Bike Touring: Part 2 - Hitting the Road

Bikewagon - BWCC

For many cyclists, hitting the open road with just a bicycle, a few bags of gear, and maybe a few loved ones is a lifelong dream. It's called bicycle touring, and it's one of the best things about bike riding. Anyone who enjoys adventures, exploring and camping is bound to love bicycle touring.

This article is the second in a series of articles about bike touring: what it is, what gear you need, where to go, and how to do it. This installment will focus on specific concerns for bike touring while you are actually on bike. We are assuming here that you are already packed, you already know where you are headed, and you're ready to get started. If you are at an earlier stage of planning, refer back to part one in this series.


Distributing the load

You may have already have your bags packed, but unless you have been on long bicycle trips before, most likely you have never ridden a bike with this much weight on it. It's not unheard of for cyclists on long tours to pack upwards of 75 pounds of gear, and that much extra poundage will make a big difference in your riding style.

Whenever you load your bike down with new gear, whether it be in panniers or a trailer, you should prepare before you actually ride on roads with cars whizzing past. Start on a quiet neighborhood street that isn't too steep and has plenty of open space. The weight distribution of your bike is going to be very different, so mount carefully and take your time. Start off slowly, trying to get a feel for the bike.

Riding tips

Touring on a quiet road

Gradually you will learn how to balance with the added weight, and after a while you start to feel very natural. Make your movements more slow and steady, since a heavy bike can't recover from leaning over as quickly as a normal bike can. Try to get a feel for maneuvering around potholes and other obstacles, and for acceleration and braking. You will get used to it quickly! After riding a fully loaded bike for just a few hours, taking off the bags and riding unencumbered will feel very strange, with the bike reacting too quickly.

Remember that with a fully loaded bike it will take you much longer than normal to come to a stop: always provide extra stopping room when you are bike touring.

Dealing with cars

Let's face it: bike touring can sometimes be a scary experience. After all, you are often riding on narrow, winding, two-lane highways where an unwary driver could make things turn bad in a hurry. That is why it is so important to ride defensively when you are bike touring.

Always leave adequate space between yourself and the side of the road, where obstacles such as broken glass, potholes and storm drains make the route hazardous. To make up for any additional danger caused by rising farther out in the lane, use a few tricks.

First, purchase and learn to use a rearview mirror for your bike or helmet. Look for high quality glass mirrors. Bigger is not always better with bike mirrors; choose a good quality design.


It is also good to make yourself as visible as possible to cars. Use brightly colored cycling clothing as a first step. Some riders choose to use orange reflective vests that are lightweight, inexpensive and highly breathable. They can be worn over whatever clothes you happen to be wearing that day. Another good option is a brightly colored flag that can be stuck inside your panniers or otherwise mounted at the rear of your bike, and is a great way to make yourself easier to see.

As usual, if you are riding in the dark, at dawn or dusk, or on very dark, overcast days, use both front and rear bike lights (white in front, red in back) to make sure cars and pedestrians can see you.

Pacing and drafting

Whether you are riding alone or with other people, finding the right pace is very important when you are bike touring. You don't want to be going so fast you tire yourself out quickly, but you also don't want to be going so slow that you don't end up covering much ground. Choose a moderate pace that allows you to move quickly. Most touring cyclists average 12-18 miles per hour on a flat road. Hills and headwinds can make this number drop precipitously.

Since you will be carrying extra weight, most likely you will be spinning some of the easier gears on your bike. This is why touring cycles generally have easier gearing than racing bikes -- those real granny gears make a big difference hauling 80 extra pounds of gear up a big hill.

If you are riding with a partner, make sure that the pace of the person in the lead is okay for the person in the back, as well. If you are the person in the back, it can be exhausting to feel like you are constantly playing catch-up.

When you ride together, you can also take advantage of drafting. Drafting means riding closely behind the rider in front, who slices through the wind and makes it easier for the people behind them. This technique can really be a boon for the person in the back, so especially if it is windy, it is a good idea to put weaker riders in the rear -- or to switch off now and then to give each other a break.

Part 3 in the series covers the camping side of bike touring in more detail.