Like any new cycle tourist, Catherine Pringle quickly begins to obsess about the detail of long-distance travel by bicycle.
On her first day in France she begins to codify her experience into her own laws of cycle touring. It’s the only way she can make sense of what’s happening to her as she struggles through a heavy rain squall around the Baie de Morlaix. This first 25 kilometres provides her with both rule 1 and rule 2.
When the action described in Peloton of Two had ended, Catherine’s list of ‘laws’ has grown to include eleven rules, plus a final golden rule.
Catherine’s Laws of Cycle Touring
1. No matter what direction you are travelling in, the prevailing wind always seems to be blowing directly into your face.
It’s a rare thing in cycling to have a tailwind. More often than not, the wind is coming straight at you. That’s how it seems anyway.
2. For every downhill free-wheeling glide, there inevitably comes a corresponding climb of equal and opposite proportions.
Put more simply: what comes down, must go back up again. After a long hard ride you almost come to dread a downhill stretch because it has to mean that you’re going to have a long hard climb at the end of it.
3. A cycle tourist should always eat and drink before they think they need to, and only in exactly the right quantities to maintain their performance.
Always start before you are hungry and finish before you are full. If you wait too long before eating, you’ll hit the wall, or “get the bonk”. Eat too much, and your body will put all of its effort into digestion. Either way, the result is the same – it will take you a long time to get anywhere
Having said all of that, don’t forget to enjoy yourself. If you’re on a cycle touring holiday, and travelling in a country like France, food and drink are important dimensions of the experience. Err on the side of having too much to eat rather than too little. The bicycle will still be there tomorrow.
4. Get the balance right between days on and off the bicycle.
On a long tour, take one day off for every three days of riding. Occasionally plan two of three days with no cycling.
But don’t be too rigid. You need a plan but you also need something to rebel against. And you can’t predict exactly when your mental or physical condition will bring out the rebel in you.
5. Never take route advice from a non-cyclist.
If you break this rule, then be wary of a non-cyclist’s perspective on:
- terrain – “it’s pretty flat”or “it’s a good surface”
- distance – “it’s not far”or “just a couple of miles”
- memories of the route – “just follow the signs”or “you can’t miss it”
Even advice from a fellow cyclist should be taken with caution, unless you are of the same fitness level and experience.
6. Campgrounds are hardly ever in the town they say they are in.
Websites and tourist brochures often give a wildly over-enthusiastic estimate of the distance a campground is from its ‘home’ town.
It’s not uncommon to cycle another 5 to 8 kilometres beyond what you think was your destination. This is nothing in a car, but on a fully loaded touring bike at the end of a long day in the saddle, it’s the hardest part of the day.
7. You can’t go everywhere on your bicycle. Sooner or later, you have to lock it to a lamp post and risk losing everything you own.
On a cycle tour, your bike and all of your possessions are your world. Lose them, and the trip is over. But on any tour you regularly have to walk away and leave your world locked to a lamppost, road sign or fence as if it means nothing to you at all.
Get used to this thought. But, just in case, invest in the best lock you can find.
8. Panniers are the black holes of cycle touring.
Under the influence of a powerful gravitational force, your possessions – especially those you want access to the most – are pulled deeper and deeper into a pannier’s darkest recesses.
9. Be very careful where you take your toilet breaks on a cycle tour, especially if you want the privacy to finish what you’ve started.
It may look like a secluded spot, but that densely packed stand of trees, hedgerow-bordered field, or head-high gravel mound is about to become a magnet for every human in the area.
So, for the best possible experience: stop, listen, and observe before committing yourself. But it you really can’t wait, commit yourself with a passion and don’t be embarrassed if you acquire an audience.
10. The only thing better than cycling is not cycling.
If Oscar Wilde had been a cycle tourist, he surely would have said this at some point. Rest days matter. No matter how much you love cycling and travelling by bicycle, there are times when it’s good for your health to stay off the bike and out of the saddle.
11. All plans and self-imposed rules are made to be broken.
This is a tour of France not the Tour de France – there’s no referee following you in a car. So give yourself a break.
If you don’t feel like sticking to your plan, or that self-imposed rule doesn’t make sense anymore, then throw the rules out of your pannier and cut yourself some slack.
12. The Golden rule of cycle touring is this: Do things when they are available to you, don’t just wait until you feel like it.
One of the hardest things to get used to on an extended cycle tour is the need to do practical everyday things when they are available to you, even if you don’t feel like it at the time.
If you pass a supermarket at 11 in the morning, you shouldn’t hesitate to stock up for dinner that night, and maybe for the next night too. When you see a toilet, which you rarely do, make sure you use it even if it seems unnecessary. Wash out your cycling clothes at the end of the day, because it might be raining tomorrow – and nothing matters more than clean cycling gear to start the day in.
But the rule isn’t just about the practicalities. Travelling through an area by bike means that you’re unlikely to detour back at a later time. So if there’s an enticing lane you want to explore, or a site you’d like to visit, do it when the opportunity presents itself. The odds are, you won’t be back.
Rules are made to be broken though, aren’t they?