Cycle Touring Tips

***If you want freedom, get a bicycle.***

Some places in the world are just made for cycle touring. Cycling is a great way to enjoy the scenery or get to know the local people. You travel at a slow pace that allows you to take a look around, have a rest/picnic at a beautiful spot and most importantly, to be spontaneous. And everyone trusts a person on a bicycle so it is easy to make friends with the locals, especially with the kids.

It can be hard work though – physically and mentally, you need to be prepared to sleep anywhere, drink any type of water (purified of course) or be uncomfortably hot or cold. When I tell my friends about my cycling trips, most think I am crazy. However there is a whole global community of cycle tour enthusiasts, and some of them are really crazy.

What I have learned from cycling long distances in South America, New Zealand and Iceland is that people cycle for different reasons. Some want to do mileage and reach Ushuaia from Alaska in 8 months, trying to go as fast as they can. Others will hardly cycle 30 km a day, because they always stop to chat, take pictures, take naps etc. Some will go through great trouble to make sure they have cycled every single meter from A to B (read London to China) whereas others will be more than happy to put the bike on the bus/train/plane over a boring/dangerous/difficult stretch of land. There is no right or wrong.

Here I want to give some tips about cycle touring and choosing a bicycle, since so many people have asked me. Just to be clear, I am the type who prefers to cycle slowly (I do an average of 60 km on a cycling day and probably 1000-1500 km a month on average on longer trips). I like to take rest days, be spontaneous, take an out-of-the-way but exciting dirt road rather than stick to a boring, busy paved road. And I prefer to worry about money more than about time, so I try to do it as cheaply as possible.

Some popular cycling destination: Bolivia, the Andes and the Himalayas for high altitudes, incredible landscapes and cold nights. Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark for nice, paved, smooth, flat bicycle lanes. Iran and central Asia for landscapes and culture. Iceland for extreme weather. New Zealand, New Caledonia and Fiji for Pacific bliss and beaches. Vietnam for cheap food and cycling traditions. Many people do Alaska to Ushuaia, London to Singapore/Beijing etc.

– sleeping. Bring a tent, as lightweight as possible, as small as possible and as good for bad weather as possible. You will be using it a lot.

On the Carretera Austral in Chile, I used a Trek 3900 bike with front suspension so there was no way to put a front rack. I thought back panniers would be enough but it turned out I had been wrong. I improvised with a milk crate (they are made of very sturdy plastic) and some cable ties (easy to fix when they break) and I ended up cycling 4,000 km with this "front pannier", much to the amusement of many other cyclists.

On the Carretera Austral in Chile, I used a Trek 3900 bike with front suspension so there was no way to put a rack. I thought back panniers would be enough but it turned out I had been wrong. I improvised with a milk crate (they are made of very sturdy plastic) and some cable ties (easy to fix when they break) and I ended up cycling 4,000 km with this “front pannier”, much to the amusement of many other cyclists.

panniers/trailer. Panniers vs trailer is a long debate that you will have to read about yourself. You will never know before you try both. I have mostly used panniers but I used a (baby) trailer in Iceland for a three-week trip over some horrible roads as well. The Ortlieb etc. panniers are good but very expensive and for me only worth the investment if you are planning to use them on a really long trip or you can easily/cheaply bring them back home after your trip to use on a next trip – they do last pretty well. However, any cheap panniers would normally also do the trick, just bring plastic bags to make things waterproof. I have a dry bag for the most important stuff, the rest can get wet in extreme cases. Watch out for low quality panniers that are however expensive – panniers seems to be trendy among city cyclists who commute on a bicycle. In NZ, the local outdoor chain Kathmandu (whose focus is not on quality in general) sells their panniers for 100 NZD a piece – I bought them on sale for a quarter of that price and that’s about how much they are actually worth. Some people make panniers out of jerrycans – it’s a great idea and there is plenty of information on the internet.

racks for panniers. This is so important that I can’t stress it enough. It is probably the thing that breaks most often on touring bikes because you put a lot of pressure on it, especially on uneven surfaces and because you never know how many kilos exactly you are carrying on them. A broken rack is a big problem. Because of the vibrations, the screws that attach the rack to the frame sometimes become loose and you can lose them like that. Unless you have a spare, you are screwed. Sometimes the screws might break because of the pressure. Then you are even more screwed because you need someone with a drill to take the broken screw out of the frame…. Just get a rack that is as sturdy as possible and check the screws daily while you are touring!!!

Some New Zealanders invented a rack that attaches to the fork and can be attached to a bike with suspension. It is now produced by Thule but the feedback I read on Amazon is not that good. I would probably not rely on it for a long trip on bumpy roads.

gears – should be good and well adjusted. Internal gears are nice, but very hard to fix.

brakes – I will always go for V-brakes. You’d be surprised how difficult it might be to find parts/someone to fix disk brakes in, say, Bolivia or Pakistan or in the middle of a desert. Also, disk brakes put more pressure on the spokes, especially on a loaded bikes and on nice downhills. The disadvantage of V-brakes is that when you cycle on dirt roads sand particles get in between the brake pad and the rim and slowly eat away the rim. On older rims you can see lines of wear from that. This can compromise the rim and eventually (I am talking thousands of kms) it might crack. This type of wear on rims is something to look for when buying second hand bikes.

– rim size – again, I will stick to the traditional 26 inches. This is still the most popular size all over the world – for new tires, tubes, spokes etc.

My bike in New Zealand was a Trek 800, a vintage frame from the 1990s. It had gone around NZ twice and I took it around a third time.

My bike in New Zealand was a Trek 800, a vintage frame from the 1990s. It had gone around NZ twice and I took it around a third time.

– the frame – when people ask what bike you are riding they are talking about the frame essentially. My guess is that few frames produced after, say, 1990 will ever break under normal circumstances, unless compromised by rust or serious wear. Of course the lighter, the better. It has to be the correct size to avoid injuries and it should be comfortable for you. My philosophy is that it should look unattractive rather than expensive. Many bicycle thieves will not know that you have these expensive gear shifters, tires (two Schwalbe tires can easily cost more than a brand new low-quality bike with suspension) or rims, but a shiny frame will catch their eye even if it is a really simple, cheap bike that was on sale in the supermarket.

tires – Schwalbe

I would not go for tires less than 1.75”. The grip should be fine on dirt roads but also paved roads. That’s because I don’t want to have limitation about where I can go, that is “Oh, I can’t take this exciting dirt road because I am riding a road bike with thin tires”. Dirt roads usually lead to more remote, beautiful and untouched places (like the Carretera Austral in Chile or Sur Lipez in Boliva). I also like to do easier MTB trails with gear and all (say the Nga Haerenga trails in NZ).

price – Of course paying more usually means better quality/comfort. Would I ride a $4000 bike instead of a $400 dollar bike? Hell yeah! Would I spend $3600 more dollars on a bicycle, when I can instead spend it on local food and more time away to enjoy the views? Absolutely not! This is me, you don’t have to agree or disagree but that’s how I do it. On my two long cycling trips I bought second hand bikes locally and then sold them locally, thus avoiding the high cost of putting a bike on the plane (here Emirates and Virgin Atlantic deserve a special mention for allowing sports equipment on the plane for free – hats down!). In Chile I bought a Trek 3900 in perfect condition on Mercado Libre (the local ebay) for $400 and then sold in in Bolivia, 5000 km later for $275. In New Zealand I bough a Trek 800 with a lot of cycling gear for 390 NZD and returned all of it to the same second hand shop for half the price, 3200 km later. Besides some flat tires I had absolutely no technical problems on both bikes. Here I should mention that I have noticed a recent trend: Bikes have become better in the past years with much better technology on the market and also higher prices. You enter a shop and your head can start spinning from all the zeros on the price tags. There is a market for this apparently – many people working in offices and in need of physical exercise, decide to go cycling on the weekends with their buddies. They buy a bike, cycle a bit then the bike gets forgotten in the basement. A year later they want to try skiing and decide it’s time to sell the bike on ebay/mercadolibre etc. This is where I come in and buy a bike that has been hardly used, yet long enough to show any factory defects. And the price is of course way better than in the store.

Another very important thing that has to be kept in mind is theft. The bicycle might be one of the most ingenious inventions of all time, but having your bicycle stolen is one of the most depressing feelings of all. And bikes get stolen all over the world. It is one thing having a $400 bike stolen and another thing having a $4000 bike stolen. My friend in Iceland painted her bike pink so that no one would want to steal it. That could be an option but a lock is not a bad idea either.

A cheaper bike also gives more peace of mind and flexibility. In case you get tired, decide that cycling is not for you, that old ankle injury you had forgotten about is now bugging you, you simply change your plans or fall in love (with a non-cyclist – highly unlikely but I have seen it happen), you can always ditch/sell the bike and do the other thing. Although a more expensive bike will (or at least should) be a smoother ride, for me just the thought of investing a lot of money in a bike is a burden I don’t want to bear.

The above is just my point of view. You should think about your own priorities when you choose your bike and gear for touring.

So far I have done longer cycling trips in South America (Chile, Argentina and Bolivia), New Zealand and Iceland. I want to travel a version of the Silk Road (Causcasus-Iran-Central Asia to Tibet) + Pakistan and Northern India in 2016.

Cycling in northern Iceland

Cycling in northern Iceland

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