What Is Touring?
What Are the Different Kinds of Bicycling?
Basically, cyclists are oriented towards sports, utility, and recreation. Sports cyclists are the most recognizable. They wear colorful lycra, usually travel in groups on weekends, ride expensive sports or racing bicycles with extensions over the front handlebars and sometimes strange wheels, travel to races and trials, and read magazines focused on races and high-tech, ultra-lightweight equipment. A much smaller but similar group is the fitness cyclists, who pay less attention to equipment and competition, and more attention to body building. Fitness cyclists usually train alone. Although the word "tour" is sometimes used to describe a sport event, such as the Tour de France, touring is not a sports activity.
Utilitarian cyclists are the second most recognizable group. They are generally spotted during the week in the morning or evening, traveling to their job or running errands. Their speed and choice of bicycles can indicate their weekend interests (sports cyclists might ride a racing bike and touring cyclist a touring bike), but the typical bike is a mountain or hybrid bike. Commuting and running errands are not touring.
Recreational cyclists are the largest and least defined group. They don't dress alike, ride the same bicycles, or even ride in the same places. They might be riding on a city bike trail, exploring old dirt roadways through the woods, cruising in a group through the countryside, or traveling across country as a solo tour. It's easy to say what they are not interested in: speed or utility. And it's easy to say what they are interested in: enjoyment. They may also be riding for their health, but they usually see no need to monitor their heart rates to do so. Touring is a recreational activity, but not all recreational activities are touring.
Then What Is Touring?
However, we can't say that all recreational cyclists are tourists, so what is touring? A tour is a trip from one place to another, and touring also implies travel as a form of exploration. Touring cyclists, then, are people who wish to explore the world around them via bicycle. However, just as a tour does not have to explore remote areas to be enjoyable, the trip does not have to last more than a few hours to qualify. Usually, touring consists of riding out in the countryside for the purpose of enjoying Nature. Wherever I have lived, I have always gotten a local map and explored all the nearby back roads during my free time.
What is a touring trip?
A ride of a few miles on a quiet rural road in the evening or on the weekend can be considered a touring trip, if the focus is on enjoying the outdoors and the sights along the way. Bike clubs often organize longer rides that may cover from 20 to 50 miles or even more. Be sure to learn the pace of such a group before beginning such a tour. Some cyclists consider averaging 20 mph in tight packs to be touring!
Tour groups and companies offer rides in the summer that might last a couple of days or cross the continent. A trip may be through flat land or through rugged mountains, on pavement or on dirt roads. It might emphasize scenery or interesting stops. On these trips, the cyclists might camp at campgrounds, sleep on the floor at free accommodations, or stay in motels. The overnight gear may be carried in a truck, or every cyclist might carry his or her own load. When roadside repairs are needed, some groups provide a mechanic, others provide tools and spare bikes, others provide transportation to a bike shop or the next stop, and others expect you to solve the problem yourself. Be sure to learn about these details before planning to travel on one of these trips.
Solo tours or tours consisting of small groups of friends are also popular. Some spend the nights in motels, others in campgrounds, and others find their own camping sites. Accordingly, they may carry little gear or a great deal. See Planning a Touring Trip.
Bicycles for Touring
What kind of bike do touring cyclists ride? Touring cyclists use a variety of bikes depending on the road and the distance, and touring bike designers differ in their choice of characteristics. However, the typical touring bike will have 1) a longer wheelbase, leading to a stable and comfortable ride plus more room for panniers, 2) middle-weight tires which are suitable for unpaved roads but not as slow on pavement as fat tires, and 3) fender and rack eyelets.
Touring cyclists are also very likely to have equipment attached to their bikes that would make a racing cyclist shudder: racks, fenders, panniers, handlebar bags, and front and rear lights. Pannier bags hang on each side of the bike and are suitable for bulky cargo. A lightly loaded handlebar bag is easy to reach without getting off of the bike. Fenders prove their worth when traveling on wet roads during a light rain. Lights are a necessary safety precaution in the event of a delay in the trip (traveling after dark without lights and reflectors is extremely dangerous, and illegal in most places).
Is a touring bike essential? No, touring bikes are not essential, just preferred. Another good bike for a day tour is what used to be called a sports-touring bike. This bike was incapable of carrying a heavy load overnight, but it could carry a smaller load on the rear rack while still being somewhat more lively and sporty.
Hybrid bikes and mountain bikes can sometimes be used for touring as they can also carry racks and fenders. It's a good idea to add handlebar extensions to offer additional resting places for the hands, however. The tires on the mountain bike should be fairly narrow if touring on roads. Very wide tires are really only needed on soft soil and slow the bike down considerably otherwise, due to weight, air resistance, and drag.
What are touring cyclists likely to wear? The clothing is most likely going to be a mixture of racing clothing, mountain bike clothing, and whatever is comfortable. And I like to wear a bright-colored cycling shirt or jacket, so I can be seen more easily. In the summer, I wear duck pants with the pockets on the side, and in the winter, I just wear outdoors pants. Cycling shorts may have a "chamois" pad which is supposed to prevent blisters on a long ride. I don't see any real difference. I buy inexpensive sports shoes to wear while riding with toe clips and straps; a firm sole is important to protect the foot from the pedal. You might prefer regular cycling shoes which are designed to be clipped onto special pedals. The shoes and pedals must match.
What are touring cyclists likely to carry? It's not necessary to carry as much gear on a short trip. Nonetheless, I never leave the house without a pump, a patch kit, a spare tube (in case I can't find a leak), front and rear lights, a lock and cable, a tool kit, and at least one water bottle. I almost always carry a rain suit with pants. In addition, I usually carry a map, some spare bulbs for the front light (I use a generator light which does not need batteries), and some spare nuts with washers. In the summer, I always carry a bandana for sunburn protection on the neck and ears, some sun block, a chap stick, and a second water bottle.
On an overnight trip when I won't be camping, I carry a change of clothes, especially underwear and socks, and some toiletries. When I arrive, I take a shower and put on the clean clothes to be around others, and then wear them back the next day. Some like to carry a pair of light shoes as well.
For overnight stay at a hostel, a sleeping sack or light sleeping bag is required. A paperback, deck of cards, or some other light-weight form of entertainment is a good idea for slow periods. An alarm clock weighing a few ounces can be useful in the morning.
For more a more extensive trip, I have an article on camping and touring gear.
Is age a problem for touring? Because it's more gentle than racing, touring is an activity that can be enjoyed into the 70's. As you get older, the need for daily exercise and pacing yourself becomes more apparent, as your body will no longer tolerate abuse. For the most part, what we call "old age" is accumulated neglect due to a sedentary lifestyle. Someone who begins riding later in life can reverse these changes to a large extent, but it does take time.
Can children go on bicycle tours? Yes, people go touring with children all the time, although one must shift the priority away from covering as many miles as possible to ensuring that the kids have a good trip. The youngest children can ride in a trailer or on a baby seat. Often tandems are modified to allow somewhat older children to pedal and ride, and there are also contraptions in which the rear half a child's bike is attached by a handle to the seat post of the adult bike. Finally, when kids get to be eleven or twelve, they are ready to ride on their own bikes in front of you, where they can be watched. Children are bored more easily than adults, although touring is more interesting than the day to day life. In addition, children find touring more challenging in the beginning but build up faster than the adults.
How to Get Started
What's a good way to get started touring? I would suggest giving the bike a good going over before getting out on the road if it has not been used recently. I also recommend keeping your first rides short and gradually extending the distance. Don't try a distance of greater than five miles unless you have been cycling regularly. During the winter, I ride my bike to work to keep in shape. Nonetheless, when the first pretty spring day comes, I don't go out and kill myself. I limit myself to a distance no more than twice my normal daily distance. I don't start riding farther until I get comfortable with that distance. To prepare for a tour with others, ride at least half of the daily distance as often as possible until you are comfortable with that distance. Also, don't worry too much about speed. Pushing for all your worth for a short distance is not nearly as helpful as traveling at an enjoyable pace for a longer distance.
A very good accessory for local touring is a county road map, usually available for free at the court house. This map shows every road in the country and its condition but does not show the hills. In most states, you can buy an atlas which includes topographic coverage of the entire state. These maps are excellent at showing the vegetation and layout of the land, but they don't provide any information about the condition of the roads. Those going further use road maps or perhaps the Adventure Cycling maps. For more details on map alternatives, see my article on Maps.
Things To Do While Touring
What can one do on a touring trip? Well, some cyclists like to use a weekend's ride as an excuse to stop in a restaurant. A simple over-night tour is to visit a nearby city, take in whatever attractions draw you, spend the night in a motel, and ride home the next day.
For many people, touring is a social activity. It's a opportunity to go on a date, spend time with the mate, share time with the kids, or get together with friends. You might make new friends by joining the local bike club -- if the club does the same kind of cycling you do. The local bike shop is often a good place to make contacts and find out the local situation. You may also meet up with other cyclists on the road and end up making a friendship out of it.
As a Nature-lover, I seek natural experiences. I like to watch spring come in, the new leaves on the trees and the flowers along the side of the road. In the heat of the summer, I bicycle along the lake and stop to wade in the water or go for a swim. The fall brings red, yellow, brown, and green hillsides. And bicycling in a new snow or the falling snow is a rare treat here in Alabama. An early morning ride, before the chickens are fully awake, is invigorating. A night ride back in the country includes a star-spangled sky and sometimes falling stars. A bike ride lets me see wild life and birds on scenic mountain roads. The bike brings the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural world closer and, when that's not close enough, I can stop anywhere. I love a rest stop in a quiet grove or trees or along a stream.
Whatever your interest, seek experiences that make your trips more meaningful to you, and you will be touring a long time.