Many people ask me how I manage to ride my bike for days at a time. Sometimes it is easy, and sometimes it is really hard. On a recent trip in July 2018, which I’ll be referring to as the shocker, it was atrociously difficult. For a lot of 2014 I was living off a bike and things were glorious. Looking back at some of the different trips I have done has given me the opportunity to reflect on what is important and what can cause difficulties during extended trips.
Tip #1: Ride a Comfortable Bike
If you want to ride your bike for any extended amount of time you need to be comfortable sitting on it. It’s almost so obvious it doesn’t need to be mentioned but it’s so important that it can’t not be. No matter what kind of ride you are doing, on road, off-road, multiday, audax or even riding a custom Quadyak across North America you need to feel comfortable in the saddle. Play with the position of your seat and handlebars, ride a few different bikes or watch a YouTube tutorial on how to bike fit (like this one!). If you have the coin, a professional bike fit is a great way to achieve the ideal geometry and the accompanying ease. Feeling comfortable won’t only make it possible to spend more time riding, but it will reduce the chance of strains and injuries and it will take less time to recover after rides. Backpacks are usually a bad idea, but everyone has used one from time to time. If you are going to use one try to make it as comfortable and lightweight as possible.
For my miserable July ride I took my lightweight road bike that typically gets ridden around the city. It rarely goes further than 100km at a time, and is usually ridden unladen without a backpack. It moves fast on slick tyres and is a pleasure to ride. However it is extremely uncomfortable to ride for days on end as the seat is hard as a board and the aerodynamic riding position puts substantial strain on my lower back over time, particularly while wearing a backpack. Because the bike was uncomfortable I had to get off it regularly (~every 45 mins) to stretch, remove the backpack and let blood return to my nether regions.
On the flip-side, my fat bike has an upright riding position that is extremely comfortable to be in, with or without a backpack. It also has a padded seat which gives plenty of cushioning to my behind. In hindsight I think I would have ridden further and faster using this bike on the July trip. Even if the fat bike is slower in a head to head race the fact I can comfortably sit and ride it for a couple of hours at a time would have made a massive difference.
When considering comfort another thing to be wary of on longer rides is your hands! Have a variety of different positions for your hands, whether by using drop bars, bar ends, aero bars or extended grips. Once you’ve got that variety, don’t mess it up by haphazardly placing gear bags all over your handlebars so that only some of the grips are usable. This was another mistake I made on the shocker.
In addition to your hands, take care of your butt. It’s natural to get a sore butt, particularly if you’re not used to riding long distances, but wear some padding and take breaks if it is getting sore to let the blood flow back. Consider adjusting the seat position slightly if there are undue strains.
The easiest way to get an understanding of what kind of riding position and adjustments are for you is to ride your bike, whatever bike you have now, and feel it out. A lot of people hold off on cycle touring until they get a touring bike, but they can cost thousands of dollars so there is something to be said for riding the bike you have now and perhaps upgrading down the line if you’re enjoying yourself.
Tip #2: Be Power Smart
I am not talking about putting your phone on airplane mode, though it’s never a bad idea, I am talking about YOUR power.
When you jump on a bike it’s natural to start cranking away and get up to a decent speed quickly. It is exhilarating and awesome, but it is isn’t great for your body or smart on longer rides. This is even more true when the bike is heavier because of luggage or you are riding up hills.
The trick to being power smart is to focus on cadence and start in easy gears. Cadence refers to the rate of pedaling, and it is usually better to ride mid-high cadence and low resistance. Low resistance being the easy gears, the ones where the pedals spin around without much effort. Start the day, or any riding session, with the feeling of pedals effortlessly turning underneath you. This is important for many reasons.
The first thing to take into account is the difference between a resting and an active heart beat. At rest your heartbeat may be around 60bpm, while in full activity mode it could get up to 180bpm. More blood being pumped to your muscles means there is more oxygen for aerobic respiration. Attempting to get the same levels of power out of your legs that they are capable of at that higher heart rate when you are just starting will force your muscles into anaerobic respiration which creates lactic acid that causes muscle pain and fatigue. You don’t want pain if you are going to be riding for days on end, refer to tip #1 for more information.
Another thing to take into account is that if you are spinning in easy gears, it is much easier to spin all day. Focus on changing gears to keep the pedaling as easy as possible as the terrain changes. Don’t worry about your actual ground speed or whether you look cool. At no point do you want to be crunching or working extremely hard for each and every pedal, you will tire your muscles out in a hurry and be spent for the day.
If you make sure that the first half an hour of your ride is spent riding in a relaxed manner that isn’t causing you to rasp for breath or feel pain in your legs you will be able to gradually step it up from there as the day progresses. If you ride as hard as you physically can for the first half an hour you will probably have trouble making it to the next day.
Tip #3: Don’t Neglect Your Body off the Bike
This horror story comes from the shocker. I wanted to save on weight and the space my luggage occupied on the bike so I skipped the tent and the hammock. All I took was my glorified bin liner of a $35 bivvy, a 3/4 mat and a sleeping bag. It was dropping to -2C and the like every night of the ride, and I was always exposed to the outside air, even if only by a tiny hole. If I set it up nicely and then fell asleep and rolled over the hole would move and cold air would come spilling in like shoppers at Chadstone on boxing day. I woke each night I was outside, and I woke up freezing cold. One night I was scared I was getting hypothermia in my feet because their entirety was aching. For what it’s worth the insulated mat, called the Two Track from Big Agnes, was awesome. It actually felt warm. Otherwise my system sucked, whether I was wearing all the clothes or none of them. I needed a warmer sleeping bag and the extra layer of air insulation that a tent would have provided wouldn’t have gone astray. But the reality was that I ended up being awake, shivering, surviving, trying to warm up my bits and keep the cold air out while I should have been sleeping and recovering.
When you are riding multiple days back to back you need to recover in between. You need to eat lots of food, including an increased protein load to help repair and rebuild your hard working muscles. You need to drink lots of water, particularly when you have finished riding, to help cleanse your body of toxins it can produce to keep working at high intensity. Sleep is so important to let your body prepare for the next day. If you have any niggling physical pains or muscular aches try to stretch them out and take care of them before you sleep.
The last thing you want is for the morning to come around and you to realise you still haven’t actually slept. Riding will make you tired and it should be easy to sleep if you have a comfortable sleeping system. While it’s certainly okay to take rest days, and I wholeheartedly recommend at least one a week if you are going on an extended tour, it can get annoying to sleep in every day and only have half the daylight hours for moving. Which is what happened in the shocker because I needed some rest and I wasn’t getting it when it was too cold.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many people find a tent creates a good feeling of safety and a barrier to insects and animals which makes it easier for them to fall asleep than sleeping in a hammock or bivvy.
Tip #4: Listen to Your Body and Ride Your Way
The trouble with an activity like bikepacking is that once you start it can be hard to stop. You begin having incredible life affirming experiences and travelling awesome routes and before long you are telling all your friends how they need to try it. Eventually it will be impossible for them to resist and they will decide to come with you, but by that time your capacity in terms of distance, physical pain and mental aptitude will have increased immensely and your friends will have trouble keeping up with you. That means they’re probably going to start ignoring tip #2, when they may not have properly addressed tip #1 and so when it finally does come time for embracing tip #3 they’re going to be more inclined to collapse in a heap. Don’t lead your mates to their ruin on their first bikepacking trip (read this article to help prepare for it). Make sure you teach them about tip #4, and know that it’s one of the main reasons I still enjoy riding by myself and regularly suggest that new riders should ride together or by themselves.
Your body will tell you what it wants when you learn how to listen to it. Keep drinking water all day, keep eating snacks. Get off the bike when you’re starting to hurt. Catch your breath when you are losing it. There are no rules, there is you and your bike, it’s up to you to figure out how it all balances out. Don’t assume that you can ride a certain distance any day, just take it as it comes. If your body starts crashing or ‘bonking’ as folks say, get off the bike and eat some sugar! Drink a sports drink, eat a sandwich.
If and when you are riding with mates, don’t push them beyond their limits. If they don’t know what their limits are, don’t assume that you do. If you are much fitter than your companions and they know it, don’t make them work to your level. Let them find their own rhythm and if you must ride off at yours, don’t get antsy to get going again as soon as they catch up – let them rest too.
The important thing about cycle touring is having fun, so do it the way that seems the most fun to you.
Tip #5: Talk to Other People
If you’re having issues with your bike or want to push it to the next level, talk to the endurance cycling people who inspire you about their tips and tricks for maintaining intensity over an extended period. Feel free to shoot me an email and ask further questions, as I’m sure I’ve missed something here.