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9 Cycle Touring Tips

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.

Maybe ‘glint’ was a strong word

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 –

A thing of beauty

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.”

Bike Mill during Lockdown

Updated 16/08/2020

Since the announcement of a nationwide lock down our opening hours have changed.  To buy a bike please see what we have ready and make an appointment to test ride a bike. Due to a heartening increase in demand for bikes (amazing!) we are unable to fulfill specific orders at this time. But we will continue fixing up bikes for you as quick as we can.

For anyone who had a bike put aside to donate to us, we are now receiving donations once again.

Our initial statement on courses and volunteer sessions of course still applies;

We have taken the difficult decision to cancel all our courses and volunteer sessions for the time being.  The recent guidance advises avoiding non essential contact with others as far as possible, to help reduce the spread of Covid-19, and unfortunately the workshop does not enable us to spread people out at a safe distance.  Be assured that we will announce as soon as courses and sessions are up running again.

Of course, this is an unprecedented and rapidly changing situation, so we will keep this post updated with any further changes as things develop.  In the meantime, we hope you will join us (sadly not physically!) in our appreciation for bikes – which we can still use for transport, exercise, and enjoyment, as we roll through these uncertain times.

Get set for winter cycling!

Getting ready for winter cycling need not cost a fortune. As well as our range of new accessories & cycle maintenance kit, did you know we also sell affordable / pay-as-you-feel second-hand accessories?…

Light up!

Bike lights are a must after dark (literally, it’s the law). We’ve new USB rechargeable lights (£10 each*) and battery operated (fiver each). Or see what you can find in the pay-as-you-feel second-hand selection! Make sure you have a least one set of good working lights – and maybe a spare pair for these extra short days!

bike lights
*15% off these USB rechargeable lights when you buy a pair before 21st December. NB. These are packaged in plastic-free simple cardboard boxes 🙂

Be bright, be seen.

We’ve LOADS of second-hand hi-vis & reflective accessories: bibs & jackets, snap bands, spoke reflectors, regular reflectors, bag covers… all sorts!

{{Wrap up}}

Stay cosy on cold winter commutes with gloves, over-trousers, buffs, cycling tops & leggings… these are some of the things you’ll find in our second-hand cold & wet weather kit.

Chain care 101.

Clean & oil your chain approx once a month in dry weather and every couple of weeks in wet weather. Harsh winter weather and gritted roads can especially take their toll, so why not pop in and pick up a bottle of chain oil! Or go the extra mile and…

Give your favourite cyclist (or your favourite bike) a gift this festive season!

Bike maintenance kitPut together your essential bike maintenance kit from our range of chain oil, spray oil, multitools, chain wear tools, sprocket brushes, puncture repair kits, pumps & cable cutters.

 

Our opening hours are 10am-6pm on Tuesdays, Wedsnesday & Fridays. Plus 10am-2pm on the 3rd Saturday of the month. We’ll be closed over the winter holiday, last open on Saturday 21st December, reopening on Tuesday 7th January 2020!

Support Bike Mill when you shop…

co-op logoMembers of the Co-operative supermarket can now support our Fix it to Ride project just by doing your weekly shop! (Shout out to folks who don’t shop at the Co-op – please share this with your friends & networks!)

Bike Mill has been selected as one of the Co-op’s Local Community Fund projects. Every time a member buys selected Co-op products and services 1% of the money you spend goes to a local cause in the community. If you log in you’ll automatically see projects most local to you, but anyone in the country can support Bike Mill by visiting our unique local cause profile!

FITR volunteer sessionWhat will the funding support we hear you ask? In 19 months Fix it to Ride volunteers have contributed approximately 1173 hours to the project – stripping down and rebuilding bikes, learning loads of news skills whilst providing refugees and asylum seekers with a free, fast & healthy mode of transport.

We’d be so delighted if you supported Bike Mill – find out more and join the Co-op here – it will really help us keep the Fix it to Ride project going for longer. Thank you!

Why we support the climate strike (but will be open)

On 20th September, millions of people will be walking out of their homes and workplaces in solidarity with the young people on strike, demanding an end to a society dependent on fossil fuels.

We applaud everyone taking action to demand a better future for us all. We truly believe we can create a society based on renewable energy, sustainable housing, food and transport. To get there, everyone has their part to play – all individuals, businesses and governments. Striking is about showing that we – individuals and businesses – demand that our governments and other businesses step up to the task.

Untitled designThe cause behind the Global Climate Strike is close to our hearts. We created Bike Mill out of our concern for the environment, and particularly in response to dependence on private car use. We are salvaging bicycles to save waste of useful materials and to increase access to sustainable, healthy, and low-cost transport – creating work by doing something that benefits society and the environment, rather than harming it.

Alarmingly, we are already seeing the effects of climate change; twice in the past two years, record-breaking temperatures forced us to close our workshop due to unsafe heat levels. Despite our best efforts, no amount of fans could create a tolerable working/volunteering environment with outside temperatures of 36 degrees, and we are concerned for what next summer might bring. But these challenges are not dampening our motivation – they strengthen it.

We urge everyone who wants to see a healthy planet for the next generation to stand alongside the young people concerned for their future, support the climate strike on Friday 20th September and then continue to take action in the many other ways possible. We have decided to stay open as usual, so we can continue our work in promoting sustainable transport, but we are supporting those of our staff who will be walking out on Friday 20th in Leeds and welcome anyone who joins us.

Big Bike Revival 2019!

Big Bike Revival returns for 2019, with cycling events happening across the UK – check out Cycling UKs website for full listings. Here’s what we’re up to:

Big Bike RevivalLeeds Bike Mill Bike Fix: Saturday 15th June & Saturday 20th July 10am-4pm

Our regular Saturday open days will be a bit special in June & July: longer opening hours plus free bike health checks & minor repairs with Dr Bike; chill out in the cafe corner with free cycling maps of Leeds while you wait.

Clean Air Day at Briggate, Leeds city centre: Thursday 20th June 12.30pm-3.30pm

Dr Bike feedbackOur Dr Bike will be joining other organisations promoting cycling as one way to help keep our city’s air cleaning for everyone! Come and say hello and bring your own bike for a free bike health check and minor repairs.

At all of these events we’ll be running the Big Bike Revival tombola, giving you the chance to win a prize that will help keep your bike happy this summer!

Sessional Dr Bike work

Do you like meeting new people and helping them get their bikes back into good working order? Do you enjoy working independently and visiting different areas of the city?

We are looking for a freelance bicycle mechanic to help us deliver Dr Bike sessions in Leeds. Full details on the post are available in this pdf: LBM Sessional Mechanic JD

Closing date for applications is 9am on Friday 17th May. Please email applications to info[at]leedsbikemill.org

Fix it to Ride’s 1 year anniversary!

Fix it to Ride volunteers have built 50 bikes to give away to refugees in Leeds in the past year, and we’re delighted that the project is set to continue throughout 2019.

We thank all the volunteers who’ve given their time and hope they all feel they’ve gained something too… “I knew a little about basic bike maintenance before I started volunteering at Leeds Bike Mill, but now I can confidently strip a bike down and put it back together. I find it a peaceful, calming and rewarding activity… that not only benefits me but other people too.” Regular volunteers say the skills they’ve learned have given them confidence outside of the workshop too, for example at work, where one volunteer uses his skills to “support a young gentleman who has learning difficulties who has just got in to cycling”.

FITR volunteer sessionFix it started as a 6-month project, and we are really grateful to all the funders who have enabled the project to continue for longer. We’d also like to say a massive thanks to the generous people who have made donations through our Paypal page, and everyone who has donated bikes, parts and accessories. Your support has helped us ensure the project adds real value to the bike recipients, by being able to buy essential cycling kit so they can hit ground ‘rolling’!

Michael's donationAlso, we can’t complete any list of thanks without mentioning Michael, one of our Advanced Cycle Maintenance course participants, who nominated us for a grant through Maximus Foundation. We are especially grateful to this donation, which helped keep the project going in-between funding bids!

Now, we are set for 2019 and will be aiming to keep Fix it to Ride going for years to come!

Fix it to Ride has been supported by:

Allen LaneCityConnectEvan Cornish

Alternative Christmas

Christmas time can be great. It’s a chance to spend time with loved ones or simply have a bit of time off at the coldest, darkest time of year. Whether it’s part of your spiritual tradition or not, talk (and adverts) about Christmas are everywhere right now…

Here at the Mill, we’re obviously fans of reusing and recycling rather than always buying new, so when it comes to Christmas, we like Martin Lewis’ quote, “Christmas isn’t a retail festival – we need to end obliged giving and think about what we’re giving, to whom and why”. He goes on to give 44 Christmas money-saving tips, useful for anyone feeling the pinch these days.

For bike-specific ideas, you could consider:

  • A local bike shop voucher; help someone get their bike repaired, get an essential accessory or attend a course.
  • Make a donation in someone’s name; support a charitable bike proBike chain starject, or even donate that old bike you never use anymore!
  • Buy second-hand; saving resources and often cheaper than new.
  • Buy nothing! You could give the gift of time and plan a bike ride for your friend. Or you could make a gift; jams and chutneys are a classic but for more bike-related we love these very do-able bike chain stars.

However you end up spending your winter holiday, we hope you have a great time and keep up the cycling! (Wondering how to winterproof your rides? Check out this advice from Sustrans)

Free Seacroft Wheelers membership with every adult bike!

From July when you purchase an adult bike from us you can also enjoy free membership for 2018 of local cycling club Seacroft Wheelers (usually £12.50).

To redeem your free membership please complete your application here and email a copy of your bike receipt to membership@seacroftwheelers.co.uk as proof of purchase.

With membership you’ll have access to a range of regular led rides for all abilities, social rides and even discounts from local independent bike shops.

Check out their website for more information, and then head over to our bikes for sale page to take your pick!