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Frequently asked questions II - tips for first time tourers

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  • What kind of bike do I need? Can I use the road bike / mountain bike that I already own?
  • How should I train for a cross-country ride? Can I ride into shape on the road?
  • What about a trailer instead of panniers?
  • I love to ride my bike but I hate camping. Is it possible to stay in hotels the entire way?
  • (Additional helpful information can be found on the original FAQ page - don't miss it!)


    What kind of bike do I need? Can I use the road bike / mountain bike that I already own?

    First off, there are no rules! People have crossed the country on some pretty scary machines. But, of course, the right equipment helps, and so here's a list of things that you may want to consider in deciding what machine to ride, along with a few suggestions and recommendations.

    If you can afford it (or even if you can't quite, but you can imagine taking more than one tour in your life), then buy a touring bike. They're designed specifically for loaded touring, and on a 4,000 mile ride I guarantee that you'll appreciate their advantages over a modified road or mountain bike. Here are some (perhaps most) of the things that, together, set touring bikes apart from others:

     - Strong steel or aluminum frame, strong front fork and sturdy wheels (36 or 40 spokes)

    - Low gearing -- between 17 and 24 gear inches at the low end.

    - Front fork and rear stays spaced wide and deep enough to accommodate touring tires (32-38mm) and fenders

    - Slack frame angles and long chainstays (softens ride; long chainstays also provide sufficient heel-pannier and tire-seat tube clearances)

     - Cantilever brakes or V-brakes. These are robust and powerful. Also, the caliper-style brakes found on road bikes will not accommodate wide tires. (NB: Cantilevers will afford better fender clearance than V-brakes)

    - Front and rear eyelets for pannier racks

    - Mountings for third water bottle cage on underside of down tube

    - Drop handlebars (reduce wind resistance; gain a variety of hand positions)

    - Mechanical simplicity (breakdowns less likely; easier to repair)

    Fenders are, incidentally, a much better idea than you might at first think. They're remarkably effective in keeping slop and grit off your bike's nether regions, particularly your bottom bracket and chain. A cleaner bike means less time spent cleaning your bike! You'll be surprised too, how pleasant rain riding can be without a constant spray of dirty black road water running down your shins and into your socks and shoes.

    Touring bikes start at about $1,200 (see the Trek 520) and can exceed $2,500. Touring bike manufacturers include

    Cannondale (aluminum only)
    Bruce Gordon
    Bob Beckman (Sakkit bikes)
    Rivendell Bicycle Works

    Bruce Gordon's website has a helpful comparison of touring bikes that were available in 2001. That's a good place to get an idea of what the market looks like.

    Not everyone is able or willing to drop $1,200+ on a touring bike. If you already own a road or mountain bike that's in reasonably good repair, you may be able to adapt it for your tour. Mountain bikes are generally better suited for the undertaking, but a lot depends on the particular bike. Also, adaptations do cost money, so this option makes the most sense if you already own the bike. You may not save much by buying a new road or mountain bike, only to immediately begin modifying it for touring.

    Whichever kind of bike you start with, the most significant challenge is going to be carrying your stuff. Mountain bike frames are generally pretty compact, and simply may not provide enough room for panniers, not to mention other helpful items like a pump and 3d water bottle cage. Also, many (most?) mountain bikes today come with some kind of suspension -- that may be great for singletrack, but I'm not sure how easy it is to mount rigid pannier racks onto parts of a frame that are designed to move with respect to one another. It's also unlikely that the manufacturer designed the suspension to operate under the weight of a tourist's full complement of baggage. As for road bikes -- though their frames are likely to be large enough, those bikes are designed for lightness, not strength, and 50 or 70 pounds of stuff on the typical road frame will make the bike too squirrely -- dangerous, really -- to ride. (That's assumes you could find a way to mount pannier racks at all, inasmuch as most road bikes nowadays lack rack mounting eyelets.)

    The most straightforward solution in both cases may be simply to tow a trailer. See the FAQ below for everything I know about trailers.

    Adapting a mountain bike

    Mountain bikes are sturdy, with good tire clearances; they're also geared appropriately, or nearly appropriately, for loaded touring. A stock mountain bike is not going to be very comfortable on a long haul, though -- the upright riding position makes it hard to cheat the wind, and straight, flat MTB handlebars allow only one hand position, a limitation that can become painful in the course of a 7 or 8 hour day. To get a mountain bike ready for a long-distance tour, you'd want to buy bar ends, at least; maybe even consider one of those handlebar attachments that emulates drops. Aero bars might be a good idea, though only if you decide to pull a trailer. I wouldn't want to try to keep a heavy, panniered bike on course from an aero position. Swap out the usual fat knobby tires for something narrower and smoother (perhaps 26" Continental Top Touring 2000s) - inflate those to 80 psi and they'll be no different than what you'd ride on a touring bike. Also, though mountain bikes all come with triple chainrings and wide-range rear derailleurs, make sure that you'll have sufficiently low gears (17-24 inches) on the bike. It's a simple matter to change cassettes or bolt on smaller chainrings. (Don't worry about including gears above 100 inches -- you'll never miss them.)

    Adapting a road bike

    Most road bikes sold today are not good candidates for conversion. For the most part they are designed specifically as racing machines -- extremely light, made with exotic frame materials, and featuring upright geometry, narrow gearing and very tight clearances. These bikes are neither strong nor particularly comfortable; their gearing is wrong for touring and you're unlikely to be able to fit wide tires onto them. Also, virtually all road bikes in stores today come with either Shimano's STI or Campagnolo's Ergopower shifters. Although these integrated brake lever shifters have become more reliable and durable since their introduction, they can be finicky, and, worse, are not road-serviceable. Bar-end shifters, which are simpler and can usually can be switched to "friction mode" if your indexing goes out of whack, are the better choice for long-distance touring.

    Of course not all road bikes are high-strung thoroughbreds. Some manufacturers make and sell "light touring" bikes, which, though not be quite as beefy and durable as full-blown touring bikes, are generally made out of steel, with more relaxed geometry, triple chainrings and maybe even rack eyelets. (Bianchi, for example, makes more than one such model.) Another candidate might be what is sometimes described as a "stage race" bike. Those machines, following in the tradition of European racing bikes of the 1950s and '60s, feature a softer ride and more generous clearances than today's typical racing bike. They are not any more robust, however. Moreover, nowadays such bikes appeal to a pretty narrow segment of the market, and are comparatively expensive -- if you already own one, you're unlikely to want to subject it to the rigors of heavy-duty touring.

    In any event. Here are some of the things you would want to do to a road bike to make it tour-worthy: Install the widest tires that will fit (28mm minimum!); check the gearing and make sure it's appropriate (again, ranging from 17-24 gear inches up to about 100). To achieve suitably low gearing, the bike will have to have a triple chainring, and probably a wide-range rear derailleur to accommodate the larger cassette you'll be installing. (If the bike lacks a triple, you can install one, but it's something of a chore -- see -- and as such a good reason to move on to your Plan B unless you have a particular reason to ride on this bike.) Resist any impulse to try the ride with just a double chainring! On uphills in the Appalachians, I was often standing on the pedals in a 22 inch gear (28 x 34), wishing I had something lower still. The lowest realistic gearing you can achieve with a double will be about 40 inches (39 x 26). On some grades in the mountains, you will simply not be able to turn the pedals with those gears.


    I hope you didn't come looking for advice on recumbents! I've ridden all of about 125 feet on a recumbent bicycle. I've seen them used on tours, though, usually towing a trailer. Among the advantages and disadvantages of recumbent touring, off the top of my head: You're not perched on a saddle all day, and the sitting position is well suited to watching the passing scenery. Being closer to the ground, you're probably a bit more aerodynamic, too. On the other hand you're stuck in a single position all day -- there's something to be said for being able to shift around and stretch a bit, as you can on a saddle. Also recumbents are notoriously slow up hills -- but then, so are loaded touring bikes. I'm not sure that recumbents would be any worse.

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    How should I train for a cross-country ride? Can I ride into shape on the road?

    First, let me tell you how I prepared. If you're in reasonably decent biking shape and accustomed to distance riding, something like it will probably work for you. If you're new to bike touring, I've got some suggestions and advice for you too -- so keep reading.

    I started my ride in mid-April. I manage to get onto the bike at least some during the winter, with the result that I never fall completely out of shape -- but still I made a point of getting in some extra miles before leaving so that I wouldn't be in "early spring" shape in, well, early spring. By the time I set out from Delaware I'd ridden maybe 500 miles in the calendar year, with about 150 coming in the two immediately preceding weeks. (All of these were regular, unloaded road miles.) In retrospect, this preparation was adequate, but no more than that -- I didn't self-destruct, but throughout the first 10 days of the ride my knees were a little sore, and after about the 50th mile, I'd lose all enthusiasm and would finish the day dog-tired. I've since thought about what I could have done differently; and other than trying to squeeze in a few more miles, I think the answer is, not much. When you get right down to it, the only thing that can fully prepare you for weeks of non-stop loaded touring is weeks of non-stop loaded touring!

    So how much should you train? If you've never ridden long distances on your bike, you should work up at least to a point which you can ride 50 miles over varied terrain on consecutive days without major discomfort, and then on the third day be ready for another 50. That's probably enough to get you started (albeit slowly) on a cross-country tour. That is, however, really a bare minimum -- more would be better, as much as you have time for. The more miles you ride, the stronger your legs, lungs (and butt) will be at the start of your adventure. Though you'll eventually ride into shape on the road, with bare-bones training you'll be very uncomfortable during the first couple of weeks; why not get most of that unhappiness out of the way beforehand? In addition (and this subtlety I've come to realize only over the years), experience in cycling long distances -- knowing how to pace yourself over six or eight hours of riding -- is almost as important as pure physical conditioning. Being able to ride 50 miles day after day may confirm your basic fitness, but you'll learn important things about cycling and about yourself if you can also manage one or two longer rides (say, 70-90 miles) during your training. (Here's a site with tips on how to train for your first century,complete with training schedules. It'll probably be helpful however hard you decide to train: )

    Finally -- and this is equally important for experienced, fit cyclists -- if you've never ridden a bike with 40 or 60 pounds of stuff on it, fill your panniers or trailer with books or bricks and go for couple of half-day rides. A fully loaded bike handles entirely differently than an unloaded one; it's harder to start, harder to stop, and harder to turn. If only for safety's sake, take this time to become become acquainted with the heavier, clumsier bike. There are other benefits to practice rides under load, too. For example, even if you're in great shape, raw strength only gets you so far on a self-supported tour. Forget about sprinting up hills or grinding hard into headwinds, and use these rides to start learning the special patience it takes to climb a five mile hill at five miles an hour, pedals spinning at 80 rpm the whole time. A trial run would also be a good time to experiment with weight distribution in your panniers. Even the best touring bike, if badly weighted, will feel twitchy and unpredictable (especially, it seems, on fast descents). Trial and error is the best method I know for figuring out what works on a particular bike, and if you're going to err you may as well do it close to home, when all you have to rearrange is a few paperbacks. (Hint: keep your heavy stuff as close to the ground as possible, and put more weight in the front panniers than you'd suppose. Try 40% for starters.)

    In light of all the foregoing, you can probably figure that I think starting on a bike tour with no training at all is a Bad Idea. That's not to say it's impossible -- I've heard of people doing it -- but you'd be miserable until you got into shape, perhaps 3 weeks to a month. I found that my resolve was tested quite enough early on in my tour, and I'm not sure I would have kept going if I'd been substantially more uncomfortable, or unsure of my ability to hold up.

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    What about a trailer instead of panniers?

    I've got no firsthand experience with trailers, but many swear by them. And although this issue would seem to have all the ingredients of a religious war (like recumbents vs. uprights or Macs vs. PCs), all the discussion I've seen has been reasoned and calm -- the choice of panniers or trailers seems to be entirely a matter of taste. What's more, taste for either seems easily enough acquired.

    I liked my panniers because they were compact and convenient. I had four separate "right on top" packing locations for everyday items, and my front panniers were close enough that I could reach into them even while riding. A bike with full panniers rides very smoothly, but is also ungainly. And, because panniers are pretty much part of the bike, it's a chore to empty or remove them when, for example, you want to ride around town without your luggage or move your stuff inside for the night.

    With a trailer, the bike itself will feel lighter and more responsive. Also, a trailer can be easily separated from the bike. On the downside, the trailer/bag combination is heavier than panniers & racks. Additionally, a trailer just about doubles the length of your bike, making it hard to park, and almost impossible to turn around in close quarters. Trailers have pretty substantial capacity -- the BOB trailer advertises itself at 5,700+ cubic inches, compared to my total capacity of about 4,800. That is not, however, wholly an advantage; I actually appreciated the enforced packing economy of my more limited space.

    Trailers do afford one important, and potentially decisive, advantage over panniers. By relieving the bike frame of luggage duties, a trailer may make it possible to tour on what would otherwise be an unsuitable bike. You don't need to find space on the frame for panniers, or worry about whether the bike will collapse under the load. A trailer is certainly worth investigating. To learn from people who actually know what they're talking about, I recommend that you join the bike touring mailing list and query the participants. (Before posting a message, check the archives to see if your question has been addressed previously.)

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    I love to ride my bike but I hate camping. Is it possible to stay in hotels the entire way?

    The short answer is, probably, provided you're willing to sacrifice a little spontaneity. (See editorial below.) Here's what to do: The Adventure Cycling maps show which towns on and near the route offer lodging -- that's the hardest work done for you right there. But of course hotels go out of business, and sometimes they're fully booked. So, two or three days before you expect to get to a particular hotel, phone ahead and reserve a space! Be forewarned, however, that sometimes the distance between towns with hotels is substantially more or substantially less than an ordinary day's ride, meaning that you're either going to have to cut some riding days frustratingly short or extend them uncomfortably. I recommend that you try to spot any problem segments before departing, then buy a road map of that state and try to identify towns just off the (rather narrow) Adventure Cycling maps that do have hotels. (The internet would surely prove useful in that regard too.) It may take a bit of extra work, but I expect that you will be able, ultimately, to lay out an achievable series of hotel towns.

    The main disadvantage to this approach is, as I said, impaired spontaneity. Committing yourself to a particular destination two or three days down the road is harder than it sounds. I can't count the number of times when during breakfast I'd identify a target overnight town (the right distance, map indicates suitable facilities, etc.), only by mid-afternoon to realize that the day's events had rendered the choice obsolete. If I wasn't losing several hours of riding to some unexpected delight (e.g. Shaker Village in Kentucky; the Lowes in Missouri), I was picking up a tailwind and, feeling strong in the saddle, covering twice as much ground as I'd planned. One of the best parts of my adventure -- and what really helped make it an "adventure" -- was never knowing or caring at the beginning of a day where I was going to wind up at the end of it. I liked being able to let each day unfold however it might.

    If the prospect of any camping is standing between you and your cross-country bike trip, pick up the phone and start calling hotels. It'll still be the best thing you ever did. But if on the other hand you'd rather just avoid camping as much as possible, then pack a tent and sleeping bag just in case, aim for hotels and see what happens. While it takes an effort to avoid camping altogether, it's pretty easy to avoid just mostly. For instance, I spent 36 of 64 nights in hotels (plus another 5 or 6 in people's houses), and I was only exercising a preference -- I doubt I ever added or shaved more than 5-10 miles to stay in a hotel instead of a campsite. By just paying attention every day, you could probably whittle the number of must-camp nights to a handful or less.

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    Page posted October 17, 2002
    Page updated November 10, 2002