Preparing for your first solo bike trip
Round the World cyclist Emily Chappell gives down-to-earth insight on how she prepared for her first big bike adventure.
This time ten years ago I was going through one of the busiest, most stressful, most exciting years of my life. The previous summer, I had decided that I was going to cycle around the world. I set myself the departure date of 1st September 2011, which then became the biggest deadline I’d ever faced. To be strictly accurate, it was really a large constellation of deadlines, which is perhaps why it was so intimidating.
The book in which I kept my to-do list contained entries such as “build bike”, “plan route” and the alarmingly vague “sort visas” – each of which contained countless decisions and deadlines of its own. I was also working 70 hours a week in several different jobs (to meet the costs of the trip); attempting to sell, donate, or otherwise dispose of all my non-bike clothes and possessions; and socialising as much as I could, to make the most of all the friends I’d have to do without for the next few years. Although I was excited about the turn my life was taking, I also spent those months in a state of simmering terror, over the magnitude of what lay ahead of me, and the likelihood that I would fail to prepare properly… and consequently let myself down before I’d even reached the start line.
My worries evaporated as soon as I hit the road. Once I’d got my head around wild camping (which took less than two nights), my routine of riding, eating, sleeping and occasionally checking a map or adjusting my brakes, became almost embarrassingly easy. What I’d thought would demand constant toughness, and inordinate amounts of heroism, turned out to be a lot more manageable than life at home. For a long time I’ve assumed that this is because bike touring life is mostly very simple and satisfying – and it is. But I now suspect it might also be because the planning and preparation stage that comes directly beforehand is so hard in comparison.
I say this not to discourage future expeditioners, but rather to reassure you that, if you have a big trip on the horizon and are currently rigid with stress, with to do lists that extend to several pages: this is part of the process. And your failure to tick every single box does not mean your trip will be a disaster.
I’m not going to go through the practicalities in detail and tell you every single thing you need to pack – because you can find hundreds of packing lists and kit grids on the internet. And I would recommend cribbing from other people as much as possible – I still do this almost every single time I set out for a ride. You’d think I’d know what I’m doing by now, but casting an eye over someone else’s kit checklist is a great way of realising that you’ve forgotten to pack your pump, or your phone charger, or some other essential piece of equipment that still manages to slip your mind, after all these years.
The point of lists should be to make life easier, not more stressful. So if you’re so frightened of your to-do list that you can barely look at it, you’re probably writing things on it that are too big to swallow whole, and need to be broken down into their constituent parts.
Let’s take my example of “build bike”. I decided (wisely or foolishly) that I would personally select, source and assemble every single constituent part of my bicycle, on the assumption that this would mean I was slightly more capable of fixing it when it went wrong in improbable ways, hundreds of miles from the nearest bike shop. I don’t regret doing this, but it did add a huge amount of time and stress to my pre-trip preparations, not least because (as I was working as a cycle courier back then) most of my friends were bike mechanics, and they all seemed to have different opinions on what sort of bottom bracket, tyres, brakes and gearing would be best. Which meant that, even after consultation with the experts, each decision felt impossible.
Once I was on the road, I began to meet other people on long bike tours, and was amused to discover that our bicycles differed in almost every way. Where I had chosen steel, they had chosen aluminium or carbon (I’ve since met people who’ve cycled thousands of miles on bikes made from bamboo). Where I had gone for V-brakes and bar-end shifters, they had chosen disc brakes and grip shifters. Some had three chainrings, some had two, some had only one. Some had internally geared Rohloff hubs. One or two were riding single-speed. There seemed to be almost as many different shapes of handlebar as there were riders. And we were all doing more-or-less the same thing, with similar levels of triumph and mishap. Perhaps, I realized, there wasn’t a right or a wrong way to go bike touring.
“Perhaps, I realized, there wasn’t a right or a wrong way to go bike touring.”
And what’s more, over a journey that lasts several thousand miles, there will inevitably be a few days when something goes very wrong, or you regret a decision you made in a bikeshop six months previously. This is where you’ll get the good stories, that you’ll use to bond with fellow cyclists, and bore your friends and family when you get home.
Planning for these minor disasters is perhaps one of aspects of preparation that deserves the most thought. Ideally, we would all set out on our adventures as fully trained mechanics, packing a full toolkit and carrying replacements for every single part of the bike that might conceivably wear out. But in this ridiculous scenario, we’d be hauling several times our bodyweight over the mountains, and carrying the equivalent of an entire spare bike. This is where it becomes important to consider what items you might need, against the likelihood of finding them en route.
If you’re planning to ride through Western Europe, or along a popular touring route like the Pacific Coast Highway, you will never be too far from a well-stocked bike shop, and probably don’t need to carry much more than a puncture kit. If some unforeseen disaster (snapped crank, blown-out rim) occurs, you probably won’t be able to fix it by the side of the road anyway, and you’ll end up having some sort of adventure as you hitch a lift, or walk to the nearest settlement, or attempt to sweet-talk the bike onto a bus. This is all part of the experience and never as bad as you think it’ll be.
If your journey is taking you somewhere more remote, or to regions where bike shops are rarer, or differently equipped, you’ll want to think more carefully about what might go wrong, and what solutions will be available to you. In some places, even if you do find a bike shop, they might not have the necessary parts, so you’ll want to carry (for example) an 11-speed chain, a spare mech hanger, a couple of spokes the right length. For my round-the-world ride, I deliberately designed my bike with nothing hydraulic or electronic, with 26-inch wheels (the international standard), and with a steel frame, as there’s someone in almost every village in the world who can weld. (Repairing an aluminium or carbon frame would be a lot harder – though it is admittedly quite unlikely that you’ll need to worry about this.)
And it’s not just bike shops you need to consider. When I set off on my first big trip, one of the guiltily uncompleted tasks on my to-do list was to buy a couple of lighters, for my stove. I laugh at myself now – lighters are readily available in every country in the world; it’s absurd that I wasted any time worrying about this. In most places, you will find shops along the way – and even if your expedition is very remote indeed, you’ll probably be flying into a major city at the start.
When I cycled through Alaska and Yukon in the winter of 2015, I bought quite a lot of my kit in Anchorage before I set off. It was easier than ordering online and then hauling it all on three different flights, and any place that experiences extremes of temperature will have the correct clothing and equipment readily available. (And never underestimate the support of concerned locals. On that trip, almost everyone I met tried to give me extra clothing.)
In recent years I’ve done several self-supported ultra-distance races – such as the Transcontinental, which involves riding 4,000km across Europe in under two weeks, with no support available beyond what you are able to carry yourself or source along the way. Unlike some of my longer journeys, where I’ve hefted upwards of 50kg of kit, the game here is to take as little as possible. The less weight you carry, the faster you’ll go – and the fewer items you have in your bags, the less opportunity there is to waste time by faffing: something I’ve been chronically guilty of in the past.
It was here that I truly learned how little you can get away with on certain rides. As I thundered towards the Mediterranean, with just a couple of tiny bags strapped to my saddle and handlebars, I ruefully remembered the six spare baselayers I’d carried on my Alaska ride (I only ever used one of them), and came to what should have been the obvious conclusion all along: that the whole point of a bike ride is actually to ride your bike. A certain amount of kit will help with that, but too much will hold you back. So now, when I’m getting ready for a trip, and find myself getting bogged down in endless decisions over every tiny detail, instead of worrying about everything I might need, I decide on the bare minimum I can get away with, pack the essentials I can’t do without, and trust that my experience, creativity and sense of adventure will take care of the rest.
Emily Chappell is an author and long-distance cyclist. She cut her teeth working as a cycle courier in London, before setting off in 2011 to cycle across Asia, starting in Mid Wales and finishing in Japan, after crossing some of the continent's highest, hottest, coldest and most inhospitable regions. Having developed an affection for cold weather, she’s also crossed Iceland in winter and fatbiked the Alaska Highway from Anchorage to Seattle, surviving temperatures as low as -40C.
Her need for bigger and tougher challenges eventually led her to ultra-endurance racing, and she has won the 4,000km Transcontinental Race across Europe, as well as the fearsome Strathpuffer 24 hour race, commonly agreed to be one of the world’s toughest mountain bike races.
Emily is a Director and co-founder of The Adventure Syndicate, a collective of outstanding female cyclists whose mission is to challenge what others think they are capable of, inspiring, encouraging and enabling people to overcome their fears and live to their fullest potential.
You can hear more from Emily on Twitter and Instagram. She also has a big selection of advice and questions on her blog.