Lots of people have more knowledge and experience of cycle touring than we have: were dilettanti. You will find their sites in various places on the web; better still, Stephen Lords Adventure cycle-touring handbook is essential reading. The following notes contain some of our own observations and are provided for what theyre worth.
Choice of route
For us this is the hardest decision. Our aim is not to cover great distances, nor to link two famous places, but to ride on pleasant roads. Cycle touring is not a way of getting from A to B, but a way of passing enjoyably through C. The art is in choosing C.
A cyclist will make his decision on different grounds from anyone else. He will seek to avoid busy roads and to find the most attractive scenery. If there are attractive towns or sights along the way then so much the better, but scenery is always the most important factor.
On the other hand the cyclist never gets to see the best views: these are reserved for walkers and climbers. In return he may visit a greater variety of places than can be seen on a trek, and have more freedom and independence than walkers can easily obtain.
It follows that we have no interest in covering great distances or in proving anything. Many non-cyclists (and alas many cyclists) cannot hear of a route without asking how many miles it contains. Cyclists in this state of mind ride across the Argentinian pampas or from Moscow to Peking.
We do the opposite, visiting small areas intensively. We spent 17 days cycling in Peru and stayed within a hundred-mile radius of Cusco. In the same period we could have ridden half the length of the country along the coastal highway, and probably seen twice as many cycle tourists as we did so.
If a trip ever becomes a matter of getting from A to B, its best to do it more efficiently by plane, train, bus, taxi, truck, mule, boat or hire car, all of which we have used in past cycle tours. Remember that your trip is a holiday, not a penance or duty.
Islands offer a variant of the A-to-B ride: a circular tour. Many people find a circuit of (say) Sicily or Corsica irresistable. But the interest in islands is often concentrated in the interior, though the tourist facilities may lie on the coast. Between the resorts the coastal strip is likely to hold oil refineries, cement works and autostradas.
Hills and plains
A consequence of what we have just said is that cycle touring is best conducted in hilly terrain. Many people have the notion that cycling in the hills is harder than on the flat. What they mean is that it is harder to cover a given horizontal distance, which is nothing to the point. It is easier to obtain a given quantum of scenic interest in the hills than on the plain.
Because cycling involves an element of exertion it is natural to want to feel at the end that you have achieved something. If horizontal distance is all you measure, you will feel disappointed after a hilly ride. For this reason it is a good idea to carry an altimeter. Knowing that you have averaged only 55km per day may be demoralising, but if you know that you have also climbed 1000m per day you will see your ride in a truer light.
Conversely be on your guard against taking on too much. If you ride yourself into the ground you will hate it. It is a good idea to provide a sufficiency of rest days. A comfortable hotel with a swimming pool is never appreciated more than when youve cycled across a mountain range to reach it. If you dont know how strong you are, build flexibility into your itinerary.
Sources of information
Theres quite a lot on the internet nowadays, but it isnt easy to find useful guidebooks specific to cycling. Lonely Planet produce a series which contains some worthwhile information. They are organised around a selection of routes (rather like old-fashioned Baedekers which told you which church to visit next). For us this isnt the best arrangement. If we know where the scenery is best, what the roads are like, and where we can find food and accommodation, we can choose our own routes.
The following books, all of which are probably out of print, are the ones we have found useful. The first two each cover a whole continent and provide just the level of detail necessary for identifying suitable destinations. For more detailed planning it is often necessary to rely on more general guidebooks.
Cycling in Europe, by Nicholas Crane, 1984, 1988. Excellent.
Latin America by Bike, by Walter Sienko, The Mountaineers, 1993. A valuable introduction.
Bicycle Touring International, by Kameel Nasr, Bicycle Books, 1992. Covers the whole world except islands.
Bicycling Mexico, by Ericka Weisbroth and Eric Ellman, Hunter Publishing, 1990. Engagingly written.
Cranes book contains a useful ride chart which I have used as a base for the one on this website.
In Thailand we used Touring Northern Thailand, by John R. Davies, Footloose Books, 1991, intended for motorists. We have heard of another book, presumably more recent: A Motorcycle Guide To The Golden Triangle by David Unkovich, also said to be useful for cyclists.
Types of tour
Cycle camping: a tent is necessary for travel in remote regions, or in expensive regions if you havent much money. Some people prefer tents to hotels. But you end up with a lot of weight on your bike. The most Ive heard of is 70kg per rider. We manage with about 35kg between us, but we arent very serious and have never had to carry water.
Hotels: these have been the main form of accommodation for travellers for about 20 centuries. They provide comfort and protection from the elements. It is not always necessary to pay by credit card: some still accept cash.
Organised tours: weve never been on one of these but have nothing against them. The advantages and disadvantages are obvious. Much will depend on personal circumstances, such as your response to group dynamics.
In Britain the main commercial firms are KE and Exodus; Explore are also branching into cycle touring. There are several smaller and more specialised firms. Some of these companies advertise their routes as mountain biking rather than cycling, and appeal chiefly to macho downhillers.
Some freelance tour organisers promote trips through the CTC. These are likely to be less formally organised and to appeal to a different class of rider.
An alternative to tour groups in ones own country is provided by local operators. These are easy to find on the web (that is, their spammy pages devalue web searches), but information on their merits is hard to come by. The Peruvian firms mentioned on our links page are likely to be reliable. Local travel firms will be relatively inexpensive and well informed, but you wont know what youre letting yourself in for.
Charity rides: these are widely advertised but sound dodgy to me. Nonetheless people seem to enjoy them.
Fixed centre: you wont read much about fixed centre holidays on the web because people are more likely to describe how they crossed the Australian outback carrying 70kg. But in the classic rural areas of Europe there are enough roads to spend a week cycling happily from a fixed base. You can then carry the bare minimum on your bike each day. This sort of holiday is particularly suitable for a party not all of whom like cycling, or for a married couple who do not cycle together.
Our camping regime is simple. We have porridge for breakfast and pasta cooked up in soup for dinner. If we need to cook lunch we eat more of the same.
Fast-cooking porridge is fairly easy to come by. In Peru we used Quaker (pronounced quacker), and in India Savour white oats. The generic Spanish term is avena instantanea. A 375g bag provides 4 hearty servings. Dried milk is easy to find.
Mostly we drink tea (with growing aversion on Colins part). It helps to be generous with the sugar. Powdered fruit juice would be better if we could find it.
It takes us 2 hours to pitch tent and cook dinner, and as long to cook breakfast and strike camp.
Unwanted petrol from the stove is often accepted by adventure tour operators. Otherwise we find it an embarrassment. We end up giving it to people to put in their cars but feel guilty for doing so, since we wouldnt risk our own engine with petrol of unknown origin.
Following our contretemps in Peru Tracey devised a clever scheme for securing bicycles. It requires two lock cables and a single lock.
Lay one cable under the tent as you erect it, stretching from one side to the other and pegged out at each. When the tent has been pitched, rest the bikes on top of each other on one side. Lock them together with the second cable, attaching it also to the first cable in place of the peg at its end. When you sleep you will be lying across the cable, and if people try to move the bikes they will wake you up. This is probably not a good idea in places where robbery is liable to be violent, but in rural districts theft is usually furtive. Mongolian horsemen, avid readers of this site, have found a way to defeat this measure.
Tracey is super-fit, Colin not. Colin undertook his first cycle tour at the age of 33, and has got stronger every year since (which shows that fitness does not come easily).
What matters most is not fitness but knowing your strength and planning accordingly. It is unwise to undertake a tour without having first performed rides of similar difficulty in your own country. This does not prepare you for everything least of all for the exhaustion which occurs after a few weeks of over-ambitious touring but it ensures that you have the basic strength and that your knees will not be taken by surprise.
You will not read much in this web site about upset stomachs, but that is not because we are strangers to them. In the past we have both suffered badly. Our digestive systems seem to be becoming habituated to third-world cuisine.
I imagine many first-time visitors to the third world suffer a bad attack of diarrhoea. Often the debilitation is more psychological than physical. (I once met someone who had recently crossed the Thorung La the hard way not realising she had Hep A.) A strong will and a sense of humour will help protect against the demoralisation produced by stomach bugs. The physical consequences need to be allowed to take their course, assisted in the last resort by medical attention.
If you can put up with a stomach bug and laugh it off as part of the experience, then you are likely to return to the third world and eventually build up some immunity. If it saps your will then you are unlikely to go back.