I actually started riding long distances before I was a transportational cyclist. I was still a city-walker when we lived in Paris, but I bought a road bike to accompany my then-boyfriend on rides out exploring the countryside around Paris. You do need a good bike for this kind of adventure. My first long ride was Paris-Chartres. We extensively used MayQ's routes and advice, all of it is highly recommended, Route #6 will take you to Chartres in about 100km. However I hurt so badly on that first ride thought I was going to DIE.
This is important to remember, and my husband brings it up often. I don't think anyone is born with the ability to go long distances right away. You must build up your endurance, you must build up your saddle seat, you must build up your navigational skills. I'm here to tell you it's worth it, but know that there is a learning curve, start somewhat small, and remember those first rides because you'll look back on them and smile at how far you've come.
I went from that 60 miles or so to doing 250 miles in New Hampshire one day on one occasion and later that summer doing 800+ across France in 8+ days and not even feeling sore. So I can tell you that it can be done. If I can do it you can do it, I find it helps to have a mantra. When I was a wee girl my favorite book was The Little Engine that Could. Now, cycling, I just repeat "I think I can, I think I can". You'll have to find yours.
So we started going further and further and eventually added overnights to the mini-tours. We just do motel-style bike touring, there are some incredible souls who carry tents and stoves on their bikes and I'm certainly not there yet! I learned that if you ask for bike parking you'll be told they have it and it will be a rickety rack in the back of a parking lot. If you call and explain that you have an expensive road bike that can't spend the night outside, but you really want to give the motel your money, they will usually find an acceptable place for the bike, or direct you to a nearby motel that will work. This approach has worked in the USA and France, I imagine it will work just about anywhere. When in doubt just sneak your bike in. If you leave no grease (and you really shouldn't) they'll never know anyway.
Going away for overnights and longer adds the complexity of packing for the trip, so let's talk about bike bags and minimalist packing strategies. On my lovely Raleigh International I ride with a Carradice Nelson Longflap (with a Bagman) for touring. I've used it stretched to capacity with everything I needed for a 10 day trip (including a bottle of wine made by our friend's father) and I can't really imagine ever getting a larger bag. I suppose if I ever wanted to tour in a cold climate I might need more space. Anyway, I have modified the attachment system on my bag to allow me to take it on and off the bike. This is particularly important if you're visiting towns and parking the bike on the street. The steps I took were as follows:
- visit hardware store. Find flat-bottomed hooks that have narrow enough hook parts to fit through your Brooks saddle loops. This may take several iterations, and I have many hooks that DON'T actually work.
- pull the Carradice-supplied straps through the attachment holes and push the hooks through instead. Run the straps through the flat portion of the hooks and loop twice around the internal dowel. Fasten once and be happy that you'll never have to fasten that again.
- Extra-Credit - take two D-rings and a length of webbing. Sew a short strap and thus fashion yourself a purse strap to carry your Carradice around your destination.
Here's what it looks like on the inside of the bag:
Here's the bag with the "purse" strap attached, ready to be carried around while your bike is parked:
Finally, here's a closeup of the photo above where you can see the hooks attaching the bag to the Brooks saddle, the "purse" strap is stowed inside:
Now all of this can be avoided if, like my husband, you get their "Seatpost Quick Release" (SQR) bags. I didn't care as much for the look, and the mounting bracket won't work on my Campagnolo aero seatpost (and that is a thing of beauty) so this was my only option.
Once you have your bag ready for touring you have to fill it. We have a team list and then personal lists. Things that the team needs include (in no particular order):
- cash, credit cards
- cell phones, camera
- bike lock
- riding clothes
- civilian clothes/pyjamas
- saddle cover and rain gear
- snacks, water
- tools, tubes, pump
As for my personal packing here's all I took on a long weekend trip last year (dubbed 4 States, 4 days, 400 miles):
In this photo you can see my bag and helmet, both with taillights, a bag of toiletries, a jersey and bike shorts and overskirt, rain coat, arm warmers, gloves and socks, my long black jersey dress, cycling shoes, grey tights for early morning/late night warmth, a wallet I modified into handlebar-mounted camera case, the purse strap, my cell phone, wet wipes, headlight and sunglasses with extra lenses. Not pictured are my underwear because, while I want to help other aspiring cyclotourists, nothing will compel me to post photos of my underwear on the internet. But don't forget yours!
A word about my jersey dress - this was one of several black jersey dresses I picked up in college, and I wish I remember where! It's light, very drape-y, will not wrinkle, is comfortable to sleep in but can dress up to look completely elegant. I wore it with a black shrug out in France and Madame at our bed & breakfast was astounded at how elegant we looked. She couldn't believe we had that in our little bike bags! If it impresses a former Parisienne then it's good enough for me. I like looking like a relatively normal person for the non-cycling portion of the adventure. I don't know what the equivalent garment will be for you, but I'm certain there is a low-fuss simple option that's probably already in your closet.
When touring far from home you're faced with the question of transporting your own bike or renting one there. I think there are two questions to ask yourself:
- Am I a standard size in the place I'm going and are they likely to have a bike that is comfortable for me?
- How long will we be riding? Will there be enough vacation off the bike that having it around will be a hassle?
I can tell you that our homemade solution got a lot of attention in the streets and airport. I thought people were irritated by our large size until I overheard an American family exclaim "Oh! It has wheels!" I guess the wheels are small enough it looked like it was levitating.
Anyway, hurray for Yankee ingenuity, this worked very well for very little cost.
By the time we were back home in Boston the cardboard had gotten a bit mushy. If you travel much longer than that you might want to reinforce, or actually get a real travel box.
So why bother with all this? If you've read all this text you probably already have the itch to get out there and see the world at the speed of a bicycle. In my experience I've found that you see things, smell things, taste and eat things that you never would have encountered sealed away in a car. People, particularly men of a certain age, just love to come and talk to you about your bike. I've made friends around the world this way. In my case, more than anything, it's been a wonderful adventure with my husband, a microcosm of our more general journey together which has given us new communication channels, appreciation for each other's skills and strength, and a rich set of shared experiences to enjoy even in the midst of the less exciting daily life. It's like therapy, I suppose, but a LOT more fun! So much fun that we spend our time thinking about getting out there again. Where to next? We're planning the next big adventure for September...
In the meantime, happy adventures to all!