Bicycle Touring: The Road Might Be Long But It Doesn't Have To Be Bumpy!
My first ever bicycle tour was a 1500 mile learning curve. I'd read the blogs, trawled the internet for advice, bought a bicycle touring how-to guide and spent endless hours planning the trip. With the confidence of a man who felt prepared, I loaded up my bike and hit the road. It didn't take long to encounter the first of ten avoidable mistakes that hindered my tour. I'd like to share these blunders with you so that your own tour takes you along a smoother road than mine.
Over-packing is a reoccurring caveat in online forums and blogs. As I packed my bags for my first bicycle tour, this warning rang through my mind constantly. Yet still I over-packed.
I grossly over-estimated the amount of time that I'd have for activities such as reading, writing and painting. My pannier bags were loaded with art equipment, eight novels and writing material. The art equipment was a mere passenger as were five of the books. When you're cycling ten hours a day, pitching camp in the evening, cooking meals, washing clothes, site-seeing, exploring and carrying out maintenance on your bike, you're not left with much time in the day.
Foolishly, I'd crammed a whole medicine cabinet of pharmaceuticals into my bags; my theory being that it was better to have foot cream, diarrhea pills and insect repellent on hand. Don't make this mistake. Unless you're touring through the wilderness, you can buy health and hygiene products on the road when needed. The same applies to batteries for electrical appliances such as cameras, torches and bike lights. Don't stock up in advance. Buy as you go.
Take minimal clothing. Two cycling outfits, something to wear in the evening/around town and rain gear will suffice.
Over-packing isn't a disaster if you have room to stash everything along with sturdy bags and pannier racks to carry it. But when you're constantly digging through bags, pushing aside unused items to find your camping stove or camera, it becomes frustrating. And the lighter your load, the easier it will be to cycle through that 30mph headwind when it hits.
#2 Underestimating the Importance of Water
Despite having three bottle holders fixed to the frame of my bike (about 2.5 litres of water), I soon realized that this wasn't sufficient to sustain me when cycling in the midday sun. Early in the trip, I ran out of water during a 40km stretch in thirty degree heat. I didn't encounter a single shop in that time, nor did I see any suitable lakes or rivers to fill my drinks bottles and sanitize with chlorine tablets. If it hadn't been for the kindness of a stranger, who filled up my bottles in his kitchen sink, I would surely have perished in the baking sun. From this moment on, I made water a number one priority. Even then, I had to rely on another benevolent stranger to get me through that difficult day.
When it comes to carrying water on a fully-loaded bicycle, finding the right balance is crucial. Water is heavy and takes up valuable space. But to me, this additional weight is easily offset by the comfort of knowing that you'll never run out. Water is essential: you'll need it for drinking, cooking and washing. Make sure you carry enough.
#3 We're Gonna Need a Bigger Tent!
Trying to save money before the trip, I made the fatal error of neglecting to buy a spacious tent. Instead, I persuaded myself that my one-man backpacking tent was large enough - it wasn't! With limited space, I couldn't even sit up inside. Each morning, I'd unzip the flap, push my pannier bags to the side and pull myself out on my hands and knees. Not a great way to start the day.
If you're planning a self-sufficient, fully-loaded long distance bicycle tour, don't make the same mistake that I did. Get yourself a tent with ample room. For those on a tight budget like myself, dome tents are spacious and cheap.
Tents aren't just for sleeping; they provide refuge on those rainy days and privacy when you just want some time alone. Hardened travelers may scoff at this notion but for me, failing to take a roomy tent became a source of regret.
#4 Setting Off Like It's The Tour de France
Day two of my first bicycle tour was one of the most physically draining experiences of my life. My travelling partner and I completely misjudged the distance and terrain, leaving ourselves about eight hours to cover 80 miles over meandering dirt track. Failure meant missing our 5pm ferry. Powered by pride, and desperate to avoid a major blunder so early in the trip, we arrived at the ferry terminal with minutes to spare. Exhausted, we congratulated each other before passing out in our cabin. At the time, it seemed like a spectacular achievement; triumph over adversity; our dignity intact. But the repercussions of that grueling day were almost fatal. I'd picked up an ankle injury which progressively worsened over the next 300 miles and eventually I was forced to recuperate on a campsite for almost two weeks until the injury healed.
Plan the initial stages of a long-distance bicycle tour with precision and take it easy to begin with. You can always increase the mileage later in the trip when your body has grown accustomed to the strain of cycling several hours each day. I was lucky on this occasion because I had time to rest my ankle before continuing with the trip. On a shorter tour, the injury would have signaled the end of the road.
Want to Save Money on Your Bicycle Tour?
Touring can be cheaper than you think. If you want to save money before and during your trip, take a look at these seven budget bicycle touring tips!
#5 Beware Defective Equipment and Inflated Egos
Disaster struck less than thirty miles into my first tour when my travelling partner's rear pannier rack broke. We'd just traversed a particularly treacherous stretch of terrain that was far more suited to thick-tired mountain bikes than fully-loaded touring road bicycles. In a display of ego-driven folly, my friend had steamed ahead, bouncing over rocks and hurtling along the track like a downhill racer. This idiocy was brought to an abrupt halt when his rear rack could no longer take the punishment. It was 3pm in the afternoon and we were miles from the nearest village or town. Finding a bike shop and getting a new rack was out of the question. Dismayed, we both surveyed the damage and questioned how fate could bestow us with such terrible luck so early in the trip.
My friend moved his pannier bags to the front rack (which had previously been unused) and offloaded some of the weight into a rucksack. I took his tent and strapped it to my own bike. At first it seemed like it might just work...until the pannier bags, not designed for a front rack, started bouncing against the wheel spokes and dragging along the road. We were doomed. And then fate smiled upon us once more and a passing cyclist stopped to assist. Using some zip ties, he managed to secure my friend's pannier bags to his rack and, after thanking him profusely, we were able to continue on our way.
Later in the day, my friend admitted that his rear rack had been missing a screw. Over the course of several hundred miles cycling prior to the trip, this missing screw had surely caused metal fatigue before finally succumbing on the first day of our trip. The lesson: Make sure your equipment is robust and avoid placing it under unnecessary strain.
#6 Getting Lost is Easier Than You Think
Getting lost is so easy you could do it blindfolded! Joking aside, navigating a bicycle tour is a lot harder than it seems from the comfort of your living room. On my first tour, I didn't even pack a map. "Don't worry", I told my travelling partner, "We just need to head east and follow the coast". This strategy might have worked if there was a long distance cycle path or quiet road running adjacent to the sea. But life is rarely that simple...or boring. Even though we were blessed with one of the greatest cycle networks on earth - in Belgium and Holland - our strategy (constantly heading east and stopping to ask directions when necessary) was prone to error. We were constantly cycling off-route, into cul-de-sacs and having to retrace steps (or tire marks)! One day, we even found ourselves in field of angry cows.
A regular smartphone with GPS capability is one way to avoid getting lost. I'd advise using it only as an emergency resource though because batteries and GPS/3G connections are prone to failure when you need them most. Some cyclists like to use purpose-built bicycle navigation systems such as those made by Garmin. But if you're in a similar position to me, you might find both the product and software a little pricey! In my opinion, you really can't beat old-fashioned maps. They are lightweight and easy to pack, never run out of battery or send you in the wrong direction and are also fairly cheap. An added bonus (in some countries) is that the moment you stop and open a map, a friendly local will make a beeline for you and help you plot the next few miles of your trip.
#7 Get to Know Your Bicycle
You've just purchased a new touring bicycle, spare inner tubes and break pads, bicycle pump, chain lube, multi-tool and other essential components. You're almost ready for the trip. Or maybe not. Having spare parts and tools available when you need them is one thing; knowing how to use them properly is another thing altogether.
On my first tour I was lucky. My bicycle became my hero. Over the course of 1500 miles, it never failed once. I suffered only one flat tire which cost me an hour of time, two broken tire levers, a lost bolt washer and heaps of lost patience. You can avoid similar frustration on your own tour by getting to know your bike. Practice removing the wheels and tires efficiently (especially the rear tire), removing and reattaching break pads, adjusting the gears and anything else you can think of. It will save you time and energy in the long run and increase your self-reliance. There's nothing worse than breaking down at sunset, miles from the nearest town and not knowing how to fix your bike.
Consider taking a basic bicycle maintenance course. They tend to last anywhere from an hour to a full day and are usually reasonably priced. Ask your local bike shop if they run one. If you can't afford to take a maintenance course, there are plenty of DIY maintenance and repair videos on Youtube.
#8 Choose Your Cycling Partners Wisely
If you're planning on cycling with a friend or in a group, make sure you all share similar hopes and expectations for the tour. Avoid cycling with people whom you clash over the slightest disagreement. And it's never a good idea to go on tour with a fitness fanatic if you're a couch potato (and vice versa)!
When you're on the road for several hours each day, five or six days a week, heated arguments with your travelling companion/s are unavoidable. You'll be in each other's company for most of the day, during the highs and the lows. Getting on each other's nerves is bound to happen sooner or later.
My travelling partner on my first bike tour was, and remains, a good friend. We both share many of the same interests and hobbies. Despite this, we reminded one other that irritation and petty arguments would occur during the tour. And so they did. My friend, who was considerably fitter than me, preferred to race ahead. I was more inclined to break regularly and explore the villages, towns and countryside through which we were passing. I was vexed by his refusal to stop and smell the roses; he was vexed by my sluggish pace. Thankfully, our long-term friendship and our multitude of shared interests provided abundant highs and very few lows. I was glad to have a travelling partner. Make sure you are too.
If you intend to cycle alone, pay special attention to tip #10.
#9 Take At Least One Trial Run
They say that practice makes perfect and this is undoubtedly true with bicycle touring. Before you set off on a long distance trip, make at least one trial run over a weekend. Pack everything you intend to take on the main trip. This gives you the chance to iron out any potential problems (over-packing being one of the big culprits). A trial run also gives you the opportunity to familiarise yourself with new equipment such as tents, camping stoves and pannier bags. Additionally, a weekend trip can assist with mental preparation (see tip #10).
I set off on my first tour without doing any of this. I'd never even cycled on a fully-loaded touring bike. Fortunately I'd spent hours preparing in other ways such as research and ensuring I bought all of the right equipment. This just about compensated for my lack of physical preparation but really it shouldn't have had to.
#10 Bicycle Touring is Mentally Taxing
Before setting off, I lost track of the number of times people said, "wow, you must be fit!" or, "I hope you're training hard," after I'd told them I was embarking on a multi-country bike ride. Physical exercise and training is certainly a prerequisite of a long tour although don't despair if your departure date rolls up and you feel you haven't put in enough 'mileage'. The beauty of a long distance ride is that you can train on the road in the early stages of your journey, gradually building up your daily mileage as your fitness and saddle comfort improve.
I rarely encountered anyone who asked me if I was mentally ready. This surprised me given the many hours where a cyclist has only his own thoughts for company.
Imagine a day when you've been cycling in really bad weather. Did you feel like quitting or wish you'd stayed indoors? Where you motivated to keep peddling by the thought of a warm meal or a hot bath? When you're touring these comforts are absent (unless you're a credit card tourer who can afford to stay in hotels). All you've got to power you through that driving rain and wind is the image of a tent and a sleeping bag.
Motivation is not the only place where a cyclist can come unstuck. Spending long periods inside one's own head can have a funny effect on people. I experienced several occasions on my first trip where I was plagued by various worries and niggles. Occasionally I would question the purpose of the trip, whether it was meeting the expectations I'd set out for it and whether I was having fun (most of the time I was)!
The human body and mind like routine. They like to be woken up at the same time each day, fed at the same time and put to asleep at the same time. When touring, I find that routine helps to nurture a positive and healthy frame of mind. Treat cycling like a job (without the negative connotations). Try to get up early and cycle throughout the day until late afternoon or early evening, keeping the same hours each day (remember to stop for regular breaks to avoid the threat of overexertion and injury). When you're feeling low or dispirited, promise yourself a reward for clocking a certain mileage or simply making it to camp. I found that the lure of several cold beers and a bar meal always got me peddling through tough times.
You might want to learn the skill of meditation as way of combating the mental side of bike travel. It may sound silly but you can actually meditate on your bike while cycling. Mediation is often misunderstood as a trance-like state of oblivion. This notion couldn't be further from the truth. Meditation actually encourages awareness and keeps you in the moment. This is a perfect mindset for long bike trips because it helps you to set aside your thoughts so you can focus on the world around you. Isn't that one of the main reasons why you came on the trip in the first place?
However you choose to deal with it, never underestimate the mental challenges of a long bicycle tour.
Did You Find These Bicycle Touring Tips Useful?
The ten tips listed above describe the ten biggest mistakes that I made before, and during the early stages of, my first bicycle tour. I wrote this article so you can avoid the same problems that I encountered. Perhaps you've already been on tour and you'd like to share your own experience and/or advice. You're welcome to do so in the comments section below. And to those of you who are about to set off on your first tour, have fun and let us know how it goes.
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on August 25, 2014:
Merutreks - Thank you for your comment
Erin Mellor - This is very good advice. Europe is quite a densely populated continent, especially in the west. If you're cycling for long distances in north America or Asia where towns are generally further apart, even greater planning is required.
Erin Mellor from Europe on August 20, 2014:
I've taken a few 2-3 week tours in Europe and your advice is good. I do travel with a small but very comprehensive medical kit as it has sometimes been a few hours before we reached the next town, and often 24 before we've reached one with an open pharmacy. You're right, it's not fitness that gets you over the hills and through the headwinds and rain, it's mental toughness and determination.
merutreks on August 15, 2014:
Very Helpful article to me, especially that part talking about choosing a good cycling partner.Big up!
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on April 29, 2014:
You're welcome techygran; I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on April 25, 2014:
this article is a great add-on to my touring bike! Thank you!
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on April 24, 2014:
Thanks for your comments. I don't write any cycling or fitness blogs myself but you can find innumerable blogs relating to your questions on the internet. If you suffer from 'dodgy knees' then my advice would be to research cycling cadence. To simplify it greatly, cadence is the number of revolutions per minute that a cyclist makes with the pedals. A high cadence using a low gear is much better for your knees than a low cadence with a high gear. It can take some getting used to but there is plenty of information available online to guide you. And you could always try asking for advice in your local bike shop or cycling club. Good luck.
Ulla Mor on April 20, 2014:
Doc, do you do any sort of cycling for fitness blogs? Like the books 'Fighting Fit' or 'Run your Butt off'? I and a lot of women my age (mid 40s), have dodgy knees so have been told by GP to cycle or swim for exercise. If there was a kind of 4 or 6 week timetable guideline, which is not too all-out boot camp mental, I and a lot of women I'm sure, would be interested. Especially as it means we can cycle with our families as well. Even if not, maybe if there were tips on cycling to work, tips on clothes to wear and how to pack workclothes into your bag etc. etc. I would be really interested. Thanks, Ulla.
Ulla Mor on April 20, 2014:
Really enjoyed this, Doc. Funny and informative. I remember joining a London cycling tourist club and going out for 70 miles that first Sunday. A pair of well-padded cycling shorts was the first thing I bought on Monday. I haven't yet been on a tour, but will certainly look into bicycle maintenance courses. Thanks.
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on March 28, 2014:
Thanks for your comment and feedback dearabbysmom. No need for the 'just' when describing the distance of your high school bike trip; 500 miles is impressive. As for your wet sleeping bag misery, this was actually one of the potential catastrophes that I managed to avoid. I ordered a dry bag from Amazon and it proved to be one of my best investments!
dearabbysmom from Indiana on March 27, 2014:
Enjoyed reading this, and the tips are so helpful! It brought back memories of a group bike trip I took in high school...not nearly as long as this, just 500 miles total. The only thing I'd add is "don't get your sleeping bag wet." Several of us had bags dropped into mud puddles at the beginning of the trip, and that made for miserable nights when the temps dropped. We were riding during sunlight hours and could not get them dry, ugh. Voted useful and up!