Tips for cycle trips
This article is a travel topic
Cycling has many advantages as a form of travel, as it is the fastest way to travel by human power, but slow enough to allow the type of local immersion that is impossible with powered travel. Cycle travel can also be a cheap form of transportation.
Multi-continental trips are relatively common, such as from tip to tip of the Americas, but cycling can also be enjoyed in month-, week-, or even weekend-long trips. Some routes, such as the Karakoram Highway, are extremely challenging, but an infinite number of safer and easier routes are also available.
Why tour by bike?
Touring by bike is perhaps the best way to truly experience the landscape and culture of a region—the unique features of the terrain, the smell of flowers or ripening grapes, the sounds of wildlife, or the people and hidden treasures of small towns. Or, in the words of Ernest Hemingway:
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”
Or, as one travel writer has also described it: traveling by car, train, or bus is like watching an amazingly beautiful movie go by. Traveling by bike is like being in the movie. Whether you are a family going on your first overseas trip, a couple going on a honeymoon or 35th vacation together, a group of friends who want to share a unique travel experience, or an avid cyclist who wants to take on the mountains, there’s a bike tour out there that’s perfect for you. You can choose from a variety of difficulty levels, terrains, and route types— from easy, flat rides along paved bike paths to routes that take you up some of the most challenging mountains in the world.
Types of tours
With self-contained tours, you take care of everything on your own: research your route, bring your bike, carry your gear, perhaps store your suitcases, plan your meals, and camp or stay in hostels or hotels, which you have to find or book on your own. While self-contained tours are generally the least expensive—and can be a good option for bicycle tourists who like adventure—this type of tour lacks the outside support and “safety net” that many bike travelers want.
If you enjoy traveling with a large group, meeting new people, and having a guide and structured schedule throughout the day, then a guided group tour is probably the best fit for you. On most tours, one guide rides with the group while a second guide drives a support van. Everything is planned: hotels, routes, meals, luggage transfers, sightseeing tours and more. The guides point out places of interest, organize excursions and activities, and are available in case of breakdowns (mechanical or human).
While guided group tours have many benefits, it is important to consider your riding style. On most guided tours the group typically stays together throughout the day, so if you are a rider who prefers to ride at your own pace, or a family who needs more flexibility for stops along the way, a self-guided tour may be a better option.
If you prefer to be independent and to choose your traveling companions and daily schedule, consider a self-guided individual tour. They’re a money-saving alternative to guided tours, and many people find them preferable to traveling with a group. Self-guided does NOT mean self-contained. You are NOT totally on your own. With self-guided tours, the tour operator still organizes the hotel reservations and the luggage transfers from hotel to hotel. The accommodations are often the same as on guided tours. You often follow the same routes. Most tour operators provide you with a comprehensive information package with the marked route, a detailed route description, and tips on sights, cultural highlights, scenic stops, and recommended restaurants. Many tour operators offer a hotline in case of emergencies or problems. Some even provide handlebar-mounted GPS systems with the route pre-programmed into the unit.
But also consider your comfort level with a foreign language (if your tour takes you overseas), reading maps and signs, ordering food, and dealing with breakdowns and minor emergencies. Since some self- guided tours have a minimum of just two travelers—or even one—you should not count on riding with a group. You should also be prepared to do research on the region’s sights and attractions on your own, since you won’t have a guide available to point them out along the route. For some people, this is part of what makes traveling fun.
Local companies often offer tours at lower prices than those charged by some larger North American companies and have more frequent departures.
Popular North American companies offering guided tours are VBT, Butterfield and Robinson and DuVine. Some local overseas companies include France Bike (France), Velociped (Germany), Inselhuepfen (bike and boat tours in Croatia, Greece and Turkey), Radreisefreunde (Austria), Bird Services (Poland), Lac Viet Travel (Vietnam), Meridien Ten (Croatia), and Mabaruli African Safaris (Namibia). A source for local overseas bike tour companies is BikeToursDirect, which represents many of them.
On level terrain, without a headwind, a cyclist of average fitness on a touring bike can comfortably cover 60-120 km a day, depending on the number and length of stops. Distances of up to 250 km a day are feasible, but anything much beyond 120 km will require considerable physical strain and not allow many stops to enjoy the things on they way. For many, 80-100 km a day will be the optimal distance to aim for, as it will give a sense of achievement and also leave plenty of time to stop for meals and activities.
Be aware that a full load will slow you down. You may average 25 km/h on your unladen bike, but being loaded up with panniers can reduce that to 15 km/h or less.
For a seven day itinerary, aim to cover about 400-500 km. It is a good idea to ease into a longer trip, do short days to start with, and take a break on the third or fourth day, to allow sore buttocks and leg muscles to recover, perhaps stopping in a city or engaging in a different outdoor activity, such as kayaking or swimming.
The gradient of the trip will reduce your range, in exceptional circumstances with uphill gradients to as little as 20km a day. Watch the altitude lines on your map closely, both for individual gradients and total altitude differences.
Gradients of more than about 5% are difficult to overcome on a laden touring bike. A rule of thumb is that for every 100 metres of altitude you climb, you should add an extra 15 minutes to your journey time.
In hilly or mountainous regions, the easiest routes for cycling are downstream along major rivers, as overall they will be downhill. A long, roundabout route along a river will usually be easier than a short, direct route over a hill or mountain pass. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the most scenic routes often come from hilly terrain. If you are feeling up for a challenge, try some hillier routes. Start small, your legs will get used to it and the views will be worth the effort.
Motor traffic is often worth avoiding as much as possible, for example by planning your cycle trip in less densely populated regions (unless it is in a country that offers exceptionally good cycling facilities, such as The Netherlands or Denmark), by choosing minor roads over trunk roads, and staying away from larger cities unless they offer good cycle paths. Not only can it be dangerous to share the road with large numbers of cars and trucks, it will also be less fun.
Ideally you will have maps showing the contours of the region you are visiting, along with tourist attractions, accommodation, campsites and other useful places. However, these maps tend to be quite detailed and only cover small regions, and if you are covering any kind of distance you will find yourself buying rather a lot of them, which can prove expensive and heavy.
One good compromise is to buy a road atlas of the country or countries you are planning to visit, tear out (copy) the necessary pages and only take those. You'll often find you can get a good 1:100000 map fairly cheaply, but still showing minor roads, campsites and marking out any steep hills.
Another alternative is a GPS with topographic maps loaded, or a PDA (possibly also combined with a GPS) which you can load topographic maps into. Even a scanned atlas map onto a PDA is better than nothing. There are several GPS devices available with bicycle mountings (see other equipment) below.
It's best not to take advice from non-cyclists too seriously, whether given in person, on-line or in print. Often they will overestimate the difficulties, and underestimate the pleasures. This is particularly true in the case of distance, traffic situations (especially in developing countries) and road conditions.
Cycling for extended periods requires somewhat more than a basic set of wheels, and both comfort and convenience can be improved with a few standard add-ons, however every piece of extra weight you pack is going to require extra energy to move around.
Hotly debated among cycle tourists is what makes a good touring bicycle. Much of the choice depends on what style of touring you plan to do. Someone doing a short supported tour in a developed country will have vastly different needs from someone doing a long distance self-supported tour in a developing country. While the former will do very well with a light weight road bike, the latter will be better with a dedicated touring bike.
Almost any bicycle can be used for a tour, but some will enable you to travel farther and more comfortably, with fewer mechanical problems.
Here we assume you will be carrying at least a moderate amount of baggage.
When spending long hours in the saddle it's important that the bicycle is comfortable for you. Some things that make it more comfortable are tire choice, handlebar choice, and saddle choice. Tires should be smooth, for lower rolling resistance, wider than road (racing) tires, and narrower than most mountain bike tires. Something in the rage of 32 to 40mm if using 700C, or 1.25" to 1.75" if using 26" is ideal. The important thing with handlebars is for them to offer a variety of hand positions, this can be achieved in a variety of ways. One option is the "drop" bars as found on road racing bicycles, these are normally mounted higher on a touring bike, to put less pressure on the hands, they provide the most numerous hand positions. Ideally wider drop bars would be chosen for touring than racing, 44cm for example. The other common way to get multiple hand positions is to put bar ends (horn-style handlebar extensions) on "flat bars" (mountain bike style bars). This is cheap and easy, but only provides one or two additional positions. Other, less common, but excellent options are moustache bars or butterfly bars. A good saddle can really help reduce saddle-soreness, and is worth spending a little extra money on. Don't go for the biggest, squishiest gel saddle you can find - often the soft seats can rub a lot more against your delicate parts. It's best to go for the "sculpted" saddles that are designed to support your sit-bones. It's a very personal choice, and hard to know what you'll find comfortable until trying it out, so find a saddle you're happy with well before you leave.
Overall the bicycle should be stronger than a bike not designed to carry loads for long distances. When carrying 10-20kg it's worth having a bike that's a few kg heavier and much stronger. One very important part of this is the choice of wheels. Wheels with 36 or 32 spokes are stronger, and double walled wheels are mandatory for any touring. Light weight wheels popular with road sports cyclists are to be avoided.
The most basic part of being able to carry lots of stuff on your bike is simply being able to bolt a rack (or two) on. It's important to have bolt holes near the rear axle to for the rack, and it's nice to have them near the saddle too. Ability to use a front rack is also good. They allow you to balance the weight out more evenly over both wheels, and the bicycle handles better as a result. Ability to bolt on water bottle cages, is also very good. A longer wheel base will make the bicycle more stable when loaded, and provide a more comfortable ride when loaded up. Of course having a bike that's strong enough to handle the weight is also important.
Nothing lasts forever. Check, or have a professional check, your bike before you leave. Let them know that you plan to do a tour on it and you don't want mechanical problems messing it up -- don't let them try to save you money at the cost of a problem on your tour. When choosing a bike (or adapting a bike) look for parts that are as mechanically simple as possible, as they will be more reliable and easier to service when eventually something wears out. Avoid proprietary parts entirely (like the Cannondale "Headshock") as they can only be serviced by authorized dealers. Other details depend where you are travelling, but as a rule of thumb don't use the latest technology, stick to tried and trusted systems. If traveling in the developing world a good rule of thumb is to try to keep your bike as compatible as possible with department store mountain bikes. Bikes like these have penetrated many developing markets, and replacement parts are more commonly available in many countries. It would be unwise to try for compatibility with the Chinese/Indian roadster that is even more common in many developing countries. The parts would be hard to find in the developed world, and would not be high quality anywhere.
Steel is a good choice for the frame. It comes in a number of forms for bike use: quality Cromoly steel is a bit heavier than aluminum, and Hi-Ten steel significantly so, but both more than make up by being more durable, safer to ride with crash damage, and may be possible so improvise some sort of repair if damaged. Lugged frames may be stronger than welded because of the additional material at the joints, but only if well made. Titanium is the strongest, and lightest, most weather resistant, but impossible to repair (without very very very specialized equipment) and out of most peoples budgets.
Dedicated touring bikes, like the Surly Long Haul Trucker, Trek 520, Thorn Sherpa, or similar, are ideal; but not the only option.
Many older (90's) mountain bikes fit the characteristics of a good touring bike, with some modifications made, most importantly removing suspension forks if present, putting slick tires on, and adding bar ends (or putting drop bars on).
The choice of tools depends on where you are going, how self sufficient you need to be, and what repairs you are capable of. Don't bother taking anything you don't know how to use, it will just be dead weight.
A Basic kit would include:
An Advanced kit is good if you need (or want) to be more self reliant,
There is a variety of cycling-specific clothing that can make your trip much more comfortable and/or safe:
There are some simple and important precautions you should take when planning a bicycle trip:
Food choice depends largely where you are in the world, see respective sections for more info about foods.
As you will be working hard, and burning lots of calories, it's important to get enough energy in your food. Consuming foods high in carbohydrates and fats is a good source.
Getting your bicycle to the start of your intended cycle route can be an adventure in itself. You will need to do some research in advance about which carriers let you take your bicycle on board.