"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
So it seemed on the first official Neils on Wheels overnight tour. I and Neil Fein rode from New Brunswick to the New Jersey shore, and back the following day. Ninety miles were on the route. We were blessed with near perfect weather for much of the trip, with only a little light rain on the last half of the return. Aside from Neil getting a flat in the hotel room Sunday morning, it was as close to an incident-free trip as we could wish for. And for the first time I rode more than 30 miles without back pain! So in many ways it was the best of times.
But if it was the best of times, why are neither of us smiling in the photograph, taken on the bridge to Red Bank? That's a more difficult question to answer.
Familiarity breeds content or contempt as you wish. Neil and I have two different views of touring. I enjoy going from point A to point B with as few distractions as possible. Neil enjoys getting lost and the impulsiveness that goes with it. He might object to that description, but it seems accurate to me. So while we started out in good spirits, as the day wore on so did my temper. First it was Waterworks Road that turned out to be largely sand and largely unrideable. Then it was the bike trails in Cheesequake Park that became sand and loose gravel, or led into a salt marsh and ended there. Add in a large number of wrong turns, corrections, and other changes that required a cue sheet, two maps, a compass, endless recalculations of mileage, and a lot of daylight, and my frustration became obvious. It took eight and a half hours to ride 50 miles, and we were unable to ride to the beach that day. And I had some swelling in my left knee from all the off-bike hiking.
After a carb-heavy dinner and a good night's sleep, we rode ten miles to Long Branch for breakfast, then to the shore. Rather than remove the front wheel of the bikes, we took our water bottles and dipped them into the Atlantic. Neil then wrote "Neils on Wheels" into the sand to mark the occasion. We rode around Long Branch for a few minutes, then headed back to Red Bank and home.
So far the ride this sunny Sunday morning had been near-flawless. Neil's route was both interesting and very clear. We made excellent time there and back.
However, in Red Bank the problems returned. I had to 'intervene at one point and prevent Neil from leading us in the wrong direction. My frustration was coming out again, and just before the halfway point words were exchanged. Riding with a saddle sore didn't help my mood. My friend is a much more patient man than I am, so he calmed me down and we went onward. We finished with nine hours and 58 miles for the return trip, and a reconciliation once I apologized for my remarks.
And the dispute with my touring partner underlines what I need to learn about touring. It's not going to be perfect. There will always be problems with routes, equipment, riders, and traffic, and while most trips won't have the problems this one did - even Neil admitted his routing through Chessquake Park was a "disaster" - missed turns and roads not taken are in the future. The skill of dealing with the frustrations of touring I need to develop as much as any other aspect of my riding. If I develop that, I'll truly make all tours "the best of times."
At times during the tour I affirmed to myself I would never tour with Neil again. By the end of it I'd tour anywhere with him, if he'd invite me. I have a lot to learn from him. And I hope I have the opportunity to do so again soon.