Bike Touring

Michelle Radcliff
Val Poschiavo downhill bike tour, Switzerland

Experiencing the world through bike tours provides an intimate and introspective impression of landscapes, culture and people. Bike tours are adventurous and self-challenging, yet widely appealing to people interested in outdoor adventures.

Bike Tour Options

Bike tour in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

A bike tour is an organized travel adventure that allows you to explore your chosen destination by cycling your way through the region. There are many different types of bike tours. Categories include:

  • Guided tours: You'll travel with small groups of 8 to 20 other cyclists. Everything is prearranged, including rental bikes, travel routes, accommodations, meals and a support van.
  • Self-guided tours: Less expensive than a guided tour, you can travel on your own or with a friend or partner. You'll get to travel at your own pace with a more flexible schedule while still receiving many of the benefits of a guided tour such as lodging, route planning, luggage transport between hotels and emergency support.
  • Private tours: Some bicycle tour operators will customize an itinerary to suit the needs of couples, families, special-interest groups, clubs or schools.
  • Self-contained tour: Using your own bike and gear, you will plan your own route and overnight stays. Experience and careful research are musts.
  • Traditional tours: A traditional bike tour involves riding every day or almost every day to get from point A to point B, sleeping in a new location each night.
  • Hub-and-Spoke tours: Settle in to one location or hotel and use bikes to explore the surrounding area with scheduled day trips.

How to Choose a Bike Tour

With hundreds of destinations available in just the US and a plethora of worldwide options, choosing the right bike tour can seem like an overwhelming task. Fortunately, bike tour booking services such as BikeTours.com and tour operators such as Escape Adventures and World Cycle Journeys offer advice to help you narrow it down.

Availability to Travel

If your travel dates are limited by work vacation time, holiday or summer breaks from school, you'll need to research available tour dates compatible with your availability to travel. Bike trips are scheduled when the weather is most favorable in any given area, especially in mountainous terrain.

Interests

Brainstorm some ideas of what you want to see, do and experience on your bike tour. Ideas to get you started include:

  • Activities: Do you want to visit ancient ruins, castles or historical buildings? Join the guided tour, Cycle Corinthia, where archaeologist, Brady Kiesling, guides you through the ancient ruins in Greece. Does a culinary tour through wine vineyards appeal to you more? Take a tour through Hungary's Balaton Uplands, where you'll get to dine on authentic Hungarian cuisine and sample rich, full bodied wine from local vineyards.
  • Landscapes and climate: Do you want to see sweeping mountain views, unusual rock formations, waterfalls and rivers, thick forests or ocean views? Check out a destination tour, such as The Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Do you prefer weather that's warm and dry, tropical and steamy or crisp and cool? Book a September trip along the Maine coastline to breathe the crisp, salty sea air, watch waves crash on rocky shores and experience the peacefulness of deep pine forests.
  • Language and culture: Are you interested in the dialect and traditions of people living in or near the Appalachian Mountains or more exotic cultures in non-English speaking countries in Asia? REI Adventures offers a 12 day cycling tour from Vietnam to Cambodia, riding through rustic farms and villages and visiting floating markets, ancient temples and fascinating ruins.

Ability

Most bike tours have been assigned with a certain level of difficulty. The varying levels of difficulty are mostly determined by the terrain and the type of trail, with flat paved roads being the easiest and mountainous, rocky dirt trails being the hardest.

Bike Tours.com offers two scales for difficulty level, one for road tours using touring bikes and one for mountain bikes. A leisurely paced road tour typically covers 20 to 40 miles per day. When reading descriptions for bike tours, pay close attention to the:

  • Type of tour
  • Average daily distances
  • Type of terrain

Couples or groups with members of varying abilities often opt for E-bikes or electric bikes that can assist riders who become fatigued on hills or long distances, adding a little mechanical energy boost to their pedaling power.

Budget

Bicycle tour costs vary widely based on length, location, type of tour and other factors. Once you've narrowed down the options by your travel dates, interests and ability, you can start comparing tours that fit within your budget.

Preparing for a Tour

Adventure Cycling Association offers a wealth of resources for those new to bicycle travel as well as seasoned biking enthusiasts. You will need to train to build up your strength and stamina to prepare for a bike tour.

Base Training

Mountain biker on trail

Begin a physical bike riding regimen at least four months prior to your trip. You can start this outdoors on a real bike or use a stationary indoor exercise bike. During this first month, try to ride at least four to six days a week.

Set a goal of 300 to 600 miles or 20 to 30 hours on the bike, using easy gears on fairly flat roads. Set up a regular routine of stretching to prepare your muscles, tendons and ligaments for the next phase of training.

Strength Training

The goal for the second month is to build up riding strength with a gradual mix of more difficult training. Mix in riding hills with your base training. Make easy-riding days longer and days you work on sprints shorter. Practice hill climbing and strength training once or twice a week, being careful not to overdo it.

Endurance Training

During the third month, start building your endurance by taking longer rides once or twice a week. By the end of the month, you should be riding 40 to 50 miles per day at least two days out of the week. Mix in some rides of pleasure to start enjoying the feel of the bike.

Riding with Weight

The last and most critical stage of your training is when you begin to carry small amounts of weight on your bike, about six weeks prior to your departure. Start slow by adding packs and bags totaling about 20 pounds on some of your longer endurance trips. Eventually work your way up to carrying all of your gear. Schedule two rides a week carrying your gear up until your departure date.

Touring Bikes

Companies like BikeTours.com work with local tour operators in destinations all over the world to set you up with everything you'll need for the bike tour, including the bike and storage gear.

While there are many design variations, the two main types of bikes used on tours are:

  • Touring bikes: Designed for paved roads and long distance traveling, the medium weight frames have all the necessary mounting bolts for cargo racks and fenders and are built to carry weight
  • Mountain bikes: Designed for rough, off-road trails, these bikes come equipped with some type of shock absorbers or suspension and a very low gear range for peddling up steep trails

If you want to purchase your own bike, the expert cyclists at Travelling Two recommend to focus on comfort instead of a fancy high price. Consider:

  • You may be able to find a solid second hand bike worth $200-$300 from a thrift store or cycling club if you're on a budget.
  • Trying out or renting touring bikes from local dealers, who can help make small adjustments to the bike and help you get the most comfortable fit.

Basic Gear

Bike loaded with gear in Namib desert, Namibia

Specially designed bags that attach to racks or the frame of the bike allow you to carry clothing and other essentials needed for your trip.

  • Panniers: Designed specifically for front and rear racks, panniers are large, roomy bags that easily disconnect from spring-loaded hooks, clips or bungie cords.
  • Saddle pack: This is a small bag that fits under your bicycle seat. It is good for carrying small items such as a spare inner tube, patch kit, multi-tool or a snack.
  • Handlebar pack: More roomy than a saddle pack, the bag attaches to your handlebars with clamps or straps and offers easy access to frequently used items such as a camera, cell phone, map, sunscreen or a snack.
  • Frame bags: Small frame bags attach to the top tube of your bike frame and are sized to keep essentials such as phones, ID cards, debit or credit cards, tools or energy food handy; larger bags can hold hydration reservoirs.
  • Rack trunk: Smaller than a pannier but larger than a saddle pack, a rack trunk is best for carrying a jacket, extra clothing, tools or food. Many have pockets or divided storage areas and are integrated rain covers.
  • Bike cargo trailers: When hauling a lot of extra cargo such as camping gear or for long trips, the trailer attaches to the rear hub of the bike and can be used with front and rear panniers or in place of them if you prefer less weight on the bike.

Packing Tips for Your Trip

Use a less-is-more philosophy when packing essentials for your trip. The less you have to carry, the more enjoyable your experience will be.

Clothing

Lightweight cycling clothes for good and bad weather provide the most comfort when riding and don't take up much space. A few casual off-the-bike items should be included as well. Layer clothing for extra warmth rather than trying to pack a large, bulky coat.

Riding clothes:

  • Cycling shorts
  • Short-sleeved shirts
  • Socks, wool or synthetic
  • Lightweight long-sleeved shirt (sun protection and layering)
  • Rain jacket and pants - made from waterproof/breathable fabric such as Gore-Tex
  • Cycling tights
  • Cycling helmet
  • Cycling shoes - designed for riding with stiff soles to protect feet from the pressure of pedaling but also have some flexibility for walking
  • Waterproof shoe covers
  • Cycling gloves

Off-the-bike clothes:

  • Comfortable shorts and pants - one or two pairs each
  • Underwear
  • Sandals, flip flops or other lightweight, comfortable shoes
  • Warm sweatshirt, wool sweater or fleece jacket
  • Stocking cap, beanie or baseball cap
  • Wool or fleece gloves
  • Swimsuit (depending on your destination)

Keep your waterproof outer shell layers easy to reach when on the road or trail. Line your panniers with heavy duty plastic garbage bags to keep the items inside dry in the event of a heavy downpour. Roll your clothing items and pack them vertically to avoid wrinkles and provide quick identification. Ziploc bags add an extra layer of protection and help keep everything organized.

Tools and Miscellaneous Extras

When riding your own bike, include small tools and spare parts for on the go maintenance such as fixing a flat tire:

  • Allen wrenches
  • Screwdriver
  • Mini pump
  • Spare tube
  • Electrical tape
  • Brake cable
  • Spoke wrench
  • Spare spokes (sized to fit your bike tire)
  • Extra nuts, bolts and wire (for racks)

Don't forget your personal toiletries such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, etc. It's much cheaper to camp out than to stay in a hotel but that means extra gear to pack and extra weight to carry. It all depends on your budget, your comfort level and personal preference. You can also do a mix of both, scheduling a few hotel stays on rest days where you can get a hot shower and an easy meal.

Distributing the Weight

Panniers contribute the majority of the weight carried by your bike, so try to keep the total load between 15 and 45 pounds. For the most stability, Adventure Cycling recommends putting more weight in the front panniers (about 60 percent) and less in the back (about 40 percent). To find the best handling for your particular bike, you'll need to experiment with weight distribution.

The same weight goal applies to trailers - between 15 and 45 pounds. Stuff sacks, like the kind backpackers use, are recommended to organize gear inside a trailer bag. Pack the heaviest gear low and toward the front of the trailer.

Do a Test Run

Before embarking on your bicycle tour, it is strongly recommended to do a test run, preferably with at least one overnight stay. Load up all the gear you think you'll need and try out different ways of distributing the weight. This will help you zero in on the items you can do without to help lighten your load.

Start Slow and Work Your Way Up

Experts from Bicycle Touring Pro and Travelling Two recommend starting the first day of a self-guided or self-contained tour with a lower goal for the daily distance - 20 to 30 miles or about half the distance you plan to cover on a daily average of 40 to 60 miles. Each day you ride, your endurance should increase.

Keep in mind that beginner level and family tours average about 20 to 30 miles per day, or sometimes less. Intermediate levels typically cover 40 to 60 miles and advanced tours are usually more than 60 miles per day with more challenging terrain. If you are unable to physically train before a tour, start with a beginner level guided tour or a van supported tour, where you can ride without carrying heavy gear.

Plan Carefully and Have Fun

Although it takes careful planning and preparation, a bike tour can be one of the most rewarding vacations you've ever experienced. Fortunately, you'll find a ton of options to match your interests, ability, budget and lifestyle.

Bike Touring