My first trip on a bike, now ten years ago, was one of the best experiences of my life. I was 20 years old and had never been bike touring before. In fact, I didn’t really know much about bikes, but I had recently bought a Bianchi Volpe that was on consignment at a small bike shop for 250$ (a fortune for me back then). I didn’t know that it was a touring bike at the time, but the Volpe had rack mounts. Once I figured out that I could put racks and panniers on the bike I looked over craigslist and found a cheap older set. This all lead to me, somewhat unintentionally, having a bike touring setup so I decided I should probably go on a trip. But it was winter in North America, so I decided on New Zealand; because it was their summer.
I had friends that had been to New Zealand and it sounded like a cool place and one that was perhaps more tame and bite-sized for my first solo international bike touring trip. It seemed like two and a half months would be enough time to bike around both Islands, though, a long time considering I had never been on a bike tour before. There was plenty of time before trail crew started up again in the spring and I had no plans for the winter, so why not?
I had worked all summer before the New Zealand trip on a trail crew, and most of the fall building a barn for my folks. I had about 4000$ saved, just enough if I didn’t spend much on equipment and if I traveled cheaply. I needed bike shorts for the trip, I found a pair that seemed decent at a thrift store for 10$, they turned out to be women’s, but they had a padded shammy, which was what my bony dirtbag butt needed to survive the long days on a bike seat. I ended up spending about 400$ on the bike, racks, panniers, and other gear, like the bike shorts. That was pretty cheap, perhaps too cheap considering I ended up having to buy a new rear wheel halfway through the trip to replace the rusty one the Volpe came with. Having never done a bike touring trip before I made the classic mistake of over packing and having way too much weight on the bike. I had a stove, steel pot, bowl and spoon, 5lb two person tent, a change of clothes + running shoes + sandals + warm jacket + rain gear. Not to mention a book or two and a leather bound journal, and a compass. Like I said I didn’t know that much about bikes so I didn’t have any chain lube packed, only a set of alan wrenches to put the bike together at the airport. The loaded bike weighed in at over 70lbs! at least half my body weight.
I learned a lot on that trip, how to replace a spoke on the side of the road, that it’s ok to break down in the middle of nowhere, at least in new Zealand. I learned that the cheapest high carb meal I could make without cooking was a can of beans dumped on top of a plate of chips (french fries). I learned that 70lbs was far too much to peddle up a hill! (I did it but it was HARD) and ended up sending a box of stuff back to the states after the first week. I learned that you should wash your shammies from time to time. For a few day’s I road with a german cyclist who told me that if I didn’t get some lube for my bike chain we could not ride together anymore because the squeaking was driving him crazy, so I learn to do that too. But mostly I learned that to travel by bike is the coolest most magical way to see the world and I was hooked from then on.
After my New Zealand adventure, I sold the Volpe to a friend who took it on a trip to Asia. I had decided I wanted a lighter weight more versatile touring setup that I could take on dirt roads. The traditional touring setup (pictured above) is basically a road bike with two sets of racks and panniers front and rear. That set-up has its uses but is heavy and excessive if you know how to pack light. My empty racks and panniers alone weighed about 8lb! I decided that for the next bike I would start with a mountain bike and build a sort of hybrid, with a rear rack and panniers (most older mountain bikes have rear rack mounts) and a rigid front fork and a stuff sack over the front wheel.
This setup would have the advantage of dropping the two front panniers and have the greater versatility and durability of being a mountain bike. It would also be cost effective because there are lots of cheap used hardtail mountain bikes out there for sale. I would recommend this as a low-cost setup for anyone who wants to go on a bike tour.
The hybrid mountain bike setup was a good intermediary but it was still heavy and I wanted to ditch the racks and panniers altogether. Enter bikepacking and a new era of traveling by bicycle. Bikepacking is just that, backpacking on a bike, on trails away from roads and cars (I know it sounds great). I already had a suitable hardtail mountain bike so all I really needed was the frame bags, which is one of the brilliant things about it. No racks are needed for bikepacking, which means no need for frame mounts or hardware, which can break or come loose, or for panniers that bounce around and create wind resistance. Everything is put into bags that velcro onto/into the frame of the bike. The best thing about bike packing though is that you can pretty much go anywhere, trails, jeep roads, single-track, and with fat tires also beaches, sand dunes and snow. This transformed bike traveling for me because it allows combining my two favorite things, bikes and being out in nature away from roads and cars.
One catch with bikepacking is that the middle frame bag needs to be made custom to fit the unique geometry of your bikes inner triangle. I had a set of frame bags made in Flagstaff by Rouge Panda, who did a fantastic job.
Taking the bikepacking setup one step further, toward the never ending goal of going ever lighter, I got a carbon ultra light hardtail mountain bike and put just two bags on it with only the lightest gear packed. While this might not make sense to some people, my goal was to attempt a thought ride of a bikepacking route that usually takes four days. This ultra light bike setup only weighed 30lbs when loaded! Just like there is ultra light backpacking there is ultra light bikepacking. Not my everyday setup but fun to have for the fast and light missions. This is by far the most expensive way to go about traveling on a bike, but we all have our weaknesses. For anyone interested in early retirement and financial independence this is not a good choice, stick with the older steel bike, you will have just as much fun and be a few grand richer.
That pretty much sums up my experience over the last ten years of traveling on bikes. The sport is ever evolving I’m sure there will be more changes to come in the future and I look forward to continually trying new things and having new adventures. Although I tend to be a systems guy and like to talk about different bike setups, it really doesn’t matter what bike you tour on. As long as you look up, enjoy the view, and have a positive attitude, you will undoubtedly love the euphoric experience of seeing new places on a bike. You will have a great time, just get out and do it!