No Bike. No Country. Just Paris and a Box.

September 12, 2012 at 12:55 am

A bike in a box at an international airport is not such a bad thing. Normally I travel extremely light. Checking bags is heresy to me. I prefer a backpack with everything I need that can fit under a seat. So it should come as no surprise that checking an entire bike internationally gave me a case of the willies. A strong one.

But everything worked quite well. After lumbering across half the world at a corpse's pace, I arrived in France to find my bags had arrived as well. I managed to utilize some poor French to communicate with a taxi driver. We pushed the bike into the back of his van and left. We sloggethrough rainy traffic into Paris and the doorstep of my friend's apartment.

Although I had slept on the night I left (briefly) and on the plane to New York (briefly) and on the plane to Paris (lengthily), I still managed to pass out once I made it to R.'s apartment in Paris. I'm quite sure I snored with my shoes on, with a half-open bag of Combo's in front of my face. With the sounds of Parisian rain wafting into the windows, who could blame me?

Soon after I awoke, we headed out for dinner and some drinks (for the record, I feel like I've experienced two full evenings without a morning). We took R.'s Triumph to a bistro for some food, and then some drinks in Bastille. There we met some of his Canadian friends. The conversation drifted between more-French portions that I tried to follow and more-English portions that I could participate in.


Paris is best on two wheels.


I notice that Parisian cyclists are a different breed. R. explains that disobeying traffic laws in Paris can cost you points on your driver's license. And it's hard as hell to even get a driver's license here. In San Francisco, your biggest concerns are bodily harm and the extremely occasional ticket from the police. And while bodily harm is the main concern, it sometimes comes at the expense of traffic laws. A good cyclist knows that the safest action is not always strictly legal.

I would explain more about who cycles in Paris and how they do it, but it would not yet be fair–Without further observation. But I can tell you that cycling in this city sure looks fun.

Tomorrow I will get some coffee–long absent from my life–and free my bike from its cardboard cage. More then.


Packing, Planes, and Sleepwalking to Paris

September 10, 2012 at 11:02 pm

We've all reached points in our life of absolute exhaustion. Hungry, tired, sore, with flagging hope. Rather than focusinga on the task at hand, you sit back and wonder why you're doing what you're doing at all. You could be at the movies, you could be lying in your bed.

Most people reach this point somewhere on the course of a bicycle tour. I reached it while packing.

Full packing list for a bike tour.

For two months, this is everything.


I had been considering every ounce of weight for weeks, that wasn't the issue. Having taken a few smaller trips on the packed bike, I knew what I felt was important and it was all in one place. The real afternoon-suck came when I tried to put it into the bike box.

I had planned to disassemble the bike, put it back in the box, and stuff my panniers around it. At first exactly one step of this plan worked. Even getting the damned thing back into the box was an ordeal, and there wasn't much margin for error. Let alone space for my bags.

After hours of finagling, we managed to get the bike somewhat padded and safely stowed. I then took what I could out of my nicely packed panniers and began shoving things into the sides and bottom of the box. We wrapped a fair amount of packing tape around the box, with the intention of using the baggage wrapping machine at the airport. Great idea, but there wasn't a machine at my gate. So now I'm in the back of a very large plane. My bike is in a box on the belly of the plane, no doubt half-destroyed already with another 5,000 miles to go.


You'll notice in the above image that I've come up with a novel organization system for my on-bike gear. Each plastic bag has the name of a room in your house. This way, each thing has a logical location. Where is the coffee filter? In the Kitchen. The toothbrush? Bathroom. The knife? Shed. I'm actually pretty proud of this system.


Now sitting on the blue carpet of JFK airport. The late afternoon sun is cutting into the terminal at a sharp angle, blinding anyone who will look. It has been impossible to secure wifi at this place. And beyond that, anyone who is selling anything at this terminal seems downright committed to being mean. I ended up buying a slice of pizza that I was only asking about. My beer came late, with a dirty look. And when I tried to buy coffee, things got worse.

I noticed that a particular café had a password-protected wireless network. To me, that's worth a cup of coffee. But when I ordered one and asked for the password, the clerk poured the coffee but denied the existence of the network. She did it in a way that made it clear that she spends 30% of each and every day denying its existence. The coffee was $3, and I had $2. She refused to take a card and took the coffee back. I left without wireless or coffee

That's when I retreated to the blue carpet to sit in the askance glare of dying yellow sun. In two hours, I board a plane for Paris. It's a grueling trip. I left my apartment at 4am, and I land in Paris at 10:30am the next day. Still not sure how I'll find a taxi for my bike when I get there.

Luckily, I was born with one very special talent. I'm able to shut down my higher brain functions when I enter airports. This puts me into a fugue-state that is perfect for long travel days. I just stand in the lines and sit and stand when it's time to sit and time to stand. People, I think, refer to this as being a “seasoned traveller,” but I think it's just a kind of intentional sleepwalking.




Planning For A Bike Tour

August 14, 2012 at 2:31 am

Everyone approaches planning differently.

Me, I generally like to do sporadic research about random aspects of something. Then, I stress out about the stuff I didn’t research and agonize about the fact that I should be researching other things I don’t know about. Then, when the actual event I’m planning for, when that arrives, I think quickly on my feet and things work out pretty good. In terms of planning strategies, this isn’t one you’ll discover in any books. That’s because it’s a bad strategy.

Some people think I remain calm and go with the flow.  They’re generally undervaluing just how much I overthink things while staring at the ceiling, apparently seeming very calm.

Luckily, it seems that I’ve found like-minded souls in those people who take up bicycle touring. From most accounts that I’ve read, more than a rough outline of a trip is unnecessary. This is mostly due to the fact that once the rubber hits the road, things change. You meet people, or get sick, or find someplace else you’d like to go. My two-part planning strategy of first agonizing and then adjusting seems perfectly suited to this arrangement.

I leave for France on September 10th, just under a month from now. As of now, the route that I’ve decided on for my French tour could fit on a bar napkin. It’s basically a U. I will start in Paris and head to Normandy. From there, I want to travel south, and then follow the coast of the country. This is based on a couple of pieces of advice. One friend of mine, a native Parisian, mentioned that the middle of France is nothing compared to the coasts. In my ridiculously biased opinion, this is largely true of the United States as well. The good stuff is all stacked on the sides. I didn’t know how logical this route would be, but then I saw that these guys had done it. Sometimes just reaffirming that something isn’t insane is enough to move forward.

I plan to avoid French cities. With enough money and time, I would love to spend time in each city along the route. I love cities. If I ever live in France, it will likely be in a city. But I just don’t have the money to do them justice. Instead, I might roll through but I’ll likely avoid them. There are enough other things to see along the way.


A shot of the 1:200,000 Michelin French Road Atlas 'In action'

Again, totally no idea what I’m doing.


One thing that my open-ended planning strategy makes difficult is carrying a map. I bought a 1:200,000 French road atlas from Michelin. It has scenic routes and back roads and the stamp of approval of other bicycle tourists. It also weighs about 80 pounds. I could tear out only the pages that correspond to my route, but I don’t know my route. I could also buy individual maps that correspond to my route, but I don’t know my route. A third option would be to photocopy only the pages that I need along my route. But, well, you get the idea.

I’ll likely tear out the pages that correspond to areas that I’ll least likely explore. More on that problem when I solve it.

The 2012 Jamis Aurora – For Bike Touring in France

August 7, 2012 at 2:37 am

A couple of months ago, I wouldn’t know a good touring bike if it ran me over in the street. After looking around a bit, and a totally fruitless Craigslist search, I wound up with a 2012 Jamis Aurora. A friend of mine was able to give me a deal on the bike if I bought it unbuilt, in a box. This is what I opted to do for three reasons:

  • It was cheaper.
  • Building the bike would teach me how to maintain the bike on the road (in theory).
  • I would have the box to repack the bike and put it on a plane.
The 2012 Jamis Aurora -- Almost

I have no idea what I’m doing.


Assembling the bike wasn’t terribly frustrating, except for the seat post–which I’ll get to in a bit. I went about learning each step of the building process just like any well-educated person does in 2012. I YouTube’d everything.1

I hadn’t set up derailleurs before, so that took the most time. To a single speed rider like myself, a touring bike looks like The Homer. But I was able to get past my cable-and-doohickey aversion and learn a whole lot in the process.

The 2012 Jamis Aurora comes with mostly decent components, with a few glaring exceptions. The pedals are absolute garbage. They’re plastic with plastic toe cages and nylon straps. Only the most casual of casual riders would be caught dead using these things. And then there’s the saddle assembly. The saddle is powerfully ugly. Why they couldn’t ship the bike with a basic black saddle is beyond me.

The Aurora ships with a seat post that is known to be faulty. I found several forum posts with disgruntled customers griping about how at maximum tightness, their seat still slid around freely. I adjusted my seatpost height, tightened the bolt as well as I could and the seat post still slid from side to side. Frustrated, I stripped the bolt trying to get it tighter and then ultimately trying to get it off.

Luckily, I have a Dremel tool. I cut off the bolt at the center, where there is a break in the frame to clinch the post. The built-up tension caused the bolt to soar across the room once it was finally split in half. It was doubly satisfying to cut the damned thing off. After that, I walked over to my LBS planning only to buy a seat post that actually fit. Instead, I walked out with a new saddle as well. I’ve never had the pleasure of owning a Brooks saddle, and this seemed like a fitting time to try one out.



The 2012 Jamis Aurora in San Francisco.

With a new saddle, it’s a nice looking bike.


Once I had the bike totally set up, I took it for a spin. At 5’9″, the 55cm frame is about as big as I would ever want it to be. It’s certainly at my upper-limit as far as comfort goes. But I’m satisfied, and ready to see what this thing can do.


I have a friend who went hunting every day for a whole season without finding a deer to shoot. This is a true story. He was driving home one day and found a dead deer on the side of the road. It was freshly killed, steam rising in the morning air. At any rate, he decides that this is his deer, regardless of how it wound up becoming an ex-deer. He tried at first to lift it away from his body so that he wouldn’t be covered in deer bits, but it was far too heavy for that strategy. Instead, he had to bear hug the thing in order to drop it into the trunk of his tiny Hyundai. I don’t remember if the trunk closed all the way, but either way it’s a pretty unique visual image. At any rate, he gets the carcass home and drags it into the back yard on a big blue tarpaulin. And then he walks inside and looks up a YouTube video on how to field dress a deer. Once outside, he performs the process. After that, he went back to the computer to learn how to harvest the meat. And then he repeated the process again to skin it. Mind you, I wouldn’t had believed this story if it had come from someone unreliable. YouTube is amazing.