Tools for Possibilities: issue no. 92

Once a week we’ll send out a page from Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. The tools might be outdated or obsolete, and the links to them may or may not work. We present these vintage recommendations as is because the possibilities they inspire are new. Sign up here to get Tools for Possibilities a week early in your inbox.

Excellent long-distance bike routes

Adventure Cycling

Invisible to most drivers, there is a 26,000-mile network of long-distance bicycle trails criss-crossing the US. These mapped and designated routes offer travelers researched paths with plenty of information on nearest bike shops, profiles of difficulty, and indicated sleeping possibilities. It all started with Bikecentennial’s 1976 TransAm route, the first to cross the continental US, connecting Oregon and Virginia. Thousands still use this route, now overseen by the non-profit Adventure Cycling.

I once rode a bike across America using my own route (more adventure) but I have followed long sections of other Adventure Cycling routes. Their materials are well-worth the price; you will however have lots of companions — which many enjoy.

Adventure Cycling puts out a pretty good magazine for bicycle long-distance touring (a place to solicit travel companions), runs bike tours, has a decent catalog of touring paraphernalia, and continually pioneers new routes. The newest: the world’s longest mountain bike trail, runs 2,500 miles along the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. For that kind of amazingly rugged off-the-road trip (which only a few have completed in full), their maps (waterproof) and guides are essential. — KK

Bicycle-centric maps

Adventure Cycle Maps

For over two months my teenage son and I rode our bikes down the Pacific coast from Canada to Mexico. We followed a route mapped out by Adventure Cycling. The 2,000-mile route is broken into about 80 sections, each annotated with the kind of info you’d like to know on a bike: where the next camp sites are, grocery options, bike shop locations, mileage counts, and most important — elevation contours for the upcoming hills! These maps are printed with full clarity on waterproof paper. The set is extremely well designed, sized at the right scale, and kept current with frequent updates. It was the best bargain of our trip.

While this Pacific route is very popular, Adventure Cycling offers about 20 other long-distance bicycle routes in the US as well. If you are making a long-distance bike ride in America, chances are Adventure Cycling will have a set of maps for you. These maps are miles better than any automobile road map, and in most ways better than Google maps. Ordinarily, I’d shy away from a well-travelled trail, but in this case, the availability of set of Adventure Cycling maps would entice me to follow it.

Their web-based video gives a great overview of the maps’ benefits, and also serve as a manual for using them. — KK

No-car roads


Rails-to-Trails (or rail trails) are roads without cars. They are where railways go when they die. Bicycles love them.

Every year 2,000 miles of railways in the US are abandoned. So far, about half of the 300,000 miles railways built by 1916 (the railroad peak) have been taken out of service. Some 13,000 of those miles have been repurposed into bike/hike trails.

Why they’re great: 1) You get paths with flat to gentle slopes, 2) no cars, 3) no strip development, and 4) often passing through small towns. These wide, sculpted, relaxing paths are perfect for hiking, horseback, cross-country skiing, skates and particularly bicycles. While most of the rails-to-trails are less than 5 miles long, there are 10 in the country stretching over 100 miles and at least one that is 225 continuous miles. These longer trails are a big hit — easy, civilized bicycle tours: gentle rides without having to compete with cars. As far as I am concerned, riding bicycles on rail trails is the way to go.

The rails to trails movement began in the mid-west, where most of the abandoned railways were. It has now spread to every state. There are about 1,300 rails-to-trails in the US, with another 1,000 in progress. Backpackers have a network of fabulously signed and maintained long-distance footpath trails; we now have the beginnings of a network of long-distance dedicated bikepaths.

Behind most of this work is the very effective non-profit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. They publish a magazine, newsletter, and a directory of known rail trails in the US, entitled 1000 Great Rail Trails. It’s a bare bones listing with no traveling information; but it is where you go to browse where rail trails exist in particular states. The same info, in slightly less useful search-mode is available on their supplemental website, TrailLink, which includes a list of the 10 longest rail trails, and introductory orientations to most rail trails.

For utilitarian logistical details, the Conservancy publishes 8 region-specific books. I’ve been using the California one, Rails-to-Trails: California. It covers about 60 rail trails in the state, including several in my own area that I was not aware of. — KK

On-the-road spoke replacement tool

Next Best Thing 2 Cassette Tool

If you’re on a long distance cycling trip and you break a spoke (a common occurrence) on the right hand side of your rear wheel then you’re in trouble.

To replace these spokes you need to remove the cassette to get access to the hub. Normally this requires a specialized tool, a very large spanner (about 12″) and a large chain whip – all of which are heavy and unwieldy to carry. However, the Next Best Thing 2 is a small and light tool that enables you to remove the cassette using just the leverage of the bike’s chain.

Assuming you have the correct spokes with you (as any serious long distance cyclist would) then you should be good to go again without having to limp in to the next town/bike shop – something I’ve had to do several times over the years.

This is probably in the category of “tool you very rarely use but are extremely grateful when you do.” — Jamie McMahon


© 2022