A FRIEND, now in his 60s, still loves to revel in his memories of twice biking across the U.S. as a college student more than four decades ago. He set out the first time laden with a tent, sleeping bag, gear, dry foods and water. The second trek he rolled off casually, with $96 tucked in a sock. He’d learned on the first outing that by stringing his route through college towns, he could always find a grad student to feed him, love him and send him off. Hey, it was the 1970s.
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Bicycle touring in America is shifting gears away from that old school derring-do on skinny tires, when cyclists scraped by 18-wheelers on highways. Instead, the sort of protected cycling paths common in urban centers are now stretching tendrils over abandoned railroad lines to link cities coast-to-coast. Meanwhile, riders are joining mass multiday fundraising rides for safety in numbers, or taking to America’s 1,357,430 miles of quieter unpaved roads. For that, they ride increasingly popular “gravel bikes,” a toughened road bike designed for speed on off-road with added mounts for gear.
Such dusty byways call to riders like 30-year-old Australian Alee Denham, who’s currently heading from Patagonia, Argentina, to Alaska on a $6,000 (with customization) Dutch-designed 2020 KOGA Worldtraveler gravel bike (koga.com). For those with less herculean ambitions, he recommends a Cannondale Topstone AL Sora for a bit over $1,100 (cannondale.com).
Mr. Denham’s epic journey is what the Adventure Cycling Association or ACA (adventurecycling.org) calls “self-contained” bikepack touring, meaning he takes hotel and homestay breaks on occasion but doesn’t count on them. Though he grinds up hillsides hauling 53 pounds of everything from repair tools to cookware, he doesn’t recommend it. His pack is heavy because his lifestyle demands durability over convenience. “What I have is what hasn’t broken,” he said.
Patricia McNeal, a 58-year-old brain-aneurysm survivor from Panama City, Fla., is currently riding home from Seattle on her 2017 Trek Émonda SL 6 road bike. She’s improvising a route, but confessed she’d one day love to ride the Great American Rail Trail, a transcontinental route from Washington, D.C. to Washington state that’s now in piecemeal development.
A self-described “credit-card camper,” Ms. McNeal doesn’t rough it. She carries a single bag and sleeps at hotels and homestays arranged via warmshowers.org, a peer-to-peer cyclist’s site, as well as supporters who learn about her travels via the Black Girls Do Bike organization. Her necessities are padded shorts, a gel seat, chamois cream to help with chafing and some music. For safe riding without earbuds, a Buckshot Pro Ultra speaker blasts tunes and can double as a portable charger ($66, outdoortechnology.com).
THE CYCLE OF LIFE / SIX ESSENTIALS FOR A LEGENDARY TWO-WHEELED ADVENTURE
The single-sleeper Topeak Bikamper tent ingeniously uses your bike frame for structure. $260, topeak.com
Coros’s OMNI Smart Helmet keeps your ears open by channeling music through the cheekbones. $150, coros.com
HydroFlask’s 20L Hydration Pac prevents your hot, sweaty back from turning cool sips tepid. $200, hydroflask.com
Ortlieb’s Sportroller Classic bag keeps dry the precious few things you brought along. $170, ortliebusa.com
Topeak’s ALiEN III multitool has all the necessary tools you’ll need for a quick roadside fix. $50, topeak.com
Varia’s radar-equipped red tail bundle alerts you to that silent electric vehicle creeping up fast. $200, garmin.com
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