Heath Maddox Ruminates on the Concept of Touring
Touring seems to have become the bastard child of the cycling family. I have noticed that many serious cyclists, whether they be died-in-the-wool roadies to whom a triple chainring is absolute sacrilege or newschool mountainbikers who won't ride to the corner store without four inches of triple-clamped suspension fork travel, regard bicycle touring as terribly un-hip.
To some, touring brings to mind visions of an older, bearded, glasses-wearing, carrot-eating guy riding a cantilever-braked, bar-end friction shifting ultra-relaxed-geometry bike with 4-cross 38-hole rims, front and rear racks and fenders and sporting a 70's-era white and red Bell helmet with a rear-view mirror, either blue jeans with metal pantleg protectors around his ankles, or stretch-poly fake khaki cycling shorts and, last but not least, $29.95 bottom-of-the-line mail-order cycling shoes that last forever.
While this may not be an entirely flattering description, observant individuals will be forced to admit that it isn't really that far off the mark. This character does exist, I have seen him occasionally sniffing around the dumpster at the back of the local bike shop looking for tubes that only need a patch or two. The business side of cycling hates him because he's frugal and more interested in durability and function than lightness and whether or not the product in question will match his club jersey or custom-painted frame. The enthusiast side of cycling scorns him, because, well, he looks like a recumbent rider.
Other cyclists believe touring to be a pursuit better left to the cycling bourgeoisie. These misguided cynics believe the propaganda that fills the pages of glossy brochures promoting the idea that a rewarding cycle vacation can only be achieved riding carelessly unencumbered through a pastoral countryside while a small army of smiling young college-educated wage slaves attends to every last detail. The people who go on this kind of tour are people whose lives are comfortable yet unexciting, adventure seekers who want to try their legs at touring, but don't know exactly how or where to do it. If camping is even involved, the tents are already set up when the group reaches camp, pads and sleeping bags laid out and fluffed up. Dinner is prepared while the saggers swap tales of the open road and dishes are whisked away magically at the end of the meal.
But, contrary to popular opinion, you don't have to be Tour Nerd or a Sagger to go touring by bicycle. Maybe you've heard the story of the crazed cyclist who rode to New Orleans on a fixed-gear cruiser or the wacko who rode a girl's five-speed with wire baskets wearing rubber galoshes all the way from Texas. On a protest ride during the Gulf War, I rode from Santa Cruz to San Francisco along hilly Highway 1 with a bunch of guys on restored vintage single-speed Schwinns. One of them rode north in his flip-flops, and when they blew out early in return trip, he rode barefoot.
Once I met an East German couple touring Ireland on department store bikes. I rode with them for a day, and when I suggested to one of them that perhaps toe-clips would make him more efficient, the informed me that he discarded his toe-clips when he discovered that with his foot mounted properly on the pedal, his heel would hang up on his bulging, bungied-together panniers which were mounted too far forward to allow for full rotation. He had been riding for weeks on a fully loaded bicycle with the pedal planted squarely in the middle of his instep.
So if all these vastly different scenarios can be called touring, what is the common denominator? Asking when a ride turns into a tour is a little like asking when a walk turns into a hike. Is it the shoes? Is it where and how you spend the night? Or is it how far you ride? A friend of mine says that for him, touring is going too far to get back in one day. For lots of folks, though, touring is more a pace or a general approach to cycling than anything else. There are lots of Sierra Clubbers out there touring around smelling the flowers by bicycle every weekend and going back home to sleep in their comfortable beds at night. In fact, you can ride almost any bike and go just about anywhere if you have a mind to-and be touring.
One of the nicest things about touring is exactly what makes it unappealing to the masses: the relative lack of competition and commercialization that accompany it. As far as I know, there aren't any professionally sponsored tourists. You don't see ESPN out there trying to get helicopter footage of fully loaded cycle tourists making a break from the touring peloton. There's no high-gloss, hyped-up Touring Bike Action magazine with countless full-page ads of over-priced, under-engineered unobtanium downhill touring doo-dads.
What I am getting at here is that while probably shouldn't tour in your thongs, you don't necessarily need the latest high-tech clipless pedals either. There are ways to tour comfortably without going overboard and there are dozens of good how-to cycle touring books to get you going as well as a wide array of touring companies to tailor to your particular needs, wants and budget. The most important thing to remember is that you have lots of different options and money (or lack of it) can't hold you back if you are determined to tour.
If you've got a bike, get on it and ride. Bring a friend or go it alone. Pick a comfortable pace you can maintain all day. Now breathe in the cool spring air. Smell the sweet, mouth watering scent of the tender new grass as it blends subtly with the wild plum blossoms. Sit up in the saddle for a moment and take in the sweep of your surroundings. Eat a picnic lunch on a sunny hillside, or stop at the general store. Presto, you're touring!