Long Distance Cycling

You could spend months training and getting in great physical shape…

You could save thousands of pounds / dollars to purchase the best equipment and stay in the nicest hotels…

You could plan a route, visas, and every detail of the route perfectly…

You could wrangle up media coverage, get sponsorship, and do the ride for a cause…

You could go on forever, and never get yourself on a bicycle…

Or you could:

1. Get a bicycle.

2. Start pedalling.

That is all you need to do. Long distance cycle touring has unfortunately (in my opinion) become a very elitist sport. People will tell you that you can’t do it because you haven’t planned enough, because you aren’t fit enough, because you don’t have enough equipment or money to get you through your journey. They are wrong. How do I know that they are wrong? I know that they are wrong because I cycled from the UK to Slovakia on a £30 bicycle without training, without learning how to fix a bike, without having much money, without planning a route, without seeking coverage in advance, without anything other than the desire to ride.

If you are still not sure, take the ‘Could You Cycle 1,000 Miles Bicycle Quiz.’

Here is a little summary of why you don’t need to do all the things that the elitist cyclists tell you that you need to do.

(Don’t) Spend Months Training

If you are on a pleasure cruise, it doesn’t matter how long you take to get there. Presumably you are not aiming to break any records (otherwise you should train), so just get on the bike and be happy to know that your fitness will undoubtedly improve as you start and continue along your ride.

I am generally in OK shape, but did no training before my UK to Slovakia ride and had never cycled more than 40 miles – in fact, my test ride of the bike when fully loaded, was a 100m cycle up the road and back down again to make sure it wasn’t too heavy. Then we set off. I had never even fixed a puncture before this ride, but I learnt how to fix almost everything along the way.

(Don’t) Save Thousands of Pounds / Dollars

You do not need the best equipment, you are not involved in a cycling competition. I know ‘serious’ cyclists who spend several thousand pounds on their custom built bikes, but this is not necessary for the casual cyclist (such as me and probably you). Similarly, you do not need to stay in nice hotels or eat out in restaurants – you are on a bike, pushing and challenging yourself in every way – both mentally and physically. Learn to survive without money – it is possible.

After a miserable experience in Istanbul, I had very little money. My bicycle cost £30 and my panniers were actually cool boxes bolted together. I camped outside each night and used Couch Surfing twice. The majority of my food was either skipped (taken from bins for free) or foraged from the wild and we cooked on a beer can each night. Once you start living without money (or with very little) while on the road, you start to realise how very little you need. We were also lucky enough to meet many kind strangers who offered us gifts – we always accepted, but never expected. I had no idea that this life was possible until I started hitchhiking – before I had been afraid and living a comfortable life, but giving everything up to live on little and trust in strangers was one of the best things that I have ever done.

(Don’t) Plan Everything in Advance

Planning is stressful and things change. Simply start pedalling and you will find out everything else along the way. If possible, I would recommend taking a map of some sort if you are cycling in non-cycling-friendly countries. In Holland for example, everything is clearly marked for cyclists and a map is not really necessary, but if cycling in South Korea, cycle paths are non-existent and you will find yourself on dangerous roads if you don’t check a map regularly. If you don’t plan things in advance, you are also free to change when new things (or friends) come up. As for visas, try and figure things out a little, but don’t worry too much as most visas can be obtained (with a lot of waiting) somewhere along the way. Do check how long your visa lasts for though – overstaying a visa is a big offence in many countries.

Two mantras that serve me well when times are difficult are these: “Everything will be OK. Everything is always OK. Until it’s not.” And “Hold tight, tomorrow is a new day.”

(Don’t) Worry About Media / Sponsorship

If you are doing the ride simply for your own pleasure, then do it for your own pleasure. Tens of thousands of people take on big cycling journeys and very few make it into big media – to hit the media you have to do something really new, really outrageous. Do it for yourself – it’s less stressful that way and results in far less wasted time.

What You Do Need

I would advise taking a few things with you on your journey. The following list is everything I take when I go on multi-day cycles:

– A bicycle (goes without saying)

– A pump, puncture repair kit, spare inner tube, and multi-tool

– The knowledge of how to make a beer can stove

– A ‘nice’ saddle (not necessary but your bottom will be grateful)

– A sharp knife, a spoon, and a metal pot for eating / cooking

– Something to store stuff in (panniers or a backpack tied to the back of the bike work fine – don’t wear a backpack, it’s horrible to cycle like this)

– Sleeping bag and bivvy / hammock / tent (only one is necessary)

– A water bottle (I filled it in petrol stations along the way or asked at people’s houses for a refill)

Of course, a toothbrush and a bar of soap are nice to have, so too is a clean t-shirt and jumper for evenings – I take all of these. I also take spices for cooking, but that is a personal preference. As for washing, I often swam in rivers and lakes, or took a rinse in petrol station bathrooms. You’re only going to get sweaty anyway.

Most of all, have a little belief, a lot of desire, and get on your bicycle then start pedalling. This is all you need. Cycling is often an elitist sport – let’s stop it being that way and get out there and find out how possible it really is.

If you have never done anything like this and feel intimidated, read The Boy Who Was Afraid of the World – my first real venture into the world of sleeping outside, surviving with very little money, and trusting in strangers. Also, watch Pedal – the cycling movie about my UK to Slovakia cycle.

5 Comments

  • Thanks for sharing this valuable tips. Here you have clearly explained how cycling will help to get physical shape. Great Post! Very informative to all.

  • Hi Jamie,

    I just stumbled across your site because I was looking for advice on how to cope with a fear of long distance cycling, and I don’t think I could have found a better site!! While my situation is a bit different (doing a big group cycling event across Europe), the fear is exactly the same. Unlike the people I’ll be riding with, I’m NOT an elite cyclist, I did not train well enough, and I have a hybrid bike (which caused gasps among my group).

    Your post, and your blog are incredibly inspiring…I also suffer from incredible anxiety and irrational fears over EVERYTHING, and have made a point during my 20s to make sure I face them, repeatedly, through adventures.

    I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be thinking about this as I hop on my bike and just pedal on. Thank you so much, and I look forward to reading more on your site (and your book)!

    • That’s awesome Jess and thanks. Cycling can be very elitist at times, but it really shouldn’t be. Get on your bike, start pedalling, and repeat – that’s what it comes down to and it is a recipe for a great time.

  • Hey mate! Great article!

    I’m planning on attempting to start a long distance bike ride soon, but as you know, winter is coming soon.

    Any advice for biking long distances in the snow?

    I’m fine at walking in the snow, and biking when there isn’t snow, but putting them together… Hm…

    What would you recommend doing to make biking in the snow possible?

    Joe

    • Sounds exciting Joe. Unfortunately I know nothing of biking in the snow so won’t offer bad advice, but check out Alastair Humphreys blog and Tom’s Bike Trip – they have both done big snow journeys. Wheels on snow does sound a little tricky. Maybe ride a tricycle….

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