For me, long-distance cycling, or bikepacking as it’s often known, means a multi-day event, perhaps covering 50-or-so miles in a day, camping or staying in a hotel or B&B overnight.
Such a timetable leaves plenty of time for sightseeing (something the 100-mile-a-day lads and lasses don’t have…), stopping off at a café or pub for lunch, and generally enjoying being out in the fresh air. It’s about enjoying your bicycle and the act of cycling rather than ticking off a distance whilst obsessing about how long it’s taken you.
It builds on the mini-adventure mindset, but by now you’ll be striding boldly out of your comfort zone in order to embrace the unknown. You’ll be taking calculated risks, having fun, and ditching the car to enable you to see the world from a gentler, slower, and quieter perspective.
Does this sound like something that might appeal? If so, read on!
The perfect bike for long-distance rides
You can tour on any bicycle, but having the right bike does make things a bit easier. However, either a mountain, road, adventure or touring bike will be easily up to the job; Tim Moore rode a small-wheeled shopping cycle all the way from the Arctic Circle to southern Europe, and if he can do 5,600 miles on that, you can manage a couple of hundred miles on your old mountain bike.
Traditional wisdom has it that a steel-framed bike is the way to go, with adherents arguing that steel can be welded almost anywhere. They’re right but then unless you’re exploring the more remote mountain regions of China, you’re unlikely to be more than a taxi-ride away from a cycle shop. It’s your choice, but I ride an alloy-framed bike with carbon-fibre forks and trust that the bike’s designer knew what they were doing when they were calculating the stress it can tolerate and the loadings it will experience.
I’m happy to buy my way out of trouble if there’s a mechanical problem, but the more financially prudent might consider buying an older touring bike with easy-to-repair, tried-and-trusted mechanical components, and a steel frame and forks. Such an approach means you’ll be spending a fraction of the money the rest of us will, too. As an example, a Dawes Galaxy touring bike from the late eighties and early nineties will only cost you a couple of hundred pounds from eBay and can be repaired by a chimpanzee with a hammer if (and the key word here is ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ because they’re as tough as old boots) it ever goes wrong.
Long-distance biking accessories
You’ll need some sort of luggage system to carry clothes, spares, charging cables and all the other accoutrements without which the modern cyclist can’t travel.
I’m a fan of the old-fashioned front and rear luggage racks because they’re cheap, sturdy and can be bought almost anywhere. And while they can be heavy, I think that’s a small price to pay to be able to clip universal panniers on and off easily.
Some prefer a lighter solution, like an extended saddle bag and a handlebar bag. Ortlieb does a rather nice handlebar bag and matching bikepacking seat pack. They aren’t cheap but then Ortlieb does have an unrivalled reputation among the hard-core cycle touring community and quality costs money.
However, I’ve become intrigued by the Salsa Anything Cradle. Designed to be used with any dry bag, its versatility and light weight mean that it’s an idea worth pursuing if innovation and minimalism is your thing.
Rucksacks, by the way, aren’t an ideal solution. While using your old canvas rucksack will save you money, you’ll be carrying the weight too high up - and having a centre of gravity that high will make you and your bike dangerously unstable. If money is an issue, just buy a cheap rear luggage carrier from Halfords and put everything you need to keep dry inside two bin liners; it won’t be pretty but it’ll do the job!
Spares and tools
Remember to take more spare inner tubes (if you use them) than you think you’ll need, along with a small tool kit.
Having said that as I’ve mentioned already, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be travelling too far from civilisation, at least at first, so a debit or credit card and a mobile phone might be the two most essential tools you’re ever likely to carry. (Life as a classic car owner teaches you this, too.)
Saddle sores can be avoided by wearing a decent set of cycling shorts (and yes, you’ll be going commando underneath, your nether regions slathered in chamois cream rather than sheathed in M&S’s finest…) and building up the hours in the saddle. Some discomfort is inevitable if you’re only just starting to log long hours on your bike but it will go away after a few days, especially if you factor in a rest day every 4-5 days.
The key is to wear flexible clothing, and in this regard I’ve just discovered Fjallraven’s Abisko Trekking Tights. Brilliantly simple, I’ve found that they work well for walking, hiking, running and cycling; I just wear a thin pair of cycling liner shorts underneath them when it’s cold and find them more comfortable - and age-appropriate - than skin-tight Lycra because, despite the name, they’re flatteringly fitted in shape rather than skin-tight and revealing.
In warmer weather I’ll pack a pair to wear if I decide to take the morning off to explore a mountain, local town, or even to wear to the pub in the evening. This means I only need to pack one pair of trousers safe in the knowledge that I’ve got every base covered.
In the same way, you’ll be tempted to pack too many clothes. A spare set of underwear and one t-shirt, plus a fleece jumper and a waterproof jacket will be enough to see you through a week’s cycling. Sea to Summit do a great little pocket clothes washing set too, which doesn’t take up much space and enables you to wash your smalls in the evening.
After the bike itself, your mindset is the most important aspect of your bikepacking kit. If you accept before you set off that during your long-distance bike ride you WILL get bored, tired and even experience some pain, you’ll be better equipped to manage it when it actually happens.
The payoff, of course, is complete and utter freedom to go where you want, when you want, and at a pace that suits you. You’ll be burning calories at a cracking rate too, so second breakfasts are almost compulsory, as is ordering a pudding in the evening. Beer hydrates and provides some electrolytes, and coffee and cake will give you the sort of caffeine-and-sugar rush you’re going to need to climb those steep hills.
You’ll also be able to look back at what you’ve achieved with a sense of pride - and pride is forever, while pain is temporary.
Where to go on your long-distance bike ride
Sustrans has a great website that is stuffed to the gunnels with advice and suggested cycling routes. With more than 16,500 miles of waymarked routes for cycling and walking, there’s sure to be a route near you.
Brilliantly, the routes are sub-divided into the sort of categories that you and I can understand immediately: there’s a Challenge Yourself section that features longer routes; Foodie Rides, and even one on City Adventures.
Why not take a look and find something near you that is long enough to span two days, yet challenging enough that you’ll feel a sense of satisfaction when you’ve completed it? A two- or three-day trip is plenty long enough if it’s your first, and I’d suggest booking a B&B or hotel initially too; few things beat a long soak in a hot bath before a pub meal after a day in the saddle!
For those who prefer a book to a website, Sustrans also has an online shop where you can buy proper book guides for its most popular routes, alongside inspirational books that feature other people’s adventures to get you inspired.
Books to read
Which brings me neatly to books you might like to read. My first is the simply brilliant The Man Who Cycled The World by Mark Beaumont. It does exactly what it says on the cover, and while he’s since written another couple of books, his inaugural long-distance memoir is, in my opinion, his finest.
Less serious is Tim Moore’s The Cyclist Who Went Out In The Cold. Tim, like Mark, is a prolific cycling author but whereas Mark is all about the dedication needed to do something incredible, Tim seems bemused by the situations he finds himself in, and is as baffled as the reader when he finally completes them.
It’s All About The Bike by Robert Penn is the story of a man building his dream bike. It’s a brilliant read that is far less dry than you might think and will appeal to anyone who’s ever considered swapping a factory fitted component for something lighter, better, or more expensive. (Generally, of course, it will be all three…)