by The VO Brain Trust
So, spring is here (or at least you have an idea that it going to show up someday) and you're itching to get out for a little tour. Nothing huge, maybe no Trans Am for you this year, but a nice tour of an area that you have eyed for a while. All of us at VO have done some touring over the years and we wanted to help with the prep for your trip by offering some tips/advice to make it more enjoyable.
Start your route planning with either a big paper map or looking at the biggest space on google maps. Figure out where you'd like to go - are there hot springs or some sort of natural sights you want to see? Mark them all on the map and then you can use Google maps to link them using the bicycling route mode. It's really handy as you can break it down by the distance you want to cover per day, and it gives you a rough elevation profile, so you can see how hilly it is. The other aspect to this is to have a Plan B. This can mean a different way to get from A to B, even using public transit to get around. Unless your time is unlimited, and, depending on tour length, you might want to build in a one to three day buffer. You might need some extra rest, have a major mechanical, sustain an injury, or simply come across a cool town or park you'd like more time to explore.
When measured at the Adventure Cycling offices in Missoula, Montana, my fully loaded bike for a cross-country tour, weighed in at about 85 pounds. I'm also the guy who brought a banjo.
I don't want to belittle any of the so-called "weight weenies" out there, but, in my opinion, touring is not the time to worry about every little added ounce. Trust me, two or three pounds is not going to matter much when you are chugging your way along the trail. I would much rather have a jug of water strapped on my rack than insignificant weight savings. Weight doesn't matter if you can't hydrate! Bring the essentials but remember: you will likely find towns inhabited by other humans who share the same basic needs for food, clothing, and hygiene. This all being said, pack appropriately for the length and type of tour.
One way to get a light touring bike is to go on a "credit card" tour, dining out and staying in cozy B&Bs along the way.
Basic Fix-it Knowledge
Speaking of gearing up, the classic cliche applies: expect the unexpected. More importantly, be prepared. It's best to have some basic mechanical knowledge of the workings of your bicycle. It is a good idea to take a couple basic mechanic courses at your local shop to get more familiar with your bike. Be sure to carry tools and spare parts such as: tubes, tire levers, pump (do not rely on CO2 canisters), multi-tool, chain tool + quick links, small crescent wrench, and a couple spare screws for racks/fenders.
Try before you leave
One thing that a lot of folks forget to do is test everything before they leave. If possible, put all your bags and such on the bike, make sure everything fits and is balanced well, and then take it for a ride. An overnight is best, but it doesn't have to be a huge ride either if time is short. But is it very important to go out for a couple hours over similar terrain to where you'll be riding to assess your equipment and gear. Do the bags need to be tightened up? Is my heel clipping the bag? Does a strap need to be cut down? If you're using a tent, put it together and break it down so you know how it all fits together and packs. We have put many a tent together with fading or no light, so practice. Little things like that will save time and frustration and allow you to better understand how your bike feels with weight on it.
Think about the clothes that you need and if anything can be multi purpose. I have a couple synthetic and mixed textile shirts from Eddie Bauer that are super comfortable on the bike and are great for hopping off the bike and into a restaurant or museum - i.e. blending in. They're also long sleeve, so I can roll them up and down depending on the temperature. Having multi-purpose clothes means you can pack fewer articles which reduces bulk and weight and generally keeps your clothing kit simpler which is always good.
Learn Some Words
There's a big difference between "trinkwasser" and "kein trinkwasser". One will hydrate you, the other may give you diarrhea.
If you're going to a country where English isn't their first language, learn a few basic words such as hello, goodbye, please, thank you, bathroom, food. Knowing the absolute basics when entering a store or asking someone for help, at least attempting the local language, puts everyone significantly more at ease. It has happened to me many times where if I am having trouble communicating with one person, they will grab someone else and a team effort begins. People are generally very good. In an pinch, charades is pretty universal - you know, rubbing your tummy for food, holding your nether regions and jumping around for bathroom, and folded hands against your head for sleep.
Always Read the Plaque
The mantra “always read the plaque” comes from Roman Mars and the 99% Invisible podcast crew. Keep that in mind as you go from place to place. If you see a plaque, stop and learn something about the history of the landmarks and towns you pass. It’s a great opportunity to soak in the scenery (and take a break from pedaling).
Rely on the Kindness of Strangers
The nomadic nature of your fully loaded bike will undoubtedly draw the attention of others. Embrace the strangers with their questions and offers of hospitality. You never know when you might get a invitation to a meal, an amazing story, or a bag of fresh apples. Locals are a great resource.
Do some research or ask around. Camping is typically the preferred option of bike tourists -- and can be as cheap as free -- but on well-traveled bicycle routes you will often find no shortage of churches, hostels, and even homes welcoming cyclists to stay the night. Shout out to WarmShowers too.
Enjoy the Ride!
Every day on the road will not always be your best day. Touring presents many challenges that cannot be anticipated or covered in one blog post. But there is a reason you decided to go on a bicycle tour, whether it's to challenge yourself, enjoy the scenery, or travel somewhere new. So hang on for the ride and enjoy it while you can.
I'll let Ernest Hemingway close things out:
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. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.