How Does Cycle Touring Actually Work?

Like all adventures, bicycle travel’s basic requirement is one of the modern world’s most scarce and valuable resources: time. Create time for a bicycle journey and you have already set the stage for a unique and unforgettable experience.

We all know what must happen for time to be created: it must be reclaimed from other parts of our lives. Work is the biggest time-eater of all, of course. So some of us will use our annual leave to get our adventure fix, some of us will arrange a sabbatical, some of us will quit our jobs altogether, and a few of us won’t have a job to quit in the first place. But all of us can make time for a bike trip if we choose to. This, really, is the biggest part of ‘how’ to do a bike trip: simply make time for one. If all it amounts to is blocking out a few weekends for two-wheeled adventures close to home, there’s nothing wrong with that. And if those adventures spark off a bigger dream, there’ll be a way to make it happen.

It’s natural to assume that equipment has a large part to play in how cycle touring works. And you do need, at the very least, a bicycle that fits you well enough that you don’t end up crippled at the end of a day’s riding. Camping gear may expand your overnighting options. Cooking gear may make life on the road more homely and reduce long-term costs. Technical clothing may help in challenging weather conditions. Spares and tools will allow you to be more self-sufficient when it comes to mechanical issues. And gadgets may help you stay in touch, navigate more easily, or help you share your journey.

Gear like this gives you independence in dealing with varied situations and providing for your needs, enabling you to do more than you could by relying on outside services, yet there’s no real standard kit list. You’ll find examples at every extreme, from credit-card tourers (bicycle plus credit card) to ultra-heavyweight tourers (bicycle, four panniers, handlebar bag, trailer, guitar/surfboard strapped on top, dog, children, etc). Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum you’ll find the classic two-pannier or four-pannier setup, which is a good balance for most, which you’ll most often see on the road, and which is as close to an equipment ‘formula’ as it gets. But the bicycle is the only true common denominator, and it ultimately boils down to what gear is relevant to you. Start small. Keep it simple.

Equipment need not be expensive either. Splashing out on top-end stuff is fun if money is no object – why not? – but if you’re financially challenged, money doesn’t have to get in the way of your adventure. Get resourceful in other ways, both when procuring cheap or free gear and when dealing with situations on the road. Beg, borrow or steal; find free stuff on Freecycle or Gumtree; raid charity shops and car boot sales. A well-fitting bike is important, as a badly-fitting one can easily cause pain or injury, but a Tesco Value sleeping bag will keep you just as warm as a top-of-the-line The North Face one when you’re camping on the banks of the Danube in the middle of summer. Tune your gear choices to match your budget, and don’t get bogged down in online gear research. This is adventure, unpredictable things will happen, and it’s better to rely on your wit than on your kit.

Spending money may also be a concern in answering the ‘how’ of cycle touring. And just as when equipping yourself, the only real answer to the question of how much a bike trip costs is “as much as you want it to”. Feel free to take that literally. If you want your bike trip to cost you nothing, then go right ahead. A weekend of riding from and to your front door might be cost-free by default if you take all your food and camp wild overnight. In 2014 I cycled the length of my home country for a total cost of less than £1 to prove that in the longer-term, no-budget travel isn’t just rhetoric (not that I’m the first to do so).

Buy food, rather than bartering or bin-diving, and you’ll add a few pounds to your daily budget. Pay for campsites or hostels and you’ll add a bit more. Get restaurants and sightseeing into the mix and you’ll bump things up again. And on long-term trips, flights, ferries and visas might come into play. But in general you will find it’s totally possible start with the resources available to you and work from there, rather than letting the imagined cost of a bike trip stop you from doing it. If you’re planning something grander, you may well benefit from a little more cash in the bank. But the process is no more complicated. Break down the costs, set a realistic saving goal, find a way to get the money, and then go.

Really, though, the ‘how’ question is a red herring. Every dyed-in-the-wool cycle tourist you’ll meet will wax lyrical about how the beauty of cycle touring is in its simplicity – in the fact that all it really involves is getting on a bicycle, riding it, and responding appropriately to what rolls over the horizon.

Why, then, does ‘how’ to do something so simple demand such an elaborate answer?

It’s because, of course, the real concerns newcomers have are psychological. What if something goes wrong? What if I get lost? What if I run out of money? What if I can’t do it? Basically, what if I die?

These, amongst many others, are questions that rise consciously and unconsciously. They play to our deepest fears. Left unanswered, they are capable of preventing us from following our dreams. And so they are questions we are going to spend the remainder of this guide answering.

(Photo courtesy of Max Goldzweig.)

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This is the final excerpt from The TomsBikeTrip.com Guide to Adventure Cycle Touring, which is out now as a Kindle edition, priced at £4.99 in the UK, and also available from all international Kindle Stores. Click here to find out more and order your copy.

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