Zen and the art of bicycle maintenance.
Cycle touring is so much more than just cycling from A to B; a strange variety of different skills and abilities are required. Don’t let not having these skills put you off. You can develop them along the way and remember guys, according to Napoleon Dynamite, girls only like guys with great skills.
Napoleon Dynamite demonstrating Rollerblade towing skills - not required for cycle touring.
First you must have mad tetris skills. This is because you will have to find a way to pack everything you need to survive into 4-5 small bags that you will then strap to your bicycle. Essential items such as a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, first aid kit, cycle repair kit and tools, gas stove, cutlery, map etc, leave little room for luxuries like a book or a towel or even spare clothes. Did I even mention food? Luckily, toothbrushes are small and light. To raise the skill level required these bags must be packed in such a way as to evenly distribute weight on both sides of the bicycle to avoid being off balance and crashing.
This mess - must fit into this bag - to fit onto this bicycle.
Next, you must have navigation skills. Figuring out where you are, what direction you want to go in next, how fast you are moving and calculating how long it will take you to get there, all must be done while cycling. You can cheat and get a GPS or use an app, but then when it rains or your battery, network coverage or data run out, you are back to using an old school map and doing calculations in your head. To raise your skill level, try cycle touring in a country where you don’t speak the language. Deciphering foreign and often incomprehensible street names and traffic signs has a way of making even basic navigation significantly harder.
When what’s on the signs isn’t on the map or vice versa.
Once you have mastered tetris and navigation you must develop your cycling skills. You might have thought you were a competent cyclist before, but once you have 4-5 kg strapped to each fork of your bicycle things are much different. Your centre of gravity changes, corners must be approached and completed much more carefully, leaning too far to one side can flip you over and your speed downhill, multiplied by the weight you are carrying, has a way of exponentially increasing your velocity while drastically reducing your braking distance. Add traffic to raise your skill level and when you think you are a pro, try cycling in a mega city like New York or a country like Germany where they don’t have speed limits.
Often people think you need other skills, like fitness skills for example. Fitness is not a skill. Pedalling is as simple and easy as walking, and if your bike has gears then anyone can do a cycle tour. As long as it is flat. Add hills or mountains if you wish to increase your fitness or just want awesome stand out calf muscles. Cycling down the other side of the mountain might not increase your fitness, but it might give your adrenalin gland a workout.
You can fix most of the worlds problems with these few tools…and cable ties and duct tape.
The most essential skill you must have to cycle tour is bike mechanic skills. Cycle touring requires that you be employed full time in this capacity. Having a degree in engineering helps, as do any trade skills you may have, such as plumbing or carpentry. Even knowing how to sew is a bonus. This is because every single day something will happen which will require you to fix, repair or destroy part of your bicycle or gear just so that you can continue riding and get to somewhere you can rest/relax. Whether it is something simple like an inner tube puncture or something complex that probaly should require access to a machinery shop to fix, Murphys law dictates that it will definitely happen. Often it will happen multiple times in one day. Your skill level as a bike mechanic will be increased by the fact that due to weight limit and your packing tetris skills you only carry a very, very simple tool kit. This means that you almost always are required to use the wrong tool to temporarily repair something that should not have broken in the first place. By the end of your tour, it is highly likely that your cycle will largely be held together with duct tape and cable ties. Being able to fix anything, with anything, gives you a confidence that some authors have confused with a state of zen. Don’t let this fool you. Just because you fixed some things when they broke, you are not some sort of jedi. This might come later.
When cycling into the wind is just too much - give up for a little while.
If you want to enjoy your cycle and not spend it battling against the elements, meteorology prediction skills (or even just downloading a few weather apps) can be deadly important. Cycling in the rain is unpleasant. Cycling into any sort of wind is lacking in fun of any type. Cycling all day in the rain or into strong wind, absolutely sucks and requires massively more energy than just pedalling along on a sunny day with a tail wind. More than being physically exhausting, cycling into wind and rain messes with your head and destroys your soul, until after a few hours you no longer want to keep cycling. Instead, you just want to curl up in a dry fetal ball until the rain and/or wind stops. When all your clothes are wet, and your underwear is wet, and you only have crawling into a wet tent and sleeping bag to look forward to, even your fake bike maintenance zen can be undermined.
Yoga can be helpful when seeking cycle zen.
The final skill you require is something that cannot be taught. This is your calm, zen, mind state that will be necessary if you are to survive your cycle tour when things go, not the way you planned. When your meteorology skills are lacking and it is raining and you are wet and tired, this is when your navigation skills will fail and get you lost. It is also the most likely time when some part of your bike will break and you will skin your knucles or tear your exspensive rain jacket while trying to fix it. In situations like these, when problems are compounded, it is easy to lose your shit, get angry or just give up. But if you have mastered all the foundational skills mentioned above, you will have the tools to cope, to overcome and succeed in the face of whatever the road can throw at you. Then you will exhibit the cool, calm demeanour of a bike ninja/jedi. You will possess the thousand yard stare of an accomplished cycle tourist who has seen it all and survived. Then, when you look someone in the eyes, and with all the panache you can muster, tell them you did a 100+km day… they might just believe you.
Proof of that 100+ km day is essential if your bike zen is still a work in progress.