Ever since the bicycle was first invented people have toured. In the 1880s, weekly newspapers and journals carried reports of derringdo cyclists who circumnavigated the world. To begin with they went on penny-farthings with only handlebar bags for luggage. Since then cyclists have been everywhere, and on every type of machine: there’s not a desert or mountain valley in the world that hasn’t seen the tyre marks of a British cyclist.
And bicycles provide the best means of seeing regions and countries. In a car or a bus you see life through a window. On a bike you feel the wind, smell the air and really see the sights.
DURATION It takes time to build up to completing a major cycle expedition. You have to learn the ropes by doing short day-tours, week-end tours and then week-long tours. However, if you’ve neither the time nor the inclination for long tours of any sort, day or weekend tours can be compact adventures in their own right.
DAY TOURS A moderately fit cyclist can easily manage 60-70 road miles in a day. And that’s with tea-shop stoppages and site-seeing breaks included. Off-road, the limit is perhaps 30-40 miles. But even if you just do twenty miles, you’ll see more on a bike than you ever would in a car.
Leisurely day touring can be managed by everybody: you’re not limited by age, sex or fitness.
Luggage requirements: tools, small amounts of food, map.
WEEKEND TOURS When you’ve mastered the day tour you can extend your enjoyment by spending a whole week-end pedalling around. If you B+B there’s no need to carry much gear, but if you camp you’ll need to fit pannier racks and bags.
Luggage requirements: tools, food, maps, spare clothing, money for accommodation or tent.
EXPEDITIONS Cycling for anything longer than a weekend is a full-blown cycle tour, an expedition if you like.
Luggage requirements: extensive set of tools and spares, food, maps, two sets of clothing, tent.
CYCLE HOLIDAYS If you don’t like the idea of carrying all your own luggage, but you still want to explore exotic climes, sagwagon touring may be for you. This is where a holiday company provides bikes, route cards and accommodation; and you provide the pedal power to get to each night’s stopover. There’s no need to carry any pannier bags because a ‘sag-wagon’ carries all your luggage. Cycle magazines carry adverts for these types of holidays.
HOW TO TOUR
Inertia is perhaps the biggest obstacle to adventuring. Expeditions and tours are nowhere near as difficult as many people imagine – you quickly adapt to changing conditions and the problems you experience along the way – but making the move in the first place is always difficult. As the famous Chinese proverb puts it, a journey of a thousand miles starts with just one step.
But that first step is the bravest one you’ll make the whole trip once you’ve started, travelling becomes a natural progression of sights, sounds, and smells: it’s hard to get home-sick when so much is going on around you.
You don’t have to be an endurance athlete to start touring. After a few weeks away you’ll become one, but you can start out a physical wreck and slowly build up to optimum fitness.
It’s critical to ease your way into a tour and not blow up before you’ve hardly started.
Rear panniers This is where most of the weight goes. Pack heavy items low in the bags. Lots of compartments and external pockets will help you organise your kit. Use small nylon stuff sacs too.
Front panniers Being low down and positioned directly over the front hub ‘lowrider’ bags offer great stability.
Weight A bicycle is a load-carrying platform. It carries you, of course, but with pannier racks fitted it can also comfortably carry a great deal of luggage. Quite apart from actual weight the distribution of this weight in the pannier bags is quite important. It’s common sense to put the heaviest gear such as tent, tool kit and cooking gear at the bottom of the bags, close to the front and rear hubs. The front bags should be kept for light gear such as clothing.
What to look for in a pannier bag: There are lots of fancy pannier bags out there. A set of bags for expedition use must first of all be bomb proof. It’s no good having a pair of Chinese-made panniers that have loads of features and look the business, and cost £20 less than other bags, but which rip after just a few knocks.
Stiffness: the best bags are those which are made from a tough material and which have good integral stiffeners on the back panel. Also look out for leather or plastic reinforcements on the wear points, for instance at the attachment points.
Carrying handles: these can be useful for carrying the bags in airports and into hotels. Some bags join together completely and two bags become one.
Waterproof: some bags come with integral rain covers that fit into pockets at the base of the bag. For muddy and wet tours they can keep bags dry and looking respectable. Other bags are fully waterproof via the use of watertight fabrics and kayak-style roll-over closures.
Trailers Many cycle tourists now travel not with pannier bags but with a trailer. Single-wheel or with two, trailers carry the weight down low and can be easily detached for when you want your bike to be svelte again.