By Stan Purdum
QUESTION: What is touring on a bike? How is it different from just riding for recreation and exercise? Do you have to go a certain distance? – Timothy M
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: Bicycle touring refers to long-distance journeying by bike for vacation, adventure, sightseeing, exploration, pleasure, self-fulfillment, personal discovery, travel or almost any purpose other than competitive sports, commuting, errands or exercise alone. Often the trip is to somewhere you’ve never been before and can last a single day, many days or much longer. It can involve camping each night or staying in commercial lodgings, or some combination of those options.
Typically, such treks are designated as “self-contained” or “fully supported.”
Self-contained means you’re carrying with you everything you need for the mode of journeying you have chosen. If the trip is a wilderness exploration, self-contained means you have a shelter, sleeping bag, food, cooking equipment, bike tools, clothing, personal items, etc. — everything you can’t source from the environment in which you are riding. If the trip is through populated areas, you may be planning on purchasing your food en route but still camping out; that’s still self-contained for the type of journey you have planned. Another self-contained style can mean you carry only your clothes, personal items, minimal tools and a credit card for motel stays and restaurant dining.
Self-contained sometimes implies that you are doing your own route planning and scheduling, though mapped routes are available from Adventure Cycling and other bike-tour operators.
To be self-contained, you need some arrangement of packs or bags on your bike in which to carry the items you need. If your tour is on roads, you can use panniers (saddlebags) and racks to which you attach your tent, sleeping bag and bulky items — or you can use a tagalong trailer. If your tour is off-road, a trailer is unworkable on uneven ground and panniers are likely to snag on shrubs and bushes. So off-road, you are better to use bags designated for “bikepacking,” which hug your bike frame more closely and are less likely to catch on the surrounding flora. There’s no reason you can’t use bikepacking bags on road trips as well.
Fully supported means that someone, whether a friend or bicycle-tour operator, has most of your stuff in a vehicle and either delivers it to your overnight destination or accompanies you on the ride, often “leapfrogging” you and stopping periodically to offer refreshments, mechanical help if needed, or, sometimes, even to provide you and your bike a ride should you become ill or exhausted. Depending on your arrangements, the support team may also provide your meals.
Fully supported rides are often group events you pay to join, and the tour operator may provide a range of services in support of your ride. Fully supported also may imply that you are following a route and schedule provided by the tour operator. But if you’ve made your own support arrangements, you may have more flexibility with the itinerary and timetable.
Whether you are touring self-contained or fully supported can have a bearing on what sort of bicycle you use.
If the tour is on pavement and is either fully supported or self-contained at the credit card level, you can usually ride your favorite road or gravel bike. It doesn’t need to be able to carry the extra weight of camping gear etc.
If your tour is on pavement or gravel and you are self-contained with a fuller array of luggage and equipment, riding a bike made for touring is a good idea. Such bikes are beefier to carry the extra weight, have wheels with 36 or more spokes for the same reason, and wider tires for added traction. A touring bike puts you in a more upright sitting position than does a racing bike. It has a longer wheelbase for comfort and to keep your heels from hitting the rear panniers as you pedal. It also has a wider gear range to help you when pumping that weight uphill. Alternatively, you can use a mountain bike fitted with road tires instead of the knobby off-road tires.
If your tour is off road, most quality mountain bikes will do the job and are strong enough to carry the added weight.
While the “right” bike is liable to serve you best while touring, don’t discount that steed you might already have. In the mid-1990s, when I rode self-contained — with full camping gear — across America, I did so on a Schwinn Sprint built in the 1980s. It started life as an inexpensive 10-speed — a general recreation bike — but I’d converted it to an 18-speed and upgraded the wheels. And it did fine on tour. The one problem I had with it on the road was because of worn components I should have replaced before the trip but hadn’t.
After returning home from that tour, I purchased a touring bike, but aside from a better shift system, I couldn’t tell that much difference from the Schwinn. That’s a good reminder that cycling is more about the riding than about the bike.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.