I’m frequently contacted by people who are planning their own long-distance cycle and I’m always happy to reply. I do, however, often find myself repeating the same bits of core advice, so, here is my own top ten of things that I would recommend that every prospective long-distance cyclist considers doing prior to their adventure on two wheels. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means and you may disagree with me on some of the advice I give (that’s what the ‘comments’ section is for!), but here goes…
1. Choose a great destination
We cyclists might like to ‘upgrade’ ourselves from ‘normal’ tourists but fundamentally (brace yourself!) we are still tourists. Few of us would choose to head off without our bicycles to a place that wasn’t interesting or beautiful or inspiring, so there’s no reason for not doing so on a bike. At the same time, consider doing something a little different. I heard someone on the TV this week say that ‘it’s only when you move outside your comfort zone that the magic happens’. How true. Don’t go crazy; circumnavigating the earth is clearly not for everyone but at the same time don’t be afraid of moving your adventure up a notch or two. Once complete, you’ll be proud of the achievement.
2. Buy an overview map
When I’ve decided where to go, I buy a map. Modern mapping technology is great (see below) but nothing on a screen can replace the joy of crouching on the ground next to a map that shows your route in its entirety. My next cycle – at some point next year from Spain to the northern tip of Scandinavia – is still many, many months away but I already have a map of Europe (it’s the EuroVelo overview map) pinned to my wall and every few days I will stand in front of it and examine a small part of the route in detail for a few minutes, dreaming. It keeps me motivated!
3. Don’t over-plan your route
So, you know where you are going and you know roughly your route. You might even have bought some more maps that give you more detail than the large-scale map on your wall at home. Stop! Do you really need to know more than that? If you have decided to follow a signed cycle route the work has been done for you already. If you are simply joining the dots by cycling from place to place over an extended period of time, are you really going to get out a piece of paper every few minutes to check that you are cycling along the ‘correct’ route? Forget that for the moment. Detailed route planning is a job best done when you are actually on the ground the evening before or even the morning of the cycle itself.
4. Get yourself a bike that’s fit for purpose
You probably already have a bike that you are using regularly. The first thing to do is consider using it. It may need a few modifications – some new tyres, a pannier rack, a better saddle – but it might suit your needs just fine. That said, we all love a new bike and there are many on the market, from specialised touring bikes (like Reggie!) to hybrid commuting bikes to mountain bikes that will do the job of long-distance cycling justice. And if you are working on a budget (most of us are), don’t forget that there are places like Argos that stock a good selection of hybrid bikes. You don’t need to spend a fortune in a specialised bike shop.
5. Prepare your bike
You have your bike, old or new. Think about where you are going and the terrain that you will be cycling over. Good quality roads? Most tyres will be fine. Rough tracks? Your racing tyres might be an issue. My own technical skills are rudimentary to say the least so this is where the specialised bike shop comes into its own. You may not have used them to buy the bike, but they will be more than willing to help you get your bike into shape. It will be money well spent. While you are there, invest in a few spares; inner tubes, spokes, cables, chain links and brake pads. You may not know how to change them yourself but you will probably be able to find someone en route who does (but who doesn’t necessarily have the bits that will fit your bike).
6. Prepare yourself
You do not need to be Bradley Wiggins in order to cycle surprisingly long distances. But you do need to have a certain level of fitness. Most regular cyclists will have this already. In 2006 I sold my car and started commuting by bike. It is a round trip of 13 miles and it keeps me fit! You might not want to sell your call, but make a commitment to regular, moderate exercise in the months leading up to departure. You are ‘training’ for a slow cycle across hopefully beautiful countryside and up a few hills (and if you are lucky, the occasional mountain at very slow speed), not an Ironman triathlon.
7. Shed some weight
This can be done in two ways. Getting a little bit fitter before you set off is, as mentioned above, a good idea. Losing body weight (if you have an excess of it) is highly recommended. I speak from experience when I say that cycling thin is so much easier than cycling fat. Fortunately, what better way is there to lose weight than regular exercise, which is what you are already doing! The other way to reduce the overall weight of you and your bike is, of course, to carry only the essentials. Pack your panniers, lift them up, realise how heavy they are and then repack, ruthlessly eliminating all but the essentials! Three cycling shirts? Really? Surely two will suffice or, dare I say one? Socks? Yeah?
8. Embrace technology
I love my technology and at risk of contradicting what I have just written about minimising weight, there are certain bits of kit that I wouldn’t leave home without. A smartphone; it is a PC in your pocket (as well as a GPS tracking device) and increasingly, not expensive to use abroad. A spare battery pack (such as a Power Monkey – worth the investment), a digital camera and perhaps a small tablet computer to help you record you thoughts and post your pictures online. Like all bits of kit, get used to using them in the weeks and months before you leave, not the day before!
9. Register with Warm Showers
If you have deep pockets, you can reach for your smartphone and easily reserve a hotel room within minutes. But do you really want to spend every night in the isolation of a soulless hotel room? Occasionally, perhaps, but even if you only use Warm Showers from time to time, the reciprocal accommodation sharing website for travelling cyclists is well worth considering. You need to be prepared to welcome visitors to your own local area from time to time, but there are few better ways to spend a night on the road than in a cycling-friendly home being fed and accommodated for free (or for the price of a bottle of wine!).
10. Prepare to camp
Even if you do have deep pockets, camping can be so much nicer than a hotel. You have chosen to spend your days in the open air so why not spend the evenings there too? It’s cheap, good for meeting other like-minded travellers and fun. You’ll need to carry your tent with you – mine is a Robens Osprey 2 and it’s great! – of course (instead of those extra kilos that you have now lost through regular pre-trip exercise) and a camping mat but if you are going somewhere hot, you probably don’t need a sleeping bag; a folded sheet will suffice. If you haven’t camped for a while, go away for a weekend prior to your trip to make sure you know how to put up your tent! If you can’t find a campsite, you could even enter the world of wild camping…
So there you have my top ten pre-trip considerations. September is a great time to start planning next year’s adventure so what are you waiting for? Comments welcome!
P.S. Two other essential pre-trip activities can be found here :-)
(All the photographs above were taken from my own Instgram account.)