Maiden voyage – notes from a first tour

Taking Rosie the dog for a walk in farmlands: a perk of staying with nice strangers. Seriously. This dog rocks.

And but so last summer I spent July solo touring around the UK. Basically the thought process was like this: I love the UK, I love being on a bike, and I love holidays, so why not combine them all in one fell swoop? I didn’t have a bike that fit me properly, I’d never cycled more than about an hour and a half in one day in my life, and all I had was a ticket into Edinburgh and a flight out of Manchester three weeks later.  Fortunately, what I did (and still do) have is a particular kind of stupidity that makes me do things like order a bike online and pick it up upon arrival in a foreign land and quadruple the amount of riding I’m used to doing, adding the weight of panniers on top of that.  By the end of the trip I was over 1200km up and I could have been mistaken for Empress of the Universe, I was so happy. All I wanted to do was hop on Rosie Hubris the Tweed (more on the name later) and keep going.

Seeing as how it’s completely freaking winter outside now here in Helsinki, I figure I can share all the lovely stuff I learned and start psyching myself up for next summer’s tour, and be of help to other first-timers. I may have read just about every bit of advice available on the interwebs before my own virgin tour, and I remember what info I couldn’t find.

Planning where to stay – try local
I think I must have spent half the amount of time on the bike as I did obsessively tracing and re-tracing my route. I didn’t want to camp (too much for me to think about on the first time out), so I opted for as much couchsurfing as possible, hostels when couches were scarce, and the occasional guesthouse. Couchsurfing, as it turns out, is a fantastic way to get around. First off, it’s obviously cheaper than hotelling it – which means you can afford a rather nice room every once in a while for some pampering. Another thing is that solo touring can turn even the most solipsistic cyclist into an avid conversationalist – some days you might just want to hit the hay without being social, but other times nothing beats getting shown around a new town by a friendly local (not to mention the cooking… good lord I loved my hosts). A third thing is that I was able to plan my route independently of hostels and guesthouses, and went to plenty of places I’d never have seen otherwise.  Many couchsurfing hosts are tourers and cyclists themselves, so they also understand your road-induced euphoria and don’t ask you questions like “so what brand of insane are you, exactly?”

A couple of things that worked out for me: choosing older hosts as they tend to have guest rooms and don’t mind that you’re going to wake up at seven to hit the road; getting in touch about 1-2 weeks beforehand seems neither too short nor early notice; and looking for people who live outside of the major cities but, say, halfway between two cities you want to visit. For one thing, they don’t get so many requests and are often thrilled, and for another you’ll be hard-pressed to find cheap accommodation in these areas anyway. Be polite and detailed when you make a request, and of course have a back-up plan…

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By Johanna MacDonald

Johanna is an artist, photographer, writer, musician and actress originally from Canada, but currently living and breathing in Helsinki, Finland. Summer 2010 she rode all the way through the United Kingdom. Check out her in Twitter @happeningfish.