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Your Two-Wheeled Escape: Bike Touring 101

The dry weather season in Oregon is a wonderful time of year to head out of town and explore the best Oregon has to offer. If leisurely pedaling your days away on under-explored roads with destinations like parks, swimming holes or hot springs interspersed with local culture and the excuse to eat high-calorie meals along the way sounds like fun, bike touring is for you. When you travel by bike, you’ll quickly get to know locals as you immerse yourself in the culture, landscape and beauty of Oregon.

There are two basic ways that most cyclists approach touring: hauling it all or “credit card”. The first assumes you’ll be carrying a tent, cooking supplies, food and anything else you might need on the road. This optional opens you to more flexibility and destinations – the potential to ride in remote, low-traffic areas. You’ll also be subjected to whatever the great outdoors throws at you – on the bike or off. But hey, that’s part of the charm.

The second is a little lighter on the bike but at the expense of the pocketbook: you’ll only have to carry clothes and toiletries because you’d stay in accommodations and mostly eat your meals out. On the flipside, you’ll be limited to riding to destinations that have lodging and food to offer along the way, areas that tend to have busier routes than the quiet camping option. Some people prefer the convenience, others remote the nooks and crannies of our fair state. If you’re fortunate and choose your route well, you’ll find both.

Of course, there is a ton of room in between those two extremes and one of the greatest lessons of bike touring is that there are no “wrong” options. It’s completely your trip, your way – whether that’s solo, with friends or venturing out with the entire family.

Bike touring is easy, though many people feel hindered by the need for fancy gear or a special bike. This is simply not the case, especially if you’re touring in fantastic weather (which minimizes the need for lightweight weatherproofed gear).

The beauty of bike touring is that anyone can do it on almost any bike – yes, even the one you already own and have been racking miles up on all summer. Even if you’ve never toured unsupported before it’s easy to convert the bicycle you’re riding now for anything from overnight touring in the Cascades to hitting the long, beautiful and often unexplored roads surrounding Portland.

At minimum, you’re going to need a bike that can accept a rear rack to hold panniers. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can carry any sort of back pack – event the healthiest backs can’t handle that for long rides.

Once you’ve hit the road a few times, you’ll have a better sense of what gear works for you and you can slowly start to purchase the pieces you want for the sweetest ride.

WHERE TO START

If you’ve never bike toured before, it’s best to check your rig and your legs with a short test-run tour. This is a great way to work out the kinks and decide what you’ll really need to be carrying and what you can sacrifice to save a few pounds of weight on the climbs. Near Portland, you’ve got lots of options for an overnight or two with manageable mileage, including Oxbow Regional Park, Barton County Park, Stub Stuart State Park, Vernonia City Park, Champoeg State Park and many more within about sixty miles or less of Portland.

CHOOSE YOUR TWO-WHEELED WEAPON

Keep in mind with any option that you’re going to be carrying a lot more weight than you usually do, so it’s likely that you’ll want some very easy gears and good brakes to help you stop with all that momentum.

ROAD BIKES
Depending on how fancy it is, you can attach a trailer to most any road bike and a few can even take racks. Most road bikes have higher (harder to pedal) gearing which make it more challenging on the climbs. If you’re not sure if yours will be easy enough, take it into your bike shop and ask what your options are to make it more touring friendly.

TOURING BIKES
Technically, this is a type of road bike, but specifically constructed to take weight with front and rear racks, keep your load low for stability and has plenty of room for fenders. They also some equipped with low gearing to help you haul up those hills. If you fall in love with touring, this is a wise investment to make because the space to mount fenders allows the bike to double as a fabulous winter rain bike. If you’re buying new, consider disc brakes which stop better – wet or dry – than any other brake available.

HYBRIDS OR OLDER MT. BIKES
This style of bike is a nice option because you can easily mount racks and fenders and you’ll have very low gears for the climbs. Older mountain bikes without front or rear suspension work best for pedaling efficiency, rack mounting and stability. Their wider tires allow you to get really far off the beaten path and give gravel road touring a whirl (it’s all the rage these days).

You’ll want to buy a slicker tire to ensure you’re making the most of your pedal stoked. Visit your local bike shop to inquire about your options.

GEARING UP

How you carry what you carry is definitely a personal preference. Over time, you’ll develop yours. Keep your supplies well organized for easy access that eliminates the frustration of foraging every time you need a snack, map or your sweatshirt. You’ll definitely want to pack light. Choose clothing items with versatility and lightweight fabrics that pack down small. Use stuff sacks to compress the air from apparel – these are a low cost investment that goes a long way. You’ll find them at outdoor and camping stores.

Do a quick image search for “bike touring” and you’ll see a variety of set ups. Many of them showcase bikes completely loaded down with gear – but don’t let that scare you. You can travel much lighter. The only reason to travel wish so much gear is if you’re going for more than a week, you don’t have compact clothing (light weight wool!) or you’re a needy-nervous person afraid to leave stuff behind.

RACKS
Rear racks are usually the preferred method by beginning travelers because of convenience and stability. However, carrying weight over your rear wheel can increase flats and spoke breakage. Some folks spread the weight out by using a front rack as well. To attach the rack, your bike may come with eyelets that the bolts thread into or you can use rubber coated hose clamps (readily found at hardware stores) around your frame to support it. If you use this method, make sure the clamps are very secure.

PANNIERS
Panniers are bags that attach to the sides of your rack keeping your weight low and increasing stability. Consider borrowing a pair or purchasing an inexpensive set to get started. You can also strap your gear to the rack, but you’ll find that it’s difficult to ensure it doesn’t shift around and weight carried high can be very unstable, making it harder to steer. Panniers are really your best option.

TRAILERS
Trailers are a good option for people with traditional road bikes that don’t easily take racks. Because they attach to the frame or through the center of the rear axle, they easily connect to any bike and keep weight off your rear wheel. They also have less wind resistance than a rack but can be a hassle when climbing hills and might be difficult to handle at high speeds.

If you’re new to touring, have a trailer and are on a budget without panniers, give the trailer option a try on a short overnighter. Some people prefer trailers, but most opt for panniers.

TIPS FOR SETTLING INTO YOUR RIDE

TAKE CARE
Always make sure your bike is fully tuned up well before you leave. If any parts are replaced, this gives them time to settle in and for any secondary problems to arise. A trip being cut short by mechanical troubles is never fun – and you may be out in the middle of nowhere when a problem sets in.

GETTING TO THE BOTTOM
Test your saddle over long miles. Day one is usually a little sore, day two is more sore, and by day three you might jfind that your body has settled into the saddle groove and you’re relatively pain free. Every body is different, but bike shorts with padding (chamois) will certainly help ease soreness.

OVER THE HILL
Consider the number of gears you’ll need. Much of the Pacific Northwest is mountainous and you’ll be adding 25-50 pounds of weight to your ride. Your gearing choice can make the difference between riding and pushing your bike up those hills and can protect you from injury.

If you’re not a hill climber, choose your route carefully to avoid unnecessary climbing. But out in rural regions, often there’s only one route to get you through.

FENDERS
Hey, it rains here! Nobody wants to spend all day in the wet, but fenders can make a soggy day much more bearable. Keep yours on if you’re touring at an iffy time of year. The slight weight increase is worth it.

TIRES
A wider tire (over 1” or 28c) can make for a smoother, more stable ride. Investing in a Kevlar tread is your first defense against flats – but before you head out, make sure you know how to change a tube and always keep your tires aired up to maximum pressure.

WATER
You won’t always have access to water at regular intervals, so plan to carry extra with you. Install 2-3 water bottle cages, or carry a high capacity bladder bag.

HANDLE IT
Handlebar bags make it easy to get to snacks and store maps. They range from fancy to handmade with an array of features. I found my last one in a used bike shop for a dollar!

CHECK IT OUT
When you’re on the road, oil your chain and air up the tires daily. This gives you a chance to look the bike over and make sure all looks sound and keeps your ride smooth.

PREP YOUR TOOLKIT

Here’s the minimum of what you’ll want to have on hand for any roadside mechanicals.
• 2- 3 tire levers
• Hand pump (preferably with a hose for easy inflation)
• 2 tubes – out of box and tightly wrapped in saran wrap for ultimate shrinkage
• Patch, glue and emery cloth – (essentially a patch kit without the box to save space)
• Duct tape (1 ft wrapped around a small piece of cardboard)
• Tire boot
• Presta-to-Schrader valve adapter
• A master link or replacement pin for chain repair
• A multi tool w/all the bells and whistles
• Zip ties
• Emergency spoke replacement
• Spare batteries
• 4” crescent wrench

FINDING YOUR ROUTE

Finding a route is part of the fun of planning a bike tour. There are several online mapping programs like Ride with GPS and Map My Ride. You can check out the routes of other people or create your own. These programs help you see elevation and terrain so you can choose the best route.

If you’re ever unsure about the safety of a road, check the area’s transportation department to see if a bike map exists, or ask for advice. Outside the city you won’t find bike lanes, but you might be fortunate to discover an off-road path or a designated riding area, like the fantastic Oregon Scenic Bikeways.

Choose your route carefully. Roads are often few and far between. If you wind up on a dangerous stretch, it could take 10 miles before you find a turn off. Take your time selecting your course, and ask around for advice. If you’re riding through a popular region or to a known destination, other people have certainly already found the best route.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Now that your bike is ready, it’s time to do a little in-depth research to ensure you’re well prepared.

CYCLE WILD A Portland non-profit with a mission to reconnect people to nature via the bicycle. They organize group trips in the Portland “rideshed” as well as touring education and support. WEBSITE >>

PATH LESS PEDALED Check out gear reviews and touring tips from veteran bike tourers Laura Crawford and Russ Roca. WEBSITE >>

CYCLING SOJOURNER This inspiring book and blog detail Portland author Ellee Thalheimer’s bike touring adventures – including rides around Portland – that make great beginner tours. Cycling Sojourner is filled with inspiration to see more of our great state on two wheels. WEBSITE >>

BICYCLING 101 This website offers touring options, advice and opinions. Another great resource for what to bring and creative ways to convert your bike. WEBSITE >>

RIDE OREGON RIDE Travel Oregon’s bicycle subsidiary website offers ride suggestions, routes, accommodations, points of interest and even gives you a social network to connect with other riders. WEBSITE >>

CYCLE OREGON This organization offers supported large-scale multi-day group rides, but you can check out the past routes (with maps!) for great destinations throughout the state. WEBSITE >>

TELL US ABOUT YOUR ADVENTURE!

Where are your favorite places to travel by bike? What do you pack for the journey? Send us a postcard for your change to win our summertime Wish you Were Here postcard contest. [more info]


By Tori Bortman with additional support from ORbike Editor (and bike touring enthusiast!) Ayleen Crotty

Tori Bortman is a bike mechanic, educator, consultant and the owner of Gracie’s Wrench.

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