"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door" … "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."
~ Bilbo Baggins from The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkein

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Tomorrow we GO!

Almost ready to roll. Will and Suzie with our SEVEN 7 CYCLE bikes and traveling gear

After a year of dreaming and probably at least six months of active planning the day of departure arrives tomorrow. Reservations made. Bike tuned and cleaned. Clothes washed. Routes planned, printed and downloaded. Panniers, rack and fenders tested. Bags packed. Body trained. Papers stopped. Mail held. Bills paid. Dog boarded. Weather consulted, consulted, consulted …

I guess its time to get this show on the road. As my friend Barbara implied "Aren't you guys gone yet?"

Someone asked me the other day, "What are you most worried about?" The answer was simple: the weather - 40º and rain, thunderstorms, or 30º and snow. I've ridden in the rain and survived, but lightening can be dangerous, snow can be slippery. So, let's keep that at bay. The question though made me ask myself "What am I looking forward to?" The answer to that is far more complex. As I anticipate the leaving then, let me muse a bit on that question. 

What am I Looking Forward To?

  • Time on the open road - just the act of riding, of going
  • Being in the moment without other responsibilities
  • Looking around and marveling at THE LAKE multiple times a day, for hours at a time, in all kinds of weather
  • Experiencing the reality undying all those maps - learning what places feel like
  • Meeting lots of people along the way and learning a little of their stories, seeing THE LAKE through their eyes
  • Encountering history. Encountering nature. 
  • Creating my own story of Lake Michigan, its history, its present, its natures, its people
  • Sharing that story as best I can
  • Enjoying my riding companions, comparing our perspectives and our journey, learning from each other
  • Getting stronger as the days go by

And Away We Go!  -- Next stop - Portage, Indiana

Friday, May 15, 2015

My BIKE - The Seven of Hearts

Time to talk about the most important thing I’m taking on this grand adventure – my bike. As I say in my Short Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, both Will and I will be riding steel-framed bikes custom designed and built by SEVEN 7 CYCLES of Massachusetts.

The Seven of Hearts standing nice and pretty and ready to go outside the Velosmith Bicycle Studio

Why a New, Custom Bike?

While planning my Door County trip last May I realized that if I was truly committed to cycle touring it was time to invest in a new, lighter-weight, 21st century equipped vehicle. True, my 35-year-old Proteus would serve me well on that relatively flat trip, but I'd need more gears and something lighter to get up the steeper stuff I dreamed of. I learned my lesson all those years ago: I'm SHORT and even these days, small, highly technical bikes don't grow on trees. I'd need another custom bike.

Luckily, just up the block Velosmith Bicycle Studio specializes in designing bikes for customers like me. I stopped in to talk to Tony Bustamante about getting a new steed and ended up learning so much about modern materials, fit, building techniques, and components that my head seemed to burst. In addition to getting a new bike, I came away with a deeper understanding about what makes it uniquely suited to both my body and my riding purpose. Thanks Tony for a great and on-going bicycle education.

Purpose Drives the Design

Jim and Will with their "Big Green Machines"
Great for around town. Not really suitable for riding around THE LAKE

To be at all useful a bike must not only fit you well but also suit your purpose. A bike you'd ride to the beach or to run errands is not a bike you' take around THE LAKE. Bikes you'd use for a triathlon, at the velodrome, off road, or in a road race, none of these would be suitable either. I suppose people have been known to try, but they certainly haven't been comfortable. To carry me and my stuff around THE LAKE, my bike needed to accommodate a rack and fenders, be comfortable for riding all day, day after day and be stable uphill, downhill and in the corners. I would need something with a longer than average wheelbase to distribute the added weight to the front and give my foot room to clear my panniers. It would inevitably be less agile and responsive, but that was a trade-off I was willing to make.

The Fit (Geometry)

According to Tony, designing the geometry of a frame involves a lot more than making sure the rider can stand over the top tube. If you're planning to ride the thing thousands of miles a year, it has to first fit your body in all kinds of biomechanical ways. The goal: to prevent injury, ensure comfort and transfer the rider's power efficiently to the vehicle. The height has to be right of course, but also the reach from saddle to handle bar should be comfortable, the legs aligned with the pedals. Then too the geometry needs to support the rider's desired "ride personality" and intended purpose - in my case, stable handling for light-weight touring. All these conceptual elements then need to be magically translated into a three-dimensional "living" frame. I've come to see that it takes a combination of science, art and bicycle passion to do so.

Some of the dimensions of my bike as drawn by Tony

The Material (Steel Tubing)

I knew from the beginning that I wanted another steel-framed bike. I love both the technology and history of steel bikes as well as the smoothness of their ride. But also, if something happens to a steel frame when you're out on the road, you can usually find someone out there to fix it. Titanium is strong and much lighter, but tricky to fix. Carbon fiber is even lighter, much harder to fix and, more importantly, not flexible enough to accommodate a rack. So for me, the up front choice of steel was simple.

Little did I know, but the backroom choice of which type of steel and what thickness of tubing to use for which parts of my bike was anything but simple. From what Tony tells me, my bike, with its eight steel parts (top tube, seat tube, down tube, head tube, seat stays and chain stays), incorporates variable tube thicknesses, diameters and even multiple manufactures.  This is one of the major benefits of having SEVEN build my bike. Unique in the world of custom bike builders, SEVEN has the ability to select just the right tube for its individual job, combining materials from several tubing producers in one frame. Their choice of manufacturer and specification for each tube was driven by a combination of my weight, intended use and preference for stability and comfort. They would have chosen something completely different if I'd wanted a firm, race quality ride, with sharp steering and agility. Frankly, it all sounds a bit like alchemy to me.


For my non-biker friends, components are all the things on a bike other than the pieces that make up the frame. There are LOTS of these and while each needed its own decision, some are certainly more significant than others. Some, like the rack and fenders which I need for touring, impacted the actual frame design. Others, like wanting really low gears and integrated shifting, would significantly impact my riding experience. For my biker friends, I choose the Shimano Ultra 6800 11 speed mechanical group, hand built wheels by Velosmith and a Chris King headset. I also picked out a carbon fiber front fork, which some would argue is part of the frame but technically its not. I know I'm running a bit of an on-road breakage risk with this, but, couldn't resist its lighter weight and smoother ride.

The Final Product

All those choices, all those big and little decisions, all those millimeter-sized adjustments added up to some big changes to the feel and handling of this bike versus my 35 year old, long-time friend. This new, modern steed seems more power-efficient, quicker in its handling and equally stable. I seem to be slightly less affected by the wind (although that's still a BIG problem) and have greatly enjoyed the lower gearing especially when faced with some real hills in Texas and New York. When I ride it without rack, fenders and panniers it seems to fly. On our test ride last month, it felt stable and comfortable fully loaded. It seems the perfect Renaissance bike - great for all the types of riding I do.

Can't wait to get started on its big adventure - only a few days to go now.

If you're really, really geeky and into the minutia of bike design, you can check out the page entitled "Bike Specifications." If your head seems to spin with too many numbers and angles - don't bother. The ride's the same whether you understand the math or not.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


As the final day draws near, I'm pretty much done acquiring all the the last minute stuff I need. Now I'm trying to pair the whole rig down to 50 pounds or less.

Self-powered RV. Not exactly traveling light.
Don't think I could manage getting that around THE LAKE.
But it would solve the problem of where to sleep each night.

Carrying It All With You

My bike weighs 25 pounds with rack, fenders and two empty water bottles. That leaves me with under 25 pounds for everything else.  When we did a trial run in the middle of April I was hauling 55 pounds. Cutting out 5 pounds doesn't sound like much, but I thought I'd already paired the list to the bone and now I have to add a few things I'd forgotten, like a foldable spare tire, a lock and some wonderful Michigan bike maps. That'll mean leaving some "essential" things behind. 

Here's where I am at the moment in that agonizing trade-off.

My collected gear - unstuffed

Biking Clothes

Weather, weather, weather - someone once said "there's no such thing as bad weather, just insufficient clothing." How true and how vexing for the cycle tourist. Late spring in the upper mid-west, and particularly in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan can be wet (very wet) and cold (very cold, snow-like cold). Because we'll ride unless its dangerous, we need to be prepared to ride when its uncomfortable. Two shorts and two jerseys will do when I hand wash them each night.  But, I'll need to be prepared for the cold and the rain otherwise I'll face hyperthermia - a very real danger in this climate. So, here's my minimal list of bike clothing:

Bike Shorts (2)
Socks - wool (3)
NSC jersey (2)
Bike Tights
Rain Jacket & Pants
Technical long sleeve shirt
Smart wool undershirt
Sweat band 
Black wool sweater
Biking Gloves (short & long)
Ear band & fleece hat
Helmut, shoe & glove covers

Regular, Street Clothes

I don't expect to spend too much time in my non-bike clothes, so, unless I spill spaghetti sauce all over them, one set of street clothes should do. But, I'll indulge myself with a pair of pajamas and a swim suit. Hate sleeping in my clothes and REALLY need to be ready for a hot tub or a pool once in a while. (They're light anyway)

Travel underwear (2)
Sun shirt
Bras (2)
Technical Shorts (1)
Swimming suit
Long technical pants
Light walking shoes
Baseball Hat

Bike Equipment

Its all well and good to pair down the clothing, but that doesn't save a lot of weight. Making the right decision on what bike equipment to bring does. Here's where we do a little sharing; I'm lucky, Will is carrying the tools, I have the first aide and bike cleaning kits. 

Bike Shoes
Tube & folding tire
Handle bar extension
Sport beans, electrolytes
First Aide Kit
Sun glasses 
Waterproof handle bar bag
Bike Lights (front & rear)
Trunk bag & waterproof cover
Bike Cleaning & lube kit

Electronic Equipment

Sun arm protectors
Now here's where we get into the REALLY heavy but truthfully non-essential stuff. Forty years ago when the Bicentennial riders set out across the country or thirty-five when I rode self-supported in Europe there was no such thing as cell phones, GPS navigation systems, iPads, lap tops or the rechargeable batteries that powered them all. Now, we can't conceive of getting lost or being out of touch. We want to stay connected via phone, texting, Facebook … or even blogging (who would do THAT?) Sure all this stuff has gotten incredibly light - my new Macbook weighs just 2 pounds - but its still heavier than an extra pair of socks. Yet, to me this trip would not be what I intend if I snuck off in secret, called home once a week, or navigated exclusively by paper map and cue sheet. So, I'm paying the price - hauling this stuff around, leaving some other things behind.

iPhone, cable & ear phones
Thumb drive
Camera & cable
Extra batteries for sensors & lights
Garmin & cable
Recharge battery & cable
Laptop & cable
Heart rate monitor
Multi-charge plug

Miscellaneous Stuff

Just a few more things and we're done. My friend Diana showed me that light weight packing cubes made life on the road so much more manageable. With multiple cubes I can group like with like. and separate out the things I won't need on the road from those I might need to access with changing weather. Need the toothbrush and paste, the medicines, the sun screen and bug dope. Can't forget the ATM or AAA discount card. And this time I'll bring my swiss army knife with bottle opener. Nothing worse than getting a great brew and not being able to open it.

Zip lock bags (gallon, sandwich)
Journal, Pen
Regular glasses, case & cloth
Swiss Army knife
Packing cubes
Postcard stamps
Cash, ATM, Ins. AAA cards
Bath Kit
Trip cards
Sun Screen, bug dope
Sewing Kit
Water proof Panniers to put it all in

What Didn't Make the Cut

My daughter Elise asked, "So what's getting left behind?" That might be interesting. So far here's what I've discarded after my trial run:

Light bath robe
Bike pump
Flip flops
Night light
Cliff bars
Clothes Shami
Tire irons
Capri pants

In the next day or two I'll weigh the whole lot and will probably find I need to pair it down even further. I'll pack all the stuff in those cubes and give you another look. Might need that self-powered RV after all.