Lessons From a First Bike Tour

Jul 13th, 2021

Back in 2014, my partner and I were living in New Zealand on a year-long WWOOFing/traveling/life experience-gathering journey. Although we were both experienced cyclists, neither of us had ever done even an overnight bike trip, let alone a multi-week tour. Nevertheless, we embraced our youthful naivety and decided to take on New Zealand’s 300km Alps2Ocean Cycle Trail.

I had done tons of backpacking, hiking, and biking growing up, and my partner led outdoor trips in college, so we figured we’d be fine. And we were! The trip was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. However, I definitely learned a few things along the way.

You don’t need fancy gear

Of course you want a setup that is functional and safe, but the idea that you have to go out and spend thousands to have fun on a bike is just plain wrong.

On my New Zealand bike tour, I wore cotton t-shirts, and when it rained, I donned a trash bag with holes poked in the sides for my arms. I protected my tent with — you guessed it — another trash bag and bungee corded the whole thing to my rear rack.

My partner and I rented clunky bikes with heavy panniers that we collected about an hour before we set off on our trip. Once you progress, it can be really easy to get bogged down with fine tuning every single part of your setup and tweaking and adjusting things for weeks on end. While I certainly don’t recommend skipping the gear-testing phase of trip prep, my experience did show me that at the end of the day, sometimes it really is as simple as tossing the essentials in a bag and hitting the road.

Always have a Plan B

“Always have a Plan B” rings true in general life but even more so when you’re on a bike in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes campsites or water refills are not where you’re expecting them to be. Sometimes technology fails and weather forecasts change. Thinking through a few alternate scenarios before you set off can definitely save a lot of trouble down the road.

On my bike tour around New Zealand, I learned to always have cash on hand since some small towns and facilities didn’t accept cards. The combination of a GPS and a good old fashioned paper map, highlighted and marked up, kept my partner and I going through every twist and turn.

Several times, we pulled up to where a campsite was supposed to be and it was either closed, no longer in operation, or simply not there. In these moments, I was thankful that we had scouted some alternative stopping points in most of these locations.

On the one occasion that we didn’t have an alternative planned out, we ended up catching a ride to the nearest town, which was about 40 miles away. The guy driving us turned out to be very nice but definitely gave us a scare when he insisted on not taking the regular road back to town, instead driving full speed on the sandy beach, doing donuts and revving over big rocks and obstacles. I certainly had a moment of thinking, “This is how I die!” and although it makes a good story now, in the moment I definitely wished I had more thoroughly searched for alternative camping spots in the area.

Practice basic mechanic skills

Practice your basic mechanic skills and bring a good repair kit with you, or you might end up walking the last 12 miles of your route because of a flat tire.

Thinking back, the craziest part of my whole first bike tour is that we didn’t bring a tube repair kit or any spare tubes. I’m not sure we had any tools at all. Somehow, that didn’t come back to bite us until the last day of riding when my partner got a flat tire about 12 miles from our destination. Riding a fully loaded bike on a flat tire is not doable, so we ended up pushing our bikes for several hours until we finally reached town. It was an anticlimactic way to end our journey, to say the least!

Lesson learned: make sure you know how to do basic repairs on your bike and gear setup before you leave. There’s always the chance that you’ll need professional servicing if something serious breaks down, but having the skills and tools to repair basic things like fixing a flat and adjusting your brakes is essential for a fun and safe bike tour.

Pack light foods

I want to kick myself when I think back to the food I packed on my first bike tour. My partner and I loaded up our panniers with the heaviest things imaginable. In an attempt to be thrifty, we had packed tins of baked beans, jars of peanut butter, apples, carrots, and more. The amount of the food we shoved into our panniers probably weighed more than the bikes themselves.

I’d never ridden a bike with any bags or panniers attached, and I’ll never forget the first few pedal strokes I took on my fully loaded bike. I wobbled my way to the first stoplight and thought, what have I gotten myself into? I felt a bit more confident until we reached the first hill, and let me tell you, that was a struggle. After our first night, we had eaten through our stores a bit and abandoned some of the heavier items. Things got a lot better from that moment on.

During future bike tours, I definitely spent more time planning lightweight meals and snacks. The moral of the story is that there’s no need to pack your entire kitchen, especially if you’re going to be riding through towns on a regular basis and can resupply.

When I look back, I admire my former self for saying “I want to do this bike tour” and just going for it. Now when I go on bike trips, I look back and learn from my mistakes and misadventures. So, if you’re thinking of heading out on your first ever bike tour, hopefully you can learn a few things from my mistakes, too.

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