So I’ve just got back from a few days riding around in Scotland as a bit of a ‘shakedown’ for my future tours. Naturally I’ve been thinking whilst riding and for some reason I dwelled a lot upon the concept of the ‘touring expert’. Now my background in cycle touring is actually pretty theoretical. For the last four years I have worked for a bicycle shop that is a touring specialist. Now I’m an information sponge so rapidly I gained a detailed knowledge of touring bikes and how they functioned. However until the middle of 2013 I had never actually been on a bicycle tour!
So for over 2 years I’ve been professing to being an expert on bicycle touring, giving advice to customers with zero actual practical experience. Added to that much of the knowledge you gain in a bicycle shop is about the actual bicycle itself. Now I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you are really unlucky a catastrophic failure of the bicycle is unlikely (yes I’m now touching wood and throwing salt over my shoulder etc.). In addition if you’re not travelling in remote regions of the world you’re probably not too far from a bike shop who can fix your non-catastrophic issue.
As an example in Scotland my bike has developed an intermittent clank. Now the expert bicycle mechanic in me went through the stages of establishing why this was happening. You see I reckon you can learn to be an expert on paper. You can understand how something works and how to adjust it when it stops working, however this means nothing without the experience of what actually happens when it breaks or wears. So I’ve been through checking the things that could cause the noise, I did notice that my cassette was wobbling all over the shop. A worn freehub perhaps, not the case because as someone pointed out today my cassette had worked loose. Once tightened there is still the clank and as I have never experienced this noise before I have no idea what is causing it. I’m backed to my first thought which was that it is the bottom bracket but as there is no play in the cranks and they spin freely it’s going to take a strip and rebuild to establish if that is true. So this is why an ‘expert’ is nothing without experience, because in some situations you need to be able to think and act quickly. This (I assume) is why first aid training e.g. CPR is practical to give some measure of what actually happens in that life or death situation where action needs to be rapid. You can’t really role play and simulate actually touring by bicycle though.
Also moving away from the actual mechanics of the bicycle itself a lot of touring is nothing to do with riding a bike. You can add in all the things you do everyday that aren’t riding from a to b as areas for developing expertise and experience. A lot of the non-cycling elements of touring you can only really learn from experience. For example tent A and tent B may look virtually the same but the difference in pole construction can cause you a headache if you have no experience on which to base a choice between the two. Someone gave me a tent for touring for which I am very grateful however it has fibreglass poles, I have now split one section of pole for every time I have put it up. I should have seen this coming as I do have experience of using this type of tent pole before and the exact same thing happened to me over ten years ago, I’d just forgotten. Now beggars can’t be choosers but the result is that after this experience I’ll be getting a different tent which has aluminium poles.
Upon returning to Leeds yesterday I actually ran into someone I know outside a pub in town and we had a chat about the trip I’d just been on. I mentioned my tent failure and he quickly said “aluminium poles all the way”, showing that he was clearly more experienced that me when it comes to tents. However that highlights that experience doesn’t always have to be practical. You can learn from others experiences although I definitely feel it is a watered down version of the real knowledge you gain from your own experiences. I also think you shouldn’t be afraid of doing something because you don’t have the relevant experience. As I said doing it yourself is the best way to gain experience and if you want to mitigate the risks or put your mind at rest then seek out the experiences of others in advance. Just don’t listen to anyone professing to be an expert.
So based on the spirit of sharing experience and from my non-expert point of view here are the things I learned on my short tour around the south west corner of Scotland.
Get you bike set-up spot on before you set off on tour. – Don’t as I did ride your bike loaded with luggage for the first time when setting off for the station. Adding luggage to you bike makes it handle differently. Now a good touring bike will still ride well and in a stable manner when loaded however small differences in the weight distribution of that luggage can make a big difference to the handling. As I hadn’t done any form of test ride with luggage I wobbled off down the road thinking to myself this could be me better. However based on what previous experience I do have all I did at the end of day one was move both panniers further forwards on the rack and instantly the handling improved.
Another example of this was that I decided to alter my saddle height after the first days riding. Now when working in the shop I was always slightly amazed by the number of people who bought new bikes within a week of starting on a long cycle tour. You need to get used to the position on a new bike and set handlebar position and saddle height so that they are comfortable and don’t cause injury. Yes there are theoretical ‘expert’ ways of doing this but generally a bit of trial and error ‘experience’ is required. Raising my saddle height whilst on tour was therefore a really stupid thing to do and I paid the price because after a day and a half my right knee started hurting and feeling a bit ‘crunchy’. Saddle back to normal position and the problem improved, although my knee still twinged slightly as it recovered from my stupidity.
Know your gear. – So you’ve sorted the bike out, however it’s good to test the rest of the equipment you will be using day in day out. My slightly mishap regarding the tent above exemplifies this but another thing I learn on this tour is that I’ve not been using my meth’s burner in the best manner. I have one of the 22g Meths stoves from Bear Bones bikepacking which essentially are a fancy version of a beer can stove. I also bought one of these pocket stoves which I thought were neat as you can use solid fuels or with a Trangia. Now in my inexperience I thought my meths burner and the Trangia were the same, however when you look at them closely they very different in terms of size, shape and function. The Trangia is designed to be used with some form of post stand/windshield so it sits nicely in the pocket stove which focuses the heat of it’s jet upwards onto the pot. The meths burner is designed so that once it blooms you can place the pot directly on top of it, the flames come from the side holes as multiple small focussed jets. It’s taken me over 6 months to realise that essentially using the meths burner in my pocket stove seems to be very inefficient in terms of the time taken to heat/cook and therefore also in terms of fuel! Lesson learnt, however I’ll still carry the pocket stove but will invest in some solid fuel so I have two fuel/stove options.
Learn to understand and read contours on a map*. – Technically we learnt this in the Alps but it transfers across to anywhere that isn’t pan flat. Use the contours on your maps to plan your days riding to keep things manageable and fun. I am talking the big picture here, if your route across the map for the day has lots of tightly packed contours which are close together it is likely your day is going to include a fair bit of climbing. If the contours are spaced fairly far apart then the climbing should be less. Plan your day accordingly you will become more tired and travel more slowly when there is a lot of climbing and therefore probably want to ride for a shorted overall distance. Don’t get bogged down in the nitty gritty of what climb will come when and how long it will be, reality tends to differ from what you think it looks like on a map. So therefore don’t set yourself expectations but personally I think planning according to the big picture is a good idea.
There are two provisos to the above firstly this probably only applies to Europe where what goes up generally must come down i.e. you aren’t likely to spend an entire day climbing or descending. However if that is a likely prospect then use the heights printed on the map to establish that your entire planned route for the day is going generally up or down with the contours. Proviso two is that you also have to take into account the weather, so with that in mind.
Become an amateur meteorologist. – When I was in Scotland it rained. A lot! However I didn’t mind as I knew it was going to happen. Now the normal way to know what is coming is to simply look at the weather forecast from some media source. However personally I would try to learn to understand meteorological charts. Why? I hear you ask, isn’t that what the weather forecaster does to provide the forecast. That is true however forecasts are based on probabilities, i.e. how likely the forecaster thinks that the symbols on their charts will result in particular weather conditions. So if you can read the charts yourself you can learn (with experience!) to predict what is coming yourself and more importantly add your own spin to it. My spin is that I aim to be prepared and predict the worst. Every possibility of rain becomes a definite so that I’ll be more likely to put the tent up or at very least a tarp over my bivy bag. Equally any indication of bad weather will cause me to revise my plans in terms of distance travelled to allow for donning waterproofs, gritting of teeth and/or battling headwinds.
Wind is also a ‘big picture’ element. Tightly packed isobars on your weather chart are a good indication of strong winds to come however it always seems to blow from a different direction to the one you’re expecting so don’t bank on that tail wind for the day ahead. As an aside I had a fantastic day yesterday of a strong headwind with a never ending rain cloud. I could see the end of the grey cloud with blue sky and nice fluffy white clouds ahead but in over three hours never reached them. This was despite my logic that the wind should be blowing the rain cloud over the top and behind me. This happened because what the wind actually did was blow those nice fluffy white clouds so they joined onto the end of the big grey rain cloud and extended it further forward. This occurred pretty much at roughly the rate I travelled forwards creating a never ending conveyor belt of rain. Lovely!
Embrace madness. – You’ll spend lots of time on your own. It can be very quiet. I have decided talking to yourself is normal behaviour under these circumstances. Equally walking off the train into Leeds station at 6:30pm on a Saturday night was literally sensory overload. The room began to spin I was so unused to this many people in one place. This is why we go touring though isn’t it? To gain new found perspectives on the world.
Take earplugs. – It doesn’t matter how quiet the place you pick to sleep is there will always be some form of noise that you really want to block out. On this trip I brazenly camped within spitting distance of roads on three nights which meant earplugs were good for blocking out any late night/early morning traffic noise. However I actually found them equally as useful staying in the bothie at White Laggan where it was almost too quiet. The remote location meant that the whistle of the wind or the slightest sound was almost more disturbing than familiar sound of a car engine passing by.
Go to bed early so you can get up early. – My body formed a routine for sleeping on this trip which involved waking every two hours to alter my position in my sleeping bag. I would then easily fall back asleep and generally slept somewhere around eight to ten hours a night. When it gets dark if you are camping (especially in bad weather) there really isn’t much you can do beyond read by head-torch or meditate. So turn in early because then you can get up and on the road early too. I often found myself up before sunrise so I was packed up and ready to go at first light. There nothing quite like a dry crisp winter morning just after dawn and if you’re also riding through beautiful scenery it’s an experience I’d highly recommend. The other plus is that you can get most of the days miles dispensed with by lunchtime giving you a decent window of time to locate your chosen sleeping spot for the night before darkness falls.
Enjoy yourself! – It’s suppose to be fun. Personally I’d recommend being conservative in terms of daily planned mileage totals. Don’t kill yourself chewing your stem to get to a certain point if you don’t necessarily have to. I am however useless at following that advice and always end up riding further than I should in a day. Also allow yourself time to stop and look at your surroundings, enjoy the view, take a photo. Equally you might want to visit a particular landmark or museum, or spend an hour refuelling your calorie and coffee stores in a cafe. It’s not a race, and yes part of the joy is the journey but equally the things you see and the destination should be joyous too. I am really glad that I rode less than thirty miles last Friday arriving really early at White Laggan. It meant I had time to try to dry out all my wet gear, prepare a good meal, collect fire wood for the evening and still could just chill out and admire the view of Loch Dee.
*I have a theory that you can actually roughly predict if the terrain will be flat or not on maps without contours too. However it requires some more detailed geographical knowledge so I might explain/expand that in a further post.
For some reason every morning I had this song stuck in my head.