Top tips for cycle touring

Man cycle with trailer

Mike Dennison cycle touring in Scotland. Image © Mike Dennison

Cycle touring tips

Go for a practice ride to test your kit. Image © Mike Dennison

Cycling in France

Cycling in the south of France. Image © Mike Dennison

Are you looking to challenge yourself on a long-distance bike ride? Or are you organising a bike touring holiday over the summer?

We spoke to a seasoned cycle tourer and one of our Cycling Development officers, Mike Dennison, who most recently completed a 1,200 mile tandem ride across France from Roscoff to Nice. Following his ride, Mike shared with us his top tips on how to make the most of life in the saddle.

Be realistic about your plans

The joy of cycle touring is the freedom it gives, travelling at your own pace, through new and interesting places. You experience so much more when travelling by bicycle, so plan your route carefully and build in enough time to enjoy it!

Factor in regular breaks for tea or coffee and snacks, allow time to stop at points of interest along your route, and to deal with the unexpected. Don’t be a slave to an unrealistic schedule, which leaves you rushing from one location to another with little time to enjoy the beauty of what lies in-between. 

> Guidebooks to help inspire and plan a long-distance bike ride

Prevention is always better than cure

It sounds like an obvious one, but always make time to give your bike some love both before you set off, and during your trip. Take it to your local bike shop for a service or better still, enrol on a bicycle maintenance course. A few basic skills can be enough to keep you on the road, or at least get you to a bike shop in an emergency. As a minimum, keep your bike clean, make sure your chain and derailleurs are well lubricated, and that your tyres are inflated to the correct pressure, both before you start, and during the course of your trip.

A general rule of thumb: anything rattling or rubbing will get worse as you ride - a quiet bike is a happy bike.

> The M check for your bike in 11 steps

Test your kit before you set off

Load your bike exactly as you intend to ride it, get your cycling kit on, and go for a test ride. A loaded bike will handle differently on hills and when cornering, and takes longer to stop when braking. Pack heavy items at the bottom of panniers to improve stability and keep items like waterproofs and snacks easily accessible.

Make sure you are comfortable on the bike. An aching neck and arms or saddle discomfort are usually easily resolved by making small adjustments to the bike’s set up, but can ruin a cycle tour if left unresolved.

> Getting your bike set up

Carry some basic spares and a ‘multi-tool’

From puncture repair kits to spare inner tubes, brake pads and cables, chain ‘speed links’ and even spokes - packing a few basic spares can save you pushing your bike a long way. Spare spokes can be taped to the top tube of your bike frame.

Invest in a good ‘multi-tool’ which will give you everything you need for roadside repairs, and remember - passing cyclists are usually more than happy to stop and help with any mechanicals that you can’t fix yourself.

> 'Must-have' and 'Nice-to-have' bike accessories 

Avoiding the dreaded puncture

Punctures can be almost entirely avoided by following some basic guidelines. Most punctures are caused by incorrect tyre pressure, so make sure you inflate your tyres as per the manufacturer’s guidelines, and remember that a heavily laden bike will require more air pressure in the tyres. Tyres are available with added puncture protection which is a good investment. 

If you are unlucky enough to get a puncture, make sure you carefully check the tyre for any thorns or shards before refitting it, or you may end up having to do it all over again. Punctures are also far more likely to happen in the rain and you don’t want to be taking your tyre off for the first time in a torrential storm, so have a practice at home first.

Most cyclists swap their punctured inner tube for a fresh one straight away - it’s quicker and you can patch the old one at your leisure, and keep as a spare. But don’t be afraid to patch - with touring, you have all the time in the world. Wait for the glue to turn tacky before putting the patch on - it will take far longer to stick if you rush. A patched inner tube, when done right, is just as good as a new one.

> Video: How to repair a bicycle puncture

Be kind to your bike on the road

While on the road, there's a few simple checks and steps to take with your bike which could save you from an untimely malfunction. 

Be nice to your chain by avoiding changing gear when standing up on the pedals, and keep it as straight as possible (e.g. if you’re in a high gear at the front you should be in a high gear at the back).

Bolts in racks can rattle undone as you ride so check them regularly. Similarly, check for loose spokes and learn how to tighten them with a spoke key. A broken spoke will cause a buckle in the wheel and put more pressure on the remaining spokes, so replace it as soon as possible. Loosen off the surrounding spokes and the brakes if necessary, to allow the wheel to turn. 

Brake pads will also wear as you ride, especially in wet conditions. Turn the barrel adjuster periodically to ensure the brake is still engaging (unscrew the barrel adjuster to tighten the cable). Also, remember to keep an eye on the pads to ensure they don’t go beyond the wear line.

> See our range of environmentally friendly bike maintenance products

Temporary repairs to get you to a bike shop

Inevitably on long bike rides there will always be the need for some level of side-of-the-road quick fixes - some temporary, some not. Here's a few of Mike's favourite tips for repairs on the move:  

  • Torn or damaged tyres can be temporarily patched on the inside with a gel wrapper or similar item before carefully re-inflating.
  • If it's a blowout, consider using a folded section of your old spare tube to line the inside of the tyre. 
  • For lost bolts in racks, cable ties can be fed through the bolt hole but they break easily so string or twine is much better. 
  • If the rack itself breaks, see what's in your luggage or by the roadside that can be used as a splint. A spoon handle lashed in the right place can be very effective. 
  • Broken brake cables are easy to replace with a little intuition (and of course a spare cable). This is the typical path of a brake cable: hook inside lever, through barrel adjuster, outer casing (may be two separate pieces of casing or one single), noodle (curved metal part - only on V brakes), bolt.
  • Broken spokes in the front wheel can be replaced without even taking the wheel off. Copy the lacing pattern (typically over-over-under) of the other spokes. Don’t be afraid to give it a fair bit of force. The rear is more difficult because you have to remove the gears using a specialist tool.
  • A broken derailleur can be removed, and the chain shortened and refitted so that it sits on one of the middle sprockets - you’ll only have one gear but at least you’ll be able to ride to the nearest bike shop.

And finally...

It’s surprising how many things can be temporarily repaired with waterproof duct tape – from loose mudguards to items of clothing – be sure to pack half a roll with your spares!

Looking for a challenge? Check out our top 10 challenging rides on the National Cycle Network.