Here at Bicycle Touring Pro, I get questions all the time about how to plan, prepare for and execute both short and long-distance bicycle touring adventures. Most of these questions come in via email and I take a huge amount of time out of my personal schedule each week to respond to each and every one of these emails. But sometimes the questions are so long and complicated, it doesn’t make sense for me to take that much time to answer the questions asked… and that was certainly the case with the long list of questions that reader Danny Levbine recently sent me.
Instead of writing up an answer to each of Danny’s questions and simply sending them back to him via email, I’ve decided (with Danny’s permission of course) to publish both Danny’s questions and my answers in this article. My hope by doing this is that you also might be asking yourself some of the same questions that Danny is asking… and that my answers might help you as well as you go about the process of planning and preparing for your upcoming bicycle touring adventure.
So, without further ado… here are Danny’s questions and my answers:
1. Basically, I have not biked at all much since I was 10 years old and now have to start all over again I got to used to driving all over the place. The problem I have is basically I am out of shape- whenever I peddle on my bike as hard as I can in the highest gears I get tired after going only about four or five miles and everyone else on the path zips right past me. For example, I went in a circle one time on my new bike about 30 miles round trip. The final 7 miles of the path were on an asphalt trail that was not completely flat- it must have went up at a very slight incline. And it took me an hour and five minutes just to go the final seven miles, I constantly had to stop and rest my legs were too tired to pedal. I could not go more than 9 mph at the very fastest and I must have averaged only about 7 mph. So how do I train my legs so I can cycle faster at a speed for a longer period of time without getting exhausted so quickly? My goal is to go at an average speed of 12-15 mph for several hours at a time, so I can travel about 100 miles per day, sleep, and then continue on the next day. But how do I make it so I can keep pedaling at a good 13 or 14 mph without slowing down after the first 20 minutes?
This is a two-part answer. The first part of the answer has to simply do with getting in shape and cycling with proper form. The getting in shape part takes some time, but it is relatively easy. Ride your bike as much as you possibly can… and you will get in better shape and riding your bike will become considerably easier. As for riding with proper form, there are probably a number of good books on this subject, but what I recommend you do is that you find someone in your area who knows a lot about cycling and ask him or her for assistance. When it comes to form, you can read about it all you want, but having someone there in person to help you make changes on your bike is the best way to improve.
The second part of my answer has to do with your expectation of consistently cycling 13 to 14 mph and traveling up to 100 miles per day. The problem with this expectation is that, for most people at least, it is entirely unrealistic. Under ideal weather conditions and on totally flat ground, 13 to 14 miles per hour is a realistic goal. But when you account for hills, traffic, wind, rain, navigation, etc… going 13 to 14 miles per hour isn’t always possible.
The same can be said for your plans of cycling 100 miles day after day. Most people who go on a long-distance bicycle tour travel about 50 to 60 miles in a single day, so right off the bat you are trying to double what most people tend to do. 100 miles is a long ways to travel on a bicycle and to cover that distance for several days on end takes an extreme amount of physical and mental power. If you are currently struggling to ride less than 30 miles on your bike, setting a goal to ride 100 miles day after day is just not realistic.
Like I recommend to all of my readers here at Bicycle Touring Pro, you’ve got to work your way up to those longer distances before you even begin thinking about them. Start out by cycling about 20 miles per day. Then 30. Then 40… and 50… and 60. Then, once you are comfortable with going at least 60 miles per day, then you can start thinking about tackling a 100 mile or longer course. And even after tackling that 100 mile day, you might think twice about doing another 100 mile ride the very next day. Your body is likely to be tired, sore, and in need of rest.
The problem with wanting to keep a consistent pace (13 – 14 mph) and traveling a certain distance each day (100 miles per day) is that for most people, this just simply is not realistic. And if you get it in your head that you have to be keeping that pace and covering those kinds of distances day after day… and you start out on day one and aren’t instantly keeping pace, your mind starts to think negatively and you give up on yourself and the rest of your bike tour.
I’ve seen this happen to dozens and dozens of people. They spend months planning their bicycle tour, they buy all this expensive equipment, but they get out there on day one with a bunch of unrealistic expectations, they find that riding their bicycle with a full load of gear is a whole lot hearder than they expected, they drop behind schedule, they begin thinking about all the miles they’ve got in front of them, and they give up right then and there.
Don’t be one of those people! Start slow. Don’t expect too much from yourself. And enjoy the ride rather than worrying about how fast you are going, how many miles you are covering, or when you are going to get to your final destination.
2. I am having a hard time picking out exactly the right bike. I know there are several brands that are most popular like Trek, Schwinn, Cannondale, Fuji, and Specialized. Right now, I have a TREK FX 7.2. But they told me at a large TREK store in the city of Highland Park, Illinois that the FX model of bikes is not recommended for long road trips- it is more for just going as fast as you can for a short time period as a form of exercise like jogging. So what would be the ideal model and brand of bike for going on longer distance, adventure types of trips for a week at a time? Is TREK a good brand or are there better brands you’d recommend? Another big problem is this: I cannot spend more than six or seven hundred dollars at the very most on a bike. So if I sell to someone the FX I got right now for a better road bike- a lot of the TREK road bikes cost like 2 or 3 thosand dollars its ridiculous. However, TREK also makes models like the 720 or the 7,200 that are only 350-500 dollars. Are the 720 and 7200 good models as well for long distance trips? If not, do you know of any model I can get as a road bike that is under 700 dollars? I am not spending 3000 dollars on a bicycle thats just ridiculous. I just need a bike that has good gear shifts, is one where I can hook up saddle bags and panears with clothing on them, and one that can take me about 90 to 100 miles per day for seven or eight days at a time.
As for what kind of touring bicycle you need in order to carry all your equipment and transport you several hundred miles across the country, yes, I can recommend a number of excellent touring bicycles for you – See Here. However, none of these bicycles sell for $600 – $700 when they are brand new. Most touring bicycles start at around $1,100 and go up from there.
The Trek 520, for example, which is an excellent little touring bike, sells for a little over $1,300 when it is brand new ( and that’s without tax factored in).
The cheapest touring bike I know of is the GT Peace Tour, which sells for about $850 off the shop floor. The Surly Long Haul Trucker and the Fuji Touring are also good, cheap choices.
If you only have $600 – $700 at your disposal, you are probably going to have to find a used touring bicycle… or you’re going to have to negotiate a major deal with one of your local bike shops. It may take some time to find a bike for that price, but it can be done.
3. My next question is about navigating and traveling on a bicycle. Like I said before, I am not looking for a super thin racing bike where people just go as fast as they can for exercising or racing. I plan on using a bike for long distance trips where I can explore a variety of national parks, state parks, forest preserves, and other protected areas. Now I know that each county- (mine is Cook County, Illinois) has a whole network of cycling trails and paths to go on. But the problem is the last time I tried to ride my bike from a Chicago suburb north to the Wisconsin borderline, I only got about 14 miles and then I could not find what happened to the trail. Sometimes you know a trail that is for biking will break up in a town or city and then you have to go down a city street to find it again. So then I only got about half way to Wisconsin and had to turn back. When your cycling like that, how do you figure out ahead of time where the trail is located exactly throughout its entire path so you don’t end up screwing up where your going? I mean the last thing I need is to go on a long distance trip from Chicago to Wisconsin and then wander off the path halfway. Are there any websites or people I can call that you know of that are responsible for maintaining bike trails? That way I can map it out ahead of time. Also, how do you find the maps for where your going on a path? I was trying to stay North last time and ended up veering west without even realizing it.
Again, I have to say that when you go on these long distance bike tours, you can’t have unrealistic expectations about keeping a certain pace or never losing your way. Especially in the cities! When you cycle in the countryside, it is easy sometimes to just put your head down and crank out the miles. But in the cities there is often times a huge amount of navigation work that needs to be done… and your distance per hour is certain to slow.
As for how to navigate the bicycle paths in your area, this is going to depend on where you live and how well the bike paths are maintained. For you there in Illinois, this website has a number of maps that you can purchase, which give you detailed information on the various routes that run throughout the state of Illinois. Many other states and countries have similar websites and maps if you simply take the time to seek them out.
Having a map with you (and knowing how to use it) is going to be a huge help when navigating your way across long distances on your bicycle. But don’t get upset if you take a wrong turn and go the wrong way. It happens to everyone – even me! When it happens, just recognize your mistake, turn around, and get yourself back on track. Also, don’t be afraid to ask strangers for assistance. Most people are usually more than happy to help you find your way – especially if they know the area well.
4. I want to keep track of the miles I travel on this bike- so are there like these bike calculators you can buy for doing that? I don’t want a fancy Garmin GPS for my bike I just need something that tells me the miles I have gone and the speed I am going at. What would be the right product for that that is cheap?
This is easy. The cheaper alternative to the fancy electronic GPS device, that many bicyclists are now carrying, is the “bicycle computer“. These small devices cost about $20 – $100 USD and they measure the rate at which your wheels are spinning, which tells the computer exactly how fast you are going and how many miles you have covered. If you don’t want to get a GPS device and all you want is something that can measure how far you have gone and how fast you are going, then this is it! But be warned, staring at these things all day and focusing too much on the numbers can be emotionally draining – especially if your expectations are too high. Be sure to read my article on why you might consider cycling without one of these devices.
5. How do I sell the TREK bike I got right now? How do I ship it and what website do I go to to post the bid for it online?
I would try selling your current bicycle in your local area first. Try placing an ad on Craigslist.org (I’ve bought and sold bicycles from that website multiple times). If that doesn’t work, you may want to place an ad in your local newspaper, or simply take the bicycle to one of your local bike shops and ask them if they can sell your bike for you. If you take it to a bike shop, they’ll be able to tell you how much the bike can reasonably sell for (it might not be worth as much as you think) and they’ll take a commission (a percentage of the final sale price) if and when they do sell the bike. I wouldn’t try selling the bike online until you have done all these other things first.
6. What do you do if your riding on a trail in the middle of let’s say a 400 mile bike trip and then it starts to rain on you? Can a bike handle heavy rain? Also- should I keep the bike in the tightest gearshift as long as I can keep pedaling at that gear shift?
If you are out on your bike and it starts to rain, you have two choices. 1) You can continue to ride in it. Your bike should be fine in the rain. Just wipe your bike down as best you can once the rain stops, so as to protect it from rust and corrosion. Or 2) You can pull over and get under some protection of some kind and wait the rain storm out. The choice is up to you!
The second part of this question again has to do with how exactly you are supposed to ride a bicycle. You don’t necessarily want to be in the lowest gear possible all the time. That’s a good way to tire yourself out and blow out your knees prematurely. Like I said earlier, there are probably some good books on this subject, but the best thing for you to do might be to find a good cyclist in your area who can teach you the proper way to ride a bicycle.
7. If I start out on a long distance cycling trip that takes several days to complete- where do you sleep along the way? I mean there are plenty of forest preserves where I live in Glencoe, Illinois but your not allowed to sleep in them overnight. Are there special oases along the trails for bikers that you can sleep out in? How do I find where they are located? Also what about campsites- then how do I pack like a tent or sleeping bag on my bike?
Finding places to sleep each night is, for me at least, one of the most difficult and stressful parts of bicycle touring. In some parts of the world, finding a place to sleep at night is a total breeze. There may be campsites, hostels, and hotels for as far as the eye can see. But in other parts of the world, finding a place to sleep at night (especially a cheap place to sleep) is almost impossible. So it just depends on where you are and how much money you are willing to spend.
If you plan to camp on your bicycle tours and your tour is relatively short (less than a month in length) you can use the Internet to find and plot out all of the campgrounds along your route in advance. Then, once you hit the road, you’ll know exactly where each campground is located and how far you have to pedal that day in order to reach the next campground. See this article on route planning.
Some bicycle maps, like the ones produced by the Adventure Cycling Association for example, also contain detailed information on where exactly you can find lodging of all types along their various routes.
And as for how exactly you should carry your tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat on your bicycle, see these four articles/videos:
- How to pack your bicycle panniers.
- An inside look at packing your panniers.
- How to pack your bicycle for a long-distance bike tour.
- 7 Tips for packing your panniers.
Well Danny, I hope this helps. If not, these topics and a whole lot more are covered inside my book, The Bicycle Traveler’s Blueprint.
Good luck out there… and have fun! If I could give you any additional advice it would be this: Worry less about how fast you are going or how many miles you are covering… and do your best to simply enjoy the ride.