Getting a first taste of bicycle touring

I don’t even remember how I got the idea in my head that one could go bike touring.  I must have heard of other people doing it, but growing up in Sanger, California I certainly didn’t know any of them.  By the time I left home for college, I’d decided I wanted to go on a bike tour the following summer.  I saved money I earned by working as an usher during my freshman year.  I hadn’t been prepared academically for Caltech by my rural high school.  I’d never had to study before.  By the spring I was frazzled and depressed.  I’d had mononucleosis, and had almost failed out entirely.  But I had a bike.

At the time I was afraid of riding alone in the US and ended up buying a cheap ticket to the UK at the last minute, intending to spend the summer riding around the British Isles.  I ended up meeting other bicycle tourists, and riding all the way to Turkey, via a newly open eastern Europe.  I didn’t make it home until December, after five months of riding gravel roads through the Champagne vineyards of France, drinking cheap wine and eating baguettes and cheese before napping in the shade in the mid-afternoon.

sleeping in the vineyard

Five months of sleeping out in the fields and forests of Bavaria and in abandoned pre-Soviet resort hotels in the countryside of the Czech Republic.  Being woken up by a babushka out collecting mushrooms in the misty morning, or wild boars rooting around in the leaves outside our tent in rural Austria.  Bathing in the opulent Ottoman baths of Budapest before an evening of $0.25 beers and hot goulash accompanied by a live accordion until midnight.  Buying strings of hot chilies and jars of fresh yogurt from gypsies in a horse-drawn cart by the side of the road in Bulgaria.  Criss-crossing the Danube again and again over its entire length.  Visiting a hospital in Romania, and bribing my way to the front of the line.  Buying carpets and spices in the Egyptian market in Istanbul.  Missing my ferry from the island of Samos, in Greece, where Pythagoras once lived.

Bike touring has been a mental and physical escape valve for me ever since.  A kind of personal re-set button.

Afternoon on Poudre Trail

Bike touring is cheap.  It can be very cheap — as in, significantly less than whatever you’re paying in rent right now.  Even those of modest means can go for a long time, if they’re willing to live simply along the way.  Of course, like anything, you can make it expensive and complex too.  If that’s what you’re into.

The hardest part of touring is leaving home.  Once you do, you’re completely independent, unconstrained by the routes and schedules of trains or buses or planes.  You don’t go terribly fast, and are often forced by circumstances to improvise along the way, so it’s easy to get away from feeling like there’s much of a plan to hold on to.  This combination of economy, independence, and pace predispose bike tours to becoming adventures.  You need not have a concrete destination, route, or schedule chosen ahead of time.  The constant exercise means you’ve always got a little bit of an endorphin high, and an appetite.

Rise and Shine

Of course, tours don’t have to be months-long meanders to be worthwhile adventures.  Weekend or even sub-24-hour-overnight (S24O) tours can be welcome time-outs from the regular world, and they’re a great way to see what touring feels like, in little bite-sized doses.  I’m going to try and help a few people get a taste of touring in a couple of weeks, on a weekend ride from Boulder to Ft. Collins and back.

In the hopes of making that as enjoyable and easy as possible, I’m going to make some suggestions.  I’m going to assume that you’ve been camping before and enjoyed it, and that you already use your bike on a regular basis around town.

Don’t get obsessed with gear. Especially if you’re not yet sure you want to go spend a year riding from Boulder to Buenos Aires and back.  You don’t need a fancy bike.  More than anything, you want to have a comfortable bike.  What makes a bike comfortable for 8 hours and 50 miles may be different from what makes a bike comfortable for 8 minutes and 2 miles.  It’s also different from what makes a bicycle fast in time trials, or nimble on rocky singletrack.  There’s plenty of bicycle fitting advice on the web.  Just make sure the advice you’re getting is aimed at long term comfort, not speed and efficiency.  Don’t be afraid to experiment with your bike.  Move the seat up and down, forward and back.  Change the handlebar position if you have an adjustable stem — or install an adjustable stem if you want to fool around with position.  If you’re not comfortable, change something.  Don’t just resign yourself to being in pain because you followed someone’s instructions and they didn’t work for you.  It is absolutely possible to ride for hours every day for months on end without hurting.

Don’t worry about how heavy your bike is when it’s naked. No matter how svelte it is to start with, it will seem morbidly obese once you get it loaded up with camping gear.

Do worry about the weight of your camping gear. It may weigh more than your bike.  Your instinct will probably be to bring things that you’re unlikely to use “just in case”.  Unlike backpacking, you don’t have to carry the weight on your body, so it doesn’t seem painful to begin with, but the difference between riding all day carrying 25 pounds and 50 pounds is large.

Put together a basic roadside repair kit. Here’s what mine includes:

Basic Bicycle Repair Tool Kit

  • Patch kit (patches, rubber cement, sand paper, tire levers, and a small sheet of Tyvek to use as a boot if the tire is slashed)
  • Pump (patch kit is no fun without it)
  • One spare inner tube (I only use this if the valve is damaged, or the hole is huge)
  • A 6 inch adjustable crescent wrench
  • Leatherman tool (includes needle-nosed pliers, screwdrivers)
  • Loose 3, 4, 5, and 6mm hex wrenches.
  • Chain breaking tool
  • Spoke wrench
  • Several zip-ties of various sizes
  • Several spare hex bolts with locking nuts and washers
  • Spare brake and shift cables
  • Some chain oil
  • A few spare chain links, including a master link.

For longer or more out of the way tours, I’ll bring more spare parts and more tools, but the above is enough to get you through 95% of all mechanical difficulties.  Don’t assume that you’ll be able to borrow tools or these basic supplies from someone else you’re riding with.  It’s very easy to end up out of earshot, especially if you’re riding in hills.  If you get a flat when you’re bringing up the rear, and you were planning on using someone else’s pump, you will be bummed.

If you’ve never spent all day in the saddle, go for a long un-loaded ride. This isn’t a “training” ride, it’s a way to make sure your body and your bike get along well enough to embark on an extended, intimate relationship.  There are comfort issues that you’ll only notice after several hours and dozens of miles of road.  Don’t be afraid to stop frequently and futz with your saddle height and fore-aft position.  At the end of the day, notice what’s sore.  If you’re lucky, it’ll just be a pleasant burn in your big muscles.  If you’re unlucky, there may be some creaky joints or tingling fingers and toes.  Search around on the web for those symptoms and see what people say.  It’s nice to do this kind of check-out ride close to home, so it can be over whenever you need it to be, and so you’re never too far away from snacks and water.  The 28 mile B360 route around town, mostly on bike paths, is a good option.  Ft. Collins is about 50 miles away, so 2 laps (56 miles) should be plenty to see how things feel.  Try and do at least one.  If your butt hurts afterward, or the seams in your clothing have chafed you somewhere tender, you might want to think about getting a pair of the silly spandex shorts, or something with a padded, form-fitting liner.  They’re not necessary (for better or for worse, I biked all the way across Europe in jeans), but they can definitely improve the long distance cycling experience.  If you have the option definitely use slick tires instead of knobby ones.  It really is a lot less work.

Load up your bike and go for a shorter shakedown ride. Loaded bikes handle differently.  It’s nice to get familiar with their behavior before heading out, and to make sure that everything you’re bringing fits on the bike.  I usually have a handlebar bag, two large rear panniers, and a little bit of camping gear bungeed to the top of my rear rack.  Handling a loaded bike at a standstill is also different.  The center of mass will be much further back if it’s all rear loaded, and even if you split the load front and rear, the extra weight will mean the bike pushes back a lot harder — you can’t walk a loaded bike by its stem with one hand.  You need two hands, either both on the handlebars or one on the handlebars and the other on the seat, otherwise you will eventually lose control of the bike and watch it topple to the ground.  Hopefully without damaging anything.

Kira and her Steed

You will definitely want a real rear rack, by which I mean a rack that connects to your bike in at least three places — two on either side of your rear wheel near the dropouts, and at least one (preferably two) up near your seatpost.  If your bike doesn’t have braze-ons for mounting racks, there are ways to adapt it.  You will also definitely want panniers.  They don’t have to be fancy (you can even make your own), but you do not want all your gear on your back, and you’ll be hard pressed to get it all strapped to the rack and stable without bike-specific bags.  There are other ways to carry cargo with your bike, but if you’re just trying this out to see if you like it, panniers are the easiest cheapest way to go, and you can use them for groceries around town too.

Pack like you’re going on a long day hike. Other than the fact that you’re planning on sleeping out, bike touring is a lot more like a series of long day hikes than it is like backpacking.  You need a day’s worth of food, not a week’s — you’ll have access to grocery stores and restaurants along the way.  You’ll probably (in the US anyway) have easy access to clean drinking water.  You’ll need adaptable clothing that will get you through whatever the day might throw your way, but you won’t need several sets of clothing.  You’ll want a headlamp, or some other kind of portable light source.  You’ll want sunglasses.  You may or may not want cooking gear.  Personally, if the weather is warm I prefer to just eat cold picnic food.

Once you’ve done a few overnights with your bike as simply as possible, you’ll have a better idea of what you like and what you don’t, and you can explore changes to your touring setup with some real personal experience behind your opinions… as opposed to just having read a bunch of blog posts on the internet!

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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