Travel Inspiration

Cycling Across Continents is Easier Than You Think

“The journey is more important than the destination,” is the oldest cliche in travel, centring the idea that your endpoint doesn’t really matter. Instead, it’s the experiences you have along the way. For travellers, it’s the kind of sentiment that feels intuitive. 

Except that we don’t really do that much actual travelling, do we? Combustion engines do the dirty work for us – you know, the planes, trains and automobiles – and our journeys devolve into long periods spent on our bums in air-conditioning, waiting to arrive. 

But friends: the overland journey is not dead, not by a long shot. In a world of flowering environmental consciousness, endemic road traffic and over-visited “bucket list” destinations, long-distance bicycle touring is enjoying a new golden age. Cross-continental cycling trails are opening up across Europe and North America, and a casual search through your social media of choice reveals intrepid folk on the road right now in every corner of every continent except Antarctica.

Photo by Godisable Jacob

The world looks very different from a bike. There is no culture shock, because cultures evolve with the countryside as you move through it. You’ll spend days, weeks and months living in landscapes and interacting with people who would otherwise be mere glimpses through the windows of a bus or a plane. Your bike frees you from delayed flights, city traffic and no-show trains. You ride on your own schedule, at a human pace. You are more approachable to locals, and you’ll find yourself in places that rarely ever receive tourists. And with your “transport” budget folded into your “food” budget – because your body is now your engine, and food is your fuel – you can eat as much as you want, guilt-free.  

When I set out on what would become a full year on the road between Canada and El Salvador, I had very little bicycle touring experience under my belt. I assure you: long-distance adventure cycling is easier than you think. In this article, we’ll cover the basics to get you started on your first trip. 

Photo by O'car Johann Campos 

Plan Your Route

As an adventure cyclist, you can be as adventurous as you please. You could take on North America’s Great Divide Mountain Bike Route or Mexico’s Baja Divide, and your wheels may never touch tarmac. You could max out on the epic ambition (by following the classic overland routes from Alaska to Patagonia, Cairo to Cape Town or London to Sydney, for example), or just take a few days to explore a region closer to home. 

As with other forms of travel, the old maxim that “less is more” certainly applies to bicycle touring. Unless you’re an ultra athlete or have unlimited time, setting yourself large mileage goals will tend to prevent the serendipitous encounters and side adventures that give bicycle touring its unique magic. 

When planning your route, be sure to account for factors like prevailing wind direction and altitude. This kind of optimisation isn’t going to work 100 percent of the time, but if you’re thinking about cycling between Geneva and Amsterdam, for example, it’s probably worth starting in the mountains and ending by the coast instead of the other way around. 

Some continents are full of designated bike routes – see the Adventure Cycling Association’s U.S. maps and the Eurovelo routes across Europe – and a little searching on janky old forums like Crazyguyonabike will reveal route suggestions in virtually any corner of the globe. Keep in mind that cycling on freeways is rarely pleasant and often illegal – country roads and secondary highways are your best bet when you don’t have a designated bike path. 

Photo by Munbaik Cycling Clothing

Physical Preparation

The best way to physically prepare for a long-distance bike tour is to get on your bike. A lot. Cycling is a great way to explore your home town or city with new eyes while simultaneously acclimatising to sharing the roads with mostly motorised traffic. 

One of my favourite methods for urban bike exploration is to enable the cycling layer on Google Maps, which shows most of your city’s bike paths and lanes in bright green. Use that view to plot a route that will get you in and out of the city limits on bike-friendly surfaces, and you’ll get a taste of urban and countryside cycling in a single day. If you can find a place to camp or sleep out in the bush, you’ve already plotted your first multi-day trip!

If you’re considering a bigger trip, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude – even lunacy – of what you’re trying to do. But it’s important to remember that cycling is very easy on your body. Simply make sure your bike is set up to fit your body correctly (a bike shop will help), and you’ll only suffer a slightly sore bum and tired legs at the end of the day. 

Photo by Mohit Tomar

What kind of bike? 

Long-distance touring bikes generally come with steel frames – so they can be welded back together on the roadside if, for example, a Bolivian pothole catches you unawares – and leather saddles (Brooks is a splurgy favourite) that become absurdly comfortable over time. It’s best to choose handlebars that offer several different hand positions. When choosing your components – gear shifters, chains, wheels – my suggestion is to err on the side of heavier (and therefore stronger) options over weaker alternatives that will tend to break sooner than later. The jury is eternally out on kickstands – I like the convenience; others hate the weight. When you meet other cyclists on the road, be ready to debate.

Remember to keep photocopies of your passport, visas, travel insurance and other important documents, and the hollow frame of your bike is the perfect secret stash. 

It’s important to note that you don’t need too much bicycle expertise to get started – it will build over time. To start, learn how to change your tyre tubes and fix a flat. The rest, like fixing broken chains, changing gear cables and tightening spokes, will come with experience. Never be afraid to ask mechanics and other cyclists for help. 

Photo by Seyda Ünlü

What do I pack? 

You can be as minimalist or as maximalist as you like. So-called “credit card” bike tourists pack a change of clothes and some toiletries, and let their wallets take care of restaurant meals and hotel accommodation. Others pack huge amounts of gear into overstuffed panniers and strap more to the top of the load with occy straps. I have met bike tourists who towed trailers for their dogs – and others who sawed the handle off their toothbrush to save half a gram. 

Your average long-distance bicycle tourist straps four waterproof panniers to their bicycle – two each on front and rear racks. You’ll carry camping gear (a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, perhaps a travel pillow) and clothes to suit the weather where you’ll be riding. Sturdy shoes and some sandals will do for footwear; padded pants are a lifesaver and any hopes of looking hot should be left at home. Never forget your head torch. A light rain coat and windproof gloves will go a long way on chilly mornings, but overall you’ll need less clothes than you think. 

A pot, knife, spoon and light stove will make you even more self-sufficient. If you’re going somewhere that doesn’t have a lot of camping shops, consider taking a multi-fuel stove that you can fill at petrol stations when white gas isn’t available. A bladder for water and some kind of purification system will also be handy. 

Photo by Mounir Abdi

Make sure to take a few spare inner tubes, spokes and cables, depending on how common bike shops are where you’re going. Pack a pair of tyre levers, a multi tool that includes a chainbreaker and some pliers for cutting cables. I like to take a small pressure gauge, but that’s definitely optional. Bring a rag and a bottle of chain lubricant, and lube up every few days – more if it rains. Make sure you have the right screwdrivers, Allen keys or wrenches to suit the various screws and bolts holding your bike together, as you’ll be surprised how easily they’ll loosen on dirt roads. A good multi tool should have you covered. Finally, don’t cheap out on your pump, as a bad one will die sooner than you think. 

Lastly, don’t forget small luxuries. A stubbie holder to keep your road beer cold or a little chopping board for your camp kitchen will go a long way. Fields, forests and city parks are now your kitchen and your living room (your tent is your bedroom) and a light camp chair or a hammock will help make it home. 

And there you have it!

You now possess the minimum required knowledge for long distance bicycle touring. With this basic information in your head and this gear in your inventory, you are ready to experience the joys of life as a stinky cyclist on an epic journey. Endure the headwinds, relish the showers and remember to sing when you’re sailing off a mountain.

Quinten is an Australian writer who lives in the United States. His first book is The Guest: A Backroads Journey by Bicycle.