So there you are, all packed up, standing at your doorway and wondering whether or not you are about to make a terrible mistake by heading off on your first cycle tour on a bike that looks more like a camel than the slick vehicle that you usually ride. Most likely you will have over packed, taking far more than you really need for the journey you are undertaking. Don’t worry. Once you settle in, after a few days riding, you can always send a box of stuff home in the post.
Everybody feels nervous before they start a big ride. It’s part of being ready and a natural response to doing something that is a long way removed from your everyday life and routines. If you followed the last article, you will know where you are heading on that first day. And because of your training rides, you will know that the distance you are going to ride is well within your limits.
In my experience it’s best to just get on with it. Saddle up and leave town before the sheriff arrives. Once you start moving, all other worries fall away. Before long you will be lost in your thoughts and navigating your own way through the beauty of the countryside. Whatever you feel like, remember to take your time. You have all day to get to your destination. Also remember to stop, take in the view, photograph things of interest and drink coffee when the opportunity arises.
By breaking things up in this way you don’t feel the inevitable pressures of a long journey stretching out in front of you. You are giving yourself the chance to slot into it and enjoy the experience, rather than flying along like a frightened rabbit, trying to get the day’s mileage done by lunchtime. Take your time. Use all the gears to make hill climbing as easy as possible and don’t rush. By following these few steps, your journey will begin serenely and joyously and will be likely to continue in the same vein.
I don’t want to go into great detail about what to take. We are all different after all. Our own requirements for equipment vary so enormously that to suggest a fixed list would be unrealistic. To some extent you need to pack according to your journey and expectations which you learn as you go along. But there are a few things that I, at this stage of my life and travelling, can’t live without.
For me, the act of cooking is not a chore. Okay, it can be sometimes, but most of the time it’s therapy. I like to cook, creating heady aromas and good food. I also think that it’s good for the soul to have cooking equipment. The amount of times I have stopped by the roadside to make tea is innumerable. I stop if I’m riding into a headwind, for a break, or if it’s wet and horrible. Sometimes, I stop to soak up a wonderful view, like the one from the top of the track that leads to the Corriarack Pass in Scotland. In doing that I give myself the time to absorb that part of my journey, to reflect on the effort of getting there, and to recover my senses a little. Which cooker you use deserves an article in its own right.
Fundamentally, I don’t function in the morning without coffee, something many of you can relate to I’m sure. Preparing my early morning elixir whilst lying in my sleeping bag also falls under the banner of therapy. By taking the time to do these things, I am loving myself, telling myself that I’m worth the effort and time. It also means my days start and end positively. Yes, you have to carry pots and pans, fuel and a stove, but it gives me life quality that I don’t have without those things. I could dump all of that, saving considerable weight and space, which in turn would mean easier and faster travelling. But for me it would feel empty without the aroma of fresh coffee or food cooking while I sit and enjoy my well-earned evening rest.
Talking of food and drink, most people I know don’t drink or eat enough. Remember that a 5% drop in fluids could equal a 20% drop in performance and you begin to understand the importance of drinking. I only drink water when I’m cycling and find that one water bottle is nowhere near enough when you head off touring. I usually carry a bare minimum of a 1.5 litre bottle, or two if I don’t expect to find many places to refill. Tip: most people will refill a bottle if you ask them, a trick I used in the Pyrenees with great success, where shops and fountains were few and far between.
I take snacks like nuts and raisins, flapjacks, fruit, and energy bars, and I nibble them before I get hungry. Little and often is the best way to eat on the road. Stopping and eating a big lunch isn’t conducive to good riding in the afternoon as you’ll be more efficient if you’re not digesting a large meal.
Tents I’ve covered in general elsewhere, so the next big area for me is sleeping. I have spent a lifetime investigating and investing in different sleeping mats. The one I now own (Exped Synmat 7) is the heaviest. I could own a mat that weighs a little more than a third of my current one, but I haven’t found anything with the durability or comfort of my Exped mat. It’s extra-long, extra-wide and seven centimetres thick, which means it weighs a bit more. The up-side is that I can turn over without falling off it and I sleep like a baby without getting cold from the feet up, which I do with three-quarter length mats. I would venture to suggest that it’s more comfortable than my bed at home and that is saying something.
Your sleeping bag is of equal importance. Personally I don’t like anything too tight, regardless of how heat efficient that makes it. I do like full length zips that allow me to use it as a blanket on a hot night and I do like silk liners to add extra heat when I need it. I’m happy with a cheap synthetic bag as opposed to down because despite the down bag being lighter and warmer for any given weight, they are much harder to look after on a long journey or over time. My synthetic bag can be thrown in a washing machine any time and costs around a fifth of the price of a half decent down bag. It’s warm if it gets wet (note I said warm, not pleasant) and I don’t look like a chicken when I wake up due to down escaping.
It’s important to get this right for your own needs because sleep is your recovery mechanism after a hard day’s riding. It’s imperative to maintain your body and mind. Good food, hydration and sleep are the mainstays of long distance touring. They are the things that let you ride, not just tomorrow, but in a week or two. Start badly and at the very least you will feel more and more miserable as the tour proceeds.
Inevitably, sooner or later you will have to ride in the rain. To do so safely, I fervently believe you require a good quality waterproof jacket and trousers. Superlight versions of both now exist, and for day rides they are perfectly adequate. My experience on longer rides is that they don’t allow you to retain the same heat as their heavier brethren. This can leave you exposed to rapid cooling and possible hypothermia in wet and windy conditions if you are not very careful. A good shell jacket makes a huge difference in this respect as any mountain rescue team or mountaineer will testify. Not taking over-trousers, however horrible they are to wear, is in my opinion foolish. This is doubly true if you are going anywhere near the mountains. Our legs have large muscles that cool quickly; sadly, we don’t have a team of people to help us recover, like Team Sky in the Tour de France.
I’ve made the huge assumption that if you got to this point you most likely have decent cycle shorts and a comfy bike. If you do feel the need to change anything on your bike, make those changes one at a time and then ride for a while to ascertain the outcome of each adjustment. Before setting out, get your bike serviced and learn how to mend punctures as an absolute minimum. Then you start to pedal and lose yourself in the world. You may not wander far from home but I can reassure you that it will feel like you are, and that is addictive.
Until next time………………………