Colorado 2010 – Reflecting on what I’ve learned

Camping up the Poudre

Saturday July 10, 2010

After Mom, Dad, Brian and Karen head back home on the 9th, I’ve got a few days before my flight leaves on the 13th. Jen’s still away working on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and after I’ve caught up with my other friend from college who still lives in town, I decide I’ll head back up the Poudre Canyon fully-loaded and spend a couple of my last few nights camping. I luck out on a site that has a cancelled reservation, so I end up camping in one of the campgrounds we used to frequent when we’d come up to mountain bike Young’s Gulch on a Friday evening during my college years. I’ve got some time to think and decompress. It’s good to have time to just sit in the shade by the river, watch the rafters go by and try to fill up my soul before I head back to Oz. I reflect on the journey and note some observations and things I’ve learned on the ride.

Poudre River Canyon, CO – I spent a few days here decompressing before my flights back to Australia


I quickly learned to adjust my schedule to the wind. If you’ve got a tailwind, just go, go, go. If there’s a headwind, just count on a much shorter mileage day. I had a set date I needed to be in Colorado, so I planned in a few extra days to account for unforeseen delays. This meant by the time I got mid-way across Nebraska I was a few days ahead of my rough schedule because I’d put in some long days when I had tailwinds. So I could have finished this part of the ride more quickly than I did, but I’m glad to have had the extra days planned in, however, because the weather could have been much less in my favour.

I also learned a lot about wind speeds and their effect on my riding. A headwind up to about 10-12 mph is not too bad, but once it gets over this I really start to feel it. Headwinds over 25 mph are really tough. These would keep me progressing at about 4.7mph or less on flat ground. I found I could ride in crosswinds up to about 20mph without too much trouble. Over 20mph, crosswinds started to become more difficult to deal with. Personally, I found I couldn’t keep on the road, or in the shoulder, with sustained crosswinds or gusts above 35mph – unless the shoulder was a monster 3 ft wide one. I only had a few days of really bad headwinds and a couple days of a direct tailwind. I probably had a fairly equal number of days with either a quartering tailwind, a quartering headwind or not too much wind at all.

However, I did experience crosswinds most of my way across Nebraska. I have never been a morning person, but I learned very quickly that there is usually a glorious period in the morning when the air is cool and fresh and the wind and the world has not yet awoken. I commenced early morning starts in Illinois and this became entrenched as the ride went on. I loved the time between 6 to about 8:30 am – because I could usually get in some good miles before there was any wind, heat or traffic. This did mean packing the tent up wet with rain or dew most mornings, but I got used to that and the tent always got dried out eventually. The early morning starts also meant I often finished early and had time to explore a town, or go for a hike and hang out with my Mom in the afternoons in Colorado.

I have not overcome my fear of lightning and thunderstorms. It’s not a paralysing fear by any means, but I still don’t sleep well if camping when there are storms about. However, the numerous storms I experienced, and the 7 minutes in Nebraska when I thought I was going to get blown away, did not make my fear any worse than it was before. Snakes, spiders, heights, deep water – no fear – but please don’t throw electricity at me.


I love that bicycling can be done by anyone, at any level, and with any style desired. From stealth camping every night to fully supported tour. My preference is to camp whenever possible. However, I liked having the option to get a motel if the weather was potentially hazardous or I’d ridden all day in the rain. I stayed in more motels than I’d thought I would, but I did encounter considerable amounts of rain in Illinois and Iowa and quite a few severe storms and tornado watches in western NE and eastern CO. I never felt guilty about getting a motel room – I just prefer to camp when possible. I’m pretty shy and like my solitude, so warmshowers is not for me, but it sounds like a terrific network for people who want to find free accommodation with like-minded folks. I did not stealth camp, mostly because I did not want to stress my family further than necessary. It put their minds at ease to know that I was somewhere ‘safe’ each night. I don’t discount it for future trips after my folks have passed away, though (hubby doesn’t really care).

I paid between $8 and $18 to camp in non-electric sites in public campgrounds – the average was somewhere around $12-15. The private campground in Fort McPherson was $12 but the others were around $20. In NE, IA, IL, IN and eastern CO, I paid $40-65 for motels (except for Nebraska City). Most of the Super 8’s were around $60 after tax. Accommodation was more in CO -averaging around $80-90 a night – regardless of the quality or cleanliness of the motels/cabins we stayed at. (Note: I was riding in ‘high’ season by the time I got to Colorado). On my solo trip I averaged about $10 a day for food and drinks. Mom and I ate in more sit-down restaurants, so that average would be higher on the CO mountains portion of the ride.

Some people want or need to follow the ACA routes that spell out the route turn-by-turn and have all the facilities of each town listed, etc. Other folks just like to get on the bike and go, riding by the seat of their pants. I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t like the idea of knowing exactly what’s ahead and I don’t feel it necessary to have such complete maps. I don’t need the camaraderie of seeing fellow bicycle tourists each day on my route either. However, I really enjoyed doing my pre-trip research, and I’m glad I had an idea of what I could see and do along the way. I feel that I may have missed out on some of these opportunities if I hadn’t planned for them, because they weren’t always obvious things to see or do if just riding along the route. For me, a bike ride is about more than just doing the riding – I want to learn about the natural and cultural history along the way (it’s a sign I’m getting old). The pre-trip planning gave me an idea of what type of accommodation, food and services were available along my planned route, as well as the places where I was likely to want to spend a bit more time. However, I could also be quite flexible in the actual route details and my distance travelled each day – tailoring this to the wind and weather.

Illinois has awesome bike maps. They are available by region and were free when I ordered them. I wish every state had maps like these. Anyone involved in the US bike route system should have a look at how Illinois does its maps. They were accurate and allowed me to zig zag my way across the state on little used county roads, picking and choosing my route as I went. Unlike Indiana, most of the county roads were paved and in good condition. I hope states continue to make paper maps available – I would pay for ones of Illinois quality and would prefer it to printing out PDFs myself.

People and road quality

Iowa had the friendliest people. They also gave me the most room on the roads when overtaking me. Much of the route I rode along in Iowa had Amish communities, so I wonder if people are used to sharing county roads with slower and more vulnerable bits of traffic. This was good – because I rarely came across hard road shoulders in Iowa. I know RAGBRAI has certainly raised the profile of biking, too. I was asked countless times if I was training for RAGBRAI. Most of the roads I rode in Iowa were sectioned concrete instead of tar or bitumen.

Road quality in Nebraska was quite good and there were shoulders when needed, for the most part. Illinois had good quality paved county roads, so there wasn’t much need to get on a state or federal highway. I was surprised to find that I got less room from passing motorists in Colorado than even my bicycle unfriendly home state of Indiana. Pavement quality and shoulder width varied more in Colorado than other states.

The addictive nature of bicycle touring

Oh, I had so much fun on this trip. I did not want it to end and I kept thinking, ‘when can I do this again?’. I loved the solo portion of my ride, but I also enjoyed having a lot of time to spend with my mom in Colorado. For my next tour, I think I’ll try to do something similar again. I’ll plan a route to have 5 or 6 weeks on my own and then a couple weeks in a scenic destination with lots of hiking opportunities and short riding days to spend time with my mom (and dad if he can get time off work). Then I can have the best of both worlds.

And the final thing I’ve learned:

Anywhere you go, even a ‘boring’ state like Illinois or Nebraska, has a rich history if you seek it out. I’ve learned that history shows that humans are a predictable lot, overall, and that even though technology may change, the basics of humanity – our actions and our desires – do not. We need and desire the same things we always have – there’s just more distractions now. Fortunately, this unchanging nature of basic humanity means that you will run into far more good people than bad on a tour. Other than the infrequent car or truck that passed too close, I never feared for my safety because of a human. Only once did a situation creep me out (Tecumseh, NE – it still creeps me out on reflection months later). I never felt I needed any sort of weapon other than common sense. I told people I carried pepper spray, but never elaborated that this was only for if a dog actually got a hold on my heel. I’ve never lived my life in fear of what may happen (thunderstorms excepted!) – and that is most liberating.

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