My First Bicycle Tour

Since I leave for my Oregon coast bicycle tour in a couple of days, I thought I’d share the (not quite so flawless) experience behind my first multi day bicycle tour.

One January almost twenty years ago, I was returning to the US from an overseas work assignment. I had my wedding and my two week New Zealand honeymoon lined up, but at the last minute, I found out that my next work assignment would not begin until March.

So now I had an extra month available, and since I would already be halfway around the world anyway, the idea of an Australian bicycle tour was born. My wife had to return to work after the honeymoon portion of the trip, so this would be a solo bicycle tour. I had never done a self-contained tour before, though at least I’ve had enough miles on the bikes and was proficient at doing my own maintenance and repairs.

With the last minute change in plans, I had little time for preparation. I spent minimal time on the route selection. I got a flight into Cairns, a flight returning from Brisbane, and I would just ride between the two.

The more important concern at the time was getting a bike which would be up to the task. The road racing bike wouldn’t do, as there was no way to carry anything on it. The mountain bike had a rear rack, so that would be the bicycle of choice. I replaced the knobby tires with narrower slicks. But the straight handlebars wouldn’t be comfortable for riding all day. So I borrowed the drop handlebars from the stoker position of our old Peugeot tandem, and I installed aero brake levers and bar end shifters which I had mail ordered.

I tried to install front racks, but there was nothing at the time available which would work with front suspension. Since I only had a rear rack, and I didn’t have any camping gear suitable for touring, this was going to be a credit card tour.

After arriving in Cairns, getting the bike together, and picking up supplies, I headed south on the coastal highway, and within the next few days I learned a few key things. First, the mountain bike with the drop bars worked OK, though the fit was a bit crunched, and the drop bar levers weren’t an ideal match with the cantilever brakes. Also, February in the Southern Hemisphere tropics is the wettest month. Finally, and most important, the coastal highway didn’t really run along the coast. It ran inland, and so then there were significant out and back detours from that route to reach the interesting destinations along the coast. Even though I was in excellent shape, I couldn’t count on my original plan of doing 100 mile days back to back in order to make it to Brisbane in time for my return flight.

Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that wasn’t going to work out as a bicycle tour, at least with my equipment available to me and time remaining. So I shipped my bike the rest of the way to Brisbane, and I enjoyed the rest of the trip as a backpacker. I have no regrets about that decision, even looking back it was still the “right” decision given the circumstances.

Here were my main lessons learned, and they are still valuable lessons today:

1. Although I prefer a purpose-built road touring bike, you can successfully tour on any reasonable bike that is capable of carrying your gear. The important thing is to test the bike, in its actual touring configuration, BEFORE your tour. That will give you the chance to figure out likes and dislikes, and make any necessary adjustments.

2. Go for a few day self contained tour near your home – or even a bike overnight – with your bike and gear. I prefer a few day tour, because that gets you more in the rhythm of establishing the daily routine and working out any bugs, but an overnighter is better than nothing. I try to simulate actual touring conditions as close as possible, and since I live in Southern California, I have often done such a ride in January in order to practice using my rain gear.

3. Although it wasn’t a lesson learned the hard way for me, I would recommend that anyone who tours know some of the maintenance basics, such as changing a flat tire and making minor adjustments. As far as spares, the key things I take are tubes, a spare tire, and spare spokes. I’m a big fan of the FiberFix spoke, as it has kept me rolling a couple of times when I’ve had a spoke break on the right side of the rear wheel, and the broken spoke piece can’t be removed without removing the gear cluster.

4. If credit card touring, unless lodging availability is pretty certain, carry basic camping gear. That opens up a lot of options and opportunities. Two years ago I had originally planned my ride from Crescent City to San Francisco as a credit card tour, but after the first night I camped most of the time after that, as campgrounds were much easier to find than reasonably priced lodging.

5. Set reasonable (low) daily mileage goals for planning purposes, even if you know you will exceed them. It is better to have a little extra time at the end and figure out interesting things to do with it, rather than going through the whole tour feeling like you’re being rushed to get to the night’s destination because you don’t want to miss your travel arrangements on the last day.

6. Research the route to the level of detail appropriate for your trip and comfort zone. Some people like touring maps such as those from Adventure Cycling which list all available services, others like wandering off the beaten path. Coincidentally, I saw this excellent article on the subject just before I was about to publish this post. For shorter tours, I may have the whole route mapped out turn by turn at the beginning, but for longer tours such as my ride across the US, I didn’t know every road I was going to take before I left. Instead, I had the route planned out enough so that I knew what towns I’d be going through and had a heads up where I might have long days without services, steep mountain climbs, places only accessible by a major highway, etc. Then as I worked my way across the country, I filled in the gaps and the exact routing with the tips provided in that article above and local knowledge acquired on the way.

7. Finally, take more photos.

Though at least this tour wasn’t a total disaster, as I was able to learn from this and eventually bike across the US a few years later!