By Stan Purdum
“Adventure,” said the prolific writer, Louis L’Amour, “is nothing but a romantic name for trouble.”
Having spent his young manhood years knocking about the oceans on tramp steamers, hobo-ing the West on freight trains, working as a circus roustabout in one place and as a skinner of dead cattle in another, and once making a desperate flight out of the Mohave Desert on foot, L’Amour was flush with experiences to back up his remark.
Of the forced march out of the Mohave, he wrote, “It is better to sit in comfort with a cold drink at hand and read the tale than to actually walk out of the Mohave Desert as I did.”
At times, bicycle tourists might argue the point.
What rider among us would say that it is better to read about taking a bicycle journey than to actually take one? Speaking as one who has both toured and written about it, I am not quick to second L’Amour’s opinion about adventure … except now and then.
For example, a some years ago I got caught on my bike out in the barren panhandle of Texas by a nasty storm featuring lightning, driving rain, high winds and hail. Another time, I pedaled, walked and finally nearly crawled, pushing my bike up an 11,500-foot pass in Colorado while unknowingly suffering from dehydration. Take it from me, it is better for you to read about these “adventures” than to go through them first-hand.
Good Days on the Bike Far Outweigh the Bad
Everybody who rides extended tours has a bad day now and then, most of them the result of weather problems. But it is almost axiomatic that the good days, which generally are the majority, more than compensate for occasional bad ones on a tour. In fact, on both of my cross-nation tours, the days bearing trouble were almost always singular events. Only rarely did two problem days come in a row, and when they did, they were followed by a string of days so excellent they made me glad to be on my bike on the open road.
All of this is by way of explaining why four weather-problem days in a row, coupled with some bike-unfriendly routes, made my tour along the Ohio River an “adventure” to remember.
My idea was to follow the mighty Ohio where it borders the state of Ohio — essentially from Cincinnati to East Liverpool — switching from shore to shore, depending on which offered the best bike path in each area. I also knew that high temperatures could be a terror on the tarmac, so I purposely scheduled my trip for the first week of June rather than in August.
But Bad Days Can Include: Pavement-Melting Heat…
The surprise was that the first three days of the trip, during which I rode from the Cincinnati area to Gallipolis, Ohio, proved to be unseasonably hot for that week in southern Ohio. As the afternoon temperatures nudged 100 degrees, I fried on the road and became so hot that I was repeatedly in distress. I managed to get through the days by stopping frequently in the shade to let my internal temperature return to somewhere near normal, and then advancing a few more miles before repeating the process.
At least the route was good — for the first day and a half. I left from Covington, Kentucky (across the river from Cincinnati) on Kentucky Route 8, a quiet, low-traffic road affording occasional views of the river. At Augusta, Kentucky, I took a ferry to the Ohio side and followed U.S. 52 to Portsmouth, camping en route in Aberdeen in a RV park right on the river.
Route problems began at Portsmouth and continued to Chesapeake, at the very bottom of Ohio. Between those two communities, there simply is no good choice for cyclists. On the Ohio side, almost the entire way of 52 is high-speed, high-traffic four-lane, with much of it being freeway, on which bicycles are not allowed.
The balance is expressway, which does not prohibit bikes. But who enjoys riding with semis whizzing by alongside?
The Kentucky option is U.S. 23, all of it a four-lane expressway, a heavily traveled, high-speed thoroughfare as well. There are no other choices, even if one is prepared to abandon the river. That’s because mountains on both shores rule out any parallel paths.
Being Trapped Between a Rumble Strip and 18-Wheelers…
So in the end, I crossed the river on the West Portsmouth bridge and rode 23, figuring it at least would have a paved shoulder. It did, about three-feet wide, but about 30 inches of it was taken up by a continuous rumble strip, forcing me to ride right on the white line and hope the 18-wheelers would give me a little room. I wasn’t much fun, and I seldom saw the river in any case.
I spent that night in a motel at Greenup, Kentucky, as camping choices were nil. The next morning, I recrossed into Ohio from Ashland and pedaled more expressway to Chesapeake. Ohio, at least, hadn’t messed up the safety lane with a rumble strip.
Ohio Route 7 begins in Chesapeake and follows the river northward, and frankly, after the misery of the expressway riding, 7 proved to be a delight, at least as far as Gallipolis. It’s a two-laner with a rural feel and carries only moderate traffic. At times, I had the highway to myself. Only the intense heat was a spoiler.
Arriving finally in Gallipolis, I was so heat-distressed that I didn’t even look for a place to camp, but went directly to a motel.
The Searing Heat Being Replaced with Driving Rain
The heat broke during the night, driven off by a downpour that continued through the following day, hence prolonging the “adventurous” aspect of my journey. I set out anyway, but by the time I reached Pomeroy, Ohio, I was thoroughly drenched. Worse, however, as I looked at the map, I saw that Route 7 was about to become four-lane expressway again for a lot a miles, and the truck traffic was already building. With the rain showing no sign of letting up, I decided to end my trip in Pomeroy. A quick phone call home was all it took to arrange a pick-up.
The next day, I sat in my comfortable, dry, air-conditioned home, cold drink at hand, writing about my journey. The misery parts of it were already fading from my memory, but I recalled clearly the interesting things I saw, the little river towns I rolled through, the ferry ride across the big river, the people I talked too, the good places I found to eat, the hum of my bike tires on the blacktop, and the sense of accomplishment I felt each day to have made my mileage goals despite the weather problems.
They were indeed days of adventure.
I was already thinking about where my next tour should be.
Readers: We invite you to share your own “bad day(s) on the bike” stories in the Comments below the Newsletter version of this article. Heaven knows we all have some stories!
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.
John Marsh says
I’ll get us started.
I do think we all have one or two such stories of miserable days on the bike.
My first ride with friends along the popular routes in the North Georgia Mountains is one of mine. It was during the Tour de Georgia, a few years ago. We had gone up to ride to the top of one of the gaps to watch the Tour roll by. The day started with bright sunshine and temps in the mid-70s. Perfect! No sign of the called-for rain, so we all elected to leave our rain gear in the car.
Which was all well and good until we got caught out – on a 10-mile stretch between gaps through fairly wide-open terrain – in the middle of a driving thunder-lightning-rain-and-hailstorm! It was like being shot with a BB machine gun for miles on end! I could barely see the wheel in front of me, and the lightning strikes seemed dangerously close. But there was no place to hide, so we just rolled on through the storm.
By the time we reached to top of the next gap – having passed many cowbell-ringing fans on the climb (that took just a bit of the suffering edge off!) – the temp had dropped into the mid-50s, and we were soaked to the bone! We stood at the top of that gap shivering uncontrollably while the peloton zoomed past in a cold, wet blur. Thank goodness, a kind soul on a SAG truck started handing out garbage bags that hundreds of cyclists donned as torso cover for the 10-mile descent back into Dahlonega. You’ve never heard such a racket as the sound of hundreds of garbage bags flapping in the wind going down a mountain!
It was a day we still talk about.
Kerry Irons says
How about a tire problem in the heat of the South Dakota Badlands? I was on a long tour and was using tubulars (big mistake). The heat of the Badlands caused the glue to melt and the tire valve was ripped out of the tire. Replacing the tire really did no good because the glue remained soft in the heat, so I was forced to walk up all the hills. And I ran out of water! It felt like my tongue was about 3 inches in diameter! Luckily some kind folks gave me water at a turnout and I was able to roll (downhill) into Wall, SD. I rode the next day into Rapid City where I mail ordered clincher rims and tires so I could rebuild my wheels and finish the tour. An adventure!
Laurie Googasian says
There have been several, but the worst was the event ride I did three weeks ago. 100 miles of chip seal in temps that topped out at 105. Only 5 rests stops on the century route, and unevenly spaced (10, 31, 47, 76, and 92 miles) Lunch at mile 76 was turkey sandwiches (with mayo) that had been sitting out in the heat all morning. If it hadn’t been for the guy who went out and bought ice and water out of his own pocket and driven around the course distributing it, a lot of us would have been in deep trouble. I was drinking 2 full bottles every 5 miles or so, and there was NO PLACE to refill between rest stops. Rural routes are pretty and traffic free, but need to be very well supported.
Jeff Kadet says
Last year in May about a week before the Giro was to pass through, my wife and I rode through the Col de Vars (in southeast France and almost 7000 ft of elevation) carrying plenty of weight in our panniers. Our starting point for the day was Barcelonette. (This was three months on the road so our panniers were reasonably heavy.) A little before the start of the climb, I stopped to take a picture of a sign announcing that the road to the Col de Vars would be closed in a few days for the Giro. A fellow in a car stopped to chat. Sadly, though, with my limited ability of understanding anything in French, I think in retrospect that he warned me of the bad weather ahead. As the skies were a bit threatening at the time, I thought that he was saying that the weather would clear.
Catching up with my wife, we climbed very slowly under threatening skies, but at about seven or eight kilometers from the top, the skies stopped threatening and a light snow started up. As nothing was sticking on the road, this wasn’t a big problem. Actually, we’d been worried about rain and getting soaked in relatively cold conditions, so the snow was less of an issue. As we progressed, though, the snow got heavier, the wind stronger (almost always a headwind…what else is new?), and the road got seriously steeper. So, we started pushing when we had just over four kilometers left to the summit.
That was a long, cold, and bracing four kilometers. Pushing the bikes kept most of us (aside from our fingers) warm enough, but the sharp sting of the snow (sleet?) against our cheeks was physically painful. Needless to say, the visibility was just about zilch, so we couldn’t at least see any of the scenic beauty that we were passing through. We can only imagine what the few passers-by in cars must of thought of the image they were seeing.
Happily arriving at the top, we were even more overjoyed to find a simple small building that had a small concrete covered patio allowing us some shelter. (We couldn’t get inside; we were just grateful for the covered patio.) Parking our bikes on the patio and not venturing out from our small protected sanctum, we probably spent 30 minutes or so going through the slow process of finding in the panniers and then donning pretty much all the warm clothes, heavy gloves, booties, etc. that we carried with us.
Eventually, we pushed the bikes through the couple of inches of accumulated snow out to the roadway and remounted for the descent. Thankfully, while the snow was sticking everywhere else, it was not sticking on the road so we had no slushy or icy slippery spots to worry about. The road was just wet. We ride 700c x 35 touring tires that have served us well.
As the wind and snow were still going strong on our downhill, we had painful cheeks and I occasional had to slow down to a literal crawl when my eye glasses didn’t sufficiently protect my eyes. As we weren’t going very fast given the conditions, our hands continually clutching the brakes hurt pretty badly as well.
Happily, after about seven or eight kilometers of descent, the snow abated, the road completely dried, and we comfortably continued the descent into Guillestre. Riding into a food store’s parking lot, I felt my back tire being more than a little squishy. So, checking it, I confirmed the fact and pumped it back up after our shopping to see if it would hold enough air for our short remaining ride to our gîte. It didn’t, meaning that I pushed the bike the last few hundred meters from the store to the gîte. Checking thetire and tube, I found not only a flat, but that my back tire was ready to be chucked with cord showing through for probably a quarter of the circumference. Fortunately, given prior issues on long tours, we carry an extra tire or two. Not only was I seriously lucky that the tire held until our arrival in Guillestre, but it gave me another good lesson in the need to regularly check without fail the condition of my tires. I would have thought that with my being in my late 60s that I would be smart enough already to do this, but …
With a little luck, we’ll eventually be back to the Col de Vars and actually be able to see the beauty of this gorgeous area.