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  • Writer's picturemirkobuzzelli

Cycle touring for beginners

A bike is probably your best companion for a slow adventure but where do you start?

Cycling to Shirakawa-go, Japan
Bike touring in Japan in the traditional village of Shirakawa-go

Before getting started, I have a confession to make: my knowledge of bikes and their mechanics is close to zero so, if you are looking for technical advice, you are probably on the wrong post. If instead you are interested in finding out how to organize a slow adventure on a bike with very minimal knowledge about bikes, you will hopefully find this post very useful.

Cycle touring is probably the best form of slow travel if you are looking at covering pretty long distances with a reasonably small effort and in a fairly short time. It is a very low impact form of exercise and, while of course you will still feel tired after several hours of cycling, it won't stress your body and knees in the same way as other activities would do. Your bike won't need to be super expensive; I know many people that have gone on long bike journeys with a cheap second hand bike and, no matter where you are, you are probably never too far from a bike shop that will be able to fix any potential problem or, worst case scenario, never too far from someone that knows how to repair a bike!

Step 1: get a bike

Crossing the border from Belgium to Luxembourg
Bike trip London to Luxembourg

I'm not going to go too deep on this subject because, as I said, I don't know a great deal about mechanics and you will find plenty of resources on line (you can find really good advice here for example). My personal suggestion, especially if you are cycling in less developed countries, is to choose a pretty simple bike and avoid super fancy ones: the more remote you will be, the more difficult it will be to find spare parts or someone that can make repairs. I would definitely avoid carbon fibre frames and disc brakes just for this reason: I know they are faster, lighter, etc. but, should something go wrong, it will be difficult to fix them and, let's face it, cycle touring is not about speed anyway.

I would definitely suggest investing in a very good set of puncture proof tyres! Punctures are likely to be the most common problem you will face when bike touring and, although it only takes a few minutes to fix them, they can be incredibly annoying: using rubbish tyres caused up to 5 punctures in a day and having to unload my bike, fix the puncture, load it again and then repeating this exercise after one hour was just soul destroying!

If you don't have a bike but you are planning a trip no longer than a week, then renting one could also be a good option: I did this on a trip from Prague to Bratislava and I was very happy with this solution. I wouldn't consider this solution for a trip longer than a week since, if you end up paying around £200 for the rental, you might as well buy a bike!

Step 2: luggage and what to carry in it

Get a good set of waterproof panniers: 2 or 4 (depending on how much kit you need to carry) but on this purchase I really don't see much point in trying to save a few pounds. Ortlieb are market leaders in this segment and I don't think anybody can fault them: although quite expensive, they will last forever. Please avoid carrying a large and heavy rucksack on your back, as it would be really uncomfortable and besides, why carrying any weight on your back when your bike can take care of that??

Panniers and bike ready to fly
Bike and kit ready to fly to Indonesia

Although you might not be able to fix everything on your bike, I would still recommend carrying with you some spare parts and tools. Depending on where you are, you might have issues in terms of availability of spare parts and in many cases most of them will be imported from Europe or USA so they might end up being more expensive than what you would pay back home. Obviously this would require a good compromise with the extra weight you are prepared to carry as you also don't want to be carrying extra kilos either. Things I would always carry with me are:

  • puncture repair kit and a couple of inner tubes;

  • pump

  • bike multi tool (set of allen keys)

  • chain lubricant

  • screwdriver

  • and depending on where I'm going I might also chuck in a few spokes and key, brake pads and cable

The other advantage of having some tools and spare parts with you is that, if the worst comes to the worst, as a last resort you can rely on some youtube tutorial for an emergency fixing! This might not solve your problem for good but it will at least take you to the next mechanic.

For a more comprehensive kit list, you can refer to my other post.

Step 3: plan your route

My personal preference in terms of route planning websites and apps goes to: ridewithgps, komoot and; they are all free to use but you can upgrade to the paid version if you want extra features (or you can download the file and upload it to your own map). What makes these websites extremely useful is that, in addition to the elevation profile of your ride, they will also give you the type of surface you will be cycling on so that you will be able to know in advance what to expect or change route if needed.

In terms of ideas on where to go and inspiration, well you simply need to search on google for an infinite amount of resources: for UK based trips, I would always have a look on the Sustrans and Cycling UK websites while, for more European itineraries, you might want head to the Eurovelo one (you can also have a look at my post for more bike related adventure ideas). Or, and this is what I tend to do, just pick your end point and design your own route linking different cities and places that you might find interesting.

Personally, I like to have a route to follow as it gives me some sort of structure and it helps me planning ahead; at the same time, I also give myself plenty of flexibility or, in other words, I don't stress too much about having to follow it step by step: the fact is that there is only so much you can plan in advance and once you will be on the road, by talking to people, looking around and depending on your mood, you can always adjust it as you feel like.

What distance to cover every day? This is of course a very personal questions and it will depend on many factors; having said this, I would say that a distance of 80 km in a day is perfectly achievable at a fairly relaxed pace, even if you are not particularly fit or experienced.

Step 4: Where to sleep

I think there is a general misconception linking going on adventures to having to endure discomfort, especially when it comes to places to sleep. As I have said before, adventuring is not a competition about being the most hard core, tougher person out there or, at least, this is not my vision of it so, let's get this straight: there is nothing wrong from staying in hotels or B&B. Don't be put off if you don't like camping or wild camping: it is your adventure and you should design it in the way it suits you most.

"Conventional camping" can be a good compromise if you are looking for a "more outdoor experience" still maintaining some level of basic comfort with a small budget. The more adventurous will probably opt for wild camping, which offers total flexibility but unfortunately, strictly speaking, it's illegal in many countries (England included). If you have never wild camped before, some basic tips are: find a well hidden spot away from roads and trails, set up camp when dark, leave super early in the morning so that you won't get caught and leave no trace (e.g. most of the times, no campfires).

Warmshowers host in Java
Warmshowers host in Java

There are however more options: have you ever heard of warmshowers? It's an online community similar to couchsurfing entirely dedicated to cycle tourism and it's totally awesome! Apart from the benefit of finding a place to sleep, it will connect you with people that share your same passion and interests and will be able to give you advice and suggestions to make your cycling adventure even more special. I used it so many times especially in Indonesia and it definitely enriched my experience, offering me a real insight in the local culture that I would have completely missed if I was camping or staying in hostels. The UK Cycle Touring Festival is building a similar network with a UK focus and I would also definitely recommend checking out their website as it is full of advice and resources for slow adventures on a bicycle.

My last advice, as far as sleeping is concerned, is to embrace the adventure...the list of places where I slept when cycling in Asia is completely random and includes police stations, car parks, public parks, temples, mosques, beach, fire stations, coffee shops and many more and they are all very special to me.

Step 5: start!

I mean literally, where is the starting point of your trip??

Are you starting from home? Easiest option and nothing to worry about.

Trains are probably the most bike friendly way of transporting your bike: all you would need to do is checking if you need to pay extra or reserve a space for it.

If your starting point requires flying, it will be a bit trickier but nothing to get too stressed about; a few things to be aware of are:

Bike protected for flying
Protecting my bike before flying
  • what are the airline policies in terms of carrying bikes? They all have different rules so make no assumptions here as it might turn out very costly!

  • the bike will need to be dismantled and it will need to fit in a box of set dimensions (you can easily get a cardboard box from a bike shop for free, no need to buy anything too fancy)

  • make sure your bike is well protected when in the box as you don't want to get any nasty surprises when you arrive at your destination (luggage is not always handled with caution by airline staff!)

These 5 steps are pretty much all you need for a slow adventure on a bike; before cycling for almost one year in Asia, my longest trip had been a one week trip from London to Luxembourg and I have done it without having much of a knowledge of bikes: I would definitely recommend bike touring as a first slow adventure.

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