Lessons from the road
Yesterday I met with Claire Taylor, author of Detour blog, a project that tries to open up adventurer culture in London. We spoke about what it’s like to go on that first tour; what you need to know, and how you learn it. As an experienced tourer it’s easy to forget what it was like to hit the road for the first time, and make all those mistakes that everyone does (like not carrying a spare tube, for example). The thing is, with touring, you kind of have to learn this stuff yourself – people can advise you, and share how they learned their lessons, but you never really get to grips with touring until you get on the road and do it.
Nonetheless, thinking back to my first tour (a five day ride from Penzance to Brighton), I learned a few things I’d like to share.
- Ride at the pace of the slowest rider
It sounds obvious, but I had never ridden in a group before. I led the way, setting the pace and expecting everyone to follow. But before we’d even go to the station where we would catch our train to Penzance, one of the group fell off his bike on the canal towpath (thank God he didn’t go in) and really hurt himself. It took me at least ten minutes to realise no one was following me – I hadn’t checked over my shoulder the entire way along the canal. It just didn’t cross my mind that the others in the group wouldn’t be there right behind me, following like good little ducklings. That was a tough lesson, and didn’t help with group dynamics!
2. Be realistic about mileage and terrain
My commute at the time was 10 miles, which I would ride in less than an hour. If I could ride 20 miles per day in less than two hours, then if we had all day to ride, 60 miles would be fine. 60 miles is a good distance to actually get somewhere.
I didn’t even consider that we would want to do anything other than just cycle. I didn’t appreciate that touring is about looking at things – it’s not about getting your head down and getting on with it. A commute is a very different type of ride.
60 miles quickly turned into 80 by the time we meandered, got lost, and realised I hadn’t quite planned the route correctly. It took us a very long time to reach our destination on day one – I hadn’t factored in breaks, lunch, weather, wind or terrain. The stretch from Penzance to Looe is very punishing and we arrived at our B&B absolutely exhausted.
This pattern continued on day two, three (where the projected mileage of 80 ended up being 100) and four, where I finally joined the others in taking a train to our destination rather than face more cycling (they had already been train-hopping for the past few days). I had broken myself along with three full-grown men.
3. Take a map – an actual map of the area you are actually riding (unless you are happy to follow your nose)
We relied on a road atlas and some printed-out instructions based on my online research of the National Cycle Network. The NCN signposts don’t always point the right way, though, which we realised having cycled in a large circle just outside Truro. The road atlas was pretty useless – when you’re in a car, you want the fastest, most direct route, and on a bike, you most certainly do not, as we found out while blundering down the A390 dual carriageway from Truro to St Austell in the hammering rain.
4. Take time to enjoy it
Cycle touring is supposed to be fun, but this trip was very much, “Follow me everyone, we have to get there!” Four of us started the trip and none of us completed the whole thing. It was too difficult, too demanding, and mostly, not what cycle touring is about. I have fairly miserable memories of that trip – I felt guilty for imposing ‘my’ ride on the others, and because of the poor planning, it meant that we were constantly at our limit and had nothing left to see us through the simple things, like the rain. The riding was awful and I can’t remember much about the landscape that we cycled through (other than that it was hilly). It was all about the destination and none about the journey (though that’s a lesson I think I am still learning).
Now, my touring is much more balanced. It’s good to go far and fast sometimes, just as it’s good to meander and stop and stare. It’s good to allow time for unforeseen set-backs or for extra push-ons if you have the energy. I do much of my touring alone, and I only have to answer to myself about the ride I am taking. When I am riding with others I allow lots more time to chat!