Read the Introduction and Chapter One below. Or, download them in PDF here.
CYCLE TOURING FOR BEGINNERS
Copyright © Marie Madigan 2015
I passionately believe that adventures are under our noses, wherever we live. I equally passionately believe that riding a bike is one of the loveliest ways of getting around. My home is in Wales now and if I wanted I could ride for a lifetime just in Britain and Ireland and still find new places to explore. I can’t believe my luck that I was born here, that I continue to live here, and that I have all this country under my nose.
This applies wherever you live: fifteen miles down the road, if you go there by bicycle and stay overnight, will give a sense of newness and discovery. I think it’s a great shame that someone might not try cycle touring because they think that:
- you can’t do it unless you’re really fit and have a year off, and
- you can’t have an adventure just by going out of your front door and riding down the road to familiar places.
I wrote this book because there are many fine books and websites on cycle touring out there. But most of them talk about ‘tour’ as in ‘expedition’. Across Europe. Trans-Saharan. Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.
My aim is to show you that cycle touring is a wonderful way to see the world, both nearby and faraway. To show you that you don’t have to plan a monster tour to enjoy touring by bicycle. One night, one week, one month, one year: they are all cycle tours. The scale is up to you. I wrote this book to encourage you to try it for yourself as soon as possible, and to help you to avoid making some of the mistakes I’ve made.
With a bike, a few pieces of equipment and a spirit of curiosity, you can have an adventure riding from your place of work to your home. You can ride to a bed-and-breakfast or campsite in your local area, taking in that tea-shop that you’ve driven past for years. You can spend the night in a town or village you know only slightly, explore it, and ride home the next day by roads you’d normally never travel along in your car. You can discover what’s under your nose, or what’s on the other side of the country. If the inclination strikes you and you like starting big, of course you can start with a three-month ride around Europe, or across North America. Cycle touring is wonderful, the most magical way of seeing the world around you, and anyone can do it. It doesn’t have to be a ten-week ride. That’s just a ride. They’re all just rides. You can start one.
Looking down at your legs and then back at where you’ve just come from and thinking, ‘We did that. You and me, Legs,’ is one of the most ridiculously simple and satisfying things in life.
Anyone can do it. Anyone.
All you need is a bicycle.
Chapter One – Is This Book For You?
This book is aimed mainly at people who may be thinking about cycle touring for the first time, but it will also be of use if you’ve already been on a few trips and are planning a more adventurous tour. It will focus on things to consider when planning a trip of any length, from the point of view of someone who’s gradually learnt how not to make life harder for herself over seven years of touring.
There are many companies now who will organise a cycle tour for you, from planning the route to carrying your luggage on for you at night. Some of them will set up food stations for you during the day, so you only need to carry a little food on the bike. These are particularly popular in the stunningly lovely Pyrenean and Alpine mountains that feature in the Tour de France every year. Often these companies describe themselves as cyclo-touring companies rather than cycle touring; that little e-to-o substitution makes it clear that it is the sporting aspect that is emphasised, rather than the touring aspect.
In contrast to cyclo-tourers, cycle tourers are almost always independent, valuing the freedom to change their minds, to ride faster or slower as landscape or weather or mood dictates. They carry their own baggage, make up their own routes and sort out their own food.
In case you are getting nervous, let me reassure you that you don’t have to be on a shoe-string budget to enjoy an independent cycle tour. You can eat and stay in the best accommodation your chosen destination or route has to offer if that’s what you fancy. Credit card or tiny tent – both are independent and highly rewarding. Cycle touring isn’t about punishing yourself, it’s about seeing the world, whether near or far, from the back of your bike. If the thought of doing without your luxuries is already putting you off, take them with you! I certainly don’t do without mine. Book into those luxury hotels if you want to.
Over the years I’ve met cycle tourers in many forms, all riding with their own quests, whether that’s a weekend ride around the coast of an island or a multi-week trip. I’ve had my hastily formed pre-conceptions overturned by enormous plump men riding slowly but unstoppably up Pyrenean inclines; by slim and flinty-eyed lycra-clad young men who turned out to be unexpectedly rhapsodic about the beauties of the countryside; by relaxed-looking baggy-trousered sorts who’ve pinned me into a corner to recite their trip log-book at me. (‘Two hundred kilometres in two days – how many k’s do you do in a day?’)
Couples from their twenties to their seventies. Families. Lone women linking the landmarks of Spain in a steady plod. Groups of friends following the route of the Tour de France.
If they can do it, you can.
If I can do it, you can.
For seven years I’ve made all the mistakes – eaten the wrong food on the bike, or not enough, carried too much, carried too little – actually no, that’s a lie, I’ve never carried too little. But I’ve forgotten to stretch, failed to prepare properly, neglected to bring gloves to Scottish islands, left maps at home, and I’ve survived. And in the process I’ve gradually learned how to make things a little easier for myself.
An hour and a half into my first cycle tour I wobbled into a hedge half way up a hill and wondered what the hell I was doing. Four days later I’d crossed northern England from coast to coast, on a bike I now know was set up for someone half my height with thighs twice as long as mine. I hadn’t been wearing padded shorts so I was, well, a bit sore. But I was ecstatic. I’d crossed the country, sea to sea, just me, my bike and my legs.
Since then my partner Adi and I have ridden extensively in northern England, Scotland’s highlands and islands, Wales, Ireland and France, with forays into Italy and Spain. We’ve ridden across Anglesey for a night on the west coast and ridden back the next day; we’ve twice cycled through France for two months. I can’t imagine going on holiday without a bike now. I can scarcely imagine a holiday that isn’t a cycle tour.
I want to persuade you to try cycle touring, to experience that same thrill of discovering the world around you by bicycle that I’ve discovered over the last seven years, armed with advice to help you to avoid making the mistakes I’ve made.
Green, active, as slow or as fast as you like, endowing independence and autonomy, the bicycle is one of the pinnacles of human achievement. Add panniers and it’s a vehicle of exploration as well!
Just in case you’re still not convinced, here are some reasons to try cycle touring.
- You can lock your bike, hide it behind a hedge and take a break from it to go for a walk. When you’re cycle touring, you can explore on foot as well. Two modes for the price of one.
- You can ride as quickly as you need to make that ferry/train/plane, to eat up miles if you’re relishing the physicality, or choose to ride slowly enough to really take in your surroundings: lizards scuttling at the side of the road, interesting ruins in a field. You can feel the shape of the country changing underneath you.
- You’ll get stronger as you do it, in spite of yourself. Unless you’re dreadfully unlucky, it is impossible to end a cycle tour less fit than you were when you started.
- You can eat puddings with impunity. I am a huge fan of tea shops and cakes, but I like to earn those treats. Cycle touring is no-questions-asked credit in the cake equations.
- You’ll experience the kindness of strangers. There’s something about turning up somewhere on a travel-stained, pannier-laden bike that stimulates people’s curiosity and sense of hospitality; before you know it, you are deep in conversation with total strangers. By the same token, it’s easier to ask for help when you need it; people seem predisposed to help you when you are in the sometimes vulnerable position of carrying your worldly goods with you on your bike.
- It turns down the chatter in your mind. Most of us live with a constant, never-ending list of things that we must do – job, cooking, cleaning, civilising children and pets. Cycle touring pares life down to the essentials – reaching shelter and finding food – giving you time to admire your surroundings, enjoy the fresh air and exercise or just to zone out into an almost meditative state where nothing matters but the turning of the pedals.
When it comes down to it, here’s all you really need to start cycle touring:
- A working bicycle
- Waterproof luggage
These alone will get you out the door and on your way. The type of bicycle really doesn’t matter as long as you can reach the pedals and the brakes work. A rucksack, while not ideal, will do for luggage if you have nothing else. And curiosity and will: well, all you need to do is roll out of your house, knowing that you are now under your own steam and in control of your own destiny.
A tourer I met once told me the story that inspired him to try it. At a campsite in Devon one evening he bumped into a man in his fifties who’d saved up his year’s allowance of holidays, borrowed his son’s bike and a mate’s sleeping bag and bivouac sack, strapped a sports bag to the rear rack and set off. He was trying to see how far around Devon and Cornwall he could get in three weeks. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but swap the bivvy sack for a tent or a credit card and it illustrates the main point of this book:
Get a bike. Pick somewhere to go to. Saddle up and start pedalling.
If you are even now looking out the window, itching to grab a map of your area and see how far you could get tonight – excellent! I am delighted. Put this aside, don’t let the feeling fade. Enjoy your ride. Come back to this another time. Tell me how you get on – I’d love to know.
If, on the other hand, you’d like to know more about ways to make the experience as easy and painless as possible, read on.
Copyright © Marie Madigan 2015
END OF EXTRACT
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