I met Paul about 5 years ago. He was on his first bicycle tour – a regular rider, part of a club back home. He was enjoying riding on the weekends and some evenings. I was helping lead the tour and noticed him at registration and later that evening as we introduced ourselves to the group. It was diverse group, many had years of touring under their belts, but there are always a few new to bike touring, and sometimes the anxiety is palpable. Paul fit the bill. I could see him pacing around, checking and rechecking his bike and gear. I worked my way over and introduced myself – “I’m Dave, I’ll be riding some days and driving SAG others. Done this much?”
This sort of thing is pretty common when we finally take the plunge and decide to go on a bicycling vacation. I certainly experienced it. If you are thinking of taking the plunge yourself, here are a few tips.
1. Which bicycle is best for bike touring?
I don’t know about you, but the best bike for me is always the one I want to buy next. The second best bike is the one I always end up taking, and that’s the bike I’m most comfortable riding. I’ve taken everything from a touring bike to a mountain bike to a cargo bike, and they all worked great. And I was riding along with folks on recumbents, folders and cruisers. Regardless of which bicycle you choose for your tour, make sure you follow this next piece of advice!
2. Get Your Bicycle Tuned Up Before You Go On Tour!
Make sure everything’s in good order. I remember Paul spent some time the first couple of days comparing his older road bike to everyone else’s – he was a little apologetic. I told him don’t worry about it – there’s not a whole lot I needed to say, it’s all a matter of time. Might happen on day one, sometimes it hits you as watch the sun rising on day three, somewhere along the route, Paul realized what we all do – it’s not about the type of bike, as long as the bike works!
3. Bring Along Some Gear
While your bike is at the shop have a quick talk with the mechanic. Get some spare tubes, maybe a few spokes, and one you might not hear often – a spare derailleur hanger. It’s rare, but it happens, that the hanger gets bent (it is possible to fix a bent derailleur hanger). Bikes fall down sometimes. During a days’ ride I’ll lean my bike up against trees, fences, curbs, guardrails and more and inevitably one of those times I’m not as careful as I should be and while I’m taking a photo or refilling my bottle my bikes tips over. That’s all it takes sometimes to ruin a hanger, and depending upon the remoteness of where I’m bike touring, it can end a trip. I don’t recommend carrying a full set of spare parts, but a hanger is small, and is one of those things that can be hard to replace on the road.
4. Bring the Right Clothes
Clothing is an art, and will vary depending on personal preference. The trick is to carry the least amount needed, yet have enough to ride comfortably in all sorts of conditions. You’ll likely be most comfortable with a pair of padded cycling shorts. Consider bringing two, so you can handwash one and let it dry overnight and through the next day. Beyond that, it’s the same advice I’ve heard for years about backpacking and running – dress in layers, and have some sort of waterproof shell.
5. Do Some Light Training
Ride as much as you can prior to the tour. It can take some time to develop the ability to ride several hours without soreness. There’s really no substitute for saddle time in this regard. Paul experienced that also. He was anxious about the distances and followed a training schedule before his bike tour, and he showed up in good shape. And it helped – the first two days for him he was entirely focused on completing the distance.
6. Bring the Right Attitude
Mileage is important, but a bicycle vacation isn’t quite the same as riding a century or other endurance event. And that little bit of magic found Paul by day three. He stopped focusing on his ability to ride the distance each day, and started – well, vacationing. He stopped more frequently to take photographs. He spent more time at the stops talking with the other riders in the group. Paul liked the area we were riding in and spent time before the tour reading books and tour guides, and when his concerns about riding dropped away, he was free to enjoy the ride – finally seeing the places he had read about.
And that’s another tip – be curious. Wherever you ride, there’s a specific history, culture and landscape. One of the advantages of riding a bicycle is how intimately it puts us into the environment. A ride on back roads in the Appalachians has a very different feel than a ride through a big city or along a coast, or through farmland in the Midwest. And all these rides vary according to the time of year. Both the birds overhead and the flowers at our feet change with the seasons, and being out on a bike is one of the best ways to witness the procession. I remember watching Paul’s engagement grow over the course of the week. In a sense, he was no longer on a bicycle tour, he was spending a week out with like-minded folks, immersed in places he had only seen in his imagination.