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How to: Plan a cycle touring weekend

With the two Bank Holiday’s looming in May, use the extended weekend to adventure out on your bike. What could be better, cycling the open road with not a care in the world?

The intrepid explorers Sam (left) and Aoife (right) take on London to Lyme Regis.

Before you set off, take a few minutes to digest the wise words of Aoife Glass and what she learnt on her mini-touring adventure, cycling 150 miles from London to Lyme Regis.

Essentially, a guide on how NOT to plan a cycle tour!

I have never been one to let little things like practical considerations get in the way of a good adventure. In many ways it’s a wonder I haven’t yet appeared on an episode of ‘Helicopter Heroes’ – although there is still time.

Last year, I decided to cycle from London to Lyme Regis. Why? I hear you ask. Well, as a bit of a geology geek, I attend the annual Fossil Festival every May bank holiday weekend. This time, I thought – I wonder if I can cycle there?

I’d never done any touring. In fact, other than my regular commute of 9 miles each way, I’d never cycled for more than a couple of hours in one go. London to Lyme Regis is over 150 miles, a bit of a jump in terms of scale. But, I thought, why not? As they say, you don’t know what you are capable of until you try.

As any adventurer knows, one of the key elements of success is choosing the right person to share the adventure. Enter Sam, my good friend and the very definition of a good sport;

“I’ve always been up for a challenge and generally if someone asks me to do something crazy, which seems to mainly involve the great outdoors and some equipment I sit, walk or ride on, I can’t resist. I’ve cycled the most dangerous road in South America, but strangely I’ve never done a long cycle ride and it was for this reason I found myself cycling the 3 day trip to from London to Lyme Regis in 2012”

If you’re considering tackling a weekend cycle tour adventure, here are my main don’ts, so you can learn from my mistakes, with a few things I did get right thrown in for balance.

Things I didn’t do;

Sam opting for the light weight road bike option to tackle the 150 miles.

1. Choose the right bike

I was riding a Specialised Myka hardtail mountain bike with disc brakes. Although lovely, this machine was not built for speed on the road. On the flat I was pretty nippy, but on hills my speed dropped right down low. Sam, on her road bike, zipped ahead, up the climbs where she would kindly wait for me.

Don’t get me wrong, the Specialised Myka did do the job, it just made it all a tad harder. I’d made sure it was in good condition before I left, so there were no mechanical issues. I also made a few adjustments, adding bar ends to the handlebars so I had alternative hand positions, which was a god send by day three.

2. Use the correct tyres for the job

Not only was I riding a mountain bike, but, wait for it, I was riding it with knobbly off-road tyres. The grip the knobbles give which makes them perfect for holding on to muddy off-road terrain also meant I stuck to the road, feeling like I was cycling through treacle and slowed me right down.

If you’re going to tackle a tour on an MTB, change the tyres for nice puncture resistant slick or semi-slick ones, such a small change will make a massive difference, trust me. On the flip-side, my legs muscles got an amazing workout.

3. Work out a suitable route guidance system

I didn’t. I didn’t even have a GPS. Basically, I knew how to get out of London roughly the right way, and I knew where we were stopping for the night, so I used the maps on my phone to plot the route as we went. Cue a fair amount of time on busy a-roads.

Failing to carry a map can have its benefits, like stumbling on a beautiful river!

However, we also stumbled upon some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen; bluebell-filled woodlands, picturesque villages and hidden valleys with streams running through. All of these things I would never have seen if I had driven or got the train.

4. Plan appropriate overnight stops

Or do like I did, leave it really late, and have to book whatever you can find. We stayed in two lovely hostels, both well set up for cyclists. YHA Holmbury is in the Surrey Hills, and regularly used by mountain bikers exploring the area. There is an awesome pub nearby, The Volunteer, which does really REALLY good pie. The second night was YHA Salisbury, a lovely converted villa near the middle of town.

The problem was the first night was far too close to London – we were there by 3.30. This meant we had two very long days; the second day we set off at 8am and arrived in Salisbury, knackered, in the dark, at 10pm. Not ideal.

Plan your route so you spread the overall distance evenly over the days. In fact, it’s always best to plan your route so the miles decrease in distance, for us we should have plotted 60 miles on day 1, 50 miles on day 2 and 40 miles on the final day.

5. Carry stuff comfortably

Actually, this bit I didn’t get too far wrong. A rucksack with minimum contents, with the most things carried on a pannier rack on the back. I opted for a Topeak MTX beam rack, which clamps on the seat post with a quick release attachment. It can’t take too much weight, but I didn’t want to be carrying too much anyway. Better yet would have been a proper fixed pannier rack, as wearing a rucksack for three days did make my shoulders ache.

If you’re touring for a longer period of time and are carrying a tent and cooking equipment, ensure you spread the weight. It may be best to affix front and rear panniers, so you can spread the weight affectively, you don’t want all of the load concentrated on the rear wheel.

Things I got right. Yes, surprisingly there were a couple;

1. Clothing

Although I didn’t have that much cycle-specific kit, I did have general outdoor kit that worked fine for me, along with some other borrowed bits and pieces. The keys items were padded shorts, a really good waterproof jacket and trousers, a comfy breathable top, a warm mid layer and cycling gloves, plus a helmet of course!

2. Equipment and lights

Miraculously, we had no mechanical issues, no breakdowns and no punctures. However, I was carrying all the necessary equipment in case that did happen – spare inner tubes, tyre levers, patch kit, and multi tool. We also had good lights, thankfully, as by the time we arrived in Salisbury via the main road, it was getting dark.

3. Food and drink

In addition to regular tea and cake stops, and trust us, we sampled some really great cake on the way, we also carried lots of water, and a good supply of cereal bars and snacks. I think I ate about 30 tracker bars over the course of the three days cycling.

No horsing around! This year the ladies are taking on the 150 miles challenge properly prepared.

Would we do it again?

I loved it, so much so that I’m doing it again this year – with considerably more preparation, I hasten to add.

It was truly an unforgettable experience, and a completely achievable one. So get out there, pick a destination, and ride. You will see things that 99% of the population never get to see.

I think I’ll leave the final word to Sam;

“It was a great 3 days of rain, pubs, sweat, laughter, energy bars, horses eating my bike, and hot tea, and I defiantly won’t forget going over the hill and seeing the sea and then the fun and fast cycle down the hill and seeing everyone in the pub for a well-deserved beer!”

If you would like to follow Aoife and her friends to find out how they get on this year, they will be tweeting using #London2Lyme.

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