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.

giving up

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.

Tip 1

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.

Tip 2

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.

Tip 3

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.

Tip 4

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.

Tip 5

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.

Tip 6

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.

Tip 7

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.

1.   Podcasts

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.

3.  Projects

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.

That’s it

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!

Have your say!
Agree?  Disagree?  If you’ve got tips for successful bicycle touring, please share in the comments section below!

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7 Tips for a Successful Bicycle Tour

18 thoughts on “7 Tips for a Successful Bicycle Tour

  • July 5, 2011 at 2:50 PM
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    Tip #5 is spot on. I begged my girlfriend to go touring with and finally she gave in and said yes. Reluctantly. Very reluctantly. I’d more than twisted her arm.

    What a disaster. I wish we’d just agreed to take some time apart for a few months. I could have biked alone at my pace instead of spending every day pleading with her to get a move on.

    The tour almost broke us up. So guys, don’t let it happen to you. Only ride with the willing.

    Reply
    • July 6, 2011 at 10:59 AM
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      Sorry you went through some tough times but thank you for sharing your experiences. Two on tour is tough, There’s no two ways about it.

      Reply
  • July 5, 2011 at 3:24 PM
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    There are definitely 7 tips here, not 6! 😛

    I completely agree with 1, 2, 5 and 7, from experience.

    For my first few months on the road (not to mention during the planning) I was living other people’s…. well, not even their journeys, but the ones they presented in retrospect, which were impossible to understand in my complete inexperience.

    Hitting winter in the Caucasus almost put paid to progress too – I ended up waiting around for week in various cities waiting for winter equipment to show up in the post, or not. (Strangely I later become the odd cyclist who rode through the Scandinavian winter for kicks!)

    Cycling with my best mate, while fun for a long time, also ended up outliving its useful life long before we’d anticipated. Going our separate ways was critical, otherwise we’d have probably killed each other.

    Finally your advice to do something other than cycling is spot on. I incorporated a lot of creative pursuits into my days on the road but also took a LOT of extended breaks in different cities – almost two of the four years I was away was off the bike.

    Great article!

    Reply
    • July 6, 2011 at 10:58 AM
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      Yes, 7 tips…got that corrected now. Thanks.
      I’m glad you pointed out the importance of extended breaks. If you’re really on a long haul tour, it’s probably best to fit a long stretch of down time in every 3 months or so. The body, but even more so the mind, needs time to rest and recuperate.

      Reply
  • October 12, 2011 at 12:17 PM
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    Wow what a great article Amaya, and it’s just made me feel a whole lot better about certain aspects of our long bike tour.. we spend more time off the bikes than on them, teaching English, staying with people, exploring new places and I often worry that we should be cycling more.

    Tip 1 is crucial but a really hard lesson to learn and it’s natural to compare yourself to others, especially if they are the ones who inspired you in the first place. I regularly think about Al Humphreys ride and how soft I am in comparison. If we cycle with other people I always worry I’ll be too slow and hold everyone up. But I also have to realise that I am doing something that not that many other people would even consider doing and that it is my journey, and my choice to be here. It is also really important not to beat yourself up because you like a hot shower now and again, or don’t feeling like camping in the rain on the outskirts of a major city with trucks whizzing by, when you could pay for a cheap room somewhere in town. Cycle touring doesn’t have to be about suffering!

    What you said about cycling in the heat, well I felt the same in Malaysia and really didn’t enjoy our time there as I was constantly battling headaches in the 40 degree heat. I don’t really function to well in very hot temperatures, so finding ways to cope is an option or just avoid places that are seriously too much for you. Yes you’ll feel like a wimp, but you have to listen to your body too. A challenge is one thing, but misery is another.

    Have you own computer, yes, yes and yes! Took Chris over a year to persuade me that this would be a good idea. It is probably the only thing that we ever argued about. But it is so good, you can both blog, browse, design, write and have your own ‘downtime’. When you spend all your time together, you still need ‘space’ and your own laptop is a way to have that space. Highly recommend this.

    And on having the right partner, well we’ve been extremely lucky and love being together all the time. The bike trip was Chris’s idea and dream, I took some convincing. The reasons why we’ve succeeded: communication, patience, humour, flexibility and kindness. You have to talk/listen to each other and be honest. As a newbie to cycle touring Chris was patience and encouraging and didn’t expect me to whiz up mountains or cycle 150km a day. He makes me laugh when I get frustrated or feel like giving up, and we joke about each others idiosyncrasies. If we’re not happy we change our plans and flex. But most of all you have to be kind to each other – you only have each other on the road.

    Reply
    • October 17, 2011 at 11:45 PM
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      ” A challenge is one thing, but misery is another.” How true! I’m going to keep that in mind if we get caught up in some scorchers while cycling Malaysia.

      Reply
  • January 4, 2012 at 6:08 AM
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    Hi,

    Some good pointers.

    A netbook and iPod for me is a certainty. Podcasts, great idea 🙂

    A good read, thank you.

    Nigel

    Reply
  • March 24, 2012 at 2:18 PM
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    Just found your website, really great reading and tips! So inspiring.

    It would be interesting to hear which computer you bring with you on the tour.

    Thank you
    Fredrik

    Reply
    • April 8, 2012 at 7:28 AM
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      We’ve gone through several computers since we started.

      A couple broke down due to wear and tear in Africa and 2 were stolen.

      Currently Eric uses a small Gateway LT27 and I’ve got a big Compaq Presario CQ-56-115DX.

      These were chosen based on price mostly. We didn’t search out anything extra sturdy and certainly not lightweight in my case.

      I like a big screen for photo editing, watching movies, etc.

      Reply
  • April 15, 2012 at 12:05 PM
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    Hi Amaya, love your tips which are all very valid. Just wondering, – ref. to tip 3 (budget planning) – how do you plan financing when setting out for more than a 1 to 3-months trip? I am working since 20 years at the agency your husband worked for, but wouldn’t dare to go for a longer than 3 months cycling tour, (apart problems from financing our grown up kids etc.) I read your chapter on trip financing, still…any budget runs out after some time. So, how often you have to stop biking for work? And which country it’s the easiest in respect to earning/living costs?
    keep going, good luck! Simon

    Reply
  • November 4, 2012 at 11:25 AM
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    I wish your great tips were around in 1989 when my wife & I left Portsmouth on Nov 5th to cycle to Portugal, virtually on a whim. A couple of Kiwis late 20s early 30s on cheap mountain bikes winter clothes & camping gear. Hills hail headwinds but one hell of a time. We made it from Cherbourg to Lisbon by Xmas. Sometimes it was cold & very wet & uncomfortable, but man oh man what an adventure, picking mushrooms from the fields as we passed, buying veges from farmers (most were given to us) camping in the forest, cuddling up by a camp fire to keep warm, snuggling up in the tent sheltering from French winter rain. Here’s another bit of advice: get any old bike some camping gear just do it. Come on watching the news on 2 different channels every night is not an adventure.

    Reply
  • December 13, 2012 at 2:50 AM
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    It was a nice understanding of a normal needs in a long trip… Thank you for sharing! i am a latin man whats keep me still is just one big question, anyone feel free to answer it!!! how can you support (money) in a monthly trip??? if u have not a regular income???? meaning i have to quit my job to do it, is any way to make some money on the road??? if someone can give me an idea about it… thank you so much!

    Reply
  • February 22, 2013 at 7:10 PM
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    I found this post and just wanted to say thanks. I’m getting ready for my very first bike tour with my boyfriend in Iceland and was just thinking today about bagging the whole thing. You article gave me a bit of hope, like maybe I can do this after all. So Thanks.

    Reply
  • March 11, 2013 at 1:19 PM
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    I love all of these great tips. I also think that eating the right foods play an important role. If you eat foods that are full of grease and fat then they are going to make you feel more sluggish than foods that give you energy while you are riding. Great stuff!

    Reply

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