Freedom. Escape. Journey. Cycle touring is heaven, a nirvana for the purist bike rider. A voyage, a pilgrimage, not from a to b but from a to z, the letters in between a jumble of memories no cycling blog or magazine can arrange into a string of words that will ever do your experiences justice.
The road is life. So said a certain Jean-Louis “Jack” Kérouac, a cyclist in waiting if ever there was one. I love all forms of cycling but nothing compares to touring. Setting off safe in the knowledge that for the next x days your only focus is the journey. That means cycling, eating and sleeping with very little in between. Maybe a bit more eating. And cycling. Bliss.
Bikes, beards and bags
To some cycle touring conjures up images of lone bearded men slowly struggling along a remote road, seemingly always dressed head to toe in waterproofs. Their archetypal Dawes Galaxy touring bike is more mudguards than frame and more bags than bike, heaving and bulging with panniers, bar bags, saddle bags, wheel bags, handbags, well, you get the picture.
I’ve noticed the majority of tourers are of a certain maturity. Why? Time, this they have in abundance since some of them are no doubt retired. Wisdom too, I like to think. They’ve long since given up the pretence of training for races they have never entered. Instead they have discovered the secret of cycling. Touring.
The night before an adventure I will always struggle to find sleep. Nervous and excited, I am a prisoner awaiting release and I know come the morn I shall be free. Months in the making, I am ready for my grand tour. I think, I hope. Panic. Have I packed enough inner tubes? Food? Chafing crème? Pants?
The nervousness soon disappears once you climb on the bike, somewhat surprised at how heavy it is despite the fact you’ve loaded it up like a Yak ready for an Everest ascent. The frown becomes a smile by pedal turn number two and away you ride, a lone horseman setting off into the sunset, unsure where you shall next lay your hat.
You leave the metropolis behind and upon escaping its shadow, the land is greener, the sky bluer, the vistas bigger. Smooth winding roads await. The sun inches up into the sky and the road stretches out before you like a river meandering mile upon mile to the sea, the day so long it feels like a season, your journey more important than the destination.
“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
Alone yet alive
Within a day you acquire a steady rhythm. You settle into a robotic, comfortable cadence both on and off the bike. Precise, you are a metronome. Ride, wash, eat, sleep, eat, ride and repeat.
You are consumed by the bike. Meals, hours, dreams and scenes all pass gently by. You think nothing of ticking off 100 miles each and every day and you’re in such a touring trance you barely notice the hills. You are far from the beaten track and the roads are so quiet you could be forgiven for thinking the motorcar has yet to be invented. You hear the tweet of every bird and the rustle of every shaking leaf. Alone in the world, you’ve never felt more human, more in touch with the earth.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
Around occasional corners are chance encounters with other cyclists. You are shocked but happy to see another human being. You can barely speak, so long has it been since you last saw another person. Stories of movement, distance and direction are swapped, all the best, you say, your eyes already focussing on an horizon you aim to conquer.
Onwards you ride, progress paused only by the occasional break and it’s a rare sensation when you plant your feet on the ground and slowly remember how to walk again. Legs shaky, you weave. You’re not entirely sure where in the world you are but you know you are not lost. Far from it. The scene before you is so achingly beautiful you feel like you’re in a double page spread of Rouleur. William Fotheringham has yet to dream the essay you are living.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Day ending, you’re overcome with fatigue in the last few miles. This feeling, this tiredness, is one you rarely encounter after any other cycle ride. It is a weariness brought on by the experience and all you have seen. Your desire to continue cycling is as strong as the need to close your eyes and lie down.
Rest and recuperate
You arrive, not that your brain computes. Standing still you feel like you are moving. Mouth dry, you lick your dust covered lips and taste the road, your senses acute. Lick-lick, there’s the grapes from the vineyard you passed at mile 63, the deer that ran out in front of you at mile six. Legs stiff yet loose, your heart beats at resting pace as it has all day. Content and at peace, only your stomach protests. You think not of food but of fuel.
Showering, you carefully wash each and every mile from your sun warmed skin, maintenance for the machine that come tomorrow will chug back into life and carry you onwards. Three meals later and you’re ready for bed. Tonight you sleep with the angel of fatigue and romp your way into a sleep so deep you wonder if you’ll ever rise. You dream of blue skies.
Alarm. Eyes open, smile wide. Curtains drawn, blue skies. You question nothing for you know your purpose and why you exist. Today you shall ride.
Interested? There are many options for the cycling tourist, here’s just a few of them.
A grand tour
In Victorian times, wealthy young Englishmen embarked on a Grand Tour, travelling across Europe in search of art, culture and history. The journey was an education. Months, even years could be spent on a tour, which quickly became a rite of passage. Today such adventure has been replaced by the gap year and the search for alcohol, sex and drugs. Values, it seems, have changed. To this Victorian, at least!
A grand tour for the cyclist is probably closer to the Victorian spirit than the modern day indulgence. It means panniers and time. Three days minimum, preferably a week, longer if your wallet or schedule allow. You will travel great distances and your days will be ruled only by the miles your legs can manage. Each new day sees a markedly different landscape to the last, images, sounds and smells that will forever be burned into the depths of your cycling soul.
My first full tour was an unforgettable two-week odyssey from my house in London, through the entirety of France before resting in Spain. The trip only struck me as crazy upon my depart when I left my house and thought, ‘OK, today I’m cycling to Spain!’. Ten days later I arrived having crossed seas (well, the English Channel), the empty flatlands of northern France, mountains, the grand Rhône river, borders, swampland, sand banks and some of the most incredible scenery I’ll ever witness. Every cyclist should experience at least one grand tour.
A short, sharp two to three day whirlwind tour. Manageable in a long weekend, this is a chance to discover your own country. Head for the National Parks or the wilds and make the ordinary extraordinary. I like to pack in as many hills as I can, for it is only when I have climbed high into the sky that I can look across and see all that remains to be conquered.
Circular or one way ticket?
Last year I chose to make my tours circular. This avoids a lot of the planning required for a grand tour and gives you the advantage of cycling without the weight of the world on your bike. This means you can enjoy the luxuries of packing more in the first instance, which makes life off the bike more comfortable. I booked accommodation somewhere exotic (Majorca, Cotswolds and Yorkshire!) and planned circular day tours from a central base. You don’t quite get the feeling of travelling on such tours yet there’s still much to be enjoyed.
Cycle touring accommodation
There’s a wealth of accommodation choices open to cyclists. My preferred option is the so-called credit card tour, which here in the UK means staying in bed and breakfasts. There’s many a bike friendly B&B here, where you can find everything from cycle workshops to bike cleaning facilities.
Cycling in France I like a sojourn in a gite, whereby you stay with a local French resident in their own home. A brilliant option even if your language skills are not up to scratch. You really get a flavour of the land you are passing through and many offer evening meals and breakfast. Home cooked French food, say no more! It can be tough trying to speak another language to entertain your polite hosts at the dinner table after a long day in the saddle but it is definitely worth the effort.
A proper tour involves a tent
True tourers, the hardcore, the machines, may laugh at the very notion of a credit card tour. Tent strapped to bike, they rest their weary head wherever their pedals happen to stop turning. Flexible and not without its romance, I’m yet to tour with a tent. Immediately the weight of your cargo doubles. Besides I like relative comfort at the end of a 100 mile cycle ride not a hard cold floor and food cooked on a mini gas stove!
Packing for a cycle tour
Even at the best of times, weight is the cyclist’s enemy. Every gram counts. The cycle tourer is almost as obsessive as the hill climber when it comes to travelling light. Just because panniers have plenty of space doesn’t mean you should fill them. Packing for a tour is a fine line between being comfortable with light luggage on the bike or being comfortable with plenty of accessories and spare clothing when you get off the bike.
I often sacrifice minor discomfort off the bike for a lighter load. After all, the tour is about the moments on the bike, not off it. Cycle touring may be no race but you don’t want to find yourself pulling along Sisyphus’s stone on every ascent.
You’ll be amazed how quickly the weight adds up. Pack what you think you need and then begin removing items. Clothing, what can you wash and dry each night? Do you really need a bike lock if the bike is not leaving your sight? Food? You have heard of shops haven’t you? Underwear? Don’t be so shy!
Dream cycle tour?
Got an inside tip on the best cycle tour you’ve ridden or constantly dream of? Do share below. I fancy Switzerland or the west coast of Ireland this year. Or both if I can find the time and money! See you there…
An unforgettable cycle tour
If your memories are not enough, how about a cycle tattoo? Thank you to Nigel Vaughan for allowing me to republish this image of his tattoo commemorating his cycle tour and taken from his blog, 12 Thousand Miles, Argentina to Canada by bicycle. Inspirational.
Images courtesy of 1) Jared and Ashley Gruber 2) Unknown 3) Unknown 4) Unknown 5) Unknown 6) Unknown 7) Unknown 8) As referenced in blog