There are many companies around the world that specializing in
taking care of all of the details of a bike tour. They plot the
routes, pre-screen the hotels, handle most of the logistics, and in
many cases even provide a support vehicle that takes care of moving
your luggage from place to place and provides on-site bicycle repairs.
That can be a fun, worry-free way to explore new venues by bike. You
will normally be placed in a medium to large group and subject to the
itinerary of the tour company and the whims of the collective group.
That appeals to a lot of people. ...but not everyone.
You're here because you're planning or at least considering taking
off by yourself on a long distance, multi-day, solo, self-supported
bike tour. These can be amazingly rewarding and relaxing. They
involve tremendous flexibility and adventure. If you're ready for
that, let's explore some ideas to accomplish such a trip with a high
degree of safety and fun.
By no means should this article be considered the definitive word
on solo, self-supported touring. These are ideas that work for me and
have worked for other cyclists. Feel free to tweak or completely
disregard any or all of the concepts detailed below. Also, if you're
hurt or your bike damaged during a solo, self-supported tour, I'm not
The rest of this article will be broken down into two sections:
Before Your Tour (trip planning) and During Your Tour.
You could just hop on your bike and trust your luck. If you're
that type of rider and it works for you, count me as someone who looks
at you with awe and admiration. I've never been comfortable with such
an approach. The likelihood of a successful trip is greatly enhanced
with thorough planning, which often starts months in advance.
Some points to consider early on (we will examine each):
Where do you want to go? If you can dream it, you can probably
cycle it. Many cycling trips have already been planned and executed
by others. Multi-day trips have already been planned and executed
through the US southwest, Oregon and Washington, along the California
coast, the finger lakes region of New York, multiple routes through
New England, the Appalachian Mountains, from Washington to Alaska,
through England, Ireland and Europe, and even through Asia. There are
so many beautiful destinations in the world that perhaps the hardest
part of the entire trip is deciding where to go.
Once you have narrowed the destination list down to a couple of
choices, it's time to start researching. The internet is an
invaluable resource for this. Some of the companies that specialize
in bicycle tours are generous enough to post their rides and route
maps online. These will help you get a good idea of what attractions
are in the general area and what kind of distances would be involved
each day. This will also give you a clue as to the physical
conditioning that will be required for such an excursion. Be honest
with yourself! If the destination you've selected is going to be too
physically demanding, look for other destinations.
Once you've settled on an interesting destination that appears to
be within your capabilities, it's time to start planning the details.
What sites do you want to see? How long will you be gone? What
routes will you ride? Will each day's route be a day trip from a
central location or will the routes be a chain, forming a much larger
The websites for bicycle tour companies often contain route
information that can be very helpful. Another good resource is the
touring forum on some bicycle forum sites such as:
http://www.bikeforums.net. Most of the forum sites are free and the
members typically are generous with their opinions.
Another valuable resource that we will touch bases on again later
is local bike shops around your destination. Run a search on the
internet for bike shops along your route and make note of their
addresses and phone numbers. (I even program them into my cell phone,
just in case of an emergency repair while on the road.) Don't be
afraid to call the local shops with questions but remember they are
busy so try to keep the call as short as possible. The shop owner or
manager can provide valuable information about the best time of year
to travel in that area, local events that could clog the roadways with
traffic, and "unadvertised" places to stop.
You're probably very proud of your bike but, be honest, is it ready
for such a trip? How long since it was in the shop for a tune up?
Are the tires worn and in need of replacement? How many miles are on
the chain and does it need adjustment? Most manufacturers recommend
replacing a chain every 1200 to 1500 miles. Stopping is equally
important. Do your brakes have sufficient padding? Do they need to
be deglazed to restore their stopping power?
The importance of a professional fitting cannot be overstressed and
having your bike adjusted to your unique needs doesn't need to be
expensive. For example, the good folks at Orange Cycle in Orlando
have four very well-trained fitters, any of which will do a great job
customizing your bike to you for around $80.00. A proper fitting will
give you maximum pedaling power, the most comfortable positioning, and
will go a long way toward preventing repetitive motion injuries to the
hips, knees, ankles, etc. One of my regular riding partners had
trouble making it up a certain hill in our county until she had her
bike properly fitted to her. Afterward, she was able to ride up the
hill with no difficulty.
Some people call it a saddle bag, some call it an under seat bag,
and some call it a gear bag. I call it my Save-A-Ride kit. At a
minimum, I recommend the following items:
Drop an email to local police at your destination to find out if
there are any special traffic laws you need to be aware of. For
instances, national parks that have roadways passing through tunnels
require bicycle to be equipped with headlights and taillights.
There are lots of articles out there about proper nutrition and
hydration during a ride. This will not delve into the physiology of
it all other than to say it's hugely important and not paying proper
attention to your liquid and nutritional needs during a ride can lead
to disaster. Use the pockets of your jersey to store quality snacks
or buy an inexpensive bento box to mount on your bike frame. Either
way works. I recommend two water bottles for any ride over 15 miles
Speaking of liquids, plain water may not be enough. Extended
rides, especially those in warmer climates, cause your body to burn
necessary electrolytes at an alarming rate. There are electrolyte
supplements that can be added to plain water or there are speciality
sports drinks such as Gatorade that will help keep you going.
Personally, I find straight Gatorade to be a bit too strong. I fill
each bottle to the top with ice and then fill it with Gatorade. As
the ice melts, the Gatorade is diluted to a more palatable level.
You'll need some way to plot your route and stay on track so you
don't get lost. The options break down into two categories: Cue
sheets (written directions on where to turn) or maps. Maps can be
paper or can be electronic.
If you opt for the cue sheet method, an efficient way of generating
the directions is to use one of the routing sites mentioned above,
such as Ride With GPS, to plot your route. It automatically creates a
printable cue sheet. Store them in a ziplock plastic baggie in the
event of rain.
Paper maps can be useful to keep you on track but maps large enough
to cover a 40 to 60 mile route in sufficient detail can be tough to
manage while going down the road. The easier way is to let technology
be your friend. Plot the route ahead of time using one of the mapping
sites above, then follow their directions to export the resulting
file. It can then be imported into the software on many smartphones
or on dedicated navigation devices such as a Garmin. Note of caution:
You can use many smartphones as a navigation device but depend upon a
live internet connection to supply the maps. Many of these routes
will take you into areas where you have no cellular signal at all, let
alone a wireless data connection. In those circumstances, smartphone
mapping software will not render the maps, making it difficult to know
where to turn. Been there, done that... switched to a Garmin Edge 800
dedicated GPS navigation device. It allows you to preload the routes
and then provides turn-by-turn navigation.
Most multi-day tours involve daily routes with distances anywhere
from 35 to 70 or more miles per day. Are you capable of such
mileages, day after day? Check the routes you are planning at your
destination. What kind of hills or mountains are involved? Are you
capable of such climbs? Really?
One way to determine the amount and degree of climbing along a
given route is to plot the route on a website such as Ride With GPS
http://www.ridewithgps.com or Map My Ride http://www.mapmyride.com.
Both have a free and a paid side of the site but even the free side
will display the elevation for a plotted route.
I'm not a trainer nor have I ever played one on TV. Entire books
have been written on physical training and conditioning for bicycling.
If you have questions or concerns about your physical ability to
handle such a trip, pay a visit to your doctor. Assuming your doctor
has no objections, either seek out a trainer or just start riding.
You'll want to gradually work up to rides that approximate the
distance and difficulty that you expect to find. Beyond that very
simplistic advice, you're on your own.
If your adventure centers around day trips from a hotel or
campground as a base of operations, you can get away with taking a lot
more with you. If you're planning to pack it all on the bike and
daisy-chain your routes together, packing becomes more
Here's a general rule of thumb on what to pack for a multi-day
daisy-chain bike trip: Pick out the clothes and things you would like
to take. From that stack, pick out the things you absolutely must
have. Divide the resulting stack in half and you'll be just about
right on target. :-) Remember, every pound of gear you bring is
another pound of weight you have to pedal up the side of a
As a minimum for clothing, you'll want at least one change of
jerseys, riding shorts, and socks. That means you'll be washing them
out every other night. Please... wash them out. We might meet up on
the trail somewhere and... phew! Besides, not washing them,
especially your riding shorts, promotes the build up of unhealthy
bacteria. It's a good idea and a common practice to play a "down
time" day in the middle of the trip. This is a great time to give
your body a little rest, touch bases with friends and family, drop by
the local laundromat, and it can always be used as a rain day, in the
event of bad weather.
You'll also want at least some lightweight shorts, a tee-shirt, and
some casual shoes or sandals for after-ride wear. If your routes
involve any stops for hiking, plan to bring along shoes that are
sturdy enough to handle the hike. Weather can also be a factor. A
rain jacket may be a good idea and can do double duty on chilly
mornings. Leggings and arm warmers help break the chill on cool
mornings and stow easily in a jersey pocket or bag.
One item worth bringing is shampoo. Consider picking up one of those
three ounce generic plastic bottles and filling it with your favorite shampoo.
That's not enough to be a serious weight issue and it has a multitude of uses.
Think about it for a second... shampoo is designed to strip oils from your hair
and it rinses clean. That's the perfect substance to clean road grime off of your
glasses or wash grease from your hands after making a repair. I've used it to successfully
remove ketchup stains from a white jersey. For you men, put some hand lotion on your beard,
put on a little water, and then lather up some shampoo to make a pretty effective shaving
cream. You can even use shampoo to wash your hair. Very versatile and a three ounce bottle
should last most people for a week long tour.
You may like to take photos during your trip. Some of the pocket
cameras take excellent quality photos and are very compact. They are
worth considering. Electronics and water don't mix well so be
prepared with a ziplock plastic bag in the event of rain.
Now that you've selected the items you want to take on your
adventure, how to bring it all with you? If you're doing day trips
from a central location, you won't need to be concerned with bringing
clothes and toiletries on each ride. A small backpack, a handlebar
bag, or a rack and a bungie cord net will be able to accommodate some
snacks, a rain jacket (weather dependent), and a pair of shoes
suitable for hiking, if necessary.
Daisy-chained routes make the planning more interesting. For such
a trip, you could be a minimalist and get by with a small backpack but
most cyclists will bring a handlebar bag, a rack on the rear with a
trunk and possibly panniers and maybe even panniers on each side of
the front wheel. If your plan is to camp, you will also be bringing a
tent and sleeping bag. Another option is to tow a trailer with your
gear in that. These trailers, often referred to as a "BOB", are
convenient for hauling a lot of gear but do create considerable drag
on the bike and are reputed to be unstable over 35 mph, which can
easily happen on a long downhill ride.
My own rig consists of a handlebar bag fitting with a specially
shaped foam insert to hold my Nikon dSLR camera and lens in the main
pocket and a rain jacket in the outer pocket. A Garmin GPS navigation
device is attached to the handlebars. A small bento box rests on the
top bar of the frame, directly behind the handlebars, and contains
snacks, my iPhone, and money clip with cash and credit cards. It also
contains a folded up ziplock baggie in which to store the iPhone and
money clip in the event of rain.
For daisy-chained trips, a beam-style rack is attached to the seat
post. It holds a trunk with fold down side panniers. The panniers
hold a pair of casual shoes, two jerseys, two pair of riding shorts,
three pairs of socks, a tee shirt, a pair of lightweight shorts, and
an iPad 2 with bluetooth keyboard inside a gallon sized ziplock
baggie. The trunk holds an assortment of toiletries, the iPad
charging cable, and there is sometimes room for the seat bag to be
wedged in there. If not, the seat bag is attached to the back of the
trunk. On one occasion, knowing that I was going to be visiting and
photographing waterfalls, I even strapped a travel camera tripod to
the top of the trunk. When you start adding this much weight, it's
important to balance the load, side to side, or you end up leaning all
day to compensate.
First and foremost, have fun! This isn't a race. Take your time,
enjoy the scenery, stop and smell the roses... literally. On one
ride, I didn't even notice until stopping to take a photo of the
beautiful valley below, that the air was filled with the smell of pine
Stop by the local bike shop. Introduce yourself. Remind them of
your phone conversation or emails several months ago and thank them
for their guidance. Solicit advise on the direction to ride a
particular loop, clockwise or counterclockwise. These are the folks
that know best what you're about to do. Pay attention to what they
have to say and alter your plans accordingly.
Stay hydrated and keep some nutritious food in you.
Stay in touch with your family or friends back home. This could be
as simple as the occasional text message to let them know you didn't
ride off of the cliff, after all, or you could use a smartphone to
post Twitter or FaceBook updates complete with camera phone
Ever watched a baby get cranky when it has a wet diaper? The
baby's not comfortable and, if unattended, it can lead to a nasty case
of diaper rash, right? The same can happen to cyclists on a long
ride. I recommend applying a generous coating of baby powder to your
tushie and crotch, especially around the sit bones, when you gear up
in the morning. If your ride is particularly sweaty and lasts more
than about 40 miles, I recommend stepping into a restroom to use a wet
cloth or a baby wipe to clean yourself up and reapply the baby powder.
At the end of the week, you'll be glad you took this extra step.
Check your tires for proper inflation every morning before
departing. Long rides, especially those involving steep climbs are
much more difficult when running on under inflated tires.
Have fun! It bears repeating.
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