work out where you want to go:
- Do you want to conquer mountains or stick to flat roads?
- Do you want to go from home or travel somewhere to start?
- What is the aim or your trip - pushing as many miles as possible or a more relaxing tour?
A majority of my own tours have been aimed at going slowly, soaking up the gradual changes in scenery and having the freedom to stop where you want to stop. For me, this is what bike touring is mainly about - moving slowly and seeing all the things you miss between the tourist sites, the small villages and the people. If you want to get somewhere as fast as possible it's likely a bike isn't your best choice for transportation.
This is why my tours have typically involved riding 70-90 miles a day, and not pushing massive miles. The distance you do is completely up to you, how much time you have and what you want to get from your tour. However, the different challenge that trying to push as many miles as possible is fun - it's just very different. If you want to relax on your tour, build in some contingency so you're racing the clock when you inevitably hit delays.
A majority of my tours have been from home as I get a great sense of achievement from reaching a destination that seems so far from home on the map, and knowing that I've reached there purely under my own steam. It's rewarding. Plus I haven't had to fiddle around with taking my bike apart at the airport, or purchasing a bike box. I've always tried to find a bus or train that will take my bike fully assembled. In Europe, companies like Eurostar, Flixbus and most national train networks will accept fully assembled bikes.
All my tours have been in Europe as it's easily accessible from England, English is widely spoken and food is easily available. Touring in relatively familiar territory has allowed me to grow in confidence on a bike tour, giving me the courage to explore further with the skills I've developed in a relatively safe environment.
6 Steps to Planning Your Tour
1. Look on a big map at all the places you could go
2. Pick a start and end point with a definite finish location (e.g. the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum)
3. Draw a direct line on the map between the beginning and end to get a rough distance and see if there are any other cool places to visit close to your line.
4. Drop your beginning and end points into mapping sites like Google Maps or Strava. I personally use Strava as the data can be uploaded straight to my GPS device.
5. Use Google street-view to check your intended route has roads you'll find nice to ride on e.g. looking for bike paths, smaller roads, access to accommodation. If you're happy with the roads, away you go! If not, adjust the route more to your liking.
6. Break down the route into daily sections and draw your route to your planned accommodation (or an idea of where you'd hope to stay). Having your route take you to the door of your accommodation really helps alleviate any stress of scrabbling around when you're tired trying to find an apartment in a foreign city. For a small level of work at home, it can save you a lot of time and grief on the tour.
- There is now software that can take your planned map from sites like Strava or Google Maps, and provide you with a slideshow of photos from street-view, saving you having to do it manually. The software is called GPX Hyperlapse. A real time saver!
Below is an example of how I planned and mapped my London to Rome tour in 2014.
Initially, using Google Earth, we just plotted a very rough, direct route from our home in Surrey to Rome. Aiming to experience different countries and see some tourist sites of Western Europe we used travel/tourism websites (Trip Adviser/ Lonely Planet) to identify cities and areas we wanted to visit relatively near to the direct route.
With a list of cities and sites in mind we employed online Strava maps to join roads between cities. We wanted to visit Luxembourg City, the Swiss Lakes, Milan, the Italian Lakes, Venice, San Marino, Florence, Pisa and Rome. Purely coincidentally, the places we wanted to visit almost exactly followed Eurovelo 5 (http://www.eurovelo.org/) . This is a route from London to Rome on cycle networks through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Italy. In Switzerland these routes were particularly well sign-posted.
After deciding on the main tourist sites and cities we wanted to visit we thought about other sites between those major sites. For example, we wanted to visit the Velodrome in Roubaix, the end of the 1 day classic bike race the Paris-Roubaix. We visited Mons in Belgium, one of the first battle sites between British and German forces during WW1. Fairly quickly a route came together linking up the places of interest.
We then estimated a rough average speed, the number of hours a day we wanted to cycle and therefore miles per day and finally how long the trip would take. An average of 13mph (20.9kph), based upon our normal rides at an average of 15.5-17mph, and around 8 hours a day we the agreed upon numbers. We budgeted 1 hour for lunch each day and 1 hour for delays like puncture repairs. Actual planned cycling time was around 6 hours on average. We subsequently used the Strava elevation map (below) of our route in an attempt to gauge the effect hills/mountains would have on our speed on a basic scale rating of hills between 1 and 7. On a flat day (1) we would average 13mph. A slightly hillier day (2) would be a 12mph average and a 3 would be 11mph. Using this system we roughly had an idea of where we could get to each day. We then decided on overnight stops that were relatively close to our estimated mileage for that particular day.
We weren't sure how tough the mountain would be, so we both put larger cassettes on the the bikes and the helped get over the tougher climbs. Michael used a 32 where I used a 30 easiest gear on the cassette. We both had triple chain rings, leaving us with a good range of gears. Climbing the Grimselpass, the Furkapass and San Gotthard Pass in a single day was tough, but it was manageable. The Furkapass was particularly tough, with sustained sections near 20%, but we just about had enough gears. The other passes were much more doable at our level of fitness, and with the gear selection we had - we weren't quick though!
For navigation whilst on the trip, the original idea was to take screenshots of the major turns along the whole route in case to refer if needed, or else follow road signs. However, after some thought we decided to look into GPS systems. After much deliberation we decided to purchase a Garmin Touring Plus GPS. This came with maps of Europe downloadable from Garmin with no extra cost. This system allowed us to download our planned route directly from Strava and Garmin online. Before doing this we split the entire route into individual days. This was a good idea because it was then easier to load up the maps each day on the Garmin system. We also brought Michelin maps 1:200,000-400,000 of Northern France, Belgium and Luxembourg, Switzerland (including Swiss Cycle Network), North West Italy, North East Italy and Central Italy as fail-safes in case the Garmin had issues.
An additional benefit of the Garmin was that it had search tools for restaurants, overnight accommodation and supermarkets (amongst others). This was particularly helpful as we did not book any accommodation in advance. We had a rough idea of where campsites/hotels were after taking screen shots of Google Maps when researching overnight stops but the Garmin provided us with directions to places to stay with no difficulty. Quite often we could use signs or simply explore the town/city for food and accommodation. But if were arriving somewhere late the GPS’ search tools were very helpful.
Below is a rough Google Earth outline of the route we took:
Route Navigation whilst on Tour
Setting off from our home we loaded up the route to Dover. The GPS gave clear instructions at each junction and provided ample warning before each turn. What’s more, the system provided an alternative route, suggesting roads that were perhaps more bike appropriate/ would shorten journey time. However after a few days, and after not reaching our predicted our overnight stop on DAY 2, we simply searched for the destination town/city instead of following our predetermined route. Selecting the bike touring(/mountain/road cycling) and shortest time(/shortest distance/least elevation) settings on the route calculator we had a new route within seconds (minutes when within a city with tall buildings). For the remainder of the trip we used a combination of our selected routes and the Garmin suggested ones. Rarely did we have many navigation errors and we did not have to used the Michelin maps once. The only issues came when the Garmin suggested roads that maybe would have been more pleasant but were significantly longer. The system took a long time to adapt the route if you wanted to follow a road was majorly different to the suggested route.
The Garmin was a good purchase at £179.99. It did the job of a speedometer brilliantly measuring a myriad of values including temperature, altitude and gradient. It allowed us to save time that would have been lost flicking through the Michelin maps and made the journey less stressful. It suggested pleasant roads and followed cycle routes when it could. It found a great 40-odd miles of tarmac canal path leading into Strasbourg. Similarly it suggested another canal path from Strasbourg for over 100km to Basel before taking us on the Swiss North-South route across Switzerland, through Lucerne and over the Alps. Cycling on these bike paths was great as you could see and meet other cyclists off on their own adventures.
There were a few adaptations to the route that were made during the tour. Due to particularly bad weather in Switzerland and Northern Italy we had to cut Lake Como and San Marino. The bad weather had delayed us making as much progress as was planned and we had to be flexible in order to arrive in Rome on the planned date. Plan a few days leeway for unexpected delays such as weather, mechanical issues and illness.