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Taking off on cycle tours

“I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off ” Jack Kerouac

There was a thick red line running north through South America, projected onto my classroom whiteboard. After 2,000 miles the planned bike route doglegged east over the Andes mountains. It then continued across the Argentinian Pampas towards Paraguay before arcing back again through the Altiplano of Bolivia. It formed, I realized, a great big question mark over the South American continent – the unintended metaphor not all lost on my 10th Grade English class.

“I am quitting my job to go on an adventure,” I told them, and, looking over my shoulder for inspiration from the big red question mark, “adventuring means you’re sometimes unsure about what might happen. It means letting go.”

I thought I had rescued my air of uncertainty with that comment. The sniggering at the back quietened down. The speculation about me having been fired due to regularly arriving sweaty and late by bike (and for holding such off-topic lessons) seemed to be on hold.

adventure-lesson

Next I informed the class, “I will be going alone.” This came as little surprise to a front row student. (The previous week before school she had caught me patting down my helmet-hair and grabbing a necktie from a classroom filing cabinet. Later she pityingly asked, whilst nodding speculatively at my filing cabinets – “Do you live here?”) For the majority of the class, however, I could see this solo trip was quite out of the ordinary.

“There is,” I hedged, “a difference between loneliness and being alone.” And then, directed at the boy at the back -quietly refreshing his phone for social messages of personal approval – I tried to explain that being brave enough to travel with just my own thoughts and a bicycle was an important expression of self-love. “Perhaps the first and most important kind of love there is.” I planned to be alone, but hoped that in the future the decision would bring me closer to others. They kind of got that.Matt-beach

“And all my house,” I said, warming to my theme “will be on my bike” (Like I said, they digged metaphor and it drew some wry smiles and sarcastic comments about which pannier would accommodate the kitchen sink.) I explained how I’d chosen both front and back racks to distribute weight; a beautiful British Brooks saddle and a beetle green tent for camouflage whilst wild camping (see next post). “Choosing what to live without,” I said sagely “is a lesson in knowing what’s important to you.” Filing cabinet girl looked vindicated. The rest, however, looked just a little bit intrigued.

“But how will you know where to go,” a child astutely asked, “and isn’t everything in Foreign?” This initially worried me too, as it was a rather big journey; and I wasn’t at all fluent in Foreign yet. As a start, I’d chosen 5 tourist sights along the journey that moved me – a condor brushed mountain; a glacier that roared; a city on water; the road to the sky and a waterfall that carved countries. The red question mark showed the general route, and the remainder I would decipher from gestures and goodwill of locals, better maps found in country and anything else that came blowing in the wind.rolling-home

“All right,” said one of the brightest students, “I get all that (making the peace sign) hippy stuff but what will you do for MONEY?” I explained that I already had my one-way plane ticket and, once I got there, I really didn’t expect to pay for much else. My accommodation each night would be wherever I chose to pitch my tent (with an ocean or a mountain view at no extra charge.) My transportation would be the two wheels I rolled on, and it’s fuel would be the food I cooked under the stars. A far cry perhaps from their experiences on family holidays to that point in their lives; but a few of them I could see were now smiling – captured by the mystery of an adventure.

condor-brushed-fitzroyAt the end of the day, when all the students had left, I got changed into my bike clothes once again and hanged my tie with the crepe paper. I then turned the projector off and watched as the question mark slowly faded into the whiteboard.

Next Month: “Wild Nights On Cycle Tours!”

Call for comment

What plans have you got for taking off?

Do you find that talking through your ideas helps remove your doubts?

Matt Maynard is from the UK. He used to be a teacher but now is an outdoor journalist, environmentalist and photographer based in Santiago, Chile. (He did go on that bike trip to South America completing three quarters of the question mark before he met a very wonderful Chilean woman.)

Find more of his adventures on Twitter @MattNMaynard, Facebook and at his website Matt-Maynard.com.

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The Many Racks of Dobie Gillis

Putting a rack on a bike is a pragmatic statement of utility. It separates the practical peddlers from the the casual or competitive cyclists. It says, I’m going somewhere, and I need to bring more stuff than I can just stuff in my pockets or comfortably carry in a backpack. It says, I’m less worried about looking fast than looking good when I get there.

Whether you’re buying a pair of tires, a set of panniers, or a cargo rack for your bike you must choose between low price, long-term reliability and low weight. You cant have all three. Cheap and reliable racks are heavy. Lightweight and reliable racks are expensive. And cheap, lightweight price racks are unreliable. But a weak, cheap rack can be worse than no rack at all when cargo is dumped to the gutter or damaged en route.

Choose Any Two Equipment Attributes: Lightweight, Reliable or Cheap. You can't have all three.

Choose Any Two Equipment Attributes: Lightweight, Cheap or Reliable. You can’t have all three.

The Broke Student needs to get from their part-time job to their part-time school without paying for gas, parking or bus passes. Their racks tend to be either rugged and vintage or new and cheap. They’re the most likely to over pack a seat post rack with a backpack of books, and suffer the consequences.

Cheap, lightweight rack are inevitably unreliable.
Cheap, lightweight racks are inevitably unreliable.
For pedal pushers in petal pushers.
For pedal pushers in petal pushers.

The Flower Girl has a pretty pink plastic basket on the front of her bike for carrying flowers. She rarely carries more than a couple liters of cargo, so the steering isn’t affected so much. Later in life the Flower Girl may upgrade to a more attractive wicker basket with leather and brass hardware.

Do-It-Yourself bike racks are cheap and reliable, but often heavy.
Do-It-Yourself bike racks are cheap and reliable, but often heavy.

The Do-It-Yourselfer can’t find the rack he wants at the price hes willing to pay. While it might be quicker to just buy a better bike rack, the Do-It-Yourselfer will hack his own from a hodgepodge of recycled parts and newly purchased hardware. He might have found the milk crates free on the curb, but he paid almost twenty bucks for stainless steel, metric nuts and bolts. Depending upon his skill set, the DIYer may assemble his racks with zipties, hose clamps, wood, bamboo, parachute cord, chicken wire, coroplast, duct tape, epoxy, fiberglass, bungee cords and cardboard. It rarely looks elegant, but it always gets the job done.

Never underestimate the utility of bamboo and zipties.
Never underestimate the utility of bamboo and zipties.

The Dedicated Tourist buys the lightest and most reliable racks available. Titanium and aluminum are both within their budget, although sometimes they will settle for a cheaper, somewhat heavier, but reliable and repairable steel rack. The Dedicated Tourist often designs their kit around their racks, with packs and bags that are designed to interlock with the racks. Nowadays Dedicated Tourists take it off road on fat bikes with custom, integrated racks.

Back when wicker was cool.
Back when wicker was cool.
More is more.
More is more.

The Newspaper Boy is practically extinct today, and remembered mostly for halcyon guest spots in an Eighties movie and video game. But once upon a time in America, children were sent out alone without cell phones or helmets on their bikes before dawn to deliver daily newspapers! Their bikes were equipped with strong, wide front baskets, which more often than not were mounted sturdily top and bottom to the handlebars and forks.

The Scavenger can be seen near dumpsters, and trolling the streets on trash day. He has strapped milk crates and bread trays and bungee cords everywhere on his bike. The Scavenger likes to have plenty of cargo space. His rides cheap Walmart mountain bikes until they fall apart defying the laws of engineering as they bounce and flex under overloaded freight. The Scavenger is most noticeable at night, when the dozen of red, white and yellow reflectors festooned on every surface of his bike are simultaneously lit up by passing cars, leaving the observer to see psychedelic tracers when they finally look away.

On a Surfing Safari.
On a Surfing Safari.

The Beach Bum rides a simple bike for short distances, often with a water toy in tow. Sometimes she will balance a surfboard on her handlebars, but may buy a rack specifically designed to hold her boards. East Coast Beach Bums almost always ride single speed, coaster brake beach cruisers, which are ideal for leisurely pedaling down the boardwalk and along sand-swept, waterfront streets. Beach Bums often add coolers, horns, folding chairs, boom boxes and umbrellas to their bikes. And some Beach Bums upgrade to tricycles, which can offer more stability and cargo capacity.

Catherine rides h er folding bike in Midtown Manhattan.
Catherine rides her folding bike in Midtown Manhattan.

The Commuter needs to get to work on time, and look good when she gets there. On nice days she might pack a light messenger bag and ride her skinny bike. But most days the Commuter wants her bag, books, clothes and lunch to arrive clean, dry and separate. Depending upon her budget, she may use a hand-me-down bike rack, the rack that she used on her bike tour, or a sleek new rack adorned with brass and leather panniers. Depending upon her skill level and patience, the Commuter may install a rack herself, or get their bike guy to do it, or just pay the bike shop mechanics to do it right the first time.

The Bike Cop/Paramedic rides because its part of their job. While Bike Paramedics will have big, detachable packs of medical supplies on a rear rack, Bike Cops tend to limit their kit to smaller, rack-top bags that don’t impede tactical agility. Both value a reliable rack, and they will often outsource the assembly of their bike to local shops. For small, local bike shops, a contract to assemble and equip a couple dozen police bikes can keep the lights on and the staff employed during the off season.

Periscope not included.
Periscope not included.

The Bike Courier rides for pay, and their racks reflect it. They value reliability and price over rack weight. Their racks are scratched and dented from being leaned against walls, or banged against lampposts. They prefer front racks that keep their cargo low, stable and in sight. Handlebar baskets are only used by novice Couriers, who haven’t yet learned first hand that overloaded steering leads to disastrous handling.

But in the end, regardless of how little or how much we strap onto it, the bicycle is a vehicle that allows us to savor the better things in life with those we love.

Perhaps the most famous bike rack of all.
Perhaps the most famous bike rack of all.