Bike Tour Tips

November 15, 2020

A photo taken on the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) from a cyclist's perspective showing from left to right, a row of homes, train tracks, PCH, the bike path, the pedestrian path, the beach, and the ocean.

I thought that bicycle tours were reserved for competitive elites that like to peddle around France. A conversation followed by a Google search debunked my narrow definition and led to planning a 100+ mile bike tour down the California coast.

For anyone wanting to give a bike tour a try, here are a few observations and tips from my tour.

The Plan: a bike tour from Long Beach to San Diego

Long Beach to San Diego is just over 100 miles—which sounded like a good first bike tour distance. About 40-60 miles is the recommended daily distance for touring. Multiple people recommended riding south with the wind. Plus, the Pacific Surfliner Amtrak line isn’t far from this route—making catching a southbound train an easy fallback plan if anything went awry.

Screen capture of Google maps showing the route from Long Beach to San Diego

Once you know your tour route, you need to figure out logistics to get there with your bicycle. California isn’t an emblem of superbly planned public transit, but there are a few bike friendly transit systems that could be useful: Metrolink, Metro (bike info), Amtrak.

Tackling the distance in two days seemed achievable but more like a race then an athletic, yet relaxing getaway. Opting for a couple more days took away the pressure to maintain a certain speed. It also allowed for stopping to appreciate.

At first camping was on the agenda. The minimal footprint and ease of social distancing was appealing, but packing the additional gear was not. After deliberating, camping was replaced with booking accommodations to keep weight and gear to a minimum—and packing extra face masks.

The most expensive part of the tour is lodging and food. Both costs are variable. If you have a cooler and make your own meals, you will spend a lot less than if you dine out, but it adds weight. If you camp, you’ll spend a lot less on lodging, but a hotel gives you a secure place to leave your gear so you can explore with peace of mind. Consider the tradeoffs and what makes the most sense with your route and budget. Sidenote: All hotels I stayed at allowed me to bring my bike to the room.

Google maps does a good job identifying bike routes—with Camp Pendleton as an exception. Camp Pendleton is a military base between San Clemente and Oceanside. The base was closed to cyclists during my ride and the only alternative route is riding on the shoulder of I-5. A phone call to the Highway Patrol confirmed that it is legal to ride on the freeway in that section as long as you exit at the truck rest stop, ride through, and reenter.

The Gear

  • Most importantly, a bike: My 7-speed commuter got me there. There were uphill moments in Laguna and Torrey Pines when I questioned if riding it was a good decision, but I kept going.
  • Suitcase equivalent: After biking to REI—which was out of rear bike racks and panniers—I searched Amazon. The number of panniers in a search result is overwhelming. The Black Gonex waterproof bike bag was the one that ended up in my cart because it is waterproof, has reflectors, isn’t too hard to remove, has a pocket on the outside, and could double as a bag for a grocery run. Amazon botched the rack order by sending the wrong model, so I found a local bike shop and purchased an Axiom Journey Adjustable Rack. The rack and the bottom hook on the panniers aren’t a perfect fit, but they work. When purchasing a rack and panniers, I definitely see value in shopping in person and making sure the panniers are snug clipped onto the rack rather than guessing from a photo and specs online—unless you know exactly what you want and that they will work well together.
  • Bike lights: Even if you don’t plan on riding at dusk—or after, it is a good idea to have lights with you. If you are sharing the road with cars, a tail light and reflectors will make it easier for them to see you. If you are on a path that isn’t fully lit, a front light will allow you to see where you are going and anything that might be in your path. I wouldn’t ride with anything less than 800 lumens in the front. This brightRoad worked well for the ride—plus, it is rechargeable. The tail light isn’t as bright as some, but it’s okay. If you are thinking of camping, consider getting a solar power bank to keep them charged.
  • Water bottles: I picked up a couple of water bottle clips at a bike store and added one to the down tube and one to the seat tube. Drinking 2-3 during the daily ride was adequate. Snacks: Don’t miss packing high carb, high protein, easy-to-access snacks. The protein bars and energy gummies that a bike shop clerk recommended weren’t five-star dining, but were good fuel. Half of a bar between meals and a couple gummies in the late afternoon when fatigue hits worked well.
  • Bike first aid kit: You never know when something could go wrong with your bike. Carrying a bike pump, spare tire tube, a patch kit, chain lube, extra bike screws, and a bike wrench could be very helpful in a bind.
  • Bike helmet: Wearing it just makes sense.
  • Bike shorts or cycling tights: I was resistant to buy and wear cycling tights with padding, but during the ride as the hours passed, I started to appreciate them.

Observations en route:

Not all bike lanes are created equal. While riding, it becomes obvious that some cities either don’t have constituents that care about cycling, or they choose not to prioritize it. The hardest and scariest stretch from this perspective is Laguna. There are no bike lanes, streets are lined with parked cars, and there are several hills. Walking the stretch on the sidewalk is an option for the busiest portion, but the sidewalks are also narrow so if there are a lot of pedestrians, riding on the street is the alternative. Some drivers aren’t keen on sharing the road with bicycles and they yell profane things as they narrowly pass. If this happens, focus on staying steady and attentive.

Keep lunch light—like splitting a footlong Subway—and make the meal after you wrap up cycling your hearty meal—like enjoying a recommended local restaurant.

A woman on a bike with the ocean in the background at Crystal Cove

My favorite stretch was the Crystal Cove Conservation area. Whenever there is a path away from the road, it is possible to hear and enjoy the subtle sounds. Also, breathing is a more enjoyable.

Riding on I-5 past Camp Pendleton, it is loud and you definitely feel the pull as an 18 wheeler flies by, but I felt safer riding there than in Laguna. Plus, there is something about riding alongside vehicles going at least 65 mph that resulted in clocking my fastest sustained speed on that 8-ish mile stretch.

The hill at Torrey Pines is the biggest incline that you will encounter climbing about 400 feet in roughly two miles. They even have two bike lanes on the incline so that faster cyclists can pass. A standup-sitdown mix of peddling was the key for me to get to the top without stopping. The ride down the other side is great.

It is interesting to watch the landscape change and see how land zoning defines the character of the landscape. I haven’t dug into the backstories, but you can clearly see delineations between residential, public/preserves, industrial, commercial, and military land. One minute the bike lane meanders onto a side street off of PCH providing a tour of beach-front garages and car-lined curbs with an occasional glimpse of the surf. Ten minutes or so later it suddenly opens up to a section of open beach on one side and oil refineries on the other. Then you come up on a pier with shops, restaurants and hotels. Variations of that are repeated the duration of the coast, yet looking past the pattern, each city reveals its character in the details.

A sign that says, "City of Carlsbad. Welcome. We Wear Masks"

Would I do it again?

Definitely. A bike tour is a fantastic way to get more familiar with a place and see it in a different way. Plus, it burns calories instead of fossil fuels!

An ocean sunset"


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