Pre-TransAmerica Trail FAQ

Here is a brief Q & A addressing some of the questions folks probably have regarding the big upcoming bike voyage. I have cribbed the interview almost entirely from biketouring.net, one of the most valuable resources I have encountered in planning for this thing. The format has been repurposed to answer questions at the beginning of the journey instead of at the end. Murphy’s Law seems roughly to be the rule of the land when bike touring, so please accept nothing as gospel, but instead as aspirational, and take everything with a healthy pinch of salt. The intent is primarily to provide a very broad overview for interested parties.

Biking the Trans America Trail Q & A (Before) — How & Why Are You Doing This, etc.

Why did you decide to bike across the country?

I would refer you to this entry for some of the emotional reasoning and this entry for some of the practical reasoning behind this decision. Aside from that, I really enjoy riding bicycles and felt pretty done with NYC and wanted to do a big, difficult thing, and thought of this as a pretty good thing to do before turning thirty.

What is the anticipated total biking distance and how long do you expect it to take?

The itinerary, as laid out — optimistically — has total travel of just over 4,000 miles broken down into 68 days on the Transamerica trail and about a week to get down to Richmond with probably at least a day each in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. That brings us to a planned total of 75 days of bike travel without factoring in potential detours to St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver. All told, a safe estimate seems to be a hundred days on the road, 80% or so which will include appreciable travel.

How many miles do you plan to ride, on average?

The planned itinerary follows almost exclusively the advice of The Complete Handlebar Guide to Bicycling the TransAm, with a few optimistic liberties taken in combining some of the shorter days. The route from NYC to Richmond largely follows the Atlantic Coastal route maps from adventurecycling.org. A simple average of estimated mileage puts us at about 55 miles/day.

How did you choose your route?

I was admittedly pretty drunk during the genesis of this whole thing, but I recall my friend who was telling me about her journey recommend checking out adventurecycling. After that, I followed the most commonly mentioned trails and resources, which led to the aforementioned handlebar guide which has everything laid out in a very user-friendly way that seems to be roughly at my skill level, making it across the country at a reasonable clip, while acknowledging physical limitations, and allowing for time to take everything in. I should also note that my good friend Max Boyajian was a big inspiration in this whole thing — as he had planned a big comedy/bike tour in 2015 the whole idea of which made the thing feel at all possible and doable.

Are you planning on taking the trip yourself?

I will be sharing the road with the good Jacyara de Oliveira.

What kind of bike do you have, and what are you planning to carry on it?

My bike is owed almost entirely to the efforts of my good friend Kyle Bouldin who really went above and beyond in helping me piece together all the dumb ideas I had in my head. In the above-mentioned drunk conversation that was the genesis of this whole thing, my friend who filled me in on her experiences said that her mother who had gone with her made it across on a Long Haul Trucker, which in a crew of a few bikes fared the best. She also said that she had dragged a trailer, which she would not be eager to do again. So, I sought out a Long Haul Trucker frame, and begged Kyle to help me turn it into a living, breathing bicycle. Over the next two months, we pieced together a brand new shimano groupset — 105 triple cranks, dura ace shifters, ultegra derailleurs and 10 speed cassette— Thomson stem and seat post, selle anatomica saddle. He built up a brand new wheelset — 36 spokes with a shimano generator front hub. Strapped on Surly front and rear racks — honestly, probably not the best choice as they add more weight then they probably need to — and classic Ortlieb roll-top panniers. The hub powers a usb ‘plug’ and Busch & Müller lights. The good man Jason Litrell has graciously donated a solar powered battery charging pack for additional charging purposes. I haven’t yet settled on a final pack list, but there will be roughly three pairs clothes, some snacks, maps, sleeping bag, tent, mattress pad, pillow, and a handful of bike repair essentials. I plan on hewing to a packing guide pretty closely, trying my best to stick to the less-is-more philosophy. Music and noises being such a fundamental part in my daily life is something that I have gone reasonably far out of the way to try and accommodate on this trip, and I have settled on carrying a pair of UE Megabooms — one per bicycle, as they are able to pair together and have a Bluetooth range of a hundred feet — allowing us to listen to audiobooks, podcasts, and music together throughout the trip. One thing that I am nervous about is having to babysit a stable of electronics — we will each have our phones and these Bluetooth speakers, and I am sincerely considering bringing along a kindle, one of the primary draws being that it would not need to be charged much throughout. Aside from that there will be a handful of camping related lights — a lantern and head lamps, and probably an additional set of bike lights that are either usb or battery powered.

Where do you plan to stay at night?

I am hoping to keep hotel stays to a minimum — not more than twice/week, or about 32% of the planned nights. I have a reasonable network of friends in most of the bigger cities along the route, which is probably about 8% of the trip. That leaves about 60% of the trip where the plan is to rely on the kindness of strangers. There will likely be at least two nights/week of camping out in parks, at camp sites, and in backyards, and there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence that a preponderance of the folk who live along the Transam are lovely and welcoming people who are, more often than not, willing to lend lodging and often even a home-cooked meal.

What do you plan to eat?

Everything and anything we can get our hands on, really. The estimate is that the average day is going to include somewhere in the neighborhood of 4–5,000 calories burned. Most Transam stories involve lots of grocery stores and gas stations — punctuated by big meals at restaurants at intermediate stops. I have heard variously of numerous Chinese buffets and “hungry man” diner combos. It will probably be that and lots of bread and peanut butter. High calorie, on-the-go options. Watching food intake becomes less an issue in the midst of something so physically demanding. My only concern is not being able to eat enough.

How much will all of this cost?

I have taken a very lavish approach to the preparation for this journey, which will hopefully pay dividends, particularly in having a bike that won’t continually break down, but between the bicycle, clothing, and gear, I have already spent something along the lines of $5,000.

My best guess at budget estimates for the actual trip are based on a number of anecdotal stories and blog entries, with a conservative guess coming in at $12/day for lodging (This is a reasonably liberal estimate that assumes a fair amount of good will and good luck along the way) and at least $20/person/day in food cost. Those estimates were in 2010 dollars, so add in roughly 3% inflation which suggests a total of about $1,000 for lodging and $1,700/ea for food, not including rest days or emergencies. I would imagine at least $200/ea for bike maintenance, parts, and related snafu, at least $50 ea. For tourist shit, $100 dollars/ea for ferries, tolls, toiletries and the like. All told a safe guess is probably somewhere in the ball park of $3,500/ea on the road on the conservative side. I would not be surprised if that ends closer to $5,000 ea.

What will you do when it rains, when there is prohibitive weather?

I guess this is exactly the sort of Murphy’s Law thing one can’t exactly plan for. Evidently Wyoming, in particular, is brutally windy and there will be days with 30+ mph head winds that make travel illogical if not impossible. Rain of anything less than the torrential short should be manageable and the answer is keep going. The bikes are both equipped with fenders, the panniers claim to be 100% water proof, and water proof clothing is part of the plan. The hope is to be prepared to, at worst, wait out any particularly severe weather.

What sorts of roads will you ride on?

Quoting here, evidently they are called “Secondary roads, i.e., those less traveled by cars.” The routes that we have planned the trip around have a large cyclist contingent and were planned specifically to avoid heavy and dangerous traffic. Hopefully this will bear out.

How will motorists treat you?

Oh God, this is one of my biggest fears. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, particularly along these routes, fear of motorists is generally a non-issue. But Automobiles::Cyclists like T-Rexes::Edmontosauruses

There are lots of mountains!?

Indeed, there are. Three primary mountain ranges. The Appalachians will come first and in terms of actual climbing, are regarded as being both the most physically and mentally taxing. I haven’t the slightest idea whether or not getting them out of the way first will be a net positive or negative. There is, I am sure, a case to be made for both. Many before have done it. I anticipate it being incredibly difficult. The book on the Rockies is that they aren’t particularly intimidating in terms of any particular climb, but there is about ten days’ total worth of biking through the mountains and it is at high elevation, a condition with which I have no experience, and the effect on O2 intake is a bit of a concern. The Ozarks, in comparison, are not expected to take more than a day or two and are a relative breeze.

Why are you riding east to west?

Because I live here and it just makes sense. Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way.

By riding east to west aren’t you riding into the prevailing winds?

I haven’t the slightest idea, personally, but apparently this is a load of hot mumbo-jumbo. To quote:

“No. This was a real-life FAQ, although it was usually delivered as an SPOF (Statement of Patently Obvious Fact). In the middle of the country, most of the wind comes from the south and benefits neither the eastbounder nor the westbounder. Toward the coasts the wind does tend to come more from a westerly direction but it seemed silly to change the entire direction of the trip to make easier riding out of three or four windy days I could expect to encounter in the 8–10 days I’d actually be near the coasts. I can now report from experience that the wind was distinctly hostile perhaps 25% of the time, beneficial 15–20% and not much of a factor the rest. (Even then some of the worst days were in Colorado, when I was headed north, not west.) I wouldn’t hesitate to ride the route east to west again.

This prevailing winds perception is so well entrenched that after a while I stopped trying to contradict it and simply told people that riding east to west was the manly way and that anyone who rode eastbound was really sort of cheating.”

How did you and the bike get home from the west coast?

I have no intention of coming back. There is a preliminary plan that involves spending some time in Seattle, but mom always told me not to make any promises that I cannot keep, and there are innumerable contingencies involved in doing this thing that make trying to have any concrete sort of plan afterward just not make a lot of sense. That said, I am 97% certain I will not be coming back to NYC.

Are you worried about crime?

Yes, but anecdotal evidence again suggests that the sort of crime that I am used to expecting just does not really exist along the Transamerica Trail. I am a little concerned about theft, but a loaded touring bike is not really the sort of thing that is easy to hop on and ride away, and there is probably not much on there that anybody would want anyways. I am a little concerned about high tensions in parts of the country about which I have no cultural idea, especially in the year of the Trump and high political and racial tension. I hope those fears unfounded.

What will be your longest day?

On paper, the longest day is something like eighty miles. It does not make much sense, the way our itinerary is broken down, to really even try and surpass that, short of riding two whole days’ worth of miles in one go. The itinerary is built around destinations that are good for sightseeing, sleeping, and eating, so it is unlikely that we will have any need or desire to have anything approaching a hundred mile day.

Shortest Day?

The book suggests taking a relatively short day early in the voyage and exploring the Willamsburg/Yorktown area. There is also anticipation of wanting to slow down and hang out in Yellowstone. Both sound like lovely ideas, but we will have to see how long it all ends up taking and whether or not we have time to spare, what resonates, and what sorts of actual obstacles we encounter along the way.

How fast do you anticipate going?

My relatively small sample size of rides around the city have an average of about 10.5 mph on the low end and 14 or so on the high end. Of course, that includes stop and go in the city, but it also, as yet, does not include riding fully loaded. In all likelihood an average pace around 10 or 11 mph will be good and comfortable and adequate, making the average day include about five hours on the bike.

Are you planning on including any charity aspect, or to somehow raise money along the way?

This question, alongside how public to make the whole thing has been one of the things that has most occupied my thoughts in preparation for all of this. Last week, I came across this blog post which is a long one, but gets at exactly my ambivalence about this better than anything else that I have seen. The long and short of it is that I am very wary about being very public about what is a very personal thing, that a long bike trip is actually not a great way to raise money, and that committing to do anything beyond quietly get on the bike and try very hard to keep going every day is probably above my skill level and would almost certainly result in adding undo pressure to any already difficult thing if not leaving a bunch of people disappointed if something goes wrong and commitments cannot be adhered to. I do have a lot of opinions about this and bicycling advocacy and safety have grown to be issues very near to my heart, but it is much more likely that this thing can somehow have meaningful impact if it some small way changes somebody who hears about it than by using this as a fundraiser.

There is also the issue of privilege which I am very conscious and wary of namely that this whole thing seems very self-indulgent and people live busy, difficult lives, and it feels presumptuous to ask anybody for money for something so frivolous as basically taking a lot of time to go on what I am sure many people believe to be a fun vacation. That said, I am also facing the reality of spending all of the money that I have to my name in the service of trying to accomplish this and I have been convinced over the course of several months and conversations that this might be a thing that people actually want to contribute to for any number of sound reasons, so I am exploring options for setting up ways to donate to the trip to aid us in actually making it across the country.

And though I am not actually planning on specifically riding attached to a charity, if you are moved to donate, here are some charities that I would suggest:
 Yield to Life is the sort of thing that most moves me these days — I believe that cycling is and will be fundamental to building a sustainable world, and one of the primary obstacles, at least in America, is building the infrastructure and particularly culture to tolerate that. The dangers of cycling remain one of the biggest hurdles in trying to recruit new cyclists, and anything that can be done to lower the barrier to entry is a net positive.
 Jacy is fond of the work being done by World Bicycle Relief who are helping struggling communities the world over and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa by getting them bicycles, the value of which in such parts of the world are enormous.

I would also strongly encourage getting a membership with or shopping through AdventureCycling, who are a non-profit that does great work and basically the heart and soul of American Bike Touring.

Are you planning to document your story or have a public outlet for your experiences?

Again, as with the above question, most of my feelings can best be summed up in this blog post. I am very wary of broadcasting an intensely private, difficult thing publicly and I am skeptical of the thing even holding any actual interest or value to anybody other than the two of us who are doing it or other people who are interested in doing something similar. The whole thing is going to be above all else, incredibly tedious and difficult and painful. There will be moments of great joy and exuberance and beauty, but they are probably going to be visceral and difficult to communicate. I have no skill with the visual arts and am not planning on bringing anything other than a cell phone to photograph the world with. There is still a chance that Jacy will want to bring a camera or go pro or some such thing, at which point I will make certain to pass along the relevant link. At the moment, I have started this blog having pedaled no miles on this journey. I make no promises as to how often or how interesting updates will be. But if they will exist they will exist here. Wish us luck.

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