California Recce Review: 'The rattlesnakes are out early this year...'
Pascal here. 'The rattlesnakes are out early this year...', said the immigration officer at Los Angeles International Airport as he handed me back my passport, following my explanation to him as to why I was visiting the USA. Perhaps not one of the first things you want to hear when you arrive in country for an expedition recce during which you'll be wild camping out in the desert, but better to be forewarned I suppose!
In more positive news, the weather was fantastic. It turns out that February in Southern California is a lot more inviting than the scene I had left behind at London Heathrow 12 hours earlier, which was grey, cold and wet. Blue skies as far as the eye could see in LA, palm trees gently swaying in the ocean breeze and a balmy 25 degrees. Time to get the bike unpacked and start my recce ride.
The plan was a simple one, 5 days of riding and 800 km of American road to cover. With a shorter fifth day, the aim was to cover 170 km daily o the first 4 days; the distance Dan and I will cover daily during our 35 day long main expedition in July (not long now!). As always, nights would be primarily spent wild camping out under the stars, as we will do for the main event . This approach gives us maximum flexibility for where we end our riding on each day, rather than being constrained by where along the road ahead a suitable/available motel might be.
So. Why does the military do expedition recces? A question I get asked a lot! They are a brilliant way to test your kit and intended approach, ahead of the far longer duration expedition itself which normally follows 6 months later. Informed by the recce, you can then make any final adjustments to your kit and approach, before commencing the 'big one'. The concept is a well proven one, something the military has been doing for decades.
I had specifically planned a route that took in various road types (Highway, Freeway (never again!), bike paths and country back roads) and cut through varied terrains (desert, mountains, rolling countryside, forest and coastal); thus ensuring a comprehensive test of the kit, approach and me!
Without boring you with every detail of the recce, I've distilled the 'lessons learnt' into 5 headlines. These may be of value if you're planning your own bikepacking adventure stateside:
1 - America is on a different scale. This may sound pretty obvious, as clearly America is bigger than the UK! But it's more than that. It's like bikepacking in the UK, but on steroids and more extreme. The hill climbs are longer because the mountains are bigger; hydration is more important because the high temperatures are more extreme (55 degrees plus!); the roads are straighter and some have no bends for 50 km at a time; the vehicles you share the road with are HUGE (more on that later...). The list goes on!
We need to be mentally prepared for all of the above. We need to recognise that we are not cycling 5000 km in familiar UK-style conditions, we are riding this huge distance in unfamiliar conditions. We need to be fully mentally prepared for this increase in scale, or else there is the risk of being overwhelmed and becoming disheartened. When we land in San Diego on 16 July to start our expedition, we need to remove our UK riding 'mindset' and replace it with a USA one.
2 - Americans drive huge vehicles. An extremely common site on US roads is what they call Recreational Vehicles or RVs. These beasts are huge! We are not talking about the camper vans or caravans you see around the UK, Americans drive around in RVs the size of a National Express coach! And apparently they require no additional driver training before hitting the road in these 10 metre long vehicles. Hmmm.
From a cyclist perspective, that's quite a worrying prospect. I lost count of the amount of times I had one of these 'bad boys' pass within 50 cm of my head at 50 mph. There isn't too much Dan and I will be able to do about this, aside from riding along the least busy roads available.
3 - Freeways and bicycles are a bad combo! Now, clearly bicycles are not allowed on Freeways, which are the US equivalent of Motorways. Simple enough, you might think. Except. Often Highways (equivalent to UK dual carriageways, and therefore available to the plucky Brit cyclist) often suddenly turn into Freeways with no prior warning and with no available option to exit the road. On a couple of occasions, this resulted in me cycling along 10 lane wide roads with huge trucks rattling by at high speed, horns blaring to get me off the road. To where exactly?!
Dan and I will be studying much satellite imagery of our cross America route in the coming months, to identify when Highways magically turn into Freeways along our route - to be avoided. Death by Freeway truck does not need to be part of our summer cycle!
4 - Turns out, there are lots of animals that can kill you in America. On one particular morning after a night spent wild camping in just my sleeping bag in the Death Valley desert, I awoke to see an array of animal tracks all around me - all sorts of creep crawlies had been moving around me overnight. Within this area live rattlesnakes (out early this year, don't you know...?), scorpions and black widow spiders - to name but a few. Elsewhere in the US live mountain lions, various flavours of bear, an array of poisonous snake types, I could go on...you get the point.
On this front, there is additional first aid training that we will be doing, specifically focused on what to do in the event of a poisonous animal bite. For stretches of our ride, we will be hours away from any other human, we need to be entirely self sufficient and prepared for the worst case scenario. That's the nature of unsupported cycling.
5 - America excels in baked products. And so to end on a resounding high! Pancakes available 24 hrs a day, doughnuts as big as your head, impressive cookie game, muffins galore - America is a wonderland for the cake addict (i.e. me!). And given that we will be burning 6000 calories during our ride, we basically have free rein to try every single one available. Bring it on!
And so there you have it. Recce complete, plenty of lessons learnt - and that is exactly why I went. Over the coming months, Dan and I will now make a number of adjustments to our kit list and approach, based on my trip to California. This is part of my responsibility as expedition leader for our ride, and gives us the highest chance of success. You can never eliminate risk entirely, but you can minimise it.
Before I sign off, it's worth capturing just how beautiful America is - this really struck me during the trip. Stunning scenery, an amazing array of wildlife, awe inspiringly powerful weather conditions and some of the most kind and friendly people I've ever met. It's a pretty humbling place, and we cannot wait to ride a couple of push bikes from one side of it to the other in July.
America you are epic, we will back!