After blogging about my 300 mile bicycle adventure, several folks asked me for advice about preparing for and taking a long bicycle trip, so many that I have decided to write about this topic.
Today’s Topic – EQUIPMENT
If you are planning to take a bike tour with a tour company, you may not even need to own a bike as many tour companies provide or rent them. Some bike shops even rent bicycles to folks, especially in resort towns or large communities. This option can eliminate headaches and generally provides an opportunity for you to ride a high-end bike, one your budget may not afford you to purchase. With that being said, however, you will need to have a bike available for training. I do not recommend taking any sort of bike trip without training.
If you plan to do a lot of riding, want to get into this sport and/or plan to take more than one long trip or just plan to ride regularly, you should probably invest in your own ride. And if you are planning or considering taking a long bicycle trip, one of the first things you should do is make sure you have an appropriate bicycle. If you have been to a bicycle shop recently, you know there are a wide variety of bicycles from which to choose. Road bikes, racing bikes, tri bikes, mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, touring bikes, fitness bikes, and cruiser or beach bikes to name several. The type of trip, terrain you plan to cover, whether you will have SAG support of be self sufficient, are all factors you should consider when choosing the type of bicycle most appropriate for your needs.
Road bikes come in a variety of configurations and can range dramatically in price, from entry level to professional. It is not uncommon for serious cyclists to spend several thousand on a high-end road bike. Price will be dictated by frame material, brand and components. While you can use a road bike for a long trip, they are best suited for supported tours where your luggage will be transported by a vehicle. Few road bikes are rack ready. And on a long trip, while the lightweight nature of the road bike will make it easier to ride and allow you to ride faster, you will feel every bump in the road. In addition, you will ride in a more hunched over aerodynamic position. This can be uncomfortable on very long rides, creating greater back strain. On a SAG supported trip on paved roads, a road bike will serve you fine. But if you are planning a self-supported trip where you will be carrying your own gear, a road bike is probably not your best choice.
Touring bikes are specifically designed for long distance touring or riding. Most come ready for racks and are made to withstand loads and absorb the roughness of the many roads you will travel. A touring bike’s frame is generally heavier and sturdier than those on many road bikes. A fully loaded touring bike will take much more abuse and comes with wheels/tires designed for this type of riding. Tires are wider than on a road bike and tend to hold up better to high mileage and heavy loads and are suitable for riding on both paved and unpaved roads. Touring bikes also offer long-ride-friendly gears and frame geometry that puts you in a more comfortable riding position than that of a traditional road bike. You will need racks if you will be self- supported on your trip (carry your own supplies and belongings), and will also need panniers in which to pack your belongings. Panniers can be attached to both the front and rear racks as needed. If you are considering riding a great distance and will be self-supported, you will want to consider a touring bike.
Some hybrid or fitness bikes may do well on a long distance trip. The hybrid bike is designed for use off and on road and generally is heavier than a road bike with wider tires. There are, however, fitness bikes that are extremely light. The handlebars on these type of bicycles are generally straight across instead of the dropped handlebars traditionally found on road and touring bikes. Some hybrid or fitness bikes come ready for installation of a back rack and a few brands will accommodate a front rack. Here again, hybrid/fitness bikes range in price from a few hundred to several thousand.
Tri – Bike
Tri-bikes are specialty bicycles used by triathletes. They are generally very light and come equipped with aero bars. While a tri bike could be ridden on a long trip, this is not the type of riding most suited to this bicycle.
Cruiser or beach bicycles are not recommended for long distance bicycle trips. These bikes are designed for leisurely riding about the neighborhood or along the beach. They have very wide tires and often, are limited to just a few gears. Some even have no gears and no hand brakes, just the old fashioned type of cruiser brakes that you activate by pushing backwards on the pedals.
If your long trip will be on dirt roads or mountain trails, you will want to consider a mountain bike. Mountain bikes are designed for off road and trail riding. As with road bikes, this type of bicycle comes in many configurations with a variety of components. You can easily spend several thousand on a high-end mountain bike. If your long ride is mostly or entirely on paved roads, a mountain bike is not your best choice.
My Ride Choice
Prior to my long ride, I researched several different bicycle options. Initially, I had planned to ride one of my two road bikes on my adventure. I have a Specialized Roubaix Elite and a Specialized S Works Tarmac SL 2. They are very different bicycles. The Roubaix is one of the entry level road bikes from Specialized and was perfect for my needs at the time; training, occasional charity rides and general exercise. I rode the Roubaix for a few years and enjoyed it thoroughly. It is fairly light and handles well. Perfect for my new venture into cycling.
About a year ago, when visiting my local bike shop to drop off my Roubaix for a tune up, I fell in love. Of course, while at the shop I had to check out the current offerings. On a rack loaded with bikes that were above those displayed on the floor I noticed an absolutely gorgeous Specialized S Works Tarmac SL2. What a beautiful bike! It had been customized for a customer who later decided not to go forward with his purchase. And the best part, the bike was drastically discounted. After taking it for a test ride, I was sold. This bike was lighter than my Roubaix and came with higher end components. My riding was going to the next level.
When I initially envisioned my adventure, my plan was to ride the SL2 since we would have SAG support. And I had been putting in a lot of miles on that bike. But after doing some reading and talking with folks who have been on such trips, it became pretty clear that my SL2 was not the best choice. Yes, it is light and fast, but I would feel every bump in the road. And who wants to feel every bump when you will be in the saddle 8 – 10 hours a day? Plus, the geometry is such that I would be in a bent over position most of the day, even when my hands were on the hoods. While my Roubaix would probably be the better option, most of the folks I talked to suggested I look into and consider a touring bike, especially if I wanted to do any other long trips, which I did and do. When it became clear that I would be riding a couple of days without SAG support, I knew that I needed to explore other options as I would need to haul my own gear for those few days.
After doing some research on the internet and talking with several people, both those I met who were currently on long rides and experts at my local bike shop, I decided that a touring bike was the best option for me. Ultimately, after exploring several different brands and models, I settled on a Surly LHT (Long Haul Trucker.) Everyone I spoke to who had this bike absolutely loved it. And after my trip, I certainly share this sentiment. My Surly LHT is nothing short of excellent. It is heavier than my road bike, but built specifically for touring. And the price was reasonable for what the bike came with. I added a rear rack, upgraded the seat, added clipless pedals and purchased rear panniers. While I did have SAG support during most of my ride, I spent one-and-a-half days riding solo so needed to haul my belongings. I also plan to take additional long trips in the future. I know this bike will serve me well and meet all my touring needs.
Find A Good Bike Shop
No matter what bike you choose, I highly recommend you purchase it from a reputable bike shop with experienced employees. You owe it to yourself to search out and find a high quality professional bike shop with knowledgeable staff. They can be invaluable in your education (if you are new to cycling) and help you choose the best bike for you and your needs. In addition, a good bike shop will gladly take the time to answer all your questions, make recommendations and more importantly, ensure you get the proper size bike and fit you on the bike you purchase. This is not a bike you want to buy from a sporting goods store, guess at proper seat height, hop on and take off. The proper size and fit will ensure a more efficient and comfortable riding experience. And, if you plan to be in the saddle for high daily mileage on a long trip, you will want to be as comfortable as possible.
It is absolutely necessary that you purchase a helmet for your trip. It is never a good idea to ride a bicycle without wearing a helmet. A helmet can make all the difference between a serious head injury and no injury. There is no need to spend several hundred dollars on a helmet, and it is possible to do that. You simply want something that will provide adequate protection in the event of a fall.
You will also want a decent pair of riding gloves. Riding gloves have padding on the palms and thumb pad and will absorb some of the vibration from the road, helping to keep your arms and upper body fresh. You can ride without wearing them but you will be more comfortable on a long distance ride with gloves.
Clipless pedals are recommended. They will maximize your pedaling power and efficiency. You will also need cycling shoes to go with your clipless pedals. If you have never ridden with clipless pedals, you will want to give yourself plenty of time to get used to them. Most riders fall a few times because they forget to “clip out.” Once you get used to these pedals, however, you will be glad you have them.
Bike Shorts/Tights – Bike shorts are designed to cushion your hind quarters and genital area and reduce the friction from sitting on a bicycle saddle for hours at a time. On a long ride, you will want this extra comfort. There are many different brands and price ranges to choose from. Ask your cycling friends what brands they like. Be sure to buy some chamois crème to use with your shorts, especially on those very long rides.
Cycling Jersey – Although not necessary, cycling jerseys are moisture wicking and comfortable. Not to mention that they look cool and come in an infinite variety of colors, patterns and styles. They often have pockets on the back where you can easily store snacks, a cell phone, etc.
I recommend purchasing all bicycle clothing via the internet. You will find much greater variety and more reasonable prices if you buy on line than you will if you purchase these items at a bike shop. You can also find some great deals at the expos that generally accompany many cycling events.
Racks – If you plan to haul your belongings and travel necessities on your bike, you will need to add racks. Racks are available for both the front and rear of the bike. There are a variety of racks available. Your bike shop can make recommendations. Some bicycle manufacturers sell racks that are specific for their bikes. And others include a rack or racks with their touring bikes. The back rack I added to my Surly LHT was also made by Surly. Whether you need both a front and rear rack will depend on the distance you plan to travel and whether or not you will have SAG support.
Panniers – If you are planning a self-supported trip, you will need panniers. Whether you need both rear and front panniers will depend on the distance and length of your ride. Obviously, the greater the distance and longer the length of your trip the more you will need to pack. There are a wide variety of shapes, sizes and style of panniers available. I settled on a pair of Arkel rear panniers and found them perfect for my needs. As with other equipment, panniers range dramatically in price. I suggest you speak with folks who have toured to find out what they used and how they liked them. There are also several excellent web sites with information about different types of panniers and the pros and cons of various brands.
Seat – Because you will be in the saddle for extended periods of time, you may want to upgrade your seat from that which comes standard with your bicycle. If you are a woman, you can get a seat specifically designed for a woman’s physiology. Padding and width can vary as can comfort. Your bike shop can make some recommendations.
Garmin/Bike Computer – A Garmin/bike computer is a very valuable tool for both training and touring. Depending on the model and accessories you purchase, your Garmin or other bike computer can track such things as your training progress, mileage/distance, time elapsed, miles per hour, heart rate, cadence, incline, calories burned and map features. I always ride with my Garmin because I like to know how far I have ridden, how fast and to keep an eye on my cadence. Bike computers range in price depending on brand and features.
Sunglasses – You will want a pair of sunglasses that fit snugly and don’t fall off when you shake your head. You definitely need eye protection.
Sunscreen – Because you will be out in the sun for hours at a time, you will absolutely want to cover yourself in sunscreen.
Water bottles – Your bike will probably come with at least one, and most like two places where you can attach cages to hold water bottles. My Surly LHT came with three locations for water bottle cages. On any ride you need to ensure that you stay hydrated. That makes this accessory a necessity. Water bottles are not very expensive and you should at least have a couple. You can get plain bottles or spend a little more for insulated bottles.
There are several other accessories you should consider such as a Camelback, all-in -one tool, spare tubes and tires, air pump, under seat pack, handle bar pack, gels and energy bars, sports drink, socks, leg warmers, arm warmers, rain jacket, mirror, lights, etc.
I have attempted to cover some of the basics about equipment in this piece and hope you find it helpful. Riding has given me a sense of freedom, peace and accomplishment. I wish the same for you. Good riding!