We leave in about a week, so this is actually a pre-trip post in anticipation of our departure.
We've been planning this trip for about 4 years. The idea was born a long, leisurely ride around Winnipeg on a beautiful spring day. We were on the last leg of our ride home when I turned to Bram and said, "I could do this all day!" (meaning riding my bike). It didn't feel like the dreaded exercise chore, yet it was active living. He replied, "Yeah? I've always wanted to do a long distance bike trip." Hmm... I let that germinate for a while, and then decided that a bike tour would be the perfect start to my one year leave of absence that I was planning. When other people take a sabbatical, they do things like go to Africa and build a church, or go back to school and take another degree. Those kinds of things aren't the ways I need to stretch and grow. But taking an adventurous trip that involves training and conditioning my body... that's exactly the kind of out-of-my-comfort-zone growing I need to do !
You can't imagine the planning and details that go into a trip like this. We are doing it fully self supported (ie: taking everything we own on our backs and bikes, including camping gear), so we've been collecting light-weight gear and bike stuff for 4 years... and of course training. We took two practice camping trips from Beausejour to the Whiteshell, a 120km round trip, to test ourselves and our gear. We had to decide where to go, narrow down the area to something that was realistic given our ability, and plan a route in a place neither of us had been to. Plan a route, book flights and 11 different accommodations over 29 days, figure out how to get all our stuff and bikes there, practice packing and bike maintenance, and try not to kill each other in the process!
Before we start on the actual trip, let me first talk about my bike that I decided to splurge on to make this trip a little more pleasurable for me. The task of choosing my bike really deserves a post on its own. Those of you who aren't bike geeks may want to skip this part, as it might be a bit boring for you. Or... if you've never bought a bike from a bike shop before, you may not know the knowledge and effort that it takes to make the purchase... so maybe you do want to read on to get a little info and insight. It's not like walking into Canadian Tire, looking over the bikes, and taking the box home that same day. Not like that at all. Don't be overwhelmed with all you have to know... I know wayyyy more now than I did 5 years ago when I bought my first "real" bike. And I still consider myself a bit of a newbie.
First, is picking the right bike shop for you. I narrowed down to 2 choices: Olympia Cycle & Ski on Portage Avenue and Natural Cycleworks in the Exchange District. Olympia is my go-to bike shop for most everything, because so far they are the only bike shop that I have found in Winnipeg that has staff who are very knowledgeable about bike touring. Other bike shops mostly have staff who are into racing or mountain biking--which is important if that's the kind of biking you want to do--but touring is its own specialty.
Natural Cycleworks is a community based cooperative, with ethical business practices that custom builds bikes from new, used and recycled parts to provide a balance of function and affordability. They were very nice when I went down there, and spent a lot of time putting me at ease with my lack of knowledge. I would highly recommend them as a bike shop, but in the end I chose Olympia because I didn't think I was up to the task of making all the decisions necessary for a custom-built bike.
At Olympia, Al, a retired school teacher, who has done several tours himself including one in PEI, was very gentle and patient with me in choosing my bike. After doing some research online, I went in with an idea of what I wanted and he confirmed my initial research: to test ride both the Surly Long Haul Trucker and a Surly Cross Check. The first is specifically designed for touring, which means that it has a little longer wheel base, lots of attachment points to mount racks, bottles, bags and spare parts, and is built more for comfort than speed. The Cross Check is a multi-purpose bike, but can easily be used for touring. I tried the Cross Check and instantly knew that it was too cramped for me. I was very hopeful about the LHT because of all the reviews and recommendations, but honestly I couldn't get half a block on it because it had those drop handlebars on them... you know, the ones that look like an old 10-speed with the half circles at the end. But me and Al persisted. He set the bike up on an indoor trainer for me so I wouldn't be scared about falling over. Four hours of adjusting, fiddling, and finally a brave test ride around the block, was all it took for me to put a deposit on my new bike. Plus, it was a pretty colour :)
The thing about buying a bike at a bike shop is that most bikes need a little customizing to make them the way you want them to be. You don't have to settle on anything just because that's how it comes out of the box. Pretty much everything can be switched out for something else... often the cost is the same, or a fraction more because you get credit for the original part. For me, it was all about those handlebars. Al (and many others) thought I just needed to get used to the drop-style handlebars, but I really knew myself better and had already decided that I would want a set of butterfly trekking bars that look like this.
Al had heard of them, but the shop has never carried them, so I had to source them elsewhere. They are quite popular in Europe, but not as much in North America. I managed to find the only one in Manitoba, and took it back to Olympia so that I could try the bike with the new bars. Now, you think that would be an easy thing. It's not. The brake levers and gear shifters don't work with this size of handlebar, so all I could do was once again try the bike on the trainer with the old bars hanging off the side because none of the components were functional with the new handlebars. Then I had to choose new brake levers and gear shifters, trying different ones that were put on temporarily so I could see how they feel. Once I was happy with the new handlebars and components, the shop had to make the permanent switch so that I could finally take it for a test ride outside.
A fair amount of time, research, energy and a bit of money had already been invested in a bike that I hadn't yet had a real ride on. It was a bit of a leap of faith. But oh, was it sweet! The ride was so smooth, and I was so happy. This whole process of buying a bike took about 3 weeks, not counting the research beforehand. Then the fun part of accessorizing it, with things like a new colour-coordinated bell and handlebar tape!
Here's my beauty. I call her Zephyr.