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Cycle touring life: Gear up and go fast ?!

Cycle touring often evokes images of gentle miles, leisurely lunches and a slow pace; and there's a lot to be said for living life in the slow lane and taking...

The lifestyle of going the distance, life on a bike and never looking back

Cycle touring often evokes images of gentle miles, leisurely lunches and a slow pace; and there's a lot to be said for living life in the slow lane and taking it all in, so is there any point going faster?

Many of us dream about a nomadic lifestyle, meandering through the World at the speed of a bicycle but for most of is this doesn’t become a reality.  A set number of days annual leave, fitting in family commitments, social activities and day to day life can leave little time to get on the bike.  This is where speed, or efficiency can have its advantages...

My husband Stevie and I are both avid long-distance cyclists and members of Audax UK, the long-distance cycling club, and regularly compete timed Randonnée rides and other fast paced tours. I work full time as a Veterinary Surgeon so spare time is short and we end up fitting in what we can around busy lifestyles. The quintessential audax distance is 200km and usually completed in around 10-12 hours- a good day out on the bike in our book!  Longer distances exceed 1000km and beyond, but my favourite rides are 600km.

Paris - Brest Starting Line

600km, I soon found out, requires a recovery day booked off work.  Rides of this distance often start early on a Saturday morning and finish Sunday evening around 40 hours later, and although provision is often made for sleep this is rarely beyond a few hours- hence the need for a recovery day! To many people this may sound like a horrendous ordeal but when you consider rides like the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600km ride that starts in Chepstow in the South of Wales, up to Anglesey in the North and back again (i.e. The length of the country twice!) through Snowdonia and some of the most picturesque parts of the country maybe you'll start to understand... how often can you say you've ridden the length of a country twice in a weekend?!

There is a certain skill to "audaxing" and being able to plan your route, speed, fueling, sleep stops and anticipate problems before they start are all key skills transferable to any form of bicycle touring.  You don't need to be going fast to benefit from good planning and preparation.   Having good kit is key to success and being organized in your packing means you quickly learn where everything is and can find things in a hurry.  We prefer panniers on longer rides to enable us to carry more extra layers than we think we will need and plenty of food as we have been caught out one too many times with closed village store or missing the closing time at the takeaway.

Closing time, must keep going…

The ERRO panniers are perfect for this sort of trip as they are not only waterproof and extremely durable, able to cope with anything the UK weather can throw at use but easily packed and with the roll tops can be compacted down to how much kit and food we are at any time carrying as opposed to wearing/eating on certain points of the ride.

Bike Panniers
ERRO Panniers
Bike Panniers
ERRO Panniers, built for distance.

Being able to fuel on the go and minimize stops and faff is key on these longer rides too and having the essentials at hand minimizes time lost off the bike- we are always surprised when we look at our ride time vs actual time as how many hours are lost off the bike, normally in multiple stops of a few minutes.   We have started increasingly using frame bags and the WOHO range even fit onto our tandem so I can have the essentials at hand and feed Stevie on the front from my WOHO nosebag aka the Almighty cup!

WOHO Almighty Cup
The Almighty Cup in action!

This may all seem a bit extreme for those planning a gentle meander on two wheels, but there is nothing like getting too cold, hungry, lost or tired to ruin a ride.   Audaxing has put us in good stead for touring rides where things don't necessarily go to plan...on a tandem tour in the South of France we once had a small misdemeanor where our transport back home was not in the expected location (the verdict who's mistake it was is still out...) After using our "audax skills" to try and get to the bike bus home 600km away in 30 hours, sleeping behind a crash barrier, getting stopped by the police and having a small meltdown when McDonald's in France doesn't open until midday.... we realized the obvious solution was staring us in the face: ride home!

The WOHO Frame Bag - stuffing my essentials in there.


Putting a brave face on things in France

So, we ate what provisions we still had stashed, mounted the bike, planned a route on the go from the back of the bike.  We found wild camping spots enroute and had many a "can-can-can" dining meal and felt like we were living a life of luxury so by the time we were flying down to Calais at 4am in the morning to catch the ferry we felt like we had had the holiday of a lifetime!  Needless to say, any bicycle touring trip you learn new things but I felt our experiences riding further and faster contributed to our skills and helped us have a great time riding the length of France by accident!

Cancancan dinning from the campsite shop, ”wild” camping behind a road sign and dine al la roc...

Our taste for end to ending had been whetted and a relaxation in lockdown rules gave us the perfect opportunity to fulfil a lifetime ambition of mine: Land's End to John O'Groats, the length of the UK!  Many people will take over 2 weeks touring the 1000 mile/ 1600km route but we pretty quickly decided we wanted to do it faster (and I only had 2 weeks off work, including time to get to one end and back from the other with a tandem bicycle).  See our little Island changing at the speed of a bicycle over 10days was an exceptional experience- Cornwall in the South was mega tough with high hedges and severely rolling roads but the magic of moving up the country through the agriculture of Herefordshire, the pastures of Wales, the fells of the Lakelands, the borders to Scotland, the industry of the firths around Inverness, the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands and finally a coastal ride to the far North Easterly point: the wonderfully isolated John O'Groats.  I could write another whole piece about our adventures every day on this (in fact I wrote a daily blog! ) but it was a life changing experience and I'm glad we rode it at the pace we did.

From Lands End to John O’Groats

On the penultimate night we were delighted to glimpse a pub/hotel down the otherwise empty highland roads in the early afternoon and decide to treat ourselves to a drink.  Whilst supping our pints we got chatting to another couple who were riding the route too, but at a much slower pace and who were staying in the hotel that night.  We can't deny feeling ever so slightly smug as we rode off after our drinks into the sunset to wild camp 10 miles up the road and ate dinner al fresco watching the sunset over the loch.  Would we have had the confidence to do that not having pushed our limited and challenged ourselves on other rides... I'm not sure we would!

The joys or wild camping

Stevie is a strong advocate of “training to tour” and building your fitness to make like on the road easier.  Even if you don’t plan to go fast having the ability to put the miles in and the skills to be organised on the bike will make any trip smoother and less stressful.  So many people start out with the intention to build fitness along the road and many people are very successful in this approach, but would it have given more options or opportunities if they had a few more fast miles under the belt before they started?

I completely understand the attraction of not having a timescale and being able to take as long as you want, especially for big trips but hope these thoughts give some insight into some of the benefits of going faster too. And that's why we hope to have some understanding and support for our next challenge, the biggest of the lot: circumnavigation the World on tandem bicycle in 180 days, breaking the Guinness World Record!

We have to complete 18,000 miles on the bicycle in this time and will need to use all the touring skills we have gained over the years to complete the trip.  We are delighted Cycle Touring Life are supporting our ride and providing essential kit and advice and will be following us along the way.  We are planning on setting off from the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin on 5th June 2022 and hope you will follow us too!
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