Down the Pacific coast by Brompton

Now that it’s icy in Portland, I suppose it’s time to reminisce on August. I spent the best two weeks of my life thus far riding my trusty Brompton folding bike, lightly modified, about 700 miles down the Pacific coast this summer, nearly to San Francisco. 10000002751000000250I rode alone, carrying full camping gear. I even did the extra-tough and remote Lost Coast segment. Yes, on 16″ wheels that many observers suppose are good for little more than scooting along the sidewalk to and from transit stops. Or maybe if you have a boat or something. The fact is, Bromptons are amazingly versatile, appealing to hardened bike geeks like me, as well as to … well, all kinds of people.

I came back from the trip feeling transformed, reborn even, and determined to write about it, but the reasons I had such an amazing time are so deeply personal that I’m shy of expressing too much publicly, as if this were (still) my over-sharing hippy personal blog. The first four days were great, but after the fifth day, perma-grin set in, punctuated only by a few moments daily of happy tears. I touched the wire that powers everything. I’ve had to assure some people with whom I’ve shared details that I was not on drugs, and I’ve choked up a few times in the telling. That kind of good.
Not a 1970s album cover

I’ll spare you the woo-woo parts (mostly). I think even the bare externalities of the ride are worth documenting: what I rode, what I took, highlights of the route, etc. It worked too well not to share!

The bike and its enhancements

I rode my 2008 Brompton M6L. In Brompton-speak, that means the popular “M” type handlebar, 6 speeds, and no rear rack. This is, incidentally, by far the most common Brompton configuration we sell.

1000000242 1000000321 1000000320 The M-type handlebars permit use of the large Touring Pannier, alias T-bag, which fixes to the frame (not the fork!) above the front wheel. This single bag was nearly large enough to hold all my stuff. Bearing big loads low in front damps the otherwise fluffy front-end feel of Bromptons (<30mm trail, for steering geeks). It feels more and more stolid as your load grows. It’s also a timesaver to have one’s stuff centered easily in a single large compartment, in hand’s reach even underway. Big load tip: pass the bag’s top strap behind the steering column for no wobbles. The M-type bars also accept clamp-on grips with bar end extensions for more hand positions from upright to aero. I used, and heartily recommend Ergon GC3s. Unlike the “P” type bars touted for touring, these support the wrists-in grip I require. All these months later I still haven’t taken them off, even though I don’t need the extra hand positions for in-town riding, and they impede a complete fold unless loosened and rotated first.

I upgraded from the original 6-speed gearing to the current 302% Brompton Wide Range (BWR) type. Until just last year, getting adequately low and wide-range gearing on a Brompton ideal for hilly unsupported touring was an expensive and fiddly proposition, sometimes entailing irreversible frame modifications. Now it’s easy, and I expect that more and more stories like mine will appear as other bike tourists do the new math. I replaced the stock 50T crank with a Sugino XD having 44 and 36T rings, making my ride a 12-speed having about a 24-85″ gear range. As I shifted among front rings (manually!) probably less than a dozen times the whole trip, even this modification wasn’t strictly necessary.

No rear rack! The T-bag was nearly big enough. I carried the surplus — my entire shelter and sleeping arrangement and a few tools — in an old waxed canvas Carradice Lowsaddle Longflap transverse saddlebag. I used guy lines between the outer bag loops and the rear fender roller to prevent the bag from swaying. Benefits of this approach versus a rear rack and bag system are that the bike can be parked and even completely folded without removing the load, and that the load is isolated by the bike’s simple rear suspension, just like the rider, for smoother carriage and maybe even a little less rolling resistance.(Please note that Brompton does not endorse carrying big loads in a saddlebag like this, especially if the rider is anywhere near the maximum weight or height, or the saddle is positioned far rearward, as the resulting extra leverage can lead to very bad things happening.)

I have a hub dynamo powering front and rear LED lights. I ran with them on even in the day, most of the way, as the front is bright enough to be seen a mile away in daylight, LEDs won’t likely burn out in my lifetime, and drag is not noticeable. What’s more, I used a Biologic Reecharge to keep my iPhone charged from the dynamo. The phone did semi-constant duty as iPod, still and video camera, GPS, and internet device, providing invaluable information countless times. I tweeted several times a day to stay in touch, even video panda tweets. There can be no loneliness in the shimmering maw of the twitterverse! I also made a phone call or two. It worked well, though I could discharge the device faster than the hub could recharge it if I used no discipline with the internet features in the many weak-signal areas.

I used MKS Lambda platform pedals fitted with the “Ezy” quick-release system so the bike still folds as small as with the stock folding pedal. No straps or cleats: just pedals and boots, and I survived! I also rode with a new Brooks B17 saddle and no sort of padded or specially lined pants: zero butt pain. I know, I was doing it all wrong!

10000002331000000292I had no notable mechanical problems. One normal flat, which I patched. One tire wore through in a long panic skid to avoid a cattle guard: replaced it; little wheels mean little spares! Bearing cones went loose at one point affecting shifting: easy fix; my bad for letting it happen. Everything else: flawless.

The number one question asked along the way was “why are you riding that?” as if obviously it were a poor choice. Even I suspected in advance that there would be times I’d regret this choice, in defiance of so much conventional wisdom. I admit also that I enjoy doing things differently for its own sake, but the plain truth is that I made better time with this setup, in greater comfort, than I did almost exactly 10 years prior on this route riding a lavishly appointed custom touring bike. I was in better shape then, too. I will tour this way again without hesitation. The diminutive unlikeliness of the bike helps remind you that touring isn’t about the equipment: you yourself are flying!

It is true that little wheels don’t handle poor surfaces as well as larger. More caution than usual is required to negotiate potholes and the like. Loose gravel at speed is sketchy on almost any bike, and it’s a small wonder I never crashed on any of it. On certain very steep, very long and twisty descents, braking friction caused the little rims to overheat. The big upside of little wheels, apart from letting you take your folded bike almost anywhere, and being out of the way of a big front central frame-fixed bag, is that they are quite light and very strong. Even running tough 37mm tires, they accelerate snappily like race wheels, especially welcome when climbing with a load. I think the small inertia of the wheels helped spare my knees the pain that has been part of longer rides all my life.

Ultimately, I chose the Brompton from a stable including two excellent but long-idle “real” touring bikes because I ride it several times a week year round. I know it best; trust it most. I can tell the difference between its normal occasional squeaks and rattles, and real problems. I’ve never ridden a bike for long that I didn’t develop an irrational attachment to, but ever since this ride, I’ve wanted to feed my Brommie buckets of apples.

The route

1000000207The Pacific Coast Bicycle Route is well-signed and documented in books and maps. I followed the route for the most part. I’ve ridden this way before. I like novelty and exploration generally, so considered a new route, but inner exploration was higher on my list this time, and I can’t imagine a more beautiful course than this. It follows US 101 most of the way into California, which is much more pleasant than it sounds, with a broad shoulder in most parts, absolutely spectacular views, and lots of bike-friendly camping choices along the way. I spent only two nights in the same campgrounds as when I rode this way before, for instance. Prevailing winds are from the north in fair weather. What’s more, riding north to south means that climbs tend to be on the more heavily shaded north slopes of the hills.

Parts of the route have narrow shoulders, and there can be a lot of RV and logging traffic. A rear view mirror is essential. Paradoxically, perhaps, I found that listening to music made riding with highway traffic more relaxing. Without music, the wind and constant motor buzz makes it hard to filter the noise from signal of threat: it’s exhausting. With music, you come to rely more on your mirror to scan behind on the highway’s usually long sightlines. Close comers get through the music in plenty of time anyway. Humans make ugly noises and beautiful sounds. Nobody can hear you singing. I sang a lot, digging deep into the music, rediscovering it, with no worries about batteries thanks to the dynamo.
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IMG_0026Getting to the route from Portland, I took MAX light rail to Hillsboro, and rode over the coast range at Carlton, camping just past the summit the first night. The real summit, not the many false ones. The next morning is a downhill delight along the peaceful Nestucca river. The first day’s climbing can be a shock, but know that it’s the toughest within several days’ ride, and you’ll be stronger by the time you find worse.

What were your favorite parts? Tell us stories.

My favorite parts involved an episode of clairvoyance, vivid wakeful visions of luminous trees and translucent flowing asphalt, out-of-body awareness, a phantom gatekeeper in an overwhelming confluence of hints and almost trite symbolic elements indicating that I had died, recurrence of a beautiful lucid dream, accompaniment by and death of a smiling dragonfly whose body I bore to the beach below Mt. Tamalpais, sharply focused rolling meditative states, feats of effortless strength. It changed me. I’m still learning how, but it’s all good.

Most of this out-there stuff had already transpired before I reached the Lost Coast, the last three days of my ride. Deemed an alternate of the official route, I took a non-official variant of it. I had never been here before. This is the part of California that the coastal highway engineers gave up on, as just too ruggedly treacherous to traverse. What roads there are are very poor. It’s “lost” because civilization routed around it. No phone service; not much in the way of any other services either. Drink from streams. Bears and territorial clandestine cannabis growers. Brutally steep grades, and a southern exit through the 30 miles of loose rutted clay, rocks, roots and powdery dirt of Usal Road, often impassable in the wet season. I was feeling pretty invincible when I decided to go in there. I wanted to test my limits. The three days I spent inside were the tour within the tour, the inner sanctum, the secret garden.

1000000259In Ferndale, the last town before entering the Lost Coast, a roadie in pink kit rode up alongside and asked where I was heading. I told him, and his eyes popped. He shook his head, and he said declarrogatively “you really want to do that.” I told him I expected to hike a lot. “Yes, you will.” After lunching on a truly outstanding local grass-fed hamburger before the final turn, I thanked the cook. He said “Thanks, I hope you come back!” … “You mean, alive?” I didn’t know it then, but lunchtime was already too late to be leaving.

The steeps come immediately out of Ferndale. Cursing your mother affectionately, “give me strength,” and pushing the bike, I swapped the helmet for a wet hankie around my neck and floppy hat. I admired immediately the deep peaceful silence of the place, and left the music off. The ecotrope mixes elements from much further south and north: southern slopes like Mt. Diablo east of San Francisco; north like the Siuslaw five days north. From the top of the first ridge, you can see the curvature of the earth on the shining sea. I entered an almost dreamlike state as the day reclined, lulled into trance by the profound quiet, beauty, light, heat, and exertion.

Coming to the bottom of a valley, a scrawny black feral dog appeared at the side of the road with a little black boar as an unlikely pal, tusks visible. They positioned themselves on either side of the road and prepared to rush me, advancing slowly, heads low. Without plan, hesitation, or understanding why, I began yelling at them wildly in bad Spanish as I charged into their gap. “¡Pobrecitos! ¿Que pasó? ¿Donde es su mamá?” They froze, then shrunk back as I kept yelling, standing on the pedals in a sprint past. Crazy gringo kung fu bluff!

IMG_0142IMG_0143Not far beyond a few vacant ranch buildings optimistically called Capetown, a jeep passed me late in the afternoon. It stopped a quarter mile ahead, then reversed down a couple switchbacks to me. She asked if I was OK. “Best day of my life, thanks! But, um, I could use some water. I’m nearly out.” She didn’t have more than a few sips of juice, and she assured me that I wouldn’t be refilling from any stream in August before Petrolia, many more steep miles distant. She offered a ride. I hesitated, because I was invincible, right? No water. I accepted. Bike folded neatly in the crowded back seat. Brompton +1.

As she drove at crazy speed over the miles, I saw where I would have run dry, where I would have become desperate, where darkness would fall, where I’d pitch a miserable dry camp, and how much farther still I’d need to go in the morning to find water. Already flush with gratitude for the day, my thanks spilled over for what would not be, for her kindness. If she wasn’t saving my life, it was close enough. Thank you cool jeep lady!

Note: when entering the Lost Coast from the north, leave Ferndale early, carrying all the water you need for a full day of hard effort.

That night, well-watered, I strung my hammock on the driftwood at Mattole beach under a moonless clear sky. I marveled at the closeness of the milky way, the profusion of shooting stars, and I saw the zodiacal light.

At sunrise, I walked a mandala-esque labyrinth of stones on the beach sipping tea as the mists burned off. Among other things I noted how jeep lady, who could have been my daughter, had so gently punctured my prideful reluctance to receive help, and how this same pride, the equivalent inverse of shame, diminishes me in other ways.
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IMG_024310000002741000000277After a second breakfast of honey-sweet blackberries while talking to friendly cows about presence in the moment, exalting in the breadth of the moment, I made my way to the sleepy little store at Honeydew. There was no melon, but some well-tattooed and pierced locals were handing puppies out of a box on the porch. I asked the storekeeper about my map, whether being 15 years old it was still accurate. She laughed and said “nothing ever happens here.” I asked whether she thought I could make it over Wilder Ridge Road to a campground near the base of Usal Road before nightfall, or take the easier exit east to rejoin 101. She asked how I was feeling. “If I die today, I will be grateful for everything.” “Oh, that’s nice. Take Wilder Ridge.”

It was 90F on the shaded porch at the store. Soon, pushing up an unshaded slope, I was overtaken by a massive semi truck hauling a bulldozer, grinding away in first gear. Minutes later I heard a huge racket of metal on metal, and I beheld the spectacle of the bulldozer, having been unloaded, pushing the semi up an even steeper dirt section of the road. I drank 4.5 liters of water in less than 20 miles, when crusty and stinging with salt, no pee, I refilled from the stream at Ettersburg. In the Lost Coast, it seems any building larger than a house qualifies for a place name.

Coming down, the road was so twisty, and the surface so poor that it was seldom safe to let gravity have its way. There was no space between riding too fast and riding the brakes too hard. The 16″ rims can’t absorb as much heat in braking as larger ones. They fade and make horrible noises with a burning smell, threatening to blow the tires off. Slow pushing uphill, slow walking downhill. Growing impatient, at one point I saw what looked like about 200 yards of clear pavement, and I let fly. I had accelerated rapidly to about 40mph, when I spied a cattle guard in my path, with a twist right after it. The bars were spaced at least 8 inches apart — the radius of my wheels. Hit slow and I’d crash right there; hit fast and I’d crash on the twist beyond. So I braked in a panic, thrusting body back, but still locking up the rear wheel into a long, long skid. I stopped about a foot before the guard, heart pounding. The tire had worn down to the kevlar casing, fraying it. I replaced it and carried on, pushing when in doubt.

Late in the day, the road turned uphill yet again to the ridge above Shelter Cove. Alternately spinning and walking up, very tired, I deliberated whether to hitch a ride from a passing vehicle. About a third of them left a pungent waft of marijuana in their wake. I reached the top before making up my mind. Downhill again, and hurrying against the light, the wheels yet again began to overheat as I braked my way through the twists. Here I remembered a story about how riders in the Alps would cool their rims. I stopped and peed on their tiny angry hotness. TSSSCCHHHHHHSSSSSsssssssss TSSSCCHHSSSsssss TSSCCHHSSssssssss! I ran dry, laughing, before the sizzling stopped. That felt pretty badass. Water was too precious to pour on the bike, so I walked it down a ways.

Arriving finally in Nadelos camp at dusk beside a burbling creek, I ate and bathed in an ecstatic transport of exhaustion. This day was the hardest physical trial I had ever enjoyed, probably ever endured. Settling into my hammock, just then a nearby campsite opened up the monster truck doors, turned on the high beams and fog lights, and cranked up the AC/DC! They had a vuvuzela, too. I thought it was a joke, soon to be concluded, but no. Imperturbable, I drifted off moments later to the sweet strains of Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap, with drunk karaoke and horn blast accompaniment. I didn’t stir for eleven hours, not even waking to pee.

100000029110000002941000000296The final day I left the Lost Coast via Usal Road. Between camp and the beginning of Usal was a few miles of buttery smooth new asphalt, downhill, narrow and twisty yet well banked almost like a luge run, so I took it fast and let out some whoo-hoos. It got even better right at the foot of Usal, where the very friendly community of Whale Gulch was holding their annual volunteer fire department bake sale, with hot coffee and homemade super yummy baked goods, local forest and orchard fruit salad, and unlimited free face-licking from black labs in pickup beds. So much for roughing it!

With a large net elevation loss, I found Usal Road itself far less challenging than I had been worked up to expect. In fact, this long off-road leg made probably the most fun day of all. The soft irregular surface meant that speed was easier to control than on pavement. I got very, very good at hopping off the bike very, very quickly as the wheels dodged out from under me: the step-over frame and low center of gravity make it an easy flick. I’ve never done proper mountain biking; this felt like a good crash course. It was thickly forested most of the way, so cool and very quiet, with stunning views above the low ocean clouds where the tree cover broke.

I ended that day at Fort Bragg, arriving after 10 by generator light. Within two days’ ride of my intended destination of San Francisco, my old home, I panicked. I wasn’t ready for the ride to end so soon. I was having the time of my life, high as a kite on nothing but love, beauty, endorphins. A broad sunny meadow had opened up in the forest of my soul, and I couldn't leave. I might have been certifiably manic, crazy in the best possible way.

Freezing in my hammock in the middle of the night, I emailed a feeble bid to the homefront to extend the ride to Las Vegas, where I needed to be in two weeks anyway for the bike trade show (the Sierra Nevada! Death Valley! I could do it! Show those bike trade people the only way to fly!). When that fell flat in the morning, instantly I lost all motivation to continue. After the Lost Coast, there could be only anticlimax. I desperately needed some time off the bike to process my experience before rejoining my routine. I called my best man, who came to fetch me in her earthmobile to her home in Napa, and I spent the next fews days there boiling down the sap I’d collected, screwing my head back on normal. Thanks, J!

Returning home, I rode to Oakland airport from a Berkeley friend’s home (thanks, M!), checked my bag, gate-checked the folded bike, and rode home from PDX airport as on many past journeys. No special box, case, extra fees, or taxi required.
1000000298 1000000326 Gate checked

Camping gear

IMG_0106Having modest carrying capacity is a good thing. Otherwise you bring too much. I brought just enough, leaving a little extra space free for food and a bear vault (mandatory in the Lost Coast) purchased along the way.

The niftiest element of my camping kit was the hammock, which replaced a tent and pad, with its underlayment and poles. I used a Hennessy Hammock, the “Deep Jungle Asym” model, with bottom insulation. It’s amazingly compact and light, and I found it far more comfortable than any tent and pad I’ve used. You lay on the diagonal for a nearly straight back, or even on your side, with no pressure points. I packed the sleeping bag inside the hammock in its “snakeskin” sleeves, no separate stuffing. Between this shortcut and only two large centered bags to deal with, I could make and break camp in under five minutes. I was prepared to use the hammock even in absence of well-spaced trees, using the seat pillar of the bike and broad 15″ steel ground stakes for tension and support, but never needed to.

1000000198My one big gear regret was packing too light a sleeping bag. I had room for my too-warm down bag, but erred on the side of too cold. Overnight lows were regularly in the 40s. My bag was rated for “survival” into the 30s, but for “comfort” down to only 52F, and I question that rating, at least for a hammock. I couldn’t make up the difference wearing all my wool to sleep. I spent two nights in motels instead of camping in part because the forecast said I’d be shivering in the hours before dawn. Grant Petersen kindly spotted me a vapor barrier liner along the way, and this helped a good deal, but not as much as I’d have liked. O-dark-thirty one morning I made a hot water bottle with trembling hands to ward off a deeper chill.

My cooking capacity was limited to heating water in my two 40oz stainless Klean Kanteens, using a tiny Esbit stove. Thus I avoided needing separate cooking and water stowage vessels. This worked beautifully; you can dump in soupy gruely fixings, and scour them clean by shaking closed with gravel or sand and soapy water.

For bathing, laundry, and general cleanup, I used pine tar soap. Simple and good. I packed several handkerchiefs as washcloths, towels, rags, sweat mops, and nose blowers. No-towel bathing tip: use a credit card or similar as a squeegee on your skin before finishing with a hankie.

1000000319 An Oregon-made Archival Clothing waxed canvas Flap Musette served admirably as man-purse, holding small high-value items, snacks and toiletries. Strapped to the outside of my front bag underway, it kept its contents dry even after a whole day of rain riding.

I brought at least a dozen small other articles under this heading, but nothing else unusual, and I don’t intend to get that tedious.

Clothing

1000000317Wool, of course! 3 light Merino tops (2 long, 1 short sleeve), 2 pair of sheer Merino boxers and thick socks, 1 pair of long Merino underwear, 2 pair of worsted wool trousers: one our own Stealth Pantaloons, and one Bicycle Fixation knickers.

I prefer long sleeves and full length pants because I don’t like sunscreen. Makes me break out and seems to attract grime. Even pushing the bike up steeps above 90F in high sun, full coverage lightweight black wool top and bottom kept me as comfortable as anything could have! I think the extra solar radiation absorbed by the black enhances evaporative cooling? Bedouins seem to understand this.

Light wool will dry overnight, or mostly. I washed the trousers only once, more to help appearances than actual stink or discomfort. There were white bands of sweat salt encrusting them. As mentioned above, no “bicycle pants.” The crotch seams of the wool I wore aren’t bulky, and pads seem to me only to trap heat and moisture and press junk up into your junk.

These are the same clothes I wear every day, inside and out, to work, to restaurants, to stack wood. And have for years. All that varies is the number of layers year round. Wool clothing is expensive, you say?

Also waxed leather Blundstone boots, flip-flops for camp, a Tyvek rain shell/windbreaker, and Rainmates chaps. I rode all day one day in chilly rain, wearing most of my layers, and while I ended up quite wet, I stayed toasty.

A floppy hat. Did I mention handkerchiefs?

Food, supplements, habits and health

1000000214IMG_01001000000219Severe knee pain has troubled all my longer rides, all my life. That which does not destroy me makes my knees hurt like a mofo. This time it happened too, but far, far milder than in the past, down to a 3 from 8 on a 1-10 scale where 10 is passing out. So determined was I to avoid this pain that I tried several preventive measures all at once. Unfortunately, this scattershot approach means I don’t know which things did the trick. One or more of the following worked for me:

  • Fish oil capsules (omega 3 fatty acids play a modulating role in inflammatory response)
  • Chia seed (richest plant source of omega 3 fatty acids. A big help in staying fresh, as the fibrous gel matrix draws fluid and fuel deep into your gut for sustained release; water is the first joint lubricant! Lots of antioxidants. I ate chia gruel for most breakfasts and mixed it in canteens for a bubble-tea-like drink. Can you say magnificent well-formed stools?)
  • Matcha (powdered green tea. Yet more antioxidants — also just a quick and easy way to get a caffeine pickup, hot or cold. Mixes with chia and Emergen-C or whole milk in canteen…)
  • Lots of oily fish, canned, jerky, and fresh, as well as elk and buffalo jerky. In general I ate lots of high-quality fat (=no fry oil), protein, and fiber, and not so much sugar and other carbohydrates. Certainly some sweets and starch, but nothing resembling “carbo-loading.” The chia is said to lower the glycemic index of foods consumed with it. Absolutely I was sometimes very tired, but never felt the classic “bonk” of “not enough sugar!” Overall, energy levels were fantastic. Losing weight wasn’t a goal, but I lost over a pound a day. Somehow I’ve kept it off, too!
  • Aleve (naproxen sodium). One morning, one night. After I ran out, I didn’t miss it. But it helped with the first couple days of soreness.
  • MRM Joint Synergy supplement and lotion. Contains a dozen ingredients said to support joint health and repel tigers. Clearly, it helps! Cold mornings, when the pain comes creeping in, it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it dissociates again.
  • No alcohol. Dehydrates a body! Lowers sleep quality. And I’m sure my liver had better things to do at night.
  • “Wrong” pedaling when climbing. Look at your knee with your foot on the pedal in the normal ball-over-spindle position. Move the pedal to the point of peak knee bend. Now move your foot forward at least an inch on the pedal, maybe all the way to the instep. Much less knee bend, even after you drop the saddle a tiny bit to avoid overextension at the opposite point. You can see also that the whole power stroke this way will put the peak stresses at different places than with other foot positions. Distribute the stresses over more area — move your feet around on the pedals! Now, you might quibble that this technique means you don’t use your calf muscles effectively. But that’s just another way of saying you spare your Achilles tendon stress, too. It’s my experience that my bigger muscles can pick up any calf-slack just fine. This is an endurance game, not a sprint. Max power isn’t as important as injury avoidance.
  • Don’t be afraid to push the bike. Take a break! Some grades are just so steep and long, and sometimes you’re so tired, that spinning up however slowly can reduce you to far less dignified a state than pushing. Pushing works a whole different set of muscles and joint stress points, and it’s easier than normal walking since you can rest your upper body heavily on the bike. You’ll get back in the saddle soon enough with new energy.

Preparation

Training, schmaining! Obviously I thought a bit about logistics, and I’ve toured in years past along much the same route, using some of the same equipment. But as far as getting my body in shape, I did nothing more than a single 75-mile shakedown ride about three weeks in advance. It left my muscles sore (good), and my cartilage screaming (bad), so I embarked on the dietary and supplement regimen described above.

Most days I ride barely 5 miles. My commute is too short. Portland is, after all, only 8 miles on a side. Only a few days a year typically do I ride more than 20 miles. But this ride, pulling a camping load 50-80 miles every day with significant climbs… I felt great, really great almost every day! The secret? If there is one, it’s that riding even a little bit almost every day, over years, seems to mold one’s being appropriately to ride a lot, even long distances. Confidence and joy in dealing with, say, a flat on your commute, or kids and groceries on your bike, or rush hour traffic, translates directly to confidence and joy in schlepping camping gear on a clown bike hundreds of miles down the interstate, over mountain ranges, into the wilderness.

I’m not athletic — never was. I don’t “exercise,” ever, but I do exercise the birthright of my legs, not abdicating to motors to get me, my kid, and my stuff around town. I’m 44. I “just did it.” And YOU! CAN! TOO! in your one and only life.
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Have you read this far? You might enjoy also my 2011 account of a tour out Idaho way, Bromptoneering the Blue and Wallowa Mountains, in which I made some modest gear improvements.

55 thoughts on “Down the Pacific coast by Brompton”

  • Kent Peterson

    Todd, that's a Wonderful story, beautifully told. I was one of your fans following along via your tweets but it's great to see the story all in one spot.

    Thanks for giving the world one more glimpse of the beauty that can be seen from the seat of a bike.

    Reply
  • Peter at NYCeWheels

    Wow! What an incredible journey! I don't know when I'll have time for a long solo tour like that but it has to happen sometime. I know the perma-grin feeling well and I miss it. Thanks for sharing your trip and the story. I can't wait to get out on that long road again.

    Reply
  • Keith Donaldson

    Great stuff. And the permanent grin state is what you develop when you ride a Brommie, honestly. I've done a number of tours in UK including coast to coast last year and it always happens: couple of days in the saddle and you're happy - even on wet days pushing up steep hills in Wales.
    Happy touring.

    Reply
  • Bike Fixer Chris

    Thanks for the great story.
    I rode from San Francisco to Santa Cruz on my black Brompton T5 in 2000. It was about 90 miles over one-day. This bike is still running daily.

    Reply
  • Joe

    Thanks for always helping me as a customer. Fun to read this. I could not read the whole thing. I need to find out what saddle you used. By day 4 of my tours, my rear end hurts. Seems to always happen. Have to take a day off.

    Reply
    • Todd (admin)

      Hi Joe - we stock and use only Brooks saddles. I used a B17, the most common selection for applications in the middle zone between racing and bolt-upright town riding. Saddles are a personal thing ultimately, so I wouldn't presume to recommend a particular one to you without more knowledge. I will presume to declare the widespread lore about most Brooks saddles taking a long time to break in, and padded saddles being generally most comfortable, to be nonsense.

      Reply
  • [...] Bromptons. Just recently, Todd Fahrner, owner of Clever Cycles in Portland, took an unsupported tour down the California coast (from Portland to San Francisco) on his [...]

    Reply
  • Tim K

    Beautiful story. But I want a refund. You promised this would help me sleep. Instead I started planning _my_ solo adventures.

    Reply
  • Joel

    Thanks for the long, long post Todd :0) Great story. I'm quite jealous. The Lost Coast sounds like a great idea for me next summer.

    Reply
  • Ian Platt

    Lovely story. It made me smile too!
    And want to do the route.

    Lots of useful info and great encouragement.

    Happy pedalling
    Ian P.
    1 x Black T5 Tokyo
    1 x red T5 England

    Reply
  • Matt

    I really enjoyed reading this. Inspiring, to say the least, especially since my riding/exercising habits are similar.
    I was touched by your conquering (well, mostly) of the knee pain: I had less luck on a MTB tour through Colorado.

    Ditto @ Tim K: I'm mentally planning already!

    Reply
  • Todd Boulanger

    To follow up on Todd2s comment to Joe about saddles...I too love the B17 for touring...I would add that it is worth the money to upgrade to the version with the rounded copper rivets. Much greater comfort when riding in street pants.

    Reply
  • Dan Reed Miller

    Thanks for sharing! Wonderful trip! I love what you say about hooking into the "wire that powers everything." I've biked the coast (the "regular way" in 2003) and also hiked the Lost Coast (2009), which is an amazing (and very difficult in its own way) thing to do and I highly recommend it if you head thru there again. I hitched from Ferndale to the Mattole River, then again at the end from Usal Campground out to 101. Both then and once when I drove thru years ago, I thought to myself WOW, this is awesome and I can't imagine riding a bike thru it! Major kudos.

    Reply
  • Jeff Bernards

    I rode the lost coast about 4 years ago, one of the most beautiful and rewarding bike trips ever. I stayed in Ferndale, got up early and rode up about 200 feet, it was straight up, A truck pulled up and asked if I wanted a ride up the hill, YES! It's the Yosemite of the coast. Honeydew was a great little stop too.

    Reply
  • Michelle

    Amazing!!!

    I've seen the bromptons online and thought they were more novelty than truely functional. So happy to have my mind changed!

    I plan to save up and buy one within the year. What a fantastic bike!

    Of course I'll be buying it from Clever Cycles. I'll have to stop for some eye candy next time I'm in the PDX area. (I'm in Eastern WA)

    Reply
  • Wes

    Great report! I just got a Brommie myself.

    I noticed that you were using the Dahon Iphone case and Reecharge. How did they work for you?
    I've been debating between the B&M E-werk and the Dahon model and would like to hear your experiences.

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Todd (admin)

      They work well, as described above. I did not go with the B+M because it is not compatible with iPhones without an additional buffer battery, and is much more expensive.

      Reply
  • RonMH

    Wow, Todd, what an inspiring and moving story. Thank you so much for sharing it!
    Oh, and thanks for helping with my son's bike today. I'm sure he'll love it!
    Ron

    P.S. This all makes me really want a Brompton for myself some day.

    Reply
  • MikeJ

    Inspiring, informative, entertaining...just like Clever Cycles! Congrats on a great ride and thank you for sharing the pearls of wisdom you gathered along the way!

    Reply
  • Keiran

    Hi, Great story and I love the photos, they are superb, inspirational stuff. I live in France and own a Brompton (M6L also, but I have since added a Brompton rear rack since buying it back in 2003) and also a Hennessy Hammock as I am also into ultralight backpacking. You've got me thinking about doing something similar next year here in Europe. The great thing about the Brompton is that it's so easy to hop on public transport and avoid boring places that you don't want to cycle through.

    Reply
  • Alex AC

    Wow, this is truly inspiring, I now hardcore commute in a Brompton, I keep telling myself that i wanted a touring bike but never realized that I already have it! Some of the mods i already have, and the double chain ring it's an awesome idea (probably the next mod to begin traveling), but just wondering, doesn't it interfere with the fold, and which bottom bracket would be suitable for it? I was looking in the sugino mighty tour 50/34, so what's your opinion in the matter?

    Reply
    • Todd (admin)

      Hi Xander - The double chainring does not interfere with the fold. Bottom bracket requirements will vary with the chainline of the spider chosen, but chances are reasonable that the stock 119mm spindle will be fine. With my Sugino XD, I calculated that I needed 113mm to preserve the original chainline while in the outer ring, but I found that this narrower BB caused the inner ring not to clear the rear triangle during the fold. So I spaced it back out starboard about 3mm. Probably would have been fine preserving the 119mm...

      Reply
  • Alex AC

    Thanks for the response, I'm no technical guy at all, so can you check out this and tell me if the BB would give an appropriate chainline in both rings? 8

    http://www.benscycle.net/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=9762

    Reply
  • Todd (admin)

    Alex, the only way to tell is to physically install and adjust as required. I would not trust either published chainline specs or my math to advise you in detail, witness my iterative process above. Besides, once more than one chainring and/or cog are involved, perfect chainline becomes a fuzzy concept. I am confident that it can be made to work with that spider, though you might want/need different tooth counts for a given definition of "good."

    Reply
  • Alex AC

    Thanks for all the advice! I will make it with a skilled bike mechanic, once it's all setup and I began touring in my brommie I will post some photos to share with you (the one who inspired me and make me notice I have a fine and elegant touring bicycle)

    Reply
  • eddie

    What an inspiring journey and story. I do several charity rides in the UK every year but this makes me want to get out into the wild. Hopefully I'll find time to do something special on my brompton this year...Thanks.

    Reply
  • john

    Maybe you can address the 16" versus 20" wheel question regarding folding bikes? You seem to be one of the few people I've heard from for whom riding a 16" wheel bike makes good sense for a long ride - not just a few miles.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  • Todd (admin)

    And what is that question, John? :-) There is no absolute better or worse, only different. All else equal, a 20"-wheel bike will roll a little easier on poor surfaces. It will also accelerate a little less well, and not fold as compactly. Spares will be bigger and heavier, and center-borne loads must be higher and/or smaller. And it would resist brake fade a little better than my little wheels did in the Lost Coast. I'm certainly not the only or even close to the most accomplished of riders of 16"-wheel bikes. Check out Heinz Stuecke's latest ride, a Brompton not unlike mine, but much more heavily loaded, Brazil to Alaska and back down to Chicago: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kooskroon/sets/72157625443273851/

    Reply
  • john

    Thanks Todd. I guess my "question" was a little open-ended; sorry about that. I was trying to get at just why one would choose 16" Wheels instead of 20" wheels for a trip such as the one you took, and the many that Heinz has taken (is always on!). As you said, there is no better or worse, only certain things to recommend both. That certainty will help me in my decision-making, and I thank you. By the way, I noticed Heinz started his Brazil-Chicago tour on a Bike Friday, and switched near or in Albuquerque to a Brompton. Do you know why he made the switch?

    Reply
  • John F.

    Amazing. Thanks for inspiring us all!

    By the way, was it difficult installing the reecharge to the hub? You couldn't easily switch the reecharge from one bike with a dynamo to another, could you? It seems like installation would require some delicate wiring work to pair it with your existing lights.

    Reply
  • Daniel

    Todd, could elaborate on your food. Maybe for details on the types of food you were cooking and maybe stove perfermance, boiling times etc.

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Todd (admin)

      I did virtually no actual cooking. I never brought water to a boil, though I could have in maybe 10 minutes, 2 of those fuel tablets instead of 1 for a mostly-full canteen. I made water hot enough to make tea, chia gruel, instant oatmeal, for bathing and washing clothes, and once as a hot water bottle to supplement my too-light sleeping bag. Otherwise I subsisted on ready-to-eat foods (heavy on protein and fat) and restaurant meals where available. 10 years back when I did the same ride, I brought a gas stove and full cooking kit. And bought foods to cook almost out of a sense of obligation to use the stove I'd brought. I definitely did not miss full cooking capabilities.

      Reply
  • Daniel

    Hi Todd,

    I'm wondering if you have any further thoughts on gearing. You mentioned the double chain ring as not strictly necessary. Are there any drawbacks to the having the double beside the initial set-up? In terms of chainring size do have any thoughts on the what your ideal sizes would be for touring both if you were using a double or a single. thanks.

    Reply
    • Todd (admin)

      Daniel, I reverted to the single 44t ring after the tour because I never ever need the ultra-low gearing here in town, and I missed the chain guard that the double setup lacked. So that was a drawback. As for the "ideal" size, that's like "how deep is the ideal hole?" If I didn't have such dodgy, pain-prone knees, I'd say the 44T stock setup would be 95% satisfactory for this tour with this load. I'd just have pushed a little bit longer on a few of the steeper grades. But you know, in very steep rolling country I chose the bigger ring because it let me attack the base of the hills at greater speed than the little spinner would have: this would be a non-issue if I had a front derailer.

      Reply
  • Daniel

    Would your warmer sleeping bag fit in the snake skins? And did you pack the hammock, rainfly and sleeping bag in the snake skins or just hammock and and sleeping bag? thanks.

    Reply
    • Todd (admin)

      my warmer bag is down, so would have fit. i left the rain fly outside of the snakeskins. perhaps it could have fit, but as it was generally wet with dew, i didn't want it packed closely with my sleeping bag.

      Reply
  • Daniel

    I have 15 degree sleeping bag with 800 power down. Pretty compressible. Seemed like it would be very difficult if not impossible to get the hammock and bag in the snake skins. Do you have larger than normal snake skins? Or any tips or tricks.

    Reply
  • Todd (admin)

    no tricks. the skins weren't all that tight with the synthetic bag, so i don't think the down would have been too hard. only one way to tell...

    Reply
  • Daniel

    Picture or brand of 15" stakes you were using?

    Reply
  • Todd (admin)

    stakes are packed in the attic. ACME brand stakes, from a surplus store. since i never used them, i can't recommend them. need really broad, deep stakes, not the sort of thing you secure a small tent with, but a circus tent.

    Reply
  • Steve Jones

    This was a really good read Todd, appreciate the time you took to write it and the inspiration for touring you've given us all. I've been trying to buy a 16" wheeled bike for touring ( Bike Friday Tikit ) here in Japan but their local dealer here is poor and Green Gear don't seem to be able to communicate clearly with them. All in all i've been on line for three weeks or so and still can't get my order sorted with these people.They seem to have a great product with poor customer support outside the U.S.

    Which has led me to considering alternatives...like the Brompton especially after seeing your description of your trip and the photos of Heinz on tour. Yes! I have a question. Being not super mechanically minded I wonder how easy it is to remove the rear wheel on the Brompton to fix a flat. The on-line video i saw looked really tricky! What kind of maintenance did you need to do on the bike during the tour? and would the six speeds alone be enough to get the bike up moderate hills with a load without going to a double front ring? If you were buying a new Brompton to do this kind of tour again what parts/ set up would you suggest based on your experience?

    I'm seriously checking out the possibilities of the Brompton for road touring in case I continue to get nowhere with BF.
    You have given me another option to consider!

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Todd (admin)

      Steve, the first rule of any flat repair on a bike without a quick release axle is that there's no benefit to removing the wheel at all, 90% of the time. Just pry off the bead, fish out the tube, pump to locate the hole, patch, remove the hazard in the tire, stuff it back in, and go. I got a flat on the front: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cleverchimp/4961353670/in/set-72157624997246932 . Only when you need to replace the tube or tire does the wheel need to come off. It takes a 15mm wrench to get the wheel off. With a little practice you can disconnect the shifter cable, remove the chain tensioner, and get the wheel on/off in about 30 seconds. Takes less than 5 minutes even if you do every step wrong :-). Not a big deal. I had to replace a tire too.

      Maintenance along the way consisted of topping up the tires every 3-4 days, and after a whole day of rain riding a week in, tucking into a friendly bike shop to give the drivetrain a thorough cleaning and re-lube. At that interval I found that my bearing cones on the rear hub were loose. I tightened them properly and that resolved the mysterious shifting trouble that had begun to develop. It was my fault for not adjusting the cones properly after I replaced the cogs in preparation for the trip, not a problem you should expect normally.

      I would absolutely tour again with pretty much exactly the bike I have. I can't answer for you whether you'd need more than Brompton's reduced 6-speeds. How steep? How heavy the load? How strong? How are your knees, etc? My knees are particularly prone to pain with high-torque pedaling, so I appreciated the extra low gears. I could have done it without them: I'd just have walked more.

      This is pretty close to my setup, before my minor third-party mods: http://clevercycles.com/blog/products/bicycles/folding-bikes/build-your-brompton/?o=M_G6-12_L_M-WH_E-OR_SP_BRKM_TYM_HSU_HDSHI_TBAG_NRL_EZW_

      Check Russ and Laura's longer-form Brompton adventures for more inspiration: http://pathlesspedaled.com/2011/04/video-small-wheels-to-the-coast/ ; our setups are very similar (not accidentally!), but they're carrying more so opted for the rear rack for the overflow.

      Reply
  • Steve Jones

    Thanks so much Todd. Planning a new bike and new adventure!

    Reply
  • Milton Highsmith
    Milton Highsmith July 9, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Hi. Fascinating account...

    I just wondered if you could expand on the reasons for your choice of the Ergon bar extensions, in preference to the P-type handlebars. The P bars do strike me as spindly and uncomfortable for a long ride; but they do have the apparent advantage of giving you two riding positions - one for speed, one for sitting up and taking in the scenery. Do the Ergons enable these two different modes of riding, or are they just a fancy (and apparently very effective!) way of preventing your hands from going numb... ?

    I also noticed that the gearing range you ended up with isn't that much greater than the (now) standard six-gear setup with a new Brompton. Did you adapt it for the sake of the smaller increments? If not, what for?

    Thanks for your detailed treatment of the whole subject...

    Regards, MH.

    Reply
    • Todd (admin)

      Milton, as mentioned I require a wrists-in grip. I simply find it very uncomfortable for rides of any length to have my wrists rotated in the manner that all 3 stock Brompton bars put them in -- I feel tension all the way up my arms into my neck that way. Your results may vary, but I'm certainly not alone in preferring a hand orientation resembling that of riding on the hoods of a road bike, or the swept bars of a classical town bike, to that of a mountain bike. These bar ends permit what I'd call 4 distinct grips, from upright (yes, with wrists down) to aero/climbing gripping the forward-most parts.

      I modified the gearing because Brompton's lowest factory gear (1st of 6 with the -12% option) just wasn't low enough for my very dodgy knees, my load, and the sometimes very steep and long grades I was traversing. Russ of Path Less Pedaled is in fact riding with the same crank I used, a heavier load and longer distance: be sure to follow their cross-country adventure for more inspiration: http://pathlesspedaled.com/ . Laura has the stock reduced gearing because she's tougher, I guess!

      Reply
  • Milton Highsmith
    Milton Highsmith July 10, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Hi Todd,

    Thanks very much for the swift response. I think it brings me a step closer to shelling out for an M6L-X...

    Best, MH.

    Reply
  • jim

    Just discovered your inspiring trip report.

    I'm wondering about flying with the bike. It looks like you didn't concern yourself with a carrying case or bag. We're you able to get the bike through the TSA without any hassles? Do they and the airlines treat it like a stroller?

    Reply
    • Todd (admin)

      I have used a hard case and a soft bag when flying with Bromptons, long ago. The hard case (Samsonite hard suitcase, no longer available) was broken after the second trip, and you can't ride to-from airports with the case. With the soft case, the bike showed evidence of having been at the bottom of a massive amount of other luggage, and there's still the issue of the bag itself being dead weight and bulk to-from airports. Since then I have flown many, many times with no case whatsoever, gate-checking the bike like a stroller or carrying aboard, and never experienced any damage, hassle, or inconvenience, neither from TSA nor airlines (though I hear that Delta is systematically anti-bike, so I will never fly them). See also http://www.flickr.com/photos/cleverchimp/sets/72157622596145551/

      Reply
  • Mark

    I'm a bit late to this show, but wanted to say, as so many others have, that this was a wonderful report on a tour about which I am very envious. My Brompton has hardly made it past the downtown (Portland), though I dream of a tour, any tour, with it some day. Another Brompton may be added to the family soon and this story is a powerful catalyst to act now. As such, Todd, you might achieve a measurable financial ROI for your writing.

    Reply
  • Steve jones

    What to do with such a short vacation time here in Japan where I live and work?
    Since I wanted to get away from it all and enjoy nature, I had the idea to cycle down the Oregon coast but didn't feel like dealing with the hassle of transporting my full size touring bike. Wondered if I flew into Portland, if Clever cycles would let me rent a Brompton for a week and be ok with me taking it out of the city? Wondered if I could get a last minute flight from Tokyo to Portland? Would I have enough time to cover the distance on a small wheeled bike? Clever Cycles replied right away to my e-mail,the travel agent came through with the tickets. Everything was go. Jumped on the airplane with my friend Jackie and there we were, suddenly in Portland (which is a really cool city that you SHOULD visit! )
    Off we went. Hopped on the bus with the bikes and stayed the night at Seaside on the coast, next day started the ride south. Amazing views all the way down and no shortage of interesting side trips.We had no schedule, just going as far as we felt each day.The most amazing thing was accidentally ( pre-destined? who knows! )
    bumping into Todd at a camp site late in the day just when Jackie needed help with
    fixing a flat ( Thanks Todd! ) The other amazing thing was staying at a cottage next to the Heceta lighthouse high up on the cliffs overlooking the coast.Talk about atmosphere. We arrived on those tiny bikes, pedaling through the mist rolling in off the coast, just as it was getting dark and heard the sound of ..seals or sea lions? way down below. The interior of the light keeper's cottage was just like stepping into a museum, complete with resident ghost ( who failed to make an appearance! ) Having had the most amazing views ever of the ocean all day long, this was the end of another perfect day on the bikes.
    Even after reading about the capabilities of the Brompton ( including this website ) and maybe because I own a 'proper' touring bike, I was still not quite convinced the Brompton was up to this kind of touring. I was wrong. It's not a fast bike, but if you want to settle into an easy speed and take things at a more relaxed pace, the Brompton will get you there. I was impressed by the solidity of the frame and the ride quality. No flex, no wobble and not sluggish or heavy. We used the Brompton basket, dropped everything including our travel packs, sleeping bags, food supplies into it. I kept expecting the mounting system to snap under the weight but it never did. Not even when the basket was at full capacity. Incredible! We had the standard 6 speed gearing which wasn't enough to get us up the hills. We walked up several which wasn't a problem and gave us a break from being in the saddle, The reduced gearing option would take care of this. Down the hills was a blast! Completely stable and fast. Impressive handling, even compared to a full size touring bike. as long as you were careful not to let the wheels hit loose gravel or holes in the tarmac.The ability to fold up the bike and use other forms of transport when we needed to make up time (or do a side trip to Eugene), was great.
    Any dislikes? Hmmm... hard to think of any really. We came away convinced about the bikes capabilities in the real world and our new bikes are now on order at Clever Cycles. Can't wait for the next trip!

    Reply
  • [...] Once you factor in things ¬†like no-lock-required grocery shopping¬†and the Brompton’s loaded touring capabilities, and I think you really have another challenger for the ultimate utility [...]

    Reply
  • Andy Ward

    Hi Todd,
    A great story of a super trip on your Brompton. I bought an M6R earlier this year, having tried out one second-hand. While I mainly use it for local use, when we've been away I've had no problem in doing 40 or 50miles and people are amazed at how well the Brompton rides. It handles so well and is so nice and quiet. I'm mainly on tarmac roads so am using the Kojak slick tyres which seem to add to the peace & quiet factor!

    I'm in Cornwall, United Kingdom, which has some pretty 'sharp but short-ish' hills - it always surprises cyclists starting in Cornwall when doing the 'Lands End to John O'Groats' long-distance ride. I've found the standard gearing on the Brompton has been fine for me as it gives 33" to 99" - a good balance of low-speed pushing to high-speed exhilaration!

    Having done a 5-week tandem ride down through France to Spain, I'm now trying to work out how to find time for the EuroVelo6 - from the Atlantic (along the River Loire and then on eventually to the Black Sea).

    Most enjoyable article. Very inspiring. Thanks

    Reply
  • Northern Walker

    Truly lovely write up. I'll soon be the proud owner of an H6L Brommie and was intending to use the bike for lightweight touring as well as commuting. However, I will heed your advice re using a caradice sadldlebag. I am a tall rider and feel the use of the bag and the extending seat post will put too much pressure on the frame. If I'm serious about travel with a tent, I'll invest in a rear rack.

    Reply
  • Ashley

    That sounds like an amazing awe inspiring adventure and I love that bike you have. Thanks for the amazing story.

    Reply
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