The idea of “succeeding” at bicycle touring probably sounds strange to you. After all, a bicycle tour is supposed to be fun. It’s not a job to be judged and evaluated.
Let’s just say success is doing what you set out to do. You set out to cycle from Boston to New York, you cycle from Boston to New York. You say you want to bike the length of the Americas, you bike the length of the Americas. You get the idea.
Of course plans change, opportunities arise, and circumstances alter the course of events. That’s fine, flexibility’s important, too.
But–and I think you’ll agree with me–if someone spends months, perhaps years planning and saving for a long-distance bicycle tour and somehow doesn’t succeed in doing what he set out to do, now that’s sad.
Sometimes radically changing your plans or even tossing in the towel is the best thing to do. On the other hand, giving up can sap your confidence and discourage others.
Worst of all, giving up means you missed out on all the potential pleasures of your planned bicycle tour.
my personal experience
In all honesty, I’ve wanted to give up many times since my husband and I set off in 2006.
Once, I was even so fed up with biking Africa that we flew to India to do some easy cycling and chill out for 6 months. We radically changed out our plans. It was the right thing to do.
In early 2008 oppressive heat in Kwa-Zula Natal made me hate bike touring. As we cycled East Africa I was often plagued by a deep loneliness and sense of disconnection.
A dull route and long periods without rest lead to more thoughts of quitting as we cycled Mexico in late 2010. Winds almost got the best of me as we cycled Patagonia just a few months back. Tensions with my husband have often lead me to question if two on tour is sustainable over the long term.
After almost five years on the road, I’ve discovered a few minor adjustments that can mean the difference being giving up and forging on. Here are a few simple tips that will greatly increase your chances of a ‘successful’ bike tour.
Ride your ride and nobody else’s. I spent the better part of four years getting down on myself for not being a super-tough cyclist. I’d berate myself for being a wimp. Why couldn’t I be more like Al Humphreys? He’d never complain about a 10-hour day in the saddle or sleeping in a ditch and missing a shower after a long, hard ride. Jeff Kruys never whined about sleeping rough and those long, empty stretches of road in South America. Rob Lilwall wouldn’t get grumpy about a little wind and cold weather. The team from Pikes on Bikes wouldn’t be griping about a measly 3,800 meter pass.
Finally I realized I was chasing somebody else’s dreams. It’s taken me a long time to accept that I’m no super-athlete who willingly withstands great hardship. I’m up for a challenge now and then, but dammit, I like hot showers.
Not comparing your ride to anyone else’s seems pretty obvious, but I’m certain there are others who struggle with this.
Finding the right rhythm, your personal right rhythm, is the key to staying happy on a bicycle tour. Some go slowly, others race around the world. One’s no better than the other.
Get the seasons right. Again, this seems pretty straightforward, but I know of several cases where lack of planning around climate patterns has wrecked a bicycle tour.
There was the couple who set off in September for Africa via Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It was no surprise when a few months later there were dispatches from Ukraine complaining about frigid weather and horrific cycling conditions. Sadly, the couple returned home by train, never even making it as far as Istanbul.
Had they left in say, April or May, cycled across Europe in the summer and arrived in northern Africa in the cooler winter months, I’ve no doubt they’d have made it all the way to Cape Town.
Climate conditions play a big role in the enjoyment of a bike tour. Sure there’s the odd cyclist who embraces the challenge of biking Scandinavia in the dead of winter, but most of us prefer more moderate conditions. It’s up to us to make that happen.
Granted if you’re planning a world tour it’s tough to always hit the seasons right, but at least give climate conditions some serious thought.
Set a budget and stick to it. I know I risk sounding like a nag here, but if you blow 3-month’s budget partying with new friends in Bangkok, there’s nobody to blame but yourself when you have to fly home early.
If your plan is to cycle from the UK to Australia, it’s not too difficult to figure out how long that will take and how much money you’ll need to save. The internet is filled with bicycle touring blogs and people who are open and willing to share information about the cost of traveling.
There are plenty of cyclists (mostly solo guys under 30) who manage to cycle the world spending less than $300 per month. They camp wild, dine on pasta flavored with Maggi cubes, rarely treat themselves to a beer or an ice-cold coke and would never dream of checking into a hostel just because it’s storming outside.
Depending on your financial situation, bicycle touring may entail certain sacrifices in regards to comfort. If you’ve got limited funds (and let’s be honest, most of us do), it’s probably best to set yourself some budget rules in the beginning lest you be tempted into soft beds and evenings out on the town.
Splurge once in a while. Isn’t that a contradiction with Tip 3? Absolutely not. Splurge ONCE IN A WHILE. Don’t make it a habit or it’ll break your budget. My personal splurge is ice cream. It’s my pick-me-up at the end of a tough day when I’m grouchy and irritable. A simple ice cream cone can literally transform me from a raging madwoman who’s threatening to pack it all up and return to the cubicle into a contented cyclist who’s looking forward to tomorrow’s ride.
Maybe ice cream isn’t much of a splurge for you. Perhaps you need to check into a comfortable hotel or dine out at a fancy restaurant. What’s important is that you forget all about the budget once in a while and just do something that picks you up and pulls you out of a rut.
Find the right partner (and maybe that means going solo).
Nothing will ruin a tour quicker than an incompatible touring partner. Be brutally honest with yourself and your potential partner before setting off.
Can you really function with another human being by your side 24-7?
There are some notable exceptions (revolution cycle, riding the spine and cycling silk) but the fact is few friendships can withstand the strain of bicycle touring.
Couples usually fare better, but I can think of more than one big breakup brought on by a bicycle tour.
My advice? Take a few test tours with your potential partner under tough conditions (maybe purposefully run low on food and water, cycle an especially unpleasant stretch of highway, camp rough, seek out climate extremes) before committing to a major bike tour.
Invest in a quality bike and gear and plan for replacement parts.
Again, this seems pretty logical, but I continue to be amazed at how many cyclists skimp on the essentials.
Before setting off, we thought $2,800 was an absurd price to pay for a bicycle. Way too expensive.
Now, I think forking out the money for a quality touring bike was the best decision we ever made. Our Kogas have got almost 100,000 kilometers on them and, although showing signs of wear and tear, they’re still going strong.
There are lots of quality touring bikes on the market. You certainly won’t go wrong with a Surly, a Santos or a Thorn Raven.
If you’re a keen bike mechanic and have the know-how to build your own touring bike, all the better.
A word about quality replacement parts. They’re hard to find outside of Western Europe, North America and Australia.
If you do find things like Schwalbe Marathon tires or Shimano XT parts in developing countries, they’re expensive.
We try to plan ahead and have packages of replacement parts sent along the way.
This is not all that difficult. The Poste Restante system works pretty well in most countries. Just have your package addressed like this:Joe Smith General Post Office Poste Restante Nairobi, Kenya
That’s all there is to it. Then you just show up at the post office, flash them your passport and pick up your package. We’ve used this system for years and haven’t lost a package yet.
You could also have packages sent to a contact from couchsurfing or warm showers. We’ve tried this, to,o on multiple occasions and it works great.
To sum up, get a good bike, decent gear and plan for replacement parts and you’ll be a whole lot happier on the road.
Balance out cycling with other activities.
It’s surprisingly easy to get burned out on bicycle touring if you’re on the road for a long time. Biking suddenly loses its zing and you might as well be back at the cubicle.
Too much biking will make your brain rot. We all need mental stimulation. There are three things that keep me sane and balanced on the road.
Podcasts have made a huge difference in my life. Really. I feel more connected with the rest of the world and I’m able to tune out when faced with an unpleasant situation. Plus I learn all sorts of interesting things and am entertained while I pedal. If you’re not already a podcast junkie, at least give them a try.
2. A computer
My own computer. Again, silly as it seems, this has been life changing. If you’re cycling as a couple I strongly urge you to consider two computers. It’s not extravagant. You will greatly reduce your number of arguments. You will gain independence. You can wallow in selfishness, watching the movie you want to watch, checking out the blogs you’re interested in, journaling, editing your photos, doing what you want without waiting for your partner to finish up what he/she is doing.
For me, going back to one computer is about as enticing as using the same toothbrush or sharing underwear. A computer gives me a creative and, for lack of a better word, intellectual outlet.
You may also want to consider planning your tour around a theme or project. Mel and Kate are exploring environmental conservation as they cycle the silk road, Anna and Dave took a look at Permaculture in Africa, Christy and Adam are on a charity bike ride around the US with the mission of spreading health and happiness through the gift of a bike. Pete Gostelow gives presentations at schools as he rides through Africa.
The point is, they’re all focusing on something besides just riding and checking out the beautiful scenery. They’re balancing out all the physical with a little mental.
Those are my tips for a successful bike tour. While there’s nothing earth shattering about any of them, taking into account these simple truths will help you keep going on instead of giving up.
Remember: Life’s better on a Bike!
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18 thoughts on “7 Tips for a Successful Bicycle Tour”
Hi Amaya & Eric, After seeing this site I just wanted to say I have found it to be very informative. I’m getting ready to head off into the blue yonder myself next year so any good advice is always welcome, especially from those who have actually been there done that.
I’ve been dealing with getting through a pesky chronic illness these past several years and my trip will be part of the ultimate recovery.
Thanks for inspiring. May the road rise to meet you and the wind be at your backs.
Love tip one – we holiday by bicycle rather than cycle tour! We also always carry a small, lightweight pouch we call our everything pack. It’s no more than 8x10cm but holds all the little extras that come in handy. It usually has – waterproof matches, tea light, credit card style pocket knife, small bottles of sun screen and insect repellant, a very small sewing kit, super glue, emergency blanket, ear plugs. Happy cycling
We have just followed through on tip number 7. We used to travel with one iPad and one computer, but felt it was limiting because most things are so much easier, faster and better documented on a computer. Now I can download my own movies and spend time planning routes and working way faster with both of us on a computer. Very happy!
Thanks for your tips!
So agree with #2!
For the high altitude stretch of the Pamir highway, we only carried one laptop.W e didn’t miss not being to use a computer while wild camping. But as soon as an electrical outlet was available, out came the laptop. For the person using it, time flew. But for the other – they just kept jealously watching and asking, “Aren’t you finished using it yet?”
We were SO HAPPY when we picked up the second laptop. Squabbling ended and we were 2 happy cyclists again.
We also combined our trip with a project, photographing bicycle culture around the world. I felt like it really added to the trip, having a mental challenge as well as a physical one.