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My first self-supported bike tour was a 5-day ride around the Luberon region of France with my husband, in May 2017. Initially, I had a grand idea of cycling the entire length of France. Having never bike toured before or really done much road riding, I realized that would be a pretty daunting challenge. I decided to scale back that vision and do a more approachable loop for our first trip. When I was planning the trip, I had never even heard of the term “self-supported” biking, so that tells you how little I knew about the whole thing. A self-supported bike tour is typically a multi-day bike trip where you travel from lodging to lodging in a loop or point-to-point route. There is no “support,” meaning, no support van or anyone providing you assistance. You’re on your own and responsible for your own bike fixes, navigation, etc. I had always just called it “bike touring” and didn’t realize there were so many different types of bike touring. Regardless of what it was called, the whole thing seemed really romantic to me; cycling through quaint French villages, stopping for espresso and a croissant, staying in adorable cottages, and so on. Though there are always things you can do better or more efficiently, it ended up being a wonderful trip but romantic wouldn’t necessarily be a word I would use to describe the trip – more sweaty and tired. With hindsight being 20/20, I wanted to share some mistakes and lessons learned from that first bike trip.
Because I thought this was going to be a romantic French vacation, I packed waaaay too much. I had never even cycled with panniers before (the bags that hook onto a rear rack) so I was naive to the idea of less is more. I was disillusioned into thinking that a heavy rolling weight would somehow help me so take my advice and pack only the essentials. I always strive to be a light packer but for whatever reason, I didn’t even consider how much stuff I was cramming into my panniers. We left our luggage at the bike shop where we picked up our bikes and packed what we’d need for the ride. Basically, I ended up packing nearly everything I had brought along with me – big mistake. I thought that we’d be getting to our destination for the evening, showering at our AirBnB, then going out on the town for a lovely dinner. I was very wrong about that. We ended up getting into each town later than I had envisioned so we ended up just eating in our bike clothes, which was totally fine, but I definitely didn’t need the skirt, dress, and jewelry I had packed for nice dinners out. I also didn’t need the pair of hiking shoes. I thought we’d get to our destination, change our shoes and explore the town. We ended up staying in our cycling shoes for much of our exploration and when we did change our shoes, I slipped into a really low profile Teva sandal (that I also brought along). Did I mention that I also had a large hardcover novel in my panniers? Not that a book is a terrible idea, but this was a pretty heavy book to be biking around with. Moral of the story here is that every ounce counts so if you don’t absolutely need something, leave it out. You start to feel every extra thing you packed once you get a few miles in.
We planned our route using Google maps, a series of bike touring blogs, and some travel itineraries we found on the web. There’s a pretty extensive network of bike paths in this region of France so everything was very well marked. The one thing I will note though is that there was a significant amount of climbing on some days, especially the third day in. While this is generally fine, I didn’t take into account that I would be on a rental bike and have some significantly extra weight with the fully loaded panniers. Plus, after 2 days of riding already, I might be pretty tired at this point. What normally would’ve been an ambitious day for me was made even more challenging with the heavy load that I forgot to factor in. If I had reviewed the route more thoroughly, I might have made day three’s ride a little less grueling (or at least knew what I was getting into). All in all, when you’re planning a route, make sure you consider the distance, elevation gain, and added weight from your gear. Your normal cycling distance may be different with a lot of extra weight added on. If you can normally do 50 miles of road riding comfortably a day, plan to do less than that because of the weight, the consecutive days of riding, and the opportunity to stop and take in the sights.
Just because you can bike a certain mileage doesn’t necessarily mean you should or will want to. You’ll be in a new place and will want to explore a bit so by biking less than you know you can, you’ll have time to explore and stop for a mid-morning cappuccino and not feel rushed. Many days, we were getting to our destination between 5-7 PM, which didn’t give us much time to explore the charming village where we were staying for the night. If you aren’t into sightseeing that might not be a problem but make sure you have enough time for what you’d like to do. We like to stop and wander through cute villages, exploring every pastry shop that we come across so we like to factor in extra time for that.
Back up plan? What’s that? Sure, we had a spare tube, tire levers, a tool, and a pump, but if something had really gone wrong, we didn’t have a plan for that. Luckily, everything went according to plan for the most part, though there was some construction that nearly inhibited our ability to travel through on our planned route. On the third day, my knee started to hurt and rather than stopping for rest, I just chugged along through the pain. The pain got worse and worse throughout the rest of the trip and every pedal stroke became agonizing. We had no plan at all for if either of us couldn’t continue cycling due to injury or something else. I suppose I could have called a cab to bring me to the next destination but we just hadn’t thought through any contingency plans. Before your trip, you should talk through a few different scenarios and figure out how you might handle each scenario so you and your group have a plan in place in case something goes wrong (injury, stolen bike, broken bike, road closures, severe weather, flooding, etc.). It’s a good idea to know where some bike shops are on your route in case you need to pick up any spare parts along the trip. Anything can happen when you’re out on the road so by planning ahead you’ll be better off to handle whatever the situation is.
This seems like something that shouldn’t be an issue at all but if you’re planning on getting food on the road, it’s a smart idea to make sure the area you’ll be in has food and the restaurants will be open when you’re going by. In Europe, many restaurants close in the afternoon and open again for dinner around 7 PM. On our France trip, we were starving and looking for dinner around 5 or 6 PM many days. While we were able to find something to eat, our options were limited due to the time and remoteness of some of the towns. Some areas only had one place to get food so our options were limited. It’s a good idea to have a small snack with you so you can avoid getting ‘hangry’ and can find a food option that works for you.
Regardless of any “mistakes” or things we could have done better, our self-supported bike tour in France was absolutely wonderful and I would do it again in a second. Each time you go you learn more about what you should and shouldn’t bring. Even when you get packing down to a near science, there’s always that one thing that you didn’t need. Our recommendation is to make a list of everything that you brought so you can bring the same things next time or pair down based on what wasn’t used. That’ll help you remember what was necessary and what wasn’t.
Start planning your route, have fun, and don’t forget to pack your Kaden gear!
Authored by Chelsea Camarata (wearing the Cady-V jersey in Indigo Navy)