feel good . do good . look good — cycling

A few thoughts on Cyclotouring

August 16th, 2010

I never meant this blog to be about long-distance cycling, and I’ve tried to keep the posts from being about myself. However today I’m going to forget this policy and, by reader request, share some thoughts and personal experiences regarding long distance cycling.

I actually started riding long distances before I was a transportational cyclist. I was still a city-walker when we lived in Paris, but I bought a road bike to accompany my then-boyfriend on rides out exploring the countryside around Paris. You do need a good bike for this kind of adventure. My first long ride was Paris-Chartres. We extensively used MayQ’s routes and advice, all of it is highly recommended, Route #6 will take you to Chartres in about 100km. However I hurt so badly on that first ride thought I was going to DIE.

This is important to remember, and my husband brings it up often. I don’t think anyone is born with the ability to go long distances right away. You must build up your endurance, you must build up your saddle seat, you must build up your navigational skills. I’m here to tell you it’s worth it, but know that there is a learning curve, start somewhat small, and remember those first rides because you’ll look back on them and smile at how far you’ve come.

I went from that 60 miles or so to doing 250 miles in New Hampshire one day on one occasion and later that summer doing 800+ across France in 8+ days and not even feeling sore. So I can tell you that it can be done. If I can do it you can do it, I find it helps to have a mantra. When I was a wee girl my favorite book was The Little Engine that Could. Now, cycling, I just repeat “I think I can, I think I can”. You’ll have to find yours.

Nelson Longflap Carradice on Raleigh
So we started going further and further and eventually added overnights to the mini-tours. We just do motel-style bike touring, there are some incredible souls who carry tents and stoves on their bikes and I’m certainly not there yet! I learned that if you ask for bike parking you’ll be told they have it and it will be a rickety rack in the back of a parking lot. If you call and explain that you have an expensive road bike that can’t spend the night outside, but you really want to give the motel your money, they will usually find an acceptable place for the bike, or direct you to a nearby motel that will work. This approach has worked in the USA and France, I imagine it will work just about anywhere. When in doubt just sneak your bike in. If you leave no grease (and you really shouldn’t) they’ll never know anyway.

Going away for overnights and longer adds the complexity of packing for the trip, so let’s talk about bike bags and minimalist packing strategies. On my lovely Raleigh International I ride with a Carradice Nelson Longflap for touring. I’ve used it stretched to capacity with everything I needed for a 10 day trip (including a bottle of wine made by our friend’s father) and I can’t really imagine ever getting a larger bag. I suppose if I ever wanted to tour in a cold climate I might need more space. Anyway, I have modified the attachment system on my bag to allow me to take it on and off the bike. This is particularly important if you’re visiting towns and parking the bike on the street. The steps I took were as follows:

  1. visit hardware store. Find flat-bottomed hooks that have narrow enough hook parts to fit through your Brooks saddle loops. This may take several iterations, and I have many hooks that DON’T actually work.
  2. pull the Carradice-supplied straps through the attachment holes and push the hooks through instead. Run the straps through the flat portion of the hooks and loop twice around the internal dowel. Fasten once and be happy that you’ll never have to fasten that again.
  3. Extra-Credit – take two D-rings and a length of webbing. Sew a short strap and thus fashion yourself a purse strap to carry your Carradice around your destination.

I can take more photos but hopefully these will help convey the idea. Here are the hooks peeking out from the bag:

hooks to attach a Carradice bag
Here’s what it looks like on the inside of the bag:

inside the modified Carradice bag
Finally, here’s the bag with the “purse” strap attached, ready to be carried around while your bike is parked:

Carradice Nelson longflap with shoulder strap

Now all of this can be avoided if, like my husband, you get their “Seatpost Quick Release” (SQR) bags. I didn’t care as much for the look, and the mounting bracket won’t work on my Campagnolo aero seatpost (and that is a thing of beauty) so this was my only option.

Once you have your bag ready for touring you have to fill it. We have a team list and then personal lists. Things that the team needs include (in no particular order):

  • sunscreen
  • sunglasses
  • toiletries
  • map(s)
  • lights
  • cash, credit cards
  • cell phones, camera
  • bike lock
  • riding clothes
  • civilian clothes/pyjamas
  • saddle cover and rain gear
  • snacks, water
  • tools, tubes, pump

Note that this list should logically expand, lights would include batteries to make those lights work, etc. Also, while we both need sunglasses only I need to bring regular eyeglasses so those we logically file under “toiletries” and my husband doesn’t worry about them. You’ll work out your own system but this is what works for us.

As for my personal packing here’s all I took on a long weekend trip last year (dubbed 4 States, 4 days, 400 miles):

packing photo bicycle tripIn this photo you can see my bag and helmet, both with taillights, a bag of toiletries, a jersey and bike shorts and overskirt, rain coat, arm warmers, gloves and socks, my long black jersey dress, cycling shoes, grey tights for early morning/late night warmth, a wallet I modified into handlebar-mounted camera case, the purse strap, my cell phone, wet wipes, headlight and sunglasses with extra lenses. Not pictured are my underwear because, while I want to help other aspiring cyclotourists, nothing will compel me to post photos of my underwear on the internet. But don’t forget yours!

A word about my jersey dress – this was one of several black jersey dresses I picked up in college, and I wish I remember where! It’s light, very drape-y, will not wrinkle, is comfortable to sleep in but can dress up to look completely elegant. I wore it with a black shrug out in France and Madame at our bed & breakfast was astounded at how elegant we looked. She couldn’t believe we had that in our little bike bags! If it impresses a former Parisienne then it’s good enough for me. I like looking like a relatively normal person for the non-cycling portion of the adventure. I don’t know what the equivalent garment will be for you, but I’m certain there is a low-fuss simple option that’s probably already in your closet.

So why bother with all this? If you’ve read all this text you probably already have the itch to get out there and see the world at the speed of a bicycle. In my experience I’ve found that you see things, smell things, taste and eat things that you never would have encountered sealed away in a car. People, particularly men of a certain age, just love to come and talk to you about your bike. I’ve made friends around the world this way. In my case, more than anything, it’s been a wonderful adventure with my husband, a microcosm of our more general journey together which has given us new communication skills, appreciation for each other’s skills and strength, and a rich set of shared experiences to enjoy even in the midst of the less exciting daily life I mention. It’s like therapy, I suppose, but a LOT more fun! So much fun that we spend our time thinking about getting out there again. Where to next? We’re planning the next big adventure for September…

In the meantime, happy adventures to all!

One Response to “A few thoughts on Cyclotouring”

  1. mtalinm Says:

    outstanding, inspiring!

Leave a Reply