There are three things you must do to have a successful bicycle tour: You must have the right equipment, you must be in shape, and you must have the right attitude. If you're strong in all three areas, you will have a great time! You'll decrease the chances of mechanical or physical breakdowns, and you'll be able to cope with them when they do happen.
If you're lacking in any of those areas, you need to take a close look at whether you should be taking a multiday tour.
The Right Equipment
First and foremost, you must have a bicycle that will withstand a long trip. A department store bicycle just won't cut it. Its weight will bog you down, the cheaper components will break down, and you aren't going to have a comfortable ride.
Mountain bikes currently are the most popular bikes in America. They're a great choice if you plan to do lots of off-road touring, but they're not the best choice for a road tour. They're heavier than racing or touring bikes, and even with tires with a smooth tread down the middle, they're not as efficient. Without handlebar attachments, you have fewer grip options, which can cause lots of discomfort to your hands and arms over the course of 60 or more miles.
Racing and touring bikes are by far the best choices for a multiday road ride. Racing bikes are the lightest, and they are built with efficiency and speed in mind. Touring bikes are a bit heavier, but they are the best choice if you plan to haul your tent, sleeping bag, clothes and other items with you. Hybrids, which are a mix of mountain and road bikes, may also be a good choice for you, but that will depend what kind of riding you plan to do.
To find the bike that's right for you, go to several professional bike shops and take a look at what they offer. Most bike shops will make sure that the bike fits you before they let you buy it, and they should be able to tell you whether a road, touring, hybrid or mountain bike will be best for you. They often will let you test ride it. If they can't answer your questions or approach the answers with a snobbish or disinterested attitude, don't buy your bike there. Buy your bike from someone who is genuinely concerned about what's right for you and someone who has a good reputation for bicycle repair.
Once you get your bike, you also need the following items:
- A helmet. Many weeklong tours require you to have one, and it's in your best interest to get one. Several years ago, a friend of mine was going down a fast downhill when he hit a loose rock and fell, and his head struck some rocks along the side of the road. He was wearing a helmet and escaped the wreck with only a minor concussion. Without a helmet, he would have been dead or at least seriously injured.
- Spare tubes, a patch kit, tire levers and a pump. You're going to have a flat tire somewhere down the road, and you should know how to remove a tire from wheel, replace an innertube and patch it. If you don't know how to do it, a good bike shop will take the time to show you how. Of course, you need a tire pump to inflate the tube.
- Water bottles or a hydration system. For a multiday tour, you should have at least two water bottles on your bike, or you should have a hydration system like a CamelBak. A hydration system fits on your back like a daypack and allows easy access to water. If you're not drinking lots of water on the trip, at least one liter per hour, you're going to be in big trouble, especially on a hot, humid summer ride.
- Cycling clothing. At the very least, you need shorts that are made for cycling. Ordinary shorts can cause pain in places you don't want it during the course of a long ride, but cycling shorts are made to avoid that problem. They also have some type of chamois or padding designed to make your ride a bit more comfortable. Cycling shorts are made to be longer than most shorts to avoid chaffing. A lot of people think tight Lycra shorts aren't attractive, but they provide support for the legs and do a good job of allowing sweat to evaporate. A lot of people simply wear T-shirts when they ride, but a cycling jersey can be more aerodynamic and do a better job of allowing sweat to evaporate than a cotton T-shirt.
- Money and identification. You should carry some money on you, just in case you have to make a phone call or buy a snack or drink along the route. The ID card is needed in case of an accident.
- Tool kit. You probably should try to learn other repair skills beyond repairing a tire. If nothing else, you need wrenches to loosen and tighten bolts on your bicycle.
- Duffel bag or panniers. You have to have something to carry your tent, clothes and other items. Most organized trips have a truck that will carry one or two duffel bags of your stuff, but do the volunteers a favor, don't make them too heavy! Panniers, also known as saddle bags, are primarily used by solo tourists.
- Tent and sleeping bag. Most of the organized trips I do involve camping. If that's what you plan to do, you want to get a sturdy tent that is capable of handling high winds and pounding rains. Get yourself a sleeping bag that will handle the coolest temperatures in which you plan to sleep outside. Most luxury trips don't involve camping, but there are exceptions, such as some rides offered by Backroads.
- Energy food, drinks or gels. While most organized trips provide food stops along the way, it probably is a good idea to carry some with you just in case you're low on energy before you get to the rest stop.
- Rain gear. Even if you wear it, you'll probably get a little damp, but it's better than being completely drenched. The really good rain jackets and pants also have reflective materials on them to make yourself more visible to motorists.
- Sunscreen. You need to cover yourself with at least an SPF 15 sunscreen so you don't burn.
- Bike computer. It's not a necessity, but it's nice to have to see how you're doing so can adjust your pace or find out how far you have to go.
- Ziploc (or similar) plastic bags. It's a wise idea to put your clothes in plastic bags so they'll stay dry in case your panniers or duffel bag gets stuck in the rain.
- Rope. You need it to make a clothesline to dry your clothes if you're on a camping tour.
If you plan to do fully loaded touring, you need to get yourself panniers and a rear rack to carry your equipment. You also need to get yourself a tent and a sleeping bag that will easily fit on your bike. If you plan to do your own cooking, you also need to get a good camping stove and good camping utensils. Those are made to be reasonably light for the needs of backpackers, and they're good for cyclists as well. I've yet to do that type of ride, so I would recommend checking with the folks at Adventure Cycling for more advice.
If you plan to do the typical organized tour, a truck will haul one or two of your duffel bags stuffed with your tent, sleeping bag, clothes and other items. Most of the time, the bags are placed outside the trucks at each campsite. Despite the best efforts of the staff, they can get wet from rain or wet grounds. That's why the plastic bags come in handy.
The Right Training
It's simple. To be able to ride a long trip, you've got to put in quite a few miles beforehand. Many tours recommend that you have ridden at least 500 miles in a season before going on a multiday ride.
If you think you're going to do a multiday tour, you need to get outside as soon as the weather allows. You probably can start with routine rides of 10-20 miles three to five days a week early in the season and increase those rides to 15-30 miles later in the season. As the season progresses, you need to do at least one ride per week of 20-30 miles and increase that to 30-40 miles. If time allows, try to increase that to one ride per week of 40-70 miles, but you should be OK as long as you are doing a 40-mile ride each week. If you can ride 100 miles in one day, often called a century, that will help a lot. About two or three weeks before your tour, many tours recommend you do back-to-back rides of 60-70 miles. This helps your body, especially your posterior, get used to the demands of long-distance cycling.
You also have to do some research on the route. If your tour is in Arizona or Colorado, you need to include big hills in much of your training. If you're a Midwesterner and don't have access to big hills, then do a lot of riding into the wind. It will help you develop a steady cadence that can help you on the long grades. If your route hits major cities, you should probably do some riding in a city to get you used to riding with lots of traffic.
The Right Attitude
If you have bought the correct equipment and done enough training, the odds are that you will have a great attitude about the trip. But what if you have a lot of flats and you just can't climb that steep hill? A great attitude can help you deal with those disappointments and still have a great ride.
The most important thing to remember is that you are out to have fun. When taking a tour, you want to be the best cyclist you can be, but it's far from the only thing. You probably want to see some of the attractions along the way. You probably want to make new friends from other parts of the country. You probably want to eat at some of the local restaurants along to way to get a real ideal what small-town life is like. If riding as fast as you can is your idea of fun, that's fine. If riding slow is better for you, then do it.
Flexibility will help you deal with the problems that might come up during the course of the tour. On a solo loaded tour, you may find you might have to change your destination because of technical or weather problems. On the other hand, you might get a great tailwind behind you and go farther than you planned. On an organized trip, you can't change your evening's destination, but you usually have enough time to stay a bit longer in a quaint downtown or enough time to take a side trip to a covered bridge that you saw along the way. If the roads are poor during the course of the day, maybe later that night a bunch of you can go into town, have a few drinks, blow off a little steam and talk about much more pleasant things.
In other words, soak in the whole experience and roll with it!