Smile Politely

A year on a bike — from Scotland to Malaysia

Last Monday’s News-Gazette included a story about a young couple who are riding their bikes through Scotland. By that description, it’s no big deal, right? Lots of well-heeled and even less-well-heeled folks take a bike ride for a week or so through some pastoral European countryside. Heck, my brother’s even done that with his (now ex-) girlfriend.

But how many folks have the boldness to  drop everything for a full year to ride across two full continents, especially when they’re not wealthy and need to save up to take such a trip? The answer is at least two, because that’s what Uni High alumnae Tara Alan and her partner, Tyler Kellen, are doing.

The dynamic duo are chronicling their travels (as well as their meticulous pre-trip planning) on Going Slowly, a website built by Tyler, an independent software developer. It’s a thoroughly impressive endeavor, from Tara’s beautiful photographs and Tyler’s elegant site design, to the GPS system that allows them to chart their progress in real time and the fabulously detailed (with prices!) list of everything they brought with them. (They’ve itemized everything from their chosen model of tent to their preferred method of contraception.)

Tara and Tyler are about 500 miles into their journey, which began in Glasgow, Scotland in early April and will hopefully conclude next April in Malaysia. I’ll be SPlogging an update on their progress every week or so throughout their journey, so stay tuned for that.

If you want a complete introduction to their journey, I can’t recommend Amy Reiter’s News-Gazette article enough; it’s great, and I can’t pretend to be able to add a lot to it. But since this space is a C-U bike column, I traded e-mails with Tara and Tyler over the weekend about some of the more detailed bike-related issues, and here are the results.

Smile Politely: How much did you ride your Surly Long Haul Truckers [their bikes of choice] before heading out on the trip? Did you buy them a ways beforehand? Have you had any mechanical issues as of yet? Anything that you would have done differently in hindsight, either with the bikes or racks or accessories?

Tyler: We purchased the frames in early 2008 and bought the parts slowly as things went on sale. I had the bikes completely assembled by June. We rode 500 miles or so working out the kinks before we left (we were dialed in after about 100). We would have ridden more but Minnesota’s winter took away a lot of our training time. To fill in the gap we took a pretty strenuous martial art to stay in shape (Arnis de Mano) and to prepare for any possible bad encounters. We have had no mechanical issues in the 500 or so miles we’ve ridden so far. There is nothing about the bikes we would change that I can think of! Somehow magically making them lighter while still being able to bring everything we want would be nice.

Smile Politely: The roads you depicted in the pictures on the site look to be in pretty good condition. Have you encountered any poor road conditions? Much trouble with flats?

Tyler: We’ve taken the bikes off road a few times but for the most part we’ve been on pretty decent trails or roads. The bike paths in England can sometimes be little more than a ditch through a field or a bunch of loose gravel which makes for uncomfortable riding. We often opt to ride on the roads they follow. We’ve had three flats so far: our Continental Travel Contacts are holding up pretty well in my opinion. We have a pair of foldable Schwalbe Marathon XRs which everyone in the touring community raves about never having flats on. I look forward to giving them a shot when we wear out our current tires.

Smile Politely: Have you been riding in much traffic? Has it been better or worse versus riding in similar conditions in the U.S.?

Tyler: Riding in traffic in cities is fine once you get used to the roundabouts and being on the “wrong” side of the road. The B roads where we spent most of our time are a lot smaller than their U.S. country road counterparts, and people tend to drive a lot faster on them than they do at home. That said we haven’t felt too uncomfortable. We have also ridden on some A roads (analogous to a highway in the U.S., not quite the interstate) and again, no troubles, the shoulder works fine. Sometimes a big semi will rush by and it sort of pulls you along with it!

Smile Politely: Tara, it sounds like your fitness level has improved a lot over the course of the ride. What pace do you try to maintain now, versus when you started?

Tara: The name of our trip is “Going Slowly” and we try to keep that in mind as often as we can. We’re definitely not worried about things like our average speed or the distance we travel in a day. Our speed is greatly affected by the terrain more than anything. Tyler says according to our GPS we’ve gone from a moving average of 4–6 mph to 8–12 mph since we started. I have definitely gotten a lot stronger since we began and every day gets a little easier. At first it was very difficult. At home, without all the panniers, Tyler and I would ride together without issues. With all of the added weight, the difference in our strength is greatly exaggerated. Finally, though, there was one day about three weeks into the trip when all of my muscles decided to get their act together. I didn’t feel tired and winded all the time, and was able to enjoy myself more and pick up the pace a bit. Probably the most important part of all this is the fact that Tyler and I are constantly in communication about how we’re feeling, how fast we’re going, and what our goals for the day are. We both compromise as best we can to make each other as comfortable as possible.


All photographs are courtesy of Tara and Tyler, and can be viewed on Going Slowly.

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