Bicycle Touring: Is it for you? Part II

This two-part article on bicycle touring was written back in the 90s when I made several bike excursions with my wife Nancy (Ireland, Ecuador, Mexico and the California coast) and one solo trip to Las Vegas. While the technology has evolved somewhat, my philosophy on bicycle touring has not so the article below should suffer only minor edits from the original.

Multi-Day Supported Tours

One of the most popular examples of multi-day supported touring fun is RAGBRAI in Iowa. Each July the Des Moines Register sponsors the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) and it is always seven days of riding that starts at the Missouri river (Western border) and ends at the Mississippi river (Eastern border), crossing the state. It can be anywhere from 450 to 500 miles with options for more. Since there are 8,000 to 10,000 riders, this is not a ride for hermits or people intimidated by crowds. Just finding your duffel bag among several thousand others can be a challenging experience and you must do that at the end of each day’s ride. It is also not a ride for any weak-willed person on a strict diet. RAGBRAI draws enterprising citizens and community groups from near and far to sell anything edible along the route. Seldom is a rider out of sight of at least one card table piled with fruit and homemade baked goods (at reasonable prices) and in the towns the streets are often lined with vendors.

Many states have week-long cross-state rides though none are quite as big as Iowa’s. In Texas, the distance would be a too challenging for most. Instead, we have had various iterations of multi-day tours such as the now defunct Texas Chainring Challenge loop ride in East Texas. That tour has devolved into a four-day event from a single town (Clarksville, TX) called The Gateway to Texas Get*A*Way near the Red River and Oklahoma.

Probably the shortest ride that bears any real resemblance to touring is the two-day MS-150 pledge ride for Multiple Sclerosis. Held around the country, these rides are usually 150 to 175 miles in length and include an overnight encampment with supper and breakfast provided. The annual Houston to Austin ride, in Texas, involves six-to-eight thousand cyclists.
The on-bike requirements of multi-day sagged touring aren’t much different from the one-day affair. There are sag vehicles to handle real problems, and there are rest stops with fruit and drink. A rack bag or handlebar bag comes in handy, though, since these rides frequently feature cafe lunch stops and quaint stores in little towns or even a “swim call” at a stream crossing or lake along the way. There may be need to carry a wallet, purse, jacket or emergency energy food on one of these rides and since the pace is usually more leisurely than a century ride, cameras get a lot more exercise, too.

These multi-day “going someplace” tours usually allow each rider one duffel bag of camp equipment. Besides enough clothing for the duration, your bag should include: a tent and ground cloth (unless the camping is indoors), a tarp for covering one’s bicycle (always a nice touch), a folding camp stool or chair (for those who don’t like sitting on the ground), something to read (though there’s never any time to read it), a notebook or tablet for journal entries (or mileage figures for the more retentive) and any other items one might need over the next several days. Remember, of course, that the cyclist doesn’t carry this bag, the truck does.

All the rider must do is carry the bag to and from the truck each day. Hint: remove the cycle computer and any other fragile items from your handlebars and balance your duffel bag on your bike to walk it to and from the truck. Sagged tours seldom go on for much more than a week unless they are of the very expensive variety, and the larger the group, the less flexible the schedule. Anyone wanting to make an extended stop to smell the roses, rest an extra day in an interesting town, or try a different route, needs a different kind of touring, the unsupported kind.

The Real Thing: Unsupported Touring

Unsupported or, “self contained,” touring is the purist’s answer to the motorhome vacation, addressing both the call of the open road and a need for self-sufficiency. Unsupported touring really is … well, unsupported! There are no rest stop tables full of bananas and water jugs, no truckload of baggage waiting at the next overnight town, no meal plan, not so much as a familiar directional sign on the road shoulder or colored arrow painted on the asphalt. Unsupported tourists are truly out there on their own.

Even here, self-sufficiency can take on varied meanings. There are the minimalists — “credit card tourists” who carry only the bare essentials (one change of clothes), staying in motels or B&Bs and washing out their riding shorts and jerseys each night. They travel light and often ride their racing bikes. At the other extreme are those of us who drag along tents, cooking gear, even the laptop computer, often pedaling a mound of gear so huge that special skills are required for getting on and off the bicycle.

One of the best-known touring organizations in this country is the Adventure Cycling Association (formerly Bikecentennial) located in Missoula, Montana. Each year ACA organizes several different tours traversing the United States and some going up into Canada. The tours consist of ten or more riders with a common itinerary and route. The assigned (and trained) leader keeps the food money and helps organize the chore rituals along the way. Riders move at their own speeds and try to “meet up” at the planned campsites where a limited democracy may determine that it’s a “pizza night” instead of a cooking night. Meals and the route maps are most of the “organization” for these cyclists who may be traveling together for as long as three months (depending on the route). Imagine riding coast-to-coast without a support vehicle. That’s freedom.

Of course the unspoken creed of the fully-loaded bicycle tourist is, “We don’t SAG it, we bag it, or we leave it at home.” With no SAG support, this kind of touring takes a lot more gear and a lot more thought in the planning. There are racks for panniers front and rear (and/or a trailer), tents and sleeping bags, a broader selection of tools and a whole list of little things that vary from rider to rider. Most of the selections will be compromises between weight and function such as combination “multi-tools” instead of individual wrenches. Bicycle-specific camping equipment is very light and usually expensive.

Cost, like weight, can become a limiting factor. To avoid unnecessary compromises and to ensure quality, most serious tourists don’t buy everything at once, but accumulate their various necessities as they define the need and resources for them. Needs change with understanding, and understanding comes with experience. The slow approach will probably result in more reasonable decisions.

Fully packed with four panniers, a tent, sleeping bag and pad, and various utensils, any bicycle is going to look formidable. The amazing thing is that a touring rig too heavy for the rider to lift onto a porch step can be pedaled all day by that same rider. Looking back along the route, or especially looking down the mountain, it is truly amazing what can be accomplished with mere human power.

The last, but not least, consideration when selecting equipment for self-contained, unsupported touring, is the “where” of your tour. If you are going to exotic lands, faraway places with unknowns over every mountain, choose the strongest, most durable, easiest to repair, most common to replace, equipment you can. But that’s part of the next article-choosing the right bike and the right options for your kind of touring.

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3 Responses to “Bicycle Touring: Is it for you? Part II”

  1. Even better than part I.
    Makes me want to go back to Netherlands and do a bike and boat tour. No truck, your hotel floats to the next town!

  2. Cannot wait to see what else you come up with, i really enjoyed it!