Guide to cycle touring

Want to see more of the world under your own steam? Touring by bike might just be the trick.
By Tim Robson December 19, 2014 Reading Time: 7 Minutes

CYCLE TOURING CAN be as easy or as hard as you can imagine.

An out-and-back daytrip on quiet country back roads is cycle touring at its simplest, and perhaps most pure. At its most complex it can be an around-the-world odyssey that takes months, or even years, to complete, through some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable.

You can do it solo, with a partner, or as part of an organised tour. You can even take your kids (if you’re up for a challenge!).

From the little-explored roads of your own patch to the heights of the Andes, the jungles of Cambodia, the desolation of the Russian steppes, the old world of Europe and absolutely everything in between, cycle touring is your opportunity to see the world at a slower pace.

  • Video: Cycle touring in Tasmania

Cycle touring styles

Touring can be as easy as throwing a change of clothes and a credit card in a backpack and setting out whichever way the road takes you. You can also take your time, plan your route, build up your kit and depart on the ride of a lifetime after months of preparation.

Credit card touring naturally restricts you to more major centres, and it takes some discipline to leave a lot of your worldly possessions behind. It can be very liberating, though! A single rear pannier and bag, along with a handlebar bag, will fit a surprising amount of gear – and there’s the lure of a clean bed and a hot shower at the end of the day.

The large-scale tour takes research, trial-and-error, more research, expense and even more research. Thankfully, there are a lot of people who’ve already made a lot of the mistakes for you! There are literally thousands of touring blogs online; we’ve listed a couple that we like at the end of this article for you.

The key? Pick a date, book your holidays/quit your job, and just go…

Somewhere in between lies the supported tour. Fly with your bike to a destination, meet your guide and support team and enjoy the ride.

For time-poor tourers, this is a great way to jam in a trek across beautiful destinations (Vietnam is a favourite) with minimal organisation (other than a bit of pedal time before you leave).

Choosing the right bike

The technical aspects of setting up a touring bike don’t differ too much from those associated with a dedicated commuter rig. Simplicity and reliability are your first two keywords, with lightness and flexibility figuring in there, too.

For your first touring forays, a hardtail mountain bike is a great place to start looking for a number of reasons; they usually represent great value, come already equipped with tough, reliable components and can be easily sourced with mounts and holes for the fitment of racks and panniers.

The faster, lighter alternative to the mountain bike is the cyclocross bike. While it looks for all the world like a regular racing bike, the ’cross bike is easier to ride, stronger and better equipped for more rugged terrain.

The frame angles are slightly slacker, meaning the bike tracks and steers more predictably, while the tubing set itself is heavier duty.

Its gear ratios are much easier on the knees than a typical road bike, and it comes equipped with more powerful cantilever or disc brakes and wider rims and tyres. If you’re planning long days on relatively well-maintained roads that may include smatterings of dirt and gravel, a ’cross bike is almost custom-made for this kind of work.

Thinking of selling up and hitting the road for an extended spell? You might even need a more specialist rig. Aluminium frames are easily the most common off-the-peg machines, but the material’s biggest disadvantage out in the field is the fact that it can’t be easily repaired if it cracks or breaks.

Cro-moly steel, on the other hand, can be welded back together by anyone with the most basic gear and knowledge. It’s also still relatively light, makes for a comfortable, springy ride and is amazingly affordable.

Want four sets of bottle mounts, extra-strong rack mounts, a bottle-opener and light mounts? No problem for a custom builder.

While a reliable mid-level Shimano MTB drivetrain will do the trick, many long-haul tourers use internally geared rear hubs in conjunction with a belt drive to replace the chain. German company Rohloff’s 14-speed device is expensive, but very well regarded, only needing an oil change every 5000km.

It also allows you to select gears whenever you like; just twist the shifter, even from a standstill, and you can pedal away. Not having derailleurs hanging off the bike also prevents transit and crash damage from ruining your shifting.

It’s not as free-running and as precise as a nicely tuned derailleur system, though.
Belt drives do away with the chain, though the bike’s frame needs to be prepared especially to take the unbroken belt.

Belts are lighter, quieter and last much longer than chains, and for on-road touring they’re a worthwhile option.

They’re not as good when the going gets dirty, although they only need a quick squirt of water to come clean again.

Installing and setting up a belt drive is definitely something that’s best left to the experts; the belts themselves are quite fragile off the bike, and proper alignment and tension is critical to good performance.

There is also the option of buying an off-the-peg touring bike from specialist companies. German company Tout-Terrain is world-renowned for highly specced tourers like the Silk Road.

It’s an around-the-world rig straight off the shop floor thanks to its built-in rear rack, Rohloff rear hub and other high-end, touring-specific parts. They’re available in Australia, too. (See www.urbancycle.com.au)

Get the most from your bike brakes

Two relatively recent mountain bike innovations – suspension and disc brakes – lend themselves well to touring, but there are caveats. When it comes to front suspension forks, there are two distinct schools of thought.

If you’re not straying too far from civilisation, and you’re planning to ride on dirt, then a sprung front-end is a good bet. We’d recommend a fork that uses a steel coil spring rather than an air-sprung version; even if you have some sort of internal issue with the steel-sprung fork, it’ll still function in a basic way.

Lose the air from your air-sprung fork 500km from the next town, though, and you’re in a bit of trouble. If you’re really going back-country, a rigid fork is the most reliable of all; team it with a wide rim and a fatter, softer front tyre for more comfort at the handlebar.

Disc brakes are reliable and powerful in both cable-actuated and hydraulic form. The biggest issue with discs is the fitment of pannier racks and bags; the location of the discs can interfere with the bags.

There are options and solutions, but you may have to fuss about a bit. If you’re building a real back-country machine, cable-actuated discs are far easier to service in the field and survive crash and transport damage much better, though modern hydraulic brakes are incredibly reliable, too.

Transporting luggage on a cycle tour

When it comes to carrying your life in one or two bags, here’s the golden tip: don’t skimp on quality when it comes to pannier bags and racks. A cheap rack may be kinder to the build budget, but when it’s sitting askew and twisted when you’re parked beside an outback highway with 80km still to cover, it’s not a good deal.

Tubular steel racks are the hot tip; they can be patched up in a pinch, have the ability to carry astonishing amounts of weight and can be had in a bewildering array of combinations. Many people recommend Tubus racks for both the front and rear of the bike, which allows you to pack up to 60 or 70kg of gear!

It’s important, though, to match racks to bikes. You’ll need a different set-up if you’re running, say, a front-suspended 26-inch wheeled mountain bike in rough terrain as opposed to a 700c-wheeled road tourer over long stretches of tarmac.
Bags, too, are critical.

Well-regarded brands, such as Ortlieb are worth the extra money – again, if you’re caught in a tropical downpour that never seems to end, the last thing you want is a sodden mess inside the bag when you open it up.

Thule’s Pack ’n Pedal system, meanwhile, is more affordable and perfectly suited for semi-serious trekkers. They’ll also fit on almost any kind of bike you happen to own.

Want to pack a lot? We figure that you can fit up to eight bags on a bike pretty comfortably! How you pack your weight is very important, though, as it’ll affect the way the bike handles.

Heavy stuff should go low and rearwards, light and bulky low on the front forks and oft-used stuff should go on top of the rear rack and in a small bar bag.

Less is more when it comes to cycle touring apparel, both in quantity and appearance. Merino wool is almost the perfect cycling companion, while padded knicks under loose outer shorts are casual and comfortable.

Clothes and gadgets for cycle touring

Layering and extremity care are key elements when dressing for touring; a lightweight head covering, gloves and good quality socks will give you a high level of temperature control no matter what the conditions.

Add a lightweight rain jacket (zip-off sleeves and a hood are nice to have), a pair of semi-stiff SPD cycling shoes and a good helmet and you’re set.

The propagation of affordable electronic devices is perfectly suited to the rigours of cycle touring. Garmin’s Edge 810 bike GPS computer, for example, acts as a navigation tool, heart rate monitor, data recorder and cycle computer, and it can be recharged via USB from the new generation of dynamo front hubs.

A flexible solar panel can be stretched out over a pannier bag to recharge batteries, and dynamo LED lighting will make you more visible to road traffic.
Tools, too, have become lighter and cheaper.

With just two or three items, you should be able to perform almost every repair imaginable out on the road or in the bush. You do, however, need to know how to use whatever tool you choose to buy.

A basic knowledge of bike mechanics is essential; either put yourself through a course at a local shop, or get busy on YouTube.

A bike can take you a long way, but it can also get you a long way into trouble if you’re not prepared. As with all unsupported adventures, you’ll be limited by one key element – water. Leaps in digital technology mean it’s harder to be out of touch, but if you don’t have sufficient water, it doesn’t matter how many satellite phones you have.

A dedicated tourer will have provision to fit at least three bottles, and oversized brackets can hold 1.5-litre bottles.

Add three litres or more in a backpack, and there’s nearly 10 litres. Is that enough? Only you can decide…

We’ve only just scratched the very surface of cycle touring; the world really is your oyster. If you’ve got a trip planned, drop us a line!

Links

www.redspokes.co.uk
One of the world’s premier bike touring companies.

www.cyclingabout.com
A pair of young Aussies documenting their touring lifestyle via blog, review, pic and film.

www.co2friendly.blogspot.com.au
Great photos on this blog about one man and his quest to enjoy life on the down-low.

www.expeditionequipment.com.au
Distributors of Ortlieb’s excellent pannier bags.

www.thule.com.au
Check out Thule’s Pack ‘n Pedal rack/bag system.