Two Wheels to Freedom Part II: Gearing Up for a Bike Tour

by A Manly Guest Contributor on September 15, 2010 · 26 comments

in Health & Sports

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Bryan Schatz.

Leaving off from the previous post on the nature of bike-touring and what to expect, the following is a basic overview of equipment and things to consider in order to prepare for a bike-tour. Invariably, the particulars of each tour will vary depending on your particular style. As outlined previously, dirt bag travel is quite different from the more comfortable variety. That being said, there are a few basic aspects that should be understood by all would be adventurers when preparing for an extended trip aboard your trusty, two-wheeled machine…

Terrain, Climate, and Duration

The components and equipment you ultimately purchase will depend on the type of trip you are going to take. The most significant factors of any trip are the terrain and climate of your chosen destination, as well as the duration for which you expect to be riding.

Say, for example, you will be pedaling on dirt roads, rock and root-laden single tracks, or deep in the backcountry; your needs will be quite different from the road cyclist. You will want knobby tires, forks with shocks, resilient components and perhaps most importantly-hauling-equipment with sufficient capacity and durability to carry a high volume of food and water to sustain you while exploring (or getting lost in) remote regions of the world.

In general, choose components that are simple to work on, durable, and designed specifically for your manner of travel.

Road cyclists have a lesser need for high-volume saddle bags, with frequent grocery stores in towns and cities being the providers of sustenance and therefore reducing the need to stock up as much.

Bicycle Components

Frame: Your frame needs to fit, and it should be made of steel. Being more rigid than aluminum, steel is less likely to crack, and if it does, you are more likely to find someone who can weld steel rather than aluminum. Road cyclists may want to look into frames such as the SURLY’s Long Haul Trucker, while backcountry travelers should choose a strong mountain bike frame.

Forks: Strong, steel forks for the road or coil-spring suspension forks for the backcountry.

Seats: Just looking at a seat after awhile on the road makes your ass scream in misery. Get a good seat. Brooks seats have an excellent reputation; however, they require hundreds of miles to be broken in. Ideally, break your seat in before leaving so that when you are on the road all day, you’ve already dealt with the worst of the punishment.

Handlebars: Make sure they are at a comfortable height and if possible, get some that offer multiple positions such as H-bars, or you can attach L-shaped bar ends.

Pedal Cages/Clipless (Cleat) Pedals: Pedals that are not at least equipped with cages should be avoided. Cleat pedals (preferred) and pedal cages allow for pulling up, around, and down, therefore using your muscles in a well-rounded way while also applying far more power and control. Simply having pedals without cages means you can only push down, which with daily repetition becomes overly exerting on isolated muscles, not very efficient, and will put you on the fast track to injury.

Gears: Unless you want to get injured like me, have functioning gears. The number is up to you but having at least eight is advisable. On a trip through New Zealand, my girlfriend and I rode 1,000 miles on bikes with eight gears, and it worked just fine.

Replacements and Tools

Allen Wrenches: I’m lucky in that most of the components on my bike can be adjusted with one of three Allen wrenches: a 4mm, 5mm, or 6mm. Make sure you bring all that you will potentially need.

Crescent wrenches: A 15mm crescent wrench is perhaps the most common size necessary for bikes. Having a 15mm and one adjustable wrench will generally be sufficient unless your components have unusual sizes.

Also bring a patch kit, a pump, tire irons, two spare tubes and one spare tire. You’ll need them for those times when the bike lane is nothing more than a pit of glass anxiously slashing at your tires, or when the singletrack is littered with sharp rocks. Other essentials include chain lube and a chain tool, as rain and dirt can ruin them without proper maintenance. A few spare spokes and a spoke wrench should also be brought.

Hauling Equipment

Bike Racks: Bike racks come in several forms. The first (as seen in the picture) are the more common models made by companies such as Blackburn and Tubus, and then there are Xtracycles. I’ve never used an Xtracycle, but they receive rave reviews from long-haul riders who require the extra carrying capacity that the Xtracycle provides. They come with a high price tag though, so you may want to look into a used one that is still in good shape.

Trailers: I’ve heard arguments for and against B.O.B trailers, though having the nickname “Beast of Burden,” doesn’t necessarily sound like something I’d want to be involved with. Some of their trailers are designed to attach to your rear axle and trail behind you. It seems like it would be nice to have that weight off of your rear wheel, but I wouldn’t know.

Saddle Bags: Pretty simple here, make sure they are waterproof and can adequately carry all of your things. Mine have waterproof covers that surprisingly work very well.

Handlebar Bag: A handlebar bag is great for carrying cameras and small snacks to munch on while you’re riding. Most of them also have a clear lining at the top where you can insert a map of your route for the day.

Food and Water

Cooking Equipment: This is all a matter of preference. If you are planning on camping most of the time, bring at least a backpacking stove that uses white gas, a knife, and a spork. Useful accessories that tend to make life on the road a bit more enjoyable include roll-up plastic cutting boards and plastic coffee cups. Coffee or tea is key on those frigid early mornings.

Water Storage: Avoid water bottles and use water bladders instead, such as CamelBaks or a Platypus. Some companies—such as MSR’s Dromedary Bag– make water bladders that actually attach to your bike. They have a high capacity and are sturdy as hell according to the guys over at Riding the Spine. Bring some sort of water purification as well, especially if you will be taking alternative routes. SteriPENs have worked well for me, but they need batteries that aren’t always easy to find internationally, which means you’ll be carrying them.

Sleeping Gear

Tents: Your tent should be lightweight, easy to set up, and as waterproof as possible. It is pretty rare to get a tent that is actually waterproof; heavy rains have an evil way of pushing through most tents.

Sleeping pads: Depending on how comfortable you want to be, a simple foam pad is often sufficient, cheap, and lightweight. While the comfort provided by a ThermaRest may be worth the cost, also be wary of the fact that inflatable sleeping pads can and will be punctured unless you are tremendously careful with them.

Sleeping bags: If you know for a fact that you will be exposed to little rain, then opt for a down bag. They are light, comfortable and very warm. That being said, they retain almost no heat when wet, so most likely a synthetic bag will be the way to go in any region with the possibility of heavy rain.

Beyond these basic guidelines, the rest you will learn while on the open road, making adjustments as you learn what works for you and what does not. In general, keep the weight load down, stay hydrated and well-fed, be willing to suffer, and enjoy every moment of it.

You’ll know you’ve been riding too long when…

you’re in the best shape of your life, can ride for eight hours straight day-in and day-out, yet a simple 3-mile jog will leave you sore for days. The muscles used in cycling are different from those you use for running, and you will be amazed at how hard hiking and running is after a long time in the saddle.

cars make you feel as if you are riding in rocket ships with break-neck speeds and built with a claustrophobic construction.

your ass resembles a steel cushion of hardened calluses yet is still tender to the mildest glance.

…you are capable of doing all sorts of things with one hand, from opening cliff bar wrappers to rearranging the contents of your handlebar bag for accessibility purposes.

you can’t stand being inside, ever. Air-conditioned and stuffy rooms make you nauseous and sleeping inside feels like imprisonment.

Read Part 1: Thoughts on Bike-Touring if you missed it!

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Native Son September 15, 2010 at 7:48 pm

Great Article! One minor question, where were the photos taken? The rider appears to be on the incorrect side of the road for the U.S.

2 Nate @ Practical Manliness September 15, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Thank you for this excellent guide, Bryan!

I have dreamed about doing this for years, so reading your story and getting your advice encourages me to think more seriously about bicycle touring.

3 Martin Schatz September 15, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Nice article, Bry!

4 Jas September 15, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Love the article. After having done a bit bike touring much in the style you’re talking about there are a few other things worth noting:

Tire width, sometime wide enough to sustain the load, but thin enough to allow you speed.
Spokes, you mentioned carrying them with you – but get a wheel not meant for racing.

As for trailers, I couldn’t ever do it. I rode with a guy that had one, and despite having similar bikes and fitness levels, I’d wind up at our end-of-day destination up to 3 hours ahead of him, simply because I didn’t have that extra wheel on the ground. (These were admittedly 12 hour days.)

Spot on with “…cars make you feel as if you are riding in rocket ships with break-neck speeds and built with a claustrophobic construction. ”

Riding in a car after being on a bike so long was a most surreal experience

5 Doug September 15, 2010 at 10:07 pm

I just finished biking from Amsterdam to Istanbul. I decided to go with one of the BOB trailers and I loved it. It took sone getting used to as far as parking it – you can jack knife it as a tip! – but my 23 mm tires would’ve never supported panniers. Going slowly the third wheel means you have more resistance than a guy with panniers but going quickly the trailer is much more aerodynamic and lends to the advantage. Parasitic (wind) drag increases as a squared function while frictional drag increases linearly with velocity.

For a tent I can’t recommend getting a Hennessy Hammock highly enough. Didn’t take a tent and didnt need one. I even survived 80 kph winds on the banks of the Danube in Romania with one end tied to my bike seat post and the others staked to the ground. It weighs half as much as the good 1-2 person tents and is amazing with trees around.

Everything else is spot on. Lube your chain often and know your bike! And record your journey. It’s surprising how many little stories slip through your grasps and I’m only 25 years old.

Maps are overrated. Talk to people. They know the best routes and people will be the basis for your best experiences.

Finally if you have any questions about touring find me on Twitter or email my Twitter username at gmail.com. I always love helping promote cycling!

6 Phil B September 15, 2010 at 10:27 pm

#Native Son:
Clue one: Writer did a 1000 mile trip in New Zealand
Clue two: Pictures look like New Zealand – but I know that only because I live here, probs looks like a lot of places :)

I dont mean to be a smart arse but it’s good to see NZ represent!

Good post, my 20 min commute in the morning seems like nothing compared with 8 hours on the saddle….

7 Adam Bramwell September 15, 2010 at 10:44 pm

An obviously less intensive (yet equally manly, in my opinion) would be to ride with an organized coast to coast tour called the PAC Tour (www.pactour.com). It’s a fully organized ride that can take you across America, either vertically or horizontally.

I’ve never done it, but my father has done it both ways, and has stark raving reviews of the entire experience. It’s a personal goal of mine… can you imagine a cooler, more manly way to see America? I can’t!

8 Luke Wade September 16, 2010 at 12:16 am

I’m not sure if you’re going to be doing another article in this series, but if you do I think there are a few things it would help to consider adding. People have described me as an avid cyclist, and that is one of the few descriptions that I couldn’t argue with if I wanted. I have been doing long distance cycling for about five years now, and this summer I did a lot of solo rides on my own. I didn’t do any long solo tours, but I was riding about a hundred miles in a day, two days a week. Sorry, got a little sidetracked there. Anyways, things to consider adding would be what sort of clothing is essential (mainly gloves, padded shorts, a good jersey, and sunglasses. If you’re trying to go light you can turn the shorts inside out over night and they will dry out. If you have a place to rinse them, do then let them air dry. That’s an easy way to do all of that on one pair of shorts.) and any other bike repair parts. I saw that you had a chain link remover, two wrenches, and a multi-tool with allen keys on it, you can cut down a lot of space if you carry a leatherman and a multi-tool because anything you need that large a wrench for isn’t the type of repair you should do roadside anyways, pliers on a leatherman will generally suffice. Also you had a hand help tire pump there, but no CO2 cartridges, and I might have missed them in the article, but they can be a lifesaver when you change out a tube, especially on road bikes when you need a high PSI. Yes, I know this was a long comment, I apologise, and thank you for reading through it.

9 Owen September 16, 2010 at 12:32 am

Great Article.
I did this a few years back when I was 18, and would highly recommend doing a ride to anyone who is thinking about it.
One suggestion I have is to take a hammock instead of a tent. You can find light-weight hammocks that take up less space for a reasonable price.

10 Devan September 16, 2010 at 1:04 am

I’d add that, if your bicycle can accept a front rack, it’s a wonderful thing to have. Too much weight on the back can make your steering squirrely; adding some up front can really settle things down, especially on a bike built for it. I generally carry my tent, sleeping bag or blanket, and cookwear in front panniers.

And, I can’t believe this, but no mention of fenders? Fenders are an almost-essential item for any touring bike (and, in fact, the first thing I add to ALL of my bikes). I like the planet bike fenders because they are cheap and do the job.

11 Travis September 16, 2010 at 1:05 am

I loved it! One minor detail, the author says that steel is more rigid than aluminum. That is false. When it comes to bike tubing steel is optimal for touring because as the author states you are more likely to encounter someone able to weld steel over aluminum and ultimately it has more give which equates to more comfort. But it is Aluminum’s rigidity that increases its chances of snapping during a crash etc. Steel=burly, heavy, comfy
Aluminum=light, stiff, and not super comfy compared with the steel.
Otherwise a great article and gets me psyched to get out and ride.

12 Lindsay September 16, 2010 at 10:16 am

You know that people are going to think that’s your home. “Oh that poor homeless man! Give him a dollar!”

13 Chris September 16, 2010 at 10:24 am

This is killing me! My dream trip is to ride the entire Mississippi River, or at least from Minneapolis to New Orleans. I don’t know why, but that just seems great. I’ve always talked about it and never started.

I need to talk to my wife now and set a date to make it happen.

14 Bryan Schatz September 16, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Thanks to those of you who have added tips and pointers for things I have left out and for making corrections where I went wrong. Great advice.
I’m glad to hear that so many of you have already benefited from the joys of bike-touring or are considering it, I cannot recommend it enough.

15 tim_lebsack September 16, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Sunscreen.

16 Glenn Maguire September 16, 2010 at 5:26 pm

The John L. Sullivan calling card is my favorite.
Thank you,
Glenn Maguire

17 Jeff September 17, 2010 at 12:09 am

@Chris—

Dude, if you’re going to ride the entire MIssissippi River, you should consider packing a snorkel…

18 Sean September 17, 2010 at 7:47 am

@Phil Actually you can kind of tell by the road markers that it is new Zealand… if you knew what they looked like.

in general about spokes, i’ve never had “just a few” break. generally it seemed to be the whole lot of them.

you didn’t mention anything about Front racks or suspension, but my advice is get a front rack, and no fork suspension. also stay away from aluminum. Steel or a steel alloy are the best way to go.

Also, your bike should probably have leaver shifters, not the “clicky” ones. Too many small parts to break!

19 Kalidor September 17, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Someone already mentioned about the Hennessy Hammocks. Assuming you aren’t riding through the Gobi or somewhere completely devoid of trees, they are much lighter, can be a quicker setup, and are often more comfortable then a typical ground tent. Additional accessories available can make the hammock more comfortable at night, and make you more comfortable on the road later, such as the fly that doubles as a poncho or the fly auto-tension-er that collects rain water. I have seen pictures of bikers who’ve used their hammocks without a mounting surface other than their bikes and some steaks so I know it can be done. I’m just not sure of the comfort level.

Additionally, for off-road type bikes, specifically ones with springs/shocks on the front and back a few suggestions. The racks that mount to your seat post are next to useless, even lightly loaded in city travel. They swing around too easily and don’t really have anyway to support panniers so they aren’t catching in your tires. i haven’t tried them myself, but I’ve been thinking of buying front and rear racks from Oldmanmountain.com that are supposed to be amazing for suspension bikes.

20 bob September 19, 2010 at 6:35 am

Maybe you can help me when i ride for even 3-4 miles my hands go numb. Any suggestions to alleviate this would be appreciated.

21 Briana September 20, 2010 at 7:13 am

@Bob: There are a few things going on but the short answer of it is bike fit. Your bike is likely set up so that you are putting too much pressure on your hands while you ride. First thing to try is to move your saddle forward. Beware though because if you move it too far forward you will get lower back pain. Small adjustments here can make a huge difference.

It can also be very helpful to get handlebars that allow you to change hand position as you ride. A lot of touring cyclists use traditional drop bars. I use trekking bars (picture here http://www.rollglobal.com/2009/12/a-bit-about-the-bike/). Move your hands to different positions whenever you feel discomfort.

Finally, I never ride long distances without a good pair of cycling gloves. Be sure to go try them on before you get them, the padding on different gloves is always a little different, but they should pad across the the top of your palm under your fingers and by that little piece of flesh where your thumb connects to your hand.

On my recent tour (1,000 miles through eastern europe) there were days when my whole are would suddenly cramp up and give me some serious pain. Varying the position of my hands on the bars and having gloves on was the only thing that would help.

22 bob September 21, 2010 at 4:51 am

Briana, Thanks I’ll give it a try.

23 Mark September 24, 2010 at 2:56 pm

In 2007 I did the 7500km (4600 mile) trip from Tofino, BC to St. John’s, NL (or all the way across North America at the widest point, Canada). A couple of things I found in terms of gear:
1.) Aluminum frames are too stiff and don’t absorb the bumps & grinds of the road, leading to breaks. Steel is much more flexible. My aluminum road frame broke about halfway across, but the awesome folks at Trek found me a new frame and had it shipped to me on the Greyhound. Customer service win, right there.
2.) Sunscreen. Sunscreen. Sunscreen.
3.) I tried fenders… I pulled ‘em off and tossed ‘em before I was through the rockies. They just didn’t play well with the frame.
4.) Gold Bond Medicated Powder + expensive bike shorts. Trust me. Skip the soft seats, skip the goopy balm. Keep that area dry and in some quality chamois: you don’t want blisters. Do. Not. Want.
5.) Handlebar bags and front saddles don’t work well on some bike frames, they add more instability at higher speeds (eg 40-50 kph). When I switched to a trailer things got much nicer.
6.) Be careful not to bring too much. I was mailing things home regularly for the first couple of weeks. (“Seriously? I brought that? WTF?”)
7.) A mirror. Good god, get a good mirror and mount it on whatever side the traffic will be on. You need to beware of traffic, there are some douchebags out there that think it’s funny to try to kill you. (I’m not making this up, someone actually tried to kill me)
8.) A couple of spare spokes and a spoke wrench. If you blow a spoke in the middle of no-where, you’ll appreciate it.
9.) Clips not cages. When you need to get out in a hurry, cages can get tangly.
10.) Make sure your bike fits properly. Repetative stress injuries in the Achilles tendon are extremely painful when you’re trying to cross the rockies — likewise in the hamstrings it makes Northern Ontario even worse.

24 alex September 24, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Thanks for the information.
Scent Blazer trolling lures have water intakes at the front of the lure which connect into a range of detachable chambers. These chambers allow fishermen to load the lure with baits, fish attractants, weights, rattles, lights, electronics and much more.

When the lure is trolled, water from its intakes passes over the bait inside the perforated chamber. The scent of the bait is passed out and dispersed directly behind the back of the lure.
sport fishing

25 Jeff October 1, 2010 at 2:57 am

Many tours through Australia and America

1. Ortleib panniers all the way. I’ve used them many times and they last forever. They are absolutely worth the up front investment because you’ll have them forever.

2. If you’re going to be using gear all the time, get the good stuff. Don’t save money on cheap gear only to have to pay this as a noob tax. Buy the good stuff and you won’t ever have to replace it.

3. Weight off your front tires is good. A trailer might be a bit slower, but you get used to it and overall makes the riding experience more enjoyable throughout the day. If ideal, two panniers in back, something strapped across the top of the two back ones, and a handlebar bag (with a shoulder strap for carrying around at locations).

4. Everything should have a waterproof bag. Wet stuff = Unhappy cyclist!

5. People will love to stop and talk with you. Seriously, they’ll just be curious. Great way to meet people and the best way to see a place.

26 siouxgeonz October 5, 2010 at 4:44 pm

How ’bout a follow-up on the manly way to drive your bike to work?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter