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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Amphibious Paddler

Hauling Mass: The Finer Points of Trailering

By Tamia Nelson

June 7, 2005

Paddling and pedaling aren't everybody's idea of an obvious combination, are they? Just about as unlikely as cycling and Himalayan climbing, perhaps. Yet strange couplings often prove unexpectedly fruitful. Call it the serendipity factor, if you want. Or hybrid vigor. Either way, it can be a Very Good Thing.

A case in point: Not too long ago, a young Swede named Göran Kropp wanted to stand on the summit of the world's highest mountain. There was just one small problem. He wasn't rich, and outfitting a Himalayan expedition isn't cheap. So he made the most of the assets he already had — strength and endurance, a passion for high places, and an unshakable determination. In the end, he succeeded, scaling Everest without oxygen in a year when the mountain claimed the lives of many other climbers. But Kropp's adventure didn't begin at Khumbu Base Camp. It began long before, when he got on a bicycle in Stockholm and started pedaling. In fact, Kropp bicycled all the way from Sweden to Nepal, pulling his climbing kit behind him in a trailer, along with every bit of food he'd need later on the mountain. When the road ended, he started walking, and when it got too steep to walk he climbed, until he could climb no higher. And then he came down from the summit, got back on his bike, and pedaled home.

Was this a bike tour? A climbing expedition? A clever stunt? Or was it all three? Whatever you choose to call it, it was certainly one hell of a trip. Are you envious? I am, at least a little. Luckily, though, we don't have to be Himalayan climbers to reap the same rewards. Paddling and pedaling — the combination I've called "amphibious paddling" — are as happy a pairing as pedaling and climbing. And a bike trailer expands the amphibious paddler's world like nothing else, freeing her from the tyranny of the gas pump and all that goes along with it. But there's still no such thing as a free launch, is there? There's a lot more to hauling a boat to the water behind a bike than buying a trailer. If the idea appeals to you, make it easy on yourself. Don't choose a major expedition for your first amphibious venture. You probably didn't tackle a Class III-IV run on your first river trip, after all. You took your time, instead, building up your strength, improving your skill set, and adding to your stock of experience as you went along. That's the way to tackle the highway, too. First, learn the rules of the road, particularly if you're new to cycling (or just coming back after many years). Once you've done that, it's time to get better acquainted with your trailer. Begin with some…

Setting-Up Exercises

Assembling a trailer and attaching it to your bike both require that you have a mechanical bent. My advice? Read the instructions first. And don't do the work in your living room. You may discover that your newly assembled trailer is wider than your door. Don't leave the job till the last minute, either. Sometimes parts are missing. Or the parts that you have just don't fit. You'll need plenty of time to sort out any problems. Next, once everything comes together — but before you attach the trailer to your bike — give it a comprehensive going-over. Do the wheels spin freely? No unexplained rattles, dangling straps, or loose parts? Good. Now hitch it up. (A warning: Single-wheel in-line trailers don't like to stand on their own, and they can easily bring the bike they're attached to crashing down, kickstand or no kickstand. The remedy? Brace both bike and trailer against something before you turn your back.)

A final roadworthiness checklist: Is the trailer securely attached to the bike? Are all safety straps or pins clipped in place? Does the coupling flex or pivot as it should (and no more)? Then — and only then — you're ready for a…

Shakedown Cruise

After giving your bike the usual pre-trip once-over and strapping on your helmet, take a couple of local spins with a light load in the trailer (ten pounds is enough at first). Stay away from traffic. Get used to riding a bike with a fat tail first. Lesson Number One? Don't cut corners. But that's only the beginning. To gentle the learning curve, squat down behind your bike and see where the trailer's wheels (or sides) are in relation to the ends of the handlebars. Use this relationship as a guide on the road — and whenever you have to negotiate a narrow gap. Spend some time out of the saddle, too. You'll have to maneuver your bike and trailer at put-in parking lots and other tight places. Practice pushing your bike through forward turns first to get used to the increased turning radius. Then change direction. If you've never towed a trailer with your car, and if your bike trailer has a pivoting hitch, be prepared for a surprise at this point. To get the trailer to move to the left when you're backing up, you'll have to crank the bars to the right. It's counterintuitive at first, but practice makes perfect.

Now mount up and head out again, with all your senses in gear. Does your bike handle predictably? Or do you notice a worrying vibration at speed? Trailers acquire minds of their own in crosswinds, during hard stops, and on long downhills, particularly when lightly loaded. And some become dangerously unstable at high speeds — or at least they do when pulled by some bikes. Identify any problems and fix them now. Pay attention to the little things, as well. Do your heels clear the hitch even when you're pushing hard? If not, try moving the attachment point further back.

OK. Once you've gotten used to towing a trailer and made any necessary adjustments, it's time to…

Load Up

And go! You could simply pile bags of cat litter or cow manure in the trailer to make a full test load, but you might as well have a real dress rehearsal. Pick a destination close to home and pack all the things you'll want on the water, from your food to your boat-in-a-bag. And don't just stuff your empty waterproof packs in the corners of the trailer. Put your gear in them instead. It rains on the road, too, and there's nothing like the rooster-tail of spray from a bicycle's rear tire for wetting down whatever is following close behind, including your trailer and everything that's in it. You don't want your gear soaked before you get on the water, do you?

Don't toss gear in the trailer haphazardly, either. Distribute the weight so that the center of mass is just forward of the trailer's axle. (In-line trailers force you to do this.) If the weight is concentrated too far forward, however, you'll be asking too much from your bike's rear wheel. A broken spoke (or even a broken axle) is the likely result. On the other hand, if the center of mass falls behind the trailer's axle, your bike's rear wheel may start to "float," lifting off the ground when you brake and sliding sideways in turns. This is doubleplusungood. So experiment until you get it right. Don't forget to balance the load evenly from side to side, too, and always keep the heaviest items low. And be sure to lash everything securely.

Finally, let the trailer earn its keep. Use your panniers and bar bag only for light items (spare clothing, say) and things you may need on the road (rain gear, tools, maps, snacks). Everything else should find a place in your trailer. All loaded up? Then it's time to hit the road. But don't jump right out into traffic and head for the put-in. Do figure-eights in a quiet parking lot first, grind up a hill or two, and then try braking on a series of downhills, from gentle to steep (easy does it). Everything check out? Then it's…

Independence Day

But don't expect a free ride. Hauling a trailer is hard work. Period. No matter how strong your legs are, you'll still use your lowest gear more than you've ever used it before, and you'll probably wish it were lower still. You won't be setting any speed records, either. If your scouting trip to the put-in with a lunch and a towel took you an hour, it can easily take you twice as long to haul your boat and gear over the same ground. Give yourself plenty of time to go the distance, particularly when the Old Woman is getting in your face. And this often happens. Both paddlers and pedalers seem to attract head winds. Your trailer won't make things easier. It's a drag when you're riding into the wind, of course, but crosswinds can also send it careering off the pavement. Even tail winds are sometimes a curse. If they're strong enough they can jackknife a trailer. The moral of the story? Don't pick a windy day for your first long haul.

The rest is mostly common sense. You've got a fat tail, remember? Give joggers, horses, and hikers plenty of room. And be extra careful on rough or badly-maintained surfaces. After all, you've got more wheels to watch out for now. This is one place where single-wheel in-line trailers have a real advantage. If your bike can thread the needle, your in-line trailer will too. Two-wheel trailers, on the other hand, give you two extra chances to hit any obstacle in the road. That's one bonus that most of us would happily forego. Need to stop? You will, sooner or later. Plan ahead. Extra weight means longer braking distances — much longer. Be especially careful on wet surfaces, and avoid uncontrolled panic stops at all costs if you're towing a two-wheel trailer. Unless you like spinning round in circles, that is. Of course the trouble doesn't end when you finally come to a stop. You've got to start up again, and that's even harder when you're pulling a trailer. Don't think you can sprint through a light at a busy intersection before the yellow changes to red. You can't.

Ah, yes. Busy intersections. Traffic makes everything harder. Drivers sometimes give bikers towing a trailer a wider berth than usual — they may assume that all trailers are carrying kids, I suppose — but you shouldn't bet your life on the kindness of strangers. After all, even well-meaning drivers often don't know where their vehicles end. And since you can't win a one-on-one contest with several tons of speeding steel, you'll want to check your rearview mirror frequently to see what's coming up behind you. Belt-and-suspenders types will also find that a second rearview mirror on the right bar (Brits read "left bar") helps them maneuver in traffic, as well as making it much easier to keep their trailer out of any roadside ditches.

Fortunately, a bike is a great tool for putting a little distance between you and the madding crowd, and all roads end sooner or later. Once at your chosen put-in, unload your gear first, then look around for an inconspicuous spot to park your bike. Be sure to lock both it and your trailer to some suitably immovable object. (Cable locks work best, though owners of folding bikes may be able to take their wheels along with them on the river. That certainly simplifies the shuttle plan.) Now you're ready to do what you came for. Get your paddle in the water, and let the river gods (or lake sprites) wash the road dust off your soul. This is why you're here, isn't it?

Bike and boat. They make an odd couple, to be sure, but the marriage can be a happy one nonetheless, especially when a trailer joins the family. Look at what you get. Exercise for both upper and lower body, not to mention heart and lungs. The wind in your face, the open highway unwinding before you, and a new waterway at the end of every road. Bottom line? The amphibious paddler's horizons are limited only by her endurance, skill, and imagination. It's one of the best kinds of no-octane trip. And it all begins with hauling mass.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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