Advice for the first-time tourer: speed x time = distance

Rosie on the seaside in a brief photographic moment.
Rosie on the seaside in a brief photographic moment.

Oh, speed, the penis length of the cycling world… even for plenty of us girls it is. I had a hell of a time planning my tour because while I had a pretty good idea of how hard I was willing to work every day, I’d really never done more than 30 km in one day’s riding, I didn’t have the bike I was eventually going to tour on (or a bike even close to being similar to it, or the bags to ride with gear), and I knew I was stubborn and competitive by nature. There’s a reason why my bike’s middle name is Hubris.

When planning your first tour, there’s like this catch-22 going on because you’re not sure how far you can ride, and yet you need to plan your route if you want to book hostels or guesthouses or your lavish four-star. (You might take that for comedy, so let me outline right here: my next tour will include one night of total luxury. Two weeks of handwashing your shorts and swallowing dive-bombing bumblebees, surely, earns you an evening of pure downy comfort.) You could take a tent, but that’s more weight, more hassle, less mattress, and fewer hot breakfasts when you roll out of bed. I think a person on a first tour would do well to focus on the cycling and leave the cub scout out of it. And then but so if you lock yourself in to your accommodation, you kind of have to get there, which means you might not be able to stop along the way and see something you like. I still kind of regret not going in to Castle Howard and instead pressing on for Whatever-upon-Something just because I was on a schedule.

The guide books I looked at were mostly for cyclists who were going to do about 35-70km each riding day. The websites I looked at were mostly experienced cyclists and distance junkies who were doing 100k rides all the time and up to 180km in one day.  I knew I could keep up around 20km/hour pretty easily, but a 35-day seemed way too short, and 100, while theoretically okay once in a while, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do day after day for three weeks.  And people like me don’t trawl the net for information; it’s confirmation we’re after. Confirmation that somewhere out there is a person whose body and brain work in a similar fashion to ours, and that we are not going to scare the wildlife and local gentry with our freakish, two-wheeled, 90km/day brutishness.

The vast majority of tourers with gear I met were going more slowly, and they were often families or couples. The vast majority of road riders passed me with a smile as languid as their resting heart rates.  In Norfolk someone mistook me for an Audax rider and I took it as a huge compliment. Well. That’s Norfolk.

Look at all those funny names!

Clearly, one speed does not fit all. They say the best way to know your distance is to do practice rides with gear before you go for a tour, and you should. That’s smart. I am not smart, however; I am reckless. Which is why my overall plan got shafted on the very first day of riding. It involved a hill and two hours getting up it. Finland should import a couple of these hill things if they want to do anything with cycling, really.

I got very good at keeping contingent plans on permanent juggle in my mind, and became far more intimate with the British Rail system than I ever intended. None of these things put a damper on my trip, though. Trains are great if you’re just knackered and want a break. Just don’t do the time-distance math while you’re on the train, or you may start to wish you were a train and start to cry, just like a baby, just like you did on the third day when you turned the corner of your umpteenth hill at three in the afternoon to find another hill waiting for you. What I love most about that moment is that you really could get off the bike and throw a tantrum by the side of the road, but then you’d have to sleep there. So now you’re crying and cursing up what you’ve decided is the last bloody hill you’re going to tolerate today so help you God and the terrors of the Earth, and you get passed by some Audax maniac trumped up on Red Bull. Oh yes. I’m getting happy just thinking about that.

In the end I did this:

Roughly 1200 km between Edinburgh and Oxford
Between 80-100km on most days
150km on my longest day (but Cambridge-Oxford was a great challenge!)
45 km on my shortest day
tried to alternate shorter and longer days and throw in tourist (rest) days
had nothing short of a brilliantly awesome time

Because in the end, it’s not how fast or long you go, but how much you enjoy the ride. (Sorry. I’ll get my helmet.)

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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.