Monsoon Dodging: Planning and plotting a touring trip

Andrew Boyd, intrepid cycle tourist, returns with some tips on how to plot and plan the two-wheeled adventure of a lifetime:

“So my first article extolling the virtues of cycle touring has got the travel juices flowing, you have a few weeks (or months? Or years?) earmarked for the big adventure. Great! Now what? What follows does in no way profess to be a comprehensive step by step guide to your big ride – books have been written on this – but it should give you some useful resources to check out and some of my thoughts about your bike and kit. The nature of your trip will very much determine what of the following applies to you – rabies jabs are probably overkill for a weekend jaunt around Cornwall.

Homemade maps don’t offer the same level of detail as printed ones… North-east Thailand

Resources

http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/ – a clunky but invaluable collection of bicycle touring blogs from around the world. Looking for inspiration? Want to know what’s doable in your time frame? Chances are someone who’s blogged here will have done it, and written about it. We used this site in the initial planning stages, but also found it invaluable when trying to find out which towns have hotels, whether a given route is rideable or not, and most importantly, comparing riding stats with other riders… It’s searchable by date, country, region and town.

http://mrpumpy.net/ – only good if you’re going to Asia, but Mr Pumpy’s infectious (if dated) musings are worth a read; route, cultural etiquette and gear advice – it’s all there. And you’ve gotta give the guy credit for his nom de guerre.

http://connect.garmin.com/ – this free to register site allows the user to plot ‘courses’, finding the shortest road route (avoiding motorways) between two points. It works best, of course, with a Garmin GPS device, as you can download the route onto the device and then follow it in real time and space to your destination, but even without one, you can still view the shortest route, the elevation profile, and the predicted journey time. It isn’t infallible (as we found to our cost a few times on our trip) and needs to be cross-checked with a map, but it did find us quiet roads we wouldn’t have otherwise taken, and allowed us to plan how long a given day would take with far greater accuracy than with maps alone.

http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ – not bike touring specific, but if you’re somewhere with internet access, Tripadvisor beats a guidebook hands down for up to date accommodation and restaurant advice.

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forum.jspa?forumID=32 – this ‘On Your Bike’, touring specific sub-forum is part of the extensive Lonely Planet Thorntree forum. Get in contact with fellow cyclists here.

‘Is that Malayisa Maps? We appear to be lost’

Stephen Lord’s book (remember them?) Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook http://adventurecycle-touringhandbook.com/ is great. Informative and very readable, it offers comprehensive and (presently) up to date advice, from bike kit through to routes. I read it from cover to cover while planning the trip and I’d recommend it to any newbie tourer going on a long haul trip.

Maps! Obviously you’ll need one. Or two. Or eight, like us. You can generally find them for sale in bigger towns when you get to your destination country, but I’d recommend getting at least one for the area you’re starting in, in case they’re in short supply there. In the online shopping era, you could probably get all the maps you’ll need before you leave, and there’s certainly a case for doing this.

Guidebooks – are you a Lonely Planet person, a Rough Guide person, or no-guidebook-at-all person? Your call. We found the Kindle editions of the Lonely Planet a boon in terms of weight saving, if not in ease of navigability.

http://tandemasia.wordpress.com/ – a truly inspirational blog. Possibly.

Untreatable STD (Spontaneous Tyre Disaster) – North Thailand

Bike

As with all walks of cycling, so to speak, the machine you’ll chose to ride will come down to a combination of the riding you’re planning, personal preference, and cost. Stephen Lord’s book (above) offers detailed advice on converting an existing bike, or buying a bespoke touring bike, much of which will be familiar to the average mountain biker. A few of my own thoughts:

  • Steel is real – yes, but strong aluminium (or even titanium) is too. We’ve met lots of tourers on alloy bikes (ourselves included) and none have had any problems with their frames. Just make sure it’s strong and fits you.
  • Tyres – buy the best you can afford. We love Schwalbe, but Conti fans love their Continentals. So, as long as your tyres are German, you’re laughing, it would seem. And definitely bring a spare.
  • Rack – again, buy the best you can afford. Tubus racks have a proven track record and a lifetime warrantee, though we’ve had no problems with our Blackburn rear rack.
  • Discs versus V-brakes/cantis. I rate our cable discs for ultimate stopping power and because they don’t heat up the rim excessively but they haven’t been problem free, and we’ve had to carry sufficient pads for the entire trip. I’d strongly advise against hydraulic discs if you’re outside Europe/North America, unless you’re prepared to carry hydraulic fluid and cables.
  • Water – max out your water capacity. You won’t regret having the option to carry extra water on the frame rather than taking up luggage space. There are various options available – SJS cycles have a bewildering selection of options.
  • SPD’s versus flat pedals. I always ride clipless back home, but for this (and future trips) flats with Powergrips are my pedal of choice. But it’s down to personal preference, as ever.
  • Saddle – traditional leather or not? I’m not really in a position to answer this as I’ve never sat on a Brooks saddle. Suffice to say, more than any other piece of kit, make sure it’s comfortable. Possibly your best bet is to put the your comfiest existing saddle on the bike you’re taking , never mind the fact that it clashes terribly with the colour scheme. My other half sorely rues that she didn’t do this!
  • Hub versus derailleur gears. If you know what I’m talking about, you’ll have an opinion.
  • Importantly – whatever setup you settle on, ride it, completely built up (with racks, panniers, the shoes you plan to use etc.) well in advance of leaving. And not just down your street and back. This should leave you time to iron out the inevitable niggles before setting off. It is enormously frustrating to find that your ergonomic handlebars give you numb hands after 100kms when you’re in the middle of Cambodia. Trust me on this one.

What can happen when you rely on GPS as your sole means of navigation.

Other Kit

Our full kit list is viewable here. More thoughts:

  • Luggage – get the best you can afford. Whatever brand you opt for, it HAS to be waterproof. Nothing is more miserable than wet kit after a wet day. And make sure it’s compatible with the bike, rack and you – no toe/heel interference. An easily removable bar bag isn’t essential but is very useful for keeping camera/snacks/valuables accessible. Finally, make sure everything fits in your panniers of choice – not as in ‘I can just about squeeze it in’ but ‘I can fit my kit in with ease’. We ditched a load of stuff after three days because we’d packed based on the former premise.
  • Spares – look at EVERYTHING on the bike, and ask yourself, ‘If this fails, will it be trip ending?’ If the answer is ‘Yes’, the next question is, ‘Am I unlikely to be able to fix/replace said part where I’m going?’ If the answer is again ‘Yes’ then you need to take spares. Sounds obvious, but we’ve met riders who haven’t brought compatible parts and have had to make huge detours to big cities to track them down. Compatible brake cables and pads, spokes, tyres, dropout (if replaceable) etc. are going to be far harder to find on the road than at home.
  • Tools – we went for a multitool with chain breaker, plus a Leatherman Crunch. Both have proved indispensable, the latter acting offering a proper knife and an adjustable mole wrench. Expensive, but superb quality and with a 25-year warranty. Get one! I’d recommend a spoke key, cassette tool (to replace drive side rear spokes – most motorbike repair shops can lend you a chain whip) and a reliable pump as well. A small bottle of bike lube can be used, then refilled by friendly motor mechanics along the way.
  • Stand – not essential but very useful. We used a clickstand http://www.click-stand.com/ which puts less strain on the frame and can be used for beating off wild dogs.
  • Lights and lock – obviously.
  • Clothing – we’ve been in tropical climes by and large the whole trip and clearly where you’re off to has a huge bearing on what you’ll need. Unless you’re a masochist, take decent padded shorts – at least two pairs. Normally a ‘bib’ man, I went bib-less for this trip, which proved quite a bit cooler. Many touring cyclists prefer cotton t-shirts for riding but having tried this to start with, we chucked them, and went back to technical material; faster drying, and cooler to wear, too. A hat is essential too, for rain and sun protection. Innov-8’s Hotpeak is cool, has a much longer peak than a roadie cotton cap, and fits under our helmets. A simple, cheap, fab piece of kit. One other item I rate (but Emma didn’t!) was a pair of Craft ultrathin arm protectors. Bright white and very tight, they look ‘interesting’ but do a great job keeping the tropical sun off your arms, and do feel cooler than bare skin in direct sunlight.
  • Rear-wheel re-build, Bangkok. A real mechanic finished the job for me...

    GPS device – NOT a replacement for maps, but our Garmin Edge 800 truly revolutionised our trip. Using the Garmin Connect website we were able to plot each and every day online (doing a few days at a time when we had internet access) and then follow the plotted course. We were occasionally led astray, down unrideable dirt tracks and, memorably, down a river, but for the most part it was very reliable. But once more with meaning, do NOT rely on a GPS as your sole means of navigation!

  • Kindle e-reader – a lot lighter than taking five months’ worth of books, and also allows downloading of guide books, instruction manuals etc.
  • SPOT personal tracker – our parents clubbed together to buy this one… Allows a mayday or ‘all ok’ message to be issued providing you have satellite reception. The poor man’s satellite phone.
  • First aid kit – definitely bring one, plus any drugs you think you may need. Contact lens solution is hard to find in developing countries, so bring enough. After running out of drinking water (despite carrying 7 litres on the bike) I was very thankful to have slipped in a fabric water filter and purification tablets – chlorine never tasted so good!
  • Chamois cream – or nappy rash cream. Try it and you too will become a believer.
  • Suncream – very difficult to get hold of in certain countries, so bring some.
  • Sheet sleeping bag liner – questionable (or no) bed linen? No problem! Whip out your silk liner – 100g of fabric never felt so good.
  • Chargers/batteries for all electricals, and multiplug adaptor.

A rare shot of tandemasia in action

Boring but important stuff

  • Bring a selection of credit/debit cards – you never know when your bank’s fraud team are going to note the series of cash withdrawals across South America and unwittingly block your card.
  • Cheap, unlocked mobile phone – indispensable. We’ve bought SIM cards in all the countries we’ve been to for about $3 a pop.
  • Travel insurance – see this thread for the lowdown. Make you sure you get it, and that it covers bike touring.
  • U.S dollars – the dollar may not have the financial clout it once had, but greenbacks still talk, pretty much everywhere. We stashed a roll of emergency bills away from our wallet for emergencies.
  • Passport photos – avoid having to pay for extortionate border mug shots.
  • Photocopies of passport/insurance documents.
  • Visas – check out the latest on visa rules for the countries you’re visiting before you go – we’ve met a few travellers who have had to backtrack hundreds of kilometres because they thought borders were issued on arrival when they weren’t. Also, note land entry visas often offer shorter stays than do entry by air – be warned!
  • If you’re bringing a computer or other device with a screen, get a hardcase for it. Bulky it may be but we cracked two Kindle screens, and one laptop during our trip. Panniers can fall off bikes, bikes can fall on panniers. We know.

So there you have it, my incomplete and subjective musings on getting your tour off to the best possible start. Next time – reflections and insider secrets on touring Southeast Asia – Mecca for the cycle tourist!

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