Friday, 29 July 2016

Getting Started

So I saw an amazing documentary film and heard some exciting stories of those who jumped on a bike and cycled across a country, a continent, and even half the world. How can I get in on this action?  The freedom of the road is beckoning, the wonder of new places, challenges, and different people and cultures awaits, but there are many obstacles in the way.  Work, money, know-how, dangers, and fears.

Personally, I have never had much trouble in taking a break from a career and just starting afresh, but it needn't be like this.  Bicycle touring can be done over a just a few days, a weekend, or a week.  It doesn't have to be a trip lasting months and months. Even if it is just exploring your more local surroundings better and getting some fresh air and exercise, I reckon the benefits needn't be solely about covering long distances in far-flung places over long periods.  However, I am in it for at least the medium to long-haul.

So, where to start?

1. Can I physically do this?

If you are going to be loading your bike up with gear and travelling even small distances with it, some physical fitness is definitely required.  Also, you need some confidence in riding a bike.  Fortunately, I rode to work most days here in Melbourne (about 16Km each way); this got me accustomed to traffic and used to the subtle challenges of just simple riding.  In my opinion, you need to know at least what an hour on a bike feels like on a regular basis to contemplate going for days, weeks, or even months on end.

Depending on what kind of cycle touring you are doing, you are going to need to be somewhat fit as well.  On the Darwin to Melbourne cycle, I am planning an average of about 130Km a day.  Loaded-up with gear, this is hard work, even harder when it is hilly. However, in reading around other blogs, some people saunter 40Km or less in a day, so unless you are doing big climbs, almost anyone could do this after a little acclimatization to the saddle.

On my Australia trip though, I worked out that I at least needed to be doing over 100Km a day for my absolute minimum target (Adelaide), and about 130km a day for my desired target (Melbourne).  In training run-outs, 130Km is certainly a long day in the saddle, about 7-8 hours riding with a loaded bike for me.  Most of my practice runs have been done in much hillier terrain than the actual trip will ever be, however, so I hope this stands me in good stead.

As far as confidence with fitness and mental toughness through physical adversity goes, I think I should be fine.  I have completed 2 marathons, and have also finished a 75Km ultra skymarathon in Australia earlier this year.  That was over 14 hours of pain over steep mountainous terrain at the Buffalo Stampede in the Australian Alps.  The belief that completing such an event gives you can't be measured, and if I have times where I need to dig deep, I can always think back to that event and the marathons I have done in the past.

2. What kind of bike do I need?

I suppose that for small trips you can use almost any bike, however, for long trips with heavy loads, it definitely pays to purchase something that is specifically designed for the task.

The above bike was what I chose; a Soma Saga (similar to the one in this video), set up much like a Surly Long Haul Trucker, although with a slightly lighter and better quality frame and construction.  I knew already the kind of bike my friend bought to take him across Asia and Europe (see my "About" page), but I did some internet searching also and the Surly Long Haul Trucker was a name that kept coming up as affordable and reliable.  There are other models out there that would do a good job also, I'm sure, but this is what I was looking for.

The next step was finding a bike shop that had one.  I guess I could've ordered one in, but I also wanted some advice and to try it out before I bought it.  Only one store in Melbourne stocked Surlys and that was Velo cycles.  For someone completely new to bikes like me, it was pretty essential to get some advice, and most bike shops don't really cater for expedition touring types, especially in Melbourne, a city more known for general road biking.  If you live here, you can see pelotons of cyclists riding some of the more popular routes.  They are bikes built for speed and most bike shops cater for that.

Fortunately, Velo cycles not only had a reasonable range of touring bikes but also members of staff that had completed bike tours themselves.  This was pretty reassuring in the process of buying a bike costing around $2000 that had to carry me through a lot of miles.  They were also very knowledgeable with details of what I should expect and what other gear I might need.  In the end, despite the shop stocking Surly Long Haul Truckers, I went with the slightly more expensive Soma.  Everyone in the shop loved that bike, but also it had a great feel when I test drove it, and it also came in British racing green.  It was calling out to me, I had to have it.

3.  What equipment do I need?

As I said, Velocycles helped me out with this, but I already had an idea that I wanted to carry all my stuff using panniers rather than a trailer towed behind the bike.  When it came to the essential gear, I didn't skimp on anything (much to the surprise of many who know me, no doubt), I definitely don't want any equipment to be failing me in the middle of the outback in Australia.  Below is my list of bike-specific equipment:

* Soma Saga touring bike
* Front and back pannier racks
* Ortlieb waterproof front and back panniers (pairs)
* Ortlieb waterproof handlebar bag
* Multi bike tool
* Basic back light
* 500 Lumen capability bright front light
* Hybrid clip-in pedals
* Shimano cycling shoes
* Cycle computer
* Side-view mirror
* 5 spare inner-tubes
* Puncture repair kit
* Bike chain lubricant
* Bicycle pump
* Tyre levers
* Helmet

I already had lights, but I recently got myself a bright front light, just in case I needed to ride at all at night-time.  I would try to avoid this, but if I need to I could now do it and hopefully see and avoid the dead kangaroos that apparently litter the road from time to time, or any other conceivable obstacles.  The chaps at velocycles also recommended I carry 5 spare inner tubes for such an expedition.  The only other slightly unnecessary piece of equipment for most tours, perhaps, is the mirror.  However, the route I will be taking in Australia is frequented by road trains; massive trucks carrying more than one load or exceptionally heavy loads.  I want to see these coming, get off the road and let them pass.

Bits and bobs, gadgets, and essentials.

Bigger equipment, mainly for camping.

Other equipment and clothing:

* One-person tent
* Small tarpaulin
* Four season sleeping bag
* Small, lightweight sleeping mat
* Mess tin
* Lightweight gas burner
* Camping gas canister
* Gerber camp knife
* Head torch
* Camera
* Compass
* Sunglasses
* Sudocrem (for saddle sores)
* Small backpack
* Pair of pliers
* Two wallets
* Mobile phone
* 4 bungee cords
* Duct tape
* String
* Trowel (for digging hole for toilet)
* Small travel pillow
* Gloves
* Fleece
* Thick coat
* Beanie
* 3 pairs of socks
* 3 sets of underwear
* 4 cycling T-shirts
* 2 non-cycling tops
* Fleece lined trousers
* Tracksuit bottoms
* Lightweight hiking trousers
* Neck gaiter
* 2 small towels
* Sunscreen
* Insect repellent
* Head net (to keep the flies off my face)

4. Preparation

I have been on a number of trial runs with the bike, mostly weekends when I am not working.  I think this is very important.  Now I know how to load my bike up, how far I can go in one day, how to stealth camp without being spotted, and what things I need to make things go more smoothly.  You even learn simple things like how much water you go through in a day and how much gas you use up when cooking.

I have also done plenty of research about the route; the concerns listed in my first post are what is necessary to plan for, and obviously stops of interest along the way.  There is the odd blog on the internet about this trip as well (mainly from Darwin to Adelaide), which I have read to have a general idea of what to expect.

I think one can over-research in this day and age, what with Google and an almost unlimited amount of information on the internet.  However, this route is one that I need to be somewhat careful with.  In New Zealand, I can play it by ear a little more, as towns and villages - and therefore, food, water, and assistance - will not be so scarce.  The outback is not a place to go into under-prepared.  I am very aware of where I need to stop and what facilities are available on the way, especially on the the long way down the Stuart Highway.

5.  Mechanical Knowledge

It would certainly be advantageous to know as much as possible about repairing the bike.  I think the basics are knowing how to take your bike apart and put it back together for transport, fixing punctures, and replacing tyres and inner tubes.  I have also taught myself how to adjust brakes and replace brake pads, but with a service of the bike before leaving on the trip, this probably won't be necessary.  Anyway, this is all very simple stuff after a bit of a play around.  I would like to know how to fix a broken spoke, but I probably won't get around to this for this trip, so fingers-crossed it doesn't happen, especially for the Australia leg.  I'm guessing bike shops will be easier to find in New Zealand if I have any problems, and also hobbling into them on the bike will be easier.  If I am going to have mechanical issues, I'd rather them hinder me on leg 2 in New Zealand; time constraints are less, there are more bike shops, and there is less chance of being stranded miles away from civilization.

6. Flying with a bike

This was actually probably my biggest worry and barrier to getting started.  However, with a bit of research into what was required, it wasn't nearly as difficult as one might imagine.  Most airlines let you have a bike as part of your baggage allowance.  Now of of course, once you have packed a bike, there probably isn't much weight allowance left for you to pack anything else, so you have to estimate how much excess to buy in advance.  Doing it in advance is pretty important as the costs of just adding extra on the day can be pretty exorbitant.  I worked out that about 35Kg should do it, and at the time of writing, it seems pretty spot on, once you add an extra 7kg for hand luggage. Here's a good video showing the general process:

Airlines usually ask that your bike is dismantled and boxed-up, either in a cardboard box (like shown below) or in a special bike bag.  Personally, seeing as I have nowhere to put a proper bike box after arriving in Darwin, I had to go with the cardboard box (it's cheaper too, always a bonus).  It's pretty important to pack carefully and follow the airline guidelines.  Pedals and steering column have to come off, as well as the wheels. The rear mechanism also has to be separated from the frame and protected from any impact.  After this is all done, all parts must be protected in any way possible; I used insulating tubing for pipes and bubblewrap, as well as pieces of cardboard to separate parts of the bike that might bang together and sharps points from getting damaged or piercing the box.  It was a long process, probably took me about 3 hours.

Above: Dismantling and packing the bike into a cardboard bike box is a stress, I'm not going to lie, especially for a bit of a mechanical dunce like me.  To be honest though, the only real trouble I had was with the handlebar bag bracket, which was a bit fiddly.  I actually left it attached to the handlebars in the end after first taking it off completely and then struggling to get it back on.  Let's just hope I have no issues getting it back together again in Darwin, not to mention hoping everything is in one piece the other end!

One thing is for sure, the process of packing for a cycle tour the first time brings home what an undertaking it actually is.  It has certainly taken me out of my comfort zone so far in a number of ways, but that's exactly why I find it so appealing.  Being comfortable is overrated, and if you want to be comfortable, cycle touring as a means of travel is probably not for you.  However, I am mighty excited to get going on my first big trip. Let's wait and see how it goes!