Playing the Long Game

How to keep going on a long cycle trip



Posted by James Anderton on August 12th, 2018

Cycling across continents is a wonderful experience. It can also feel a little daunting. It is no picnic. It involves cycling thousands and thousands of kilometres over months and months across numerous countries in all kinds of weather over a wide variety of terrain. Keeping yourself physically and mentally up for the task can be a challenge but a perfectly manageable one with the right approach:

Don't flog yourself

Arnold Schwarzenegger once said that the key to his body-building success was that he stopped his workout each day just before it started to get boring. On the few occasions he went past that point, he found it hard to return to the gym again the next day. This could explain why I have never had a six pack. I get bored after one sit-up. The same thinking can also be applied to cycle touring. It is best to cycle a little within yourself each day. Before you get to the point where you are physically and mentally worn out. This way you will wake up the next day and feel like cycling. This is important. If you consistently overdo it then sooner rather than later you will wake up and recoil at the thought of getting on your bike and cycling up that mountain. Then you are in trouble. When you are in the saddle for months on end it is important to reign it in. Steady as she goes. By holding back a little each day you will find you can keep going day after day, month after month and enjoy every minute.

Ease yourself in

Don't do too much too soon. In the beginning in can be tempting to get a shift on. The magnitude of the distance you are attempting to cover can seem intimidating. You can be a little too anxious to start making inroads into your goal. People often go at it too hard in the beginning and wear themselves out before they've really begun. Take it easy to begin with. The first week or so don't go too far. It is likely that you won't be starting in perfect condition. You may be cycling a fully loaded touring bike for the first time which always takes a little getting used to. Going too far in such circumstances can be a great strain on your knees which simply aren't used to propelling such weight forwards all day every day. Start slowly, build up your strength and within a few weeks you will feel healthy, strong and in ideal shape to plough on.



Rest

If you are 25 ignore this section. You don't need rest. Cycle as much as you like and don't worry about it. For the rest of us getting the right amount of rest is important for the long haul. Now that I'm in my forties I have given this plenty of thought. I recently cycled 3 months in Japan where I barely had a day off. Hotels were too expensive, I was camping every night and in such a scenario you tend not to have a full day of rest. What are you going to do sit by your tent all day? So I cycled every day, and although I wasn't cycling especially long distances each day, I soon reached the point of exhaustion. Every day became a struggle. Where every small hill looked like the Mont Ventoux. It was too much. On the flip side if you get too much rest you can struggle to get going again. You lose the fitness you have worked so hard to build up. To cycle a fully loaded touring bike up and over mountains for months on end you need to be in tip top condition. Otherwise it becomes a chore. It becomes hard graft. Getting the right balance between rest and exercise is paramount. This is something the individual needs to work out but for me I now cycle for a week (a little within myself each day) then take a day off. I then cycle for another 4/5/6 days and have 2/3 days off the bike. After around 3 months I will have a fortnight where I do not cycle at all. This seems to work for me. After a few months of continuous cycling it is important to have a couple of weeks off the bike. Do something different. Do nothing. Don't sit on your bike for a while. It is good to give the legs a proper rest every now and again. Not to mention your bottom. The mental break is just as important. At the end of my stint in Japan I would get to the top of hill, with a glorious view all around and would hardly notice. A sure sign that I needed a mental break from it all. After a couple of weeks break I was back on the bike. Feeling fresh as a daisy, marvelling at the wonders of nature, and once more curious to see what's around the bend.

Recovery

There will always be days when you overdo it. Cycling across deserts you tend to go at it as you want to get across in as few days as possible because of the lack of food and water. Your visa may be running out and you need to get a shift on or simply there was a climb that just went on and on. I try to follow every big day with a half day if possible. If I've had one of those almighty days on the bike the next day I start late and finish early. If I've had a 4 day dash across a desert I'll then take at least a couple of days off. Give the legs a chance to recovery before beginning again in earnest.

Pressure

Try not to put yourself under undue pressure by having a date you need to be here or a time you need to be there. We've all heard it a million times. It's the journey that is important and not the destination. It is very true though and none more so than when it comes to cycling. Enjoy the journey. It will take as long as it takes. Respond to your body. If you are struggling, slow down. If you are feeling good, keep going. If you have an injury, take a break. If you are on a strict timescale then you are forced to keep going even when you are not feeling up to the task. This can have a serious impact on your morale. Here is when a little planning cam come in useful. I have found myself over doing it because I only have a limited time left on a visa. I have found myself cycling countries in the wrong time of year. Overdoing it to escape the cold or to escape the heat. A little bit of planning can help avoid these situations.

Eating

One of the joys of cycle touring is the sheer volume of food that you must eat in order to keep going. Stuffing yourself all day long without any guilt whatsoever. Bliss. It is also necessary. Cycling all day every day you burn a ton of calories that you need to replace. It is important that you get into the habit of carbing up every day. Pasta and bread should be a key part of your daily food intake. I have a lot of marmalade sandwiches heavy on the butter. Butter is a good way of keeping your weight up although difficult to carry in hot countries as it soon goes manky. Porridge for breakfast is a great way to start the day and only requires boiling a little water. Top yourself up with cake, biscuits, nuts, chocolate or whatever you can get hold of. Eat lots of fruit. It is invariably cheap and easy to get hold of and will keep you healthy. I keep an emergency stash of spaghetti in the bottom of the panniers in case the unthinkable happens and I run out of food. There's nothing worse that going hungry on a bicycle. It's like when a car runs out of gas. You will splutter to a standstill. Even when you are having a day off stuff yourself. Playing the long game it's crucial to keep yourself fueled up at all times. I also carry multi vitamin tablets in many parts of the world. In some countries you will simply not get the vitamins you are used to from the local fare.

Sleep

Get lots. Fortunately everything about cycle touring is conducive to a good night's sleep. Outdoor all day exercise for a start. Then there's the little time spent looking at screens, the clear distinction between night and day and the peace and quiet of camping in the countryside. Honestly, I sleep considerably longer in my tent on a cycle trip than I do in my bed back home. This is good as sleep is important. Set yourself up so everything is geared towards a healthy sleep routine. The sleeping mat/bag that is right for you. A good pillow is important. I stole mine from Turkish airlines. Warm clothing for cold climates. An airy tent for hot climates. Sleeping goggles for northern latitudes. Earplugs for hotels. Early to bed, early to rise blah, blah, blah...