Cycle Touring: 14 Hints and Tips For When You First Take Your Bike Abroad
From packing your bike to booking your flights to making sure you don't lose your way...
Cycle touring is the dream adventure from many points of view; the thrill of fresh air, the open road, the immersion in your surroundings and the freedom that comes with being able to stop and start wherever and whenever you want.
But what about the logistics of it? What’s the best way to get your bike overseas and how do you package it back up again on the other side? How do you avoid spending your days on tour lost and battling a map in a town where nobody can understand what you say?
We recently flew a couple of bikes over to Italy to travel unsupported around Tuscany; riding from Pisa to San Gimignano, passing through Empoli and visiting Florence with just our cycles and a couple of panniers before heading down south to fly home from Rome.
Here are some helpful hints and tips we picked up along the way to keep in mind before setting out on your first cycle tour!
1) Save your cash and pack your bike in a cardboard box
The first thing you need to sort when you decide to take your bike abroad is how you’re going to get it there, and what you’re going to use as the packaging.
Now, while you can buy a bike box or bag to be extra sure that your ride won’t be harmed, these can be in the region of £200 or far more expensive. It also means that if you’re cycling from one city to the next or even further, you’re going to have to take a bike bag with you.
The solution of course is to use a cardboard bike box, which most bike shops will give you completely free of charge. There have been reports of bikes getting damaged in cardboard bike boxes on planes of course, and this is bound to happen from time to time, but if you wrap it up extra carefully in a whole load of bubble wrap and duct tape and zip-tie the thing carefully, you should be alright.
We found our rides arrived in Pisa completely unscathed in their cardboard armour, and assembled them just outside the airport then got on the road. Finding somewhere to put the leftover cardboard was somewhat of an issue, but thankfully a nearby recycling enthusiast was on hand to take our packaging away.
2) Sort a cardboard bike box for the return trip before you set off, to avoid frantic cycling around a foreign city
What’s more difficult than packaging up your bike in a cardboard box before you go is sourcing a cardboard bike box and sufficient packaging materials before you fly home from your final destination.
We were flying home from Rome so gave a local bike shop there an e-mail and asked them if they could save us a couple of empty bike boxes that we could use for our return trip. They said they would, then completely forgot about it and didn’t, but thankfully there were two spare boxes on the day and we didn’t have to crawl the streets of the Italian capital looking for empty boxes.
On a cycle tour of course there’s every chance that you won’t know your exact end date or place and that’s completely fine, but if you do then we’d recommend trying to sort a cardboard bike box about a week in advance to save you the hassle of the hunt on the day.
As for packaging materials, with no idea where to find bubble wrap, we bought duct tape and zip-ties then went into a local supermarket, grabbed a giant pile of clingfilm that had previously been used to shift seven or eight boxes of fruit. They were more than happy for us to take it off their hands, if a little confused, and it worked perfectly to protect our bikes.
3) Think smart when you’re booking your flights
There are all sorts of terms and conditions to flick through when you’re booking your bike on a plane. What it boils down to though is effectively working out which will work out cheapest when you’ve combined the price of the ticket and the price of getting your bike on the plane.
Ryanair for example charge £60 to get a bike on a plane, whereas British Airways take it for free if it doesn’t exceed your weight limit, so even though the BA flight may be more expensive, there’s a good chance it’ll work out cheaper all in all.
Make sure it IS a BA flight you’re getting though, as if you use the BA website and end up booking a flight from their sister company Vueling you’ll be charged 45 euro for the bike on top of the ticket charge. Vueling do not accept bikes for free.
4) Do some serious route analysis before you go
This probably seems exceptionally obvious but you should do as much analysis of your cycling route as you possibly can before you go, if you know where it is you’ll be cycling to that is. If not, then there’s not much you can do.
Basically, this will just help you avoid crazy steep hills. Unless of course that’s your kind of thing. We had to re-route a couple of times to avoid excessive steeps – one day almost accidentally riding into 22 miles of something nearing 18% gradient.
The more you know about the route the less you have to stress about while you’re out there.
5) Bring a cycling GPS with you if possible
We managed to get hold of a Garmin Edge 820 about five days before we left for Italy, and to be perfectly honest, we’d probably still be in Pisa without it.
The Garmin is absolutely awesome as a cycling GPS alone – guiding you effortlessly along the route, even letting you enter what kind of cycling you’re doing, and pick if you’d rather minimise distance, ascent or certain other factors – and it can also do so much more too; we actually ended up getting the Garmin to guide us to bars in Rome with its ‘Places of Interest’ function.
The screen is easy to read whether it’s light, dark, rain or sunshine and the battery life is exceptional as well. After our first 92km cycle, which lasted about five or six hours, there was still more than 60% of battery life left on the Edge 820.
It’s simple, it’s effective, and as much as we love map reading, it made the trip a hell of a lot less stress.
6) Don’t stress too much about accommodation
The great thing about cycle touring is the freedom involved in where you go and where you stay. If you book accommodation in advance and have firm deadlines for when you have to be in certain places, it can add a bit of pressure and take away from the fun and escapism.
We’d recommend just booking as you go, seeing where your bike takes you and enjoying the ride. And who knows, you might end up with a few gems.
We booked 'Plus Hostel' in Florence super last minute and ended up with the view of the city above from the rooftop, complete with red wine in a plastic cup and Dante's 'Inferno'...
7) Take regular breaks along the way, and eat when you can
Don’t overdo it on the cycling front. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of the day and realising you’ve used all your energy up, and you have to do it all again tomorrow. It’s meant to be enjoyable, all this!
If you get an early start, around 7 or 8am, then you’ve got easily enough time to stop every hour or so – if you want to – and grab a bite to eat to refuel, a cup of coffee and neck a bottle of water before you get back to the road. We found regular breaks absolutely crucial in making sure we were always upbeat and energetic, and it’s great to stop at little country cafes you never would have come across on any other form of transport.
8) Do a trial cycle with your bike and panniers before you go
We’re all up for doing things on a whim, hey – we recently ran a marathon without training – but it’s worth doing a test cycle with the bike you’ll be using and your panniers full of weight.
I decided to do our cycle in Italy on a small Specialized Stumpjumper from 1998 – a classic by all senses of the word – but unsurprisingly, the rig wasn’t exactly designed for use with panniers and for touring. It struggled up the hills, and while a test wouldn't have put me off taking it, it probably would've prepared me a little better.
A trial cycle is well worth it just to make sure everything is in working order and you get a feel for how your bike will be out there.
9) Bring a book
If you do end up setting out early in the morning and steaming through 100km or whatever, you’re still probably going to end up in your destination about 3 or 4pm at the latest. That means you’ve got quite a few hours to yourself in the evenings, even with dinner and a bit of exploring.
We’re not sure about you, but there are few things quite as satisfying in our books as taking this time to plant yourself outside in the country air and do a bit of casual reading. The calm before the storm that is your next cycle.
If you need any suggestions, the Alejandro Zambra book 'Way Back Home' above is a wonderful read; and the title feels rather fitting for cycling around the world...
10) Travel as light as humanly possible
This should go without saying for any long distance cycle, but you really do have to travel as light as you possibly can. We’re talking minimal clothing, the essentials for bike maintenance and then food. You really won’t need much more than that, and trust us, if you do bring more than you should you’ll be regretting it and frantically binning t-shirts after three days of cycling 75km+.
And to save room in your hand luggage? Wear your helmet on the plane. Obviously.
11) Take a day between big days of cycling or in a major city
As far as we’re concerned, cycling touring is as much about seeing the world and breathing it all in as it is about the cycling. Don’t forget this! There’s no rush!
If you ride up to a major city or anywhere you find particularly endearing in the mid-afternoon, why not take the next day to just chill out, take in the sights and appreciate where you are.
We got in to Florence about 3pm on our cycle, and the approach was one of the most stunning sights we’ve ever witnessed – beautiful Italian domes rising up from a wide river filled with wild turtles. We took the next day to regroup and cycle around Florence sampling the gelato, culture and gastronomical delights. It was well worth it, and there’s something special about exploring a new city with your own bike.
12) Ideally, don’t get robbed
In Rome, at the Trevi fountain to be exact, we were unfortunate, and stupid enough, to get our GoPro stolen and a couple of SD cards with all of our photos from the trip, minus a few already immortalised online. This one should go without saying, but always be extra careful when you’re on your bike in busy tourist-filled areas.
13) Sort your route to the airport out with bike boxes in advance
They say a lesson learned at 3am in the pouring rain of Rome is a lesson learned for life. It certainly will be for us.
We thought we had sorted our plus-size taxi to arrive at our hotel at 3am, but it turns out the hotel concierge decided not to book it, so there we were needing to get to the airport with two giant bike boxes in torrential rain, struggling to explain to a taxi over the phone just how big these boxes were.
Eventually we managed to hail down a mini van and make it in time, but it was not the kind of experience we’d like to repeat. The moral of the story? Be better at booking stuff than we were. It’s probably not hard.
14) Enjoy yourself
There’s no missing the world when you’re out there on your bike, so we can guarantee you won’t have a hard time breathing it all in and making memories.
Some of the time we would be cycling through Italian vineyards in the silence of the morning mist, others on the highways watching mountains go by with music blaring in our earphones. There’s endless charm and meditative qualities to be found out on the open road, so get out there and experience it for yourself. No matter what happens, we can almost guarantee you won’t regret it.