The ‘when’ of setting off on a bike trip is an easy one: as soon as you would like.
That might be next summer, when you’ve got the the equipment sorted, the route planned out, and the weather is optimal. It might be in a couple of years’ time, when you’ve saved a huge chunk of cash, quit your job, sold your house and are ready to begin your brand new life on the road. Or it might be tomorrow, because you’ve got a bike, you need to get away, and you can think of no genuine reason not to do so right now. How soon you can go on a bicycle adventure depends only on how complicated you want to make it.
Many assume that bike trips are restricted by season, climate and weather. But there’s almost nowhere on Earth in which it’d be impossible to do a bike trip at any time of year. Alastair Humphreys and Rob Lilwall found themselves in Siberia in midwinter, camping at temperatures down to -40ºC and passing through Yakutsk – the coldest inhabited place on Earth – on the way. (Helen Lloyd more recently repeated the feat, except in colder temperatures, on her own, and with just a bivvy bag.)
A few summers back I rode across the Danakil Depression in East Africa – the hottest inhabited place on Earth – encountering 56ºC temperatures, AK47-wielding tribal warriors, a fierce headwind, and no roads whatsoever; one of the most memorable, treasured, and brutal experiences of my life. People have ridden the Canning Stock Route across the Australian outback carrying a month’s food and several gallons of water, pinning their hopes on old colonial-era wells for survival. Others have crossed the roadless Chang Tang plateau of Tibet on bicycles, seeing no other humans for weeks, and almost dying of starvation in the process, but nevertheless making it to their destination (only to be arrested by the Chinese authorities for doing so without the proper permits).
It takes a certain level of experience to feel confident taking on such challenges, of course. But each and every one of those riders, at some point in their lives, was a novice too, taking their first tentative pedal strokes. The point is that you are pretty much free to ride whenever the fancy takes you, up to and beyond the edges of your comfort zone – and one day you might look back and be surprised to see how far that’s taken you.
Remember always that the perfect circumstances for your dream tour will never exist. “You will never simultaneously have infinite time, money, freedom and mojo,” says Alastair Humphreys. “So the best time is now.”
Approaching the question from a different angle, when would you actually want to go cycle touring?
Most short trips, particularly first short trips, generally seem to take place when the weather is nice. Not too hot, not too cold, not too wet or windy, and with sufficient daylight hours to get the requisite miles done before dark. On short trips there’s more emphasis on having fun during the limited time available. Riding through a fortnight of cold rain doesn’t feature on many bucket lists.
Most long trips, particularly first long trips, generally seem to begin in the exact same manner: leave when the weather gets nice. These days, the number of long-haul riders setting off east, across Europe and towards Asia, between May and August each year probably ranks in the thousands. For these riders, it makes sense to hit the road in time for the reliably warm European summer, where some sub-standard weather here and there doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, and they’re heading for warmer climes anyway. Some set off in more challenging seasons, either because they just can’t wait to get going, or because they’ve learned the basics on previous trips and don’t mind a little extra hardship. But the general rule is that the best time to go cycling somewhere is likely to match the best time to go there on holiday.
And in climates where cycling in shorts and a T-shirt won’t be comfortable, your range can be greatly extended through careful choice of clothing. This is something we’ll come back to in more detail later on.
(Photo courtesy of Peter Gostelow.)
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This is an 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.