Bicycle touring

A whistle-stop guide to bicycle touring

There are many ways to see the world. Perhaps my favourite method is to tour by bicycle, because it offers two distinct advantages.

Firstly, you get a thorough view and feeling for the places you travel through – from seeing the town on the horizon, to winding your way through the suburbs, to slowly but surely getting to the very centre of the city, to meandering your way out of the far side and passing the last house and be met once again with open country.

Secondly, travelling by bicycle is timeless. The pace of travel on two wheels is the closest a modern-day tourist can ever get to the experience of our ancestors travelling on horseback or by horse and cart. There is nothing quite like cycling along an ancient road, seeing the same geographic landscape, passing over the same city gates and the same stone bridges (and braving the same weather!) as generations of Roman legions, Mongolian cavalry, Medieval merchants, pilgrims, and aristocracy from ages past. Bicycle touring truly transports you back in time.

However, if you do want to do a bit of touristing by bicycle, there are a few important things to remember when planning your adventure. You must prepare well so that if something goes wrong when you are on the wide open road with just your bike and your wits, you can adjust and not let it turn your holiday into a nightmare.

The Route

The first thing to remember when planning a bicycle tour is to pick an appropriate route. With today’s technology, this is easier than ever. You can do this using websites such as ridewithgps.com, and using Google Streetview to assess the quality of a given road or track. The route you choose will of course depend on your bicycle – mountain bikes can easily ride across rough tracks, but road bikes and touring bikes need to stick to tarmac roads.

My recommendation would be to plan a route using ridewithgps, then download the route file to mymaps.google.com on your phone. From there, you can see where your route goes from your smartphone. If you have access to a cycling GPS unit (eg. Garmin) then you will be able to get step-by-step directions as you are cycling along.

You also need to tailor the route to your ability – if you are a beginner to cycling, then I wouldn’t recommend cycling more than about 40 miles per day. As you become more experienced, you can cycle 60, 80, or even over 100 miles per day – as long as you have done a reasonable (but not exhaustive) amount of training. You also need to remember that Earth is not flat – some direct roads will climb over huge hills and prove too much for your legs, whilst other roads may be less direct but avoids the hills entirely.

Hilly routes may be scenic but are also more challenging to cycle

It’s worth remembering that many people tour by bicycle without a set route – they simply follow road signs to the next town. Although I would personally prefer not to rely solely on this method, it is essential when navigating through maze-like towns or intersections, and will also come in handy if a road on your route is closed for repairs and you must make a diversion.

The Kit

The second thing you must remember for bicycle touring is to bring the right equipment. You don’t need to bring everything under the sun – but I’d recommend a few essentials. You should use a bike which has a rack for carrying a bag or two – I have done one tour with a backpack instead but after three days my shoulders were very sore – you will be far more comfortable if you can avoid wearing a backpack while cycling.

For years I have relied on a trusty saddlebag to carry essentials

You must bring equipment to change a puncture on your bike. Make sure you have practised changing the puncture – otherwise you might find yourself struggling to work out what to do in the pouring rain in a remote forest. You’ll also need a portable pump to refill your tyres with air.

I’d also recommend bringing some kit to deal with adverse weather. It will of course vary depending on which part of the world you are touring in – but as a Brit I am all too familiar with the weather proving unreliable. A brightly coloured (high vis) rain jacket, waterproof socks, and a waterproof bag to put your electronics in, are essential. I’d also make a note of bike shops along your route (or nearby) so that in case of a serious “mechanical”, you have a contingency to get your bike fixed.

It’s very important you have a rainjacket for adverse weather

Conversely, if the weather is expected to be sunny and hot, you need to bring water, sun cream, and light clothes. Most roadside cafes and pubs will fill up your water bottles for free, and in many places there are ample public drinking fountains (eg. USA, France and Italy).

You also should bring some cash (many rural businesses will not accept cards) and a reliable lock for your bicycle in case you must leave it for a short time. Although locks can be heavy and bulky, the cost of having your bike stolen when in an unfamiliar place makes it worth carrying one.

In France, many remote villages have handy public water fountain or pump. This one was installed in 1911.

The Company

Bicycle touring alone is a very different experience to touring as a pair or in a larger group. You must think carefully about what kind of tour you think you would prefer – many beginners prefer to tour within a group before trying it alone.

Many group cycling tours are conducted by work colleagues, community groups, and professional bicycle tour organisers. Similarly, groups or friends, or solo couples each make for a different team dynamic. You will need to research which of these best suits your circumstances.

We at TNT have quickly grown to love touring together as a couple, for example. Working as a team can really strengthen your trust and resilience with your partner in a challenging physical or geographic environment, and overcoming those challenges lets you both share in the glory of completing your route all the way to the end.

The two of us cycling in Yorkshire, UK

If you tour in a larger group, however, you may find yourself frustrated if the group is cycling too fast or too slowly for your ability. The social dynamics of the group could also be less than ideal – you will need to be tolerant of your peers, particularly if you do not know them too well.

If you tour alone, you will have to be responsible for everything yourself, which can be challenging for beginners.You will have to plan the route, get all the kit and carry it all with you, and be prepared to solve problems as they arise entirely alone. If you enjoy travelling alone normally, then the chances are you will also love bicycle touring alone – solitude on the bicycle creates the same sense of spectacle and discovery as when you are jet-setting off to a foreign country alone. You will also be able to cycle and rest at your own pace, and not be concerned by any group politics or mechanical hitches from others.

Cycle touring is a great way to see the world’s hidden peaceful spots, such as this lush canal in Flanders.

Whatever company you have, make sure that somebody knows where you will be on which days, and what your intended return date is. Like hiking, cycling through rural countryside has its fair share of dangers, so it’s important you tell somebody what your plans are.

Although there is a lot to consider, I can’t recommend bicycle touring enough. If you can wrap your head around these basics, then bicycle touring is not an insurmountable logistical challenge. If you want to fully experience a place or country, and get a sense of what things are like on the ground – rural, urban, in rain and in shine – then there is no better way to be a tourist.

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