How to ride a bike: cycle touring

Hardknott pass in the wonderful, glorious English Lake District (Ordnance Survey map)

Hardknott pass in the wonderful, glorious English Lake District (Ordnance Survey map)

There are many ways to see and explore the world; plane, bus, boat, train, motorbike, foot.  All offer different experiences and have have their divers pros and cons. A cycle tour offers what could be the best compromise for most people - on the one hand not too slow, allowing surprisingly large distances to be covered with relative ease, and on the other not too fast such that obscure pockets of fascination are missed. 

And of course there is the satisfaction of achieving something great under your own steam. Entirely human powered, the humble bicycle provides a green alternative to exploring the greener highways and byways of this green and pleasant land, or any other land for that matter; cycle touring on the Continent is something else again.

So, what’s involved and how do you do it?

Obviously you’ll need a bike, and whilst any bike will do, there is a best design for touring; the touring bike. Still using a lightweight alloy frame, but somewhat ruggedised for the rigours of a tour. The frame angles will be more relaxed than a racing bike, maybe 73 degrees on the seat tube and 72 on the head tube, with a noticeable fork trail. The rear triangle will be longer too. All of this gives a long wheel base and relaxed feel to the bike which will help soak up the bumps and lumps of roads and provide much comfort for long hours in the saddle.

How much gear to take will depend on the style of touring you want to do. It’s perfectly feasible to take tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear and all the other camping paraphernalia for a cycle camping expedition. If this is your chosen option you’ll need panniers that fit on a rack, which in turn should be bolted to the frame on purpose-built mounting points. You’ll probably also need a saddle bag and maybe even front-mounted panniers, again on purpose-built rack.

All of this adds considerably to the weight of the machine, and you’ll need to adjust your riding style to suit; dancing on the pedals racing-style isn’t really an option.

On the other hand you may prefer to travel light, with minimum gear and stay in brick-built accommodation; youth hostels or hotels, depending on budget. In this instance you can get away with a reasonable-sized saddle bag alone.

You’ll need to be self-sufficient for mechanical support, so a tool kit of some sort will be needed, along with puncture repair kit and spare inner tubes.

Having decided which variety suits you, planning the route is key to success and provides a lot of fun too. Winter evenings pouring over maps and guide books allows the imagination to run free of the dark wet nights...

As a rule of thumb, whichever style of touring, I’d allow for planning purposes 60 miles a day. This may sound like a lot of miles, but if you break it down as follows, it’s not so bad, at least for the moderately fit:

  • On the road by 9am
  • First coffee and cake stop after 15 miles.
  • Lunch stop after another 15 miles
  • Second coffee and cake stop another 15 miles
  • Destination final 15 miles - arrive no later than 17:00 hours

There, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? A cycle tour can be a guilt-free gastronomic delight!

Remember 60 miles a day is just for planning purposes - around this you’ll need to plot exactly where you’re going to stop and what you’re going to do when you have stopped. Places of interest can be explored easily along the way, as can other aspects of the countryside. If you’re interested in photography or even drawing, there are plenty, a million, an infinite number of opportunities to create lasting images. 

It takes a couple of days to get into the “rhythm of the road”, so it may be prudent to take things easy at first and build up as you get used to being o the move all day. Some days you may end up doing more than 60 miles, others less. Some days never seem to end and you’ll wish they’d never started, other days you’ll wish would never end, so sublime are they. 

Cyclists on tour are welcomed pretty much by everyone. There have been the odd occasion where the welcome has been less than pleasant though. We once parked up at a pub only for the landlady to come rushing out yelling at us that we weren’t welcome and we should sod off out of it... the name of the pub? The Dragon! 

What makes for a “good” place to tour? Each to their own of course, but I like hills. Hills add interest, the challenge of the climb and the exhilaration of the descent (falling off not withstanding). So I look for lots of twisty-turny little roads on Ordinance Survey maps, ideally featuring those little arrowheads which indicate a steepness of at least 1:7.

But if you have kids or maybe older folk with you, you may want to adapt your route and location accordingly. One family I know of (2 x adults and 3 x children aged from 9 to 4) all go cycle touring in Holland, very flat but very bike friendly. The 9 year old has a super-duper “grown up” road bike, but scaled down to suit a child. The younger kids sit on tag-a-longs which are attached to the adult bikes. It’s amazing the distance even quite young kids can manage, and with suitable encouragement they’ll love the experience. 

Experience will soon teach you what’s best for you; don’t let a bad experience deter you. Indeed it’s the bad or challenging experiences, such as a wheel collapsing under the weight of tent and all the gear, that stay in the mind far longer than wonderful sunsets, and which are the most fun to recount even years later! 

It’s all about the adventure.

Go for it!