10 Questions: Cycling America’s Southern Tier
Stephane and Sheri Marchiori, a French-American couple, have recently finished a 5-year journey around the world by bicycle.
The last leg of their trip, before they settled down to start the bike touring retailer Cyclocamping.com, was across the southern United States, along the well known Southern Tier route. It took them through some of the most beautiful landscapes of their trip, including the stunning Grand Canyon and the Mojave Desert.
Despite the gorgeous views, the conditions were sometimes trying. They included scorching temperatures, the risk of tornadoes and tons of mosquitos.
Read on for Stephane and Sheri’s tips for cycling this classic American route.
1. What is the Southern Tier route? And were you following the Adventure Cycling Association maps or your own route plan?
The Southern Tier route is a bicycling route mapped out by the Adventure Cycling Association that crosses the southern United States from west to east (or east to west). It starts (or ends) in San Diego, CA and St. Augustine, FL and covers 3,092 miles. The Adventure Cycling Association’s routes try to follow bicycle friendly roads as much as possible, and include everything from park trails to major state roads with large shoulders safe for biking.
We used the ACA route as a general guide from Texas to Florida, but had several detours and followed several roads that were not a part of the official Southern Tier route, so we also used a Michelin map.
2. What were the highlights of this route?
The highlights of this route were the people that we met along the way. We were invited to spend the night in locals’ homes almost every night and we learned a lot about southern culture, food, and values, in addition to making many new friends with whom we are still in contact.
Also, the western USA has some of the most beautiful landscapes we have seen in our 5-year bicycle world-tour. There are so many stunning national parks. It is truly incredible.
3. Was there one part that you would skip, if you had to do it again?
We would not skip any part of the route. There are certain parts of the route that have more scenic or cultural interest than others, but even in the areas that you think may hold less interest, there is always something that makes the route worthwhile. This is often the unexpected invitations from hospitable locals or local fairs or other events or interactions that make the trip worthwhile.
4. How did you find the traffic and the roads? Were you able to mostly find back roads?
Traffic was not bad or overly heavy on most roads, and we biked a lot of smaller, back roads thanks to the ACA maps. They really allow you to bike on quiet roads as much as possible. When we did bike on roads with heavier traffic, drivers were considerate.
5. When is the ideal time to ride this route in terms of weather?
We would recommend avoiding the western part in the summer. These deserts are some the hottest places on earth.
Also, people should be aware that Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi experience a lot of tornadoes during the spring, so it is better to keep up to date with the local news and stay in motels during tornado watch.
Summers in states east of Texas can also be hot (although nothing compares to deserts in eastern CA, NM and western TX) and have tons of mosquitoes and really annoying sandflies (or punkies, no-see-ums).
The winter months are generally feasible and not too uncomfortable for biking, but you will have to prepare with the proper clothing and gear. The winter was very mild when we biked the Southern Tier, but this can depend upon the season and is harder to plan on.
6. The western half of this route, in particular, can be quite remote. What special preparations did you take?
We did not follow the Southern Tier route set out by ACA until we reached eastern Texas. But we did bike through the Mojave Desert and Arizona in the month of August, when temperatures topped 120 degrees F. We also biked a loop through several of the national parks out west, which meant that great expanses were remote and uninhabited.
In order to prepare for this, we decided to take at least 50% more food and water than we thought we needed (as a special precaution, just in case it took us more time to bike than we thought).
In addition, for extra protection from the sun, we traded normal sunblock in for long clothing. Although it may seem that long clothing would make one hotter, in extreme heat, it is actually the opposite. Long clothing protects you from the extreme temperatures and sunburn and actually keeps you cooler than leaving your bare skin exposed to the hot and dry air.
Before biking long distances that we knew to be remote, we checked with locals about where the next towns or outposts were located where we could stock up on food and water (we always asked at least 3 people, in case someone was unaware of a new road or grocery store or restaurant). In at least one case, locals helped us by telling us that one town on our map was now a “ghost town”; even though it was on our map, it had been abandoned for years. This meant that we knew to plan another full day of food and water.
Because temperatures regularly topped 110°F and there was often very little shade, and sometimes no shade at all, for a day or two at a time, we attached a tarp between our two bikes for makeshift shade during the daytime. We also did some biking at nighttime to avoid the worst heat of the day.
Even this wasn’t ideal, as it was too hot to sleep until well after midnight and we were up at 3AM to pack up and do some biking before it got unbearably hot. By 6:30 AM, temperatures were already soaring past 100 degrees!
It is good to know that during the hottest months, the combination of heat and lack of sleep (from the heat) will affect both your energy level and the amount of hours per day that you can expect to bike. This means that you need to plan on extra time between towns, so be sure to prepare with extra food and water!
Also, we bought a water spray bottle to wet our hats in the scorching heat. This saved more water than just dumping water on our hats from our water bottles. Lastly, you don’t want to use precious water to cook food or clean pots, so be prepared with food that can be eaten dry and that won’t spoil easily under the hot sun.
7. Is it possible to do the Southern Tier without a tent or do you have to camp for at least a few nights?
We did not bike the Southern Tier between Texas and California, so I cannot answer for that portion of the route. But as for the portion between Texas and Florida, it is perhaps possible to do without a tent. We camped only a few nights, as we spent most nights with locals (although this, of course, cannot be counted on).
If you would really rather not carry a tent, it may be possible to plan your trip so that you can spend nights in motels. Of course, this does not allow for unexpected events, such as being invited to spend the day with some local people, wanting to spend extra time at an especially scenic vista, becoming ill or just being overly tired.
8. What were the people like along the way? Is there one encounter in particular you can tell us about?
The people were extremely hospitable. We spent seven months biking in the United States and except for some time spent camping in national parks out west, we spent almost every single night at locals’ homes. This did not come about because we asked; rather, we were invited spontaneously. Sometimes, the owners of campgrounds and hotels even invited us to stay at their place for free.
We spent a very special week in western Louisiana celebrating Mardi Gras with T-bird and his family, who stopped us as we were biking along the road and asked if we wanted to join their party that night. We ended up spending almost a week with his family and are still in contact with them today, several years later.
9. What is one typical ‘deep south’ experience that no one should miss if they’re doing this tour?
We LOVE the spicy crawfish sold all around Louisiana (when in season) – perfect to go with your noodles at the end of the day!
Every cyclist touring the South should experience southern food, music, and hospitality. Open yourself up to trying new foods, in restaurants, in people’s homes, at local picnics. Try something unknown or unfamiliar. Also listen to local music. This can be done by carrying a small, portable radio, going to honky-tonks to dance, and by going to local bars to listen to bands or learn to country line-dance.
Be flexible enough in your itinerary and schedule so that if locals invite you to join them in their homes, for picnics, or for celebrations, you can say, “Yes.” You’ll be glad you did!
10. What’s one essential item every cyclist should take with them for a tour of the Southern Tier?
A tarp is very useful in order to create shade in the desert and to be used as an additional footprint underneath the tent on rocky ground for extra protection.
A wrist band is useful to wipe away the sweat on your body (we hang on the handle bar while riding).
The Adventure Cycling Association maps are expensive but so useful. They really are designed for cycle-touring (excellent scale, elevation charts, marked with bike stores, campgrounds, grocery stores).
Thanks to Stephane and Sheri for answering 10 Questions on cycling America’s Southern Tier, and also for providing the photos. Do check out Cyclocamping.com – their new venture, where you can get all kinds of great bike touring gear.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling America’s Southern Tier:
- Southern Tier 2010 – A bike tour from east to west across the Southern Tier
- Letters From The Road – A diary of an organised group tour along the Southern Tier