How to plan a bike tour
I have a confession to make. I think I might love planning a bike tour as much as I love actually doing it.
I have spent many happy hours on my laptop researching places to go, finding the best routes and checking out places to visit, eat and stay.
But it’s not just about armchair cycle touring; planning really helps to ensure you have the most fun and the least problems along the way when you are actually out on your bike. Knowing where you are staying and even where you are eating can be a blessed relief at the end of a long day in the saddle.
There are, of course, lots of cycling holiday providers and guided tours available. That’s fine if you are looking for company, support and someone to carry your stuff; but don’t be daunted if you want to plan your own trip – it’s really not that hard.
Where should you cycle?
The best place to start planning a UK cycling trip is the Sustrans website (or go to Eurovelo for European rides). The Sustrans map marks all the National Cycle Network routes in the UK. There are some fantastic long-distance routes – such as the Devon Coast to Coast and the Way of the Roses – that are fully signed and easy to follow.
But there are NCN routes all over the UK. The best thing about these routes is that they have been carefully chosen and often take you through beautiful countryside on roads with very few cars. They also include lots of off-road routes for a traffic-free cycling experience. And they are mostly well-signposted, making navigation a whole lot easier.
Once you have found a route that appeals, you’ll need to work out how to get to and from the start and finish. I tend to use trains – it means you don’t have to worry about getting back to your car. Taking a bike on a train is not always easy but if you book a place you should have no problem.
How far should you cycle?
It’s totally up to you. Seriously, don’t feel you have to do crazy distances to feel like a real cyclist. It’s a very personal thing and depends how far you want to push yourself and how much time you want for stops along the way.
I am always looking for a balance – enough miles to feel like I have achieved something but not so far that I can’t have some proper breaks. For me, the ideal distance is usually between 40 and 50 miles a day.
But that’s just me. Find a distance that works for you. Don’t worry about people that go farther or faster. That’s their business.
Even if you can usually keep up a good pace, you’ll find that on a longer cycle tour there are loads of things that can slow you down — hills, wind, cycling on rough terrain such as canal paths, navigating and stopping to eat. So allow plenty of time. It’s not a race; it should be fun.
Finding mileages for each stage of a ride is not always easy – and something I have tried to remedy on this website. Some of the most popular UK routes have their own dedicated websites with detailed information on mileages and elevation. If not, Google Maps is a good way to work out distances. Click on the directions (arrow pointing right) button and select the cycling icon to get a bike-friendly route (Google will always suggest a National Cycling Network route if it’s available). You can then get the mileages for each stage of your planned ride.
Where should you stay?
It’s worth checking if there’s a youth hostel en route. Otherwise B&Bs, pubs or chain hotels offer budget-friendly rooms. Make sure there’s somewhere to buy food or eat out nearby. A pub that does good food and has rooms is ideal. You don’t want to cycle miles in the dark to get some dinner.
It’s a good idea to make sure there’s somewhere secure to leave your bike where you are staying. Most pubs or B&Bs have a shed or a courtyard. Premier Inn lets you take your bikes up to your room.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned camping. That’s because I am a bit of light-weight and prefer a comfy bed and a hot shower. But if you are braver than me, you’ll find you can cut the cost of cycle touring even more and there are plenty of campsites in the UK.
What about food?
Good question! One of the joys of cycling is that you can pretty much eat what you like. By staying in B&Bs you’ll usually get a fantastic breakfast to set yourself up for the day.
We usually buy food for a picnic as soon as we see a shop so that lunch is sorted and we can stop wherever and whenever we want. Cycling without snacks and plenty of water is not a good idea and looking for somewhere to get food when you are running out of energy is horrible.
Anyway, even with a pannier full of sandwiches, there’s no reason you shouldn’t stop for coffee and cake if you happen to pass a nice-looking café.
Researching places to eat along the way is a really good idea. Otherwise you can end up having a soggy sandwich somewhere unremarkable and then discover there’s a fantastic café round the corner. Knowing where you’re eating in the evening is also very reassuring. Use Trip Advisor to find the best local grub and book a table.