Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #32, which is on sale now. Grab a copy at your local newsstand, order one here, or best of all, order a subscription and never miss an issue.
By Damian Antonio
Have you ever wanted to be one of those freewheeling bicycle tourists that seems to roll with the wind? Those that travel with an exhilarating spontaneity? Those that ride for the journey, not the destination?
Well the fact is that those freewheelers aren’t as freewheelin’ as they might seem. While it may sound like an oxymoron, most have planned meticulously on being spontaneous.
Spreadsheet after spreadsheet of checklists for bicycle parts, camping gear, maps, climate information, visas and vaccines – they’re prepared for every contingency. This allows them the freedom to change their intended destination on a whim, travel at their own pace, and invite the magic of the unexpected into their journey.
So what planning is required to be successfully spontaneous*? Well like most things in life, you need skills, equipment and local knowledge.
*Note that being unsuccessfully spontaneous includes ending up hopelessly lost, irreparably broken down or frozen to death.
The most obvious skillset required of a bicycle tourist is cycling! But you’ve been off your training wheels for 20-plus years, so you can tick that one off, right? Well, it’s not that simple. We’re not talking about a Sunday morning pedal down to the corner store. Depending on your destination, you need to be able to stay upright on a fully loaded bicycle, on roads that are a chunky soup of gravel and mud, and occupied by truck drivers who treat cyclists as you would a mosquito.
Other essential skills are those hands-on ones required to keep you on the road: bicycle repair. Should you find yourself off the beaten path, the health of your steed may be the difference between you cycling back to civilization over a day versus walking back over a week.
Do you need to become a human encyclopedia of all things bikes? No. But you do need knowledge that is commensurate with where you are going and the duration of your trip.
And finally, for any spontaneous bicycle tour, you need coping skills. Things are not always going to end up as expected. That’s the whole point.
Sometimes traveling spontaneously will work in your favor and you’ll find yourself in a remote hill tribe village in Laos, celebrating a crazy festival by getting drunk on homemade rice wine with the locals. Other times you’ll be climbing seemingly endless switchbacks on a Chilean mountain in horizontal rain, while wishing you’d stayed home to binge-watch Game of Thrones on the couch. The only way to enjoy the festival is to learn to cope with the rain.
The above skills are essential when touring spontaneously, but almost useless without the associated equipment. It’s no good knowing how to change a tire and not having a set of tire levers.
When selecting which spare parts and equipment to carry, think like a teenage boy with condoms on prom night. You need to consider the likelihood that you’ll need them, their availability in the place you’re travelling, the potential consequences of not having them, and the amount of space they take up.
You should be able to compile a fairly compact kitbag that will get you out of just about any jam, without feeling like you’re lugging your entire shed up every hill.
If it doesn’t, or if you’ve taken the notion of “riding with the wind” a little too literally, you may find yourself stranded for the night. Or worse, lost.
That is when you need to be thinking about the bare basics: food, water, shelter, warmth and means of navigation. If you can pull all of those out of your panniers, you should be okay.
The most exciting thing about spontaneous touring is the unexpected surprises. Like rounding yet another brown corner in the high-altitude desert of northern India, and coming to a village oasis that looks like Hobbiton from the Lord of the Rings.
The idea however, is to never be too surprised. You don’t want to discover that far from being the home of Frodo and Bilbo, the village is actually the stronghold of a separatist militia whose M.O. is to kidnap and behead western bicycle tourists.
You need to have a reasonable understanding of the local environment and its dangers before you go capriciously traipsing about in them. These dangers can range from the explicit (man-eating bears) to the subtle (daytime and nighttime temperatures) to the seemingly trivial (distance between towns), but all can be equally deadly.
The best source of local information is of course, the locals. So speak to them. The language barrier can make it difficult in some places, like Vietnam. Or Alabama. So make the effort to learn at least a few key phrases in the local language. Although, having no idea what anyone is talking about really would make for a spontaneous tour.