*DISCLAIMER* I'm not a cyclist. Which is why my 400-mile bike trip was more of a learning experience than the athletic endeavor I'd imagined when I agreed to ride from Manhattan to Montreal. But from the four flat tires, two skinned knees, poison ivy and collection of nasty bruises, I learned some valuable lessons about the sport. Here's what my first long-distance cycling trip taught me.
1. When you fall down, get back up. I left from Chinatown, N.Y., with my two fellow cycling pals and the third trailing behind in a car stuffed with camping supplies, snacks and our two dogs. We were all excited to hit the road and started off as quickly as Manhattan traffic would allow. Yet within the first block of our journey, I hit the pavement. My pride was hurt -- both by the fall itself and the "get some training wheels" comment from a passerby -- but I wasn't. Part of me was convinced the trip was doomed for disaster and wanted to call it quits, but I was excited to tackle my first adventure in cycling, so I hopped back on and was glad I kept pedaling.
2. Listen to your body. Riding a bike for the better part of a day takes a toll on your body. First of all, cycling is a pain in the butt -- and I mean that very literally. Sometimes you need to invest in a new pair of padded shorts, adjust the position of your hands, which in turn changes the way you're seated, or stand up on your pedals to give your bum a break.
Riding roughly 100 miles in a day, depending on the terrain and individual, will burn somewhere around 3,400 calories. That's a lot of Clif bars and energy gels. Often, I'd start to feel my energy drop before I realized that I was actually hungry. I learned to pay attention to when I got tired and realized it was time to gobble a granola bar.
As quickly as I was burning through fuel, I was also losing hydration. The average recommendation for cyclists is one 16-ounce bottle of water per hour in cool weather, according to Bicycling Magazine. We were riding in the 70s and 80s, so we had to down even more. One thing I noticed was that my lips would often feel dry before I really felt thirsty, but I used that as a sign that I should gulp some H2O.
When you're riding every day, your body begs you for a day off. We took a rest day three-quarters of the way through our trip to recoup, both physically and mentally. We spent a day helping a friend on her farm and fueling up with homegrown grub.
3. If you don't know what you're doing, follow someone who does. I only rode in front of our little bike line for about three miles of the trip. That's because the wind that the first person rides into creates resistance that causes the leader to lose speed and steam. This person blocks the wind for the cyclists pedaling behind him or her, adding a few extra miles per hour to the speed of those following. The concept is called drafting, and it's basically what geese do when they fly south for the winter. Without it, I would have keeled over. My two cyclist pals, who had made the trek up to Montreal from Boston a few years back, took turns taking the lead and I was lucky enough to chug along in the middle, which saved me some energy.
4. Equipment matters a lot. Bikes aren't cheap. Many are worth more than my car, which isn't saying all that much, but still... If you're serious about cycling, it's definitely worth investing in a fancy, lightweight bike. A carbon fiber BMC is going to be much lighter and therefore faster than an aluminum clunker you get off of Craigslist. We had a range of bikes on the trip and I'll say this: when it comes to long-distance cycling, quality pays off.
Clip-in pedals are also an absolute must. I had never even heard of these until I started training for this ride, but serious cyclists invest in special shoes which snap into special pedals. They allow the cyclist to pull as well as push with each pedal stroke, making for a much more powerful rotation. They let you use your energy more efficiently and make powering up hills a bit easier.
When riding the open roads, protection is key. I don't think I would have survived without padded bike shorts to cushion my backside; cycling gloves to prevent blisters from the handlebars; sunscreen with some serious SPF power; and of course, my trusty helmet. I think it's worth noting that only 58 percent of Americans wear helmets when they ride, according to a Consumer Reports survey. But, as we all know, pedaling the open roads is just plain dangerous. So snap one on before you ride.
5. Learning on the fly isn't always your best bet. As we now know, practice doesn't necessarily make perfect, but I'm willing to bet that a little more would have smoothed a few wrinkles for me. Between the struggle escaping from clip-in pedals and my failure to ride enough long distances before the trip, it was clear that I probably wouldn't have had to ride in our accompanying car for miles at a time if I had prepared more.
6. But good company makes up for a lot. Our last day was the longest, coming in at a total of 118 miles. The sun beat down relentlessly and we spent hours riding through corn field after corn field, but we kept the jokes flowing and our spirits up. We crossed the Canadian border and eventually arrived in Montreal exhausted, but smiling and exchanging high fives.