Advice to Novice Bicycle Tourists

Explanation as Introduction

I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time readying bicycle touring forums. One of the things I’ve marveled at is how much more interest there is in bicycle touring these days. When I was new to the pastime, if I talked about my interest, most people would stare at me as if I’d just delivered a message from Mars in fluent Klingon.

My 2017 Surly LHT 700c

In one particular subreddit, there are many initiates to bicycle touring. They most often make their introduction by asking questions similar to “How do I train myself for my first tour as a total novice?” Maybe it’s the season or something, but there have been many questions like this and I’ve spent a good deal of time crafting a response to one person, only to find that two or three others have asked essentially the same thing.

Consequently, it occurs to me that a blog post answering the common elements is called for.

How do I train to tour?

Most people with touring experience are going to say “just ride” and this suggestion has merit. However, it’s not really training nor does it prepare you for anything other than just riding. The problem is that a tour bicycle and rider, especially a pair that go self-supported, are comprised of a lot of other skills and abilities beyond sitting in a saddle and turning cranks.

Start by looking at your skills inventory. Do you know how to:

  • patch a tire
  • fix the drive train components on your bike
  • pitch a tent
  • dry a sleeping bag in wet weather
  • keep your electrics charged without an outlet
  • safely assume a lane at an intersection or around a blind corner
  • make a meal on the go
  • find potable drinking water
  • plan your meals in advance around resupplies

There are many more skills than this that anyone must learn to tour, but this is a starter list to get you thinking that way.

My advice is that when you ride, you should focus on a selection of these skills. This can be as simple as riding until you get a nasty flat, then patching it without help. You could even start doing overnights and LT24H tours. Pick a skill and focus on sorting it out BEFORE you commit to a long ride. After you’ve done a few of these shorter “practice” rides you’ll be able to take on an increasing number of challenges. Believe me, I’ve been touring since the early 80s, and I still ramp up before a big ride.

Build Your Kit for Simplicity, Comfort, and Resilience

Look for kit — for your camp and your bike — that is simple and field serviceable. Some folks like cleated bike shoes and pedals. I find flat pedals are actually preferable because they’re simple. You’ll never be refused service because you’ve got cleats that may scratch a shop owner’s floors. You can wear comfy shoes that you’re able to hike in. Finally, nothing is going to come undone from your shoes or bike that could get lost.

Another example, I usually take a two-person, single-walled tent solo touring. The extra space and comfort are invaluable after a long day of climbing or when the weather turns sour.

I’m New and I Need a Bike

Now, this is an opinion, so you do you, but that older MTB frame you’ve got stashed at the back of the garage is probably better suited to be your touring bike than any new road bike. Does it have cantilever brakes (field serviceable)? Friction shifters and drive train (field serviceable)? It likely has necessary braze-ons for racks, front and rear. With a little elbow grease and a new set of wheels (36 spokes), it could be an amazing ride.

If you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket or don’t have an old mountain bike laying around, then I will always make the following recommendations. First, find a steel frame propose-built for bicycle touring. Most bicycle manufacturers make something like this. It will have some distinguishing geometry and finishing touches that will make riding over long distances enjoyable instead of a penance.

First, it will have many braze-ons — a minimum of two on the top side of the down tube, two on the seat tube, and at least four on the forks and four on the rear triangle. If there are more, that’s a good thing.

The steering axis should be slightly more relaxed (angled) than what you’d expect on a road or mountain bike. Additionally, you’ll want a fair helping of fork rake. Also, look for a long wheelbase. If the rear hub is too close to the bottom bracket you’ll be knocking your feet into your panniers with every pedal rotation.

When you look for components you’ll want to consider older manufacturing standards before you look at the bleeding edge. Again, my opinion, but my experience tells me that relying on critical systems that haven’t been tested by time and may be completely closed to you — especially on a long ride of weeks, months, or even years — is a bad idea.

There is a surprising range of options these days that meet these requirements.

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