25 Apr 2014

Early season touring

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Last year we didn’t do any cycle touring, which is no way to live. To get back on track we visited the San Juan Islands this month for a few days of riding and camping. The idea was to check our gear in preparation for more ambitious tours and to get some early season outdoor miles while it was snowing in Calgary. Our trip was a bit of a gong show but we had questions and got answers.

Access to the San Juan Islands is by ferry originating from Anacortes, a town north of Seattle. We parked the truck on the mainland and walked on with our bikes. The ferry ride is about and hour and costs under $15 per rider with the bike surcharge. The eastbound return is open and free.

From Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, we rode north to a private lakefront campground for one night. They turned us away saying they weren’t open for camping yet, which was a surprise because their website indicates otherwise. They referred us to the county campground, forcing us back on the road after dark. That’s when we had the learning experience of remembering our lights. Our rear rack-mounted lights worked fine (with spare batteries on hand if needed) and my dynamo wheel-powered headlight worked well enough for two. In fact the quiet night riding by my light was really enjoyable, some of the best we would have. Then and there we decided to order a dynamo hub for Sonya’s bike so lights won’t need to be remembered at all. Say no more.

The county campground is clean and offers discounted rates for campers who arrive by human power. The views are really nice and you can see Victoria across the strait (in fact you can get Canadian cellular signals). It was really windy on the ocean, which was new for us since we almost always camp in forests. The tent worked great and didn’t budge even in the face of really severe gusts. On the other hand our bikes were blown over. Apart from some scratches, the damage was one bottle cage bent out of shape and one bent front derailleur. We already carry a tarp to cover the bikes at night but in the future I’ll add a length of nylon webbing with buckles to tether everything.

After the first night, the weather deteriorated. It would clear up for an hour or two in the afternoon but otherwise rained constantly. We rode out on the third day since the forecast wasn’t calling for any improvement. On account of the weather we learned our tent is not only stable in the wind but is still 100% waterproof, which is very good. We also confirmed our camp kitchen works fine although the only part that can really go wrong is your stove. Been there, done that, happy to have a solid stove. The only camp-related issue we discovered is one of our inflatable sleeping pads has a leak. It was useful to find the problem before touring in the Rockies, where overnight temperatures plunge.

About the bikes

Both our bikes are Surly Long Haul Truckers, mine with disc brakes and hers with linear pulls. I like these frames because they’re stout, well-tested and inexpensive. Touring frames shouldn’t be precious. That doesn’t mean touring is cheap — any money saved on your frame is easily spent on upgraded wheels, bike luggage and camping gear. These items improve life on the road and minimize grief. My touring wheels are 32h H Plus Son Archetypes laced with butted spokes and brass nipples. This is a lightweight build for my 150 pounds plus 30 pounds of bike and 45 pounds of luggage. In general I wouldn’t recommend so few spokes for fully-loaded cycle touring but these rims are amazing and I don’t lose sleep testing them in this manner. As part of my post-tour cleaning/inspection/repair marathon I threw my wheels on the truing stand and alignment checked out better than ±0.10mm. For context, these wheels haven’t been adjusted since the day they were built. I’ve put together several touring wheels this year — contact me if you’re in the market.