Is long distance bicycle touring a good idea once you are “over the hill?” Many consider age forty to be “over the hill.” However, based on my personal experience, I consider over age sixty as the cutoff. Not the cutoff for taking long bicycle tours—I know of people in their 70s and 80s who have crossed the continental U.S. on their bikes.
In my last article, “Over the Hill Bicycling,” I announced my plans to bicycle tour the Klondike Loop. My friend Hal and I would start from Tok, Alaska and bicycle to Whitehorse via the Alaska Highway. From Whitehorse we would take the Klondike Highway north to Dawson City, and return to Tok via the Top of the World and Taylor Highways – total distance about 900 miles.
Last month I also discussed some DOs and DON’Ts I learned from a bicycle tour I took with Hal the previous summer of 2013. We were going to bicycle from Deadhorse, Alaska to Valdez, Alaska via the Dalton and Richardson Highways – 865 miles. However, our trip was shortened to 485 miles after two spokes on Hal’s bicycle broke 120 miles out of Deadhorse. We were forced to quit the Dalton Highway and resume our trip from Fairbanks to Valdez.
I might as well confess up front, I didn’t complete the entire 900 mile Klondike Loop. My bicycling tour ended in Dawson City after ten and a half days and 700 miles. It was particularly frustrating that I stopped before the unique part of the trip that lay ahead of Dawson City, the Top of the World Highway. Fortunately, my wife had planned to drive to meet up with me and tour Dawson City. We were to spend a day or so together before I continued on with Hal. He continued on but I didn’t. I drove back to Tok with my wife and rejoined Hal there for the rest of our drive home.
I’ve been thinking about why I wasn’t able to complete the entire trip this time, and what new lessons I have learned about long distance bicycle touring. First, let me go through some of the lessons, and then I’ll give you what I think is the main reason I didn’t complete the tour.
Lesson 1 – Learn more about maintaining proper electrolyte and blood sugar levels. Last month I discussed the body’s need for sodium (salt). One also needs to maintain an adequate level of blood sugar (glycogen) to keep muscles going.
I did a better job this trip replacing my lost sodium and other electrolytes. I ate Pringles, used electrolyte fizz tabs in my water, and took electrolyte pills. If a person’s electrolytes aren’t right and they drink plenty of fluids they will tend to retain water – lots of it. Last summer I lost twelve pounds of excess water weight after my tour to Valdez. This year I lost about five pounds. I still had some swelling in my feet, ankles, and lower legs, but not as bad as last year.
Although I was doing a decent job feeding myself, there were times where I got excessively tired. Athletes refer to that excessive tiredness as hitting the wall or getting bonked. I got bonked a number of times, and by the time I hit Dawson City I was totally bonked out.
I did discover two energy boosts during the trip. One was chocolate milk, and the other was the super sized cinnamon roll home baked at the Braeburn Lodge just north of Whitehorse. Hal and I bought two each and they lasted several days.
I could go into great detail about maintaining your electrolytes and energy level, but I refer you to some informative articles on the UltraMarathon Cycling Association website (www.ultracycling.com). I’ll be reviewing some of these articles again, before I attempt any future bicycle tours.
Lesson 2 – Fix the saddle soreness problem. Saddle soreness was a problem during last year’s trip, and I was determined to prevent its reoccurrence this year. Last year I blamed my saddle soreness on my Brooks leather saddle (seat). Brooks leather saddles are touted as the most comfortable for long distance touring. There are two caveats to it being comfortable. The seat has to be broken in (much like a leather baseball glove) and it must be adjusted properly.
With ample doses of leather treatment and plenty of pre-trip bicycling, my saddle finally became more comfortable. Along with breaking in the saddle, I made many adjustments to the saddle position. One can adjust its front to back position, tilt, and height. I found it amazing how one small adjustment, especially in the saddle tilt, can make all the difference. One aspect I didn’t adjust was the saddle height and that proved to be my undoing while bicycling the Klondike Loop.
Another step I made to help prevent saddle soreness was to replace my seatpost with a Crane Creek Thudbuster ST seatpost. This seatpost helps cushion the shock of riding on gravel and the jolts from the hundreds to thousands of pavement cracks one crosses during a day of riding.
When I started the Klondike Loop, I felt confident that I had the saddle soreness problem licked. For the first two days of the tour, it wasn’t a problem. However, starting a few hours into the third day I was in pain, and on the fourth day I was miserable.
Finally, on the fifth day in the middle of my misery, a couple of things dawned on me. First, it was only my left butt bone that was hurting; the right was totally fine. Second, I could feel a little nudge on the left butt bone at the bottom of my left pedal stroke. I decided to try lowering my seatpost by about a half an inch and immediately noticed some relief of the pain. However, it would take another five days for the pain to subside from my already badly bruised butt bone.
Lesson 3 – Take better care of my hands. After my trip last summer, I ended up with some numbness in the pinkie and ring finger of both hands. This was due to the daily ten to twelve hours of gripping my bike’s handlebar. This is a common problem due to the pressure on the ulnar nerve in your hands caused by supporting your upper body weight. Last summer the numbness went away after a few weeks.
This summer’s trip I ended up with the same hand numbness, but more severe, especially in my left hand. Between my left butt bone and left hand, I’m beginning to wonder about the whole left side of my body.
The partial numbness in my right hand has subsided, but the pinkie and ring finger on my left hand are still semi-numb. More disturbing, the strength in my left hand feels cut in half. I have problems doing simple things like opening a tight jar lid. Unlike my right hand, the problems in my left hand are subsiding at a very slow rate, if at all. Hopefully, things will eventually get back to normal.
One solution to the hand problem is to adjust the geometry of the bicycle so that one is sitting more upright with less weight on the hands. However, sitting more upright increases wind resistance, and if you are traveling hundreds of miles in a strong headwind that is a big problem.
I should note that my bicycle has the drop down handlebars common on road bicycles. Most of the time my hands are on the top portion of the handlebar either to the inside of the brake levers or gripping over the brake lever hoods.
If I do another long distance bicycle tour, I am going to try a different handlebar, one that gives more hand positions. Some of the other bicyclists we have come across on tours use either a moustache bar or a trekking bar (also called a butterfly bar). These handle bars allow more varied hand positions to help spread the pressure to different parts of your hand. The Sheldon Brown website (www.sheldonbrown.com/deakins/handlebars.html) has a good discussion on handlebars.
Lesson 4 – Research the prevailing headwinds for the intended route. Hills come and go, but a strong headwind becomes a relentless struggle. During our trip, the strong headwinds began the third day when we pedaled into the Kluane Lake area. I don’t know the exact wind speeds, but it was the type of wind one would more likely seek shelter from than bicycle against. Our average speed dropped from 11 mph to 5 and less. It took us thirteen hours of pedaling to reach Destruction Bay from Lake Creek Campground – 66 miles.
The next day found us again battling the Kluane Lake headwinds. As the end of Kluane Lake came into sight, I thought to myself, finally, the light at the end of the tunnel (wind tunnel). However, my hopes were dashed when we stopped at the Sheep Mountain Visitor Center just before leaving Kluane Lake. Alice, the visitor center host, told us we should have done the Klondike Loop in the opposite direction, as we could expect strong headwinds all the way to Haines Junction.
Later that day we ran into Alice again as she was driving home to Haines Junction in her empty pickup. She slowed down next to me as I was struggling against the headwinds she had warned us about. My friend Hal was a few hundred yards ahead. She asked how I was doing. I wanted to say, I’m miserable, how about a lift to Haines Junction? But rather than sacrifice my pride I said I was fine. She wished me luck and continued on to check on Hal. I knew Hal would say he was fine too, without pretending.
All I could think of during this ordeal was how much easier it would have been if we had taken the Klondike Loop in the other direction. The headwind would have been a leg saving tailwind; we would have sailed through the miles. Besides, most of the bicyclists we met were going in the opposite direction.
Lesson 5 – Beware of bears eating flowers. When we chose to bicycle through the Yukon Territories in late June – early July, we should have checked on what the bears would be up to. When we hit the Kluane Lake area, I began to notice bear scat on the shoulder of the road. Eventually, there were piles about every quarter of a mile. When we finally reached Destruction Bay and finished a late dinner at Talbot Lodge, we asked the waitress about a nearby campground. She informed us that tent camping in the area had been banned due to a rash of bear problems. With the wind still howling, we ended up pitching our tents on the leeward side of a couple of out buildings in an RV Park next to the lodge. The next morning the RV park owner warned us that the bears were out feeding along the roads on grass and flowers this time of year.
If I had known this piece of local knowledge beforehand, I think I would have lobbied Hal to do our bicycle tour some other time of the year, when the bears were off fishing for salmon or eating berries. As it turned out, we road by two grizzlies, indeed, eating flowers right next to the road. Fortunately, they didn’t bother us, but I had my bear spray handy just in case.
Also, when we had to camp outside of regular campgrounds (the ban on tent camping seemed limited to the Kluane Lake area), I was kept awake by the sound of bears bawling around our camping area. Hal wasn’t bothered by the bears as he conveniently removed his hearing aids before retiring for the night. Fortunately, the bears never came into our camps, and the exhaustion of bicycling all day eventually put me to sleep.
Lesson 6 – Ride with someone who is both sociable and patient. In my last article I made note on the benefit of bicycle touring with a sociable partner, in my case, Hal. As with last year’s trip, Hal struck up conversations with some interesting bicyclists and a walker on this trip too. Two couples and a young man from Japan come to mind.
The young man from Japan (I think I caught his name as Sho) was walking and pulling a cart north up the Alaska Highway. Sho started in April and we met him soon before we entered the Kluane Lake area. He must have had 100 pounds of gear and water stacked in his cart. Hal asked if he had encountered problems with his trek so far. Sho replied, “Bears.” They hadn’t bothered him, but it was nerve wracking none the less pulling his cart past them as they were feeding along the shoulder of the road. Why someone would pull a relatively heavy cart 1,400 miles was beyond me; I figured he must be undertaking some kind of Bushido trial of manhood.
The first interesting bicycle couple we met was on the second day as we camped in the Lake Creek Campground (mile 1113 of the Alaska Highway). They had started from Deadhorse, Alaska, traveled down the Dalton Highway to Fairbanks and were now on their way home to Florida. What was interesting about them was the young man was pulling a child cart with their 20 year old beagle seated in the back. When we came across them later on the road, the beagle was sitting contently with its head sticking out the top of the partially zipped up cart. I thought of all the effort I took to whittle down the weight in my panniers, and here is someone with a bicycle weighed down not only with panniers, but pulling an overweight beagle to boot.
The other interesting couple we met were from Quebec. They were on their way to Argentina. It’s amazing how many bicyclists one meets going and coming from Argentina. It makes our little tours seem like not much more than a day hike.
However, the child cart the husband towed proved more amazing than their destination. It housed their sixteen month old daughter. She must have been asleep as we didn’t see or hear her. They said they were planning on taking two to three years to complete their trip. Listening to them, I was trying to imagine my sixteen month old grandson sitting peacefully in a cart for a good portion of three years. I have yet to see him sit in one spot more than a few minutes.
Hal was the first to strike up conversations with the cyclists we met along our tour. The reason being, he was usually way ahead me, and this is where the patient aspect of one’s bicycling partner is needed. At the beginning of the trip we both cycled at about the same speed, but as the miles and days ticked by, I lagged further and further behind. We finally got to the point where Hal would stop every half hour to wait for me to catch up. He never complained or seemed irritated waiting for his laggard partner.
Lesson 7 – Lose more weight. For me this was the most important lesson of the trip. In my last article I made note that it’s a good idea to get your BMI index (weight) to within a normal range. Although I was about six pounds lighter starting this trip versus last year’s, I was still carrying an extra twenty pounds of dead weight.
I believe this extra weight is why Hal was forced to repeatedly wait on me and why I was totally done in by the time we reached Dawson City. I’d like to blame my abandoning the trip short on my age (64). However, Hal is the same age and he had no problem reaching Dawson City and continuing on the full distance across the Top of The World (a very hilly gravel road) and Taylor Highways back to Tok. Over time that extra twenty pounds wore me out to where it was no longer a matter of willpower, but I was just physically broken-down.
I don’t plan on taking any more tours beyond a few days, unless, I have trimmed off all extra weight. The other cyclists I’ve met on tours are slim to say the least. For many of them their bicycle and panniers seem to weigh more than they did. It’s not to say I haven’t come across chunky cyclists who do well, but for me the extra body weight was a killer.
Conclusion – Considering the saddle soreness, numb hands and overwhelming exhaustion, the question I ask myself is whether I’m done long distance cycling. Why would I consider putting myself through another ordeal like this trip? I’m not into self-torture. Like many, I could choose to age more gracefully. Besides, getting my weight down is going to be a problem. Plus, Father Time is going to catch up with me sooner rather than later; I’m “over the hill.” Worst of all my bicycling partner has moved to the lower forty-eight.
So why go on? Well, I’m just not ready to give up yet.
Categories: Outdoors & Recreation