Not sure about biking abroad? Here, Robert Penn tackles the big questions with his guide to cycling tours around the world
An hour after the crash – I flew over the handlebars tearing down a gravel road in the Tian Shan Mountains – the blood on my face had congealed with dust. Sweat dripped off my chin and a ripped T-shirt hung off one shoulder. Looking like a cross between a gladiator and a sadhu, I lent my bike against a farm gate, the first settlement I’d seen all day, and walked up the drive. Children and women scattered, shrieking. The farmer, a barrel-chested Kyrgyz man with taut, Mongoloid features, appeared from the shadows with a pistol at the end of his stiff arm.
I tried a few words of Russian.
Then his eyes flicked past me to the gate, and my bicycle. The pistol arm fell limp. The leathery brown skin on his face re-set to a broad grin. Ten minutes later I was eating kebabs and yoghurt as two girls sponged blood from the back of my head. Once again, I had the bicycle to thank for my salvation.
In the three years it took me to ride 38,000km round the world, I was frequently amazed at the genuine and unmistakable trust people from the 31 countries I crossed placed in me, simply because I was riding a bicycle. Trust leads, at a practical level, to safety, food and accommodation, but is also a key to kinship and understanding. And in modern times, when we can be familiar with so much of the planet from an armchair, this is one of the greatest goals of travel.
Not that I knew any of this when I set off on my first cycle tour from Kashgar in China over the Karakoram Mountains to Peshawar in Pakistan. I chose to travel on a bicycle by default: I couldn’t repair a motorbike, a horse was too slow, a 4WD vehicle was too expensive and public transport was too awful to countenance.
Everything went wrong on that trip: I shredded a tyre and I had no spare; I bent the rear derailleur gears; my aluminium rack snapped and I had to discard the panniers along with most of my belongings; in a crash, the chainwheel teeth stuck in my calf. Oh, and I got giardia from drinking untreated water. Yet it was a revelation.
I discovered there is something virtuous in a bicycle. It’s a ubiquitous form of transport used by the rich and the poor. People understand the physical effort involved, and that raises the status of cyclist from traveller to pilgrim. Only a fraction of the world’s people can afford to travel exclusively for pleasure, but pilgrimage is a feature of all the world’s religions.
Life on a bicycle makes us more sensitive and perceptive travellers. Whether you are easing from restaurant to restaurant through a French valley or flying down jeep tracks in the Himalaya, to pedal is to ‘travel for travel’s sake’. It’s the best way to view a landscape, engage with a culture, acquire an appetite and feel a sense of achievement. In short, it’s the best way to catch the music of the earth.
1. New Zealand – the west coast of the South Island: mountainous, but glorious.
2. USA – through the redwoods of northern California, along the coast road around Mendocino and over the Golden Gate Bridge to finish in San Francisco.
3. Wales – the Celtic Trail from Fishguard to Chepstow, one of the many great long-distance UK routes devised by Sustrans.
4. Morocco – the kasbahs and jeep tracks of the High Atlas could have been designed for a mountain-bike adventure.
5. Croatia – the Adriatic Highway from Rijeka to Dubrovnik, using the ferry network to island-hop down the coast.
6. Scotland – coast to coast, off-road, following ancient drovers’ roads, forest trails and loch-side paths from Aberdeen to the end of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.
7. Canada – Banff to Jasper through the Rockies: quiet roads, staggering scenery.
8. South Africa – the Cape and winelands offer great scenery on lightly trafficked roads: a perfect introduction to cycle touring.
9. France: the Loire Valley – quintessentially French countryside, perfect for cyclists who like to lunch. Stick to the back roads and avoid the tourist kerfuffle.
10. France: Provence – gentle pedalling and fine food go together beautifully.
How young and fit do I need to be?
There is no upper age limit for cycle touring. I’ve met people in their late 60s crossing continents on two wheels. You should be physically active and robust, but the fitness level required depends on the terrain and how far you plan to pedal each day.
If your daily aim is to ride 100km in mountains on your own, you should be comfortable riding 130km in a day before you set off; if you’re going to meander along a river for 50km in a supported group taking in a large lunch, you’ll be fit enough if you merely commute to work by bike. Saddle-sore is the most common physical complaint of non-cyclists: avoid it by spending time on your bike before the trip.
Independent or operator?
Start with an operator on a supported tour: numerous companies offer a diverse range of trips – from a gentle beano in Snowdonia to an epic adventure riding from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Just identify a trip that comfortably matches your fitness level. Your belongings will be bussed between overnight stops and there’ll be a mechanic either riding with you or in a support vehicle (known as a ‘sag’ or ‘broom’ wagon). Watch and learn from the mechanic. When you’re confident, do a self-guided tour with an operator or embark on a short UK or north Europe trip independently.
Do I need to be a bike maintenance whizz?
Before heading off on your own you should know how to change tubes, repair punctures, replace a chain link and adjust derailleurs and brakes. The bicycle is an eminently simple machine and you can acquire this knowledge in just a few hours.
Should I take my own bike or hire one locally?
Unless you’re starting your tour in a recognised cycling mecca, take your own bike. If you ride it regularly and you’ve had it serviced, it will be in better condition than any hire bike. If it really is advantageous to hire, consider taking your own saddle.
Is it difficult and expensive to fly with a bike?
State that you’re taking a bicycle when booking a flight. Some airlines charge a flat fee for a bicycle; others regard it as part of your luggage allowance. If your allowance is limited to two items, tape all your panniers together. Most airlines insist you bag or box your bike – deflating tyres, removing the pedals and turning the handlebars round – ask your local bike shop to show you how. Probably the best option for flying is a large polythene bag, available from the CTC.
Do I need special insurance?
If you have a generic travel insurance policy, read the small print carefully. Some policies don’t cover off-road riding; others don’t include theft of cycling accessories, and even more won’t repatriate your bike in a medical emergency. Some companies offer cycling-specific insurance – if you plan to go cycle touring regularly and independently, it will be worth it.
What do I wear?
A helmet, gloves, Lycra shorts (wear your baggy shorts over the top), a wicking sport-specific top or merino wool base layer and sturdy trainers (or, if you’re pedalling a long way, SPD pedals and shoes).
What if I get the bug?
A wealth of resources is available. Try the Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook (Trailblazer, 2006) and www.crazyguyonabike.com for starters. For an epic ride in company, Tour d’Afrique runs continent-spanning cycles in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and allows you to create your own dream tour. If you’re embarking on a big ride in a developing country, consider getting a bespoke steel expedition bike made for you: Roberts Cycles make superb bikes.