for bringing along a small riding companion or hauling large items?  A good local bike shop should be able to steer you in the right direction and give some suggestions for specific models; bike shops carry different brands so you’ll want to visit several to get a full picture of what’s available. Or you can ask me and I’ll talk to you ad nauseam about the various pros/cons of different models.

  3. Local shops offer test rides on their floor models, much like buying a car; I recommend going to several, describing what kind of riding you want to do, and taking a few out and going at least a few blocks. A lot of people don’t take advantage of this, and I didn’t feel confident enough to when I started out, but no amount of specs on a page or advice from other people can tell you what a few different bike rides will about what that bike will feel like for you. Some larger shops even have demo bikes that they’ll let you take out for longer rides – it doesn’t hurt to ask!

  4. If you go the online route, you can have the bike built at a shop, usually for $60-100 depending on the type of bike and number of features. A bike mechanic knows what they are doing and can save you from a disaster resulting from an improperly assembled bike. A nice bike mechanic will also tell you the pros and cons of buying a bike that you’re eyeing online. I almost bought a vintage bike on Craigslist once and I’m still so grateful to the mechanic I called up who warned me that replacement parts for that particular bike would be really hard to source. Dodged a bullet!
    Often, local shops will have a tune-up or maintenance policy when you buy from them, and it’s usually worth it to know what you’re getting vs. the headaches and impersonal nature of buying a bike online. Local bike shops will make riding your bike more fun by increasing ridership and advocating for bike friendly policies in your community, so if you can, support them!

  5. Once your bike is built and you’re rolling, check around for workshops and clinics at local stores (many are free) where you can learn some basics like how to change a tire or adjust your brakes, because it feels super empowering and badass when you’re able to fix something yourself.

  6. Ride your bike! Hopefully you’ve found something you love and enjoy riding. Down the line, you may change your mind or decide you want to try another type of riding (a single speed beach cruiser was just my gateway drug, after all). That’s totally normal, so stay open to new frontiers!

I want to buy a bicycle, I want to buy a bike

Pack it up, pack it in

Before I continue on to parts II and III of my 2019 tour summary, I thought I’d pause after part I to review my packing list and general thinking behind the setup I used for all my gear.

Because one of the most daunting tasks in tour preparation involves turning a big pile of collected gear:

Into a pared down setup that fits, is reasonably balanced, not too heavy, and is somewhat organized. It’s more or less a camping-friendly version of this.

I labeled the general locations of items on my Instagram stories (see next few photos). This setup worked for me given my particular trip itinerary, preferences and expected terrain, but will continue to evolve as I go on more tours and try out more gear.

 

I generally kept my gear divided this way during my entire trip, with a few items discarded along the way. I tend to bring clothing that’s at the end of its run vs. brand new, nice stuff after losing a favorite pair of cycling shorts on my last tour (don’t hang clothing up to dry when you stop for lunch, you will forget it). Overall I’m pretty happy with what I packed; the only things I didn’t use were my bear spray and my emergency blanket, but both of those are nice to have for peace of mind, and you can usually find a way to pass them on to other travelers at the end of your trip and pay it forward.

I more or less kept my gear organized by actions or activities, so that I could easily grab what I needed for campsite setup, or leave entire panniers in a garage if I had a warm showers host.

In an ideal setup, I’d have more weight distributed toward the front of the bike to make it less back heavy. It’s important to stay within the weight recommendations of your rear rack, so if I was carrying more water and food on tour I would add a front rack or put bottle mounts on my front fork. As was the case for my bike and gear that I had, sometimes it’s easier and perfectly manageable to load up the rear and strap the tent to the front. Not having a whole lot loaded on your front also has the perk of easier steering, and I find it’s easier to carry weight in the back. Next time, however, I’ll be using the Salsa Anything Cradle for easier mounting of my tent to the front, and will update with whether I feel it’s worth the $$.

Items marked with a * double as items I use for day to day commuting and producing less waste back home. That’s mostly to show that despite what looks like a huge shopping list, to go from commuting to bike touring I mostly had to focus on my sleep setup, cooking needs, and packing the right clothes.

 

CARRY

PoCampo Kinga Handlebar Bag* (use code “My-PoCampo” for 10% off!)
Spare Cycling seatbag*
Ortlieb Waterproof City Roller Panniers* (different sizes and colors available, but Ortliebs all the way!)
(unknown brand) expandable trunk bag, similar idea here
rear rack* (mine is a slimmer style and disc brake compatible)
Bike Lock* (I used an Ottolock for this trip since it’s light and small, but you could do more security if you’re going to be spending time in cities or higher risk areas. I like using the Ottolock for road rides when at home for short lunch or coffee stops)
Front and Rear Lights* (I use my front light as a flashlight at camp; the rear light I linked is pricier than many others but has great daytime visibility and the charge lasts awhile, so I’m quite partial to it)
Stuff sacks and dry bags for organizing clothes, food, etc.

SLEEP

Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL1 bikepacking tent and footprint
Big Agnes Wiley SL 30 down sleeping bag
Thermarest NeoAir Sleeping Pad
emergency blanket (didn’t use, but not obtrusive and nice to have)

(in lieu of an inflatable pillow, I used my clothing in a stuff sack)

WEAR

2 pairs wool socks
cycling shoes
giro helmet* (same model, different color here)
wool baselayers (wore as pajamas)
windbreaker*
rain jacket*
rain pants* (I have the basic REI version and they do the job, but this pair gets much better ratings. I would recommend getting cycling specific ones that are more tailored around the ankles since baggier pants tend to get stuck in your chain.)
3 riding outfits
sun sleeves and gloves (the cyclist tan is cute and all, but seriously you will roast. summerweight sleeves will keep you cool as well on summer tours)
hat* (I have this one that fits easily under a helmet, and the brim is much better than a road cycling cap for keeping sun and rain off your face)
buff*
1 casual off the bike outfit
1 pair lightweight sandals (xero shoes are great if you want to go super lightweight; bedrock sandals if you like more support)
underwear and sports bras

WASH

2 bandanas*
toothbrush
toothpaste
face cleanser
floss
coconut oil (tons of uses)
comb
soap
shampoo/conditioner
sunscreen
bugspray
first aid kit
travel towel

EAT

Light My Fire double ended spork*
Portable Camping Stove (but I just got a JetBoil for Christmas and can’t wait to use it!!)
Lightweight Camping Cookware Set
MSR or similar brand fuel canisters (sold at most outdoor retailers; remember not to fly with them!)
MSR Trailshot water filter
Collapsible silicone mug*
Lighter
Small vial of olive oil
Salt packets
pocket knife
Snacks: including granola bars, dried fruit, cookies, candy, trail mix
Food/Meals – including Beans and Rice mix, mac & cheese, oatmeal, instant coffee
Water bottles* (3)

FIX

Icetoolz Swivel Allen Wrench*
CrankBrothers multi tool*
2 spare tubes*
Patch Kit*
Tire Levers*
Birzman Frame Pump*
Chain lube wipes*

CHARGE

GoPro Hero (I have the 5, newer ones are now sold)
backup battery pack*
wireless headphones*
iPhone with Quadlock Case and mount* – check out this post for why I love my Quadlock, and use code ‘REBEL10’ for 10% off!

 

I’m sure I forgot something in this list, so let me know if I left you wondering about anything! I’ll update this post if I need to make additions/clarifications.

 

Legal stuff disclaimer: I generously received a discount on my Big Agnes gear through my 2019 ACA Award with Adventure cycling. I am a brand ambassador for PoCampo bags and receive a discount on their items as well. I received additional Quadlock Case mounts for writing a review as an addict of their products. Amazon links are affiliate links.

Pack it up, pack it in

2019 Trip Recap: Canadian Rockies (Jasper to Banff)

As 2019 skids down a steep grade right into 2020, I’m using my winter break to finally get at least the first part of my 2019 Canadian Rockies trip summarized and posted. I like having these posts to refer back to for myself and others who may want to do a similar trip, but between the amount of pictures I take and the level of ADD I have, it’s a struggle to get these posted in a more timely manner.

As I plan for next year, the pattern of “hmm, well maybe next I can try ____”  is becoming quite clear. If you had told me just a few years ago that I would be embarking on solo self contained bike tours spanning thousands of miles, I would have laughed until I had side stitches (which wouldn’t take long, because I was not remotely in shape). I still remember when getting down the street to pick up a couple items at the store on the folding bike I kept in my car trunk was a triumph of logistics and braving the concrete wilderness – and I am here to cheer you on if you’re reading this and have any sort of goal of riding more and/or driving less. I honestly only bother posting my pictures and writing these posts because I am so grateful for others who inspired me along the way, and it is the most amazing thing to me when I hear from other people that they have been inspired by me to get out and do something on their bike. So I am here to tell you that if you have no athletic inclinations/ mechanical abilities/ real sense of direction and are terrified of igniting a camp stove, you can still do all of the things I am writing about, because I kid you not, that was me.

With that said, here goes:

 

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On July 5th of last year, I flew to Canada to meet my parents, who signed us up for the VBT Canadian Rockies Tour to celebrate my 30th birthday earlier this year. Given that this trip is only a week, I have a long bike-it list of places to see out west, and my job with a school district gives me an 8 week summer break, I flew out with my bike instead of using the provided VBT bike so that I could continue from Banff on my own solo self-contained venture afterwards (that will be part II).

The hardest (read: worst) part of bike touring to me is the planning and logistics beforehand. I went back and forth about shipping vs. flying with my bike, and due to timelines, the cost of international shipping, and the risk of my bike getting stuck in customs during the busy season in Edmonton, I ended up paying Delta $150 to fly with my bike (only a few weeks later, Delta changed their policy and no longer charges more than a regular bag for checking a bike. So it goes.) Flying with my bike was still half the cost of shipping it to Canada, plus the savings of not having to pay a shop for a build, and since international weight limit was (I think) 75 lbs, I was able to pad my bike with my tent, helmet, panniers, sleeping bag and other gear and therefore travel with just a carryon.

 

Unlike last summer where I assembled my bike in the airport and rode out of MSP, since my flight got in around midnight and I wasn’t traveling alone, we took a cab to the hotel and I assembled my bike there the next day after exploring Edmonton on foot.

 

 

If you can’t find one at your local bike shop, you can get one of these useful little tools here. It was all I needed to reinstall my handlebars, bottle cages, saddle/seatpost and SPD pedals, and unlike a multitool you can get some pretty good torque (which you’ll need for your pedals).

 

 

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Once I had reassembled my bike, I had a slight panic when I heard a weird clicking sound coming from my rear wheel and realized I needed to find a mechanic.. around 4pm on a Saturday. I hustled over to Red Bike and was relieved to find that I just needed new rear brake pads, which makes sense given the amount of death-grip-braking I did on this bike while riding the Appalachian Gravel Growler a month before… I guess I need to write a post about that trip too. Anyway, the folks at Red Bike were wonderful and if you find yourself in Edmonton, you should definitely check them out.

 

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I didn’t have as much time to explore Edmonton as I would have liked, but there are some great views and some enviable infrastructure including bike/pedestrian bridges and bike trails winding through parks along the river.

 

After the layover day in Edmonton, we loaded up on a VBT van for the transfer ride several hours west to Jasper National Park. It was overcast and misty, but the glimpses of mountains peeking out through the clouds still gave me chills.

 

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Our first afternoon, we had a short 11 mile ride up to a lake to test out our bikes (VBT provides guests with their choice of road bike, hybrid or e-bike for this particular trip) and get a feel for the area. I might have taken a slight detour on this gravel road to test out my freshly installed Rene Herse tubeless tires, but that’s just between me and Strava.

 

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Our first full day involved a trip to Maligne Lake; the official trip option was to get a van shuttle up and ride 33 miles down with a picnic lunch stop on the way, but not wanting to miss a second of riding in this incredible place, I and a few other guests opted to leave early that morning and pedal up instead of hitching a ride.

 

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We were rewarded by sightings of elk (sadly but not surprisingly, no caribou) and THIS BEAR CROSSING THE ROAD – I still have zero chill just thinking about it. It was so exciting and profoundly beautiful that I teared up as I stood there watching it (while my mother had a nervous breakdown behind me).

 

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The views climbing and on the descent were incredible and the car traffic was light. The clouds even parted later in the morning for glimpses of blue sky above soaring mountains.

 

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The rest of the trip did not disappoint. In fact, every day seemed to get more and more beautiful…

 

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I had been watching the weather for weeks leading up to the trip and had worried that the rain would continue into our trip week, but we really lucked out – the worst we got were clouds that only added drama to the mountains peeking out at us at every turn.

 

Despite being surrounded by these stunning peaks, the roads themselves were very reasonable grades, super smooth, and low traffic – at least compared to what I’m used to back in South Carolina. I didn’t really notice being at a higher elevation, but I was also riding relatively casually to better take in the scenery.

 

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For several of the days we got to ride to our next location down the road instead of being shuttled in the van or bus, but due to the length of the trip and the miles spanning between Jasper and Banff, we did have to take a shuttle in the middle of the trip. It makes total sense, but the part of me that likes drawing a line from A to B of where I’ve ridden was definitely disappointed.

 

 

However, you can’t *not* visit Lake Louise…

 

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… or Peyto Lake. The views are just incredible! The traffic and crowds surrounding them, not so much. At the same time, it’s easy to understand why they are so popular, and while solo travel is more my jam, I’ll admit that it was nice to not have to worry about logistics/passes/permits while checking these spots off my bucket list.

 

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The week passed by in a blur of incredible views, good food and steadily improving weather. Before we knew it, we were in Banff!

 

 

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On our last full day together as a group, I rode the trail from Banff to Canmore – despite being next to the highway, it was a pleasant ride with spectacular views of the mountains. We stopped at the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company and enjoyed a local outdoor craft fair before heading back into town for our farewell dinner.

 

… Except I had to sneak off for one extra little loop up to Lake Minnewanka. The miles are easy when the scenery is this level of gorgeous.

 

If you noticed our Jasper the Bear mascot hanging out in a few of these photos, I got the honor of riding around with him on our final day in Banff. Our group had a fun time passing Jasper around during the week, adding to his outfit and getting photos of his adventures. I don’t ride on tour with a handlebar buddy, but having Jasper around made me want to reconsider that.

 

Stay tuned for Part II, because the day after this last picture was taken, I ventured out on my own for a 1300 mile trek southward, and the real adventure began!

 

Legal stuff disclaimer: nothing mentioned in this post is sponsored or promotional, with the exception of the link to that allen wrench tool, which is an Amazon affiliate link. But again, support your local bike shop first if you can!

2019 Trip Recap: Canadian Rockies (Jasper to Banff)

Does this lane make my car look fat?

Earlier this year, Strong Towns shared this video from the Iowa DOT that I think provides an excellent visual for why and how changing a 4 lane road to 3 lanes including a middle turning lane can improve safety and road conditions with a minimal impact on traffic flow.

This especially hits home for me because there is a perfect example of a road that needs this kind of road diet right at the end of the street I live on. We have road studies to show the dangers and high collision rates on this stretch of pavement with 4 lanes crammed onto what barely has room for 3. Yet our state DOT and local county council continues to drag their feet and slap red tape on what should be an obvious solution – because a superficial understanding of road design says that more lanes means less traffic.

This is the kind of discussion that one would expect at a county council or neighborhood meeting, and is probably why attendance at said meetings is so low, but the fact of the matter is both drivers and pedestrians are getting injured and dying, businesses along these roads are suffering (the cars that aren’t speeding through are avoiding the area altogether), anything larger than a compact car is hanging over the lane (just imagine the school buses coming through!), and it’s all a matter of where you put the paint on the road for about half a mile.

It’s also the kind of discussion that cannot be contained to county council or neighborhood meetings. With more awareness and education, road diets and traffic calming can become the expected norm as common sense ways of helping our neighborhoods and communities thrive. I think that too often, biking and walking infrastructure is seen as a luxury and/or an inconvenience to drivers, when in reality, multi modal street design benefits everyone in immediate and indirect ways.

If you’d like to follow me down the rabbit hole, here are some resources that have totally changed the way I used to think about personal transportation:

Bikenomics

Jeff Speck, Walkable City

Strong Towns

American Public Transportation Association

Does this lane make my car look fat?

Carry that weight

As a commuter, the #1 question I get asked is “how do you get ____ on your bike??” – usually the question is about groceries, and the answer is panniers, but showing up somewhere with live plants or a kombucha starter has made me realize that there are a few more details and tips I can share from many rounds of trial and error over the years.

The number one answer to ‘how the heck did you carry that?’ is to have quality bags to attach to your bike. My go-to brand that I use and point people towards is PoCampo, an awesome woman owned bike bag company that has thought about everything (and I do literally mean everything) a commuter needs for schlepping their stuff around. I love their bags and while I do receive a discount for documenting how I use their bags, as a commuter with lots to carry, I would be buying their products anyway!

 

I used my PoCampo Kinga handlebar bag all summer on my self contained Rockies tour, and it’s great for everyday use as well – it’s the perfect size for stashing your wallet, phone, keys, chargers, and sunscreen. I love being able to easily detach it when hopping off the bike for a side hike on a trip or for popping into a store when I’m riding around town. This bag comes in several colors and doesn’t need a rack or special mounting system, and fits great on just about any type of handlebars – so it’s a great gift idea as well for the cyclist on your shopping list.

For larger items, it’s a relief to get rid of the backpack and make the switch to a rear rack with panniers (in the case of my Raleigh Port Townsend above, I have both a front and rear rack – I typically carry more weight in the back since it doesn’t affect steering). I use my Mardy Cargo pannier daily for my commute and love how its thoughtful features come together to make the ultimate work pannier: recycled materials, durable and easy to clean, compartments to keep you organized including a shoe compartment at the bottom, built in rain cover and light-up zipper pulls — I really can’t think of anything it doesn’t have!

I like to stash a spare bungee in the bottom of my pannier for certain random purchases that I might want to secure to a front or rear rack – I’m the queen of impulse purchases like house plants, “but they were BOGO!” grocery purchases, and even furniture. A clever upgrade to a typical bungee that is sure to impress is the Voile Strap, which lends a more secure fit to a variety of situations. I’ve used mine on everything from stifling a rattling tent pole on tour to securing a bottle of wine wedged into a water bottle cage for a quick trip home from the store.

Since I like to frequent farmer’s markets and gardens, I’ve made my share of spills inside of my panniers – and learned that it’s much easier to contain messier cargo than it is to scrub out a bag later. I absolutely love the Flip and Tumble reusable bags because I can use them for quick and easy shopping trips, but also to wrap up items that might spill since they’re machine washable – think small plants, jars of liquids that might leak, and lunch containers.

For the record, most plants I transport aren’t *quite* this large…

When you’re a full time bike commuting nut, you’ll go all in and get yourself a cargo trailer. The Burley Flatbed Cargo Trailer is a definite commitment, but for large grocery trips, furniture purchases, or even moving most of your junk between residences, I’ve found mine to be totally worth it. In the case of this fiddle leaf fig, it can actually move many tall or otherwise awkwardly shaped things than an average car can’t.

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of cycling, I genuinely hope you consider experimenting with different bags and transport options so that you can ride your bike more places, more easily. I’ve talked to a number of other commuters who have struggled with the limitations of being confined to just a backpack, and then experienced the freedom that the right bag/pannier/trailer setup can bring. Money can’t buy happiness, but riding your bike can – so get comfortable and go ride!

Carry that weight