Bicycle, pedal cycle or pushbike, is a wonderful mode of transport whose (usually) two wheels we turn with our own power. Reading this you might view it as barely something more than a kids' toy, yet a bicycle can be so much more, from the means of crossing the road to making a circle around the world. This guide is intended for absolute beginners interested in bicycle touring. Just keep in mind that it was not written by a bicycle or touring expert but a person with a huge passion for travelling, some touring experience and almost no budget (sponsored by money found on the ground).
There are three things you need for bicycle touring: a bicycle, time and willingness.
Also, once you get deeper into the bicycle touring culture, you might get surprised by how many people travel this way, as you'll most likely encounter many travelogues of people who have pedaled around the entire world.
While choosing your bicycle and its components it is advisable to explore as much as you need to: inquire among acquaintances, ask questions on the Internet and chat with bicycle retailers. The most important thing, though, is realizing that nothing has to be high-tech or expensive. High prices honestly are not a must; there are people who make long tours on cheap bikes with only three gears while others tour with very simple folding bikes. At the same time, there are those who cycle the world with almost no luggage on extremely expensive carbon cycles or bicycles with all the possible gadgets and smart devices. It is true that your comfort will increase with the level of the bike quality, but it does not have to be the most high-tech bike out there, and you can have an amazing adventure even with a used bike that you found in the ads.
Also, once you get deeper into the bicycle touring culture, you might get surprised by how many people travel this way, as you'll most likely encounter many travelogues of people who have pedaled around the entire world. Another surprising fact might be the vast number of beautiful bike paths already stretched across our planet (of course, it wouldn't hurt to pave more). Or maybe you already know all this stuff, even though this type of travel is not as popular in our area as it is many other countries. (Note: text originally written for the area of ex-Yugoslavia.)
The rest of this guide is divided into three categories. Basics of cycling section refers to the basic rules of traffic behaviour and the most essential equipment. Then we will get deeper into bicycle components, while the last part refers to the peculiarities of living on the road, covering topics such as food, accommodation and potential cycling companions.
Table of contents:
1. Basics of cycling
1.1. Traffic behaviour
1.2. Bike maintenance
1.3. Shifting gears
1.4. Safety equipment
1.5. Spare parts and tools
1.6. Transporting luggage
2. Bicycle components and accessories
2.3. Technology and gadgets
2.4. Cycling clothing
3. Life on the road
3.1. Water, food and shelter
3.3. Route planning
3.4. Cycling related pains
3.5. Hitchhiking with the bicycle
1. Basics of cycling
For safe and comfortable bicycle journeys, it is imperative to know how to treat your bicycle with respect and kindness, as well as how to be a conscious participant in overall traffic. It is also important to list the essential equipment.
1.1. Traffic behaviour
Drivers' culture and their attitude towards cyclists vary greatly from country to country. The people in the Balkans are accustomed to a certain driving (non) culture and the status of the cyclists as an annoying interference by both drivers and pedestrians. Therefore, it is not problem for us to adapt to any conditions, be it for the better or the worse.
Do not forget to signal your movements, always stay alert and aware of the traffic around you.
Regardless of the driving culture, the golden rule always applies - being an equal part of the traffic; calm, visible and predictable, and by all means avoiding sudden or unpredictable movements. Identify yourself as a car, don't get scared off by big trucks and just keep pedaling. Do not be shy to take the whole lane if you need it for your own safety and don't pay attention to the potential honkers. Do not forget to signal your movements, always stay alert and aware of the traffic around you. For example, having the advantage on a crossroad does not automatically mean that a car driver will respect it. Even vehicles in so-called civilized countries may go by the simple rule that the bigger one goes first. Caution is essential and it is better to sacrifice an ounce of pride than your head or a limb.
1.2 Bike Maintenance
Your bike will naturally be much happier if you take good care of it, which means that it should be cleaned when dirty as well as regularly lubricated. It is wise to have chain oil with you at all times, and whenever necessary, clean and lubricate the chain. It's very simple. You can choose to clean it with professional brushes which can be found in most shops that house a bicycle section, but an ordinary cloth and/or an old toothbrush will serve the purpose just as well. Fortunately (or not) in many countries one often comes across discarded rags and all sorts of fabrics by the side of the road that come in handy, so you do not have to buy anything special. You can also buy sprays designated to remove dirt and old grease from the chain, which is not necessary but speeds up the process. After you relieve the chain from foreign substances, apply oil, wipe, apply oil again and wipe once more. Wipe well since an overly oily chain means dirt will stick to it way more easily. It is good to shift all the gears in the process so that the oil may nicely spread across all the components.
It is recommended to lubricate the chain at least every 300-500 kilometers, depending on how long you cycle and in what conditions. Proper maintenance prolongs the life span of your chain and gear shifters rather significantly.
1.3. Shifting Gears
To preserve general health of the chain and derailleur it is essential that you learn how to shift your gears. You would be surprised that many people do not know some basic rules. Most likely you will tour on a bike with several front and several back cranks. In that case, be sure not to make the chain go diagonally, which means shifting the gears to the opposite maximum (ex: the lowest front gear and a very high rear gear). This stretches the chain too much and can lead to cracking.
Shifting bicycle gears can be somewhat compared to shifting the gears in a car, (manual of course) especially when going uphill. While driving, one usually creates a bit extra speed before taking the foot off the gas pedal and shifting to a higher gear. Similarly, it is good to create a certain amount of momentum and shift the gear whilst taking a miniature break from pedaling. This does not apply while your pedaling is effortless. It is advisable to keep it as effortless as possible, as in - gradually shift the gears to the lowest/highest one, not shifting through in one quick go. Do not worry; you'll know that you're doing something wrong if you hear the screams of your chain and gears. Proper gear shifting is almost inaudible.
Be wise, exercise your fingers, shift your gears and avoid excessively straining the chain.
Furthermore, do not drive uphill in high gear. Sounds stupid, but some people are stubborn and force themselves to pedal hard in fear that using low gears will make them cowards. Add to this all the extra weight on your bicycle and what you get are excellent chain breaking conditions. Be wise, exercise your fingers, shift your gears and avoid excessively straining the chain. Your knees will be grateful as well.
1.4. Safety Equipment
In situations where you fall on your own, a helmet truly can save your squishy brain or at least reduce the impact.
Helmets may look silly but it is extremely silly not to wear one. Better to crack a helmet then your own skull. In some countries it is illegal to cycle outside the city zone without one (ex: Spain). To be honest, in a fierce frontal collision a helmet is probably useless. Moreover, there are certain studies saying that the use of helmets can bring more harm than benefits: that is because car drivers perceive you as a professional and are thus less careful. (To explain it further: others would be more careful not to hit a person without a helmet, and the more you seem like a pro the less cautious they get). A tire slipping in a curve, an overlooked road obstacle, a bug in the eye; these are some of the things that can make even the most experienced cyclists lose their balance. In situations where you fall on your own, a helmet truly can save your squishy brain or at least reduce the impact.
In addition to helmets, basic safety equipment includes a reflective vest and lights. Regardless of whether you planned to cycle in the dark or not, do not go touring without any lights. Something can stop you from reaching your destination before dark or perhaps you come across a tunnel. Cycling in the dark with no lights is both reckless and uncomfortable. Even having a weak front and back light is enough, not to illuminate your way, but do something more important - make you visible to other traffic participants. Instead of a specialized cycling flashlight, a headlamp works fine as a front light. Anyhow, in most countries it is illegal to cycle without lights and you could get a fine for not having them. In addition, having a reflective vest is often required for rural roads, and since it is wise to be visible, it is good to have one. Besides, it is neither heavy nor bulky.
1.5. Spare parts and tools
In addition to the above mentioned chain oil and cleaning utensils, avoid making a tour without the basic tools and some spare parts. Basic tools include a hand pump, hex-keys of various sizes, a universal screwdriver, potentially a wrench, a tool to adjust the spikes and the levers to separate the tire from the wheel. For taking the tire off, you can also use items such as spoons, knives or even the clips from your wheels or the seat. However, to keep the rim unscratched it is best to use the specialized plastic levers. Many of these tools come together, as a cycling specific multi-tool.
Spare parts you should always have include patches for the inner tube, one extra inner tube, spare cables (at least for the brakes) and a spoke or two in the correct size for you wheel.
In addition, it is always good to have a few universally useful gadgets that you can purchase cheap in any corner of the world; spare bolts and matching nuts. Do not start your journey without ten or more cable ties (so simple yet capable of quick-fixing just about anything)!
1.6. Transporting luggage
It is important to evenly distribute the weight and, in case you have a lot of stuff, have both the back and the front carrier.
In the world of cycling, a touring specific question is how to transport your luggage. The length and nature your trip determine the amount of items you are bound to take with you. If you plan to take anything at all, you will obviously need a carrier. Except for very short trips, avoid taking any kind of backpack and allow your horse of steel to carry it for you. Carriers can be fixed on the front or the rear wheel as well as the seat tube (mainly for very lightweight road bikes or fully suspended mountain bikes). It is important to evenly distribute the weight and, in case you have a lot of stuff, have both the back and the front carrier.
What goes onto carriers are panniers; bags designed to fit the carriers. Perhaps the most famous brand for touring panniers is Ortlieb, for their high quality and excellent waterproofing. The downside of such excellent waterproofing is that if you put anything moist inside, it will not dry.
You do not need the most expensive panniers but try not to buy the cheapest ones because it is quite likely that the plastic mechanism which secures it to the carrier will break, which is not something you'd welcome on your tour.
Another famous brand would be Vaude - there really are many brands out there. You do not need the most expensive panniers but try not to buy the cheapest ones because it is quite likely that the plastic mechanism that secures it to the carrier will break, which is not something you'd welcome on your tour. Besides panniers, you can use bungee cords to fasten a backpack on your carrier, as well as a crate or a dry-sack, anything that fits. For important small items such as cameras, mobile phones and wallets you can buy a specialized bag that clips on the steer; it is easy to reach and always in sight.
If you don't have money for panniers, no problem! You can make very cheap panniers with two (identical) cheap backpacks that you connect and put on the carrier. If possible, get the kind of backpack with a shoulder or waist strap (to trap around the carrier). If you wonder how to connect the backpacks, just replace one of the straps on each backpack so that one strap goes through the original backpack's clip and the other through the clip of the other backpack.
As an alternative to the carrier and panniers, you can buy a trailer that attaches to the mechanism of the rear wheel. You can then transfer as much as you want without overloading the wheels.
Always be supplied with plastic bags, big and small as a way of additionally protecting your things from rain. For small objects that absolutely should not get wet, consider using something very reliable - condoms.
If you know in advance that you will be leaving your bicycle in front of stores, restaurants, museums or other people's homes, and especially if you tour alone, definitely get a good locking system.
Investing in a high quality bicycle lock is never a bad idea. U-lock in combination with a wire cable can be a bit heavy but also a very safe solution. Depending on how you travel, decide on how to theft-proof your bike. If you know in advance that you will be leaving your bicycle in front of stores, restaurants, museums or other people's homes, and especially if you tour alone, definitely get a good locking system. If you rarely leave your bike unattended, you can obtain a simpler and lighter cable lock. But if you are traveling in a group and do not plan on leaving your bike unattended, you do not need a lock.
If you tour without a lock, try to keep your bike in sight at all times (ex: if you're in a coffee shop, sit in a place where you can see it). A small trick that prevents your bike getting quickly snatched is to take the front wheel off and bring it with you.
2. Bicycle components and accessories
Even though it all depends on experience, budget and personal preferences, here you can read about cycling comfort and a bit about basic components, written from experience but without professional technical terminology or explanations. For further information, please consult the Internet.
An ideal bicycle does not exist. It's all a matter of personal preference, your budget and the trip you wish to make. Keep in mind that expensive and technically complicated equipment is often better, but it also reduces the possibilities of doing fast and easy repairs. In some corners of the world you might not even be able to buy a new high-tech component. For example, if you are about to spend a lot of time cycling in Central Asia, it is best to take a good and sturdy albeit basic bike (for instance, standard diameter wheels and v-brakes).
It is very important to be comfortable on your bicycle. Once they start touring, people do usually need time to adjust to the new physical strain. Often, an even harder task is honing the ability of their buttocks to endure the long hours spent on the seat. So get your bottom used to your seat, it is very important! Unfortunately, there isn't such a thing as the universally most comfortable seat. There are many different types of both buttocks and seats and you have to find the one that suits you. Many cyclists will say that harder seats are better, some will recommend covers with gel or shorts with pads, but honestly – there is no one right answer. From my experience, I think it is more or less a matter of luck. Some people can adjust to anything while some are not as lucky and despite having excellent physical condition they cannot tour very long because their buttocks are aching too much.
Each body is special and requires a considerable amount of experimentation and adjustments until you find what is best for you.
Adjustments on the bike are also based on one's individual needs and preferences. Forget the strict worshipping of prescribed norms by bicycle salesman. Each body is special and requires a considerable amount of experimentation and adjustments until you find what is best for you. The one important thing is to have a well sized frame, not too big and not too small. This depends on your height and you can read all about it on the Internet, or consult with people in your local bicycle store.
2.2. Bicycle components
IRON or ALUMINIUM frame, the eternal dilemma! Aluminum is lighter. Iron is harder. For shorter journeys I would recommend aluminum or carbon if you have it (but if you own a carbon bike, you surely know all this and much more). For longer trips most cyclists would recommend a good iron frame (good iron frames are not that heavy). Iron is firmer and less likely to get a dent, but what is most important – it is much more easily repaired. Aluminum is possible to weld, which requires special machines and skills. An iron frame can be fixed wherever you are.
M or F frame - if you have a choice and if you do not plan to tour wearing dresses and skirts (which is why female frames were invented) it is recommended for persons of both sexes to take a bike with a male frame. Of course you can encircle the world with a female frame, but keep in mind that due to the geometry, male frame is slightly firmer, and usually you get more space for bottle carriers that are fixed to the frame tube.
Whatever the size of wheels you choose, if you embark on a long journey it is definitely worth investing in high quality ones since they carry both you and all of your belongings.
WHEEL SIZE depends on the type and length of your trip. Bigger wheels mean that in the highest speed you can go faster than with smaller ones. Accordingly, with smaller wheels you can go easier in the lowest speed. Personally I feel it is more important to have the lowest instead of highest speed, but if you're into racing and your passion is to go as fast as possible you will surely go for the larger wheels. A piece of advice - if you get lost in areas such as Central Asia (for a considerable amount of time), it is recommended that you have the most universal 26" wheel because you can more easily repair or replace it. This also applies to the purchase of new inner tube or new tires; the more standard they are, the easier it will be to fix them. Whatever the size of wheels you choose, if you embark on a long journey it is definitely worth investing in high quality ones since they carry both you and all your belongings. If one of your spokes brakes, a good wheel will survive until the repair whereas a bad wheel will probably lose several other spokes. But it also depends on the alignment of the wheels and whether your spokes are of the same length and thickness or not. This is a separate topic that will not be discussed here. A good wheel builder is something like a good musician; wheel making is an art of its own. Of course, wheels today are mainly made by machines but the ones of highest quality are assembled by hand.
TIRES PROFILE – having good tires is very important! Depending on whether you will be riding solely on paved roads or on numerous forest paths, consider whether you want tires with better grip or those that glide faster down the road. There are various hybrid forms designed for cycling tourism. The most famous brand among bicycle touring freaks is Schwalbe. From personal experience I can say they are right. My Schwalbe tires are marvelous, very thick and therefore somewhat heavier; their high quality is cost-effective as I do not have to constantly patch up or change the inner tubes (not a single flat tire in over 3000 km trip). And there certainly are other amazing brands out there! Specialized tires are important for resilience and puncture resistance.
SHOCK ABSORBERS - for the purpose of bicycle touring most people will recommend getting a fork without the shock absorbers. Mountain bikes have become very popular amongst commuting or city recreation bikers, which is silly for they cycle on paved roads. A bike without front suspension is firmer, the fork weights less, it is easier to maintain and gives you more freedom to transport things with a front carrier. On the other hand, some people prefer to tour on bicycles with front suspension because it gives higher comfort to the wrists. If you like it, go for it. However, don't even think about full suspension bicycles unless you plan to tour downhill in forest paths.
NUMBER OF GEARS - it depends on your bike and what you're used to. It is more comfortable to drive with a larger number of gears but keep in mind that when many, they often repeat. Again, it all depends on what you prefer. It is advisable to have a 3 * 9, but riding is also comfortable with less.
The quality is reflected in the duration of the brakes and their ability to brake (...)
BRAKES – when we speak about brakes it usually comes down to a choice between V-brakes or disc brakes. V-brakes are more universal: you will find new brake pads in the entire world, they are easier to adjust and repair. Mechanical disc brakes are faster and they are easily adjustable. Hydraulic disc brakes are mighty good for braking but I wouldn't personally recommend them for bicycle touring because of their complicated mechanism which is not easy to fix unless you are an expert. As for V-brakes, several kinds exist and my personal favorite is the one where you don't need to change the whole brake pad but only the black layer that wears off.
The quality is reflected in the duration of the brakes and their ability to brake, but sooner or later you will need to change the worn out part. This is very important - a worn out brake pad will begin to eat away the rim. Therefore, it is good to have spare brake pads at all times and keep in mind that in heavy rain pads melt like sugar!
PEDALS – having standard pedals is enough yet many will recommend you to get the ones that you put on like slippers or physically attach to with special shoes. Thus, the leg muscles are used more evenly which is healthier but also a bit harder to adjust. Ask a specialist or Google to tell you more about it.
As for all kinds of smart gadgets, in today's market there are millions of GPS's, smart phones and the like. They can be very useful but can also send you on goat paths that do not go well with your hybrid tires and the lack of front suspension.
If you decide to bring such a device, remember that it should be charged. If you're not interested in spending time in coffee shops leeching on electricity, one of the more expensive but more pleasant solutions is an internal dynamo which is located in the hub of your wheel. Another option is to purchase a solar cell that can be attached to the bike. Both function on the principle of having a battery that gets charged by swallowing variable energy as input (your pedaling or the sun), and once full gives you a nice and constant energy flow as output.
2.4. Cycling Clothing
Of course you can go around the world wearing your everyday clothes on a bicycle. It's all a matter of choice, as well as a matter of the season and the nature of your trip.
For longer and serious trips, long or short, it is essential that you have at least good insulation from rain. That means a rain jacket and rain trousers or a good poncho. Waterproof shoe covers can come in handy as well. Also, it is good to have a tight-fitting thermal layer of clothing for cold temperatures because one such layer is ridiculously good at keeping the heat you generate by physical activity. Even in winter, two layers can be sufficient while in motion, one thermal (with the ability to channel out the sweat) and one that protects you from the elements of rain and wind. In winter you will need long trousers, but in a warmer climate it is sufficient to have a pair of shorts, and if necessary, wear a pair of thermal underpants beneath.
It is always good to have gloves. Besides guarding your skin from the effects of holding the steer for hours, gloves give you an extra level of freedom in how you hold the steer by increasing your grip. For winter driving definitely keep at least two pairs of gloves, in case one gets wet (not necessarily specialized for cycling).
3. Life on the road
Just like any other type of traveling, bicycle touring can be anywhere in the continuum of free and costly. You can read much more about cheap travels in our Handbook.
3.1. Water, food and shelter
It is essential to always have enough water. Therefore, it is very useful to have two carriers for bottles, the type that can be slightly bent to fit any common bottle size. You can even fit three water holders (one on the bottom of the lower frame tube).
Speaking about food, consider whether you need a camping stove. If you do decide to bring it, a small trick that makes life easier is that rice and/or fuel can be stored in plastic bottles and carried in one of your bottle holders.
The third important thing is, of course, sleeping. It is recommended that you sign-up on this page: WarmShowers, an internet community for hospitality exchange exclusively among people who do long distance bicycle tours. There is also the rest of similar hospitality exchange sites (CouchSurfing, BeWelcome, HospitalityClub and TrustRoots), but WarmShowers is the best because other cyclists understand what it feels like to spend days and days on two wheels. Also, Facebook has a group WarmShowers where you can immediately get answers to your touring related questions, or look for cycling companions.
Long distance bicycle touring usually goes hand in hand with its good friend - camping. If you have camping gear you are relieved of the stress of finding a hostel or a host via the internet every day, which is often not even possible. If something goes wrong and you get stuck, it's nice to have your home with you. While cycling, is very easy to find the perfect (and possibly hidden) camping places.
Touring without camping equipment is also a viable option, which means that you have fewer things, are faster and probably interested in covering as many kilometers a day as you physically can, which gives you more chance to plan your days and make sure you have a safe place to spend the night.
It's always nice to have someone for sharing the moments of joy with, or helping each other out.
The more the merrier. It's always nice to have someone for sharing the moments of joy with or helping each other out. Of course, solo bicycle touring has many advantages; you follow your own pace on your own terms and you have a lot of time with yourself, your bicycle and thoughts. It can be a very rich intimate experience.
If you decide to travel in a group, it is good to keep track of a few details. In case of severe frontal wind, a lot of energy can be saved by cycling in tight linear formation. The first person breaks the wind barrier, the second has it much easier, the third cycles as if there was almost no wind, etc. Rotate, of course. In this scenario it is important that you maintain good communication. Create your own signaling for various issues that may arise. The ones in front should provide information about holes and similar obstacles on the road, cars that suddenly join the traffic and their number. The one in the back can warn others about the traffic approaching from behind.
If you are traveling in large groups it is recommended that someone with good orientation skills, a GPS or a map stays at the front of the group. Someone with experience in repairing breakdowns goes at the end. Also, it is useful that people at the end of group have the spare parts and tools. (The logic is simple: if someone is forced to stop, help is about to come his way and it is not already somewhere far ahead.)
3.3. Route planning
When planning your trip, bear in mind that countries have different laws regarding cycling, accessibility to different roads, obligatory equipment and so on. In most countries you are not allowed to cycle on the highway, but sometimes there is no other way (no need to worry, though, if that is the case the locals and the authorities know it as well.) It's good to know which roads are very busy and which are not.
At the same time, do not be afraid to share the road with cars, as it's rather limiting to religiously stick only to cycling paths.
In some countries, you will find a lot of cycling paths; roads paved specifically for bikes. Such roads are usually better, taking you through some romantic viewpoints, but at the same time they are usually longer than regular roads. One example is EV6 River trail which starts in Saint Nazaire in France, follows the Loire river, then the river Saone, continues along the Rhine river and then follows the Danube all the way to the Black Sea. Before you go to the desired country, thoroughly study whether there are any bicycle roads and where they are if you decide to take them. Personally I would recommend everyone to drive on one of these roads: it is a nice rest from the noise, cars and other traffic. At the same time, do not be afraid to share the road with cars as it's rather limiting to religiously stick only to cycling paths.
In following routes, GPS greatly helps but you can go even without the smart devices. Some travel with paper maps, which can be bought in local stores or gas stations or printed from the Internet. There are many sites that offer cycling routes or roads that are good for bicycles. There are also numerous apps for the same thing – you may want to inquire about them on your own since it's such an extensive subject. Maps can also be photographed by a simple digital camera. Take pictures of either the paper maps or ones on the Internet, zoom in and inspect it on the screen. Delete. Take new pictures later on.
3.4. Cycling related pains
It is always good to know what certain pains indicate. Roughly, if your knee hurts at the front, it usually means that your seat is too low. If your knee hurts at the sides, probably your feet are too high or too close to the center of the bike. If it hurts from the back, the seat is probably too high. If your coccyx hurts, it could also mean that the seat is too high, or that it is in the improper distance from your steering wheel. If your back hurts, try to experiment with the length between the seat and the steer - you can move the seat forward or backwards, but to change the angle of the steer you need to get the kind that allows that.
Do not forget, even if you are comfortable and know your perfect adjustments – it is not natural to cycle for hours, days, and weeks... Simply due to fatigue you will have some pain, most often in the knees or the back. Therefore, it is recommended not to turn into a complete cycle maniac and allow your body enough rest, and enough days off. And take my word for it: walking will at times feel extremely relaxing and even exotic!
3.5. Hitchhiking with a bicycle
Just take the front wheel and the panniers off, make a nice sign, stop at a convenient place and thumb a ride!
Hitchhiking with the bike may sound impossible but it is more than doable! Just take the front wheel and the panniers off, make a nice sign, stop at a convenient place and thumb a ride! You can also make a sign (pick me up in the local language) and attach it to your back while cycling along the road. Basically only the cars with enough space will stop, and most people tend to be extremely helpful towards cyclists. A question of trust arises, in a good way. Soiled by stupid movies and misconceptions, hitchhikers are often viewed as dodgy junkies, bums and criminals. Or at least hippies. But cyclists? Everybody trusts a cyclist!