A Rookie's Guide: How NOT to Do Your First Bicycle Tour

The Art of Bicycle Touring, with bonus tips at the end.

Cycling tour from Calais, France to Amsterdam, Holland.

A few years back, two friends and I gleefully decided we were in the mood for adventure.

We plotted our route according to our understanding that northern Europe is flat. We set Amsterdam as our destination.

Upon a sunny October morning, we rocked up to Dover upon our bicycles.

We were born ready for this cycle tour. Look at our clothing - Jeans! Not recommended cycle wear.

We were born ready for this cycle tour. Look at our clothing - Jeans! Not recommended cycle wear.

Each held its own story, reflected the personality of its rider and our naivety. I had a whippet thin Alloy-framed hybrid Ridgeback, the most sensible of all the bikes. Kath rode a pal’s borrow cruiser-type, fat tyres, laid back riding position, the sort designed to wheel up and down Venice Beach not go the whole couple of hundred miles from Dieppe to Amsterdam. Jo hacked up on her silver, hardtail, mountain Gary Fisher.

You get the picture?

We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.

We were not equipped.

All we knew was that the sun was shining, and the sky was blue. We were upon the ferry looking back at the white cliffs of Dover ready for escapades, not a cloud upon our horizons, not a hint our naivety would cause us to suffer a few bites of reality.

Ciao, Dover.

Ciao, Dover.

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Our map came from the ferry’s onboard store, which are not known for hosting a range of products. We settled upon it because it showed France, Belgium and Holland, as well as every other country in Europe. We hadn’t figured upon needing our maps to represent detail.

Lesson one: Get a good map. As many good maps as you need.

OUr first sign for Amsterdam appeared long after we’d crossed the 100-mile threshold.

OUr first sign for Amsterdam appeared long after we’d crossed the 100-mile threshold.

Arriving in Calais, rolling our three lots of two wheels off the ferry, we were certain there’d be a sign pointing us a cycle route to Amsterdam. How wrong we were. 

Lesson two: You’re going to face a road system designed for drivers of motor vehicles.

Headwinds fought us while the sun went down, along with our spirits. Then, we saw the sunset.

Headwinds fought us while the sun went down, along with our spirits. Then, we saw the sunset.

The sky is never bigger than on the road at sunset.

The sky is never bigger than on the road at sunset.

Lesson three: Take the road that looks the least travelled, sometimes.

Trying our hardest to work our way out of the ferry port, spotting a tunnel running underneath a highway that marked the threshold to our adventure, we took it, as every other road was a major one. It was the right choice. We rolled away from highway hell and into the openness of northern France. 

It was upon the other side that we happened upon Gendarmes, sitting in their van. We thought they’d be able to tell us the way, so we asked.  

Bonjour, pour aller a la Amsterdam sur la velo?”

To go to Amsterdam upon a bicycle, we enquired. They suggested we take a train.

Non,” we declared.

Away we rolled, following the compass at top of my handlebars - such a good investment.

What ensued in the next few days constituted an non-archetypal road trip that would make for an excellent coming-of-age film. As we pedaled through our demons and headwinds, we discovered:

  • October is out of season and so all the campsites were closed.

  • Out-of-season campsites can still be used;

  • Fried eggs are best cooked in rich butter;

  • When it rains, it rains and the cold gets in everywhere;

  • Half-ass sleeping bags don’t keep you warm;

  • Two people can fit into a one-person tent;

  • Headwinds suck;

  • It’s okay to knock on the door of strangers to ask for assistance in the middle of the night;

  • Belgium and Holland are beautiful cycling destinations;

  • Belgium has awesome vending machines.

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But, this is about cycling and not our adventure, per se.

By its end, our hair standing upon end after a couple of nights of free camping (bustling into fields to pitch our tents), we returned, having achieved Amsterdam and back, to the ferry and to England.

We were weary.

And, we were wiser.

We understood that if every person who has ever encountered hardship or has never encountered their ability to achieve something awesome were to take a cycle tour, under their own volition and steam, they would realise the vitality, the life-giving succour and sense of achievement such an effort can elicit.

It would leave them understanding they are more capable than they believe.

Along the way, we had an awesome time, which we went on to re-live on other tours, better equipped years later because we were wiser and were prepared.

For now, because this is about how to avoid making rookie errors, here are the lessons we learned along with some of the episodes that prompted them.

Lessons

Save yourself the discomfort and the “D’oh” moments by taking time to put these insights into action. You’ll thank me.

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Get as many good and detailed maps as you need.

No, we didn’t want to use Google maps and neither should you. Though you might think us churlish, retrograde or pure dumb not to lean upon modern navigational systems, you gain so much more reward when you work out the lay of the land by yourself.

In cities, it’s near to impossible, with a map that covers too wide an area, to begin to navigate your way out of the labyrinth. Outside of cities, at crossroads with haphazard cities and towns on signposts, i.e. not your final goal, it can be hard to know which way to go.

Road systems and distances are designed for drivers.

Carry extra water and food supplies because sometimes you can ride for miles without seeing a useful pit-stop. Bonus: with all the calories you’re burning, you can eat and drink without guilt. Meanwhile, your butt and leg muscles tone to superhuman proportions.

Somewhere on one of the three islands of Zeeland.

Somewhere on one of the three islands of Zeeland.

Take the road that looks least taken.

Because roads are designed for drivers with cycle routes often a binary afterthought, you’ll discover most major landing sites – airports and ferry terminals – are an overwhelming warren of large roads that won’t permit bicycles. Invariably, though, there is one small dirt track that will carry you to where you need to go.  

 

Though hard to see, the dew in this photograph provided every kind of washing facility we needed.

Though hard to see, the dew in this photograph provided every kind of washing facility we needed.

Dewy fields are good to wash in, but it doesn’t remove the crust

Get prepared to free camp because your bicycle tour, as haphazardly plotted as ours, won’t necessarily ensure you discover a cosy campsite at the end of every night.

Go with this. Find the feral part of your instinctive self and commit to being in the great outdoors.

Tip: Try to find sheltered, flat and private spots where you get a good vibe you and your travel companions will be safe.

If the light is soon to go down, make finding a camping spot your priority

It sucks to search out a plot for the night and pitch your tent under the cover of darkness. It’s stressful, too, to be riding around Rotterdam port, watching the flames come out of factories in an urban wasteland when all you want to do is sleep.

Tip: Watch the sunlight. Know when sunset is and make a plan to look out a camping plot ahead of time. It can take longer than you would like to find a campsite.

More lessons:

  • Raise your saddle to top of your hip height to save your butt and knees from excruciating pain.

  • You do not need that much but do take good stuff

  • Your campsite will be at the top of a steep climb at the end of a long day when your legs have turned to seaweed 

  • Alcohol is a readily available fuel that will power you through the lowest moments and most complex cities. Apply with caution.

  • When lost, enjoy the fact because soon you will be found

  • Getting to your destination will be a mix of jubilation and ‘meh’. We found ourselves missing the momentum and daily change of scenery.

  • Get used to U-turns.

  • Be prepared to cycle at night.

  • Put away your mobile phone and navigate by map.

  • Put away your mobile phone. Switch it off. Bury it.

  • Headwinds cause your muscles to burn and heart to pound. You will remember them.

  •  Motion is addictive. Once you’ve stopped at your destination, be prepared to find yourselves wanting to quit the destination and hit the road again.

  • When changing a puncture ALWAYS check the inside of the tyre for the puncture entry and REMOVE the offending article

  • Invest in a bike that can carry loads and is designed for distances.

  • Just because a bike looks the business doesn’t mean it can do the business.

  • Invest in a saddle that will be kind to your body.

  • Bells are really useful, especially in cities.

  • Get lights that light your way – Christmas tree lights don’t count. Look at the lumens rating. Look at how far the light casts ahead. Don’t go for the shitty fashionable ones.

  • Expect to get lost in cities and to fall in love with quiet country roads.

  • You get what you pay for: invest in good equipment.

  • Remember to stop and take in the sites and sights.

  • EAT! Gorge! Be merry.

  • Be prepared for a few skirmishes with your travel companions: these will make your stronger

  • Travel openly. It’s going to change you.

When traversing cities means locating the entrance to an under river footpath, expect to lose some time and to perform some spectacular loops.

When traversing cities means locating the entrance to an under river footpath, expect to lose some time and to perform some spectacular loops.

Finally, if you can only invest in specific items, equipment must haves are:

Helmet

Lights

A good waterproof sealed tent

Waterproof panniers

Waterproof gear

Did I mention an ergonomic saddle?

Padded shorts are a god-send

A solid, well-maintained bike with a rear wheel that can carry a heavy-load. Also, one for the occasion - not for mountains or for short distances but one that gives your body a comfortable position.

A season-appropriate sleeping bag

Head-torch

Heavy-duty lock & cable. Like bikes, some locks look the business but won’t stand up to anything. Look for Gold security rating up. In the bike shop I worked in, we’d advise a lock that’s proportionally similar in price to your bike.

Sleeping mat

Multi-purpose tool

Puncture repair kit / spare inner tube(s)

Pump

Oil

It’s true that half of the list is about equipping your bike. And, it is. Invest well and, apart from consumables, these pieces will last you a few hundred miles or more.

In the end

Ultimately, the more tours you do, the more you’ll learn about your touring style and the creature comforts you like to have with you. I’ve since added cooking equipment to my kit as well as a water filter system for the just-in-case times when you’re not sure where your next source of clean water is coming from.

If it’s for you, this won’t be your only rodeo. Cycling touring is addictive. In my opinion, the best way to travel.