When we talk about road biking, we trade in the currency of kilometres and cadence and speed — an equation like “I rode 100 km in about 4 hours” has meaning to other road bikers. It’s a shared understanding of the relationship between the rider and the bike, negotiating conditions of road, weather, wind, fatigue. If you ride a road bike, you know pretty much what that experience of 4 hours at 25 km/hr feels like.
I love my road bike, and I love an intense, fast ride. And — even though it’s a completely different thing — I also love riding a touring bike across an unknown country, by myself. And part of what I love is that there is no way to know what an hour of that ride will be — except that one hour will never be the same as another.
In the last week or so of August, I rode across Lithuania (actually called Lietuva, in Lithuanian) by myself. I had a local bike tour company plot my route and book my hotels, but other than that, I was completely on my own. I brought my own bike, my beautiful bombtrack named Gudridor, named after the heroine of early Icelandic sagas who was the most traveled woman of her age. I carried my own stuff, and rode somewhere between 60 and 75 kms most days.
When you’re riding a loaded bike, by yourself, across a new country, every kilometre is different. There’s no short-hand for what it will feel like, and every chunk of the ride is unpredictable. Will it be calm farm roads, or a maze of medieval cobblestones? If I listen to google maps (which doesn’t have a bicycle option for Lithuania), will I end up on an expressway, a navigable road or a (pedestrian-friendly but bike-impossible) set of stairs? How do I balance my written maps when my handlebar bag bites the dust on my second day? Will there be farm vehicles or clouds of gnats and no place for food and water, or will I find a sweet and perfect roadside cafe or bakery?
The route I took from Vilnius to Klaipeda on the coast was fairly straightforward, the western route that included several stretches along the Nemunas river.
But every chunk of every day had its own character — I might start out with a quick, lovely 30 kilometres along a farm road, find a little cafe, enjoy a coffee and cheese sandwich — and then be diverted and made lost by construction, unridable gravel roads, or google map instructions that sent me to the wrong side of a river. An idyllic morning can turn into a Mad Max afternoon, or an overcast glum day become a peaceful sun-kissed ride on a boat. It’s magic.
I think my total ride was about 500 kilometres, but I didn’t bother to add it up. When you’re riding like this, it’s not about performance or speed or distance — it’s about exploring, about being completely open to what unfolds, about problem-solving and the unexpected. It’s about serendipity and presence, in all the ways. It’s what I learned climbing Kilimanjaro 10 years ago — the mountain is the mountain, today is today.
I wrote a daily blog about my ride (except, weirdly, for my last day — don’t know what fell down there, since it was a lovely day) at my travel blog, and when I skim through it, I realize that yes, I shared the pretty scenery, the calm, the sunshine reflected in my increasingly tan and freckled skin, the popsicle breaks, the friendly and lovely people — but mostly what I wrote seems to be about troubleshooting. On my second day, I got turned around and ended up on a super bumpy and skiddy, unridable road, where my (expensive, new) lock was hurled off my bike, my handlebar bag gave up its feeble attempts to stay upright, and every piece of hardware holding my rack became so loose I almost had a catastrophic failure. Much of that day was lovely — but the adrenalin — and satisfying! — moment was figuring out how to jerry rig the handlebar bag, the lock, the racks while standing in a little parking lot in front of an imposing convent.
An hour later, I had a short train to catch, and had to deal with carrying the bike up and down a long set of stairs to get to the proper platform, across the tracks. (I enlisted the help of three little boys who could only be described as urchins). More adrenalin, more uncertainty about whether I was about to get on the right train, whether I’d be able to hurl my panniers and bike onto the correct car in the minute or so the train deigned to stop. And when I arrived at my destination, yet more adrenalin when I realized the central station was closed for construction, and I had an unmapped 12 or so kilometers to figure out to get to my hotel. And the serendipity for that day? A roadside conversation with a scout on a walking pilgrimage, blue skies with puffy clouds, an unbelievably good, unexpected dinner.
The next day, trying to get out of the same town, I ended up “portaging” the bike through about six different situations — stairs and ramps under a busy road (ramps take on a completely different form of physics when you have 20 kilos on the back of your bike — on one of these, I fell under my bike and had to be rescued by teenagers), construction zones, cycling paths that just smack dab stopped in the middle of a sandy field, more stairs, a 45 degree cobbled hill. On a road bike, if you have to navigate across something unridable, you lift your bike up with one hand and hope your cleats can handle the terrain. That’s it. On a touring bike with a load, it’s a feat of strength, persistence, patience and balance. And a good sense of humour, when the bike’s “feet” shoot out from under it as you go down a ramp and you find yourself unexpectedly holding the bike vertically like a runaway horse, watched by two men who can’t figure out this mad woman whose bike weighs a million pounds.
On this kind of bike tour, the riding is almost beside the point — the riding just is. You move your feet, the wheels turn, it’s not fast, but it’s steady. The experiencing of it is everything. I looked at castles, talked to cows and goats, squirrelled away cheese sandwiches from my hotel breakfasts and ate them by the side of the road, felt the particular and unique wind and air of a northern european state, inspected a vintage lighthouse and a bird ringing station, talked to people I encountered, looked at holocaust memorials, had knowing glances with small girls who looked awed by the site of an old lady alone on a bike.
I had an incredibly busy summer, culminating in the magical, overwhelming finale of the Triadventure, the last fundraiser for a learning and development project with youth I’ve been leading as a volunteer for 12 years. A lot happened in my soul over those 12 years, transformative and sublime and terrible and hard and profound and magical. I needed these hours on the bike to absorb the shift. Solo bike touring is about immediacy, discovery, unfolding, accepting what is. It’s about trusting you can fix anything that goes wrong — a bike delayed in flight, stairs where there should be a ramp, being on the wrong side of a river with an impending boat departure, a handlebar bag without its hardware, dragging the bike box a kilometre across cobblestones, riding 10 kilometres of hairy construction. It’s about digging into your strength to wrestle the heavy, unyielding (or too yielding!) bike to where it needs to be, and about communicating a need for help without words. (Or being okay with people declining to help). It’s riding, but it’s also exploring…. exploring what’s in you as much as what’s out in the world.
I love my carbon road bike, and I love how strong I feel on it, the click of my new white cleats. I love who I am when I go fast, navigate a downhill at a pace that scares me. And — I’m someone else riding alone on my steel touring bike, with 20 kilos of stuff on the back. I’m a person who can propel myself through anything. A person who loves my own company, is completely at ease on my own. A person who can trust myself — and can trust the world.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives in Toronto, with four bikes and two cats. Lithuania was her 63rd country. Here she’s eating one of the many popsicles on her journey, on the Curonian Spit on the edge of the Baltic Sea.