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Some Sensible Advice for Bike Expeditions

2981897166 8a25db5a79 Some Sensible Advice for Bike Expeditions

I get a lot of emails with questions about going on long bike journeys. Recently I was CC-ed into an email exchange between an aspiring adventurer and John Watson, who cycled to India a few years ago. I thought it was worth sharing John’s answers here, and he was happy for me to do so.

At the bottom of the post I ask anyone who has been on a big bike journey of their own to submit a couple of bits of hard-won wisdom that you wish you’d known before you began…

How long did it end up taking?

About 11 months but you could easily do it in a shorter time-span. Mark Beaumont, who broke the round the world record, did the same distance in about 2 months! Then again, he didn’t get to stop off and see as much as we did. I’d allow at least 6 months, otherwise you won’t have time to see stuff.

What was your average daily ride?

It varied a lot and generally increased as we got fitter. Probably about 50 miles per day with a range of 10 to 100. If you are a reasonably fit bloke it is perfectly possible to average 80-100 miles a day.

What was your longest ride?

Just over 100 miles

What were the biggest unforeseen problems you faced?

Psychotic drivers, obtaining an Iranian visa and getting ill. We did encounter some Taliban in Baluchistan but rather than decapitate us they seemed more intent on checking out our family photo album. Running out of water can be an issue. Also, some of Iran and Pakistan involves military escorts – this is a real pain in the neck and I’m not sure what purpose it serves given that
a. most of the locals have issues with the government (and in turn employees of the government ) and not tourists and
b. they were generally a bunch of useless, irritating wazzocks.
I would say the hardest aspect is mental rather than physical. Once your body adjusts the cycling is fine unless you have to cycle when you are ill. I’d imagine that if you were cycling solo, one of the biggest difficulties would be loneliness.

What was the approximate total cost?

We spent about 16,000 quid between us but you could easily do it on less than that. Alastair Humphreys spent something like £7000 in his epic 4 year cycle around the world. It depends how rigidly you stick to camping or, to be more precise, wild camping. We generally liked to decant into a hotel in the cities to scrub up, de-louse etc and this added to the bill.

Anything else you think may be helpful in my preparation would be massively appreciated.

My main advice is to go for it. It’s not the easiest way to travel but it is a proper adventure in the old fashioned sense. At the risk of sounding evangelical, it’ll change your life – mainly for the better!

If you can afford it buy a decent bike, tent etc but if you can’t don’t let that put you off.

Staying warm and dry is a priority, so invest in a goose down jacket which can also double up as a pillow. If you don’t own one already buy in a thermarest – it’s a lot comfier and a much better heat insulator than a roll up mat.

Learn how to maintain your bike and take the right spares.

We bought our maps in Stanfords in London. Don’t bank on buying them along the way. In fact it is nigh on impossible to buy any after you leave Western Europe. Europe is the hardest place to navigate because there are so many roads. These slowly peter out as you head east.

The security situation is in constant flux in Pakistan and Baluchistan, and our route may no longer be possible. In that case, if you time it right you can go across the top of Iran via the “Stans” and drop down into Pakistan via the Karakoram Highway (if the border is open at the time). This was our original plan but we were too slow and the snow would have blocked our way. After a lot of time wasting with second rate visa agencies – including those listed in the Lonely Planet – we used Magic Carpet for Iranian visa. It was relatively expensive but quick and – best of all – they don’t require an itinerary of where you are staying in advance in Iran which is very handy if you are cycling and planning on camping in the wild and under roads like we did.

It’s worth doing it for charity – not just to raise money for a good cause but because it can provide an extra sense of purpose. During the bad times when you are thinking “why the f*ck am I doing this – it could be the difference between completing the journey and bailing out.

People are generally very friendly – the only violence I encountered between London and Delhi was in Kent, when a hoodlum leant out of their car and walloped me. Sometimes the friendliness can be overwhelming, particularly when you just want to retire to your tent, read a book and go to sleep rather than have to decline yet another invitation to stay in someone’s house.

Traffic is the main danger and your biggest risk: it’s not “cycle touring cool” and doesn’t quite go with the “rugged adventurer” image but we wore reflective vests and helmets. It’s hard to know what would be worse: dying in a road traffic accident or having to spend time in an emerging market hospital recovering from one. Hopefully I’ll never know the answer.

Lastly, it’s worth doing a website – not least because friends, relatives and people like me can then live vicariously through your experience. [Al - a very good reason to ignore my post on Not Blogging on Your First Expedition]

Hope this helps.

John

I receive lots of emails requiring sensible answers like these. They are not particularly thrilling answers, but is the sort of solid information that is gold to a nervous mind contemplating the unknown.
Perhaps then if you have done a decent length bike trip yourself you would consider adding two or three bits of information in the comments section below. The sort of things that you wish you had known in advance. They are often obvious with hindsight but really helpful in advance…

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Comments

  1. Wendy Thomas Posted

    Take twice as much foood as you think you need and half the amount of clothes.

    Reply
  2. Some really good advice there. One thing I would add: if you haven’t done any bike touring before, go on a short trip first, even just a week in your home country.

    However much research you do reading blogs and asking for advice, you won’t know what equipment and daily routine works for you until you try. By completing a shorter trip you’ll be able to refine all your pre-planned decisions and make any equipment changes while it’s still easy to do so. It will also give you a chance to build confidence in things like wild camping before you’re in a foreign country nervous about unknown rules and customs.

    Reply
    • Definitely agree with this. Even a weekend away is invaluable.

      Reply
    • bastien Posted

      well, i did not even try my bicycle fully loaded before starting my trip. actually the first time i loaded my panniers was the first day of the trip.

      But yes, for some people it is better to do a test before

      Reply
    • Certainly agree with that. I thought about doing a big tour a long time before I’d ever even tried cycle touring. I started off doing weekends away then tried a fortnight and liked what I experienced so am setting off soon on a bigger trip. These smaller trips have been invaluable in helping me work out what I need to take, or more importantly don’t need to. *Shameless plug alert* I’ve just put up a blog post along similar lines at http://www.therideround.com/thoughts-from-a-brief-tour-of-scotland

      Reply
  3. Wendy Thomas Posted

    sorry – I meant “food”

    Reply
  4. Peter H Posted

    Don’t wear lycra – you’ll look like an idiot and might even cause offense in some countries like the Middle East (I road through Tunisia a few years ago, wonderful people)

    Reply
    • I managed 4 years without padded pants. Get a Brooks saddle and after a couple of weeks you won’t really get a sore bum at all.

      Reply
      • Or better yet: Ride a recumbent bike, then the only sore part of your body will be your legs, guaranteed. You may still look like an idiot to some, but that usually helps more than it hurts. For example, people wait at intersections to let you pass or slow down to pass you because they want to take a close look at the weird bike…

        Reply
    • Agreed – I wear a pair of padded undershorts underneath some lightweight trousers or shorts.

      Reply
  5. My tip: keep an emergency supply of money hidden inside your handlebars or seat tube. Its reassuring to know its there.

    Reply
  6. Vrroom Posted

    Morning,
    All good advice but my advice is to do it all by motorbike. It’s much more fun! I’m too lazy for all those mountains!

    Reply
  7. Charlie Walker Posted

    A tip I got from you, Alistair, is to take an inflatable globe to show people along the way your route. Obviously this wouldn’t work too well if you were only doing a very short trip!
    Charlie

    Reply
  8. Here’s a good tip for anyone planning a long bike journey. Buy the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook. Definitely a good investment:
    http://www.adventurecycle-touringhandbook.com

    Reply
  9. Your route and schedule will probably change, unless you plan meticulously and stick rigidly to it, in which case you’ll probably wish you could change your route and schedule. Bottom line: be flexible!

    Reply
  10. If you’re wavering as to whether you really want to take on a long bike journey have a look at this list:
    http://www.alastairhumphreys.com/2010/12/reasons-long-bike-journey/

    Reply
  11. Don’t push too hard. It’s best to know your limits before you go away, what’s the point in pushing out a mammoth day if the next day you feel like rubbish and would rather be anywhere but on the saddle. Fuel is important, food food food.

    Reply
  12. Take your time. Don’t rush away from a great moment, just because you “have” to get to the next town or country. Don’t be too hard on yourself either. If you need an extra rest day, get a hotel and sleep well. If you run into a bout of terrible weather or just need a change of scene, take the bus. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. Just enjoy the experience. It may well be the best experience of your life.

    Reply
  13. Don’t write your route in stone. Things change along the way such as political instability, visa issues, your own preference after some time on the road etc. Focus instead on actually starting your trip. The more spontaneous you are the more adventure you will have.

    Take as little equipment as you think you might need, then repack two more times and remove even more things. Lots of stuff can be found along the way and duct tape actually solves most issues.

    Invest in a comfortable saddle! I went with a cheap one and the padding fell out after week 3. Only plastic on the saddle definitely creates blisters…
    Brooks has no padding which can be torn out and the lifespan is very long, so it definitely gives good ROI.

    Reply
  14. Top advice, will be taking the family photo album along for sure…

    Reply
  15. Thanks for posting this. Always nice to have a read through advice from people who have been there done that in different environments. Comforting reading when i’m a few weeks away from my own first big trip.

    Reply
  16. Ben Andrews Posted

    A few things learned from cycling in Asia:

    A few snaps of family and your home town is always appreciated and makes a great talking point.

    A digital camera, that shows the pic on the back after you take it, is a great way to make taking photos a little less intimidating to anyone you meet not used to cameras.

    A test ride, using all kit, is indispensable at highlighting possible problems before you head off and can easily do something about it.

    A portable water filter will save buying hundreds of non-biodegradable plastic bottles in areas without an infrastructure to get rid of them.

    The Foreign and commonwealth office website is a great place to get a sense of the political climate of places you intend to visit – but advise is alway taken with a pinch of salt as they can be over cautious.

    Reply
  17. Route planning is really important and can be the difference between heaven and hell. From our experience, it is quite easy to cycle mostly on minor roads in Europe and India where there is an extensive road network, but it’s much more difficult in the Middle East as there simply aren’t that many roads.

    In our Tips for Cyclists blogs we’ve put together some info on how we personally plan our routes, as well as some specific tips for cycling Turkey, Iran and India. http://abikejourney.blogspot.com/search/label/Tips%20for%20Cyclists

    Reply
  18. Another thing to add to the equipment list is the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres. I have got over 27,000 kms out one now without a puncture. You know one less thing to worry about.

    Reply
  19. You dont have to cycle to the ends of the earth for it to be an adventure….

    A trip around Europe or even much closer to home can be just as much fun and more suitable to those with less time and a smaller budget.

    In my opinion the key to making it a real adventure is wild camping, the benefits are endless;
    -very cheap
    -environmentally freindly (providing you clean up after yourself)
    -You will more often than not get a room with a far better view than any hotel
    -It makes you really appreciate the next bed you find yourself in.

    Reply
  20. For those just starting or thinking of doing a tour, I recommend seeing your own country first. Even if you have travelled extensively in your home country, it’s not the same as seeing it from a bike. This might not take long if you live in a small country. I happen to live in the US. There is lots here for me to see (however, I am going to New Zealand next year).

    Reply
  21. Lorne Read Posted

    As mentioned above, don’t feel the need to do 75-100 miles a day – stop, ride less, savour the journey, even the bad times

    On the eve of my trip I was shitting myself – I sent an email to that nice Mr Humphries. He’d never meet me but he just said the hardest bit is getting out of the door. He was right and it made all the difference.

    Communicate with your friends, you don’t need to tell them where you are or what you’re doing. A simple ‘Hi, I’m fine’ is enough.

    If you can do it, then do it. pedalling a bike into the sunset, any sunset is such an amazing thing to do

    I miss the freedom I found on the road. I think about it every day

    Reply
  22. I agree with taking it easy & enjoy travelling in Europe: France is brilliant for small, empty roads & courteous drivers. Italy less so but more bars & ‘gelaterie’ for ice-cream breaks in hot weather. We did no training except putting up the tent in the garden & attempting to sleep in it but escaping to the house in the early hours because of the cold. By the time we reached the Alps we’d built up our fitness. We prefer not to ride on purpose-built cycle tracks because they were boring. Passing small villages, farms etc adds interest to the ride. Dogs are a big menace & frightening when they bark are usually fenced in (in Europe) – thank goodness. Twitter is great for sending brief ‘postcards’ home. Blogging more difficult with inadequate wifi. French bars happy to charge up phones etc. Go to the RGS Explore conference for great expedition advice. NB You don’t have to be young to do long(ish) tours. We are both over 60.

    Reply
  23. Just do it!

    Don’t get bogged down in what’s the right or wrong way!

    A few items of clothes, a map, and a good approach.

    I’d never ridden my bike before, let alone ridden it loaded- or any bike loaded for that matter.

    You will be able to get most things on the road- a few spares to get you out of trouble.

    The hardest bit is deciding to do it!

    Enjoy!

    Reply
  24. Cheers guys for all the advice. I see a lot of familiar names keep popping up in the cycle touring community. Just a big THANK YOU to you all for being so supportive of us novices entering in, and great site Al!

    5 weeks until we hit Africa for our maiden voyage, the living room is covered in bike parts and camping gear, maps etc, not enough hours in a day – you all know how it is…………………Loving every minute of it!

    Thank you again.
    Hap

    PS some advice from me (not sure if I’m worthy of giving advice since i did my first ever 50km bike ride just last week, but….) make your cycle tour what you want it to be, don’t feel as though you have to one up someone else, do what you want to do and enjoy it.

    Reply
  25. :-)
    Well done!

    Reply
  26. Drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry, rest before you’re tired.
    Go for a wee (or more) before you need to and can’t due to lack of facilities.
    Take sun block and sun tan lotion, and lip block. A brimmed hat and good shades.
    Just get out and ride – anywhere – it doesn’t matter if your trip is an over-nighter to a B & B 10 miles away, it’s a trip – and a start to something bigger.
    +1 for Brooks
    It’s fun during the trip, but preparing and looking at maps of where you are going, (local, European or World) is highly addictive.

    There’s no feeling in the world like rolling off a ferry and knowing that to get back on it to go home you will be solely responsible for your motive power in the following days/weeks.

    Reply
  27. Ed Pickup Posted

    Always expect the unexpected.

    Don’t worry when things aren’t going to plan – thats part of the experience – just laugh, shrug it off and keep going. I met a guy whilst cycling across the USA, who was carrying more gear than I thought possible with a big smile on his face. His motto is one that I’d recommend to anyone: ‘Good decisions don’t make great stories’!

    Reply
  28. Some great advice in the list and I definitely agrree with a Brooks saddle and Schwable marathon plus tyres. My little chip in is to do with clothing. MERINO WOOL!!!! Merino wool has been an absolute god send to me and many other outdoor enthusiasts. It will keep you warm in those cold situations, it packs down so small, and the best thing is- it doesnt get SMELLY for a VERY long time!!! I live out of my tent when I’m on the road and I dont want to stop every two or 3 days to do a wash and wait for it all to dry. You can wear this stuff for weeks without having to wash it. It also looks much better than synthetics so it can be doubled up as your cycle gear and as your casual gear. Long live Ice Breaker!!!
    (personal experience of approx 6,000kms on the road through Europe and India)

    Reply
  29. I am 26 and would love to cycle through south america.was just wondering that if my jouney ends and i return home with no money,no house and no job doesnt that constitutes a failure,or even worse doesnt that mean i am a faileure……..help ????????

    Reply
    • Of course it doesn’t mean you are a failure! Your head will be full of memories and lessons and experiences worth more than any money. And I guarantee that your experiences will make you more employable.
      If you start work at 27 you will still have 40 years until it’s time to retire from that job: isn’t that quite enough..?

      Reply
  30. Chantelle Posted

    What advice do you have if your parents aren’t speaking to you cause they think its to dangerous for a girl to go on a solo cycle adventure ?

    Reply

 
 

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