Finding Balance Through Bicycle Touring

Exploded Touring BikeI have a confession: I could probably count the number of days in the past year I’ve ridden a bike–I mean really clicked off some miles–on one hand. Life, as it so often does, has provided its fair share of roadblocks. I bought a fixer-upper first home, started a new job, got engaged. There is a newly adopted puppy as well as the fast-approaching wedding date and all the planning and stress that goes along with it. Meanwhile the bikes sit neglected, in pieces and with flat tires.

Maybe these are excuses. Throughout my life I have always believed you find time for the things you are passionate about. You are never too busy to pursue the things that matter. The past year or two has really beaten that thought out of me. I’ve come to realize that, despite my idealistic views, it is not within the realm of current scientific understanding to create time that does not exist.

And thus begins the negative feedback loop. Riding stops being a habit. Free time becomes precious, and other priorities–family, friends, hobbies–take precedent. The physical energy fades and the body stops craving the endorphins generated from an afternoon in the saddle. You quickly fall out of shape. The whole process of tuning up the bike, getting dressed up in the riding costume, and pedaling out into the elements becomes a major chore.

In my case, the mental adversity of riding won out.

Cycling Road Blocks
Cycling road blocks with frequent touring partner Lee.

When you spend enough time traversing some of the more well-traveled bicycle routes throughout the country, you encounter a wide range of touring cyclists. These cyclists come from all walks of life. The conversation often reveals some interesting motivations for a person’s decision to tackle any extended journey by bicycle.

Some have dreamed about their great adventure for years. Others decided on a whim, with little to no experience or training, to buy a bike and hit the road. Still more find a major adventure like transversing the country by bike to be an opportunity to break free from a rut or make a major life change. There are young people between semesters or jobs, couples taking advantage of their retirement.

When I tackled the TransAmerica Trail in 2015, I was ready to make a clean break. I quit my cushy gig of five years as a tech journalist. I moved all of my belongings into storage. I shipped my bike off to the West Coast, packed my bags, and set off to cross the heartland. To borrow from Robert Bly, I saw it as a sort of Iron John moment–a chance to embrace my inner “wild man” and get to the core of who I was, my desires, and my motivations.

When I arrived back in Baltimore, I jokingly would tell those asking about my trip that I had covered enough miles to satisfy a lifetime of riding, that I would never be mounting a bike again. The joke was one me though, as that line of thought, whether subconsciously or merely by circumstance, became a reality. I was exhausted of the bike. Not physically exhausted–I was in the best shape of my life–but simply fatigued by the thought of riding. To ride a bike eight hours a day for 70 days is no easy task, and perhaps the hardest part is waking up each morning knowing that another 80 miles lies ahead. And so my will to ride became sporadic, coming back in bursts of motivation only to quickly fade again.

C&O Canal Bike Touring

Last month I finished my first tour since the TransAm, pedaling out to Western Maryland to spend a few days on Deep Creek Lake. Part of my route included the C&O Canal Trail, a cycling and hiking path that my rear end has become quite familiar with. I’ve ridden various segments of it on several tours, including its entire 180-mile length as part of a ride from Pittsburgh to DC.

Each time the familiar complaints arise. It is an arduous ride on an unpaved path marred with pot holes and quite often mud, muck, and loose gravel. After a few miles you start to wonder why you would choose to do something like this rather than simply drive the distance in the comfort of a car (or not take the trip at all). And so on this most recent ride, coming off a couple of years without much time on the bike, I honestly had to think hard about why I choose to be a touring cyclist.

What conclusion did I come to?  I enjoy the scenery. I enjoy the outdoorsy aspect of it. I enjoy the exercise and the exhausting feeling after a long day of riding. But more than anything, I am coming to think I do these rides for the challenge. The physical challenge, yes, but more so the mental challenge.

I’ve come to learn that the body can be pushed to great physical extremes, but it is the mind that will often conquer us. And I like to think I’m proving something to myself when I settle in for 20 miles of climbing. When I choose not to give up. When I push myself those few extra miles. When I do this day after day and emerge at the end of the tour with the sense that there is little in life that I cannot overcome with a bit of perseverance. It might be exhausting. It might be hard. It might suck. It at time has left me defeated and wanting anything but to ride a bike for any time or distance, but beating those thoughts is what pushes me. What pushes you?

Kevin Krause is a writer, musician, and  avid cyclist from Baltimore, MD. Among other road touring experiences, in 2015, he completed the TranAmerica Trail. He is the editor of the Woodworking Tool Review

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