Too Long, Too Short...Where is Just Right?
When on tour I often get this question from my pillion partner at the beginning of each day’s ride: How many miles are we riding today? Sometimes, if we’re just letting the road be our guide, I don’t really know. But usually, I’ve planned the route and know the answer, not counting any side trips that may strike our fancy along the way. This exchange, however, often makes me wonder what the ideal touring mileage is for a day in the saddle. In deciding that number, though, there are obviously a number of factors to consider:
Weather: Because of the more exposed nature of motorcycle touring (versus a car), checking the weather forecast each morning is a regimen followed by most experienced riders. For example, the expectation of thunderstorms may dictate altering the day’s route to avoid them. But much of the weather experienced on tour can’t be avoided in advance. For instance, I’ve had to ride out unexpected thunderstorms in a café or some other protected structure. And even riding in a non-threatening steady rain usually means reduced visibility and a slower average speed.
Besides storms, very hot or cold weather may dictate more stops than originally planned for hydration or warming up in a café with a hot drink. High winds can also affect travel mileage. I recall exceptionally strong, steady cross winds once on the Kansas prairie, which required riding slower than normal highway speeds and keeping my bike leaned over to counteract nature’s strong embrace. Weather is always a wild card on any motorcycle trip, which can slow the rider’s rate of progress.
Terrain: Mountainous terrain usually means more curves—and more rider smiles—than flat prairie, but lots of curves invariably results in a slower average speed (or at least it should). A two-hundred-mile ride in the mountains will take noticeably longer than a comparable distance with few curves, and it usually will be more tiring for both riders and passengers. Also, mountainous terrain is often more scenic, inviting more stops to enjoy and photograph it.
And then there’s the situation when riders want to get to the most desirable riding area as quickly as possible. To maximize their riding time, motorcyclists crossing desert or prairie often want to cover a lot of miles in the shortest amount of time. Because that can’t be done on backroads, the super slab is probably their best bet. Long story short, riding terrain is an important consideration in planning the day’s distance.
Type/Condition of Roads: Paved versus unpaved roads will make a large difference in mileage each day. A 100-mile day astride an adventure bike on challenging, unpaved roads takes much longer and more energy than riding several hundred miles on pavement. Also, I’ve noticed in locations like New England, where roadways are often in poor condition after severe winters, my average speed on this rough pavement is always slower than on smooth tarmac.
Traffic/Construction Delays: Although my planned tours usually avoid metropolitan areas, construction delays on rural two-lane roads and bridges during the warmer months can put a big dent in a rider’s rate of progress. Although there are websites that can alert travelers to construction projects, my experience on backroads is that many of those construction zones appear with little warning. I recall being stopped on a two-lane road on the expansive plains of North Dakota, where our flagman was many miles distant, and out of sight, from the other end of the construction zone. We waited quite a while for the pilot truck to arrive and guide us at low speed along the single lane of asphalt. And there are vehicular accidents, which can stop all traffic (particularly on rural two-lane roads) for an extended period of time. Also, riders should expect heavy traffic around resort areas, particularly on weekends.
Touring & Travel Goals
Reservations: Reserved lodging can be an advantage or a disadvantage. The main advantage is that riders know they have a place to bed down regardless of their arrival time. This is comforting when unexpected delays cause the ride to take longer than planned at the day’s outset. Occasionally on tour, because of unforeseen circumstances, I’ve not wanted to ride the full distance to the reserved room. This may be caused by severe weather or an interesting place I’ve discovered that I want to spend more time exploring. Reservations can be cancelled, unless it’s too late to do so, and then I’m compelled to curtail the stop and push on to the reservation.
The same thing can happen with tickets purchased in advance for, say, a ride on a historic steam-powered train or some other entertainment. When traveling without room reservations, I usually find it necessary to start looking for a hotel by no later than around 4:00 p.m., or even earlier, before the “No Vacancy” signs start lighting up.
Planned and Unplanned Stops: On motorcycle tours, I usually plan one or two interesting stops each day, which typically include museums, battlefields, national or state parks, historical sites, etc. And then there are those unplanned, surprise stops, which make motorcycle touring such a spontaneous and enjoyable way to see the world.
It’s not always places or things that prolong an unplanned stop, but the interesting people you meet along the way. Riding a motorcycle cross-country frequently triggers conversations with curious strangers, which driving an automobile does not. Oftentimes, the combination of reserved lodging and too many miles planned for the day means I can’t spend as much time at some locations as I would otherwise prefer. So, the solution may be fewer miles or reservations.
Preferences of Other Riders and Passengers: Riding with others means that their preferences have to be considered in planning the day’s route and distance. Some riders only want to hit the curves for as long and intensely as possible each day. Other riders want a more relaxed ride, stopping to smell the roses, so to speak. Rather than frustrating one or both sets of folks, a good idea may be to split into two riding groups, taking different routes to the same destination.
By now, you’ve probably reached the unavoidable conclusion that, in reality, there is no one ideal number of miles to cover each day on tour. It’s highly idiosyncratic and it just depends….