The "How To" Guide for Solo, Self-Supported Bicycle Touring

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 responsible.

The rest of this article will be broken down into two sections: Before Your Tour (trip planning) and During Your Tour.

Before 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):

  • Destination
  • Equipment
  • Physical Conditioning
  • Travel to and from
  • Safety

Destination

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 loop?

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.


Equipment

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:

  • Two new tubes
  • Tire levers
  • Patch kit
  • CO2 inflator and two CO2 cartridges
  • A multi tool with an assortment of screwdrivers, hex head wrenches, and a chain tool.
  • A master link for your chain. Connex makes a popular one. In the event you break a chain link while riding, a master link can get you moving again.
  • A pair of latex or plastic gloves. On-road repairs happen. That doesn't mean you have to spend the rest of the ride with filthy hands.
  • A pair of tweezers to remove glass or thorns from tires.
  • A small bit of petroleum jelly. This will save you a lot of frustration when trying to reinstall a stubborn tire.
Flats happen. But even if you don't have a flat, you'll want to properly inflate your tires each morning. If your multi-day adventure involves day trips from a single starting point, you may be able to get away with bringing along a full size floor pump. If not, consider investing in a frame-mounted air pump with a guage. The Topeak Road Morph G mounts next to a water bottle cage, is reasonably compact, and can inflate a road bike tire to 120 psi or higher.

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 or so.

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.


Physical Conditioning

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.


Taking It With You

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 problematic.

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 mountain.

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.


Safety

  • Before you leave, write down all of your hotel or campground information, including phone numbers and websites, and the route or itinerary for each day, as well as flight information, if applicable, and give it to someone. Make sure someone knows where you are and where you should be.
  • Always wear a properly adjusted helmet. It's not the law in some states... but it should be.
  • Never wear headphones or earbuds while riding. It's against the law and it blocks the sound of nearby motorists. If you must listen to music while riding, tuck the earbuds under the collar of your jersey.
  • Invest in a mirror of some sort. They can be mounted on the handlebars, on your sunglasses, or on your helmet. You'll be out there by yourself; you'll want to know where traffic is behind you.

During Your Tour

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 and honeysuckle.

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 photos.

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. Trust me.

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.


Contact John