What is Cycle Touring?

To answer the question ‘What is Cycle Touring’ isn’t an easy one, Cycle Touring means as many things as there are Cycle Tourers and we won’t attempt a definitive explanation here except to explore what it means to us.

Firstly, and most obviously it means touring on a bicycle.  Sounds obvious enough, but for us that usually means:

  • Wholly Self-Supported
  • Extended period (weeks, if not months)
  • Long Distance (>500km)

Post that definition on any Cycle Touring Forum and I know we will get a thousand contrary replies, and that’s all fine with us, we’re just trying to illustrate here what it means to us.  One thing though, this is very different to Bike-Packing which is a much more of a “weekend away” type activity where you might pack a pair of pants, a bivvy and a minimal toolkit.  It’s a different activity with different needs.

A good example was last year’s 1400km Thai tour from Pattaya to Koh Samui where we carried everything and fixed everything we broke ourselves.  Accommodation was mainly hotel and/or motels that we either found on Booking.Com or Agoda on the day or, more occasionally in remote areas, where there was nothing available we found something on Google Maps and rode up to the door to ask for a room.

Food is always a gamble and we’ve usually been able to find somewhere, sometimes excellent and sometimes not so.  Only a small handful of times have we found nowhere and we’ve had a cold selection from a 7-11 or dig into our emergency food packs.

Photography is a major part of our lives and we carry what we consider to be the minimum viable kit for the quality that we need to sell our photos.  For landscape, that’s a Canon 5DSR with a 24mm TS-E lens and a small handful of filters.  Also a small travel tripod.  For street photography, it’s a pair of Fuji X100 mirrorless cameras. We also run a GoPro 7 on the bike.

Our technology kit has been recently pared down to the essentials of a laptop that we need to manage the rentals of our apartments (we tried a couple of different iPads but they just didn’t cut it for Excel) and the laptop has the added advantage of being great for the photography.  We use Wahoo ELEMNT cycle computers for their simplicity, downloadable maps and rock solid performance, these have been brilliant.

All our tech and bike lights are deliberately USB chargeable, so we carry a RAVPower 6 x USB charging block.

We also carry a SPOT Gen3 Satellite Tracker with an SOS button that will bring the emergency services to us if we are in dire need.

However, we have set the target that we should be able to live for 3 nights without power and still function.  Power in hotels in places like Cambodia is unreliable and it’s common to go several nights without power in your hotel room.  That, and camping without a power source, is the primary reason why we carry  24W solar panel each and they are paired with a 10000MaH power block.  These have been excellent and we have found that the best way to use them is to charge the blocks by day from the sun and then use them at night to charge the Wahoo ELEMNTs and the iPhones.  The solar panels also power the GoPro and charge the spare batteries for the SPOT.

 

Self-Supported

What do we mean by Self-Supported?  Mainly that there’s no support vehicle with us carrying our luggage; clothes, wash-kits, spares, tools etc.  That means that we need to carry everything we need with us for a multi-month tour.

We’re not going to give our kitlist here because it’s constantly changing, but it all falls into these main categories:

  • Clothes (cycling and non-cycling)
  • Washkit
  • First Aid Kit
  • Photography Kit
  • Technology
  • Security (Locks etc)
  • Tools & Spares
  • Camping kit
  • Food
  • Credit cards/Cash

Again, this is not intended to be a definitive list because it’s a compromise between weight vs comfort and/or risk.

Lets take comfort first, it’s easier to explain: e.g. do we take our Helinox One camping chairs at 960g each?  There’s a hundred very personal decisions like this and it’s a perpetual re-evaluation.

The risk one is a little more tricky to explain but I’ll give it a go.  Most importantly, this is VERY subjective and our appetite for risk will be very different to yours and this is the primary input for the Tools & Spares that we carry.

The first thing we look at is to ask the question, “What will stop our tour dead in its tracks?”

What will stop our tour dead in its tracks?

 

High Impact Failures

When I designed the bikes, I had this in mind and a key part of the design philosophy was to both mitigate the risk and to give a good contingency plan if they should happen.  As an example, we fitted shifters with a friction option so that if we had a cassette failure we could replace it with one of many options, most likely a 9-speed, and still get the gears to work.  There’s more about the bike build here.

But when we’re rolling, the more likely ones with high impact are:

  • Puncture
  • Tyre Failure
  • Broken Spokes
  • Drive Train Failure

Punctures

Punctures are a fact of life when touring long distances, even if you’re tubeless, and carrying a couple of inner tubes is a no-brainer.  We have seriously thought about going tubeless but the other long-distance tourers that have done it say that it just delays the inevitability of your first puncture and they all still carry at least one inner tube as a back up.  That, to me, negates much of the benefit when it’s a 15 min job, tops to change an inner tube.

We don’t try to repair a puncture at the roadside, we just swap the inner tube straight out and repair it in the hotel room or campside.

Tyre Failure

Less likely than a puncture but over a multi-month, multi-thousand km trip, with a laden bike over mixed surfaces, the likelihood of ripping a tyre wall in a remote location is high enough to want to carry a spare.  The Schwalbe Mondial is considered to be one of the very best touring tyres for a balance of weight, rolling resistance and grip.  It’s an added bonus that their flagship version is a folded tyre!  We are both riding on 40mm Mondials and there is one spare in the bottom of one of the panniers.

Drive Train Failure

The most likely thing to fail is the chain and we carry a few emergency links from KMC and also a spare chain.  Carrying a spare 116 link chain is a real weight penalty and it would be a close call on whether we would take one because the likelihood of a complete failure that we couldn’t repair with our links is fairly small, but it was the double purpose of using the chain instead of a chain whip (see below) now justifies its place in the spares bag.

Broken Spokes

Quality handmade wheels go a long way to mitigating wheel and spoke failure but, much like punctures, spoke breakage is a fact of touring, especially if you’re using disc brakes.

Surly recognised this many years ago and their Long Haul Trucker and Disc Trucker touring frames have very convenient spoke carriers built in.  We max load these with 3 spokes each as they weigh nothing.

But what does weigh is the tools you will need to change a spoke.  The rear wheels are under the most stress and that means that you will get more rear spoke failures than front wheels.  That’s a real pain in the parts because replacing a rear spoke will often require that you remove the rear cassette and that needs a few specialist tools.  The first ones are a Shimano cassette removal key and an adjustable spanner.  But the really heavy one is a chain whip that holds the cassette while you turn the key in the opposite direction.

Then I saw the video below where he uses a chain instead of the chain whip and that means that we can leave the chain whip at home and just carry a spare chain, at about 1/3 the weight, and a handful of tie-wraps.

On our latest tour, I can confirm that this hack works well.

 

Medium Impact Failures

Those Failures with a lower impact are things like gear cable failure (we carry one spare), brake failure (a complete assembly from lever to callipers weighs about 100g) and we carry a handful of M5 bolts (I replaced as many of the bolts on the bike that I could with M5)

Other tools we carry are the excellent Toppeak Alien II Multi-tool and a 3-way hex key that is invaluable.  That’s about it.