The bicycle is checked, the panniers are packed and the road beckons. It may be a couple of days’ escape on quiet back roads, or it may be a slightly longer haul, such as the back way from Melbourne to Sydney, or perhaps the cyclist’s mecca, the Nullarbor Plain. Whether you are a seasoned tourer or a first-timer, let me offer some tips with a difference – assuming the basics have been covered, such as bicycle roadworthiness and letting someone know you are off.
1. Keep it simple. You don’t need the latest, fancy tourer with expensive running gear. If you do set out on one, inevitably you will find that a crucial, intricate part will break down in the middle of nowhere and that it requires a highly specialised tool and a university degree to fix it. Once, when planning a long haul over a few weeks, I walked into my local bike shop with a fistful of cash. Thinking that my 20-year old bicycle was not up to the task, I was all set to buy the latest pair of touring two-wheels on offer. But out from the workshop came Margaret, who had set the world record for Sydney-to-Melbourne back in 1969. She took one look at my ancient bike and said, ‘that’ll make it, no trouble’. In fact, she pointed out, it was probably better built than anything I could buy now. I walked out, cash in hand, and hit the road with the old bike.
2. If you are in another country, buy second-hand. Do not worry about carting your bicycle half-way around the world to ride. It is a massive hassle getting a bike on a plane, especially with airlines becoming ever fussier about such bulky items and almost bankrupting you in the process. Find a reputable second-hand bike shop and buy one. You can sell it when you leave. I know people who have ridden across Europe on a second-hand bicycle that cost $300, with absolutely no trouble.
3. Steel is better than aluminium. Why? Steel absorbs the inevitable bumps you will meet on the way, flexing and providing a more comfortable ride. Notice the way aluminium (or indeed other compound frames) often have shock absorbers in the seat or perhaps on the forks. They are there to soften a harsh ride. And steel can easily be welded in a farm shed should you be out in the sticks and find a crack in your frame. Isn’t steel heavier? Slightly, but by the time you add the running gear, racks, panniers, water bottles and so on, it makes little difference
4. Travel light. This one is obvious, but usually forgotten. Even if you are setting out with camping gear and winter gear, everything should still fit in two rear panniers. One change of clothes, tent, sleeping gear, food, cooking and eating utensils, tools and spare parts, even a book, can easily be loaded that way. Staying in accommodation? All you need is a small bag strapped onto the back rack.
5. Mudguards. I may be old-fashioned, but the cost-saving move (by manufacturers) not to include mudguards on modern bicycles is a crime. They are simple but wonderful devices. Wait until the first downpour or muddy track, and the spray of mud in your face or in a line up your back will become a complete nuisance. Panniers covered in road grit are no fun either.
6. That extraneous item. Every touring cyclist has at least one unnecessary item they bring along. I have seen riders with a complex solar recharging unit sitting atop the rear panniers, a fold-out stool, a laptop, a mosquito net for morning and afternoon tea … My own indulgence is a book. Desperately, I try to restrict it to one book, but I never get through even that one.
7. Rear cluster wrench. That said, one or two items are a must. One is a rear-cluster wrench. If you are going to pop a spoke, then it will be on your rear wheel on the cluster side. The reason is that those spokes are under most stress. They are on the drive (chain) side, and they carry the panniers and most of your weight. A rear cluster wrench will enable to you to remove the cluster and replace the spoke.
8. Carry a cigarette lighter. Another must-take item is a cigarette lighter, not so much for the smoke you may wish to have over a beer upon meeting another rider, but for a fire in the evening. Or during the day, for that matter, should you wish to boil a billy, as I like to do on a break.
9. Ride within yourself. Again, this may seem obvious, but on a tour you need to be able to get back on the bike the next day. 150 km may feel like a real buzz, but the next day won’t. About 80km is a target than can easily be achieved without wearing you out over the long haul. More than that and carbohydrate depletion sets in. Plus, it gives you time for either a leisurely morning before departure or a quiet afternoon on arrival. Time to read, wash some clothes, enjoy a beer, cook some food, ponder the universe over a campfire.
10. Take your time. You would not be on a bicycle if you were in a hurry. And it is neither a race nor an event to set the world record for cycling around Australia, or China or Europe. Instead of looking constantly at the speedo (which is really not a necessary item at all), you can enjoy the world slowly passing by.