Are you preparing for a long bicycle tour?

I recently came back from a one-month bicycle tour to North Cape. Still full with intensive impressions, I would like to share some experiences for those of you who might also think of embarking into a similar adventure.

I would like to state upfront that I see myself as a person who has been doing sport activities probably less than average. Moreover, I am 66 years old and prefer not to suffer pain when being outdoors. It is more the leisure I am seeking: I enjoy being away from the fast lane of city life. I also take the opportunity of fleeing from most of the obligations which come with social life. I consider long-distance bicycling also as some sort of “contemplative retreat”. By reducing the complexity of one’s daily life, one has the chance to see more clearly what is important.

For me, setting a specific goal, like “next year: North Cape” for example, is important, too. With such a goal I can prepare my mind accordingly of what lies ahead. And afterwards, by having reached a particular goal, I feel satisfied for a long time. It also helps growing my self-esteem and keeps me looking forward doing “the next one”.

Planning and preparing the tour was equally important for me as actually embarking for several weeks. Never before I have been bicycling with “heavy” equipment including tent, cooking utensils, and all the other stuff considered necessary to have on the trip. Of course, it would have been best to know someone personally who could “coach” and help with useful advice of how to prepare and which equipment to buy. Having had no such person at hand, I had to help myself with resources found online. The problem with online stuff is that you quickly tend to get lost in the sheer unlimited amount of seemingly good advice. As a result I quickly felt inferior to all the self-declared heroes showing off with their apparently spectacular abilities. My 40 years experience as a researcher, engineer, and teacher always helped me to re-focus: It does not help much to watch someone on YouTube doing a backflip, if you want to learn to do it yourself. But, yes, watching others is a good start; it just needs to be followed by doing “experiments” on your own. Decomposition of a larger problem into smaller chunks also helps a lot. Planning according to a time-line and being patient, but also determined helps, too. I also love to do lists; lists of things to remember, lists of things to be bought, lists of ideas to try out, and the like.

One of the ideas found on one of my lists was like this, for instance: Find an appropriate touring bicycle by researching what others have been using, reduce the list to roughly three bicycles, and try to find them in real shops. Then decide to buy one.

Another idea looked like this: Try out rain gear in real rain well before the trip.

Or this: Buy tent, mattress, and sleeping bag; then sleep outside — on the balcony — at 0 degrees.

Another one: Take kitchen scales and bathroom scales and get an idea of how heavy different items are. With these data, you can get an estimate of the overall packing weight.

Another useful experiment: Fill plastic water bottles and strap them to the existing bicycle. 3 kilograms left and right on the front and 6 kilograms each left and right on my back. In addition, I loaded some more on my luggage rack. Try to bicycle with all this for several kilometers.

All these pre-tour activities helped me to get acquainted with the situation lying ahead. A general idea with all these experiments was “to avoid to get discouraged by initial feelings”. I can remember that riding a bicycle with water bottles weighing 45 kilograms felt ridiculously uncomfortable initially. But I got used to such a beast rather soon. In contrast, after being used to 45 kilograms for a while, a bicycle weighing only 15 kilograms felt ridiculously light afterwards. Apparently, mind and body get used to new circumstances rather quickly.

Before embarking onto the long trip, I also bicycled four day tours with the fully loaded bicycle. The latter two of these day tours were already part of the tour Stockholm to North Cape. Thus, I bicycled from Stockholm to Uppsala in cold and rainy weather, and in the evening took the train back to Stockholm. The day after I used to make smaller adjustments. I quickly learned, for instance, that I needed to fill my tires with a lot more pressure than usual. I also learned that I need a second muff for my neck.

Two days later, I took the train to Uppsala and continued from there to the town of Tierp. On both of these first two day tours, I allowed myself the luxurious thought of quitting anytime. With this I kept my head free of the necessity of “getting there”. It also helped me to overcome my initial anxiety.

The big lesson of all this: Don’t go from zero to full speed when embarking into something new. Build yourself a ramp allowing you to do small steps with the goal that you always feel comfortable.

In my next blog I intend to reason about the important equipment decisions. About the geometry of the bicycle’s frame, about the saddle, about the type of handlebar, and some more. See you there, soon.

By the way: Have you checked out my photos? Stockholm to Luleå and Luleå to North Cape and back.

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