Beginner's Guide To Bicycle Touring

Beginner's Guide To Bicycle Touring

Have you ever seen a heavy loaded bike ridden by a guy with a big smile on his face? Do you question yourself where he is from, where is he going, where does he sleep or what does he eat? Well if you are an adventurous type of person, there is a great chance you might want to do something like the guy with the big smile – cruising around different towns, areas, countries or even continents. You may be bothered by the fact that you have to quit your job and escape your comfort zone to do that but believe me, this is the easiest thing in the world. Period. What is more difficult however is dedicating time, money and energy on your dream.

If you want to do a bicycle tour I suggest you first decide where you will go and when you will do it. Set a date and destination. But be careful when choosing Day 1 of your journey. You don’t want to set it 3-4 years from now because there is a great chance to lose the motivation and the excitement that made you want to do a bicycle tour in the first place. I will give myself as an example. In March 2016 I decided I will do a trip to Germany. All alone, with all the necessary equipment attached to my bike. So back then I chose 20.06.2017 to be the beginning of my actual journey. I had a date and destination. Now I had to prepare myself physically, emotionally and technically. I had more than a year to do so. I started with the equipment which I will describe in details straight away.

What about the equipment?

Your bicycle. Generally speaking, you can do a bicycle tour with any bike. And by any, I literally mean any, even your dad’s bike that’s been in the basement for the past 20+ years. Though to be honest my advice is not to go for it. It is not appropriate to do so because it may not be the size that fits you best, it may need a lot of repairs and leave you on the road. It is essential to get a bike that feels comfortable. With the proper geometry, you will be able to ride 80 km a day, 30+ days in a row without feeling any pain in your wrists, elbows, shoulders, back, neck, waist or knees. Depending on the landscape you’ll be cycling it’s your choice whether you will get a suspended bike or a bicycle with a hard frame. But whatever the type of bike you choose it has to be strong enough to carry you and all your luggage.

There is a great debate on what material is better aluminum or steel. Both types of frames have their pros and cons so it’s up to your preferences what will be yours’. The most common way of carrying your luggage is using panniers. If you have a lot of equipment you can have panniers both on your front and your back wheels. If you are not a fan of panniers, having a trailer is an option. This way your bike will be much easier to steer. There is a chance you might want to use a backpack but I strongly oppose this because all the weight will fall directly on your back, waist, and shoulders. I believe after a few days your body will be aching, destroying the joy of the ride.

Panniers. There are many brands on the market but Ortlieb, Vaude, and Axiom are probably the most popular. For me the most important feature of a pannier is it being waterproof (do not mistake waterproof with water-resistant!). Having waterproof panniers guarantees that your clothes, sleeping bag etc. will be dry even during a heavy rainfall. Nobody likes sleeping in a wet bag after a cold and rainy day, believe me. My suggestion is you invest in a good set of panniers (you’ll thank me later).

What’s inside the panniers?

Well, basically everything – from clothes to food, to repair kits. But first things first.

Sleeping bag – it is important to consider where are you going and what the temperatures might be when you are looking for a sleeping bag. If you suppose that it might be below zero I suggest you get a down-filled sleeping bag as it offers better insulation compared to synthetics. The biggest downside of down is that once it gets wet it dries quite slowly and doesn’t keep you warm. However, it is much lighter than synthetics. On the other side, a sleeping bag filled with synthetics is heavier but dries quickly and keeps you warm when wet. Again it really depends what you want and where you will be.

Sleeping mat. Besides you want to sleep on the ground you should consider getting a sleeping mat. Probably the best option is to have an inflatable one as they are light, take the space of a beer can and are really comfortable.

• Clothes – no matter where you go you should have at least: 2 quick dry T-shirts + 2 short pants; thermal underwear (if you can afford it go for merino); 2 fleeces to keep you warm; hardshell jacket and pants to keep you dry when raining.

• Instruments. A basic repair kit is a must. It includes anything you need to fix a flat tire, a broken chain or a spoke. You just gotta have allen keys in case your shifters, brakes or derailleurs need an adjustment. Have at least one spare tube.

Utensils – if you plan to prepare your own food it’s advisable to have a stove as well. When it comes to the food you cook have in mind that you should carry enough to support you for at least a day. Also have in mind that whatever you carry is prone to spoiling, so it’s not a good idea to cycle for more than a day with eggs stored in your panniers.

Tent. They all come in different size and shapes. It’s up to you whether you want a single person tent or a bigger one. But there are some important features when choosing a tent for bicycle touring. Make sure you get one that is big enough to shelter you as well as your luggage. Do not go for a too large, however. You will find yourself carrying extra weight which is unreasonable. The water column is essential when choosing a tent or a waterproof jacket. When looking for a tent try to arm yourself with one that has parameters as follows – ground sheet with 10 000mm water column and a cover with 5000mm minimum.

In addition, it’s great when your poles are made out of aluminum. They are much lighter and stronger compared to plastic ones. I have a separate article about tents where I give more detailed information. You can attach your tent on the top of your rack or put it inside the panniers if you have space.

Handlebar bag. It is really comfortable when you can reach out to your smartphone, GPS, snack, sunglasses, sunscreen while cycling. Good handlebar bags have a pocket on their top where you can slide in your paper map so you can easily navigate yourself without even getting off the bike. Handlebar bags are great because you can store your money and documents there as well as the above-mentioned paraphernalia. Usually, they come with a shoulder strap so whenever you go to the store to supply yourself with food you don’t have to worry about your valuables.

Tip! Get a waterproof one.

Nutrition and stamina

• Nutrition. Beware that while bicycle touring your body burns a massive amount of calories. In order to supply it with the energy it needs, you have to eat regularly. Do not skip meals! I even suggest you feed yourself 5 times a day. Apart from the main meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) try to eat once between breakfast and lunch and once between lunch and dinner. Nuts are great because they are rich in microelements -proteins, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Fruits like bananas, for example, are rich in magnesium which is essential to energy creation, protein formation, muscle movements and nervous system regulation. With all the sweat and exertion you run out of magnesium quickly.

Stick to protein-rich food such as meat, eggs, milk in all kind of forms, fish, and beans. They will all give you the energy you need to keep going. Fruits and vegetables are important because they supply you with vitamins and minerals which you lose when sweating. If you keep your menu varied you will feel energized and always ready to go a little further. Going on a diet while touring is a very bad idea! You run the risk of damaging your body!

• Fitness. Anyone can go on a bicycle tour. The most important thing is your attitude towards it, not your fitness. Just try not to exert yourself too much. Keep up with your tempo, touring is about having fun, it’s not a competition. However, if you really want to be in a good shape I suggest you do some training before you go. Cycle as much as possible prior to Day 1. Commute, do some short trips around the area you live, anything. You can also do some running. Four months before you hit the road try to run for 5-7 km twice a week. By the end, you’ll feel much stronger, tough and fit.

Do not let anyone or anything distract you. In order to achieve your goal, you have to motivate yourself every day. The daily routine can really kill the excitement sometimes but you got to resist it. What I did to keep myself motivated was thinking every day about how cool my journey will be. No matter how far it seemed, I always believed that I’ll do it. Every day I imagined how free and happy I’ll be on the road, how I’ll discover new places and meet interesting people, how I’ll sit beside the fire every night and gaze and bright sky. All I did was living and re-living every day on the road in my mind.

So basically in my mind, I traveled to Germany and back so many times that when I finally hit the road it really felt like home.

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