Last year, my husband and I rode our bicycles for 2,000km across France. It took five weeks, and we camped every night. To our amazement, it was fun. More than fun – we loved it. The slow pace of life, the interaction with the scenery and people, the satisfaction of rising to a challenge all merged to become one of the best adventures of our life.
The thing is, we weren’t proper cyclists. We had bikes, sure, but we had never been cycle touring; our idea of pedalling was a quick burst on a mountain bike over a handy piece of moorland. And yet here we were, riding through the green swathe of Brittany, heading for the Atlantic Ocean, and then on to the mountains.
Why? Well, Duncan and I had been driving through France the year before, looking through the windows at the scenery. We couldn’t smell the country, or touch it; a car moves so quickly the tendency is to keep travelling. And we suddenly realised that it was so sanitised; that we could spend our lives driving along these roads without ever being immersed in the place or the moment.
Somehow, we had to slow down and get closer to the place, and the people. Walking would take too long, horses or boats weren’t practical. Pedalling, despite our complete lack of touring experience, was the obvious solution.
This kind of trip, however, would take time, and time means money. Big money, if you’re staying in hotels every night. While we may not have had many miles under our cycling belts, we had plenty of experience in lightweight camping, and this would be the key to the operation.
The problem was that everyone I’d ever seen cycle touring was carrying Too Much Stuff. They would be grinding along, gear flapping off the bike, tent poles sticking out, faces grim. It looked horrible; I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do it. So when we decided to cycle tour, we knew we had to keep everything – and I mean everything – as light and compact as it was possible to be.
In the end, our total loads were 7kg each, including the panniers. It took months of planning and a fair amount of money and we couldn’t have saved a single gram more. And it was worth it. This gear will last us a lifetime, and having less weight on the bike meant we enjoyed every minute. Yes, even the wet ones.
Some people think that ‘lightweight’ means taking as much gear as you like, provided every piece has been weighed. A friend’s brother recently spent a fortune kitting out for cycle camping, buying all the latest, super-light kit, but then packing Homer’s Odyssey, a bird book and binoculars, which weighed more than three hefty kilograms. As the other Homer would say, D’Oh!
The first decision was the bikes. Our road bikes were quickly rejected: the position is too bent over for long days in the saddle; the saddles themselves aren’t that comfortable, and the frame is rigid so every bump makes it shudder. Our mountain bikes were a better bet, but were too heavy and slow. A hybrid – a cross between the two – was probably a good choice but we weren’t going to add to our cycle stable. So, we tweaked the mountain bikes.
cycle camping for beginners The most obvious target was the tyres. Fat, chunky mountain bike tyres have massive rolling resistance and are mounted onto wheels with a smaller diameter than road wheels. Our first purchase was a new set of 700cc road wheels, with skinny little tyres, which slotted into the mountain bikes. They were lighter, the tyres had significantly less rolling resistance, and they had disc brakes, essential for slowing down a big load on a long descent.
Next, we removed the suspension forks, which are heavy and designed to soak up big bumps. So we replaced them with rigid forks (Kona Project 2), which cost about £35 and were perfect for cycling along roads, canal towpaths and cycle tracks.
Setting up the bike for the optimum riding position was harder. We searched online for tips and finally achieved this by moving Duncan’s seat back on the saddle bars, and shortening and raising my handlebar stem.
Next, we bought wide Ergon grips with integrated bar ends for the handlebars. These small, curved prongs allowed us to move our hands into a variety of positions, preventing muscle cramp in arms, backs and shoulders. And we bought a basic cycle computer each, showing distance and a clock (this meant we didn’t take a watch).
Some people tour with racks and panniers front and back, but that’s getting into the Too Much Stuff syndrome. We bought a bar bag for the front, to carry lunch, camera, sunscreen and paperwork; mine had a map case attached to the top. For the back, we bought a neat aluminium TorTec rack each, and a set of simple, waterproof Ortlieb panniers. These had one compartment, a roll top and a quick release device to get them on and off the rack. A plastic Crud Guard was attached to the frame as a front mudguard, while the panniers plus gear loaded on to the rack acted as the rear mudguard.
Before setting off, Duncan changed the chains, chainrings and cables. He used to make mountain bikes, and says it is important to change all this kit at the same time. Putting a worn chain onto new sprockets, for example, wears down the sprocket teeth.
Our big mistake in all this was buying cheap tyres, and we suffered puncture after puncture. Finally, after a hernia popped out the sidewall on my back tyre, I bought a new set. They were Armadillo tyres from Specialized, and I haven’t had a puncture since.
Versatility is the answer. It’s usually easy to wash and dry clothes so we had one set for cycling and one set for après-bike, plus waterproofs.
For a five-week trip we had: two pairs of cycling shorts (which we mostly wore doubled up to stop our backsides hurting!), a base layer, a lightweight fleece (ditto) and an ultralight windproof shell. We took the lightest waterproofs we could find – The North Face Diad jackets and Berghaus Paclite zip overtrousers. Apart from the cycle shorts, this was walking gear; we didn’t buy any specialist cycle clothing. Shoes were important. Cycling shoes need stiff soles to transfer power through the pedals, but as these were our only shoes, they also had to be comfortable for walking around. In the end, we bought shoes from Specialized. Cycling gloves were also needed, with padding to take pressure off the ulna nerve (otherwise, after a few hours, your arms go numb).
For post-cycling time, we took lightweight trousers (The North Face Meridian Convertible, which zip off to become shorts) and long-sleeved shirt, a synthetic t-shirt, a synthetic puffy jacket (Berghaus Infinity Light, which is just amazing: warm, compressible and only 295g), a warm hat and two sets of underwear. Everything was weighed and the lightest option selected. We also took a pair of Crocs each, because they were lightweight, comfortable enough to walk around camp and useful in shower blocks.
Other kit? Sunglasses, a minimalist first aid kit and wash bag, micro towel (also used to wipe moisture off the tent), tiny Petzl e+Lite head torches (28g) and a basic bike tool kit. Maps, but no books: make conversation, people!
CAMPINGcycle camping for beginners
This gear was selected on the assumption that we would have good weather. But we didn’t: it rained every day except one. Our lightest two-man tent is the Den 2 from GoLite, a single skin tunnel without porch. It’s a wonderful thing but it’s better in dry conditions. In hindsight we would have taken our Hilleberg Nallo 2, which weighs 2kg (against 1.65kg for the Den). But, as I say, every gram counted.
Mountain Equipment Helium sleeping bags were selected for their weight (600g) and compressibility. We did, however, make a concession on sleeping mats. Duncan is quite heavy and to cycle all day, then sleep on a thin mat every night for five weeks, was asking for trouble. If you don’t sleep, you can’t ride. So he took a thick three-quarter length Therm-a-Rest that weighed around 800g, against my little ProLite 3 (600g). And he slept very well, thanks for asking.
Cooking threw up questions. The trick is knowing what fuel is available. In Britain, for trips of a week or less, we’d take a lightweight gas head for screw-on canisters. But in France, you can only get Camping Gaz canisters, and our stove with that kind of connector was heavy. Also, for a long trip, it’s too expensive. So we took our old Optimus Nova multi-fuel stove and bought paraffin at supermarkets.
The ultra-light kitchen was one titanium pot and gripper (220g), collapsible plastic mug (24g), bowl (76g) and plastic Spork (10g, spoon at one end, fork at the other, with a serrated edge to act as a knife) and a small knife. We also took a heavy-based Primus frying pan so we could cook decent food. This made a big difference to morale and was worth every gram.
Our other nod to luxury was a Therm-a-Rest chair kit each. After a day on the bike, we needed to be able to lean back in a ‘proper’ chair, and I must say they were lifesavers.
IN A NUTSHELL
If you enjoy cycling, camping and travel; if you have a sense of adventure and a sense of direction; you will love this pastime. Here are my recommendations that, I hope, will enable you to get as much pleasure from cycling, as I have.
Make sure your bike fits you, and is suitable for the terrain.
Buy puncture-resistant tyres with an internal casing.
Buy the best padded shorts you can find – regardless of cost!
Pack light. All your gear should fit into two panniers, a bar bag and a back rack.
Pick a route that looks easier and flatter than you think you can handle. This is supposed to be fun.
Keep away from traffic as much as possible; Canal towpaths, waymarked cycle routes and quiet lanes are the best. Check out the Sustrans website, sustrans.org.uk, for updates on the 10,000 miles of National Cycle Network in Britain.
Practise self-guide bike tours with your complete expedition load before you set off. The bike handles differently with weight on the back, and you will need to make more effort than for unloaded cycling.
Think about fuel. Carbohydrates are vital; we have muesli for breakfast and pasta or rice most nights. Bananas – dried or fresh – are a fantastic source of energy during the day and are easily digested. Energy bars and gels are handy and packable. Staying hydrated is also critical: I recommend two bottle cages on your bike frame.
If you are planning a linear route and need to use the train at either end, book your bikes onto the train as soon as possible. Most services will only carry two or three bikes and places fill fast.
Take it slowly and, if you’re struggling up a hill, get off and walk. This uses different muscles to cycling and it’s good for your legs to have a change… that’s my excuse, anyway.