How I Got A Free Touring Bike (Almost) Plus Gear & Luggage

Lack of cash is a common reason to delay, duck out of, or otherwise procrastinate on committing to a big bike tour. But being on a tight budget is a ‘poor’ excuse indeed. No pun intended.

Rather than fill a thousand words with rhetoric, however, perhaps it’d be more useful to simply prove it…

In this article (which I’ll warn you right now is going to require at least two cups of tea), I’ll demonstrate how I’ve gathered everything necessary to set off on a big bike trip, for no more than the cost of a round of drinks.

And by a round of drinks, I specifically mean £25.17. (Three pints, two glasses of red, and a G&T – or thereabouts.)

Later, I’m going to take this further by cycling across an entire country for even less. But let’s go back to the beginning…

Introducing The No-Budget Bike Tour Experiment

Here’s the two ground rules I put in place at the start of this experiment:

  1. Do not use any methods to which most normal people wouldn’t have access, and
  2. Do not use any existing belongings besides those that would be found in most normal households.

And here’s what I got for my £25:

Ready to go

This experiment was carried out alongside my normal daily life, and did not require any special knowledge, nor any major outlays of time or energy.

And these ideas can be put into practice immediately by anyone. Read on to find out exactly how…

Free Wheeling

Ho hum. Let’s begin. Where would you find a free bike?

Where would you find a free anything?

Freecycle and Freegle immediately came to mind – online networks in local areas for giving away and getting hold of pretty much anything of use. I signed up to my local groups and kept my eyes open for relevant goodies.

But that’s not where I found the bicycle that became my no-budget tourer. I needed a starting point sooner than it would take for a suitable bike to simply turn up. Surely I could salvage a discarded bike and re-purpose it?

Walking past a bike shop in Leicester one day, I popped in to ask where I might find such a thing. The owner mentioned that the UK’s household recycling centres (a.k.a. tips or dumps) send usable goods elsewhere for resale, and that most of the shop’s recycled bikes came from such sources.

A little googling turned up a place called Recyclemart, which existed for the sole purpose of reselling dumped and discarded household goods. I took a trip as part of a visit I was making to the enchanted town of Corby anyway (my parents live nearby), and there I found a huge pile of discarded bikes. The staff said they got through hundreds every week.

Most were just tangled rust, but I spotted what looked like a reasonably intact adult road bike among them. The front wheel was absent, the bike had no grips or pedals, and was covered in a thick layer of black filth. But I negotiated £10 for the carcass, chucked it in the boot, and went about my day.

Carcass

At home I began cleaning it up. And what I’d actually brought home was a steel-framed men’s hybrid, made some years ago by British manufacturer Ridgeback, who make the very popular and well-respected Panorama touring bike.

Adventure

(It seemed fitting that the model of this particular bike was called the Adventure.)

A sticker suggested that it had once been supplied by a Cambridge bike shop, and judging from the lack of wear on the drivetrain it had been used little, years of grime obscuring the fact. I pictured some hapless student returning to his locked-up bicycle one day, finding the front wheel nicked and abandoning it to the whim of the city council — who would cut the lock and take it to the tip.

Drivetrain
Chainrings
Front forks
Brakes
Ridgeback

And so one man’s trash would become another’s treasure. A solid, 21-speed, rack-ready steel hybrid, with V-brakes, fenders and even a dynamo & lights — for just ten of my hard-earned.

That’s 0.8% of the price of a new Kona Sutra.

Tip: There are unloved but perfectly usable bicycles hiding everywhere. Keep your eyes open, do some detective work, and one will turn up eventually. Use Youtube, the Park Tool website, and that friend who knows about bikes to learn how to get it back on the road, and you’ll get free bicycle maintenance practice into the bargain.

Running total: £10.00

Sleeping Cheap

I’d previously asked at Recyclemart if they’d got any camping gear. “Not right now,” they’d said, “but come back after festival season’s over.”

I dutifully returned in the autumn to find a military-grade 3-season sleeping bag and a closed-cell foam mat on the shelf, just like the ones I used to ride from England to Turkey. The big sleeping bag was probably overkill, and had no stuff sack, but I’d find one for it somewhere.

“Three quid’ll do it.”

A third visit to Recyclemart yielded a Tesco Value 2-man tent, weighing just under 2kg, which had never been removed from its packaging.

(Almost free) camping kit

“That’ll be another three quid.”

Tip: Places like Recyclemart exist all over the place — you just have to look for them. Stock changes constantly, so combine visits with journeys you’re making anyway. You’ll be surprised how quickly bits and bobs begin to accumulate. And we all know that recycling is a Good Thing.

Running total: £16.00

Friends Are There

Needing a front wheel, grips and pedals for my shiny new tourer, I did what anyone in my position would do, and put out a message to my Facebook friends (few of whom are cyclists), asking if anyone had a spare front wheel, grips, and pedals — oh, and anything else that might be necessary for a bike trip.

Sure enough, a friend replied to say that his dad probably had a 700C front wheel lying around in the shed. I popped over for a cup of tea and fetched it. Result.

Cleaning up

(Everyone has a friend whose dad has stuff lying around in the shed.)

Another friend gave me a water-bladder backpack, and a third sent a stainless steel water bottle (plus bottle cage) she’d got for Christmas but didn’t want.

(Free) water containers

Tip: Ask your friends and family if they’re able to help you out. More often than not, people are glad to see unloved and relatively worthless items going to a better home. (Especially just after Christmas.)

Running total: £17.74

Gripping Stuff

I was just a pair of grips and pedals short of a complete bicycle when I got an email from a family friend asking for some help ordering bike parts online.

I assembled an order with Chain Reaction Cycles (who I’ve used for parts for many years) for my friend. Then I checked out some voucher code websites to see if I could get any kind of special deal. Sure enough, I found a code for £10 worth of free stuff!

Checking with my friend first, I spent the free tenner on some cut-price handlebar grips (sorting the ‘Grips’ category by ‘biggest discount’, of course), with enough left over for a bottle of chain lube and some self-adhesive puncture patches too.

(Free) grips (grubby)

Just a pair of pedals to go…

Tip: Help people out, and you may occasionally reap rewards in other ways. (Also, never buy anything online without checking for voucher codes!)

Running total: (still) £17.74

Free Exchange Networks

One day, an email came through from a nearby Freecycle group advertising a “box of bike stuff” that was no longer wanted. Since I was going in that direction later in the week, I wrote back and bagged the box, collecting it a couple of days later.

(Free) box of bike bits

Most of the contents were not particularly useful. But it did contain a few key items, including the long-sought pair of pedals (yay!), as well as a rear pannier rack, a kickstand, a rear-view mirror, and a significantly more comfortable saddle than the bike’s existing one.

The rack didn’t want to fit the frame at first; the mounting points didn’t line up. But — a pair of pliers and a bench vice later — I managed to fit it nonetheless.

(Free) rack, bodged on

And — crucially — the pedals constituted the final missing component: I was now in possession of a complete touring bike!

(Almost free) complete bike

Next stop: luggage…

Tip: Local free exchange networks such as Freecycle and Freegle are great things to keep your eyes on, especially in January. Sign up for instant email notifications for the best chance of grabbing what’s on offer. If you happen to live in an area popular with outdoor types, keep a particularly close eye on them in autumn/winter.

Running total: (still) £17.74

Attracting Attention

I decided that I’d tell everyone that I was looking for bits and pieces for a bike trip, and the worst that could happen would be that people would ignore me or think I was a bit weird (and/or stingy).

I extended this to everything. I put a little postscript at the end of every email, even to people I hadn’t met in person.

And, believe it or not, this is how I ended up with a pair of panniers, two stuff-sacks and a handlebar harness.

(Free) panniers

It was a routine eBay sale I was making of some piece of clutter. And the buyer, who I have never met and whose name I am not even sure I know, put two panniers, two stuff-sacks and a handlebar harness in the post to me. Just like that.

Plastic bags

Along with a handful of plastic bags from under the sink, and a bin liner to waterproof the tent and rollmat, that’s my luggage sorted.

For 0% of the price of a new pair of Ortlieb Back Rollers.

Tip: If you’re scouting for freebies, you might as well tell everyone about it, as you never know what might come your way.

Running total: (still) £17.74

Cooking On Cans

I posted this video a few weeks ago, but what’s the harm in repeating a good idea?

The stove is free. The raw materials are probably in your recycling bin. The tools are in your kitchen. A bottle of methylated spirit cost £1.40. Borrow a spoon and a knife from the cutlery drawer, and repurpose your smallest saucepan as a camping pot (or a tin mug if you have one).

(Free) camping stove

Cooking on the road — sorted. For the price of half a beer.

Or, 1.4% of the cost of an MSR WhisperLite.

While we’re rooting around in recycle bins, find yourself a couple of empty 1.5l mineral water bottles. They’re lighter than normal bike bottles, hold twice as much water, wedge perfectly into bottle cages, and are completely free.

For added smugness, find a couple of those hinged ‘sports cap’ bottles and swap the tops over. Now you can ride one-handed whilst swigging.

Tip: Not everything needs to be bought. Some things can be made. Get creative!

Running total: £19.14

Super Cheap Retailers

I had a bike. I had panniers, cooking gear and camping gear. But I still needed a few essential tools and spares.

Now, as we all know, Poundland is a mainstay of the expedition fraternity. A quick visit to my local branch yielded a headtorch, a tyre pump, cable ties and gaffa tape (two indispensible pieces of on-the-road repair equipment), batteries for said headtorch, and a mini toolkit with tyre levers and allen keys and spanners for the most common nuts and bolts found on a bicycle.

(Almost free) toolkit

The observant amongst you will have deduced that these six items from Poundland, by the laws that govern this universe, can not possibly have cost more than £6.

Or 4.1% of the price of a Petzl Myo RXP headtorch, a Topeak Alien II multitool and a Topeak Road Morph G mini pump.

Tip: Expensive kit might well be lighter, last longer, need less fettling, and be more immediately convenient and practical (and shiny). But the difference is a small slice of the huge adjustment to life on the road. Basic stuff can be readily replaced, whereas posh gear can’t. You’ll learn more by relying on your wit than on your kit.

Running total: £25.14

Keep Them Peeled

Bicycle: check. Luggage: check. Camping gear: check. Cooking gear: check. Tools & spares: check.

Oh… a rear light might come in handy.

Something shiny caught my eye on a fast downhill. I stopped and backtracked to see what it was.

It was, of course, the reflective inner part of a rear bike light. The front shell and black plastic body were strewn across the road nearby. The light had obviously fallen off the bike of someone taking that particularly fun long right-hand bend at speed. The find finished off my gear hunt with a lovely touch of poetry.

(Almost free) lighting

It even came with batteries.

Tip: Keep your eyes peeled – things you need might turn up in the most unlikely places.

Running total: (still) £25.14

Use What You’ve Got

Don’t you need special cycling clothes? Well, no, actually, assuming the climate isn’t too cold or wet (in which case you’re probably best off taking a break anyway).

Long sleeved cotton shirts keep the sun off your arms, and an upturned collar will do the same for the back of your neck. Any knee-length shorts or outdoor trousers will do. A smart-casual change of clothes will be useful when you get invited to a wedding. Underwear is a consumable item.

What about cycle-specific clothing, though? Won’t a pair of padded cycling shorts take the edge off an uncomfortable saddle? Well, yes, but on the other hand, you could just HTFU. Special waterproofs? Pah! Grab the one you got from TK Maxx a couple of years ago. It’ll get you to the next cafe in a downpour. Warmth at night? What, you don’t already have a fleece, a woolly hat and a pair of winter socks lying around? Sure. Whatever.

(Free) technical clothing

Tip: Technical clothing is for sports cyclists and extreme conditions. Most long-terms tourers wear comfortable ‘normal’ clothes. So you’ve probably got everything you’ll need already. Two sets clothes is fine – one for riding, the other for not-riding.

Grand Total: £25.14

So here it is: everything you need for a typical one-day ride and overnight camp, for £25 (or $38, or €29).

(Almost free) complete bike
No-budget cycle touring packing list

By extension of logic, that’s everything you need to continue across a country. And once you’ve crossed one, you can cross another. You’ll be ticking off time-zones before you know it.

Off on the next trip?

What has surprised me most about this experiment is just how easy it has been to get all of this gear together, simply by keeping my eyes open for opportunities, asking for help to achieve something slightly silly that raises a smile, and tapping into a few time-honoured frugality techniques.

Believe it or not, it has actually occupied far less time and energy than wading through the monolithic world that is the bicycle and outdoor industry did a few years ago, in which I remember going around in circles trying to figure out which of the gazillion options I should spend my money on to get the best value for money. Instead, I took whatever was available – and it turned out that what was available was perfectly adequate, and involved almost no money at all!

Standing outside my flat with the bike, a compulsion passed over me: I really could just swing my leg over the top-tube, ride off down the drive and begin an entirely new adventure right now. I really did have everything I needed, and with the world spread out before me, I felt a sudden urge to leave everyone and everything behind and do just that.

But my wife was taking the photo, and that would simply never do…

Bye!

Of course, I am not claiming that this set-up is going to do the job of cycling across a country/continent/planet better than all-new kit. But I’m as guilty as anyone in assigning way more importance to gear than it really deserves. Maintenance and fettling and problem-solving when things go wrong – it’s all part of the journey, regardless of what you set out on.

You make the trip, not your equipment.

Putting It To The Test

Lest things be in danger of becoming hypothetical again, I headed out one chilly morning to simulate a day in the life of a cycle tourist. To make sure I put the bike through its paces, my route took in the steepest road in England as part of a 70km day – pretty average for a rider on tour.

Stunning clouds in the morning
Morning panorama in the Lakes
Duddon valley
Victorious yet aloof
Steep
Descending Wrynose
Cheesy chips (aka rocket fuel)
Wonderful homecoming sunset

And what a stunning ride it was…

Next Time: The No-Budget Bike Tour Itself

A day’s ride isn’t going to prove anything, obviously. So the next part of this experiment will be to cycle across a country with the kit described above.

And I’ll be taking a specific look at the practicalities of keeping on-the-road living costs to an absolute minimum, which is of course the flip side of the no-budget touring coin.

* * *

This article comes with my usual caveat: what I’ve described here is one way of doing things. Specifically, it’s the way of doing things if you believe finances to be an obstacle to setting off. People with money would likely prefer to shell out a couple of grand on a shiny new setup. But not having cash is no excuse to stay on the couch. Get out there, keep your eyes peeled, use your initiative, and you’ll be on your bike in no time.

Can you get a touring bike and kit together for less than £25.17? Let me know if you do…

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119 Responses to “How I Got A Free Touring Bike (Almost) Plus Gear & Luggage”

  1. Chris Goofman

    Wonderful! It is sooo easy to get sucked into reviews of the latest gear, to talk yourself into another £20 for the better spec version, then another £50…£100. For everything. Sometimes we need reminding (showing!) that we don’t need to to do that. Thank you.

    Now – about that adventure bike I’m about to build… :-/

    Reply
    • peter

      I rode a 200 dollar road bike around southern japan in 1998 for 6 weeks…in the middle of winter…. had a backpack with spare jumperetc… wore a cheap ski suit $50….. stayed in low priced travel inns…and ate noodles……best experience I ever had.And I only had one flat tyre in 2000 kms!

      Reply
  2. Ben

    Using spare tubes as bungees for luggage in the back, how efficient! I wonder, how long did it take you to create this masterpiece?

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I began at the end of summer last year and was ready to go by February (that’s when the ride photos were taken), so 6 months. But if I’d really committed time to it I could have done it quicker. The point is that you can do it little by little…

      Reply
      • bev

        Hi. I’m a single mum with two boys. Age 5. I’m looking to start doing some day rides with them. I have never cycled like this before but its a life skill I would like them to learn. Just to be free to up and travel on a whim. Would you say it was doable with two 5yos and if we needed to camp overnight, where are we allowed to pitch a tent? Does it have to be on designated pay sites? The aim would be to build up to to do a two week or two on the roads. Does it matter what bikes they ride? Are the basic bikes the have, suitable?

        Reply
  3. Dave Baxter

    Cracking read, would love to know where that ride is you went on. Pictures are stunning.

    Dave

    Reply
  4. Saeid

    Wonderful ! I am about to build one like that too, instead of purchasing.

    Reply
  5. Johno

    Is that Chimney Bank near Rosedale?

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Nope, it was the Duddon Valley!

      Reply
      • Mike

        I have spent the evening looking at your stuff starting with the can stove. Excellent stuff all around. Thanks for sharing the adventures. Let me know if you make it to the states. I live literally under the Brooklyn Bridge and would welcome a hook-up if you come past this way. My kids and I will take you for some local pizza. Cheers

        Reply
  6. Amaya Williams

    Super tips, Tom!
    I like what you said about just asking friends and family if they’ve got stuff they’re not using.
    We’ve mentioned this to hospitality hosts and have ended up with all sorts of stuff that was destined for the charity shop (or the bin).
    Over the years we’ve acquired several next to new cycling jerseys, a small collection of MP3 players, high-viz gear, various food stuffs slightly past the expiration date and much much more.
    In fact, at least half my clothing is hand-me-downs from people we’ve met on the road.

    In New Zealand, we picked up a discarded tire which I used to travel the length of Australia and part of Japan until it final wore out.
    Budget cyclists can really benefit from the world’s excess stuff.

    Thanks for sharing this excellent experiment.

    Reply
  7. Fraser Baillie

    Great article Tom, I can’t quite believe what you managed to acquire for so little money – amazing!! Makes my recent bike build look ridiculous, I look forward to reading how your country crossing goes.

    Reply
  8. Ryan @ Pause The Moment

    Wow, such an awesome article Tom!

    It almost seems as if everything went your way throughout the whole process of finding the bike, acquiring the accessories, etc. I’m amazed how everything came together, almost streamlined in a way.

    Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to read part 2!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Cheers Ryan! I have experienced this kind of phenomenon before – the year I spent planning my first tour is a good example. Once you put an idea into action and convince yourself that it is possible to achieve, it rubs off on people and begins to affect the world in ways which are quite unmeasurable. At the same time, you’ll see opportunities that you previously couldn’t, simply because you weren’t looking for them…

      Reply
  9. Tim Moss

    This. Is. Brilliant.

    Top work sir!

    Reply
  10. Chris Maylor

    Great article, Tom. I always hear people saying, “if I win the lottery I’m going to see the world” or “I’m going to visit exotic places”. I always say to them, “Don’t wait to win the lottery otherwise you’ll probably never do it. If you want to do it, then do it.”

    Your article is a great example of how people can live their dreams without needing to ‘win the lottery first’. Simply inspirational!!

    Reply
  11. Simon Freeman

    It’s good to see someone practice what they preach.
    I’m so sick of these tour bloggers who say you can tour for cheap and when you look at their kit list they have a £2000 bike £500 tent £300 sleeping bag etc. I haven’t managed the £25 kit but did go from nothing to full kit inc. bike bought 100% new at full retail price for less than £500 which till I saw this I was quite impressed with. Keep up the good work.

    Reply