Your cycle touring questions answered
Following on from my cycle camping post, I thought I’d look at cycle touring in a bit more detail. You’ve read those stories of daring and adventure, of cycle tourists taking on the world and the elements and emerging, triumphantly, at the end, right?
The reality will at times be far, far less glamorous. If you read Mark Beaumont’s book, The Man Who Cycled The World, which deals with his then record-breaking circumnavigation of the world by bicycle, you will know that what he had to deal with was extreme. (If you haven’t read it, you really, really should!)
Mark speaks of saddle sores, the risk of being abducted for ransom, going for days without being able to wash, and wearing the same clothes.
The difference, you may justifiably point out, is that Mark was involved in a race, averaging over 100 miles per day, for half a year, and that’s extreme by anyone’s standards. Cycling the C2C route for leisure is worlds away from what Mark had done, and yet, there are similarities, starting with basic hygiene, if you’ll be camping along the way.
Let’s look at some of the issues you may potentially encounter.
If you want to go cycle touring, it will really help if your bike is in good condition, and that includes the tyres. You should carry at least 2 spare inner tubes, plus some patches, and obviously you need to be able to replace inner tubes by the roadside.
On longer tours, it would really help if you carried two spare spokes for your bike (the spokes on the drive side of the rear wheel are shorter, and often that’s also true for spokes on the disk side of the front wheel. Even if you cannot replace a broken spoke yourself, having the right spokes when visiting a bike shop could help a lot. The better prepared you are, the smoother your cycle touring will go.
You also want to carry spare brake and gear cables, and ideally, know how to replace them. In most cities, there will be somewhere you can go to learn how to do basic bike maintenance, starting with the excellent London Bike Kitchen, or the Dr Bike sessions run by Onna Bike, in Bradford. Even in Plymouth, there’s The Bike Space, where you can get free help (and use their workshop and tools) to fix your bike. Just remember, these (and similar) organisations are often on a tight budget, so if you can, please do support them.
Do yourself a favour and have your bike serviced around two weeks before the tour, and get all those niggly little things sorted. The idea is to get it fixed, so it doesn’t get worse and becomes a nightmare while touring, and have your bike serviced weeks before the tour, so in case something wasn’t quite right because of the work done, you’ll have time to get it fixed.
It is entirely possible to go cycle touring with an ebike, though you will need to plan your days around the bike’s battery limit, and will need to consider how you will charge it overnight.
Personal hygiene, especially when wild-camping, is very important, and even if you cannot have a bath or shower, you still have other options. The logical choice is bio-degradable wet wipes, and these offer the added benefit of allowing you to freshen up mid-ride, too.
When wild-camping, review all soaps and shampoos for their environmental impact, and only use products that won’t cause harm (then consider switching to such products for general use, too)
You really should change clothes daily. Copying Mark Beaumont’s example won’t do you any favours, especially not at café stops, and will certainly increase your risk of getting saddle sores. On longer tours, whenever possible (and in the UK it should normally be completely possible) wash one set of cycling clothes daily. On shorter tours of two or three days, I don’t wash clothes, and instead keep my dirty clothes wrapped up in a plastic carrier bag, to wash when I get home.
You should use public toilets whenever you can. If you’re a man, going for a wee in the middle of nowhere is a simple affair, but women will know that it’s not that simple and easy for them. However, sooner or later you will end up needing a poo, and you need to be prepared for that. For some obscure reason so many guides don’t cover this, as if your body will suddenly not perform its normal, natural functions. There is a good write-up on the Outdoor-Access Scotland site, and I suggest you go read it.
Just remember, toilet paper isn’t nearly as biodegradable as you may have thought, and my advice is that you burn used toilet paper, taking extreme care not to start a wildfire.
When it comes to clothes, there’s a reason cycling shorts are popular. Nobody wears Lycra (well, almost nobody) to make a fashion statement. Instead, we wear cycling shorts because they are so practical. Other types of clothes have have seams that at first you don’t notice, and by the time you notice, it’ll be painful!
Related to cycling shorts, you may have heard of chamois cream. The chamois is the padded insert in your cycling shorts. Despite what the name suggests, chamois cream isn’t applied to the chamois, but rather to your undercarriage. This is to stop friction, and help prevent the dreaded saddle sores, so be liberal when applying it. Various people swear by various different brands of chamois cream, some of them eye-wateringly expensive, but I simply use Sudocrem. Sudocrem is trusted by parents and medical people throughout the UK, for very good reasons, and it works well for me.
Cycle touring is meant to be an enjoyable experience, but you have to accept from the outset that there may be less-than-enjoyable parts. These can range from hills steeper and longer than you’d like, to multiple horsefly bites, or worse. It is important to realise this before setting off, so when a set-back occurs, you’re mentally prepared for it, and so it won’t ruin the experience for you.
For a great insight into seriously long-distance touring, do spend time reading the EverEast Twitter account. It details the round-the-world adventures of Helen Langridge and her husband, Mike. Their story is quite a wonderful one, and you really should read it – it restores your faith in humanity. Oh, and follow Helen on Twitter – not satisfied with having cycled a solo LEJOG and cycled around the world with Mike, Helen has her eyes on a world-record round-the-world ride (delayed by COVID) and is writing a book about her round-the-world ride with Mike.
If you’re Mark Beaumont, dr Ian Walker (do read his brilliant book, Endless Perfect Circles, available via the link) or soon, Helen Langridge, and aiming for a world-record, you will be racing.
For us ordinary mortals, I rather strongly suggest you do the polar opposite of racing, and go at a leisurely pace, stopping often.
The pleasure is in the journey, not getting to your destination as quick as humanly possible.
Remember that when planning your tour, and be sure to give yourself plenty of time to ride at a leisurely pace, stop often and see what there is to see. That’s one of the greatest benefits of riding a bicycle: you can simply stop to smell that flower growing in the hedge, by the side of the road.
You will need to decide what to you is an acceptable speed to ride at, and distance per day to ride. It’s extremely important that you understand that there’s no “right” or “wrong” speed or distance. After all, this will be your tour. Yes, some people will go faster, for longer, but so what? Remember, it’s a tour, and not a race. There are people who would find 20 miles in a day to be a great challenge, while others will happily do 100 miles per day. Just go with what suits you best, and forget about what others are doing.
A very important part of a good tour is having a good route. You can easily follow a popular route, like the Somerset Circle, the Devon Coast To Coast route, the original C2C, the Trans Pennine Trail, or perhaps Hadrian’s Way – there are many such routes to choose from.
Alternatively, you can design your own route. There are many digital mapping services available, with RideWithGPS being my personal favourite. RideWithGPS allows anyone to easily plot a route on the map, and you can easily switch between maps used, including Google satellite view, and the excellent Open Cycle Map. Oh, and there’s a rather excellent RideWithGPS app, too, allowing you to carry your route maps in your pocket, so to speak (data connection required).
Importantly, tools like RideWithGPS will show you the gradient, making it more straightforward to see when your route includes very steep hills.
A critical element of planning a tour is water. After all, there is only so much water you can carry on your bike (and you simply must carry water). This means you may need to alter your route, in some cases, so you can go past places where you can get water. In the UK, that’s mostly easy, though rural Wales and Scotland can present challenges. If in a fix, remember that most churches have an outside tap.
Do yourself the favour of researching where bike shops are along, or near your route before going on tour. Should anything untoward happen, you’ll already know where to take your bike to get it fixed. Also research bailout points. In a perfect world, nothing will ever go wrong on your bike tour, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes things do go wrong. Sometimes, you’ll need to cut your tour short, and it will really help if you’ve done your homework beforehand.
This is why my GoCycle route guides include references to train stations, and what train line the station is on, as trains are the most convenient bailout options. Other possibilities include friends or relatives who could could come and rescue you, or local taxi firms that will take bicycles.
The UK is absolutely hauntingly beautiful, but sooner or later you’ll find out just why it is such a lush green landscape. As a result, always take at least a raincoat with. On the flipside, you’ll get rained on far less often than you think, and besides, cycling in the rain simply adds to the experience.
Wind, on the other hand, is something altogether different, and I’ve cycled into such strong headwinds that I had to pedal hard on a downhill. It can be soul-destroying, and of course, prevailing winds are exactly the reason most cyclists riding that most iconic of British rides – End to End – starting in Land’s End, and riding to John O’Groats (LEJOG, while doing it the opposite direction is known as JOGLE).
Always look at the forecast before a tour, and remember, with wind speeds above 50mph, cycling becomes dangerous, as the wind can start breaking branches off trees. There’s absolutely no shame in postponing a planned tour to a time when you’ll have better weather. On the contrary – doing so makes sense!
This is a highly personal choice, but I will suggest you cycle in synthetic clothing. Cotton absorbs moisture too easily, and takes far longer to dry. Just be aware that some synthetic fibres get very smelly very soon, so do test your clothes on a longish ride, before going on tour! The other customers in the café will appreciate that.
You may be surprised by two things: how quickly you cool down when not actively pedalling, and how cold you can feel overnight, so do consider taking some warm clothes along.
When cycling, especially mid-summer, your clothes will get quite sweaty. On longer tours, I suggest changing clothes daily, and washing the dirty clothes daily – remember, you can peg laundry to your panniers, so it dries as you’re riding, but just ensure there’s no risk of it getting caught in moving parts.
On shorter tours, of just a few days, I typically just wrap dirty laundry in a plastic carries bag, to wash when I get home.
Gadgets and power
Even if you’re staying in hotels or B&B’s every night, where mains power is available to charge up your kit, chances are you’ll be taking lots of photos with your phone, and that will drain the battery quicker. If you rely on the GPS functionality of your phone, even with the screen switched off, the battery charge will fairly rapidly be depleted.
The fix is very simple: carry a USB power bank along, so you can recharge your phone or cycle computer whenever you want. While we’re speaking of your phone, do yourself a favour and carry a small plastic bag, so you can rapidly protect your phone if it started raining.
Obviously, you will want a high-capacity power bank – something like a 20 000mAh one.
If you’ll be using an app on your phone for navigation, consider a water-proof handlebar or top-tube bag, with a clear top, to hold your phone, and ensure you know how to use the app. My post on Charging Your Phone While Cycling has more information.
Always carry some sort of food with you. Unless there are medical reasons to avoid it, carry jelly babies, jelly beans, chocolate, or something with a similar high-sugar content. Physical exercise can deplete your blood sugar levels, and it is very unpleasant when that happens. You can quite literally go from feeling fine, to being unable to stand (let alone cycle) in a matter of minutes.
I carry energy gels (my personal preference is for SIS gels, available at most supermarkets) but – and this is important – I strongly suggest you test whatever gels you’re thinking of taking along before the tour. Some people’s stomachs react poorly to energy gels, and that’s not something you only want to discover in the middle of nowhere!
When cycle touring, you should eat often, and eat little at a time. Quite the opposite of what your parents may have told you all the time, when cycle touring, regular snacking is good. You want to eat before you get hungry, and drink before you get thirsty. If you’ll be wild-camping in the most rural parts of Scotland, you’ll need to carry all your food with you, but if you’re staying in hotels, it becomes less of an issue. Also, in most parts of the UK, you will never be very far from a shop, café or pub, so usually you don’t have to carry much food.
Consult your GP about any medication you may need to take, and the impact cycle touring may have. I’m extremely fortunate, in that I don’t have to take any medication regularly, but I do always take antihistamine (for those horsefly bites, and apparently, horseflies love me!)
I also take ibuprofen, and some plasters, just in case, but you may feel differently. Just remember, I’m not medically-trained (beyond a now-expired 1st aid certificate) so I really suggest you don’t rely on me for medical advice.
So, you have your route planned, your dates in the calendar, you have all the kit you feel you may need, so you’re ready for that first cycling tour, right? Well, consider that your bike will handle differently when laden – have you gone for some test rides, to familiarise yourself with that?
I normally suggest people make their first tour short, when camping, spending just a single night. This will give you the opportunity to fine-tune your kit-list, the order in which you pack things, and more.
Other than that, apply a modicum of common sense, then get on your bike and get out there! You will love it!