So Will, how do I plan my first bicycle tour?
Unless you are one of the idle rich, retired, or have absolutely nobody who depends on you in any way, chances are that you will have limited free time. Many people believe that money is the biggest limiter. That’s not the case – it’s time. All of us can always get more money, but we have a finite amount of time to live. The time that we have has to be used wisely – we go to work, so we can get paid, and work takes a massive chunk of our time. And work limits how much time off you can get as paid annual leave.
Budget your time
Before thinking of going cycle touring, start by looking at how much time you will have available. Remember, bicycle touring is not a race! It is normal, and even encouraged, to slow down and stop often. After all, it’s likely that you won’t ever cycle that way again in your life, so savour every moment of the journey.
In practice, this means you fit your cycling tour plans to the time you have available. If you don’t have sufficient time available, reduce the length of your bike tour, rather than race the clock.
Now you have a clear idea of the time you will have available (factoring in getting to the start, and getting back home again) it’s time to start looking at the route. You can design your own route, but especially for your first cycling tour, I rather strongly suggest you use a route designed by someone else. My GoCycle routes, such as the gorgeous Somerset Circle, are tested, and the route guide will give you a wealth of information about the landscape through which you’ll be riding. Additionally, my GoCycle route guides tell you where your escape points are along the route, usually in the form of train stations. There are other options too, such as the Cycling UK list of routes.
When looking at various routes, calculate your riding time at a pace slower than commuting, or other “normal” bike rides. Cycle touring is best done slowly. When you rush, and race the clock, you will miss out on far too much, so slow down. With the slower average pace in mind, you can now look at the distances involved, and whittle down the routes to just those that fit in with the time you have available. Obviously, you’ll have to choose a single route at this stage. Your choice may be driven by wanting to include great climbs, or wanting as flat a route as possible. You may also pick a route on how much of it is traffic-free. In the UK, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a route that doesn’t include stunning scenery!
Going cycle touring inevitably involves carrying at least some extra weight on the bike. Yes, even if you’ll be staying in hotels or B&B’s – some people do, and that’s perfectly acceptable – you will still need to carry a change of clothes, etc. If like me, you prefer to go camping along the way, the weight (and bulk) you will carry on your bike will increase again. I suggest you have a look at my posts on how to carry luggage on your bike, and even how to pack your panniers.
Some people need the company of others, while others thrive in solitude. What you choose will depend on what kind of person you are, but for your very first tour I suggest you cycle with someone else. Even better if that other person has done some cycle touring before, as that may help you feel far more relaxed. Just be aware that you’ll effectively be spending 24 hours per day with that person, so make sure it’s someone you get on with really well.
Your tour, your way
It’s really important that you realise that there is no right, or wrong way to go cycle touring. Everyone does it at least a little different to everyone else. Don’t feel guilty if your preferred way isn’t what everyone else does. As long as it works for you, who cares, right? If you wanted to ride only ten miles per day, well, that’s your choice. If you will be cycle touring with someone else, do make sure everyone understands what the expected pace, and daily distances will be beforehand. That will reduce friction between people.
There’s absolutely no reason why you cannot go touring with an ebike. Just remember that extra weight on the bike will reduce the battery range, so plan your daily distances accordingly. Also, obviously you will want to overnight somewhere you can charge your bike’s battery up, so wild camping is probably not an option.
Reduce the unknowns
Any good adventure has plenty of surprises (and they’re not always good surprises!) Having said that, especially for your first bicycle tour, you will want to reduce the number of unknown elements. That starts with the route. Some seasoned cycle tourers quite literally make up their route for the day on the spot, and that’s OK. However, when everything is new to you, don’t do that to yourself. Have a route mapped out, and ensure you know where your escape points are. Doing so will offer you peace of mind, leaving you free to focus on other things. This is part of the reason why my GoCycle route guides include escape points (usually train stations) to help you get back home, in case things went wrong.
The 5 P’s
Proper preparation prevents poor performance. That’s an indisputable fact. Even well-seasoned bike tourers have done proper preparation, in the shape of countless previous tours. Your preparation should include, at very least, going for a 10+ mile ride with all the gear you’ll be taking touring. That will help you adjust to how the bike handles, and give you an idea whether or not you carry too much. If you’ll be camping, practice putting your tent up in the dark. If you’ll be taking energy gels as emergency food, then consume some while at home. Energy gels give some people an upset tummy, and if that’s going to happen to you, you want to find out when there’s a toilet nearby!
Use a packing list!
Trust me, you will forget things! Use a suggested packing list, then modify it to suit your own needs and preferences. My Adventure Journals – lovingly handmade – contain removable packing lists.
If at all possible, choose a route that is traffic-free. Along the Devon Coast To Coast route (NCN 27) there’s a stretch where, quite suddenly, the often busy A386 runs right alongside the Tarka Trail. The difference it makes when the road veers away is enormous! Peace and quiet returns and along with it, the smile on your face. Seriously, while acknowledging that of course cyclists have the right to ride on roads, getting away from cars will make a massive difference to your tour!
Go on – go cycle touring! There are very valid reasons why cycle touring is gaining popularity.