I recommend this book to my cycling friends and every father and son that I know. It’s a story of fathers and sons, a cycling adventure and the importance of family and community. Besides that, it’s a fun and fast read!
If life is a journey, then the best moments happen when we have the courage to take a different route. This is a story of a coming of age for three men. The author, Rob, convinces his dad, Stephen, to join him on a discovery bike trip through Italy with the goal of visiting their ancestral village, San Donato. Rob’s grandfather (“Papa”) is seriously ill and is near the end of his life. While Papa was part of a first born generation in the U.S., many of the people that settled in their Brighton neighborhood had come from the same village. Rob concocts the idea of a bike trip to understand Papa’s family background and vicariously provide a trip for Papa before it is too late.
While Rob seems to have a good relationship with dad, it’s obvious that Stephen is not your average father. He’s extremely independent, has obsessive habits and tends to love wild challenges, even at the age of 64. He also manages to commute to work on a “fixie”, which is a sure mark that he is already a badass cyclist. The image we get is of an aged-out hippie that is true to his core of beliefs who is a great father, but is not fully understood by Rob. With Papa slipping away and dad becoming a senior citizen, Rob sees the serendipity of the moment to enlist his father as his companion on a 500 mile trip from Florence to San Donato. As Rob says to Stephen, “We’ll go for Papa.”
While the experiences in the towns along the way are brief and somewhat interesting the real benefit is in overcoming the physical and mental challenges along the way. Once at San Donato, the revealing of the family history and the gracious hospitality there is an unexpected reward. Within a few days in the village, they have a change of perspective and a different appreciation for the importance of history and our ancestry. The village has a surprise story of courage and community during the days of Fascism that brings wonder and pride to both father and son.
I’ve taken a couple long distance bike rides over the past few years. Riding with others can be difficult because of the push and pull of each rider’s skills and conditioning. But, the reward is to discover more about that person, share your own personal story and to motivate each other. There can be no better pairing than father and son to benefit from this opportunity. Any son or father naturally looks back at the mystery of each other and desires at some point to know and understand more – even though that always has its limits. Each fact we discover inevitably reveals something about ourselves too.
The author has a casual style of writing which exposes a mixture of personal feelings and humor which makes for an easy and enjoyable read. The pace of the book and its subject matter is fast and complete as it goes from the start of the idea of the trip to its final conclusion and slightly beyond leaving a very satisfying ending.
For all those who sweat over the details… Here’s how this bike tour was done. Each time I learn a little more.
This post will answer some questions on how I ride these bike tours. It is a fresh update to my previous posts for my Epic Bike Tour. That tour I rode my bike from Key West to Morristown (home). Here, I’ll discuss the differences in this recent New England tour I called the Reunion Tour from Burlington VT to Morristown NJ, 18 months later.
In last year’s posts of “How the Sausage is made”…#1, #2 – I discussed the following relating to my east coast bike tour:
my bike setup
how I navigate
where I spend money
how I eat.
I applied what learned in April 2018 to this trip and avoided some of the pitfalls. Here’s some of the differences and what I discovered along the way.
My bike (named “Silver”) is a custom-built model called an Expat S, titanium gravel/touring bike by Seven Cycles. It is an 11-speed using Sram Force 22 components with gearing of 50/34 front and a 28/14 rear. For more tech details click here. It weighed in at 22 lbs with Portland Design Works aluminum fenders, and Iberia rear rack system and bags. I used 2 panniers, commuter bag and top tube bag. All total about 40 extra pounds to carry in bags. I decided early-on that I would not camp this trip so I did not take as much gear as I did on the Epic Tour.
All other components were the same from last year except I replaced the cassette and chain and switched to a tubeless tire setup. The Seven had come with the lastest Mavic UST tubeless rims. After testing tubeless road tires and reading reviews, I decided to take a risk and go the with SchawalbeMarathon Supreme 700 X 35ctubeless tires for a smoother, safer and more reliable ride. They worked perfectly this time inflated to about 60 psi.
I realized on this trip the importance of disk brakes for this kind of riding. With the extra weight going down monster hills, the bike was easy to control, even in wet weather.
Comparing Tours (East Coast vs. New England)
The goal of this trip was to ride about 525 miles through the mountains of New England within a two-week timeframe while visiting a few friends along the way. That’s much less mileage than the 1,600 flat miles for the U.S. east coast tour in 2018.
As I did in the Epic Tour, I wanted to do this by transporting my bike to the farthest point of the route and then find an interesting way back home by bike. Amtrak provided a convenient way to port the bike to Burlington without breaking it down.
I still averaged the same amount of mileage each day (roughly 65 miles each day) but each day presented a climbing challenge (averaging over 3,000 feet of climbing per day). The trip was tougher on a day-to-day basis but at least as enjoyable, due to beautiful fall scenery and visits with friends.
I’ve learned quickly that whether you are a person who likes routines or not, it is essential to bike touring. Doing otherwise causes wasted time, confusion and lost items behind. Here’s some of my standard routines:
My Daily Start Up Routine
Wake up – between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. depending on what day’s challenge is ahead. Normal bathroom routine. Includes applying lotions (sunscreen (at times), chamois creme, glide, etc.), take routine vitamin supplements.
Suit up – with usually base layer top, jersey, shorts, leg warmers, socks, gloves, arm warmers, helmet and wind vest. For this NE trip, at times I needed to wear a light winter jacket, shoe covers and long finger gloves for the cold days in early October. One morning started at 29 degrees! I also wore a chest heart rate monitor to monitor physical effort for the day. I purposely wear colors that stand out to be seen for safety for this type of riding.
Routine bike check – tires, screws tightened, rear light on and bike computer. I’ll use a front flashing light and extra rear lights if visibility is poor.
Check top bar bag – make sure I have flat kit, air inflators, anti-theft lock and chain.
Pack 3 Bags Pannier #1 – Casual clothes – 2 t-shirts, underwear, button-down shirt, running shorts, jeans, socks, sandals, light fleece. Toiletries. Portable computer. (total less than 15 lbs.) Pannier #2 – Cycling clothes – 2 jerseys, 2 shorts, 2 socks, extra gloves, arm warmers, leg warmers, cap, warm riding jacket (doubles as casual jacket), shoe covers. Rain gear – pants, water-resistant jacket, helmet cover, water repellent shoe covers. (less than 15 lbs.) Commuter Bag – hard shell bottom with compartments that locks on top of the rear bike rack. Great for everything else and to take into town to carry food back to where I’m staying. Includes everything I might need along the way. Energy food, camera and equipment, misc. electronics (chargers, cables, etc.), papers, bungie cords, wallet/money/ID.
Install bags on bike – panniers on the sides and commuter bag on top.
My Eating Routine
Pre-Ride – eat something light like cereal, bagel, donut and coffee. Coffee is my most important item at this point. If nothing available at start I would search out a place to get something.
Breakfast – optional depending on what I’ve eaten earlier or the length of the ride. I have dabbled in bigger breakfasts and then skip lunch.
Lunch – optional. If it looks like a long hard day, I’ll go for a lunch. A Foot-long Subway Veggie Delight is my preference.
Late Afternoon Snack – I like to stop for Gatorade and some chips or pretzels or nuts. Something salty.
Dinner -For this trip, I either ate with friends or went out to a local inexpensive place that looked interesting based on suggestions from my hosts, people I met or something suggested on Google. Because of the area’s reputation for fine craft beers, I made a point of sampling some fine beers along the way.
Wake up 5:30 a.m.
Breakfast 9:00 a.m.
Lunch 11:30 a.m.
Snack stop 1:00 p.m.
Arrive at lodging 2:00 p.m.
Shower / change 3:00 p.m.
Ride or walk the area 4:00 p.m.
Dinner 6:00 p.m.
Blog / email / phone calls 8:00 p.m.
Lights out 10:00 p.m.
I’ve learned to make the most of Airbnb.com locations for great places to stay at reasonable prices. You can also usually book within a short time frame if you are traveling off-season. For this trip, I used a combination of staying 5 nights with friends and 7 nights at airbnb’s.
One of my main concerns was the weather forecast. While I was prepared to ride in the rain, I was able to plan to avoid a full day of rain near the end of the trip. Sitting out a day of rain means that your schedule would need to be reset for an extra day and can throw off all your plans and reservations. That’s why except for the first week, I delayed reserving the mid-part of the trip until a few days before that day so I could be relatively sure I would be riding that day. I have also found that with a day of riding and being alone, I enjoyed the company of others and the opportunity to learn more about the area from the airbnb hosts.
Here’s the rundown on my stays. The locations are first based on finding an area near my route and about 50 to 70 miles from my previous stay, The most important factors are 1) how close is the place to my route 2) How expensive – with all other fees included 3) What ratings the host had from previous guests. Here’s where I stayed and the total cost of the stay (1-person):
Sep 28 – Burlington, VT = $81.77
Sep 29 – Burlington, VT = $81.77
Sep 30 – Mike Kennedy’s – Barnet, VT
Oct 1 – Mike Kennedy’s – Barnet, VT
Oct 2 – Mike Kennedy’s – Barnet, VT
Oct 3 – Hanover, NH = $73.84
Oct 4 – West Rutland, VT = $60.95
Oct 5 – Bennington, VT – $67.48
Oct 6 – Lee, MA = $60.53
Oct 7 – Lee, MA = $45.00
Oct 8 – Mike Hayser – Sherman, CT
Oct 9 – Tom Siccardi – Chester, NY
TOTAL = 12 nights, 7 @ airbnb lodging = $471.34
Riding the Roads
Probably the most asked about question is what roads I took. As I have mentioned, I tend to use Google Maps / Bicycle routes from one place to another. But Google provides no information on what the roads will be like. Here in Vermont and other places along the way, I was often taken off state roads and guided toward well-meaning country roads. I can only guess that there is some algorithm that decides what might be best for an average cyclist to see and experience. My priorities were 1) to get to the next location as efficiently and safe as possible 2) to see some of the local areas I was traveling through. Google and I were not always on the same wavelength.
My first day on the bike from Burlington, the western part of the state to the eastern part in Barnet, was the hardest day (see more here on that here). With a variety of roads from nicely paved highways with adequate shoulders to busy highways with rumble strips and speeding cars and trucks. This type of trip is not for anyone that panics in traffic. Or, sometimes dirt and gravel roads led to trails more for suited mountain bike. Luckily, the bike and tires were strong enough to take a beating and still roll well on paved roads.
There were rail trails and pure dirt double-track trails in the woods where I would see no one for hours. Many times I was not sure where the road was taking me. I guess that’s part of the excitement of the journey. Eventually, you have to come out somewhere where you can re-calibrate.
For this journey, I relied on Google maps with earphones to tell me when to turn. I normally never ride with earphones. My son Ethan’s friend did provide a route that I did use to get from Burlington to Barnet which did help for that segment. I did not search out other posted cycling maps since I could not know what maps might be best for my objectives. Researching this, especially if I had to change plans along the way would be inefficient.
Electrical power to keep my cell phone and bike computer going was critical. I relied on two back-up sources and every day had to go to back up power shortly after lunchtime. One backup source was a solar cell on the rear of my bike. On that first long day of riding I ran completely out of all power, in the dark, but I was right in front of my friend’s house. Whew! That was close.
There were only three places where I had to actually walk my bike up the hill either because of the steep elevation and/or conditions of the road or the fatigue I was experiencing. While I was avoiding the steepest areas, I think my body adjusted to carrying the extra weight and pacing myself with the hills. It was a personally satisfying achievement and proved that I was capable of doing more than I thought.
Starting a new biking adventure by riding the Vermonter to Burlington.
Greetings fellow virtual travelers. It’s been a while since I posted to this blog but if you are interested in my latest retirement biking journey – The Reunion Tour – Vermont & New England back to NJ read along. I’ll be attempting to post daily my 10 days of stays and cycling adventure (or whatever comes along). This is the first post of the journey. More background on the trip.
I discovered traveling long distances by train can be a great advantage. Yes, it generally takes longer than flying and you will experience numerous inconveniences due to a lack of consideration for bicycles. But once you are onboard the seats are more comfortable, the ride smooth and relaxing, free WiFi and at least for my Amtrak train today – The Vermonter – a simple bike rack storage so you can transport the bike without breaking it apart, as you would need to do for a flight. And, with my current sub-theme of ecology let’s give it up for trains which consume a whole lot less carbon than the other alternatives. All good reasons to promote train transportation, in my mind.
But, the most convincing argument for a train ride is that a one-way train ticket is a whole lot cheaper at $58 for me, plus $20 for “Silver” my bike. That’s cheaper and easier than flying (need to dis-assemble/re-assemble, pack/unpack), driving there (need to return with the car too) or shipping the bike to a shop and having it re-assembled there.
Planning the trip to Burlington, VT where I’ll get off was a bit of a challenge. The Vermonter originates at Penn Station NY. So, I needed a way to get me and my bike to NYC to catch the train. I could have literally rode from my house to the Morristown NJ Transit station then to NYC except for the fact that on weekends, bikes need to arrive at Penn NY before 10:00 or they are not permitted! That would have meant leaving very early. Instead Mary Ann drove me at 9:00 a.m. to Newark Penn where I planned on catching the PATH train to Penn NY. My bike weighs about 24 lbs. My panniers and rear bag add about 40 extra unsteady lbs. making it unwieldy.
My first problem was getting my bike and 3 bags up an escalator since the Newark Penn elevator was not working! I saw a bike messenger just taking the escalator up so I followed. Bam! The bike was highly uncooperative and flipped backwards throwing the bags off it. But just then a woman appears watching this and says “I’ll get you up to the platform.” What! She advises taking the 3 bags up while she watches the bike, then walking the bike up the stairs where she instructs me on where to pick up the next PATH train. Beautiful. She was sent from heaven, I’m sure.
The PATH train continues to Journal Square where I transfer to another train. By now, its around 10 am and trains are getting crowded with me and my bike taking up too much room. We finally make it to 33rd St. Now its a matter of finding elevators you never knew about to take you up to the street then back down to Penn Station. After waiting about ½ hour the Vermonter appears on the board. This is the only train to Burlington. Each day it leaves at 11:30 a.m. and arrives 9 hours later 7 miles outside of Burlington in Essex Junction, VT.
Another elevator ride down is requried to the track #8. Then, finally, the conductor needed to figure out what car had the rack where I could put my bike. The Vermonter only allows 3 bikes at a time on the whole train.
I’m in Springfield MA as I write this with another 4 hours to go. Then, I need to reset the bike and make my way to my airbnb stay for 2 nights. Looking forward to getting there and concluding today in one piece. All Aboard?
Well Amtrak did its best to live up to its reputation and came in 3o minutes late. We departed the train at about 8:50 and the rest was up to Google Maps. I’m a seasoned enough rider to take on a challenge riding in the dark but it was relatively easy to follow the online guidance direct to my stay 7 miles away.
And, a good stay it was at an airbnb at 32 Spruce St. A few convenient blocks from the city activity and close to the lake but far enough to be very calm and peaceful. Starved, I headed out to a corner “Gastro Pub” to get a couple beers and a burger. All was right with the world again.