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Unexpected Realities of Bike Touring

Packing up after a frigid lunch outside a grocery store. Got my four layers on my bum.
Packing up after a frigid lunch outside a grocery store. Got my four layers on my bum.

My biggest fear on our journey was by far, facing the cold. I chill easily and when I’m cold, I feel it through my bones and it doesn’t go away. My lips turn blue and my extremities numb.

In our first few days of touring after leaving Oslo, we’ve faced not only raw temperatures, but rain and wind on top of the cold.

In the morning, I dress in my cycle touring uniform, which includes four layers covering my bum: underwear to prevent chafing, bike shorts to cushion my arse (do they even really help?), long pants to keep me warm, and rain pants to fend of the rain. Four layers. I don’t wear that many layers when I play in the snow.

Prior to leaving, we had budgeted one night in a hostel to three nights under the stars. Further, we estimated that 50 daily kilometers seemed a reasonable amount of riding that would allow us to rise and get going without rushing and provide us free time in the evening. This would also get us through the Shengen Zone within our 90-day visa allotment without putting in super long days. We neglected to factor in rest days.

Turns out bike touring is hard.

We’ve toured before, and it’s been tough. Tough as in I wanted to quit with 20 miles left to ride, hurl my bike into oncoming traffic, and sob in fetal position in a ditch. We called for a rescue pick up on that tour. But that was our first tour, we expected to feel exhausted.

We handily rode 50 miles with friends a few weeks before departing. Of course, that wasn’t on fully loaded bikes with an Australian Shepherd in tow.

We fell substantially short of our distance goal on each of our first three days on the road. Reaching just over 35k each day seemed implausible to me. I’ve run marathons and a 50k in less time than it took us to ride a shorter distance. How was that possible?

Even my body felt like I had just completed a distance running event. I’m rarely terribly sore after a long ride, yet my back felt like a corkscrew and my crotch like it lived in a pinched zipper. I likened my flubbery legs to an accordion – heavy and flimsy. On day two, we rode about 20 meters from our campsite and I was ready to end the day. Done. No more. Every ten minutes or so, I’d cock my neck to the left and pop, crack the pain away.

Beautiful country roads leaving Sarpsborg, Norway. Don't let that blue sky deceive you, the winds were on at full force.
Beautiful country roads leaving Sarpsborg, Norway. Don’t let that blue sky deceive you, the winds were on at full force.

Our first day greeted us with pouring rain that cut our ride shorter than planned and left us scrambling for shelter. Huddling in our tent under a porch roof, we constantly awoke to rain pelting our tent, wind threatening to blow us away, and loud bass playing the same song over and over. This is the rhythm of the night…

Our second day, we rode under blue skies, but the rains came back overnight, pounding our tent. I kept wondering if it was possible for the rain to grow stronger, and each time I asked, the rain responded with roaring laughter. We assembled our bags inside our tent and shook out our tent under a bridge, putting on a riveting show for the school children walking by, two by two, hand in hand.

And that wind.

We faced 60-75km/hour headwinds on days two and three. It was like pedaling uphill for seven hours. Of course, our ride was far from flat, and with the sight of each incline, I cursed ourselves for beginning a tour in a beautiful land carved by glaciers, creating abundant hills. I gritted my teeth as I propelled my way up, somehow mustering the strength to complete one pedal revolution after another.

The start of the North Sea Cycle Route greeted us with hills. This one here was just a wee baby compared to what lay ahead.
The start of the North Sea Cycle Route greeted us with hills. This one here was just a wee baby compared to what lay ahead.

The downhill was no better. After reaching the crest, we faced a wall we had to combat by pushing forward with all our force, our hamstrings threatening to cramp at any moment. Defeated, I remained in my granny gear even on the flats, as I was no match for this wind.

Crossing the border from Norway into Sweden took us across a gorge where we faced the strongest gusts yet. Cars buzzed by, as we rode along a separated path, with wind blasting us from the side. My racks and panniers wobbled back and forth as I will myself to keep still. I knew even the slightest movement – a gear change, a glance in my rearview mirror, a wipe of the snot dripping from my nose – could set me off balance and into the road.

And if nature’s forces weren’t enough to combat our weary bodies, the land texture joined the battle. Pedaling down the dirt and gravel driveway of the guesthouse we stayed after our first day of finally reaching 50k, I lost my balance and my front wheel caught a thick patch of wet dirt that threw me down like a flailing soccer diva. Unable to unclip from my pedals in time, I lay on the ground, in the rain, with my loaded bike smothering me. Knowing Dave was right behind, I threw out my left hand and yelled STOP, as if my hand held the force to prevent Dave from skidding out and crushing me. I imagined myself buried under a load of two touring bikes and a dog trailer. Luckily, Dave stopped in time and my despair turned to laughter. The icing on the cake was my audience of Norwegian guests at the end of the drive, who had all witnessed my spill.

We’ve broken our 3:1 camping to hostel rule, opting to stay out of the cold and elements in exchange for comfort. We felt weak, like we couldn’t handle what we had initially planned. We felt the time on our Shengen Visa dwindling rapidly, on account of our inability to push harder. Eighty-one days and counting.

After warming inside our cozy cabin, we realized we needed to stop being so hard on ourselves and give ourselves the permission to feel run down and defeated. We needed to stop stressing about the status of our Shengen Visa. There were trains that could take us out of the Shengen Zone. It was ok if we felt tired and wanted to end the day before the torrential rains soaked us and our gear. There was no shame in wanting a warm place to rest indoors, in the comfort of a bed, with WiFi. And rest days are crucial if we want to continue our journey and enjoy the ride.

Even Sora felt exhausted after a long day of bike touring. And she was just taking in the elements from the seat of her trailer.
Even Sora felt exhausted after a long day of bike touring. And she was just taking in the elements from the seat of her trailer.

Amidst the loathing I cast to the weather gods, I also remembered that everything is temporary. This pain in my body would turn to strength. The rain would turn to sun and back to rain. There would be days with the wind in our face and days when it pushed us along. Some days would fly by, while others would drag on. Everything constantly changes and I can only live in the present moment, accepting it for what it is.

When I awoke this morning and took Sora out for her walk, I was again greeted by the familiar feeling of rain pattering my coat, chills pulsing through my veins, and the wind trying it’s best to keep me from moving forward. I sigh, and lay out my uniform for the day, all four layers.

 

Jen Sotolongo

Jen is the Chief Storyteller and Photographer for the Long Haul Trekkers. Born with the travel bug, she has lived in Spain, Chile, and New Zealand. When she’s not galavanting around the world by bicycle, she is running long distances in the woods, exploring nature, or whipping up delicious vegan meals. She is always planning her next adventure.

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