Bike Touring 101 

A user's guide

An ambitious biking itinerary calls for some serious planning. There could be checklists, goals, schedules and advice coming from every direction. A couple of veteran riders from area bike shops sketched out practical tips for those seeking some adventure of their own.

Chris Haunold is the owner of Idaho Mountain Touring, which has been dispensing cycling gear, service, clothing and advice in downtown Boise for more than 25 years. Kirk Hall is a sales specialist at REI who brings unique notoriety to the Boise location's bike shop. In 2006, Hall became the first person to bike through every Idaho county, a feat inspired by the Idaho Passport program, which was launched in 2001 to encourage people to learn more about the state's history. The trip took 30 days, and by all accounts, he is still the only person to have ever done it.

Hall summed up the most important piece of advice for anyone contemplating an epic ride. "The first requirement, really, is the sense of adventure."

join adventure cycling

Adventure Cycling is a nonprofit service organization based in Missoula, Mont., for recreational cyclists. Pay the $40 annual membership fee and you also get discounts on maps and nine issues of the group's magazine, also called Adventure CyclingCyclist. Many members have praised the maps as the best part of the deal--they are rugged, fold sensibly and are designed with bikes in mind.

The magazine features all sorts of content that aspiring distance riders might enjoy, including a page for seeking riding companions, lists of bike tour operators and big cycling events, occasional gear reviews and feature articles that will whet your appetite for adventure.

pare it down

Hall had a pretty sensible way of framing the issue of what to bring: "If you bring everything that you might want to use at some point on your trip, you'll travel five feet a day."

He advises people to think like backpackers, choosing lighter items whenever possible, but also looking for objects that have multiple uses. Clothing can be a pillow, a poncho can be a ground cloth under a tent, and sometimes a pan for boiling water can make do as an improvised bathtub.

"What you wear becomes critically important," Haunold emphasized. "Clothing is gear. It has weight and takes up space, but many people view it as an afterthought."

Try packing pairs of the layers that are next to your body every day, but no more than that. That way you can hand wash one set daily and still have clothes as they dry.

really get to know your gear

A bike laden with upwards of 100 pounds of gear is a different kind of vehicle, and you should ride it in as many conditions as possible.

"Don't let your first day fully loaded be the day you start your tour," Hall said.

Try thinking like Olympic gold medalist Kristen Armstrong, who found stretches of road around town to mimic the banking and steepness she'd encounter in China. So load up all your gear and ride up Hilltop and carefully back down. Try cornering on Bogus Basin but preferably not at the end of a busy ski day.

Hall recounts a moment on his ride around the state when one of his brakes failed. He reached for his Allen wrench, which was the right gauge and in the right ditty bag, but only then did he learn that it wasn't long enough to fit inside the brake caliper opening.

"A shop can give you opinions, but if you ride around town, you'll have a better sense of what you need," Hall said.

stay balanced

The two main options for lugging gear are simple: trailer or panniers, though ambitious trips like that taken by the Vogel family (see story at left) can require both. Each has trade-offs that affect your ability to ride safely.

Both experts were quick to point out that many riders reflexively think of panniers as only going on the back of the bike, but too much weight back there decreases the ability of the front tire to stay in contact with the road, like an unintentional wheelie.

"You already have 80 percent of the weight over your rear wheel," Haunold said. "Balance that out with front racks."

Trailers like those made by BOB Trailer can create challenges going downhill. Hill recounted almost losing control of his bike on a downhill when he braked, but that's because he hadn't factored in the force of the trailer's weight pushing against the bike tire. Brake gradually and try to keep the trailer centered.

think ahead

Unless your ride is a short one, you'll have to buy some things along the way. Fuel for cooking stoves can be critical but choose with care. Butane canisters are hard to find and dispose of. White gas canisters can be refilled, but the gas is also hard to find and generally comes in gallon cans, which is out of scale with the needs of bikers. Find a multi-fuel stove and learn to love the fuel you're with.

don't skip the squirmy bits

It's hard to put it mildly: Your behind and a bike seat were not meant for each other. Rubbing, chafing, blistering--let's not get too clinical. One safeguard comes simply from washing bike shorts every day. Sweat as it dries leaves tiny salt crystal behind and washing shorts every day helps eliminate this abrasive.

Also consider using chamois butter, known in some circles as "butt balm." Go ahead and giggle.

"Trying to bring that up to someone while they are standing in the store can be hilarious," Haunold said. "Some people look at you in horror but it makes a huge difference."

choose a bike shop you trust

The argument that some Boise bike shops are better equipped to outfit touring riders is kind of a non-starter. Ortlieb bags, for instance, are almost mandatory, but sell so slowly that no local shop keeps them in stock.

You are probably going to special order most things, perhaps even the bike itself, so choose a shop that you feel a connection to. Ask if anyone on staff has experience with touring and see if you strike up a rapport. Ask them about how they outfitted previous customers, or how they help cross-country riders passing through. You'll know when you find the right one.

To read more about bike touring, click here.

To read more about Boise's cruiser culture, click here.

To read more about what's going on in Boise's bike world, click here.

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