Jesus Christ, I feel like I've been out of town forever! Today is my first day back at my desk and in the Internet world after traveling for two weeks around the East Coast. I reunited with some long lost family in the backwoods of Appalachia, drank whiskey with picklebacks in New York, and talked Whitey Bulger at a cop diner in Boston, all with a trusty folding bike by my side. After 15 days of hauling a Brompton between six cities, five states, four airports, three train stations, and one Chinatown bus depot, here are what my legs look like:
Here are some lessons I learned from my folding bike adventures:
1. People freak out about folding bikes. In every city I visited (Boston, Philly, Atlanta, Asheville, New York, and Islesboro, Maine) people stopped to gawk whenever I started unfolding the Brompton. In New York, the reaction was generally the same as an adorable, tiny dog would receive: "That's so cute!" strangers cooed, wanting to touch it and talk about their own bikes. In North Carolina, two guys lacking sobriety and several teeth saw me getting on and shouted, "Awww, hell no!" I showed them how it worked and they honestly cheered. "I can't believe it!" one guy yelled, over and over, "I can't believe it but I'm seeing it right now!" Make sure you're up for constant small talk.
2. Airlines are actually cool with folding bikes. I flew on three airlines (JetBlue, Delta, Frontier) and was worried that someone along the line would charge me extra for checking the bike or, worse, assume that my suspicious-looking bundle of pipes with pedals was some sort of bomb. Not so!
The only employee who even blinked an eye when I checked the bike was Portland's JetBlue clerk who said (and I quote), "That's awesome. Totally killer." Not the best choice of words for an airport, but the sentiment was loud and clear. Some airlines arbitrarily apply their rules for bikes as baggage to folding bikes (JetBlue changed its policy two years ago, thanks to a complaint), so get a policy nailed down with your airline before you fly, if you can. Also, it's a smart idea to get a case if you're worried about your bike getting dinged up.
3. Bring bike maps. Jumping off the bus in Boston to bike the city: Excellent idea. Realizing a few blocks into the spontaneous adventure that you have no idea where you're going: Slightly terrifying. I thought it would be easy to find bike maps in major cities, but that's one place where the Portland bubble burst. Most big cities have bike maps, but actually getting ahold of one can be tough if you arrive after bike shops are closed (or if you can't find a bike shop in the first place). I found bike maps were often not stocked with the rest of the tourist information at train stations and bus stops and asking for bike routes at tourist info kiosks universally elicited confusing stares. When we did track down a bike map in Philly thanks to some surly help from a pack of messengers, the measly piece of paper cost $5. In the future, I'd print off free bike maps before I leave town (here's ones for Philly, Boston, New York, Seattle and Portland).
4. Pack like a grandma: Practical footwear and sunscreen! Luckily, this was a zero fatality vacation. That's despite me stupidly biking around New York in sandals and a short skirt. Next time, I'd leave the cute stuff at home and bring close-toed shoes, extra socks, a hat, and rain gear.
5. Be prepared to carry your bike. A lot. Not wanting to risk locking up a $1,300 rented bike on the streets of a big city, I wound up carrying my Brompton all over the subways of New York and Atlanta, and often awkwardly around stores. It worked, but my bruised legs and aching arms took the toll. The Brompton comes with a special bag that clips onto the front of the bike that you can use as a handle to roll the bike around when it's folded up, but despite numerous desperate attempts, I couldn't get the hang of it. Every time I clipped on the bag and tried rolling the bike around, it would just flop over like a sad, giant fish. I never got more than a couple feet. So anyway, practice folding and unfolding your bike to become a pro before you leave home and don't bring a bike that you find really difficult to fold, unfold, or carry.
All in all: An awesome time. Thanks to Portland bike shop Clever Cycles for the rental. I'll return your bike as soon as I wash the blood off it.