Chris Lee cycled across Canada in 2017 on a bike from Bike Mill. Here he shares 9 bike touring tips he learned along the way. You can get information on Chris’ book here.
“In spring 2017 I went to Leeds Bike Mill looking to buy a touring bike.
A week before that, I’d booked a one-way flight to Canada for June 2017. I had a plan to ride across, a ticket to get there, but nothing to ride across on.
So Ben led me upstairs to the room full of bikes for sale and ran me through a few of the options.
Part of the charm of a community bike recycling cooperative is the ramshackle aspect of the bikes on offer. You find all sorts, previously owned by people from all walks of life. Kids mountain bikes nestled up against faded Peugeot racing bikes from the 80s. Tired tourers next to city bikes desperate for a new owner to take them out on the town again. Then, tucked away at the back, a green glint caught my eye.
It may not look like much in the picture. And in fact, two people laughed in my face when I showed it to them, telling them I’d found my bike for Canada. But under Ben’s watchful eye and masterful hand, the bike took on a new lease of life –
That transformation was one of many things that went smoother than expected on the ride. So instead of rattling off a bunch of random stories about riding across Canada, I decided to make this blog post a little more useful. Below, you’ll find nine tips to help your upcoming bike tours run smoothly.
Touring tip #1: Leave yourself plenty of time to plan
There’s a lot involved in planning a cycle tour. Alongside the flights, the gear, the route, and various other bits, I also had to acquaint myself with the new bike. Training rides were in order to get used to the miles, and to see whether its geometry was compatible with my physiology.
At first, things weren’t promising. After a while, though, pedalling hurt. Bits of me went numb (more alarmingly, these were bits where sensation is especially important). And every attempt I made to remedy the problem by adjusting saddle height and angle only made them worse.
I remember stopping beside the road in Adel, leaning against the wall, looking at the bike, and despairing. Canada would be literally thousands of times longer and more difficult than this ride, and here I was barely able to keep riding a few miles from my front door. Visions of having to return the bike, find another, and repeat the acquainting process anew flashed through my mind – something I would’ve struggled to find time to do.
Make sure to give yourself ample time to get everything ready. Remember doing so includes training as well as sourcing all of your gear!
Touring tip #2: Allow space for spontaneity
Planning a tour route is definitely recommended, but remember it’s up to you how detailed the plan is. Beyond a start and endpoint and a vague idea of the line connecting the two, the rest is up to you. Will you have a strict itinerary with every campsite booked in advance and every day’s route loaded into your handlebar GPS? Or will you have a bunch of paper maps, a vague idea which direction you’re supposed to go in, and an unbridled sense of adventure?
On our ride across Canada, we took a laissez-faire approach somewhere approaching the latter. Except for the names and addresses of friends (and friends of friends) dotted in various cities across Canada, we just planned to ride east, about 65 miles a day, and figure out to sleep as and when we started to feel tired. Some days this meant rummaging around in scrub on town outskirts trying to find enough flat ground for our sleeping bags, which wasn’t particularly glamorous. On other days, though, it meant striking up a conversation with some random people and an hour later sitting with them swapping stories of our ride and their lives over beers, our tents erected safely on their lawn for a comfortable night’s sleep.
There’s definitely a tradeoff between the depth of plan and the amount of spontaneity on offer. While this is a personal threshold for everyone, I recommend making space for as much spontaneity as you can without sacrificing the peace of mind that a plan requires.
Touring tip #3: Don’t be sentimental
Immediately after arriving in Vancouver, a bunch of our stuff got stolen. Thieves relieved us of a water bottle, a helmet, and the spindle that connects the back wheel to the frame. This was particularly annoying: Firstly, because it’s hard to imagine any reason to steal that beyond being annoying. And secondly, because it’s the type of theft that you could ride without noticing, only realising something was wrong when you went over a bump, and your back wheel comes off.
Thankfully, though, we noticed. We toured the various bike shops of Vancouver to replace what was missing, then used the bad vibes as an excuse to set off on our ride a day early.
Later in the ride, two of our bags got mistakenly collected as trash and taken, irretrievably, to a landfill site. We lost about £200 worth of gear between us, including everything required to make hot food. As a result, we didn’t have any cooked meals for the week it took us to get to the next town big enough to replace the gear.
While it’s not inevitable, be prepared for things getting lost or, worse, stolen. Accept the possibility of it happening, and try to roll with the punches as best you can if it does.
Touring tip #4: Embrace the hills
While researching the ride in cycling forums, it became apparent that west to east was the favourite way to get across Canada. The prevailing wind is more likely to be behind you, meaning an easier ride (in theory). The tradeoff, though, is having to ride over the Rocky Mountains fairly early on.
If, like me, you’re wary of hills, this is a fairly daunting prospect.
As we rode through the Vancouver suburbs, out into the countryside, through the verdant Okanagan Valley, and towards the Rockies, the horizon became increasingly mountainous. Hazy blue shapes appeared and only increased in size as we approached. Before long we were in the foothills, tackling elevations that were manageable, but which also alluded to some fairly hardcore climbs fairly soon.
When you’re touring, there’s real value in learning to embrace climbing. My cycling career up to that point had been defined by getting off and walking up any hills I didn’t like the look of. Riding from Otley to Leeds, this is fine. It adds a bit of time, but you’ll still be home in time for tea. Riding from one side of Canada to the other, though, makes it a far less viable option. I reckon that if I’d walked up every steep hill, I’d still be making my way across the country today.
Instead, take the opportunity to learn to enjoy climbing. Learn about the lowest gear your bike has to offer (often called the Granny Gear). Don’t be afraid or ashamed to drop down into it. Accept that slowing down to a snail’s pace and going one rotation of the pedal at a time is legitimate and that you’ll get to the top eventually. When you do slow down into it, climbing changes from a desperate struggle where you’re constantly short of breath, to a meditative experience where you can pay extra attention to the scenes and sensations.
Touring tip #5: Ease yourself into things
This ties heavily into the previous tip. Just like how gradually easing yourself into hills can change your appreciation of them, the way you ease yourself into the new rhythms that cycle touring brings determines what sort of time you’ll have.
Packing your belongings into bike bags and setting off toward some distant horizon is a big undertaking. Your days on the saddle will likely look completely different to your everyday life. Instead of bed with duvets and showers with hot water, you’ll have sleeping bags and cold streams. Instead of kitchen amenities and cupboards replete with food, you’ll have whatever you can cram into your panniers, cooked over a single flame. Usually, this is food with the highest caloric content to weight ratio, too, meaning that flavour factors in a lot less than you may be used to.
But you know what? During that transition, all the things around you are different, too. Everything is novel. You’re in a new place full of new things, and each day is an invitation to gratitude. An opportunity to see a different side of the world and gradually lose yourself in it.
In Canada, this process is accelerated by the sheer variety of places you ride through in quick succession. From rolling lakeside highways you find yourself weaving through snowcapped mountains, then just a couple of days later, you’re riding through sunbaked prairie land, wondering how snow could exist within a thousand miles of here. After prairies, you spent countless days riding through thick forest, dotted with an indeterminable number of lakes, from those you can swim across in minutes to those that contain a fifth of the world’s entire freshwater supply. The terrains and sceneries and ambiences on offer in Canada are a vast and fascinating tapestry, and riding through on a bicycle lets you take everything in at just the right speed.
Touring tip #6: Talk to people
Every single part of Canada we visited was enriched by talking to locals. Not only are they interested in what you’re up to, but they have unparalleled knowledge of the place. Depending on how far your conversation goes, you’ll get recommendations for better routes, tips for particularly good places to camp, offers for dinner, and even invitations to hot tubs and pool parties.
All of my fondest memories from the ride revolve around the curiosity and generosity of the people we spoke to. There was the elderly couple who invited us in and made us a packed lunch when the general store we’d been relying on for food that day turned out not to exist. There were the two families who invited us to sleep on the ground between their cabins, then hosted a competitive barbecue where each tried to outdo the other with their hospitality. There were the endless conversations outside general stores, in petrol station forecourts, on benches, at roadsides, and everywhere else: About Canada, cycling, life, or whatever happened to be on their mind.
Bicycles and the people riding them seem to have a unique magnetism. I was surprised every time at how friendly people were. How willing they were to share a few minutes with complete strangers. So if you need a reminder of the general excellence of humanity, get on your bike and ride. You won’t be disappointed.
Touring tip #7: Eat Well
The beauty of the world and the kindness of the people who inhabit it will nourish your soul, but while cycle touring, it’s especially important to nourish your body. There’s another mantra I kept close to me while riding: If you feel hungry, you’ve already left it too late to eat. This is because your body uses a huge amount of energy while riding. On a 70 mile day, it’s not unusual to burn more than twice your regular calories, for example.
So, when you feel hungry, it means your body has already worked through all of its available energy. Even if you cram a snack to tide you over to the next food stop, it’ll take about half an hour for your body to get anything from it. The section of your ride between snack and lunch you’ll be running on empty, which isn’t a pleasant sensation (it can actually be dangerous, as it plays havoc with your blood sugar levels).
Make sure to eat well, is my advice to you. Have big breakfasts. Have big lunches and dinners, too. Eat many snacks: Trail mix, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, and hard-boiled sweets were my favourites. Get used to the rhythm of eating every time you stop, even if it’s just something small. And treat yourself to junk food frequently: You’re burning off so much energy that you may as well make the most of it!
All across Canada are regional delicacies, too. Vancouver has beaver tails. Quebec has poutine. Make sure to sample them all, as often as possible.
Touring tip #8: Rest well
It’s also important to sleep well. Both in terms of where you sleep and what you sleep in. Canada, as a rule, gives you beautiful opportunities for the former. We rode through lush valleys, over soaring mountains, past coolies and beside hundreds of miles of lakeshore. We camped under stars, in thickets of reaching pine trees, amongst islands, and everywhere in between. If you feel comfortable wild camping, cycle touring gives you a million opportunities to do it.
Just remember four things:
- Leave the spot tidier than you found it.
- Don’t camp on private land without express permission.
- Don’t disturb any people or animals.
- Be ready to leave in the early hours.
Touring tip #9: Write it down
I wrote two journals while I rode, and reading over them brings back a load of memories that have slipped away since. On the ride, everything feels unforgettable, but the reality is that the human mind lets a surprising amount of stuff go. After a month you’ll remember a lot of it. After a year, just the highlights. And beyond that, your recall continues to dwindle.
So take pictures, write a journal, and give yourself the option to reminisce for years to come.
And if you’re interested, check out my book. It’s a celebration of bike touring against a backdrop of Canada. My goal writing it was to convey the magic of bike touring in a way that would make at least one person think, “damn, that sounds great. I think I’ll give that a go!”.
Maybe that person will be you.”