Nothing lasts for ever. Not even an Islabike! As bicycles age it is increasingly essential that they are well maintained. Here’s our quick guide to ensure safer riding on older bikes.
Cycle touring has always seemed to be an activity for adults but because of its unique benefits it can be a wonderful and enlightening experience for entire families. Here we guide you through everything you’ll ever need to know to go cycle touring with your Islabike, along with the advice of eight-year-old cycle tourist Thomas Ivor Jones, who has ridden across Britain and beyond.
Many books recount how some cycle tourists cross continents or even circumnavigate the world but cycle touring really doesn’t have to be that extreme. Exploring somewhere entirely new is the great attraction of touring and even in the British Isles there is a huge range of possibilities, from long holidays dedicated to touring or a weekend straight from your front door. Areas of Scotland, Wales and rural England such as the Norfolk Broads or border regions are fantastic cycle touring territory for families.
Of course, even more adventurous souls can head further afield and there is a greater reward that comes with discovering a new land by bike. Ireland is a wonderful country for cycling, meanwhile France, Belgium and Holland are all easily accessible. Just one word of warning, though: if you’re intending to tour self-supported, do have a decent grasp of the language and local customs, especially shop opening times. Anybody used to the 24-hour market culture of a big city may have a shock when they’re tired and hungry on a Sunday afternoon in rural France!
Another aspect of cycle touring isn’t just adventure but achievement. Rather than head to an area and explore you may want to set yourself a challenge: can you ride from ‘a’ to ‘b’ in a set number of days? This type of touring can take the form of an extreme challenge such as a Land’s End to John o’ Groats attempt or there’s a far more family-friendly coast-to-coast route across the middle of England. Or you could simply pick two towns and devise an enjoyable route between them.
Thomas Ivor says…
“My first ever cycle tour was in the Outer Hebrides; that was when I was six and we cycled 96 miles. We went in summer so it wasn’t too cold but it was very, very windy. That’s probably still my favourite place to cycle tour although since then I’ve been touring to Anglesey, Cornwall, Devon, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, the Peak District, Guernsey and France.”
“Riding in France on the other side of the road was OK. It’s the same logic you just have to do everything backwards. The drivers over there were actually a lot kinder than in Britain and no cars overtook us if they saw another car coming the other way, so they gave us lots of room. We stopped off in Guernsey on our way back from cycle touring in France, so that was our first time cycling back on the correct side of the road. Then our ferry back to England came in late at night so we had to cycle through the middle of Poole at half past ten in the dark.”
There is no shortage of places to go cycle touring but there is also more than one way to go about doing it. Here are three of the most common forms of cycle touring.
Self-supported cycle touring involves loading the bike up with pannier bags and carrying all the rider’s clothes, tent, sleeping bag and everything else they need to complete your planned route. Self-supported tourers will have to buy food en route, though, and find somewhere to set up camp each night. However, this form of touring strikes a sensible balance between pure enjoyment and achievement.
Credit card touring
Rather a new phenomenon, it is a more luxurious development of the old youth hostelling tradition of cycle touring. Credit card touring means you set out with a minimum of luggage and kit and spend each night in a hotel or guest house. The advantage of this is that the rider gets a good night’s sleep, good food, and doesn’t have to carry much more than some clothes and spare parts. For long weekend tours it’s an obvious and simple option, and with little weight on the bike you can ride quicker and climb hills more easily.
Bikepacking or rough stuff touring
What used to be called rough stuff touring has now commandeered the more trendy name ‘bikepacking’ and is essentially off-road touring. Because the bikepacker will be riding an off-road bike, it might not always be possible to fit pannier bags. If pannier use isn’t suitable there are other bike luggage options such as frame bags that attach directly to the bike. We would never recommend using a rucksack for anything other than super-light touring where you are likely to have to carry your bike. Heading off the beaten track also means navigation and route-plotting are far more important, so this kind of tour requires a bit more preparation. The upsides are no traffic, a feeling of being at one with nature and a real adventure with unique experiences.
Thomas Ivor says…
“I’ve done all sorts of different length tours. My shortest cycle tour was the Tissington Trail in the Peak District. It’s brilliant because it’s an old railway path. I like railways and cycling, and being an old railway means the climbs are very gentle. In fact I zoomed off on one day on the trail, so for Christmas I got two radios. That means if I head off, Daddy and I can still communicate. The longest cycle tour I’ve been on was my trip to France, when we spent two weeks cycling.”
“My cycle touring challenge at the moment is #CycloClimbGB 3 Peaks, where I want to cycle between and climb all three of the highest peaks in Great Britain: Scafell Pike, Snowdon and Ben Nevis. But I’m doing that in stages, not all at once. I’m doing some sections where I just ride for one day — on New Year’s Eve I did a day trip and cycled from Colwyn Bay to Chester. Then there are some longer two or three-day sections. Then later I want to do the part up in Scotland over a few more days as a family holiday.”
If you’re intending to cycle in the British Isles, there are plenty of route-planning resources you can use (see below). The first thing to do is work out which area you want to go cycling in. Don’t forget: for a quick weekend tour you could just set out from home with the aim of reaching a certain destination, then return the following day by a different route. Once you’ve got a rough outline of your tour in mind, you can then research specific route options. Route planning, especially as a family, is great fun and part of the cycle touring experience, so sit down together and enjoy this stage.
Have an idea of how far you can comfortably cycle in a day. Bear in mind that you may be riding bikes that are loaded with equipment and significantly heavier than normal. We’d suggest around 30 miles is a good starting point for a competent cycling family taking part in a road-based tour on relatively flat terrain.
Surfaces and gradients
Of course you may not want to ride on smooth, flat roads. When planning your route, understand the nature of the surface you will be cycling over and also how many climbs you will encounter. Rough and bumpy trails or hilly terrain will make the ride much slower, so each day will have to be planned to cover a shorter distance.
There is a huge range of places cycle tourists can stop overnight. The obvious are campsites and hotels, but don’t forget B&Bs, bunkhouses, youth hostels or even Bothies, which are little huts dotted around Scotland, Wales and Northern England where you can find shelter. Most european countries have their own version of Bothies in wild areas. Plan where you aim to stop each night and remember to take a good lock to secure your bikes while you sleep.
Weather, safety and emergencies
Nobody going on any cycle tour can be sure the weather will favour them for the entirety of their trip, so it’s important that you identify potential ‘bail out’ options. These can be nearby towns or small regional railway stations where you will be able to find shelter or even head home if needs be. On multi-day tours, have a good look at the next day’s whole route before bed. Be familiar with all of the surrounding area and identify any nearby points of refuge. Finally, carry a decent first aid pack with you and make sure you have at least one phone that is always well charged for emergencies.
Online route planning resources
Our first port of call for planning a UK route would be the National Cycle Network website. Here you can use the National Cycle Network map to find out which traffic-free or quiet cycle-friendly routes are in the area.
Something of a lesser-known gem for UK tourers, the National Byway is a 3,200-mile sign-posted leisure cycling route around Scotland, England and Wales with self-contained loops found in a number of areas.
Formerly the CTC (Cyclist’s Touring Club), Cycling UK has a huge range of cycle touring routes available to members.
Once you have your route planned via digital means we’d then recommend buying the corresponding paper map. Paper maps are a fail-safe backup to any GPS-based navigation system. They also have an advantage in that they can be studied without depleting precious battery power; for example, in the evening when planning the next day’s route. When off-road touring, a compass is absolutely crucial for map reading. Ordnance Survey are your best choice for UK mapping.
Bothies are the UK version of basic mountain huts that can be freely used for overnight stays by adventurers in more remote areas. The Mountain Bothies Association is a charity that maintains the 100 or so Bothies found around the UK. If you use them we do reccomend making a donation or even joining the association.
Continental Europe and beyond
While it is possible to plan a continental touring route from the comfort of your computer screen and upload this to your phone or GPS system, again we’d say it’s important to have a ‘hard’ paper map of your route. Each country has its own mapping system: for example, Michelin Maps are excellent for cycle touring in France. Find out who produces the best maps for your intended tour location(s) and buy all the copies you need to cover the entire route.
Do note that different mapping agencies’ maps may not feature similar levels of detail, particularly in the case of gradients and contours, so it might be hard to predict how much climbing you will face. One way around this is to plan your route on a computer mapping system, then export the file as a GPX document. Load this into a GPS mapping system such as Strava and you’ll be able to see the gradient along the route.
Also, don’t forget about the logistics of any travel you may have to do on foreign public transport services. Most importantly: make sure any trains you intend to use accept bicycles.
Thomas Ivor says…
“I usually plan our cycle touring route with Daddy. We look on the map and work out a route of about 30-odd miles between a few waypoints. I have an smart phone 5 on a mount on my handlebar to show me my speed and cadence and record where I have been. Daddy uses his phone with GoogleMaps, too. We use paper maps as well, just in case the phone doesn’t work. Using paper maps tends to make it more adventurous.”
“We’ve never got lost on a cycle tour. We have missed the odd turning and had to turn back, but we’ve never got proper, proper lost. Once we climbed a big hill in Cornwall and realised we should have taken a turn earlier. But never mind, that’s just part of the adventure.”
Paper maps versus GPS
|Requires basic navigation skills to work out where you are||Will automatically show current position|
|Needs no power||Relies on batteries|
|Heavy and bulky to carry, especially if you need a few maps||Lightweight|
|Must protect from damp||Equipment is often waterproof|
|Won’t stop working||Can be broken in a crash or drop|
Many bicycles can be adapted to become competent cycle touring machines. However, Islabikes have been especially designed for versatility and to offer children a wide range of cycling experiences, including touring. Here are some simple modifications to make a bike more suitable for touring. For specific Islabikes accessories log on to the accessory section of our website.
To carry a decent amount of luggage while cycling a bike needs a rear rack. This will then accept pannier bags on either side, a trunk bag on top, or it can be used with bungee cords to carry non-cycling items such as a tent bag. Rear racks attach to the bike frame via two bosses on the seatstays and two mounting points near the rear hub, although bikes such as high-end road and mountain bikes may not have rack-mounting points. If even more needs to be carried, some bikes may have mounting points for front racks on their fork.
The safest and simplest way to carry kit on a bicycle, pannier bags clip onto the top rail of a rear rack or front rack. Pannier bags can carry a surprisingly large amount; they don’t induce bottom and hand ache from the extra weight or a sweaty back on warm days as a large rucksack would; and they keep the weight nice and low, helping to not upset bike control. Also, younger members of the family tend to love having their own bicycle luggage.
With cycle tours taking riders into new areas and often lasting multiple days where weather conditions can’t be guaranteed, mudguards are a sensible accessory. They keep the rider’s feet, legs and bottom dry helping them to stay warm and less likely to get saddle sore. It also means the rider’s kit needs washing less frequently and they are less likely to be refused access to cafes and hotels because they are filthy.
Water bottle cages
Even in relatively cool temperatures, water is consumed at a fairly brisk rate by cycle tourists: remember, the rider is carting around a lot of kit compared with unloaded cyclists. Touring bikes should be fitted with as many water bottle cages as possible: smaller bikes will only take one, larger bikes can accommodate two, and touring-specific bikes will often take even more. We’d suggest adults carry the extra water so children’s bikes aren’t heavier than necessary. Other options include using UV sticks or water purification tablets to purify water you find en route.
Handlebar bag with map
Handlebar bags are fitted to the handlebar via a clamping system and can often be unclipped to allow you to take them with you when off the bike. Many handlebar bags also feature a clear top sleeve for maps. That means the map of the day ahead’s route can be viewed and easily followed.
Saddlebag with spares
A saddlebag should be fitted so that a full puncture repair kit plus spare inner tubes are easily accessible.
Clipless pedals offer a secure connection between foot and bike. We don’t recommend clipless pedals for riders aged less than 8 years old because the twisting action may put some strain on growing joints. However for older children they can provide welcome efficiency over the course of a cycle tour. We’d suggest using mountain bike-style Shimano SPD clipless pedal systems. These are generally easier to click in and out of than road cycling pedal systems. They are also particularly welcome for touring as, unlike road shoes, SPD shoes often provide some walking ability so the rider won’t be slipping and sliding when they pop into a shop for food.
Thomas Ivor says…
“I used pannier bags and a handlebar bag on my previous bike, an Islabikes Beinn 20. Pannier bags are very helpful because they can carry so much. In one bag I would carry the cooking gear, in the other I would carry my own essentials. Sadly I scuffed a hole in one when I fell off, so when it rained it let water in.”
“Now that I ride an Islabikes Luath 24 I’ve changed my bags and I have a bikepacking set-up from Alpkit. They made me a custom-sized frame bag. Then I’ve got a top tube bag, and a bag that I can put my drink in, and the final bag is the biggest — that’s a seven-litre seat pack. This is strapped to the seatpost and sits over the rear wheel.”
“I’m using the new Islabikes cross tyre for cycle touring when I go off road. I’ve also got a light set with the front light mounted on a special mount and two lights at the back. I use double-sided SPD clipless pedals with cyclo-cross shoes. The pedals are very helpful because they keep my feet in the right place. Before I used them I found it a bit tricky to get the ball of feet in the right place. I carry my puncture repair kit in my frame bag. I don’t have mudguards on my Luath but I used to have them on my Beinn.”
While credit-card tourers and riders planning to stay in hotels, guest houses or hostels require little more than extra clothes and spare parts, riders who plan to tour entirely self-supported will need other equipment.
Modern tents are incredible pieces of kit that can withstand all manner of conditions. However, because most cycle tourists plan to go touring for fun, very few family cyclists should require anything too extreme. Far more important is a tent that is light and quick and easy to erect. We’d suggest a dome or tunnel tent, with a decent size porch to store panniers. Because the tent will probably be the single heaviest piece of touring kit, separate its constituent parts, poles, pegs, inner and flysheet, and distribute them fairly between riders.
Sleeping bags come in a range of options to cope with a variety of temperatures. Choose a bag that is suitable for slightly colder climes than you expect to encounter on your tour. It’s easier to open a warm bag to cool down than to warm up a closed bag if you’re too cold.
With modern cycle tourists relying on GPS systems to lead the way and mobile phones for photos and web access, electrical backup is necessary. Power banks are small, relatively light and a guaranteed simple way to recharge devices.
A cycle tourist needs one set of riding clothes, possibly one spare pair of cycling shorts, and two pairs of pants and socks that can be hand washed if necessary. Also have some lightweight evening clothes that can double up as an extra layer on the bike if the weather turns very cold. Choose natural fabrics where possible, such as Merino base layers and cotton socks, as they smell better for longer. Take a good waterproof jacket and maybe waterproof trousers depending on the time of year and touring destination.
There will be times on a cycle tour when bikes are left unattended. Because of this, take the best possible lock you can afford and make sure it is big enough to secure all the bikes on tour. It might seem like a heavy extra weight, but it’s far less hassle than finding you’ve lost your bikes, all your kit, and you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Thomas Ivor says…
“When I was a little bit younger and I slept in the same tent with the rest of my family I would wake in the middle of the night and find my little sisters crawling over me. It also used to be a bit embarrassing because I would sleep talk, so now I sleep in my own tent. Even though it is small and lightweight it’s still a little bit too big for me to carry so I put some of it in the back of our trailer. But I really do like sleeping in a tent.”
“I’ve also got my own sleeping bag. It’s very comfy and my body heat warms it up. Just as I’m getting to sleep and I’m very drowsy I have to pull myself out a little because I’m a little bit hot. I gave a talk speaking at Yestival in the evening last year and when I got back to the tent at 10 o’clock it was covered in ice. I thought I would be too cold to sleep, but after 15 minutes in my sleeping bag I was as warm as ever.”
“In terms of clothes, if it’s a long tour I take two pairs of bib-shorts. I’ll use one pair for up to a week, then the second pair for the second week. I also have a good waterproof jacket, although I have been soaked while touring. On the last day of our Humberside trip I got completely drenched. It was just me and daddy riding, and when we got to the railway station in Doncaster I was so wet the people at the station took pity on me and made me a hot chocolate.”
You’ve got all your kit, you’ve planned your route, you’re ready to ride but there’s just one last job: packing your bags. The most important thing is to keep everything as light and as small as possible, even to the point where it’s possible to chop a toothbrush in half to save space. Travel-specific equipment is also useful, such as towels that pack down to the size of a flannel.
Roll up clothing so you can store it nice and tightly in your pannier bags. Keep day-to-day stuff such as t-shirts, pants and socks at the bottom of your bags, with other garments you might need on the ride such as waterproof jackets nearer the top.
It’s tempting to fill your bags but have a good think if you absolutely need everything you’re taking. While you don’t want to find yourself stranded somewhere without a vital piece of kit, you also don’t want to be carrying things you never actually use on tour. Be practical and realistic.
Then the final stage is simple. Head out the door with your bike and start exploring the world in the most fabulous way imaginable: go cycle touring!
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