Ray Swartz is a bike tourist from California who collects tips on bike touring — hundreds of them.
From helpful articles on hotly debated topics like panniers versus trailers to information on campgrounds and all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants, Ray adds everything of interest for a travelling cyclist into his Bike Touring Tips website. There are now over 1,500 tips for people to browse through.
We first met Ray when we passed through San Francisco in 2009 on our bikes. Recently, we caught up by email and asked him to share a little more about his bike touring experiences and some of the best advice he can offer other people setting out to travel by bicycle.
1. How did you get into bike touring and where has your bike taken you?
I used to do lots of day rides when I was a kid. I grew up in Southern California so riding to the beach before I could drive was a great way to spend a summer day. My first overnighter was after I graduated from college (1974) when I rode from my house in Lakewood (next to Long Beach, CA) down to Laguna Beach. While I continued riding my bike for transportation, I didn’t take another overnight bike tour until after I retired in 2000.
A friend of mine had ridden from San Francisco to Los Angeles and I always wanted to do that. I bought a touring bike in 2003 and started collecting other gear and in 2004 I completed that dream ride (read the journal of that bike tour).
San Francisco is a great place to live for a bike tourist. There is natural beauty all around within easy biking distance. I’ve ridden both up and down the coast several times and am always stunned by the coastal vistas.
Since I had the ACA Western Express maps, I rode to Carson City, Nevada one September. The ride up to CarsonPass was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had on a bike but the views on both sides of the pass are truly fabulous.
My wife’s family lives in England and we usually travel there once a year. It is a great place to ride and I’ve done several tours there.
My next tour will be up the Atlantic coastline of the United States, from Charleston, South Carolina to Lambertville, New Jersey.
2. What do you most enjoy about travelling by bike?
I’ve always liked physical exertion and being in nature. Bike touring combines these two and allows me to slowly slide quietly through the world under my own power yet still covering enough distance to actually get somewhere. The main feeling I am left with after a day on tour is deep satisfaction. It is the only activity that I have found that allows me to sustain a feeling of bliss, which is why I keep coming back for more!
3. What do you find most challenging and how do you deal with that challenge?
Since I like to tour by myself, one of the challenges I face is spending so much time alone. This is often most acute between the time when I get off the bike for the day and finally go to sleep. If I am camping, there is usually very little to do once the sun goes down and the aloneness can turn into loneliness. While reading a book or playing a game can help pass the time, it doesn’t feed the soul. To deal with my desire for human interaction, I try to get hosted using hospitality sites like Couchsurfing, Warmshowers or Hospitality Club as often as I can.
4. Tell us about your best day on tour?
The one that comes to my mind first is the day I rode down the Gorges du Tarn in France. I arrived at Ste. Enimie, a pretty town at one end of the gorge about 3 pm. Instead of spending the night there, I decided to ride down the gorge that day. As it turned out, the road was deserted (tour buses drive down the gorge in the morning) and it was just me, my bike and this indescribable gorge.
The two hours I was riding down the Gorge contained everything that makes bike touring so wonderful: riding alone on a bike in a beautiful place. There were no cars or buses on the road so I didn’t have to be on the lookout for vehicles and could take my time. The gorge cut by the river is covered in trees, flowers, and scrubs, some that smelled sweet. The few villages in the gorge are mostly stone buildings without neon or billboards. The gorge is ringed by dramatically rising cliffs of various colored rock. There was also the serendipity of arriving after all the tour buses were through for the day and after a huge rainstorm, making the river even more dramatic!
5. What was the inspiration behind your website, Bike Touring Tips?
On one of my rides down to LA, I pulled into the state beach at Oceano (just south of PismoBeach) whose hiker/biker site I had stayed in previously. When I got to the gate, I was told that the hiker/biker site had been closed for over a year. It was late on a Friday and I was lucky to get the last spot at a county park not far from there.
When I got back home, I posted this information on the Bike Forums touring forum and realized that once it scrolled off the main page no one would read it. What’s more, the search function on most discussion forums is useless. This got me wondering about a website that was dedicated to making bike touring information easy to find. As a retired computer guy, I really liked the idea of combining two of my main interests (computer programming and bike touring) into a useful bike touring resource.
At first, I thought that once the site was available, bike tourists would fill it up with useful information from their own bike tours. But, it quickly became clear that this wasn’t going to happen. So, after entering all the tips I could think of, I started adding links to the interesting discussion threads and websites I came across in my daily web surfing. Over time, the site has grown and the number of entries, including tips, articles, and touring journals, is over 1,500!
When I am home, I spend some time every day checking about a dozen discussion forums and websites looking for interesting information or useful links. It has been a great way to learn about bike touring!
6. So from all of your experience collecting tips, what advice do you have for other bike tourists?
I have many! Here’s my Top 10 list of tips.
1. Plan rest days as part of your itinerary.
2. Take a “shakedown” ride before starting on a bike tour to make sure you, the bike, and your gear are ready.
3. Meeting people through hospitality websites adds to bike touring enjoyment immensely.
4. Doing more distance per day rarely results in more enjoyment per day.
5. Contact people (local bike clubs, hospitality sites, discussion forums) who live on/near your route to get local information that is hard to find otherwise.
6. Don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it or accept it when it is offered.
7. Take contact cards (name, email address, website link) to hand out to people you meet along the way.
8. Write a journal of your tour when you get home so that you can read it and re-enjoy it whenever you want.
9. Don’t expect your friends to understand why you bike tour.
10. Keep an eye out for odd things that only a bike tourist would notice as they make the best stories.