Here are some answers to a few FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
Q: How far did you cycle every day?
A: Average 50-80 miles per day with a minimum of 20 miles and a maximum of 115 miles with maybe 5 days of 100+ miles with one or two of those on ‘big mountain’ days and 20 or so around 90+ miles
Q: How many days in a row did you cycle?
A: Average 3-5 days in a row, most in a row 7 days (the first 7 across empty Tundra) before at least 1 day’s rest
Q: Of the 6 months, how much were you actually cycling?
A: Roughly 4 out of the 6 months.
Q: How many tyres did you carry / how many punctures did you have?
A: I carried a spare folding tyre in case I shredded one (which happened once, although I now think I was running the tyre at too low a pressure previously) in a ‘blow-out’ or such like and I’ve gone through 2 tyres, wearing the tread off one and splitting the sidewall on another (see above); I’ve had 4 punctures, 1 in Alaska, 1 in Yukon, 2 in Texas.
(to begin I ran tyres with kevlar-reinforced sidewalls and toward the end ran tyres with the same sidewalls but in addition a layer of latex under the tread to resist punctures married to ‘inner-tubes’ with extra-thick rubber AND a liqueous polymer within to ‘heal’ any puncture that might make it through all of the prior defences!)
Q: Why do this trip?
A: Er…! To begin I think it was because I’d put so much effort into planning it (6 very intensive months where I didn’t think of much else) and because the thought of this trip got me through a tough couple of years. And I think because I wanted to do something ‘great’ rather than just read about others doing it (forgive the pomposity…).
Q: Did you enjoy it?
A: Yes and no. I love getting on the bike in the morning, especially when the mist is still out and the sun is just poking its head above the horizon.
I also feel excited by cycling in bad weather conditions (I know, that’s a bit weird!).
I love the fact that I can be so self-sufficient and that its actually possible to move the bike with all of the kit and actually to move it pretty fast and nimbly with practice (on some of the dirt-road descents in northern Alaska I was able to keep pace with some of the motorcyclists on particularly technical sections with poor surfaces – who of course blew me away when the road improved! – and would often keep pace with other vehicles on mountain descents, even when paved). I think that handling the bike on fast downhills, especially on loose gravel or dirt, knowing that I’m doing it carrying a ludicrous amount of gear, has been the best part of the trip – once a mountain biker always a mountain biker! – and this is something I’ll definitely bear in mind for the future…
Of course, meeting people and seeing amazing places is also great.
On the downside, I don’t like, getting ill (who does!) mostly because my body is the engine and have probably pushed myself through a few niggles and grumbling health issues as a result (there is often something to be said for keeping the momentum going at times like this but also, as with everything for understanding ‘balance’).
Sometimes it can be dull – more than you might imagine – and I feel somewhat guilty for feeling this way for I am so incredibly privileged to be able to do this sort of trip; after 2,500 miles of woods, I got a bit bored of trees and was overjoyed on reaching Montana which had huge grassland areas.
Lastly, there comes a point where the body (physically) can recover very quickly but no amount of rest days can restore emotional well-being and something else is needed. Taking some (perhaps chance) inspiration from elsewhere may renew the ‘spark’ to continue but sometimes, unless your life really depends on it, you just need to stop.
Q: Did you get ill or get any injuries?
A: For the first 2 days I had a sore back – the practical prep for the trip was so all encompassing that I wasn’t actually that fit before I began and hadn’t done the planned weight training or even – quite absurdly – been on a bike for a couple of months. The pain went after a few days which is something I’ve encountered before as my thigh muscles get stronger and carry more of the burden.
I had occasionally very painful knees for the first couple of weeks (due to the huge weight I believe) so much so that I was taking a cocktail of over-the-counter analgesics and anti-inflammatories, and due to my weight and the level of exertion I did push the dosage pretty high, but only having gone on guidance previously obtained. I tried to focus on my pedalling technique later and after a couple of months the pain had pretty much gone.
I didn’t get a cold or flu for the whole time – I’m wondering if the adrenaline pumping through my body was pretty good at fighting off bugs although that said, I did generally avoid large cities where germs tend to amass. I’ve just (in the UK) had my worst cold for years so I’m certainly not immune!
I’ve had maybe 2 or 3 stomach upsets, mostly I think from – in spite of taking precautions – camping wild and using river and lake water to clean utensils, where one occasion was in northern Alaska on the Dalton so I took the precaution of dosing myself with antibiotics (I carry a supply of various types) since I would run out of food if I stayed still for too long, there being no resupply for 250 miles.
I did get the occasional saddle sores, usually after doing a series of big (70+ mile) days in the heat / humidity but usually these could be treated with Germolene and moisturiser – in future I would consider taking preventative saddle-sore cream which acts as an anaesthetic.
And yes, I dug a snapped-off still-green branch into my head whilst on a campsite in a hailstorm (Wyoming Rockies) requiring a hospital visit and stitches to an inch-long gash.
Amazingly despite my preoccupation with speed on the descents and bends I haven’t crashed whilst on the bike although I’ve had a couple of close calls including one time when a branch blew out of a tree and hit me and bike in a cross-wind, countless cross-wind ‘freak-gusts’ blowing me out into traffic and a few terrifyingly close calls with vehicles passing me by inches and one time when (my fault) I cut inside an 18-wheeler articulated truck stopped in traffic which then pulled away at which point I almost went under its wheels as he couldn’t see me in his mirrors. Scary.
Q: Were you not scared of the trucks?
A: Sometimes yes, when I was tired or when it was very windy, but generally I was ok and tried to maintain a confident stance and position on the bike as I was entitled to do so, but, if it came to it, I conceded, knowing that I wasn’t going to win any rights for cyclists as a martyr.
I wore a bright yellow reflective tabard on my torso and folded another over the back of my bike. If visibility dropped I put a bright flashing red LED at the back of the bike – this could be if it was foggy, snowing or raining.
I did not ride at night although cut it very fine on a few occasions toward the autumn-end of the ride, pulling in to the sleeping place as dusk was well and truly disappearing.
Generally I found truck drivers to be very good drivers – they are after all professionals – although I did find some nutters around the oiling areas of eastern British Columbia and parts of Alberta. Those pulling trailers with a car were often the most ‘challenging’ as they sometimes seemed to forget that the ‘arc’ of their vehicle on a bend was altered and the closest I’ve come to being taken off my bike was in Colorado by a horse box which brushed my rear-left panier as it passed!
Later I bought a mirror for my handlebars (for Mexico) and adopted a sort of ‘hold-your-nerve’ approach and would actually pull out further to the centre of the road if the road was thin and I could see that a truck was both behind me and coming towards me – it always ‘worked’, something I’d realise as I heard the engine retardation behind me and at least I knew I could pull in to the space I’d left to my right if the guy behind really didn’t slow down. I actually found most Mexican drivers excellent, certainly a lot better than many I had met in the US and Canada and I wonder if this is something to do with the fact that there are more cyclists on the roads (locals using it as a form of transport).
Q: How did you cope with the threat of e.g. Bears?
A: For the first few days, cycling south from the still frozen Arctic Ocean, there was a known Grizzly presence (one was roaming Prudhoe Bay when I was in town & some years previously another had ventured into the Lobby of a motel!) and with a still frozen ocean there was also a Polar Bear threat – eek! Basically I kept all food zip locked and then put those bags into dry-bags, adding all toiletries, medical supplies, sun lotion, bug spray, my stove, pans & utensils to the bags at night. In the absence of trees (I saw none for the first 200 miles as it was just open Tundra) I would walk the bag(s) for a few hundred feet, spacing them a few hundred feet apart if there was more than one, leave something bright tied to them in order find them again! My thinking here was that by splitting up the bags, I would be less likely to have all of my food ransacked! As far as I know, I didn’t once have any of these bags raided even in areas where bears had recently been sighted.
As I worked my way further south, the trees appeared but were by no means strong enough to hold the bag(s) so I continued the above strategy until I made it into central Canada when I would hoist the bag(s) up a tree, trying to hang the bag in free-space as is recommended. Sometimes there would be bear-bins at those times I didn’t wild camp i.e. at campsites (usually in National Parks) and at other times I would make friends with someone staying at the same place who had a vehicle and ask them if I could leave the bag(s) overnight with them. If it wasn’t a mountainous and wooded area I’d usually check locally to see if there had been any bear visits recently but even then I would never take the bag(s) into my tent, leaving them on the bike a dozen or so feet away, just in case.
I only brushed my teeth or had a shower in the morning before starting a ride or leaving the tent on a rest day, not before bed when toothpaste / soap smells might act as an attractant, generally abandoned deodorant (nice!) and washed my hands and face after the evening meal. Suntan lotion and bug spray were also carefully applied to avoid clothes and washed-off them with water straight away if needed and not applied to skin late in the day such that they could be ‘sweated-out’ before bed. I was also very careful not spill any food or anything else particularly strong-smelling onto my clothes (or indeed onto the ground), washing it off with water straight away. Trash or rubbish also required focus and discipline around its disposal and where this was not possible I would add the trash to the aforementioned food bag(s) for the night.
There were quite a few nights where I knew that something large was around the tent – I was, apart from one time, never sure if this was a bear, wolf or cougar (the biggest threats) since I stayed in the tent – and I would at these times make noise with my voice and / or my ‘bear-bell’ (where the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the latter). Squirrels often ran across the tent which could sometimes be a bit unnerving when it came as a surprise!
I remember camping wild in Tasmania and had all sorts of things running around outside and into the side of, the tent but that didn’t feel alarming I think because I knew they were all harmless. Most nights in bear country I’d sleep fine, resigning myself to the fact that I’d done all that I could to reduce the risks and that if it came to it I had bear spray by my side (every night I would pop it into the pocket of the inner tent). But, sometimes, it did get to me a bit, especially if there had been recent bear-activity in the area.
I never had to use my bear spray but on one or two occasions I’ve flipped the safety catch off the bear-spray whilst in my tent when something suspicious was clearly outside. One of these turned out to be a large domestic dog. The other, I do not know!
(take it from me that Bear Spray is potent – its under fire extinguisher pressure and sprays for 30 feet – and you do not want to get any on yourself, especially even a small spot in your mouth as your lips and tongue will swell up for about 20 minutes!)
I was ‘allowed’ to take the bear spray over the border into Canada and then into the lower 48 of the US, I think because the border guards knew I was solo and camping – I’d heard of other cyclists, in groups, having theirs confiscated as its seen as a weapon! A number of people questioned if I should have carried a pistol – this isn’t as crazy as it might sound since the threat is very real. But, in reality, unless I was dozens of miles from roads / tracks and NOT taking the precautions that I did, the risk is diminished. Or at least thats what I told myself! Besides, I probably shoot myself in the foot by mistake!
Q: How much bodyweight did you lose?
A: Almost quite absurdly, I was exactly (to the pound) the same weight when I ended as when I started – admittedly I had lost weight in my mid-riff and upper arms and chest to an extent but put on bulk in my shoulders, neck, gluteus maximus and most of my legs. I attribute this to eating like a large horse and was often eating 6,000 calories a day. I’m 6’5″ and weigh 210 lbs (14.5 stone or 95 kgs). See below.
Q: How did you eat enough and what did you eat?
A: I love food which along with loving (perhaps slightly worryingly) really bad weather and seemingly impossible challenges are perhaps the things which meant I could do what I’ve done.
Food = fuel for the body which in turn is my engine. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much red meat, dairy and simple sugars – I tended to listen to my body and go for what it seemed to crave, at the same time being conscious of major food groups.
Most days would start with porridge (oats) with fruit / sugar and on big days I’d often add cake to breakfast, crumbling it into the porridge. I drank a lot of soft drinks (sprite and Fanta mostly) and milkshakes and fruit juice and smoothies. Oranges, apples and bananas plus tinned sweetcorn, beans and mixed veg plus vitamin tablets gave me a good vitamin intake. I tried to eat a lot of nuts too. Of course, complex carbs were a major part of my diet and aside from the porridge I’d eat a lot of bread (usually carrying a loaf dangling from the side of the bike!) plus pasta, rice and noodles and the occasional instant mash. Beef (tinned chilli con carne or dried meat strips), fish (tuna invariably) and chicken (tinned) were common accompaniments when I was cooking on my stove (which was most nights). I ate a lot of burgers, pizzas and cake. Hardly the food of champions but it seemed to work and I generally felt healthier that I ever had before.
Q: How much did you camp and cook on your stove?
A: Of the 6 months I probably camped for 5 of those and most of those times I would cook on my stove – this was mostly because the US and Cananda are so expensive and doing this unsponsored I was self-funded with no income, only savings. That said I got a bit of a proverbial ‘kick’ from cycling with Ward and Jacky and learning about, amongst many things, how to survive longer term from your own provisions.
Q: Were you sponsored at all?
A: No – having sponsors often brings expectations and not knowing how far I’d get or indeed if I could do it, probably wouldn’t be very attractive to them! Also, I wanted to do this on my own, call it pride or perhaps stupidity!
Q: Why didn’t you raise money for charity?
A: This is a tough one. I thought long and hard about this. I’ve done shorter endurance events for charity in the past, including a combined cycle-walk-canoe across the English Lake District. On a longer ‘event’ I would say that raising money for charity can act both as a carrot (good) but also a stick (not so). Don’t get me wrong, doing anything for charity is fundamentally good, but on this occasion and for some of the reasons that I didn’t seek external financial support, I wanted to do this for me and will keep giving to charity in other ways in future.
Q: How much does your bike weigh?
A: The bike is about 35 lbs with racks, add on kit and it was generally running at about 150 lbs up to a max of 190 lbs in northern Alaska due to the need to carry so much food with no resupply for almost 2 weeks. I weigh about 210 lbs. Other cyclists that I met, aside from the ‘long-haulers’ like Ward and Jacky ran complete bikes plus kit invariably weighing less than 100 lbs, usually gained from carrying fewer cold weather clothes, less substantial camping equipment, no laptop, camping less and carrying less food and fewer bike spares and tools in addition to having, invariably, aluminium frames versus my steel frame (I chose steel due to ease of repair and its ‘give’ under harsh conditions which affords a slightly softer but still responsive ride).
Q: Did you have any mechanical problems?
A: I began with Mavic 717 cross-country racing rims with 32 spokes – these are insufficient for this kind of trip and the rear cracked somewhere between the start and 1,000 miles. This was replaced with a Sun Rims Rhyno Lite (32 spokes) but for some reason this configuration only lasted for a few hundred miles and began ‘popping spokes’, 6 in a 20 mile section in Yukon (each being replaced as it occurred) which led to the very difficult decision to flag down a truck for a lift to the next town, 50 miles away (bearing in mind I had started in Alaska wanting to ‘ride everything’). A phone call to the bike shop a couple of hundred miles back up the road (Whitehorse, Yukon) resulted in my ordering a new Rhyno Lite rear and front wheel of 36 spokes each (where these have been known to still run on 35 or even 34 spokes where this is not likely on a 32 spoke wheel, especially under heavy touring weight). New wheels arrived on the Greyhound Bus the next night (thanks again Jonah) and Ward and I worked through the night to reconfigure the bike, setting off the next morning. Those rims have been on the bike ever since.
The drivetrain was replaced after about 2,800 miles (chain, cassette and middle chainring) and at this point the XT cassette was downgraded to Deore which is known to be less prone to fracture under especially heavy, muddy, gritty touring (apparently!). In Mexico, the same components, some 2,300 miles later were due another replacement from what I could tell – this frequency of replacement is quite normal under this kind of use and indeed, to get almost 3,000 miles from one chain under this type of use (with no snapping) often amazed many of the lighter-weight tourers that I met (who were invariably running lighter weight, less tough chains).
Brake pads (disc) wore out every 1,000 miles or so.
The bottom bracket and headset were still going strong after 5,150 miles and I’ve heard of long-haul tourers getting 10,000 miles upwards from both in my particular configuration.
The front panier rack came loose once in northern Alaska (which could easily have resulted in a nasty crash if it had gone unnoticed) and in Mexico, having only just crossed the border a bolt snapped leading to the need to change configuration (luckily there was another option, but if that one had snapped there would have been no more without re-drilling and threading which would have needed a workshop). In future I might consider a more substantial front-rack.
I had to repair a panier after it I took a turn too tight and scuffed the bottom along the road, wearing a hole in it (the panier not the road!) and had to perform the same repair to some of the dry-bags in which I carried food on the Dalton stretch in Alaska after I wore holes in them with the back of my shoes each time I pedalled! The webbing which runs along the top of on one panier also needed replacement after I had ratcheted down too tightly – generally the paniers are fantastic but I would suggest this bit should be strengthened.
The bike was serviced at 2,800 miles (Whitefish, Yukon), 3,800 miles (Denver, Colorado) and 4,800 miles (Del Rio Texas) although the latter 2 turned out to not require any real work aside from some deep-cleaning and slight wheel re-alignment at the former. In future, a service every 2,000-2,500 miles might be appropriate.
(I would check the brakes were running free from the discs and clean the chain every day and cassette approximately weekly alongside checking the bottom-bracket, cones, headset and major welds every so often)
Q: What kit did you take, how did you cope with all of the different conditions and is there anything you wouldn’t take again or would next time?
A: See updated Gear section.
Q: How did you train and what previous experience of cycle-touring do you have?
A: Badly! Whilst I ‘run-fit’ from 5 day per week half-marathon training from October through March and corresponding weight training (lower back, abs, chest, shoulders and upper arms) I barely rode a bike from February 2009 until I started the ride at the end of May 2009, this I blame on the fact that the prep just took so long and was so involved, plus, I was renovating 2 apartments at night (which I suppose was pretty physical) and working as an IT Programme Manager during the days and evenings to raise the cash to do the trip.
Having been a cyclist for years (mountain biker mostly) I knew I could get my bike fitness quickly – it seems that of all the sports I’ve tried cycling is the one to which my body is most naturally suited. All that said, I wouldn’t recommend my lack of a training plan since I was pretty shattered for the first few weeks!
I’d never ridden with that much kit on a bike and never actually ridden much more than 50 miles before this trip, let alone done much touring (4 days 18 years previously when I was 16 staying in Youth Hostels south of London in some rolling hills).
I did a couple of training rides with all paniers on the bike – and realised how amazing the bike was as a result – and on one of these occasions mistimed my food-intake and ‘bonked’ (hit ‘the wall’) as a result, forcing me to stop and down carbs before carrying on.
What I didn’t do, despite protests from some friends and family, was do a shorter tour as a sort of taster in order to both train and learn and also to see if I liked it – in all honesty I was worried that I might not like it and would not do the real trip as a result! I’m sure that psychologists could have a field-day with that one!
Q: Did you ever ‘bonk’ / hit ‘the wall’?
A: Yes, once, during one of my (2!) training rides with paniers fitted and somewhat loaded, due to poorly timed food intake (a learning experience) and once again after 85 miles on a hilly day in the Yukon, in the heat, sprinting too often to catch up Ward and Jacky after I stopped to take a leak or some such like.
On the second occasion I ate a second lunch in minutes, downed fluids, waited and then was fine after 5 minutes, a not uncommon occurrence for cyclists so I hear! I also suffered from hypoxia (oxygen starvation) when climbing over 10,000 ft in Wyoming after a 25 mile ascent – I’d suffered from this before in the Andes on trekking and mountaineering trips and was therefore aware of the feeling (dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, muscle weakness) but it was still scary, especially since I was at 15,000 ft on foot when I’d got it previously (being on a bike with all of that weight, uphill for such a long time must have had a much higher oxygen-demand than being on-foot).
I got pretty dehydrated a couple of times, pretty badly one time in Alberta, Canada causing me to have a very restless night in the tent, somewhat delirious – generally though I would learn from these experiences and know how to prepare better next time.
Also, see below.
Q: Did you ever feel like stopping on some days?
A: From Denver onwards, sometimes, and on a couple of days in the 60+ mph gusting side and headwinds up in ‘South Park’ Colorado when it was simply scary I did feel a couple of times like simply throwing my bike in the ditch, but somehow I carried on. Sometimes I’d simply want the days to end (riding-wise) as I just wanted to get to get to camp so I’d push on at speed and thrash my way to the ‘finish’. It was hard to keep going in Mexico on most days as I was running low at that point as I now realise.
Q: How long did it take to plan?
A: In detail, 6 months collectively for US Visa application, kit research and purchase (clothing, bike, camping gear, medical – much of it so specialist that it was bought from scratch where it often needed the right balance of durability and strength and weight), route-planning, shipping-research (to get the bike to the start took 3 flights via Seattle, WA and Fairbanks, AK, USA) and financial-planning. Whilst doing this I was working full-time as an IT Programme Manager and renovating 2 apartments at night and weekends (see ‘How did you train…’).
Q: Did you have the whole route planned?
A: No. I wanted to start on the Arctic Ocean and see Jasper, Yellowstone, Teton, Denver, the Colorado Rockies, Roswell and Carlsbad and to ride the whole way and not jump by taking buses etc, but aside from that, I made the route as I went, taking local advice and researching myself.
For some stretches (Dalton Highway, Alaska) there was only one option and for others, once on the route (much of the Alaskan Highway through Canada) there were no side-roads for many hundreds of miles but further south there were options. I wanted to keep high in the Rockies and strike a balance between following the ‘Continental Divide’ and heading SE toward initially Denver and then, once decided, Monterrey. See below.
Q: Did you have any ‘rules’ before you started?
A: Ride the whole way. Head south from the Arctic Ocean. See some set points (see above). See how far you get.
(another time I might add more to this such as pre-determining good stopping points such that I ‘know they’re coming’ which is a good morale booster)
Q: Are you glad you did it?
A: Wholeheartedly, yes, yes, YES!!!! I’m so incredibly proud. I feel like I’ve done something amazing, really really special.