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Bicycle touring for beginners
So, you're thinking about taking off on your very first bicycle tour and your want to make sure you do it right. Perhaps you're worried you don't know enough about bikes, what sort of bike to ride, what to take with you and how to carry it. Perhaps you're doubting your fitness or you think your bike can't carry that much weight.
These are all very common concerns for newbies, but let me start off with this little bit of reassurance – don't worry! There's no big secret to travelling on a bicycle. If you can ride a bike, you're 90% there; the rest is largely just common sense.
No one wants to run into problems on a bicycle tour and it's important to be prepared. You're on the right track because you're reading this and you'll likely read a lot of other recommendations or perhaps speak to people that have travelled by bike. What you read or hear may be conflicting and confuse you, so it's important to recognise that everyone has their own way of doing things and these are not necessarily right or wrong – they're just preferences. Listen to people's advice, but don't necessarily feel bound to do exactly the same as someone else. Some people prefer to travel with a bike trailer rather than pannier bags on a rack. Some like to clip into their pedals using cleats for stability, others like the freedom of wearing running shoes, and there's even those who prefer hiking boots! Some cyclists prefer to sleep in hammocks instead of tents, others will only stay in motels. Some prepare every single meal, while others eat only at restaurants. Everyone is different. Only you know what you like, so keep that in mind when planning your trip.
Don't be surprised to find people touring on every single type of bike possible. I once met a young man cycling across the United States on a unicycle, unsupported – no joke! He just carried a light backpack with a few basic necessities and stopped at cafés along the way to blog about coffee. Would I do it? No, but he was having the ride of his life. He wasn't so much into what I was doing; mountain biking into remote locations and camping out among grizzly bears, coyotes and mountain lions for days at a time. Not long after meeting the unicyclist, I bumped into a family mountain biking on tandems on a two-week trip. It was a challenging ride, but the two boys, both under the age of 10, were absolutely loving it. It was really inspiring to see parents and their kids sharing such a wonderful adventure together.
So, when it comes to working out whether you're doing it 'right', the best thing is to go with your gut and not stress over the small details. Chances are you'll refine your preferences with experience, but as long as you use some common sense, you'll get along just fine. Let's look at some of the common sense issues now.
Many people have told me they would love to go cycle touring but that they're not fit enough to. If you're thinking that right now, stop, because unless you have a serious medical condition, it's just an excuse. The great thing about bicycle touring is that you can tailor your ride to any fitness level. Ultra fit cyclists may ride upwards of 100km a day on road. For many, a comfortable day's ride is between 70km-80km. But there's no rule that says that's how far you need to ride.
If you're not used to riding long distances and you're concerned about it, start with something relatively short and flat. For instance, Wollongong to Kiama, NSW is just 35km. You could have a nice breakfast in Wollongong and then at 9am, follow the flat bike path south to Shellharbour, 20km away. A nice slow pace of 10km an hour would see you knock that over quite comfortably in two hours, but why rush? Take it easy and stop for a little break every few kilometres – you'll still be in Shellharbour for lunch. You can have a nice relaxing break – rest for two hours if you like. Then ride the remaining 15km to Kiama in the afternoon. If you're doubting yourself, give it a go; you'll be amazed at just how manageable it is, and if you repeat a ride like that over three days, all of a sudden you've ridden 105km and stopped in at some nice places along the way. That's a nice little trip! Over time, you can build up your days as your fitness improves and your body becomes conditioned to long rides.
The type of bike you ride will largely depend on the terrain you're riding on. For the most part, you'll get by on just about any bike. However, be wary before attempting to take a road bike off-road.
Touring bike: These classic bikes are a good all-round option for touring. The frames are well balanced and are designed for mounting racks. They are usually fitted with a medium-width tyre of about 700c x 35 or 26 x 1.75 inches, which will provide you with good weight support and will see you move smoothly on the road but also provide good stability on a rough road or dirt sections. Other types of bikes that are similar are 'hybrid' bikes, or duel sports, which come with suspension.
Road bikes: These can be used for bicycle touring if you plan to stay strictly on the road, as the name suggests. They're not so great on dirt roads because the narrow tyres lack the width and traction to keep you stable (unless you're riding a cyclocross). If using a road bike, you'll want to give extra attention to how you carry your gear. If you want to carry panniers, you'll need to use an aluminium road bike and avoid overloading the bike with weight because you don't want to put too much pressure on the frame and back tyre. Keeping the weight down could be tricky if you're camping and cooking on the road, but it is possible. Road bikes are a good option if you're planning to stay in motels and eat out because this automatically slashes the amount of gear you need to carry. An alternative option is to pull a bob trailer. This will allow you to carry a heavier load without putting pressure on the bike.
Mountain bikes: Many people use hard-tail mountain bikes for touring in Australia because they can handle all sorts of terrain and in remote parts of the country the roads can get pretty rough. If you know you're going to be riding a lot of dirt roads, a hard-tail mountain bike would be a good option for you. You can change the tyres to suit the terrain, using knobby tyres for gravelly rides, a hybrid-type tyre that is smooth in the middle and knobby at the edges if you're mixing up the road and dirt, or a slick tyre if you're mainly going to be on the road. When choosing a bike with suspension, consider how you would like to mount your pannier racks. A rear rack will mount to a hard-tail quite normally, but if you would also like to carry front panniers, you'll need to buy special racks designed for suspension. Duel suspension bikes get a little trickier: you'll most likely need to travel very light and opt for a seat post mounted rear bag, which won't carry much. The other option is to pull a bob trailer.
Once again, choosing a bike will largely come down to personal preference and the type of trip you have in mind.
One very important aspect of choosing a bike is the fit. Remember, you're going to be riding this thing almost everyday for an extended period of time. A bad fit will likely result in back, neck and wrist strain. So make sure the store selling you the bike fits you properly. Note: different bike brands use different sizing, so take that into consideration if you've been fitted on one particular brand but are buying another. Women should also test out a women-specific frame. These are generally a little shorter in length and have slightly narrower handle bars. You'll likely also need some good grips with palm support or some bar ends for the handle bars. This will help prevent pressure on the ulnar nerve, which results in a condition commonly called handlebar palsy; an aching pain in the nerves that shoots from the wrist to the elbow and sometimes even results in the loss of feeling in one or more fingers. If you experience this, fix your hand positioning immediately, and don't stress; you should regain feeling in your fingers after a few weeks.
You don't need to have the knowledge of a bicycle mechanic to go cycle touring, but I would suggest that as a common sense matter you learn how to change a flat tyre, both front and rear. Many local councils have free bicycle maintenance workshops that will teach you these skills. There are also countless 'how to' videos on YouTube (here's a few we've hand selected dealing with common problems for our Fix It section). Tailor your trips to suit the amount of knowledge you have about your bike. For instance, if you don't know much about servicing or fixing your bike, take it into a bicycle mechanic for a service before setting out on your trip (most bike shops have a mechanic). Stick to routes where you have regular contact with towns, such as along the east coast of Australia, so that you can access a bike mechanic if you run into problems or need another service. If you are planning to ride in remote areas, teach yourself a few more skills, such as changing a broken chain, changing brake pads, adjusting brake and gear cables, adjusting derailleurs, and truing a wheel. Once you know what you're doing, you'll be amazed at just how straight forward it is. Also, don't be afraid to quiz your bike mechanic for advice. Most will happily give you a few pointers to make sure your trip goes smoothly.
You'll also need to know the Australian road rules for cyclists. By law, all cyclists in Australia must wear a helmet. Each state administers their own rules, however, they are largely the same. Here are the road rules for NSW.
Most cyclists aim to keep their gear as light as possible, especially if they're riding a road bike or have lots of hills to conquer. However, I've seen plenty of cyclists in the outback that are 'fully loaded', that is, they have both front and read panniers, handlebar bag as well as a bob trailer. These are seasoned bikepackers, so don't attempt to haul a truck on your first ride unless you know you're absolutely up to the task. Most riders take either a single bob trailer or two rear panniers and maybe two front panniers. Small handlebar bags are very useful for items you access frequently, such as money, your phone and camera. These little bags normally detach quickly so you can easily take your valuables with you if you need to pop into a shop.
So what should you put in your bags?
If you're planning to camp you'll need a light-weight tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat. That's pretty much one pannier full right there. If you want to cook a meal, you'll need a light-weight gas cooker from a camping store, pot and some utensils, and of course, food. Aim for non perishable foods that don't need refrigeration and go for powdered options over cans or jars. You can strike all those items off your list if you're planning to stay in motels and eat out. However, you should always carry water and a few snacks. You may need something to purify your water, such as AquaTabs, if you plan to drink out of rivers, creeks and dams in remote areas. Keep in mind that your body is going to need a lot of fluid on a hot Aussie day – you may find you can easily drink upwards of five litres – so even though water can be heavy (every litre is roughly equal to 1kg), don't skimp. If you're travelling through areas with scarce water supply, camelbacks or other such water bladders are a good way to carry larger amounts. Always determine where your next water stop will be before leaving a source. If in doubt, just take extra.
Don't go overboard on your clothes, at least not on your first ride. To keep the weight down, aim to rinse out your cycling gear every two to three days (some hard core riders take one set of cycling clothes and do this every day!). You may like to have one set of clothes to wear in town when you're not cycling. Take a light rain jacket and, if it's cold, something warm. Remember, parts of Australia can be hot in the day but cold at night, so consider some thermals for sleeping in if you're going to be in a tent.
You'll need a good map of where you're going. Many riders these days use GPS or maps saved on tablets or e-readers. These are all good options, particularly if you want to tap into wifi services in town. If you're using an electronic device, consider its battery life before relying on it for maps. Having a paper map as a back-up is a safe option. In conjunction with your maps, use a trip computer on your bike so you know how far you've travelled. This will prevent you from getting lost.
Lastly, but importantly, you'll need some spare parts and tools. What you take will vary depending on the ride your doing and your ability to fix the bike. For instance, there's not much use taking a chain whip if you don't know what to do with it. As a start, you should have a spare tube, a patch kit as well as tyre levers to get the tyre on and off. If you're going on a very long ride, a spare tyre could be very useful (you can get ones that fold up to make carrying them easier). You should definitely take either a small multitool or individual tools that have the right size allen keys and screwdrivers for your bike. If you know how to do your own repairs, you can take chain links, a spare chain, a chain breaker and a spoke wrench. Tools and spare parts will add weight to your bike, but consider them a necessity – it's like a first aid kit for your bike, speaking of which, you should also take a small first aid kit for yourself.
For tips and reviews on equipment suited to cycle touring, check out our Gear section.
Your ride will go much smoother if you plan ahead. If you're not following a designated route, aim to ride on roads that have almost no traffic, light traffic or shoulders. Use bike paths where available and never cycle onto a road where bicycle traffic is not allowed. Google maps has a bicycle option in its directions tool that can help you pick a route. Also take a look at our Free Maps section.
For your safety, you'll need to work out where to find food, water and accommodation along your route, especially in remote areas. There are long sections in Australia where there are no stores or water. In some remote locations, the stores may not have much in stock. Also be mindful that a place name on a map doesn't necessarily mean there'll be something there. A little research before you set off will make your journey much more enjoyable because not only is no one happy when they're starving and thirsty, but dehydration can be downright deadly.
If you're body is not yet conditioned for big climbs, aim to avoid very hilly and mountainous areas on your first ride. If you feel up to the challenge, perhaps reduce the amount of kilometres you expect to knock over that day to allow yourself more time to take on the climbs comfortably. You'll soon figure out what a comfortable day's ride means for you.
If you're planning to travel on dirt, expect to travel at a slower pace than you would on road. For instance, a 65km day on dirt could feel like the equivalent of an 80km day on road.
Bicycle touring is an amazing experience and once you start, you'll be hooked. That's not to say that you won't have hard days. Keep your options open and go with the flow. There's been times where I've come to a junction and looked up the road to my left and thought, I just don't feel like going over that mountain today, and turned right instead. I've never regretted those on-the-spot decisions. Some days you may just want to chill out in a town or sit inside and let a storm pass over. So what if it wasn't in the plans. Cycle travelling is about freedom, about feeling good and putting yourself out there in the world and doing exactly what you want to do. So just roll with it and have fun!
Images from top: 1. Bicycle touring in the NSW countryside near Boorowa. 2. Cycling on Boboyan Rd, Namadgi NSW. 3. Fixing a flat. 4. Home on the road. (Source: CyclingDutchGirl). 5. Cycle touring the Great Divide Trail in Alberta, Canada.