Cycle Touring for Beginners - by a Beginner
I decided to write this article just 4 months from starting my first ever cycle tour on the 1st August 2017, as I wanted all the feelings and experiences to be fresh in my mind to better convey it to those of you planning your first tour. This advice is from my own experience and my own view, other people will have other views so check out the views of a few other beginners too, and even the views of very experienced touring cyclists.
If you haven't rode a bicycle before or been on a road, click on the Go link, as this will be the very first think you need to be able to do:
OK, so you can ride a bicycle proficiently and safely on public roads and are ready to set out on your first ever bicycle tour
For my advice on the best build of bicycle you might require, click on the Go link.
For ease of writing I'm going to call a tour of under a couple of months a Short Tour, and for anything over that a Long Tour
The length of tour and tour destination(s) will determine the quality and type of bicycle and other equipment you might need to carry. You will have to consider your health and fitness, costs, visas and transportation.
For a short tour covering mixed terrain and moderate weather conditions, you can pack quite lightly. You will be able to get away without showering every day, shaving or washing your hair. You can slum it if you want, wearing the same clothes day after day or for the whole tour if you feel like it. Yes, you will likely stink and feel grubby, but hey. You could even starve for a few weeks and not suffer to many health issues as a result, but don't do that if you can help it, your going to need the energy if you want to enjoy your tour at its best.
You're not going to be slumming it for long and will soon be back in the comfort of your home and will get back to normal really quickly. That said, you can also take everything you want to take and stay as clean as you like, its up to you after all. I'm not wanting to scare you from doing this, and I'm really trying to not make it sound too complex a task, I'm just trying to give you plenty of things to think about, that may trigger you to think of things more relative to you that I have mentioned.
Many short tour cyclists travel ultra-light, some without even a tent, and that's the beauty of a short tour. The bicycle can be of a cheaper build or you could rent or borrow one, the tent can be cheap and cheerful, and the same goes for the rest of the kit. You can turn the key in the door of your home, get someone to feed the cat, and off you go.
While on a short tour you could do what some call credit card touring if you can afford to, which means staying in a cheap hotel each night, planning and booking hotels beforehand or along your route, or just look for a hotel towards the end of each day in case you decide you want to cycle farther that day or find somewhere else to stay.
For a long tour it isn't as easy to go credit card, unless you're filthy rich of course. A single year of staying in hotels could cost many thousands, even 10's of thousands, so nobody does that. Keeping clean and tidy, washing clothes, neatness and order is much more important to the long tour cyclist. Getting into a routine early on in the first few weeks is important and just happens.
While cycling through France along the Atlantic coast, I tagged on to a group of 9 great guys for day who were on a cycle tour for 5 days. They were covering 80 km's every single day, which was just too much for me because this was my first tour and I wasn't fit enough at that time and I was also carrying almost twice the weight in my bags, but I did keep up with them for the time we spent together that day. Packing my pannier bags with more than I needed couldn't really be helped, as I just didn't know what I was going to need until I was well into my tour, and people are different and want to pack different things.
Staying in hotels or bed and breakfasts means not having to carry camping gear, food, cooking equipment, clothing for different climates, and so many other things. You can pedal as hard as you like all day, knowing that you're guaranteed a nice shower and prepared meals. I have booked a hotel or 2 myself in advance when there were no campsites ahead and no wild camping likely, and I can tell you that the feeling of knowing digs are sorted is so comforting, I found myself able to cover so many more km's at just the thought of it, and my own experience has now had me joining Warmshowers to hopefully find a host or two as I go.
A bicycle for long tours will have to be much tougher, as it will have to take a beating day after day for many months or years. It will be capable of carrying more kit. It will have to be easy to repair and the parts will need to be of better and stronger quality. Lets just say, that you could have some real fun with a family car off-road for a day, but for much longer than that you would need a more dedicated vehicle. And that's why most long tour cyclists opt for expedition bicycles.
You could argue that in a week on a short tour you will be riding the same conditions as someone on a long tour, and that might be true, but if your bike fell apart during your tour, it wouldn't be good but would only spoiled your holiday, and you go home if you can't fix it. For the person geared up for long tour, it could be that the house has been rented out or sold, all belongings in storage, years of preparation down the tubes, the cat had been left with the RSPCA, the job back home has gone along with all the bridges. To take on a really long tour, some pretty big sacrifices have likely had to be made, and so the bike has to be built for the task. All the gear has to be up for the task.
If you plan to camp, you're going to want to be comfortable and dry, and it ideally should be really light but very strong. There are loads of tents out there that are up to the task, but the one that I am thrilled with is the Hubba Hubba NX 2 person tent. It isn't cheap by a long shot, but I needed something for a very long tour, something that was light yet strong, and after 3 months of some brutal treatment from me, I really can't fault it. But still, if its a short tour you're doing, you could probably get away with something much cheaper, that will at the very least keep you dry for a little while. Instead of spending hundreds, you might find something ideal that costs next to nothing.
The same goes for all your equipment, you don't need to spend a fortune on equipment for a short tour, but just make sure its likely to get you through. You can always invest in better gear if your first tour is a success and you want more.