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Sunday 23 December 2012

Hints & Tips...

So you’ve decided you want to ride across America, your wife / girlfriend has given you permission and for odd reason you’d prefer to spend weeks on the saddle on scorching tarmac instead of lying on a beach in South East Asia. Well it would be only fair and generous of me to offer a few small pieces of advice. Some of this advice will only be relevant to riding across America, other bits might be helpful where ever you are riding. Nothing is more annoying than someone telling you how to plan your trip, so I’m sure you’ll make some mistakes like I did; take them on the nose, improve and write them in the recommendations section at the end of your blog!


I didn’t buy one until the second day, well at least for Washington State. I would strongly not recommend that approach. One thing I must stress is that in at least the Western part of the states all roads that go anywhere will appear on a state map, so that’s all you really need. Any ‘county’ roads not on the map are likely to be gravel and not going anywhere important. I was always trying to plan around 2 to 3 days ahead with my ride. In terms of a particular type of map I’d recommend Rand McNally it was quite a bit clearer than some of the others. Its always worth asking in bike shops for specific bicycling maps, a couple of states had these and these tend to show how busy each road are and the gradients.

Of course you might have moved into the 21st Century and got yourself a GPS. In fact I now have one too, although there was something a little more rewarding by navigating by paper and pen. One thing I did have however was an application on my Android phone called ‘MapDroyd’ which lets you download maps offline (unlike google maps). The GPS on my phone would plot me on the map for moments when my map reading skills masked my glorious history in the Scouts.

Phones & Communications

If you read through the earlier section of my blog, in fact right at the beginning you’ll see the setup of keyboard, phone, batteries and chargers that I bought for the trip. It worked well until I smashed my phone in Nebraska. I then got a tablet and an LG phone, but technology has already moved on.. I brought my unlocked phone over from the UK and put an ATT sim. You’ll be limited to either T-Mobile or ATT if you want to use a European phone as the other networks use a different mobile phone system from GSM. ATT do a good deal of unlimited calls for $2/day and I think I got 500MB of data for $25. Most campgrounds / motels had wifi so I didn’t ever run out of data.

My best advice is if you are traveling overseas and need to stay in contact is to buy a Skype phone number and then have this forward to the ATT phone. This means for $2/day (the ATT fee) and 1p / minute (the skype charge) you can chat to people in the UK. The only catch is they will need to call you to get routed through. It’s a good way to spend a few hours on a quiet back road chatting to one of your good friends whilst burning down the miles. By the way pay-as-you-go ATT wasn’t setup in Wyoming or Idaho when I was there, so you might be on your own there.

Air Mat

Lets face it, once you have been on the bike for hours on end one of the most important things is being able to have a good nights sleep. I did quite a bit of research before making my purchase. I started my camping career with a thin foam mat before upgrading to a therm-a-rest in my teens. I have to be honest both of these really felt like sleeping on the floor with tiny bit of padding, a big stone would easily disturb your sleep. I found a company called Alpkit, they make a range of sleeping mats, quite a few are like the therm-a-rest but the make one model called the Numo:

This folds down to a tiny size to attach to the bike and is incredibly comfortable. I cannot recommend enough. You need to realize that you do have to blow it up (normally takes 3 or 4 minutes).

Rims & Panniers

I learnt this the hard way, strong wheels are good, especially when you are loading them with lots of weight. The Jamis Bosanova I bought came with standard 32 spoke wheels, you’ll find more expensive touring bikes come with 36 spokes per wheel, the standard road bike will come with 32 spokes. You can cycle with 1,2, or maybe 3 spokes loose anymore then you are on the downslope towards wheel collapse. A spoke tuner to try and keep them tight is a good idea. Anyway if you are going to load a bike make sure you have 36 spokes where the weight is.

This brings me on nicely to panniers. After extensive research I settled on some rear Ortlieb panniers. Ortlieb are the gold standard of panniers from my understanding, they are tough and very waterproof. Nobody wants their belongings getting wet. The top of the panniers kind of roll close, I was surprised how simple the closing system was. In addition the material is fairly tough and can take being scratched or dropped on.  The only thing I will say is that you can’t stick stickers to them, they seem to come straight off. I selected only rear panniers as I could get all my stuff in them, I’m a bit intrigued when people have front and rear panniers, maybe if you are cycling across Siberia or Africa but I’m not sure why you’d need them across the United States. I was a bit suspicious of steering with front panniers, I’d imagine it makes the bike less responsive – but I’m only speculating.

One more thing to add – Kevlar tyres. They are great – less punctures, harder wearing, worth the money.


If there is only one thing you take away as a cyclist reading this blog, I hope its this piece of advice. Buy a blinking rear light and use it all the time, regardless if it is dark or not. I’d recommend a specific kind of blinkey which magnifies the flash. My favourite is now the Raleigh Astrum ( I didn’t have this during the ride). The red flash is so bright that even the most day dreaming driver would see you. Pam confirmed this sometime afterwards driving behind me, saying she could see the flashing a quarter of a mile away. It must be said someone crashing into the back of you is unlikely but I’m going to do everything to minimize it. The fact that more people don’t have them on during the daytime (especially when you can disappear in a dark shadow of trees) amazes me. I have to say I felt safer on my ride when I had it turned on, this might just be a placebo effect, it would be good to have some empirical evidence to back it up. Anyway I suggest you ride with one.

Hotels, Camping, Coupons

Somewhere to sleep is obviously quite important when you have been on the bike all day long. Whilst I did have a few nights being a lone ranger engaging in wild camping; lets be honest its nice to have a shower at the end of the day. Roughly I did 60% in the tent, 30% in motels and then 10% at friends’ houses. One website I must mention before going on is warmshowers, sadly I only found out about this towards the end of my ride but basically it’s a couch surfing website for touring cyclists. I didn’t use it but apparently its rated.

I’d recommend when staying in hotels or campsites that you negotiate, with my key bargaining point was that I was riding for charity. The average motel was around $40-$50 and camping was $15 a night. I was generally getting a discount of around $5 when camping and $10 in motels. Occasionally I’d be allowed to camp for free or asked to donate the fee to charity. With hotels I had two other tactics: the first was to find coupons in coupon magazines from gas stations usually for motel 6 or super 8. If I was looking for something up market then I’d go for priceline, ‘name your own price’. You select a city, a hotel rating and make an offer at a given price. You can typically stay in a 4* hotel for half price (you just don’t know exactly where although you can specify an area).

Be aware that not all campsites have moved into the digital era. Some of them don’t have websites or aren’t on google maps. There are a couple of good RV park review websites floating about which have a pretty comprehensive listing. I also had a few stays at KOA (kamp grounds of America), these were a mixed bag as they could be expensive for what they were. That said my favourite camp ground was a KOA in Wyoming.

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