Monday, October 12, 2015

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Holy shit I actually suffer from vertigo, or at least extreme paranoia of heights. And I'm somewhat of a rock climber. What the hell is happening?

Welcome to part 4 of our tandem adventure!

These thoughts were freight-training through my mind while my wife and I, aboard our trusty tandem, tried to pedal across a bridge that spanned THE MIGHTY FRASER RIVER in southern Vancouver, British Columbia.

This monument of engineering would effectively result in the end of our cycling for the day, save for a few extra miles to reach a safe haven (a Starbucks, of all places). No Tim Horton's for us today!

Before this mental shutdown occurred, our ride started some 40 miles earlier, with a bit of wiggling and wobbling. The tandem had never been loaded up with a full complement of gear. We didn't have front racks, and so all of our luggage was piled upon the rear rack. A backpack and two panniers holding on for dear life.

The plan was to ride up to Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, B.C. with all of our belongings. There we'd be able to stay with family members for a few days, eat tasty food, get fat, etc. The usual family affair, I'd say. All we had to do was pedal approximately 30 miles from Bellingham, Washington, cross the international border into Canada, and then do another 15-20 until we reached our stopping point. Easy enough, it seemed.

But bike maps and green lines on Google Maps don't always tell the full story.

The run out of northern Washington state was nice enough. A few solid climbs, but mostly flat, straight roads through the country. Weather was a bit warm, but things were going well. The tandem tracked well enough with the excess luggage once moving, but speed wobbles could still occur if we weren't careful on fast downhills.

It was actually all too easy getting to the international border, and even getting through it. Once on the north side of the crossing, we had a bit of lunch and phoned our family to tell them we had made it through what we thought would be the hardest part.
One of the only photos we took! The physical and mental drain made it hard to photograph otherwise.

For the next 10 miles or so, it was actually more of the same. We were definitely getting a bit tired at this point, but the road was again flat, and cars were not such a problem. We decided to take a bike path that came recommended by multiple sources, once we got into southern Surrey. This would lead us along a main highway and take us over the Fraser River. Unfortunately, upon arriving we realized that the path itself was dirt and gravel.

Dirt turned out to not be a problem. But the path was punctuated with sections of gravel, sand, and other loose stuff. This was a huge issue for us. The tandem had slick road wheels, was a bit light in the front, and didn't cope well. We almost ate it a few times. At one point, we hopped over a shoulder divider and attempted to carry on along the highway. Turns out that wasn't the best idea. It was definitely not intended for cyclists. High speed on and off ramps made it basically impossible to carry on much further than a few miles. So we quickly ditched this route by exiting on a long, swooping off ramp. It was a pretty rough climb, and we were quite scared that a semi-truck or something else would run us down!

Once off the highway, we quickly found the dirt bike path again. It was a bit better at this point, but the going was slow, and we were getting cranky. The terrain also brought along a bunch of short, super steep hills. Not what we needed.

Eventually we wrangled our way over some train tracks and to a dedicated bike path which was tacked onto the side of the Alex Fraser Bridge. From the map, it looked like the bridge wasn't so long. But it came into being quite a ways from the shore on either side and was maybe a mile long. It was also quite steep until you reached the middle portion. With a fully loaded tandem, traveling at such slow speeds up a steep hill, we weren't exactly stable. In addition, the bike path wasn't very wide and the railing was both see-thru and not very tall. All of this added up to some extreme discomfort on my part. I was basically gripped with some inordinate amount of fear. We had to dismount and walk. And we'd walk the entire length of the bridge to the other side.

Despite having the bridge out of the way, we were pretty disheveled. This southern portion of Vancouver was very industrial, and navigating was difficult with the number of starts, stops and turns we had to make. Realizing that some huge climbs would come at the very end of the journey, but knowing we probably wouldn't be fit to make them, we hatched a plan to make it to a stopping point (the aforementioned Starbucks on the eastern peninsula of Richmond) and call in for a pickup.

After hobbling in to our new destination, we eventually reconciled that we had made it quite far in our journey. It was quite a relief to know that we'd not have to navigate further unfamiliar city roads and vehicular traffic. We just had to wait for my Aunt and Cousin to show up so we could bring our tandem and ourselves to the true endpoint.

Despite this unintended stopping point, the ride itself was quite successful. There were some tense moments along the way, and a few shouting matches, but my wife and I did a great job on our northward adventure. The Northwest Tandem Rally perhaps served as a warm up for this specific ride. I'm sure that if we had not honed our abilities in the days prior, this ride up to Vancouver might have gone much worse!

After spending a few days in Vancouver with family, and eating lots of tasty food, we made a very wise decision to get dropped off, tandem in tow, at the international border itself. It wasn't like the bridge would be any easier heading south, and the enjoyable part of the ride was primarily in Washington (no offense to Vancouver, but we felt like you didn't want us to cycle there!).

Getting back into America proved very easy. Perhaps Obviously because we were white, but also because cyclists get to skip the line. You see, Canada has a separate "drive-thru" lane for cyclists. You basically use the same booth that cars entering Canada do. But for the US, you're forced to push/walk/bullshit your way down some lousy sidewalk after Froggering your way across a sea of vehicles that are hopefully going slow. Then you need to park your bike out in front of a large ominous building.

Inside, you bear witness to various non-white ethnic groups having a hard time getting into the country. For all kinds of stupid reasons, I'm sure. As I said, we had it easy, and when a clerk noticed our dopey cycling kit and clacky shoes on the linoleum floor, beckoned us to a special "cyclists-only" line. Maybe it was also just not a very busy day. Nonetheless, they anecdoted us with some stupid story, stamped a stupid stamp, and wished us a good day (in a stupid way).

We were on our way yet again. The small seaside down just south of the border was very pleasant to bike through. Oddly, the quality of the bike lanes heading south were...lousier. Like they wanted people to easily pedal to the border, but not pedal back. I can only imagine why. We gracefully made our way south toward Bellingham yet again. But this time, we didn't have a nice hotel to arrive at. Rather, our destination was the impeccable Bellingham Cycle Works, but not before we stopped at Bellingham's YMCA to take a quick shower.

All cleaned up, we pedaled the few remaining miles to the bike shop. Here began a rather tedious process of packing our tandem into a box that was honestly a bit too small. We knew it would work, having safely shipped the bike to Bellingham in the first place, but things never fit the same way the second time around. We also tried to jam all of our cycling clothing, helmets included, inside as well. This would save us from having to lug it around during the second leg of our trip, which involved no tandem biking and but more Bostonian accents. A fair trade!

I managed to forget to pack my cycling shoes during all of this, so we had to make a secondary trip to a post office to drop those off. Not a huge deal, fortunately. Otherwise, we left the rather large package with Bellingham Cycle Works who agreed to see it off when the FedEx truck would arrive a few days later. I had scheduled via a pickup that would return the bicycle to my work back in San Diego. Hopefully someone would sign for it and put it in a safe place!

Now with no mode of transportation besides our own two (four?) legs, we had to phone a taxi to pick us up and take us to the airport. Our flight was not until later in the evening, where we'd catch a redeye that would whisk us away to the home of Harvard Square. The timing was quite good, having suffered no mechanicals with the tandem, nor other issues that prevented us from getting to the airport on time.

At this point, I could let myself relax. I'm sure my wife was relieved as well (if only because she saw that I finally relaxed a bit). Our first tandem adventure had wrapped up successfully. We learned a lot in only a few days about how to ride a tandem together. It definitely improved our ability to communicate, at least on a tandem bike.

Throughout the trip, and even ever since we had acquired the tandem, people had joked about it being a rolling divorce machine, or an expensive way to a fast divorce, and so on. I can definitely see where that comes from, but fortunately our ability to deal with stressful situations shone through. We had about as many ups and downs as we did hills during the ride. But by trying to take turns being stressed out, we managed to conjure up enough support for one another to make it through all of the hard bits. My wife did a fantastic job of navigating, pedaling, and keeping me stoked during the ride. Hopefully I did the same for her!

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