The Adventures of Lycra Grrl: Certified Excellence in Bicycle Touring

“There is a war in each of us against ourselves.” –Plato

The first thought that screamed through my head Saturday morning, about five seconds after opening my eyes: IT DOESN’T MATTER.

No matter how excited I may be to have slogged up a monster hill, to have ridden up to 55 miles in one day carrying camping gear and some group supplies, to have faced my worst case scenario on the road, already I could feel all my personal victories being squashed by others. To them, acquaintances who have had far greater victories, this would matter not one whit.

It put me in a mood for the better part of a day—but soon I remembered all the overwhelmingly supportive people on my trip, leaders and participants alike. I recalled all the coworkers I’ve helped become bike commuters over the years, and how everyone has to start somewhere. We all must ride our own ride.

Joyce had said going back to your daily life could be tough.

As a graduation present to myself I enrolled in Adventure Cycling Association’sIntro to Bike Touring” course, taught by Joyce Casey and Wally Werner. After doing a bit of extra hill/distance training the last couple weeks, on July 29th I headed south towards Eugene, Oregon. Another Portland-area participant, Terri, was gracious enough to offer a carpool, and we arrived at Fern Ridge Lake together.

Fern Ridge Lake, Eugene (Saturday Evening/Sunday/Monday)
Wildlife spotted: western grebes (even parents carrying babies on their backs!)

Fern Ridge Lake was the lovely setting for our first two-ish days of instruction and preparation. This lake is an enormous reservoir that was built by the Army Corps of Engineers just northeast of the city of Eugene, Oregon. It hosts both public and private entities on the shore. Around sunrise I would take a short walk down to the marina and listen to boats bobbing along the dock, their bells lightly clanking. Then I would attempt to get a better look at the grebes, who would dive and resurface 20 feet away. Guess they didn’t want to say hi to the wacky person following them around for a better look…

On Monday afternoon I helped the first meal team procure groceries in nearby Veneta. It was good to get a warmup bike ride! We encountered an uncourteous semi driver on the way to town, but that was the only bad automobile juju I was aware of during the entire trip. Soon enough I was hauling several(!) heavy cantaloupes back to our campsite.

Adventure Cycling does group meals and meal rotations, which I enjoyed. It was no problem that I had no cooking equipment—all I needed to do was allot 20% of my cargo capacity for group gear each day, and participate in one group meal rotation (dinner, breakfast/lunch). While I think each of our groups had too many cooks (har har), participating in the meal process was a very educational experience. Later I’ll be posting about The Humble Tupperware Container, which was another pre-trip revelation.

Just Get Up That Hill (Tuesday)
Wildlife spotted: red fox 

Early Tuesday morning, we set off. Our first stop was at The Sweet Spot in Monroe, OR, for a highly recommended second breakfast of Shirley’s cinnamon rolls. Sadly Shirley had forgotten to bake extra for our group that morning—but I nabbed one of the last! Then began the great slog.

It was fairly obvious why our route began with a big hill and a higher mileage day. The plan was clearly intentional. After all, we’d be fresh out of the gate. There was also a huge empowerment element in making it up this hill—a hill that I was nervous about. I vocalized my nervousness to anyone who would listen the previous evening. Terri and I talked through the day’s route for mental preparation, and I texted my mom who reminded me “you’re tough” and didn’t buy into my worry. (She never does!) I recalled a moment in Wild by Cheryl Strayed where she was in a pickle and decided that in the middle of nowhere you could either move forward or go back. Forward it was!

Our big climb started out shady and cool, but sunny patches closer to the top took their toll as the grade increased. Over the course of two miles we climbed from about 400′ up to 1,425′, with grades up to 8%, and only two or three of our group was able to make it to the top without walking at least a little. At one point I looked back to the other side of a hairpin curve I had just traversed, and everyone I saw through the trees was walking their bike. It was a tough climb.

Eventually we came to the town of Alsea. The evening’s meal group bought vegetables from a farmer whose place we biked by just before town, and goat cheese from Alsea Acre, which we also passed. They also purchased three (delicious) pies from the local cafe, and the owner offered to drive them to our campground for free! Kindnesses like this happened elsewhere and were one of the best aspects of the trip. In town I tarried a while on the front porch of the local market. Pushing towards our camping destination I visited the Hayden covered bridge, where the clear water beckoned me to go wading below.

Beach Beach Beach Beach Beach! (Wednesday)
Wildlife spotted: spouting whales

I had a fairly specific motivation to get me through each day of the trip, and Wednesday’s was getting to the beach! As soon as our morning map meeting was over I filled up my water bottle and headed out. As Joyce predicted, the hardest climb of the day was the short hill getting back to the highway from our campground, given we’d be on cold legs. Ocean calling, I tore to the front again, only stopping for some construction about seven miles outside of Waldport. The pause allowed me to eat my lunch as second breakfast, and by the time I was attempting to follow the pilot car through the one mile construction zone, Ross had caught up to me and we rode the rest of the way to Waldport together.

In Waldport, I managed to burn an hour and a half before I knew what had happened. First I visited the Alsea Bay Bridge Interpretive Center and spent a fair amount of time marveling at the ocean and sunny afternoon, then spent some time drinking a soda in front of a market with Tony. Eventually I decided to bike the last few miles to the state park we’d be staying at. Highway 101 mostly had a huge shoulder (except strangely, going up the small hill out of town) and it was far more enjoyable than some of the Highway 101 horror stories I’ve heard.

Even though my group had the meal rotation, I still managed to enjoy this location quite a bit—likely because it was our lowest mileage day of the trip. Not only did I nab a great spot for my tent, but I got to wade in the ocean, enjoy the sunny weather, and take a shower in the evening. Getting groceries back in Waldport and getting our dinner together in time was tricky, but somehow it all came together with panache. During cleanup, John pointed out there were whales spouting out in the ocean, and I was able to watch for a few minutes (no binoculars needed!) before getting back to things.

Sea Lion Caves! (Thursday)
Wildlife spotted: swimming sea lions

Our day’s travels would take us straight down Highway 101 to Florence, then inland about 15 miles. Highway 101 afforded us a scenic ride, which included many small climbs followed by downhills as we climbed up a cape, then rolled down to a small town. Our highest elevation of the day was 475′ at Sea Lion Caves, but the tunnel before that climb was pretty harrowing.

At the entrance to this tunnel, a push button turns a light on warning auto traffic there are cyclists inside. We were advised to take the lane because there is no shoulder in the tunnel. As soon as I entered and positioned myself, I heard what sounded like an enormous truck approaching behind me. It echoed throughout the tiled walls of the tunnel. I closed my eyes and hoped they would see me and slow down so I wouldn’t be squished. Clearly they did, but at the first opportunity after that tunnel I pulled over to take a few breaths since my hands were a bit shaky. As the truck passed, I saw it was one of those enormous Dodge pickups that are one small step under needing a CDL in order to drive. Yeeps!

At Sea Lion Caves I bought some postcards and eschewed the $12 elevator ride to the cave. A staff member told people that as it was breeding season the sea lions were out on the rocks anyhow. While futzing with my bike before leaving I noticed some birds way below, and realized they were following a few swimming sea lions, which I then got to watch for a moment before heading out.

After descending from Sea Lion Caves, Highway 101 got a lot less shady and the overcast morning had completely burned off. This made the rest of the way to Florence slightly less pleasant, and by the end of the day I was developing a sunburn. In Florence I ate a Gardenburger at Mo’s (we had been given $10 out of our meal budget to do so) and filled out postcards. After mailing said postcards at the post office and a quick bathroom break at the lovely Real Food Co-op (thanks again!) I headed inland.

The highway wasn’t terrific at first but the shoulder soon opened up to the width of an entire lane! A tailwind carried me quickly into Mapleton, where we were staying at the local RV park. And what an RV park! Our tents were 15 feet from the Siuslaw River, which beckoned us to come for an afternoon swim. I hung my legs off the dock while my now-sunscreened skin baked a little more. Others jumped off the dock into the river or floated on tubes. After coming back from the dock I discovered the shady back porch, noticed the Traeger barbecue embellished to look like a tractor, chatted with the owner, and luxuriated in some fine bathrooms and laundry facilities. None of our camp sites were that bad, but I had never stayed at an RV park and this was really nice.

That evening we had dinner in town at Frank’s Place as a last hurrah. Joyce awarded us certificates to commemorate our “excellence in bicycle touring.” She then noted the next day’s forecasted heat (95 degrees) and decided to push our morning up an hour, making our map meeting at 7am instead of 8am. Oy. We all went to bed nice and early.

Home! (Friday)
Wildlife spotted: a family of deer (two fawns and mom) crossing the Siuslaw River

Besides traveling largely by myself, one of the ways I got enough alone time each day was by waking up fairly early. This meant setting my alarm for 4am on Friday. When I opened my tent the river was draped in fog, illuminated only by the fluorescent light on the dock. Walking around that morning, mist dampened my clothes.

When I left the RV park shortly after our 7am map meeting, I had tea in my water bottle. According to my TransAm map (we were now on the alternate route of Section 1!) we would soon be in Swisshome, a full-service town where I could get some water. So I drank most of my tea before it went cold. What I hadn’t budgeted on was that the markets in Swisshome and subsequent towns wouldn’t be open that early on a Friday! So I ended up making the first climb of the day with no water, and only about 1/4 cup of tea available to me. Oops. Imagine my delight then when I arrived at the open market at Triangle Lake, where the owner offered me ice water with my purchase.

Again on this day I was in the front our group, but after reapplying sunscreen and drinking my soda at Triangle Lake, I realized Todd had left ahead of me. This trip taught me that I’m a carrot rider (a goal or reward keeps me pressing forward)—so catching up with Todd became my goal for the next few hours. I summited our next climb, Low Pass (1022′) fairly quickly, and pulled into Low Pass Market after a shady descent.

At first I asked the women sitting in front if Todd had been through and how long ago that was. When they estimated he was 10 minutes ahead of me, I decided to stop for another soda. After others arrived, I took off but was now feeling a thump, thump, thump as my wheels turned.

“If I don’t look down, I don’t have a flat!” my brain bargained.

But I needed to look down. And there it was. My worst case scenario made real. (Although in my brain it is happening in a cold downpour, and I am alone.)

Turning back to the market, I asked if I could borrow anyone’s frame pump. Dan graciously loaned me his, and I started tearing gear off my bike, hyper-focused on what needed to happen. It wasn’t that bad—Sweetpea’s first flat delayed me only another 10-15 minutes, and I took care of it completely by myself. VICTORY WAS MINE! TAKE THAT, BRAIN! My worst case scenario didn’t seem nearly as dreadful as it once had.

After the victory of the flat change, my spirits took a little dive. At this point the afternoon was getting quite warm and we were heading back into the unshaded farmland of the Willamette Valley. (Lesson: if you get a flat on a hot day, fix it in the shade—not on asphalt next to a bright white concrete building.) Once when I stopped to turn my iPhone on to see if I had missed my turn (I hadn’t), I received a disappointing email. I was less than 10 miles from being done with this trip, but my motivation was waning. Joyce was right: one’s attitude can make a big difference.

Dan wasn’t far behind me, so we ended up riding back to Eugene together. We passed the campground where the trip had started, and pressed on to the airport, where the group’s vehicles were in long-term parking. The land was mostly flat and uninteresting, it was hot, and we had a bit of a headwind.

After pulling into the airport and putting my things in Terri’s van I attempted to use the shade of her car to protect my burned skin. After a few goodbyes to the other early finishers, we stopped for a cool drink and headed back towards Portland.

Would I Do It Again?

One of the first questions my mom asked was, would I do it (a multi-day bike trip) again? After a week meditating on it, I still don’t have a definitive answer to that question.

It seems there is an expectation that I should instantly be over the moon about bike touring. No—I haven’t been writing “HA + BIKE TOURING 4EVA” with hearts all over my science notebook, or planning my round-the-world honeymoon bike trip after I become Mrs. Biketouring. It often takes me some time to fully warm up to a thing (see also: Napoleon Dynamite, pickles, tofu), and it seems the things I am instantly enamored of are the things I soon can’t stand (see the hobo scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure for a cinematic demonstration). We should be glad I don’t want to be Mrs. Biketouring.

Make no mistake though. Despite that Saturday morning brain crash, I definitely enjoyed myself.

Our leaders and participants were superb. Everyone on the trip was really interesting, and I enjoyed getting to chat with people individually when I rode beside them. We had an organic blueberry farmer, an ER doctor, a psychiatrist, two college professors (one retired), an ex-postal worker, a middle school principal, two cancer survivors… Our participants lived in North Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, California, Washington, and Oregon. Our leaders Joyce and Wally had superb leadership skills and a comedy team rapport that kept everyone chuckling. I really enjoyed riding mostly alone, but having the safety net of the group and leaders should I need it.

In the end, whether I’d do another bike trip would highly depend on the particulars—especially the participants and group dynamic.

It could happen!

Check out my Intro to Bike Touring photos on Flickr.


Filed under Bicycles, Oregon

5 responses to “The Adventures of Lycra Grrl: Certified Excellence in Bicycle Touring

  1. Heather,
    i enjoyed reading your your daily descriptions.Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Joyce encouraged us to “ride our own ride,” and I think each of us did but with the addition of companionship along the way.

  2. Pingback: The Humble Tupperware Container | bikish

  3. Great blog. It was a delight to ride with you and be inspired by your strength to make it happen. Your writing is a great record of a great experience. Blessings.

  4. Erinne

    Wooo–way to go!!! Even if you’re not head-over-heels for touring (yet?), I’m glad you got to have this experience. Sounds delightful, overall! And I love shared meals on group trips. Neat that Adventure Cycling organizes things that way.

  5. Pingback: A Bikish Year (2012) in Photos | bikish

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