Portland-to-Portland Bike Tour

Riding across the country had been a vague and distant goal for many years, and after spending the previous two summers thruhiking, I decided it was probably a good time to give it a shot.

I wanted to do the TransAm but I also wanted to ride from Portland, OR to Portland, ME. As a compromise, I followed the TransAm until I hit Kentucky, at which point I took the Underground Railroad route up to Canada and then the Northern Tier across to Maine. This worked out to approximately 5400 miles.

I was on the road for 77 days (June 3rd to August 18th, 2019), seven of which were zero days spent off the bike. My daily goal was eventually 80–100 miles, but because I am lazy, I did not train, and it took a few weeks to get my knees ready for bigger days.

Highlights

  • The ospreys living in the nest box in Wisdom, MT, one of which divebombed me totally unprovoked. It was traumatic.
  • Yellow-headed blackbirds in Montana, which make the most amazing mechanical grating noise.
  • The really weird looking cows standing by the road outside Jackson, MT, which turned out to be a pair of mooses. They ran off to the mountains together.
  • Yellowstone. The rangers act like you’ll get run over and die if you bike in the park: I can’t vouch for the other roads, but the official TransAm route was fine. Definitely make the most of it and stop and see everything because you’re guaranteed parking right up front.
  • The pub in Walden, CO, where the locals were eagerly listening to the police radio describing a hostage situation unfolding at the laundromat down the street.
  • The time I thought a bunch of crazy people started shooting guns after dark and finally stuck my head out of my tent and realized it was the 4th of July.
  • Night riding by the light of the full moon in western Missouri to escape some of the heat wave that would make the next 5 days the most physically and mentally draining of the trip.
  • The guy in Indiana who saw me coming, drove his truck out to the highway I was riding on, and got out in order to greet me in his birthday suit, before getting back in and driving away again.
  • Day 55, the first time I glanced inside my (opaque) water bottle since washing it at the start of the trip. It was covered in mold.
  • The Amish father and sons rollerblading together on the bike path in Ohio.
  • The lovely couple on Warm Showers in St. Catharines, Ontario, who are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.
  • Daytripping to Toronto via bus, getting carsick, and realizing it had been 8 weeks since the last time I rode in a motorized vehicle, which is probably the longest period ever in my life.
  • The cafe in Ticonderoga, NY that had a gigantic decorative pencil suspended by the ceiling.
  • Lobster rolls in Maine.

Note on Kansas

Everyone hates on Kansas and I just want to say that 1) eastern Colorado is totally indistinguishable but escapes all the criticism, and 2) Kansas isn’t really that awful. Yes, it feels like you could slide right off the face of the planet and into the abyss, but there are super cool birds in Kansas (scissor-tailed flycatchers!) and I saw my first ever fireflies.

If you’re going to hate on a state, I recommend Kentucky as an alternative to Kansas. Every road in Kentucky is a gauntlet of unleashed dogs and they are out for blood*. Stopping, dismounting, and walking away was usually effective, but I started carrying a giant stick to make it clear I meant business.

I would also like to say, if you went westbound and are cracking tired jokes about how you didn’t want to make things easier on yourself, just stop. I had constant headwinds in Kansas thanks to Hurricane Barry. Nobody is getting a free ride across the country.

* Either blood or pats. Thankfully the one huge pitbull that charged me turned out to want the latter, but that could have gone very badly.

Logistics

Accommodations

My primary goals were to 1) be cheap, and 2) be flexible. Goal #1 ruled out buying the Adventure Cycling mapsets, which possibly included information about cheap drop-in lodging for touring cyclists. Goal #2 mostly ruled out services like Warm Showers, because I did not want to guess where I was going to be when I was done riding for the day, let alone a couple days in advance.

Thus, I stealth camped almost every night. This was great sometimes but was pretty stressful when I couldn’t find a hidden spot and when I was near large population centers. I later learned you can ask to camp at police stations and fire departments and so on, but I didn’t know this at the time. I often ended up hiding in parks and cemeteries and behind abandoned buildings: all places I really do not want to meet someone after dark.

Do I recommend doing this? No way. But, despite people definitely seeing me, I never actually got into any trouble or had anyone confront me. And my total housing expenses for those 2.5 months worked out to under $60.

Navigation

As mentioned, I was too cheap to buy the Adventure Cycling maps. I relied on other people’s public Ride With GPS routes and whenever I had wifi, I looked up potential upcoming resupply stops on Google Maps so I had some idea where I could get food and water.

Calories

I didn’t carry a stove and planned to subsist on snack items that don’t require cooking, like I do on thruhikes. However, I quickly discovered that I could just eat fast food all day. McDonald’s was my favorite because they seem to have the most reliable outlets and wifi, plus they had the stroopwafel McFlurry all summer. In more rural areas, I frequented convenience stores and stocked up on frozen burritos and Hot Pockets.

I don’t recommend this either, especially if you have any interest in losing weight on tour*.

* … also, stopping at McDonald’ses up to three times a day probably more than offset the money I saved by stealth camping everywhere like an idiot. I’m too scared to do the math.

Gear

  • Bike: 2013 Surly Long Haul Trucker with minimal modifications, mostly just added a rear rack and fenders and raised the handlebars. Leather saddle by Selle Anatomica; I highly recommend them over Brooks.
  • Storage: Cheap 35-liter pair of panniers from some random company on Amazon, lined with turkey roasting bags for water/smellproofing. Drybag strapped to rear rack. Quilt in stuffsack strapped to handlebars. Top tube bag. Phone in handlebar mount.
  • Clothes: One longsleeve shirt. One pair bike shorts. Skirt to wear instead of shorts whenever I wasn’t riding. Melanzana fleece microgrid dress for insulation. Uniqlo down vest for extra insulation. Dance warmup pants for wind/water-resistance. Rain jacket and waterproof helmet/saddle cover. Half-length Buff as helmet liner/ear cover. UV leg sleeves and full-fingered gloves for sun protection.
  • Tent: Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1
  • Quilt: Enlightened Equipment* Revelation. Rated 10 degrees when I bought it but people complained and they use more fill now, so it’s more like 20 degrees by their current rating system. Either way, this was SUPER DUPER OVERKILL but it’s all I had. You could bring a much lighter quilt and pair it with a warm puffy for the cooler nights in the Rockies.
    * Don’t get EE. All the down in mine migrated to the outer baffles because they weren’t sewn all the way, and now even after washing, it’s barely adequate at 40 degrees. I’m replacing it with a Nunatak.
  • Safety gear: Fashionable hi-vis reflective harness. Helmet with mirror and loose chunk of styrofoam after my bike fell on it in Kansas. No gun, no pepper spray, no bear spray, no knife longer than an inch. (I didn’t want or use the knife, but it’s included in my multitool.) I also did not have bike lights, the idea being that I was never going to be riding after dark (read: I couldn’t be bothered to figure out where/how to mount the lights around my bags). This was generally the case but it did make finding a campsite very urgent after sunset.

Bike Issues

I had zero flats. I heard a lot of people singing the praises of Schwalbe Marathons, but my front tire is still whatever came with my bike and my rear tire is whatever my local bike shop had in stock a couple years ago.

The only thing that went wrong in 5400 miles was my front derailleur cable snapping in New York, which was barely a problem because the terrain wasn’t steep and I could stay on the middle chainring very comfortably until I got to a bike shop.

Other than that, I replaced my cassette and chain before I left and replaced the chain again in Illinois. I might have gotten more mileage out of it had I not completely neglected chain maintenance on tour. (All I did was reapply lube or, when the bottle ran out two days before the end of the tour, I experimented with using sunscreen. Turns out it doesn’t work very well.)

Rider Issues

Let’s just say that biking really takes a toll on the whole butt region when you squeeze it into tight synthetic shorts and park it on a bike saddle and spend 2.5 months riding for 10 hours a day. This goes double for women. I think pretty much everything that could possibly afflict me afflicted me, despite my best efforts with chammy cream and frequent shorts-off breaks to air things out and a nightly baby-wipe bath. To be fair, it took a while to resign myself to stopping at laundromats every week or so. I got used to marinating in my filth on thruhikes, but that’s not so smart on bike tours.

(It’s worth noting that on my previous tour, I had none of these problems. I used the exact same saddle, so it could be because I switched brands of bike shorts as a cost-cutting measure or it could paradoxically be that I started using chammy cream, but I’m guessing it’s mostly because I spent about twice as long biking every day, plus the tour itself was about twice the duration, plus I wasn’t showering every other day this time.)

As a gently-raised Oregonian, I was also completely unprepared for the miserable cocktail of heat and humidity that suffocates the entire eastern half of the continent in the summer. I found out what heat rash is. I also found out about chiggers and no-see-ums and deer flies and how airborne bugs fly faster than I can ride. I’m just grateful for my continued ignorance about black flies.

But the most consistent annoyance was gnats hitting my sunscreen-coated face, sticking to it, and slowly dying on it, often palpably twitching in the process. I would accumulate dozens of corpses and maintained a supply of napkins to wipe them off whenever I parked, to spare people the trauma of seeing me looking like human flypaper. It’s possible that conventional sunscreen is less sticky than the zinc oxide kind I was using, but next time I’m ditching the sunscreen and covering up with fabric instead. Hopefully this will save some lives and make me slightly less crazy trying not to scratch.