Tips for planning your first bicycle tour

Mike Barry was one of Canada’s most respected frame-builders and a regular visitor to France. Here, we share his tips for your first cycling tour.

Mike Barry on a tour of UK in 1979

Mike Barry on a tour of UK in 1979. Photo: Bob Zeller

Editor's note: Mike Barry was one of Canada's pioneering bicycle frame builders. He was also a lifelong cyclist who visited France on many occasions to ride. Mike contributed this article in August 2018 via his friend and old cycling buddy Bob Zeller, who also writes for us. Mike passed away in December 2018. We are proud to be able to share this small slice of Mike's seemingly endless cycling knowledge with you. There is more about Mike at the end of the article.   

Planning for your first bike tour need not be daunting, but taking the time to make some simple preparations will pay back in terms of making the trip more enjoyable, comfortable and safe.

If you read too many cycling magazines or websites (not this one, obviously …) you might fall into the trap of thinking that before you head off on your first tour, you’ll need to spend a small fortune on a new bike and a bunch of fancy accessories.

But that’s all nonsense.

Most casual cyclists already have most of the things they need to get started. Just use some common sense to prepare. Later on, after you’ve gained some experience, you’ll be in a better position to judge exactly what you do (and don’t) need in terms of specialist equipment.

In the meantime, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to cycle tour. Just get going!

What sort of bike?

It is not necessary to buy a touring bike as long as you have a bike onto which you feel comfortably riding. It will also need to be able to fit a decent rear pannier carrier and possibly a handlebar bag. Ideally the bike should have eyelets on the drop-outs on which to mount the carrier, otherwise you will need to clip the carrier to the seat-stays – it’s never the best arrangement as clips tend to work loose, but depending on how far you’re cycling, it may get you by. Ask at your local bike shop if you’re not sure. See here for more on choosing a bike. 

Your position on the bike

Your position on the bike is the most important consideration concerning comfort and efficiency. When seated on the bike with the pedal at the bottom of its stroke, your heal, in a flat healed shoe, should just touch the pedal. This will ensure that you have a slight bend in your knee when you have the ball of your foot in the correct position over the pedal axle. The fore and aft position of the saddle is also important. Adjust the saddle so that when the pedal is in its most forward position (3 / 9 o’clock) – a plumb line should vertically align the point just behind your kneecap and the pedal axle. Make sure that the saddle top is horizontal.

The handlebar should be an inch or so below the height of the saddle and when you’re seated comfortably and holding the handlebar the angle described by your body and upper arm should be 90 degrees. If it isn’t, it may be necessary to change the handlebar stem for one of a different length.

My preference is for drop handlebars, which give several hand positions that help to prevent hand discomfort, but a bike that you find comfortble and enjoy riding is the right one for you.

Do I need mudguards for a bike tour?

As with most things, this is a personal preference, but I strongly advise fitting full mudguards. The stays for these will also fit to the eyelets on the frame and fork. Make sure that the screws for mudguards and carriers are secured with 'shake-proof' washers. Remember that mudguards not only keep you much drier and cleaner, but also keep the bike in much better shape. It is a good idea to fit a mudflap at the bottom of the front mudguard to prevent spray from the road soaking your shoes.

The best tyres for cycle touring

Tyre size and quality can make a tremendous difference in riding comfort and efficiency. Contrary to popular belief, narrow tyres don’t necessarily roll faster. A fatter but lighter tyre with less pronounced tread will roll faster and be more comfortable. Tyres with knobby treads are OK for off-road use but are very slow on asphalt. 

Make sure that there is sufficient clearance between the mudguard and the tyre. Ideally there should be 1cm of clearance, otherwise mud can build up and jam the wheel. 

Carrying luggage in panniers 

To carry your baggage, a pair of panniers should be sufficient unless you are camping, in which case front and rear panniers may be needed. (See here for more on cycle camping in France). Make sure that when you’re pedalling, your heals do not touch the rear panniers – this can slow you down and also be annoying.

An easily detached handlebar bag can also be very useful for items needed frequently during the day (a camera, maps, etc).

Ortileb panniers

Modern panniers are very easy to take on and off the bike and protect your gear from the elements.

Bikepacking bags are also becoming increasingly popular for cyclists wanting to travel a bit lighter.

Regardless of what bags you choose, remember to keep weight to a minimum. Articles that ‘may come in useful’ probably won’t, so leave them at home.

Don’t forget bike lights 

It is essential to have front and rear lights if there is a chance of being on the road after dark. In fact it is illegal to cycle in te dark witout lights in France (see road rules here). There are some excellent inexpensive LED battery lights available now, with rechargeable or replaceable batteries. Be sure to buy a headlight that lights the road ahead of you (isn’t just a flashing light for you to be seen) as unlit roads are near impossible to navigate on a dark night without a decent headlight. 

Toolkits and spares

A small tool kit is essential – so is the ability to use it. This should consist of a universal tool that combines tyre levers, Allen keys and a chain tool. You should take two spare inner tubes, a good pump and a patch kit. Depending on where you are going and how far you will be from bike shops, you may also need a spoke nipple key, a chain ‘quick link’, and a few spare spokes. 

Planning your route

Get some decent large-scale maps and plan your route before you leave. Look for the smaller roads away from motor traffic. A route with little traffic is not only safer but also far more enjoyable. Find roads or trails, that will take you away from the beaten path, deep into the countryside.

A folded map will fit in the map holder of most handlebar bags. A GPS can be of great help but maps are always there if the battery goes dead.

Maps for touring

Cycle touring with children

Touring with children can be an experience that will change their lives for the better. Either on the back of a tandem, with a tag-along or on their own bike they will challenge themselves, gain confidence, and see new places in the world. Trailers are also a great option for kids too young to pedal longer distances.

Croozer trailer

Ease kids into touring with shorter rides near home and extend them as the children grow in strength and ability. Let them help decide the destination. Pick a couple of spots en route to stop for a snack, a meal or a rest to break the trip up and for them to have something to set their sights on. Most importantly, make the rides fun adventures.

With a properly set up and loaded bike, the hours in the saddle will pass quickly as you absorb the surrounding environment. There are few better ways to spend time away from work or your summer holiday than discovering the world on a bike. 

About our contributor

Mike Barry started building bikes at Mariposa Bicycles in Toronto in the late 1960s. In the years that followed, he designed and built all manner of bikes. One of his bikes was the last steel framed bike to win a World Cup race when his daughter-in-law Dede, an Olympic silver medallist, won the Women’s World Cup race in Montreal in 2002. In 1981, Mike and his business partner Mike Brown were the first North American cyclists to do the Raid Pyrenean. Mike enjoyed touring and his touring bikes always reflected his appreciation of the great French cycle designer René Herse. When Mike and his family went touring, it was more often than not in France. Mike passed away in December 2018.

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