Bicycle touring 101 from someone who only passed with maybe a B-

My relationship history when it comes to bicycle touring is rocky at best. After my 7-day honeymoon bicycle trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway started with an overheated vehicle and an unplanned 1 hour round trip to Wal-mart to buy a tent that someone forgot to bring (you know who you are), and ended a mere 4 hours later, when suddenly we were pushing our weenie road bikes with crappy ass trailers attached to them downhill, in the dark, on a two-lane road, possibly in Virginia, I pretty much swore off bicycle touring.

Terrible things are going to happen to this evil bike trailer. Just you wait.
Terrible things are going to happen to this evil bike trailer. Just you wait.

Time warp 12 years later, and where do I find myself but schlumping along on a dorky-looking ladies frame hybrid with panniers full of shoes and Jacob’s cream crackers and a rucksack full of distinctly American looking (by that I mean purple and hot pink–I buy what’s on sale, so shut up) clothing. Oh, and I’m in Ireland.

I had planned to hike a 200 km path called the Beara Way, but I had up and effed up a disc and could barely walk. So my choices were either A.) rent a car and spend 2 weeks driving, B.) say fuck it and not go or C.) do this thing on a bicycle.

Option A sounded horrendous. I have to drive 100 miles every day to work, and when I am not working, end up driving up to 50 miles a day just to reach civilization beyond Food Lion, so there was no way I was spending two weeks in a car. Option B almost came true; read this to get more insight on that. Option C was just crazy enough to try.

Beara Peninsula, County Cork, where I did a lot of my riding.
Beara Peninsula, County Cork, where I did a lot of my riding.

I ended up renting a bike for 10 days, and slowly inching my way around County Cork. What follows are nuggets of wisdom that I dug up along the way and which might help you, too, complete your first bike touring trip without honors but without having to repeat kindergarten.

Renting a bike vs. bringing your own

Anyone who is having to fly somewhere to start their tour is going to grapple with this question. I am going to hazard a guess to say that usually, renting is the better option. Not just because that’s what I did.

Up until about 5 days before I left, I “planned” to take my Surly Straggler (which is now in pieces, poor thing). I built it up, even got an offer for a bike case to borrow, and acted all “I’m gonna have such a cool bike.”

Then it hit me that I wanted no part of taking the bike to the airport, paying for the bike to fly (about $300 round trip), setting the bike up in a strange airport in a strange land where I didn’t even know if I would get arrested for doing so (you won’t), and figuring out where to keep a bike case for 2 weeks. And then doing the reverse. As a first-time bike overseas bike tourer (tourier?), it was a totally overwhelming thought. Rental was definitely a saner option.

I ended up hiring a bike from O’Sullivan’s Cycles in Killarney, which is a 3 hour train ride from Dublin. They were awesome. I contacted them through their online form a week before my trip, changed plans twice, and they still let me rent a bike. It was so easy just to show up, pay, get a bike, tour, return the bike, and be done with it.

Now, if you rent you have to realize you are taking a slight gamble. I had no idea what my bike what look or feel like until I got there. What I got was pretty close to what I expected, and was in all fairness as they described: a hybrid bike with panniers. I expected something more like a flat bar road bike, but what I got was this:

My BMC ladies' hybrid. 27 speed, Shimano Alivio FD/RD, Alivio disc brakes, dynamo indestructible beast.
My BMC ladies’ hybrid. 27 speed, Shimano Alivio FD/RD, Alivio disc brakes, dynamo hub…an indestructible beast.

There was a bit of miscommunication about the frame. I told them I was a woman, I needed a 52-53cm bike. They translated that as I needed a ladies frame 52-53cm bike. Apparently, in the ladies frame toodle along hybrid world, that is huge. That’s what they told me, anyway.

What to look for when you are renting a bike

Sloping downtubes aside, O’Sullivan’s was awesome and I highly recommend. Here’s why I chose them, and what you should look for to in a rental vendor:

  • Decent bikes. Duh. But still, dig in a little to make sure they don’t just rent 1979 beach cruisers that might have been cleaned once. For me, the disc brakes were a HUGE plus.
  • Reasonable rates. O’Sullivan’s charges €15 a day or €85 for the first week, then €10 a day after that. This was a huge determinant for me, as it definitely was cheaper than paying to fly my bike.
  • They include the necessary stuff. I got pannier bags, fenders (in Ireland, you want fenders), lights (ditto), a helmet, a repair kit including tube, multitool, pump, and a bike lock.
  • You get a good gut feel. You’re always a little nervous placing your trip in the hands of an unknown party, but I could tell from my correspondence and online reviews that they were an experienced, reputable vendor.
  • You have options for return. This isn’t a must, but a nice feature. I ended up returning to the same location, but they had drop-off options in Galway, Cork, Westport, and Dublin if I’d needed them (for an extra €35, which is cheaper than a train ticket in most situations)

One last tip: your bike vendor will want collateral; i.e. your driver license or passport. I figured, I can get home without a driver license worst case scenario, but not a passport, so I gave them the former. I always recommend taking both with you on an international trip anyway.

When I would recommend bringing your own:

  • You’re going to race. My spousal unit is going to do a 3 day race in Iceland soon. He is bringing his own ginormous bike. Personally, I would still probably rent if I were him, since he is not planning to win, but he likes to show his bike off. Plus I totally get the racing on what you know works thing. If I were going to race competitively, I would definitely bring my own.
  • You are going for long trip. I don’t exactly know what the cutoff  would be for me; probs a month.
  • You have a weird butt. Or other special needs. Don’t rent a bike if it’s going to risk hurting you or making you miserable.
  • Your bike is so totally pimped out glitzy that you just have to make everyone jelly. ‘Nuff said.

You’re not just taking a bike, you’re taking a companion who can’t walk on its own.

Sure, the bicycle is the great liberator, but it’s also a 35 pound hunk of metal that all your earthly possessions are attached to and you have to put somewhere when you’re not riding it. And it will affect where you can go and how you travel.

When booking lodging, ask if they have a place to store bicycles. I failed to do this every single time I booked a place, but I got lucky. Partly because in the part of Ireland where I was there are a ton of cyclists of every ilk, but partly because I stayed in places with really nice people running them. Throughout my journey, my bike had to sleep: in a corridor amongst beer kegs and wet floor signs, round back of the lodge against the wall in the rain, under a gazebo, in a porch with a pool table, one block over in the driveway of another hotel.

You need to lock your bike up if you are anywhere other than at your hostel, and maybe there too. I’m not a paranoid traveller, but considering your bike is your transportation, you really really don’t want to risk losing it. Plus, do you really want to end up buying a no-longer-existent rental bike? This presents an inconvenience in rural locales and small towns without bike parks/bike racks.

What I ended up doing: asking shop owners if it was okay to lock my bike up using their sign, picnic table, stack of shovels, etc. Asking may have been unnecessary, but I thought it the polite thing to do.

Those rude English left their watch towers here 200 years ago (95% sure that's what this was), maybe I can store my bike there?
Those rude English left their watch towers here 200 years ago (95% sure that’s what this was), maybe I can store my bike there?

Don’t overestimate your daily distance.

Just because you can ride 50 miles in 3 hours at home on your road bike doesn’t mean you can do that on a hybrid bike on rough pavement with 30 pounds of gear. In the rain. Uphill. Both ways. With a headwind.

I am a reasonably fit cyclist and my pace was laughably slow. My longest day was 96km, or 60ish miles. With stops (including a 1 hour walk), it took me more than 8 hours to complete. This isn’t bad thing; it’s just you aren’t going to blitz through the whole country in a week. I only scoured about 1/2 of one county in 10 days.

8 hours into my ride from Allihies to Skibbereen. Cows were abundant in number and aroma.
8 hours into my ride from Allihies to Skibbereen. Cows were abundant in number and aroma.

It’s easy to adjust to riding on the left, but….

You’ll practically poo your pants the first couple of days when you see an oncoming vehicle, because you’re so used to oncoming traffic being in the left lane. I was really surprised how second-nature it was to ride on the left, however. I did it instantly when I first got on the bike, then I’d have a panicky moment where I  was sure I was accidentally on the right side, then realized that indeed I was on the left.

The other baffling thing was the double roundabouts. I didn’t die, but I am sure I frustrated a driver or two when I kind of floated in the middle of the two lanes. I still don’t understand why there is an inside lane in a roundabout. Everyone has to cross over to the outside to exit within a maximum of 100 feet or so. Who ever gets on the inside?

A picture of Dursey Head that has nothing to do with bike touring but is really a great picture.

Trust me. Dress for the conditions.

As cyclists, we tend to try to wear as little as possible because we’re dead sexy. Wait, no. Actually it’s because we don’t like all the excess weight. But if you are touring, you are stuck out in whatever Mama Nature throws at you. All day long.

This is no time to play Mr. Tough Guy or Ms. Hard Core. If you are riding anywhere where there is rain and cold (believe it or not Ireland in May has both…gasp!), bring waterproofs and don’t pussyfoot around.

While I won’t say I never got cold, I never got dangerously cold. Even though each day was in the 40s-50s and windy, and it rained every day but one. Here is what I brought with me:

  • Wool socks, 2 wool t-shirts, wool leggings and wool arm warmers. I have said it before and I’ll say it again. Sheep know what they’re doing. Wool is warm when dry, warm when wet. It doesn’t get as stinky as fast as other fabrics either. But you will smell like a soggy llama when you get wet. After awhile you start to like it.
  • Tri-shorts and a pair of long black running tights. I like the thinner pad in tri shorts because it is easier to walk around it, it is more comfortable on a more padded seat like what you’ll get on a hybrid bike, and it dries faster than a mondo chamois. The running tights kept my legs covered and warmer. And every cyclist in Ireland wears black tights so I felt a little more like I knew what I was doing.
  • My purple Hincapie wind jacket. I paid a bunch for this back when I worked at Piney, and it is worth every penny. It’s a highly wind-resistant material that keeps your stinky warmth in. Plus it had pockets for me to store my essentials, like money and passport.
  • Waterproof rain jacket. I just got a cheap one from Sierra Trading Post, but it’s a pretty good one. Lightweight and packable.
  • A waterproof cycling cap and neoprene gloves. I bought these on impulse in Killarney at O’Sullivans Outdoor Shop. Yes, those O’Sullivans. They are everywhere in Killarney. Worth every one of the €75 I paid for both. My head stayed warm, the little brim kept the rain (and sliver of sunlight) out of my eyes, and the gloves were like little wetsuits for my hands. I will be using these items for years.
  • My ectoplasmic red down jacket. I get made fun of in different countries for this jacket, but it weighs about 200 grams and it’s warm. I put it on every morning and after cleaned up every night, and I was cozy. And I won’t get lost wearing it.
  • Hiking sneakers and a light pair of shoes for evenings. I rode in the sneakers, hiked in the sneakers, and got my feet wet in the sneakers. I tromped around hostels and pubs in my dry shoes. Stored them in ziplocs during my journeys.
  • Hiking/town trousers and a wool lightweight dress. Something to wear when I wasn’t biking.
  • Two sports bras, one pair of undies, and my danger cat socks. One bra to wear, one to dry out. Undies for off the bike. Danger cat socks because, danger cat socks.

This sounds like a lot, but it’s not. Half of this was on me at all times, the rest was in a small backpack.

My hiking shoes and quick dry hiking trousers. This is about as selfie as I ever get.
My hiking shoes and quick dry hiking trousers. This is about as selfie as I ever get.

Well, I think that’s enough for today, class. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them. Just comment or something. I think there may be one more Ireland post coming; because I really didn’t cover the places I went. And you didn’t hear the cherry tomato story yet.





4 thoughts on “Bicycle touring 101 from someone who only passed with maybe a B-

  1. Enjoyed reading your bike tour adventures especially since I’ve renewed my interest in biking the Blue Ridge for the honeymoon we never took now 10 year anniversary trip. Looking forward to reading more about your Ireland tour.

  2. Great to read more about your journey! Too bad you had so much rain. I’m curious how the injury fared during all this? I need to hear the cherry tomato story

    1. Injury did OK! It’s getting a wee bit better, but still a bother. Rain is par for the course, I suppose. Just glad I wasn’t camping after all.

      I will tell the cherry tomato story soon!

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