Saturday, 13 August 2011

An idiot's guide to Cycle Touring

From April to July 2002 I cycled across South America from Buenas Aires, Argentina, to the coast of Peru. It took 3 months and I covered 6500km. I used to have a diary and some other pages hosted on a free website that has now closed down, so to keep the memories alive I've reposted the info here.

The Idiot´s Guide to Happy Cycle Touring

A. Buy a bike.

A fundamental point, without a bike, you can't ride. Should you already have a rideable bike (frame, 2 wheels and a saddle at least), you can skip to the next point.

So the bike you want is the top of the range Cannondale with the suspension in the headset that you can turn off for on-road cycling, and then adjust for off road cycling, because of course you will want to do both at some stage, and the lifetime guarantee that comes with a new, genuine frame will come in very useful. But of course, like most of us, you probably don't have the spare £1000 plus needed for this dream machine, or you wouldn't be considering cycle touring in the first place, you would be flying to the Seychelles to escape the inner-city job with associated stress that gives people that kind of money.

On the other hand, what you really don't want to pick up is a cheap Halford's special for £99 either. Chances are very important parts of the bike, like the frame, are made from plastic that will break after a week's general use entailing a daily cycle to Tescos to get the groceries.

To avoid headaches later I strongly recommend buying a bike from a recognised dealer, as most offer good guarantees and after sales services. End/beginning of the year sales are held by most bike dealers to get rid of last years models when one can pick up a reasonable bike at good value. If you have the time, but don't have the money then is a vast resource. However, trying to find a bargain bike in good condition is like trying to pan for gold - you gotta get through a lot of dirt to find a real nugget.

If you are going to be buying a second hand bike there are several extra things to look at:

Judge a bike by its cover.

Bikes are not like books, firstly they are usually not made of paper, and it is possible to gauge the approximate state of the bike by looking at its 'cover'. If the bike is full of knocks and scratches, then chances are that the all-important components have been through similar treatment and will need replacing when it is most inconvenient for you.

The serial killer.

Don't be surprised if someone you approach for a second hand bike isn't trying to sell an old bike of yours back to you. Make sure that the serial number is intact and has not been filed off so that you can be sure that you are not dealing in stolen products, because if you are the you will receive no pity from me if your bike gets confiscated by police just as you are setting off.

Its also not unheard of for the labels of brand name bikes to be applied to cheap models on the standard assembly line in Taiwan. Be careful you are not paying over the odds just because the bike is covered in Scott or Cannondale stickers.

Otherwise the standard items on the bike need to be checked as if you were buying a bike new:

a. Choosing the correct Size is Wise.

Make sure the frame size of the bike is suited to you. My height of 1.71m suits me ideally to a size 18 or 19 inch frame, but I have done one of my longest tours on a 17 inch frame. If in doubt you should realise that you can always put the saddle up on a smaller bike, and this is better than travelling like a sheep on the spit, which is what you will feel like on a bike that is too big.

b. The Fame of the Frame.

The rhetorical question I have been asked most often while cycling through South America is: What is your frame made of? Aluminium? And I always have to reply 'No, Chromoly'. The wisdom of the streets is that aluminium is lighter and stronger, and although I've never done any tests to prove otherwise, I am sure it is true. However, chromoly frames are pretty good too, and although they may not be lighter at least they tend to be cheaper. When discussing the importance of frame weight, I can never help but be reminded of the most well travelled man in the world, as listed in the Guinness book of Records, who had done it all with a bike that weighs 25kg.

c. Components maketh the Bike.

These days there are a lot of bikes with fancy names, which are suitable only for looking pretty in a shop window and on being ridden will infer the feeling that you are on a date with a mannequin. It looks good, but there is something missing.

Shimano shmanoh.

Virtually every bike on the shelf these days has shimano components. Saying that your bike has Shimano components is a bit like saying that your bike has two wheels. Big Deal - what you need to do a bit of research into the different group sets that are commonly found, and which are one of the determining factors in the price of a bike.

Up Shipman's Peak without a saddle.

As important as the paddle is to the canoe, so is the saddle to the bike. Just try see how far you can cycle before being overcome by the overwhelming urge to sit down - not more than a couple of miles I'll wager.

So now that we have seen how important the saddle is, you'll understand that although it doesn't affect the operation of the bike, its is still very important. The last thing you want is a saddle which can only be sat on for a couple of hours. Generally speaking, one's ass will eventually take on the feel of one's saddle, so if you have a brick for a saddle, then soon your ass will feel the same and although you may be surprised by the answer you receive when you ask your partner when they last had a good feel of a brick, I am sure you will find that having an ass calloused like a brick is not a desirable thing.

Also the effects of too much time in the saddle on one's manhood are infamous - choose your saddle with care.

As for saddle height - a quick way to get your saddle to a comfortable height is simple to put your armpit on the saddle and then with a stretched arm make sure you can touch the base of your crank arm (the bit that attaches the pedal to the bike).

The Wheel Deal

Smooth roads - smooth tyres, Rough roads - knobblies. Although I think that good smooth tyres resist punctures almost as well as knobblies, when it comes to cycling in sand and you have slick tyres then it will be a bit like a car trying to navigate over ice - little control and lots of wheel spinning. Cycling long distances on tar roads with knobblies will ensure that you have a constant humming from the tar throughout your journey, and you will reach your destination just that little bit later due to the almost unnoticeable extra friction. But then again you won’t feel inhibited about going off road for a bit of fun, and will feel less paranoid about cycling down dodgy roads covered in glass crystal.

B. Learn how to ride.

I'm not being facetious! If you really don't know how to ride then don't take off those training wheels for at least a week, but the truth of the matter is that a bike handles really differently when carrying an extra 20+kg of weight. Its a bit like turning a Ferrari into a 6 ton Bedford truck. The brakes which used to send you flying over the handle bars when you first touched them now won't respond without a WakeUp! squeeze. And don't even think of indulging in an out of the saddle sprint that the riders do for the last hundred meters of a Tour de France stage as you, bike and panniers will all end up on different sides of the road.

Remember that it is a lot harder getting up hills with extra weight, but that the speeds descending them will be that much more exhilarating. Just make sure you are prepared for any intersections at the bottom, and that you don't become intimate with the side of a truck because your brakes melted while trying to go from 70 to 0mph in 3 seconds.

Training of some sort is imperative before starting a cycle tour, if it is just basic fitness you are after or hoping to do long distances, in which case endurance training is a must. This takes time and is a step beyond maybe the hour or two that most people are able to donate to this mission while actively employed in a normal lifestyle of working, breathing, drinking. So therefore...

C. On the Road...

Try and make the first day's ride a short distance. This is the day when problems are likely to arise with the fine tuning of the bike, but also on completion you should still feel good and strong which will put you in a positive mind for the rest of the trip. If a long distance is attempted on the first day then one is more likely to feel weary and discouraged.

May I intimate that it is a good idea for beginner cyclists to join a tour with backup vehicles that can provide relief in the case of exhaustion or emergencies. If however one is independent cycling, then a serious consideration would be to mix cycling with doing some legs of the trip by train, bus or automobile. Of course, when this is allowed, either by partners in cycling, or by the bureaucratic institutions under which we live which indiscriminately bar bikes from commercial transport, is another question. Happily, in almost every developing country, carry a bike on a bus is as normal as stacking in the goats and chickens – although these are often a good reason to keep on cycling!

Resting – the heart of happy cycling

It is highly unlikely that the pace you set at the start of a long cycle will be the pace you maintain for the entire journey, given that gradient, wind and road surface remain the same.

However there are steps you can take to try to maintain a constant average speed. Make sure that you take breaks when you feel you need to. Trying to finish a set distance when you are feeling tired will slow you down, and after a break your pace will be quicker than if you don't take one and you will feel a lot better for it.

If you are dealing with steep or long hills, an alternate to taking a stop is to simply get off your bike and walk. The change in position and use of different muscles goes a long way to relieving tired muscles. Don’t let that EGO thing get in the way of having fun. Take breaks in shady areas, preferably where there is a breeze in warm areas, as the absence of the cooling affect of the constant cooling breeze that is encountered while moving will often result in one breaking out in a heavy sweat. Conversely, bear in mind in cool areas that the heat generated from exercise generally dissipates after 10 minutes and that it is a good idea to put a jersey on soon after stopping if you are stopping for any extended length of time.

Cycling Hills

Unless you are in an extreme rush to get somewhere, coasting at the start of a descent and on long downhills is always a chance to stretch, change position and give the knees a break.

Try and make the most of the velocity gained from your downhill to get as far up the next hill as possible. I find that I can often power through smaller hills using the standing position, and then work my way through all the gears to the one that I am most comfortable with for that particular gradient.

Road Surfaces

Over the course of one's journey one will learn that there is not just tar roads and dirt roads, but that each of these has a multitude of different personalities with respect to texture, smoothness, verges, maintenance and lane demarcation in the case of tar roads. Dirt roads tend to be more schizophrenic, and need a lot more care and attention from the cyclist.

Generally, on tar roads, always make use of the smoothest, flattest section you can find. Some tar consists of a lot of gravel, giving it a rougher texture, and are harder on one's tyres and require just the tiniest amount of extra effort to travel over. When the option is available i.e. there is not a lot of traffic, it can sometimes even be worth cycling on the wrong side of the road to make the most of a better stretch of tar. However, of course that is not official advise.

Dirt roads are so diverse in their rideability that each one is unique and has its own personality. Unpaved roads have every possible combination of sand to rock, and we don't even want to throw rain or water into the equation.

Generally speaking, roads that are mostly sand have several aspects one needs to be aware of.

Firstly, even if you have a good sand road (read ´hard and flat) there will often be accumulations of soft sand on verges or corners. Deep soft sand will cause your tyres to loose traction and also result in a rapid loss of speed if approached from a hard surface. This means that your front wheel will often want to start travelling in a new direction, and one has to be very careful to keep one's line i.e. don't try turning or changing direction as even a slight change will be over emphasised by the bike.

So if on a road that is mostly soft sand, cycling is very difficult, firstly because it requires a lot more effort to keep moving. Smooth or road tyres exacerbate this problem, and it really pays to have offroad or 'knobbly' tyres to increase traction. Smooth tyres often just spin in soft sand, making forward propulsion a dream. Secondly, because of the difficulty with steering the bike in a semi-straight line as soft sand tends to overemphasise the slightest motions of the handlebars.

Very sandy roads are also hell on one's components as dust gets into all moving parts and at least makes the bike squeaky and noisy, and at worst destroys bearings, chain links and other important bits and pieces. Washing and drying the bike after a day in the sand is important, and a service of the bearings should be considered after an extensive amount of time on dirt roads.

One might consider that dirt roads with lots of stone or rocks are a lot better - but this of course depends on the size of the rocks. Large loose rocks are very practically impossible to cycle over as they halt movement, and change wheel direction. However, on a good road with occasional rocks then the danger lies in hitting a rock at speed, which could result in an accident, but will more likely result in an impact puncture (where the tube becomes trapped and cut between the rim of the tire and the rock). On rough roads it is usually necessary to travel slowly, and although this will usually be the case, this needs to be born in mind when faced with a speedy downhill.

Dirt roads are also notorious for corrugations, those irritating bumps that are close together and make one's teeth chatter when encountered unexpectedly. Corrugations are normally found on wide dirt roads where traffic travels fairly fast. Although normally there will be some patch of the road free of them, usually at the very edges of the road, the only way to enjoy corrugated roads is to have a bike with really good suspension.

Cycling weather


Wind is usually your enemy or your friend, but rarely anything in between. You will often hear cyclists say that they only ever have the wind from the front, an extra burden in the whole cycling endeavour. On average though this statement is probably true as while cycling you do generate a bit of a breeze. Of course in hot weather this is a ´Good Thing´.

A headwind is one of the most tiring aspects of the weather that can be encountered. Most cyclists over the course of training or trips start to realise what kind of speed they can obtain through different terrain and up different gradients or hills. It is easier to account for one's speed through things that one can see. However, one can't feel the wind, and cyclists often tire themselves out prematurely by trying to attain the speed they are used to for a certain visible environment, not adequately allowing for the equivalent of a hand pushing one backwards. One has to realise that cycling into a wind will reduce one's average speed in relation to the strength of the wind.

Also, there is usually no let up in a prevailing wind unless the direction of the road changes or you are lucky, unlike hills which can go up and down thus giving the cyclists a break between bouts of effort.

When cycling into a headwind try and keep as low as possible, with all equipment well strapped down to offer as little resistance to the wind as possible. But no matter what precautions you take, expect to expend 30-50%, or more, energy on a windy day, or that you will travel a proportionate distance less.

If on the other hand you should be lucky enough to have a tail wind, sit up and enjoy the ride!


Unlike wind, rain is practically never your friend, and is my biggest excuse for taking a day off from the trail. Even with mud guards to protect against spray thrown up from the tyres, you won't stop all the water or rain from flying into your face. And water thrown up by the tyres from any road is always dirty or muddy, so apart from a grimey face at the end of the cycle and mud in one's eyes or over one's glasses, ingesting a fair amount of dirt is also a nasty side effect.

Staying dry in very wet weather is also basically impossible. Even with the most water proof, breathable materials sweat will condense inside a jacket if the water does not get in. Although supposedly there are totally water proof panniers, wrapping up everything like clothing and cameras is very important. There is nothing worse than having to set up camp for the night and having to deal with a wet sleeping bag.

Other hazards of cycling in the rain include:

1. Reduced visibility - make sure you wear high visibility clothing and use your lights so that vehicles will see you, and be extra carefull about running into obstacles along the road.

2. Reduced traction - wet roads are slippery, be really careful especially if you have smooth tyres or are riding on slippery surfaces like over railtracks or cobbled stones.

3. Floods and mudslides in vulnerable areas

4. Extra wear and tear on the bike - make sure every working component is properly lubricated and be aware that a lot of sand or mud will get into joints and bearings.

5. Increased health risks when wet and cold, ranging from increased vulnerability to influenza to more serious problems like hypothermia.


Sun and blue skies, its what most cyclists pray for. And providing you take appropriate precaution for riding on a sunny day, there really shouldn't be too much to worry about.

Use lots of an appropriately factored sun-block, even the brownest skins can suffer under conditions of prolonged exposure to the sun. Light skinned people should be really careful. With the cooling effects of the cycle generated breeze on the skin, one is often not aware of the burning taking place. If in doubt, cover up and wear a cap or hat, especially really sensitive areas like lips, nose, and the back of the neck which often gets most exposure.

In areas with lots of glare, like salt pans or around large bodies of water, sun-glasses can also be a good idea.

The heating effect of the sun also needs to be taken into account. On really hot days the body's need for water can double or triple. Make sure that you are carrying and drinking enough.


Although I have little experience in this area, the experience I have will not be forgotten in a hurry due to the permanent bruise on my ass from getting cocky while doing the La Paz to Coroico road in Bolivia. The pass I was crossing at 4000m was blocked off to traffic by ice and snow on the road. Of course I managed to weave my way through the accumulated cars, and after about 5 minutes of cautious cycling I started to get cocky. That of course was when I hit a patch of ice and my back wheel flipped out from under me depositing me in a painful pile on the wet cold road. From then on I took it very easy, always trying to maintain a straight a line as possible, going very slowly, and often on very icy patches I would lower my saddle and use my feet as skies to keep well balanced.

Otherwise I guess that there are also a thousand types of snow. Of course blizzards will be no fun, but in the light snow that I have cycled in, I would say that was better than rain as at least most of it bounces off and does not make one wet.

Avoiding Punctures

One can always take the Taoist approach to punctures and appreciate them for a break from the slog. Of course the reality is that you are now going to be covered in dirt and probably be sitting out in an exposed position in the hot sun, with loads of passer-byes laughing at your misfortune.

So try and avoid punctures... don’t ride into curbs, rocks, broken bottles or other nasty things lying in the road. Even innocuous looking logs can pierce good tyres, so be careful.

On the other hand, always be prepared for what can only be considered the inevitable event while cycling. Always have a couple of spare tubes and a good puncture repair kit, as there are always nails and other nasty things in the road that are never possible to see.

In the event of a puncture, make sure that the object causing the puncture has been identified and removed from the wheel, as it is silly to pump up a tube while there is still a nail sticking into the tyre.

Also, it is a good idea after cycling through city streets to remove any little pieces of glass that have embedded themselves in your tyres, as they will inevitably work there ways into the tyre, decreasing the life-span of the tyre, and lead to punctures. This should be done at the end of the day, as there is always the chance that a piece of glass has already pierced the tube, and by removing it you are effectively taking the plug out the bath so to say.

On a lighter note to happy cycling-

1. Don't ever attempt a cycle without adequate drinking supplies (And by that I don't mean beer!).

2. Slipstream your partner or random strangers on bikes as often as possible.

3. Carry as little weight as possible (give it all the heavy stuff to you cycling buddies, or get someone with a car to drop it off at your destination. Even better, get in the car and get dropped off at your destination)

4. Reset your cyclometer so that it reads speeds and distances far in excess of what you are really achieving so that you feel good about yourself and you can lie comfortably to your friends about what the computer said you achieved. However, don't then rely on it when you have destinations on your route that you know the distances too because then you'll just get discouraged when according to your computer you have cycled twice the distance needed to reach your destination without the destination actually being anywhere in sight.

5. If cycling with someone fitter or stronger than yourself, secretly tighten their back brakes so that they are permanently on. Then you will be flying ahead while they will be doing extra hard work just to keep up. Don't however do this if you want to remain friends with said person. A more surrepticious method of slowing down your fellow cyclist is the 'Blow Dart' method. Although it does require more skill and you will need to spend a few days practising before attempting this method, what it entails is carrying an Indian blowpipe with darts that you can shoot into the leading person's tyres when you are in need of a break, which you will get when the affected person stops to repair their puncture. You will also need to learn to conceal a 6ft blowpipe. Collapsable blowpipes can be concealed in the cycling shorts, but are bound to raise the eyebrows of your cycling partner, especially if they are of the opposite sex.

6. A large degree of happiness can be obtained when cycling by consuming chocolate. Cycling provides the perfect excuse to binge on the stuff, as the sugar provides much needed energy for cycling. Chocolate also releases natural endorphins, which in turn make you happy. If however you are subject to the aphrodisiacal affects of chocolate you may find yourself developing an unhealthy love for your bike. If this is the case, please make your energy food jellybeans instead, as the last thing this world needs is a Frankenbike story.

7. You should know how to undertake basic repairs on your bike, if necessary take a short bike mechanic course. Knowing about bikes entails a bit more than knowing how to match one's cycling shoes with one's bike colour.

8. Always cycle with the wind at your back. Ideally your cycling holiday should not have any set destinations, as one should be quite happy ending up where-ever the wind happens to blow you. Should you reach a large lake or ocean and the wind continues to blow in that direction, at this stage you should NOT proceed any further, and possibly take a day's break while you wait for the wind to change direction again. 

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