10 Things No One Told You About Long Distance Cycling
1. You won’t always get to eat the food you crave
The food you desire may not always be available. You might need to cycle a longer distance off the planned route to get to the really yummy places. Because cycling routes are usually on roads with lesser traffic, i.e. on back roads. Food establishments, like all businesses, are built for profitability, and are found in high traffic places, i.e. in downtown or central areas, and on main streets which are easily accessible by motor vehicles. The presence of food establishments is optimized for motor vehicles, not bicycles. So tough luck for us cyclists - we have to get off the back roads and onto main roads in order to find a cluster of food options.
2. You will eat more bad (read: unhealthy) than good (read: nutritious) food
Surprising? Well, in conjunction with the above point, i.e. you can’t find many good, healthy and wholesome food establishments on bicycle routes, you will however find a lot of gas stations and fast food. And guess what you’re going to be eating a lot of? You guessed it. Junk food and fast food. When you’ve been cycling for hours and hungry, you grab whatever you can find: sweets, muffins, bagels, Coca-Cola, thirst quenchers, gummy bears, chocolates, Snicker bars, $2 pizza slices... in short, all the things you are careful to avoid eating on a daily basis. When you are cycling long distance across towns, states, countries or continents, you will quickly discard those healthy eating principles and simply settle for whatever is available.
3. You are not gonna lose (a lot of) weight
Well, not as much as you had hoped. Yes you might lose weight from cycling more hours than your body can consume calories (weight loss = calories in < calories out); plus, you are perspiring a lot (water weight is weight too and count towards weight loss); but the truth and irony are this: many long distance cyclists tend to eat more than they burn off during the daily multiple-hour ride. Here’s a typical scenario: you ride for an hour to two, see a gas station, stop to use the restroom, top up your water bottles and buy something to eat (muffin, crackers, chips, chocolate milk, orange juice, chocolate). You might even top up your stash of food in your pack for when you need them on the road. Then you resume cycling. Another two hours go by. You see another gas station. You make another stop for restroom, water, and yes, might as well grab some of those gummy bears and Kit Kat bars. After all, you’re taking a break, aren’t you? (I hope you catch the pun). So a little calories here add a little calories there (actually it’s more than a little - sweets and candies contain higher calories than we would like to admit) and having them several times a day quickly add up to a LOT of calories; more calories than you are actually burning on a say, six to eight-hour bike ride (assuming you ride 100 miles a day). In fact, a lot of cyclists might find themselves losing several pounds of (water) weight, only to gain back (real) weight quickly after because they are no longer cycling six-eight hours each day but are still eating the same amount of high caloric food on a daily basis. Habits formed after several weeks are pretty hard to break - they take time.
4. You will spend more money on food than if you travel by car
Cycling long distance is like a holiday of sorts (going to and experiencing new places), except you are physically working hard to transport yourself from one point to another. And because you are burning calories by the hour, you will need food to fuel you. A typical male on an inactive day may require 2,200 calories. For each hour of cycling activity, he is burning an additional 350 calories per hour. If he rides six hours, he requires 4,300 calories (2,200 base calories + [350 calories per hour x 6 hours]). In order to fuel him for the ride, he needs 4,300 calories worth of food - and that means constantly stopping, buying and eating throughout the day. If he was driving, he would have only required 2,200 calories for the day. A typical inactive female on the other hand, requires 1,600 calories per day, and with each additional hour of cycling, she burns an additional 300 calories per hour. Six hours of riding sets her back by 3,400 calories. That too, is a lot of food and food costs money, so there you have it. It’s gonna cost more than three regular meals.
5. You are going to work hard. Real hard
It’s not a walk in the park, that’s for sure. You are transporting yourself from town to town, state to state, and across an entire country or continent relying on an intricate human-powered piece of equipment - the machine of you. You are relying on your heart, lungs and legs (of course I’m oversimplifying - you need an entire working and functional body) to get you there. It’s not merely setting the gear in place and stepping on a pedal as you would driving. You are turning pedal after pedal with your foot, your heart working doubly hard to pump oxygen into your blood and muscles.
6. You will suffer. I guarantee you that
Unless you are pedaling super slowly. Even if you are, if you’re climbing uphill, no matter how slowly, that’s still work, and there’s bound to be a moment or two of discomfort. To be honest, more than a moment or two. Climbing is inevitable on a long ride. Unless you’re riding on the longest and straightest road in the world, i.e. one that stretches from Perth to Sydney for 100 km, you are bound to hit windy roads, rolling hills and some steep mountain passes. And when you do, you will notice how hard you have to work to get up those mountain passes. Because if you don’t work hard, you’ll roll backwards. I’m kidding of course. You won’t roll backwards but the only way to get to your destination, short of circumventing the mountain pass and taking a three to four times longer, flatter route around the mountain (which nobody in their right mind would do) is to keep pedaling uphill.
7. The weather is your biggest enemy
No, not the hills, but the weather. Hills are always there, they never move. Well, they do grow an inch taller or shorter through the years with the earth’s movements, etc, but hills are hills and they are always going to be there. But the weather, ah, now we’re talking. Weather changes capriciously, That’s just a big word to mean “unpredictably”. Like a women’s temperament. I can say that because I’m a woman. It’s true. Weather changes so rapidly and violently it’s hard to predict what’s happening in the next ten miles. Especially so in a large country as the United States. The different terrain and geographical makeup of the land makes for very diverse weather. In the northwestern states of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado where the Rocky Mountains prevail, you could be enjoying sunny weather in the valley but once you get up to altitudes above 7,000 feet, you could be encountering snow and hail. Or you could be cycling along a long flat road in Kansas and thinking this is easy, when all of a sudden, you’re hit by an opposing head wind which only seem to get stronger as the day wears on, and it doesn’t die down or relent, even comes nightfall. Nature versus Human. Nature = 1, Human = 0. Don’t bother fighting - we lose to nature, each and every time. The sooner you know that the better you’ll be.
8. You will have trouble with where you sleep
If you decide to sleep under the stars, you have to carry your camping gear with you. Which adds to the weight on your bicycle. And that’s fine because that’s part and parcel of bike-packing, isn’t it? Like backpacking, except your bicycle carries those weight, instead of your shoulders and back. You will have to scout for a suitable place to pitch your tent. You want to be near basic amenities like food, water, bathroom, yet isolated at the same time so as not to have strangers or cops giving you a hard time about setting up camp in an area outside of a designated campground. Or if you decide to play it safe, you might want to look for a designated campground which hopefully comes with electricity supply to charge your electronics (Garmin cycle computer, phone, lights) and bathrooms to shower and wash in, but that requires time to look up these campgrounds, and besides, you’ll have to cycle off route to get to these sites. Another detour, an unwelcome one at that, after a long day of cycling.
If you decide to pay a little bit of money and sleep on comfortable clean sheets and a soft bed, you will also have to add time to your already long day to find the closest, available motel for you to cycle to and spend the night in. This I know a lot of from experience. There isn’t always a motel to be had along the route you travel on. Motels, like food establishments, are set up for profitability (why run a motel if not to make money?) so they are typically found close to main streets and in downtown areas.
9. You will meet far nicer people than bad eggs
This should come as a pleasant surprise. Especially when all we read about in the news is robbery, murder, rape, kidnap, forgery, identity theft. The media does what it has to do to make money - deliver news that grips people’s hearts. And nothing grips people more than bad news. Good news are soothing for the soul, but lasts only a little while. But when we hear bad news, they last a longer time. They get imprinted in our minds, and we think that this world is a big, bad place and people are mean, bad wolves conspiring to hurt and attack us. When you cycle through places and meet the local folks, you realize that they are ordinary men and women leading live like everybody else - they have jobs, dreams and aspirations; they eat, travel and survive just like you and I; and they have no desire to hurt or harm a fellow human being. Why should they? Why go out of their way to do so when they can live peaceful, fruitful lives? Besides, seeing a stranger from out of town often poses a reprieve for these local folks, who would be more than happy to go out of their way to show a little kindness to an out-of-towner.
10. You will return from your trip sadder than before you left
So you have this grand idea of what your cycling trip would be about: travel, pedal, burn lots of calories so you can eat lots of good food. I’ve busted those myths in the above points. That’s just the beginning. The minute you get home from your trip, you realize that even though you were often times cycling very hard and experiencing lots of discomfort while on the road, you had been stretched physically, mentally, and emotionally, and my oh my, have you grown during this period. You can’t settle for the same life before the ride. You like what you experienced and you want to do it again. Your life back at home and in your office cubicle don’t seem so comfortable and appealing anymore. You want to get on the road and do it all over again. You have been bitten by the long distance cycling bug and you're never the same again.