Planning a bicycle Tour
The one question I get asked the most is how I plan one of my cycle tours, so I thought I’d explain.
The truth is I don’t! All I do is look at a map of the country I want to tour. See if there’s a road going where I want to go. Work out roughly what distance I’ll be travelling, which in the old days used to entail a piece of string and a map! But these days things are a lot easier, and I use Google maps.
Once I’ve worked out the mileage I just divide that by 80 which is the distance, I like to cover each day and just go! Although that’s not strictly true if it’s a big tour involving several countries, I do put in a bit more time and effort in then! But if it’s just the one country or I’m travelling in Europe it is just a case of looking at a map, see how long I’ll be away for and go!
Planning a Longer Trip
On a tour that involves several countries, apart from checking the mileage I always check on visa requirements. Whether it’s a visa on entry (where you obtain the visa at the border) or if it isn’t then what city do you need to pick one up from or maybe even get it before leaving home. Although the last option isn’t a bad idea, it’s sometimes easier to obtain a visa from the country that borders the country you intend to travel in as they usually have better diplomatic ties and they’re a lot more accommodating.
For example, when I applied for my visa to Kazakhstan while in England the maximum length of stay they would give me was 30 days, when I applied for the same visa in Azerbaijan the consulate there was a lot more helpful and just asked me how long I wanted one month, two months or three!
Another good point I always check is the entry and exit towns for a county, as not all borders are open to tourists. I couldn’t think of anything more annoying than to have spent a week or two cycling across a country only to find that you couldn’t cross the border at a particular point!
I also like to check either on route or before leaving home what the local currency is and make a note of the exchange rate. Just so I can exchange any money, I may have left from one country into the following countries currency at the border with the touts that you inevitably find at most borders, then at least I know how much I’m being ripped off by! It also helps when turning up late in a country and need to find accommodation; again I’ll know what I’m paying and whether or not it’s a rip off!
Gear to Take
Usually, my panniers are prepacked, and the only ones I need to pack are the ones containing toiletries, clothes and my sleeping bag (see gear and equipment posts as to what I take)
I also always try and set off from home with all the maps I need or at least one per country, which covers the entire country just in case I can’t find any on-route. Which because I tend to cover big distances is usually sufficient enough. The maps I prefer to use on a big tour covering several countries are the Michelin national ones which are red or the Michelin regional maps which are orange if it’s just one or two countries, I’m touring.
Another good set of maps I’ve found are the German Reise range I also find them clear and easy to follow. None of the maps I use shows any contours of the land, but then I like that as I never know what the road ahead is going to be like, to me everything is flat! I’ve found from experience that if I know that there’s a particularly hilly part or it’s a big climb I’m approaching all I’m doing on the roads leading up to it is thinking about how steep it might be! Or how long it’s going to take me to get over and not enjoying the ride leading up to it, so by not knowing it’s always a big surprise whenever I come across some mountains or a steep climb!
Sometimes you can tell on the maps when it’s going to be hilly particularly the Michelin maps! The roads shaded with green signifying a scenic route which normally equates to it being hilly! The higher passes also get marked, but then I try and ignore them and pretend that I didn’t see them on the map!
Arriving in a new country
When arriving in a new country be it by air, sea or land, it’s a good idea to have an address of a hotel, as most countries require you to fill out the address of where you’ll be staying on the landing or entry card. But from my experience you don’t have to stay there it just seems to be more of a formality and the only time that I do stay at the address that I’ve given is when I fly into a country! (See below)
Accommodation or any stops never get planned or pre-booked I never know where I’ll end up from one night to the next! Why waste time trying to find accommodation in advance, you may not reach that place, you may decide to stop early, or you may find another route that you want to explore. And when I do arrive somewhere I tend to stop at the first place I find.
Usually, I like to camp as it keeps costs down and means that I can stay away for longer! But if there’s no campsite around (I don’t wild camp anymore not unless I have to) I’ll stop at the first available hotel, Inn, guest house, hostel or whatever is available!
I’ve learnt through experience that you can cycle around a town for ages looking for accommodation and then be undecided as to which one to stay in! Generally, they are all the same and if it’s only the one night that your staying, does it matter what it’s like as long as there’s a warm shower and a bed. (A bar is also preferable!)
The exception to the rule is when I fly into a country then I do have a hotel pre-booked it saves a lot of aggravation trying to find somewhere after a long flight. It also means that I can reassemble my bike without too much aggravation, either in my room or somewhere in the grounds.
At The End of a Tour
When coming towards the end of a trip and I’ve got a flight to catch I usually check out a cities hotels before getting there. I still don’t pre book anything I just like to have a rough idea of a good western style hotel that I can head for. Most of the staff speak good English and can be very helpful at making calls to shops or pointing you in the right direction when sourcing materials to pack away the bike and panniers.
When packing away for a flight I always get a big bag to put my panniers in, usually one of the big chequered type that is available in most countries. Their cheap and light, so they don’t add any extra weight, the chances are that your probably close to the weight limit as it is! The bags are not particularly strong, but you only want it to last the one flight or if you’re not too sure whether it will last the trip or not get it wrapped in cellophane at the airport.
Getting a box
A box for the bike is normally fairly easy to obtain from any bicycle shop. Usually, they’re grateful to give it to you for free as it saves them having to dispose of it! Although that’s not always the case, when I was trying to find one in Istanbul they wouldn’t give me one unless I paid for it and as for China, nobody would give me one for love nor money!
If I’m going away on a trip that I know will involve flight I always weigh my bags at home. Then when it comes to packing them away, I’ve got a rough idea of what everything weighs and can then distribute things around to avoid paying any excess fees for being overweight!
Lose excess weight
After sourcing a bag and box, I firstly dismantle the bike (again I weighed that at home, so I know what it weighs). I then get rid of any excess weight! I’m always amazed at the end of a tour how much extra weight I end up carrying! Catching a flight for me is always a good thing as that’s normally the only time I clear out my bags completely! If a tour doesn’t involve a flight home, all I do on my return is to simply take off the panniers and store them all loaded up ready for my next tour, except the panniers that contain my sleeping bag, clothes and toiletries of course! On a recent flight when I cleared out my bags I found that I’d accumulated six puncture repair kits and three loo rolls!
After losing the excess weight, I then proceed to pack my panniers into the bag. Usually, I manage to pack my tent, two front panniers and one of my rear panniers into the bag. Although sometimes I put the odd item into the bike box if I’m struggling to fit everything in the bag or I’m worried about weight. My last pannier is carried on as hand luggage normally with some of the heavier items in it. Then once at the airport all I do is check the chequered bag in as hold luggage, the bike as sports equipment or oversize baggage and my last pannier is carried on as hand luggage.