Tips For Long-Distance Ultralight Bicycle Touring
The tips here, in no particular order, are a mixture of ideas that may be obvious to some, but are crucial to completing a long-distance, multi-day bicycle trip comfortably and in good spirits. I do not address in detail here the importance of choosing the proper bike, components, and gear. But even with those parts in place, little details can go a long way toward helping you achieve a successful journey.
Sunscreen – Riding a bicycle from the morning through nightfall on a sunny day, mostly on unshaded roads and bicycle paths, exposes uncovered skin to tremendous amounts of UV rays. It is critical to generously apply sunscreen (I use SPF 50) to all exposed skin. This includes especially the back of the neck, back of the arms, knees, ears, and nose. These areas are constantly facing the sun. If your cycling clothes are not UV-rated, sunscreen should be applied underneath. I also use and highly recommend SPF 50 lip balm – lips can become sunburned, severely chapped, and very uncomfortable from spending ten hours in the sun and the wind. Reapply sunscreen at least once or twice during the day after wiping off perspiration.
Drinking and eating – While riding, especially long distances, it is easy to forget to remain properly fueled and hydrated. Eating and drinking go hand-in-hand. The salt in food assists the body with retaining water, but that salt is expelled in sweat. Salty drinks with electrolytes such as Gatorade and Powerade are crucial to remaining properly hydrated on long distance rides. Depending on the heat conditions, it is important to drink a big gulp every fifteen to twenty minutes, before you are thirsty. Dry lips are indicative of dehydration – if lips are dry to the touch, drink as soon as possible.
Eating right is also crucial for maintaining consistent, high-power outputs. On a 8-plus-hour ride, start off the day with a breakfast containing plenty of grains, then eat every one to two hours at a minimum. Salty food is best, to help the body retain water. Energy bars work well. Foods with high sugar content, such as ice cream, are great for an immediate boost, but can lead to energy levels crashing suddenly, so minimize intake of such foods and do not rely upon them for fueling. I found that whenever I felt sluggish or in low spirits while riding, it was usually due to having consumed inadequate food or liquid. It is amazing how a gulp of cold Powerade can change your outlook on a long ride.
Recovery – After a long ride, it is crucial as soon as possible to help the muscles heal by eating large quantities of lean protein. For me, fish or soft meat work best. It is also important to stretch your arms and back which have been hunched over a bike for hours. Keeping your legs elevated for some time after a ride helps drain them of lactic acid build-up and assists with speedy recovery and minimizes soreness. Finally, a good peaceful night’s sleep is critical to the next day’s riding. A cold beer is great after a ride, but riding long when hungover is painful. Save the binge drinking for another time.
Training – As in most areas of life, preparation is key to performing well on the bike. To prepare for a long-distance cycling trip, there is no substitute to getting many miles in your legs. That means long, hard miles in all conditions, when you are feeling energetic and when you are fatigued.
I do not believe, however, that it is necessary to go for very many long rides to train for riding long distances. At a certain point, long rides yield diminishing returns. I have found it most effective to train with hard, one to two-hour efforts. Riding three to four times per week at a hard pace for 90 to 120 minutes can help prepare you to maintain good speeds for six to eight hours on consecutive days. For rides involving a lot of climbing, there is no substitute for climbing hills in training. Sit upright on the hills to maximize lung capacity and oxygen intake. Practice standing and using hard gears and also sitting and spinning easy gears for extended periods of time.
Finally, do whatever you can to lose that extra ten pounds you have long wanted to lose. You will thank yourself when climbing a two-mile long, eleven-percent grade in 90-degree-heat after riding 75 miles.
High Cadence and Low Heart Rate – During training rides, you may prefer to push a hard gear and pedal at a high torque level with low cadence for extended periods of time. But when riding long distances for consecutive days, this will tire your legs out more quickly and result in diminished overall speed and power. It is far more effective to use low-torque, high-cadence pedal strokes on such trips. After five to six days on the bike, your legs will be more rested and will ultimately produce more power.
Cadence also relates to heart rate. Heart rate numbers, while interesting to monitor on shorter rides, are very important on long rides. No matter how fit you are, your body’s cardiovascular system has only so many matches to burn in a given period. Even a very fit, seasoned cyclist cannot ride for many consecutive days with multiple 170-plus beats-per-minute efforts. It is important to try to keep your heart rate at a steady comfortable level for long periods. Using a low-torque, high cadence pedaling style assists with keeping your heart rate down. Do not hesitate to use the smaller ring in the front for extended periods, particularly riding into strong headwinds.
Condition of Bike and Components – Before you set out on a long-distance, multi-day trip, your bike and all of its components should be in perfect working order. Nothing on the bike should be broken or approaching its breaking point. Cracking, grinding, or squeaking noises, can become very annoying over the course of many hours on the bike, and are often indicative of a worn part or component. Make sure that your handlebars, derailleurs, brakes, shifting levers (and cables), wheels, pedals, bottom bracket, and saddle are in good condition. Depending on where you take a trip, a problem with one these parts can cause significant delays. Replace your tires and chain if they are not in almost-new condition. Take your bike for a detailed check-up and tune-up by a trusted mechanic approximately one week before your departure to allow time for replacing components and any necessary fixes. Finally, apply long-lasting lubricant to your chain and to your pedals/cleats as necessary.
Riding Aero – It is obvious that riding in an aerodynamic position with your hands in the drop bars is significantly more efficient than riding in an upright position. But it is easier said than done, particularly when riding for many hours. Practice riding in an aero position for long stretches. Get comfortable doing so in all conditions. When on a long-distance trip, it is very easy to get caught up with navigation, miles remaining, the next drink stop, the wind, and the surroundings, and to forget to ride in an aerodynamic position. Riding aero can easily add ten percent to your speed for the same amount of effort. If you want to cover ground quickly, remember to be aero, and remember to think about being aero.
Comfort – Spending eight to ten hours a day riding on a hard, one-inch-wide, eight-inch long bicycle seat, and rotating your legs tens of thousands of times in the same position, can lead to all sorts of problems if not managed correctly. These include numbness, chafing, and the most common affliction of the long-distance cyclist, saddle sores. The key to avoiding problems begins with wearing a proper chamois. A slightly thicker than normal chamois is best for ultra-long distances. I strongly recommend Assos T.Cento_s7 bib shorts.
In addition to properly fitting, high-tech bib shorts, it is crucial to generously apply chamois cream before riding. Here too, I use Assos, but there are other good brands. Re-apply chamois cream at least every fifty miles. At the end of a long day’s riding, immediately after arriving, no matter how tired or hungry you may be, remove your bib shorts. Do not spend any time relaxing in your dirty cycling kit. Wash your bib shorts thoroughly in hot water, turn them inside out, and hang them to dry. I use Assos Active Wear Cleanser, which leaves your kit smelling fresh and clean, but any detergent will do. Water alone is insufficient. Finally, after showering, apply a skin healing cream. Assos Skin Repair Cream is superb, almost completely healing irritation overnight. Following this routine will not guarantee 100-percent comfort, but will go a long way to manage what can truly ruin an otherwise great trip.
Small Goals – Looking at your GPS device after climbing steep hills for the first ten miles of a long ride, and knowing you still have 100 miles of hilly climbing to go, can feel daunting to say the least. Do not think about doing the entire day’s riding in one shot. Think about small goals. Divide the ride into manageable chunks. The first 25 miles, then the next 35 miles until a lunch break. Then, 50 miles to go is only two 25-mile segments. Throughout my trips, I use as a reference my 28-mile regular training loop around Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn and Queens. I know that when I am in good form, I can do that loop in one hour and fifteen minutes. I know exactly how much energy that takes. So on a long-distance trip, 28 miles in 100 minutes seems completely manageable. When I have less than 28 miles to go to my next planned stop, I know I will surely make it.
Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff – Taking a long, multi-day bicycle trip through unfamiliar roads in foreign countries can inevitably present some difficulties along the way. Issues that arise may include: getting a flat tire at an inopportune time (such as in the rain after cycling 100 miles), mechanical problems, navigation issues, an occasional nasty truck driver that passes too close, being very hungry or thirsty, occasional boredom, bad weather, and rough roads. Keep things in perspective. If you are trying to travel, without a motor, in one day over distances longer than some people travel away from their homes in their lifetimes, there will be hiccups and difficulties. Think about the big picture and remain calm and upbeat. You will then be much more likely to respond effectively to any challenges you encounter.
Getting the bike there – Getting the bike there by train, boat, or car is usually easy. It’s a bit more complicated traveling by air. Some fly with their bike in a cardboard box used to deliver a new bike (or a re-usable, purpose-built bike box by Air Caddy, which I have used once), and some use hard-shell or soft bike cases. I really don’t like the hassle of multiple disassembles and assemblies of the bike. For any bike tour originating in Europe or beyond, Lufthansa is the solution.
Lufthansa allows bikes to be checked in as is (no disassembly whatsoever) where they are then stored on a special bike rack in the cargo hold. I cannot overstate how convenient this is. I wrap my handlebars and frame in bubble wrap as an extra precaution – I’ve now taken 7 flights on Lufthansa with my bike this way without any incidents at all. Most of the time, they have even waived the extra charge. Highly recommend Lufthansa for getting your bike to Europe and then beyond.
Read – There are many books and websites about long-distance ultralight touring. These books and chronicles of trips taken by others will give you ideas, and you will learn from their mistakes. You will better understand what to expect riding long miles day after day. You will see how they reacted to bad weather conditions and unexpected mishaps. The best books I have read on long-distance cycling are the two books by Alastair Humphreys: Moods of Future Joys: Around the World by Bike: From England to South Africa and Thunder and Sunshine: Riding Home from Patagonia. Alastair’s writing is phenomenal and his stories are inspirational.