What they don’t tell you about cycle touring

Cycle touring is growing in popularity, and for good reason. After all, it remains the very best way to explore a landscape. In fact, Ernest Hemmingway put it best, when he said: “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”

However, we live in the influencer era, and content is polished, rotated and carefully curated to create exactly the right impression. This is true for cycle touring, too. YouTube is filled with amazing videos of people apparently having an amazing time, cycle touring exotic locations.

Anything remotely negative is only ever included if it could serve to highlight the best bits, and make the journey seem more awesome, and the riders’ spirits seem even more unbreakable.

Reality bites. Hard.

I don’t believe there is a single cycle trip where every single thing went perfectly well. Sure, some parts of it would be Type 2 fun, instead of a disaster, and afterwards you’ll be glad you experienced it. However, it remains essential that you mentally prepare for things going wrong, as that would hugely help you overcome such difficulties.

Different challenges

When cycle touring, you’ll be faced with challenges that are far different to simply travelling somewhere for a holiday. When going off to some exotic destination (and I really hope you try not to fly there!) you’ll typically book into a hotel. The hotel will have a lock on your room’s door, and you’ll have a safe for your valuables, including your passport.

Some people still book into hotels when cycle touring, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Others camp overnight, use Warmshowers, or similar. Regardless what you choose to do, in between, you will carry everything you rely on for your adventure on your bike. This alone creates risks that you need to manage.

Security

I’ve written about security while cycle touring before, and I rather strongly suggest you go and read that. Remember, especially in large cities, criminals typically target tourists and when cycle touring, there’s no way to hide the fact that you’re a tourist. It’s a safe bet to assume you will carry some valuable items that are easy to sell, such as a GPS cycle computer, a phone, perhaps a tablet, a powerbank, as well as cash.

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If you were indeed robbed of those items, how would you recover? What is your Plan B? You need to think about that. When carrying cash, don’t have it all in the same place. Also consider carrying a cheap back-up phone, with a navigation app, such as the excellent RideWithGPS installed.

Consider getting a bum-bag, or similar, to carry your passport, and ensure the bum-bag is at the front of your body. That’s simply so nobody standing behind you has access to it. Always, always ensure your passport is safe.

Visas and border control

Depending on where you go cycle touring, you may need to consider visas and border controls. Will you need to divert to obtain a visa, or can you get one in advance? Be especially aware that many countries now outsource visa applications to private firms. Those firms typically make application slots available roughly a month in advance, but you’ll have effectively zero chance of getting a slot, as they’re all scooped up by agencies, who sell them on. In the UK, that will typically add around £80 to the cost of a visa application.

Yes, it’s state-sponsored daylight robbery, but there’s not a thing you can do about it, other than cough up and pay.

Border guards are people. People sometimes have a bad day – I’m sure you’ve had bad days before. Remember that when you approach a border control post. Be friendly (but not overly friendly, as that in itself may arouse suspicions). Be prepared to have to unpack everything during a search, and be grateful if that’s not needed.

If you’ve been on the road for a while, and you can reasonably do so, get cleaned up before arriving at border control. Nobody enjoys the company of someone reeking of body odour!

If border guards are messing you around, keep your cool. It’s not a balanced relationship, and they can make your life miserable at a whim. Just grin and bear it. You should find most border control people to be fine though.

Flexibility

The best-made plans can go wrong, through no fault of your own. A storm can cause a ferry sailing to be cancelled, and a landslide can close a railway line. Things like that can massively mess with your plans, and when planning your tour, do try to consider such possibilities, and try to come up with a Plan B beforehand.

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For example, if your plan was a ferry from Portsmouth, UK, to St Malo, France, then to cycle to Roscoff, France for a ferry to Plymouth, UK, and you have a limited amount of time available, what would you do if anything delays your ferries significantly?

Toilets

Even if you only stay in hotels when cycle touring, sooner of later you will need the toilet during the day, while on the road. In most of Europe that doesn’t seem to be a problem: simply pop into the nearest pub, or even fast-food outlet, right?

Except, what do you do with your bike, and everything on it? It can be so tempting to ask complete strangers nearby to keep an eye on it, but how do you know you can trust them? Because of this, always lock your bike, even if only with a cable lock.

Equally, most people are good, so don’t ruin a tour by distrusting everyone. Interactions with people are some of the very best aspects of cycle touring.

Overthinking

To lots of people, including me, the adventure starts when you first start planning where you will go cycle touring. As a self-confessed and proud map geek, I can spend huge amounts of time pouring over maps. These days, the traffic layer on Google maps can give you clear idea of what routes to avoid, due to heavy car traffic. Even better, the global heatmap in RideWithGPS will show you routes popular with other cyclists, and can sometimes offer welcome surprises in route options.

However, cycle touring is meant to be an adventure. By all means, do plan your route in advance, but don’t be absolutely tied to it. Cycle touring is freedom on wheels, so extend that freedom to your route, and do make route changes on the fly, whenever you feel like it.

Beware being so busy planning that you never actually get around to mounting your bike and setting off. Even an extremely poorly-planned cycle tour will be a bigger adventure than a highly-detailed planned tour that never happens.

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Remember, maps don’t tell the full story, and the reality may be different to what maps made you believe. Just relax and trust in your own abilities. Let the route reveal itself to you. Whatever you do, do not cheat yourself by being so obsessed about the map that you miss out on experiencing the landscape through which you travel.

Training

It is normally a good idea to get in shape for a cycle tour, but don’t for a moment think you need to follow a highly-structured training programme. Do what you can, within the limits of what your life has, then fit your cycle tour in with reasonable daily distances.

If going on a longer tour, remember that the first week will hurt. After a week, your body will accept that pedalling however many miles, day after day, is simply what it does now. Until then, be mentally prepared for the hurt.

Instead of trying to cycle faster each day, consider slowing down, and simply pedalling for more hours per day. Just remember to fit in plenty of breaks.

The mental battle

There will be times when you ask yourself why you’re doing this to yourself. When you’re prepared for those, you’ll find it easier to overcome negative thoughts. When your butt is hurting, and your muscles are aching, when your wrists are sore and you’re battling a headwind, uphill, into the driving rain, you’ll inevitably start questioning some of your life choices.

To quote Ian Walker, it never always gets worse. Things will improve, and believe me, the highlights will more than compensate for the low points.

2 thoughts on “What they don’t tell you about cycle touring”

  1. Would recommend osmand+ (https://osmand.net/) for navigation with the smartphone.
    The learning curve is a bit steep, but it has offline maps so you don’t need to have a network or have roaming charges. Can display the road surface quality, has contours and hillshades (good for scoping out potential sleeping spots).
    The POIs help you find the local baker, grocer, bike store etc.

    Reply
    • I used to use OsmAnd for a while, and while it’s good, I find the RideWithGPS app to be far better, and far easier to use. RideWithGPS allows you to switch between several maps too, while OsmAnd only supports Open Street Map’s Open Cycle Map (which is also available in RideWithGPS).

      Reply

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