When I first set off on my big cycling trip, I didn’t know anything about travelling long distances by bike. I didn’t know, for example, that the panniers (saddlebags) versus trailer debate was an ‘either/or’ one. Instead I took both, massively overloading my bicycle to the extent that I could barely go downhill, let alone up.
I knew nothing about bicycle maintenance either. Derailleurs, crank sets, cassettes – all were merely words bandied around by other people. They made me feel uncomfortable. As far as I was concerned my bike was two wheels connected to a bunch of metal. Beyond mending punctures, I was clueless.
For a long time on my trip this lack of knowledge stressed me out hugely. I pedalled along in constant fear of something breaking. The best thing that happened to me, in fact, was when something did actually break. The chain skipped, came off and got caught, and my rear derailleur took a knock. Suddenly faced with a worst-case scenario, it didn’t seem so bad any more. The world didn’t end, I just had a problem that needed solving. That’s what travel is (that’s what a lot of life is) - problems ('challenges', if you're a positive thinker...) that we must overcome. In perspective, it was all okay. I fiddled around (making it worse) and then thought through the other options. I flagged down a car. The driver didn’t know anything about bikes, but poked at it anyway just in case. It got worse yet again. Giving up on that scenario, we loaded my bike in his car, drove to the nearest town and found someone to did know what they were doing. Problem solved.
That scenario was replayed a few times on my adventure, with a slightly different cast of characters and source of issue each time. I know a lot more about how bikes work these days (though I’m still no expert.) The fact of the matter is though, being able to fix everything on your bicycle is not an integral part of being able to tour. Unless you’re going to extremely remote places, totally out of sight of other humans, there will always be someone around to help out. It boils down to this – if your bike breaks, then either you will fix it, or someone else will. So don’t worry about it.
Bike maintenance is one of the main reasons people have for not giving bike touring a go. There are other similarly scary obstacles, too, and as far as I’m convinced, none carry any real weight. My advice goes something like this: set your departure date, then do what preparation you have time and energy for inbetween. When the time comes, just set off. You will pick everything else up en route - I am living proof of that. Nice kit is nice. It's not essential. A bike (any bike) and a way to carry your gear is the baseline. Buy what else you can afford, and use that. Improvise. Try and relax into the notion that something will go wrong at some point (even if have all of the best gear and all of the right knowledge, things will still go wrong) BUT, it will be alright in the long run. You'll figure it out. It's part of the adventure.
When I wrote my book about cycling across America, I wanted to show just how clueless and naïve I was at the start. I think this comes through quite clearly in the story (it couldn’t fail to – I made every mistake possible, it seemed.) What I really wanted to show too though that this is something everyone can do. Everyone can. To re-enforce that notion, I’ve written a short ‘How-to’ of bicycle touring at the back of the book. I try and cover all the basics – to raise all the major issues one must consider, and then give my advice (learned the hard way) about how to minimize stress and maximise fun.
Below are a couple of pages from the book. If you’re new to bike touring, or are on the fence, then why not give it a read? I think you’ll find it ultimately encouraging – travel by bicycle can be such a joy, and it’s worth giving it a chance.
You can buy 'The Road Headed West' here, or via Amazon.
For this week only, you can also get a free copy of my film, 'Into The Empty Quarter.' Just email me your receipt once you've purchased and choose DVD or HD download.