One Punk’s Guide to Bike Touring by John Miskelly

One Punk’s Guide to Bike Touring

One Punk’s Guide to Bike Touring originally ran in Razorcake #84 (Feb./March 2015).

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One Punk’s Guide to Bike Touring

The humble bicycle is merely an elaborate set of mechanisms designed to carry the operator from point A to B for most folks.

In modern punk circles, it’s more than just a set of tubes, chains, and rubbery bits: it’s a venerated sub-cultural icon in its own right. Bikes are everywhere in punk—in lyrics, in zines, on tattoos, chained in ramshackle disarray outside venues and basements and coffee shops and bars and any other sub-cultural assembly point you might think of. What the private jet is to vulgar rock superstardom the bike is to the punk, but in reverse; not a status symbol, but a lack-of-status symbol, a physical manifestation of an ethic that rejects conventional expectations of how real grown-up people are supposed to live and embraces a new way—greener, cheaper, healthier. Punks love bikes like Murdoch hates facts.

It’s no wonder that members of our globally dispersed community have sought to further consummate this relationship between punk and bikes by riding not just to and from their local boozer, but very, very far indeed; across states, countries and continents. Usually it’s the freakishly motivated types; the ones already looking towards their Master’s degree when you were still basking in the glory of even graduating high school, or starting labels when you could still barely tune your bass. Maybe it’s your partner, or bandmate, or your local co-op coffee shop barista who rode the length of the African continent on a brakeless fixed gear bamboo bike they made themselves, with just one pair of underwear, a sleeping bag they made from upcycled flannel shirts, and survived only on food gifted to them by the people of the villages they passed through.

I am not that person. I cycle, but I am not a cyclist. I am a twenty-eight-year-old of slight physique and fairly rude health, but I play no sports and am certainly no adventurer. I like Netflix and records and reading. I get conscious of my legs aching while standing up during a boring band’s set. I’m vegetarian, but not vegan because I’m not that committed to anything and lack conviction. My trip was carried out on a whim conceived and nurtured by a far more pragmatic and motivated friend. Alex was my enabler. He had a large amount of time on his hands and was going on a bike tour.

“Fuck man, you should come.”
“No thanks, that sounds difficult and uncomfortable and hard.”
“But you’ve no commitments and you hate your job and, anyway, it’s a temp contract. And you’re always going on about leaving town. It might be a bit hard but it might also be fun and life affirming.”

I went on a bike tour basically by accident, because it’s summer and you’ve got to do something in summer, right? France, Belgium, a bit more France, a bit more Belgium, back to France, left at Strasbourg, Eastwards to Munich: six hundred odd miles in fifteen days. Is that fast? Is that far? I don’t know. I don’t care. I did it. I learned some stuff. Here it is.

What Is a Bike Tour?

This is almost wholly subjective. For some it’s a race, a challenge; a matter of pounding away the miles as quickly as their lycra-clad legs can propel their carbon fiber frames. We met a couple of these people and they are, for the most part, extremely boring and tedious to talk to—nerdy, obsessive dorks disguised in the bodies of athletes. For others—and I think most punks would fall into this category due to the relative lack of conventional ambition it projects—the bike tour is a whimsy, meandering soirée between a series of either pre-planned or spontaneously discovered points of interest. What’s a point of interest? Potentially anything: a pub, a café, an historical landmark, a gig, some wildlife, the point at which you lose interest in finding points of interest and either pitch camp or go home. But it should feel like a trip, an adventure, and it should cover at least two or three nights. And you should ache at least a bit the next morning. Whatever your definition is, though, make sure it’s in a similar ballpark to that of your riding buddy. Don’t let unforeseen “artistic differences” sour the touring experience.

Finding Time

This is trickier for you careerist types with your annual salaries and responsibilities and measly three weeks of annual leave, especially if you want to do a heftier distance that can’t be squeezed into a weekend or bank holiday. Likewise people with spawn; I guess you should have dropped out of life like the rest of us. Cycling is an inexact science. The weather, mechanical or bodily failure, and a host of other variables could set you back hours, so predicting an exact arrival time or even day can be tricky. Plus you’ll probably want a couple of days rest immediately afterwards. If you’re running way behind schedule, but are determined to make your end point, make a mental list of excuses to feed to your boss should you need to steal a couple more days of leave.

Of course, for all the whinging and moaning we might indulge in, most of us do have time—loads of it in fact—that we spend doing either nothing at all or something that eventually amounts to something less than nothing. Catch yourself before you fall into that oldest and stalest of self-deceptions: “I just don’t have time.” It’s as boring and played out as a Lord of the Rings internet meme.

Get Your Shit Together

When researching a kit, you’ll probably hear a lot of romantic bullshit and self-aggrandizing Kerouacian spiel about how all you need for a bike tour is something vaguely resembling a bike, something almost recognizable as a sleeping bag, and, if you can squeeze it into the Wall Mart carrier bag that you’ve substituted for a pannier, possibly a decent tin opener. In a literal sense, this is true. It can and has been done, and if that truly is the best you can afford, I suppose a bike tour full of abject misery and emotionally crippling tedium might be better than no tour at all. If, on the other hand, you’re a normal human with a limited patience for sitting around duck-taping a derailleur back together for the fifth time that morning, then you’re going to have to invest some time and money in kit gathering.

Get a bike that fits your body size with two decent brakes, some gears, and an adjustable seat post, and then acquire both the skills and tools to adjust/repair all of them. Some people don’t think you need gears on a touring bike, but I found them very useful in dealing with upward gradients and preserving the use of my knee ligaments. Why are you taking your cues from a guy with no lenses in his glasses and a moustache he stole off an 18th century German tobacconist anyway? Leave the fixie hipsterdom in the city where it belongs and get some gears. Take said tools with you along with two spare inner tubes. Learn how to change an inner tube and how to fix a puncture. Tools for more substantial maintenance jobs should only be bought on very remote rides or in poorly developed countries: is your bottom bracket really liable to explode in the time between first feeling that slight tickle of play and the next bike shop? Probably not, and you should have checked that it was tight before you left anyway.

Get a pannier rack and some panniers. Ask yourself how many T-shirts you need and then half that number. During our fifteen day ride, I wore two “riding” shirts and two none-riding shirts for evening excursions into civil society. I wore one pair of light, breathable shorts for pretty much the whole trip and bought one pair of jeans for cooler evenings. I wore three pairs of boxers and three pairs of socks, which I washed only once and I’m not ashamed. The weight of your panniers is limited only by your squeamishness and consideration for those you might meet along the way. Ensure that your riding buddy has a similar crust tolerance as yourself; is his limit “pop punk band’s van on sixth day of European tour,” or full-on “cider swilling gutter punk with battle jacket held together by grime and Exploited patches”? Establish this before departure.

Consider the climate (aka “the weather”). I bought a waterproof jacket and wish I’d bought waterproof panniers. If you don’t have waterproof panniers, put all your shit in a trash bag and put the trash bag inside your panniers. I learned this too late. Consider your pannier purchases carefully. Not everything over twenty bucks is a shameless corporate ploy to extract money from suckers for cheap, worthless shit. Some things are pricier than others because they work better, and don’t—without warning—jump off your pannier rack and into your spokes where they tear themselves apart like wet toilet paper.

Eat, Hydrate, Ride, Repeat

Over our fifteen days, we averaged a daily distance of 75km (around 46 miles), riding probably about six or seven hours a day. I have no idea if this is good or bad going, but I do know my appetite tripled over that period. We ate a lot. If you’re in a foreign country, take this as an opportunity to stuff your face with all kinds of interesting deliciousness and caffeinated beverages. If you stop for a snack and can’t decide between sweet or savory: fuck it; eat them both. You’ll burn off those calories eventually. This is all dependent on budget and diet of course (veganism obviously takes some work in a strange town, but it can be maintained in most of Western Europe. I rode with a vegan and he had no problems consistently outpacing me up every hill.) Buy sugary comfort foods that can be stored on your bike or about your person and then forget about them, then joyfully remember them again midway up an epic forty-minute climb through a shade-less, sun-scorched wheat field in the middle of nowhere: sweet, revitalizing dark chocolaty goodness.

For lunch we usually stopped for an hour or two, popped into a food store, and bought the materials for some truly titanic-sized sandwiches, which we constructed and ate on a park bench. While buying lunch, get some fresh veg and a tin of protein (beans, lentils, etc.) that can be mixed into a packet of Uncle Ben’s instant rice, the kind you usually put in the microwave for a couple of minutes, for a hearty evening meal. We couldn’t fit a microwave into our panniers, but we did have a little meth cooker made from an old beer can (look it up on the internet) which worked brilliantly well. Remember to leave excess room in your panniers for food storage. Bring a sharp knife/penknife for chopping shit up.

Take note of and stock up before public holidays and any day when shops might be shut. In France and Germany, for instance, nearly all shops are closed on Sundays. In fact, quite a lot of France seemed shut for quite a lot of the time. In a way, it’s awesome and probably part of the reason they don’t kill themselves or each other at quite the same rate Brits and Yanks do, but it can also make subsisting on a meal-by-meal basis quite tricky.

Even if there’s only a dozen or so kilometers between you and the next town, you never know what might stop you making the distance, so always have at least a morsel of food on you at all times.

In terms of water: I had two bottle cages on my bike (aka Blue Chunder) containing a regular-sized bike bottle in one and a 1.5 liter plastic bottle in the other, the kind they sell soft drinks in. These can be squashed down to fit quite snugly in a normal sized drinks cage. Ask friendly bar and café staff to fill them up with tap water whenever you can.

If by chance you accidently ride through the hottest three hours of a very hot day, a sachet of electrolyte powder dissolved in a cup of water can be an absolute life saver, possibly even literally. You can buy them cheap at drug stores.

Accommodation

We camped every night and it was mostly awesome. Personally, I’d always choose a cramped tent over a hostel dorm room infested with beer swigging, Abercrombie and Fitch-wearing Australian student jocks trying to out drink, out muscle, and out grunt each other until four in the morning. Our only real decision was whether to “wild” camp for free or pick out a real camping site. Wild camping is satisfying, punker, and makes for a more authentic experience, but in countries where it’s not legal, there remains that ever-present kernel of irrationality at the back of one’s mind that you might be busted and moved on. Logic dictates, of course, that the chance of a normal person spotting a solitary tent in their local woods and actually giving enough of a fuck to even approach it, let alone have you turfed off your spot, is slim to none at all. But the thought remains stubbornly there nonetheless. Campsites, meanwhile, have showers, toilets, often boozers, and sometimes even whole towns attached to them. Also, searching for a concealed wild camping spot after a full day’s riding can be a tiresome and stressful bore. If you really want to stick it to the man (aka nice old French chap who runs the reasonably priced camp site in question) it’s really easy to steal a night’s camping at those places. But, then again, you’re not a fifteen-year-kid with a mohawk and a Crass T-shirt and some very confused ideas about what constitutes anarchy, so whatever.

Route

Just because it’s the quickest route on the map, doesn’t mean it’s at all pleasurable to ride. Unless you like the sensation of a semi truck thundering past three inches from your elbow while you pedal through the tumult like a baby turtle floundering through a beach break, I’d suggest staying off the highways and main roads. Check the map the night before, choose your roads, plan a route, and be prepared to adapt to unforeseen road blocks, non-existent or un-rideable bike paths, and various other annoyances. If you can get a map with contour lines, you can avoid demoralizing, energy-sapping hills. Remember: roads that follow railway lines or rivers tend to be flat(er). Try not to ride through busy city centers if you can. They mostly consist of waiting at red lights and getting lost. (I suck at all navigation as a general rule.) My buddy Alex used the Maps With Me mobile app which did us fine. The maps are detailed and can be viewed offline. You just need to download particular areas before you leave. For cell phones though, you need electrificational power. Alex had some kind of black magic dynamo hub to juice his battery, but if you can’t shell out for one of these, or, like me, are too easily flustered by such sorcery, bring a paper map just in case. Come to think of it, bring one anyway. Cell phones have a tendency to fly out of bags and smash, or fly out of bags into the innocent hands of people who then make no effort to return them.

Reading

Bring two books. Swap ‘em with your buddy when you’re done. Kindles can fuck right off.

Aches and Pains

These are pretty much unavoidable, but can be lessened and managed simply by knowing what is and isn’t the correct way to set up your bike. First of all, get your saddle position right, at a height so that at the lowest point of your peddle stroke your legs are slightly bent but not locked out. Get some handlebars that allow you to place your hands in a variety of positions, so you can move your upper body about a bit and aren’t fixed into one position. Drop bars are good for this as long as you don’t ride fully bent forward at the lowest point for too long.

There’s loads of stuff on the internet about riding position and bike set up. Check it out, but don’t obsess. Saddle pain will persist, but will lessen in intensity after a couple of days. Don’t be tempted to just buy the softest saddle you can find. It won’t necessarily equate to a more comfortable ride. I found that muscle pains came in fifteen minute increments; my upper thigh would twinge for a while, then my knee, then nothing for a while, then my thigh, then another part of my other knee. Small changes in the position of your feet on the pedals can help with these pains. Occasionally, I applied menthol rub to my muscles, but don’t know how much it did or didn’t help. It sure does smell nice though, and it’s tingly! The first twenty minutes of every morning sucks. Just push through it. Don’t play the hero and try and ride through serious and persistent pain. It’s not worth it. If you’re fucked, you’re fucked. Sorry. Just accept it, stop, and live to thrash another day.

Attitude

A happy-go-lucky “ah, shucks” approach to hardship and fatigue is unbearable, but so is a hair-trigger tempered neuroticism. Somewhere between the two is a harmonious level of stoic realism. For the sake of your companion’s sanity and will to live: find it, or risk waking up in the middle of the night with their hands round your throat. No one wants to die in a sleeping bag.

It’s incredible how quickly and painlessly a hill can pass when you’re thinking about something completely different. The hard bit is trying not to think about not thinking about it, because by thinking about not thinking about it you will inevitably think about it. So just don’t think at all.

Don’t obsess over mileage. For one thing, unless you have a little on board distance-ometer whatchamacallit it’s hard to measure. Also, you risk becoming a boring person to be around à la the aforementioned carbon fiber lycra dorks.

Ignore Everything You Just Read

The above is not a set of instructions, but advice based on my own experiences. We are all three dimensional unique snowflakes of differing needs and desires and what works for me might suck for you. In the end, the only way to find out what suits you is to go ahead and do it.

For advice, inspiration, and how to tour on a budget check out tomsbiketrip.com

For inspiration and an insight into what kind of distances are actually possible on a bike, read Alistair Humphreys’ account of his four-year round-the-world bike tour in Javier Perianes.

Essentials
Bike
Pannier rack
Panniers
Tent
Sleeping bag
Roll mat
Allen key set
Two inner tubes
Hand pump
Adjustable spanner (wrench)
Puncture repair kit (with tire levels)
Maps
Compass
Food
Water
Time
Lungs
Legs
Heart