Bicycle touring post-mortem

San Francisco to San Diego was my first multi-day tour, and overall I’m very happy with how it went. I’ve done plenty of overnight bike tours to Half Moon Bay or Samuel P. Taylor, and I carried basically the same kit on the multi-day tour.

Here’s a breakdown of what went well and what I might do differently on my next tour. I’m really eager to do the northern section of this route (Seattle or Portland to San Francisco), perhaps next year.

Things that went well

  • My copy of Cycling the Pacific Coast. I brought with me on the ride and found it really useful. The elevation numbers were off compared to my GPS, but it was nice knowing where to stop for lunch and groceries, and having a rough plan for every day of the ride.
  • Not using front panniers. I used a handlebar bag, fuel tank, two panniers, and my tent and sleeping pad strapped to the top of the rack. This was plenty of space since I was never far from civilization.
    • This was my second time using my handlebar bag, and it deserves a special call-out for being awesome. It kept things at hand while while riding (meaning fewer stops), and made it easy to take important items like my phone and wallet with me whenever I was off the bike.
  • Tennis shoes and flat pedals. I ride clipless on my road bike, but for touring I liked being able to get on and off whenever I wanted. One less thing to carry.
  • I was pleased with my essentially stock Surly Long Haul Trucker. It handled great under load, and I only had one minor mechanical issue the entire time (my fraying rear shifter cable snapped, fixed by finding the nearest bike shop). After getting back I did take it into the shop for a few upgrades (swapping the center-pull cantilever brakes for linear-pull for more stopping power, more ergonomic handlebars), but these are quality-of-life improvements rather than must-haves.
  • Not having a kickstand. No problems finding something to lean it against!
  • All the hiker biker campsites. All except for one even had hot showers, and some even had campstores where you could buy food.
  • Highway 1 south of Big Sur reopened just a week or two before I got there, which was very fortunate. Incredibly smooth pavement too.
  • Three different brands of bike shorts. Your butt will hurt, but at least this way it hurts in different ways.

Things that could be improved

  • Not having any rest days. It’s really hard not to be at a caloric deficit when burning 3000 calories a day. I was doing my best to stuff my face at every meal, but I could tell something was off since my recovery was very slow even with plenty of sleep and stretching. When I got home, I’d lost about 4 pounds (a net 14k calorie deficit), and that’s after two days of eating recovery burritos. In the future, I’d plan for a rest day at least once a week.
  • Bike handling (the wobble, wiggle, shake, sway). Although my loadout was compact, I was still carrying close to 40 lbs in my two panniers. Since the weight is relatively far away from the centerline of the bike, I could feel the panniers wiggling when standing up in the saddle or cornering at high speeds. Being so rear heavy also made lifting the bike more difficult. I’d consider getting a framebag and packing it with heavy stuff like food and toiletries to keep more of the weight centered and forward on the bike.
  • Wearing bibs. I brought one pair and don’t understand why some people prefer them. The inconvenience factor is even greater when you’re wearing them all day.
  • I should have called ahead to each campsite the day before to verify that they offered hiker biker sites. The book and app can be wrong. On two occasions I could have saved on two motel nights if I’d planned better.
  • About a week in, I started to experience hand numbness and pain, which is still lingering two weeks later. I think this can be attributed to my thin bar tape and too long of a reach. I’d swap to a more cushioned tape for my next tour, and possibly get a shorter stem.
  • It was difficult to find replacement isobutane fuel canisters for my stove, and it sucks to run out (hello, eating food right out of the can). Gas stations and grocery stores only carry 1lb Coleman propane canisters, which as I learned are not the same thing. I was only able to restock at an REI in LA. Next time, I’ll bring an extra 8oz canister.

Mixed feelings

  • I used my paper maps once on the first day and then never again since they were so much less convenient than the phone app. Still nice as a backup, but they were quickly relegated to the bottom of my pack.
  • There are some other small tweaks I’d make to my packing list.
    • The 20100 mAh battery pack I carried was overkill, I could have gotten by with a 10000 mAh instead. I kept my phone in airplane mode while riding, and my bike GPS barely sips power.
    • I barely used my Kindle. You can’t read while riding, and at night I didn’t have much downtime. It was nice for the train ride back though.
    • Bone conduction headphones. They were inaudible when confronted with highway traffic noise (thus most of the ride). I could do without them.
  • Doing laundry on the go worked only about half the time. In the central coast it was too damp for things to dry overnight, and drying on the bike doesn’t work if you’re washing more than one outfit. I think I could have worked out a system, but going to a laundromat or using your hotel’s washer/dryers is definitely easier.

Summary

I had a lovely experience riding this section of the Pacific Coast, and I’m looking forward to more long bike tours. This trip really cemented my belief that a bicycle is the perfect way to see things. It’s faster and more convenient than backpacking, yet also preserves the sense of exploration and spontaneity that is lost when traveling via car.

My advice to anyone who is even a little bit interested in bike touring: just do it! Any bike works as long as it has the mounting points for a rear rack and you’re comfortable riding it.

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