As I pedalled towards The Entrance through a never-ending conglomeration of suburbs and seaside towns, the hills seemed to get steeper, the hard shoulders narrower, and the traffic heavier.
Tangled cycleways gave way to long-winded highway crossings, nasty climbs through hilly rainforest spat me out onto caravan-clogged beachfront boulevards, and all under a sweltering late-summer sun. The momentum that had inspired me to push on into the afternoon began to taper off. Had following the New South Wales Coastline Cycleway been a mistake?
In Bateau Bay, struggling to reconcile the route I’d planned on komoot with the signage on the ground, I sailed blindly past the Aldi I’d been aiming for to stock up on food for the ride ahead, not realising until several kilometres later. Things briefly perked up when I reached the longest jetty in New South Wales (351 metres!) on the eastern shore of Tuggerah Lake, but I couldn’t be bothered to walk to the end and back like all the other tourists were doing.
Hungry, low on blood sugar and still with no food in my panniers, I spotted a backpackers’ hostel nearby and made an impulsive decision to check in for the night.
The reception door was locked, so I called a phone number I found online and asked if the place was open. The guy on the other end said he’d check.
When he forgot to call back and left me standing outside for 15 minutes, I should have seen a red flag.
My plan was simple: leave the house, follow the coastline north, and see what happened.
The deadline was a family wedding in Sydney; the route already established. I’d stop pedalling when I ran out of time, take the night train back, show off my fabulous new tan-lines, and we would all live happily ever after.
So – if you’ll indulge something of a tangent – let me put into context why I decided to ride alongside the sun-drenched beaches and through the colonial seaside towns of a rich English-speaking nation in peak holiday season.
As the name suggested, this was the start of a meandering rollercoaster of obscene gradients winding through humid forest amongst staggered hillside dwellings. Riders on this designated cycle route would find themselves hurdling headlands and conducting flybys of secluded beaches, all the while wondering if they were covering more horizontal distance than vertical.
These hills weren’t long – but by god, were they steep.
My last major undertaking on a bicycle had occurred before the word “covid” entered the dictionary. So I was even more delighted to find this gruelling warm-up interspersed with segments of six-lane highway.
Cursing the hills, cursing the traffic, cursing my legs, and occasionally cursing all three at once in a coordinated verbal assault upon that trifecta of cyclists’ bugbears: this was a familiar combination of grievances, one I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in about 50 of those abstract entities we call “countries” (with the notable exception of the Netherlands, where there are no hills to curse).
My intention now was to add a new country to the list. Technically I had already done so in those first ten minutes, but only in the way I have technically visited China because I once spent an overnight layover in a hotel in Guangzhou. No – it would take more than a stiff morning’s climb to be able to say I’d travelled Australia by bicycle in any meaningful way.
(Let’s remember that this is a land so big that to visit a friend in Perth would require a flight of the same duration as from London to New York, or a drive roughly equivalent to a east-west crossing of Europe, or a four-day continuous train journey, or – the dream – a good couple of months of pedalling.)
North of Newport was Avalon – more hills, more sweat – and north of Avalon was the suburb of Palm Beach. One of its many seafronts is apparently familiar to many TV-watching Brits as a principal filming location for the popular Australian soap opera Home and Away. In reality, Palm Beach is an exclusive district of greater Sydney made inaccessible by terrain and distance; the preserve of multi-million-dollar second homes with swimming pools and private jetties; a trove of accumulated wealth hidden amongst cliffs and forest canopies and further concealed by a subtropical loop track of cicadas and kookaburra cackles.
Mid-morning, as the sun rose above the tree-tops and beat down upon the tarmac, the neighbourhood seemed abandoned, except for a trickle of passing utes – the Aussie name for a 4×4 pickup truck with a tool chest or two mounted on a raised rear tray. As I rode north, these vehicles and their occupants dispersed themselves amongst the driveways of their absentee clients in order to dredge the unused swimming pools, tend to the unseen gardens, and construct the extensions and sundecks and boat sheds whose only purpose appeared to be to channel surplus cash into further inflating the market value of these properties.
Rounding the northern spur of those bejewelled hilltops, with only the Barrenjoey headland separating me from the great Pacific, I came at last to my exit point of Palm Beach Wharf, from where the public ferry would spirit me across the bay of Pittwater, out of Sydney proper, and to the Central Coast region of New South Wales.
Lucky timing: the late-morning ferry was just boarding as I rolled up to the end of the wooden jetty, rickety and incongruous among the designer dwellings above.
As the ferry chugged slowly out of dock, the conductor offered me a wireless card reader to pay my fare – but my card inexplicably failed to register. He shrugged:
‘No worries, mate. Have yourself a free one!’
And he moved on to the next passenger, leaving me with a big inner smile, happy to be reminded that – even in a place like Palm Beach – money didn’t always matter most.
By the time you read this paragraph, I’ll have embarked on my latest bike trip, riding solo along the lush coast of New South Wales, Australia.
I haven’t tackled a ride of any significance since before the Covid-19 pandemic – and while I’m relishing the prospect of hitting the road, it’s a tempting moment to look back at the evolution of this blog, TomsBikeTrip.com, and my parallel bike touring career.
You could say it began 17 years ago when I signed up for a free Blogspot account and created a blank page entitled “Semi-Coherent Thought Chowder”. At the time, I simply wanted a space for converting ideas into words and dumping them there. The idea that people might read it never crossed my mind.
That changed in the summer of 2006, when my old schoolmate Andy and I came up with the entirely unoriginal idea to try and cycle round the planet. As classic overachieving middle-class able-bodied white males, we decided to brand the fuck out of the expedition, seeking sponsorship and media attention, launching what today would be called a YouTube channel, and generally turning it into a ‘thing’.
It was, in many ways, the antithesis of the attitude towards bicycle travel I would later evangelise. But it did need a professional-looking website. And so my idle ramblings were reinvented as the official blog of Ride Earth, a high-concept, charity fundraising, environmental drum-beating, only-marginally-interesting, very-long-distance bike ride.
Ride Earth fizzled out when Andy and I realised, far too late, and on a wintry roadside somewhere in the South Caucasus, that our reasons for doing it were fundamentally incompatible.
At the same time, as you’ll know if you’ve read or watched Janapar, I met my future wife and realised there was more to life anyway.
In this period of downtime I quietly rebranded the site as Tom’s Bike Trip, which seemed to better reflect what I was actually doing. And I started to write because I wanted to, rather than because my previous decisions obliged me to.
This had the interesting effect of people starting to read what I wrote. Perhaps, in retrospect, there was something more compelling about the story of someone cut adrift on a bike with a lot of time, a vague sense of curiosity, and something worth coming home for. Perhaps – I repeat the word because this is pure conjecture – this stripped-back version of life on a bike resonated more deeply than the chronicles of another privileged adventurer on a pedestal.
I spent the next four years honing my travel writing skills alongside a series of what felt, on a personal level, like ever more boundary-pushing rides. Beyond my first tidy little ride across Europe came the brutal desert crossings, sketchy checkpoints, and tear-jerking hospitality of the Middle East and northeast Africa. Crossing the East African Rift Valley through the tribal no-go-zone of the Afar Desert, I felt I’d reached a place so distant from the pokey little English village of my upbringing that to go much further would bring only diminishing returns. Yet even that proved wrong when I dragged bike and gear to the Outer Mongolian steppe, where all sense of time and place dissolved into a blur of roadless plains, big river crossings, and wild Siberian forests.
In 2012 I found myself at a book launch in Pasadena, CA, at the end of a long ride down the US west coast. The author was espousing his vision of a world in which people took their passions and moulded them into freedom-generating livelihoods. Much of the advice related to implementation, but the most memorable broad concept was that of focusing on what people asked my help with. Lightbulb moment: could my blog’s comments and contact form submissions be the key to doing this sustainably and forever?
Until then, I’d been funding my travels by taking intensive short-term web development contracts and setting up temporary shop wherever I happened to be. Had it been today I would probably be describing myself as a ‘digital nomad’. In any case, I wanted out of that schizophrenic lifestyle, bouncing from feast to famine. I wanted a stable living that rewarded my skills in a principled way and connected directly with what I valued most in life.
I went through every email I’d received through this blog’s contact form, categorised the questions by theme, and wrote long-form answers to the most frequently-asked of them. The result was a pair of ebooks: Essential Gear For Adventure Cycle Touring and Understanding Touring Bikes For Epic Expeditions.
Because these books were extremely niche, I followed with a third, How To Hit The Road, which aimed to cover at a higher level the entire subject of that glorious thing known variously as cycle touring, bike touring, bike trekking, bikepacking, adventure cycling, or simply travelling by bicycle. I put this one on Amazon as a Kindle ebook and print-on-demand paperback.
(A friend suggested that this would make for the most interesting book I’d have written to date, but I never got round to it.)
Then, in the summer of 2015, something happened. I went hiking and came back inspired to build a long-distance trail across Armenia and Georgia. This rapidly snowballed into what is now known as the Transcaucasian Trail. It’s attracted over a million dollars in funding through various channels, yet for the last seven years I have worked almost entirely unpaid to make this dream a reality, living off the modest income now generated by TomsBikeTrip.com. The reasons for doing things this way are complex, but might be encapsulated by a desire to make a living in a principled way. Syphoning donor funds into a full-time job of my own creation doesn’t fit that principle.
All this while, cycle touring and TomsBikeTrip.com have been there as a familiar friend I return to when I’m feeling burned out by the emotional demands of wringing a 3,000km-long international hiking trail out of the combined efforts and interests of the growing number of people and organisations involved in the effort.
That’s what’s happening now. I’m riding my modified prototype of the Oxford Bike Works Expedition bike north from Sydney, Australia, following the New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail as far as I can – at least, until the date of my sister-in-law’s wedding, the main reason I’m in Australia and something I should probably make sure I’m back for!
The jury’s out on how much of this trip I’ll be sharing in real time – but whatever I do make public will probably be in the form of Instagram stories.
Preparing for this trip has also inspired plenty of new material for the blog, which I’ll be sharing here soon.
In the meantime, I’ve been updating and republishing some of the most well-received content I originally wrote and posted on the blog between 2012–2014, including:
When you’re in the market for a new touring bike, it’s important not to dive too deep until you’re clear about what kind of cycle tour you actually want to go on.
Especially with the current trends towards ultralight bikepacking, gravel bikes, touring e‑bikes, etc, manufacturers will work extremely hard to sell you something you never knew you needed.
They’ll even give top-of-the-range bikes to social media influencers (yep, they’ve discovered cycle touring and bikepacking too!) to promote products that for most riders are a waste of precious travel funds.
If you’re not careful, before you know it you’ll have bought all the gear for a tour that looks little or nothing like the one you originally dreamed of.
So let’s take a break from industrial-strength marketing tactics and pose three critical questions about your current circumstances and future bike touring plans.
You can do this by talking to yourself, grabbing a pen and paper, jotting down notes on your smartphone, meditating on each question, or whatever form of self-reflection works for you.
Just try not to rush it – this is one buying decision you really don’t want to get wrong.
1. What type(s) of riding are you planning to do?
It’s often said that no two cycle tours are ever the same. But I’ll bet yours can be placed somewhere on the following spectrums:
Will you ride fast or take it slow?
Are you touring short-term or exploring long-term?
Will you be cycling ultralight or going fully-loaded?
Is your route mostly on-road or off-road?
If you’re not sure where your planned bike tour falls on these spectrums, it might be time to stop reading blogs about touring bikes (bookmark this page, though!) and write down a few thoughts about what kind of experience you actually want to have.
Your answers are important because they’ll change your criteria for choosing the right touring bike – and being clear on your priorities as a buyer is the best way to shine a light through the fog of marketing spiel and the (often undisclosed) commercial interests of influencers.
Back to the original question, the law of averages dictates that most bike tours are somewhere in the middle of these spectrums.
That’s why the major bicycle manufacturers – Trek, Kona, Cube, Fuji, etc – tend to offer a single, do-everything touring bike.
The only specialisation of these bikes is that they are generalists, catering for a wide range of bicycle travel scenarios, as manufacturers strive to sell enough bikes to break even in the small and not-very-fashionable niche of cycle touring.
Being distributed alongside road, commuter, mountain and gravel bikes from the same brands, mainstream touring bikes are relatively easy to find at your local bike shop. This is good, because going for a test ride is the single best way to avoid buying the wrong bike.
Cycle touring is a traditional and conservative niche, with touring bike specifications changing little year on year, meaning many commercial touring bikes have a tried, tested, and relatively undiluted heritage.
I’ve listed the most highly-regarded mainstream touring bikes in this popular and regularly-updated blog post. A large proportion of people exploring the touring bike market will find that one of these touring bikes will serve their needs very well.
If you find an off-the-peg touring bike isn’t a good fit, digging deeper will reveal a vast diversity of niche touring bikes, from off-road and gravel oriented adventure bikes and bikepacking rigs to recumbent touring bikes, custom-built touring bikes and framesets, touring e‑bikes, tricycles, hand cycles, tandems and triplets, unicycles, penny farthings… yes, whatever the most esoteric kind of pedal-powered vehicle you can imagine, I’ll bet you someone’s taken one bike touring!
2. What’s your startup budget for equipment?
The next basic question is a financial one.
What’s your budget for your new touring bike?
Hold on – you have already budgeted for your bike trip, right?
So you already know what the on-the-ground costs of your trip are likely to be, and how much money you’re putting aside for the big equipment binge before you hit the road?
If you’re in the early stages of planning a bike trip, I’m guessing there’s a chance you haven’t got this far. You may still be wondering just how much you’ll need to spend on the single most important piece of gear of all, so you know what kind of number to put in that budget you’ve been meaning to make.
Well, the good news is this:
A new touring bike can be as cheap or expensive as you want it it be.
Let’s take a quick look at what you might expect from touring bikes at the range of price points, from next to nothing up to thousands of pounds or dollars.
No-budget or low-budget touring bicycles.
Short of cash? No problem. It’s possible to use almost any bike for touring, as long as it’s about the right size. All it needs to do is carry you – and your luggage.
You will (eventually) get from A to B on the rusty heap that’s been sat in the garage for the last decade.
Or if you’re coming to touring from another cycling discipline – say, road biking or gravel riding, mountain biking, or bicycle commuting – then you already have a bike. For your first tour at least, and if money is limited, all you need to do is adapt your existing bike to carry a few bits of luggage.
Pannier racks are available to fit bikes with traditional frame mounting points, and some brands offer mounting kits for those without. Trailers are cumbersome but take the strain off the bike and are perhaps the easiest adaptation, usually requiring nothing more than a replacement rear axle skewer or bolt. And mountain-bikers are better served than ever by the explosion of frame luggage, which even outdoor megastores like Decathlon and REI produce and sell.
Entry-level touring bikes for newcomers to cycle touring
Got a bit of cash but still on a budget? Capable touring bikes can still be bought new for well under £1,000 (USD$1,200 or CAD$1,500).
Touring bikes at this price point are considered entry-level. These bikes usually differ from premium models by having cost-saving aluminium frames, cheaper drivetrain components (ie: gearing systems), rim brakes aka: V‑brakes rather than disc brakes (though this is changing), and often only a basic rear rack to carry a pair of panniers.
They are nevertheless designed and built specifically for light touring (sometimes called ‘trekking’ in parts of Europe), often sharing a frameset with models at the higher end of the budget spectrum.
Entry-level touring bikes are often prime for future upgrades for longer and more demanding tours – perhaps after you’ve tried your hand at a short cycle tour a little closer to home.
Premium touring bikes for exploring almost anywhere
Got serious funds for a serious new touring bike? Accepted wisdom is to get the best bike you can afford – without compromising your overall trip budget.
This is the domain of the premium touring bike. The top design priority here is long-term durability, using higher-specification components, framesets built specifically to the rigorous demands of long-term touring, and the highest quality touring-specific accessories (racks, lights, etc) available.
There’s a rich selection of bikes at this price point, and almost all cycle tourists could conduct their travels successfully on any of them. It’s a mature niche filled with capable, tried-and-tested machines, with sensible price-tags and in need of nothing more than some tough panniers and perhaps a nicely broken-in Brooks saddle – and, of course, an intrepid rider.
Expect to spend between £1,500–2,000 (US$1,600–2,200 / CA$2,000–2,800) on an off-the-peg premium touring bike. It will last a lifetime if well cared-for and handle most touring scenarios very well.
Expedition touring bikes for the toughest rides on Earth
Shortly beyond mainstream touring bikes, we find ourselves entering expedition touring bike territory.
This is an obscure and daunting place most commonly visited by riders planning transcontinental or round-the world rides. It is also, however, where riders come to find the holy grail: a unique bike for which every single aspect of the design, build and fit will have been tailored to your exact needs.
Likely prices might start from £2,000 (US$2,200 / CA2,800) for a custom build on a stock frame up to double that or more if bespoke framebuilding is involved. If you’re planning the ride of a lifetime or a lifelong touring career, and you have the necessary funds, it’ll almost definitely be worth the investment.
And I’ve also partnered with Richard Delacour at Oxford Bike Works to offer the Expedition – a line of custom-built touring bikes produced to order in Oxfordshire, England, and designed with exactly this kind of ride in mind.
This bike, in fact, was the prototype that led to the above-mentioned Expedition being launched.
3. Where are you buying your new touring bike?
Don’t forget that not all touring bikes are available everywhere.
Many of the big bike manufacturers have global distribution networks – but their one-size-fits-all touring bikes, by definition, don’t always cater for everyone’s needs.
Smaller, more specialised bike retailers (such as these in the UK) can offer far more in the way of individual tailoring – but they typically operate on a local or regional level, limiting their potential customer base.
This means that the touring bike-buying decision will change with where you’re looking.