Mathing my way out of a funk

Though I do have my creative side, at my heart I can be pretty analytical. My ten weeks of tracking habits versus mood should have been a bit of an indication to those not already in the know. But these mathematically-inspired(*) thought experiments do have their benefits. I’m still having a pretty great winter.

(*) I say “Mathematically inspired” because there’s not really any real math going on. My friends in statistics and data science (some with PhDs in math) are, no doubt, giving me the sideeye all through these. But don’t worry – I know the math and stats don’t check out. There are no control groups. But what I’m finding does seem to work. It’s an anecdote and not data.

Over the next couple of entries I will show a few more instances where I’ve played with data I’ve either tracked or generated. Here’s the first one:

I’ve been missing bicycle touring a lot lately and honestly feeling a bit sorry for myself as I’m not sure it’s really feasible even yet. Why? The pandemic has changed travel and habits for everyone. While some have gone back to traveling the world and taking their chances, I’m still not ready. I’m no longer worried that I will become gravely ill on a trip. However, I do know that the fun of a vacation is still quite high. To start with, as a self-employed person, taking time off means stopping the flow of money. Take three weeks off and I lose almost 6% of my annual income. But if it’s worth it it’s worth it. But add in record high airfares and lodging costs and it gets even worse. And really, if I’m going to travel, there will almost certainly be an exciting bike tour. I mean, it’s been years! Now, though, there’s a risk of getting sick somewhere on the road which would mean recovering in a hotel which could be expensive and not just waiting until I’m not feeling really ill but waiting until I can ride 80-100 km/day or more if I need to make up for lost time. Or perhaps paying a huge taxi bill to get me somewhere so I can get home. Again, it isn’t risking my life, but it’s also more risk than I’m willing to bet several week’s pay on.

At the same time I’m seeing more and more awful stories about violence in the US. Even in the northeast where I grew up, a passenger bus was hit by bullets while driving on a highway (It’s so crazy that when I went looking for the story I had to be sure I had the right bus that was shot as around the same time a school bus was also shot.) The divisive political situation also makes for an unpleasant atmosphere. So that country’s out for travel.

But what to do? If I’m honest what I did about this for a few weeks was sulk. Why does everything have to be so stupid?! But I’m action-oriented and not one to rest in misery or uncertainty. So enter a math exercise:

My theory (and backed up by experience of some really nice trips) is that as much as I’d love to, say, take on a Hanoi to Singapore adventure, for example, I need to think smaller and closer to home. The first step in the exercise was to define those things that I look for in a bike trip. These are the things that when I think “Oh that trip was the best!” are part of those memories. At the same time I looked at a few things that could make the trip either a hassle or a joy. Then I could score a bunch of different places on that scale. Here are the criteria I came up with:

  • Weather: My best cycling memories are of trips when the weather was hot and sunny. Cold, rain and wind begone!
  • Lodging cost: More cost means I can travel less. In Ontario a hotel might cost $80-150 depending on where I am. In India I stayed in great hotels that cost $20-30/night
  • Food Cost: Like lodging, food is necessary. It’s fuel after all. In Toronto a lunch might cost $15-20. In India lunch could cost $2-3.
  • Services available (food, water): The more services available, the less you have to carry. Riding in the Greater Toronto area means you probably won’t have to ride more than 30-40 min to get a bottle of water or a snack. Riding in Northern Ontario not so much.
  • Sense of accomplishment: This one is measured both in terms of kilometres/effort but also more abstract ways. It feels good to know I’ve ridden from Toronto to New York City beyond just the distance.
  • Seeing new things – interesting destination(s): Going somewhere interesting (like New York City or Rajasthan) scores high but I’ve also found really interesting places nearby – like this WWII POW camp.
  • Interesting Food Availability: Is there good regional food? Or how about good food for cycling? Diner breakfasts, fish and chips fuel me well – but so do aloo paratha and samosas
  • Meeting new people: For me, seeing places is also about seeing people. This matters enough to me that much of my initial motivation for learning Hindi was so that when I eventually cycled in India I could talk to people in villages I passed through. I am still in touch with many of the people Daegan and I stayed with on our big bike trip over ten years ago.
  • Possibility of unexpected/serendipity: Seeing interesting things you plan to see is one thing, seeing those you don’t expect is even better. Walking into the woods for a washroom break and finding nearly 200 year old charcoal kilns is one example. Learning of a great swimming hole on a hot day is another.
  • Traffic / Drivers: This is huge for me. Some of the worst cycling I’ve ever experienced is in Toronto’s inner suburbs. Riding on rail trails is heaven. And sometimes things go differently than expected and you find riding in Delhi is actually better than riding in Mississauga. In any case, whether it’s aggressive drivers or bad infrastructure, this makes a difference.
  • Healthcare quality: We’re in a pandemic. This definitely matters. If I get sick it’s important to get good care and ideally to have it relatively close by.
  • Crime/safety: Another obvious one – and it includes both true safety and perceived safety. So this means that I won’t be cycling across central Asia. But also, after noticing that the last time I saw a movie in the US, I made a mental note of exits just in case of a shooting, that also counts.
  • Adventure: This is sort of nebulous. The extremes are easy – riding in Toronto: little adventure, riding in Thailand, lots more adventure. In between I was winging it.
  • Requires Camping (Negative points): Folks, I really would love to be someone who liked camping. I mean, I lived in a yurt for almost two years. You’d think that this’d be not just second nature but nostalgic. But really, the whole hassle of carrying your gear and figuring out cooking is more than I want to bother with. Add to that the fact that in some areas you have to worry about humans bugging you and in other areas you have to worry about wild animals and no amount of additional freedom and adventure really does it for me. Camping on the Bike Rally wasn’t bad but all of my gear was in trucks, food was provided and I could bring a thick inflatable mattress instead of a thin foam mat.
  • Requires airfare (Negative Points): It’s possible to travel with a bike by air but there has to be a good reason. Why? Because it means having the bike boxed at each end ($70-80), oversize luggage charges ($50-several hundred each way), taxis to get to and from the airport at each end that can carry the boxed bike. Again, for a big trip it’s totally doable

Once I had the criteria I tried a few different trip ideas from the mundane to the amazing:

  • expansion: is a pretty cool project that gamifies your exploring new roads either via running or cycling. It links to Strava (which I use to track my rides) and gives you points for riding roads you’ve never been on. At this point I’ve been on 1278 kilometres of 7363.4 kilometres of roads just in Toronto. I could ride around, visit libraries, try new restaurants, explore new neighbourhoods.
  • Local Weekend day trips: I have a whole list of routes in the 30-200+ kilometre range that leave from either my house or a subway station. Along the way there are places to stop for food, sometimes interesting scenery.
  • Longer Ontario Tour: This could be a 3-4 day tour similar to my visit to Peterborough. There will be nice scenery. Depending on the route it could be a bit rural with not great food/water refill availability.
  • Nova Scotia: There’s lots going for this one. Great people, the ocean, seafood. But it’s also a plane ride away, far fewer services, and a good chance that camping would be required. Weather can be tricky and cooler/wetter.
  • Newfoundland: Amazing people, beautiful scenery but a plane trip away, colder weather and it can be rainy. Not always great options for food/water stops and depending on the route, camping could be required.
  • West Coast: Gorgeous area, beautiful cycling but also likely camping, bears, expensive lodging and lots of rural areas.
  • Iceland: Gorgeous and so interesting but 100% chance of camping and not lots of food options. A bit pricey and of course a flight.
  • Europe (Spain/Italy): Great weather, interesting place, amazing food. On the other hand, not so great prices with the Euro exchange and cost of living difference.
  • Cuba: This is actually an intriguing option. Relatively close by, not too expensive (except for the flights), interesting people, good weather, good food.
  • Thailand: This would be amazing. Ticks off almost all of the boxes except for airfare – and of course with the cost it becomes more risky. Getting sick could mean losing a bunch of money.
  • India: Always an amazing option and there’s so much more for me to cycle. This also ticks off most of the boxes. Slightly less adventurous on the one hand as I’ve been a few times now and even have cycled there. But that could change if I went to a different area. But also requires lots of time off, expensive airfare and potential loss of money if I get sick.

So how’d they rate? Well first off, Newfoundland and Iceland were so low after a first pass I didn’t even rate them. It just wasn’t worth it even though visiting either of them without a bike could be excellent. Here’s what was left.

This actually looked much as I expected. For things like weather, local rides assume I just won’t go out if it looks like crappy weather. Riding on the east/west coast may require riding no matter what. Lodging at home is 5/5 – free! Of course going to Asia would be amazing even with the airfare and added hassle. Cuba would be cool also, but the hassle of Nova Scotia and the West Coast trips outweighed the draw of it. So those came in near the bottom.

But the above assumes no risk and unlimited budget. What happens if you take those things into account? To do this I estimated the cost of a week’s worth of each trip. It gets a little weird when you look at India and Thailand as you don’t really go there for a 1 week bike trip and come back so I did another column without airfare. I was probably a bit optimistic on the airfare estimates per person and went a bit over on food/lodging but in the end I think at a high level it works.

And there you have it. Riding around Toronto trying cool restaurants and visiting interesting places is high value. Weekend rides are the same. The advantage of both of these is that there’s not any lost income, either. I don’t need to take time off. I can do rides around Toronto seven days a week if I’d like. And I honestly think that a good ride around Toronto can be incredibly fun.

Of course “Value” is relative and outside a pandemic can mean different things but this exercise was an excellent reminder that I can have a wonderful, cycling-filled summer without having to do an epic trip. I no longer feel sorry for myself and am excited for warmer, dryer weather to come.

4 thoughts on “Mathing my way out of a funk

  1. I think you should start traveling; shorter trips, closer to home are the most suitable ones that won’t disrupt your finances. I do see India somewhere on your wish list.

    1. Absolutely – that’s the plan. Trips within Ontario are being planned now. That gives me a lot of space (our province is 1/3 the size of India). I can bike to Montreal in just under a week though with trains no longer carrying bikes I’d have to plan on riding back as well – and I’ve done that route three times now. My plans include some parts of the province I’ve never visited before.

      I’m definitely going to head back to India at some point. Not yet though – it’s a 17.5 hour flight (if I do direct – longer if I don’t) and breathing recycled likely infected air is a great way to set myself up for spending much of my vacation ordering Zomato and watching serials in a hotel. There will be visiting without a bike but also I have a few routes in mind there (like Mumbai to Chennai via the coast – if I could ever manage the time off or do it while working part time remotely)


      1. I can understand Todd. The airfares are almost double of what they used to be back then. I’m sure you enjoy not so clean air in this part of the world. I will recommend doing a bike trip in Rajasthan and also in Goa. Yes, remotely working while on a vacay is what many travelers do.

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