Interview: Touring With A Folding Bicycle

Cycling through Africa? On a folding bike? However unlikely such a combination seems at first glance, that’s exactly what cyclists Jo Charnock and Jan Wouters set out to do in 2007 – despite some uncertainty about how the trip would work out.

Travelling the length of Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, on folding bikes? Were we completely mad or had we come up with an idea that would prove to be the simplest and most fun way to travel?


They needn’t have worried. The trip turned out to be a hit. They combined cycling with transport by truck, bus, train and plane. They nicknamed it ‘hitch-biking’ and recently published the story of their trip in a new book: A Hitch-Biker’s Guide Through Africa.

Jan also recently took the time to answer a few questions for TravellingTwo.com about touring on a folding bike.

Travels by folding bike

1. What features should people look for in a folding bike for touring?

The bike has to be stiff, needs good components and a sturdy baggage carrier. It’s the same as with all travel bikes; if you go cheap, you’ll end up having more technical problems during your trip. Go for quality or the best that you can afford. We chose Dahon Bikes. They have a specific travel bike which looks really great (Dahon TR).

I rode on a Dahon full-suspension folding bike (Jetstream), which turned out to be great. Jo took a real city type of folding bike (Vitesse) which still stood up to the test. Looking back, if you’re looking for comfort the bike to get would be the one with suspension.

Travels by folding bike

2. And what about the equipment? Is it different from what you’d carry for touring on a ‘normal’ bike?

Choosing the right sleeping bag, tent, cooking gear and all other personal stuff is as important as choosing the bike. One of the most important things is to keep everything very, VERY light. We weighed and scrutinised everything before we left, and ended up travelling with just a small backpack plus a bag on the luggage rack. If you want to take more, get a full-size bike. But just like with any travelling, most travellers travel with way too much stuff that they end up not using.

Travels by folding bike

3. Why did you use a backpack? That’s not traditionally recommended for bike touring.

The reason for this was that we wanted to be able to quickly fold our bikes, and hitch a ride. Also, cycling in Africa can sometimes be a challenge at busy public transport stops when there are a lot of people around. Safety can be an issue at this time, so it’s important to be able to fold your bike, and not have to worry about having to take bags first.

If you really want to travel light in ‘funny’ countries, I would opt for the backpack. If you’re in a ‘safe’ first world country, I would maybe opt for pannier bags. Ortlieb offers good bags. So does Overboard and many other brands. Again, it’s all about keeping it simple and light.

Travels by folding bike

4. When bike touring, ideally you want a bike with parts that are easily found everywhere, in case of mechanical trouble. Don’t folding bikes tend to have specialist parts, and was that a problem for you?

Spare parts are something that most touring cyclists do go completely overboard with! We travelled the whole of Cairo to Cape Town with a basic repair kit, and found most of the repair stuff we needed in little bike shops along the way. We had a lot of flats, but always found inner tubes for our 20″ tyres. I even found cheap Chinese tyres. If you find that stuff in little villages in Africa, I am sure you’ll find them in most places in the world! Most bikes these days really have good components that last a long time.

Stuff that will break first are inner tubes, tyres and spokes, and cables; all very light and easy to carry. It’s again a question of keeping it simple. If you find out that a particular component is getting worn out, get to a city and have it replaced. Don’t wait till it just breaks.

As for the specific folding bike components; these are so well engineered these days, that I think they would be the last to break on the bike. We did our trip in 2007-08 and I still use the same bike nearly every day. The folding components haven’t needed any extra attention so far.

5. Are some destinations or types of bike tours particularly suited to folding bikes or – on the other hand – totally unsuitable?

It depends on what one wants to do. Great destinations include Europe or the United States as you can easily cycle from town to town and from hotel to hotel, with a minimum of luggage.

The only place a folding bike would be unsuitable is for real mountain bike travel or climbing some serious grades in the Alps. If the terrain is really rough, other bikes would make more sense. We used our folding bikes on pretty rough terrain in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia and we’re not sure we would like to repeat it!

Hitch Bikers Guide To Africa Also, if you want to cycle the whole way, a folding bike is not the best option. There are other and better full-size bikes available for that purpose. But if you go for a combination of cycling and other means of transport the folding bike is the way to go.

When the scenery is beautiful, you cycle. If it’s boring or you are tired, catch a bus or hitch a ride. We call it ‘hitch-biking’ and it means that you meet all sorts of interesting people along the road.

***

Thanks to Jan for this interview. If you want to know about his travels with Jo, check out their book: A Hitch-Biker’s Guide Through Africa and their website Folding Bike Travels.

Comments

  1. BikeMike
    20th August 2012 at 12:38 am #

    My question about this Africa trip is:
    Did have any conflicts with some of the governments/rebels in the southern part of Africa?
    I’m an old Navy veteran and contractor and have been almost everywhere in the world, especially Africa and South America. These continents have proven to have unstable governments, especially in these times. I’m am also a long time road cyclist. It’s not the conditions and the distance I find as a challenge, but some of the people.
    I would say that your trip was quite an accomplishment if you avoided conflicts.
    Good luck to you in the future.

  2. Jan Wouters
    21st August 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    Hi BikeMike,

    We didn’t have conflicts with rebels in Africa. Crossing borders can sometimes be challenging, but during our trip everything went mostly smooth. The only real problem we encountered in Nairobi as we arrived there in the middle of very violent elections. Not great, so we quickly got out of there. Besides that, nothing but friendly, smiling Africans.

  3. petra11
    7th October 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    I am impressed by your adventure! You managed such horrendously long trip on such small bikes.
    Wish I did something like that before having kids…

    Apart from Dahon, did you consider some other brands for the tour? Which would you recommend for getting around the city ( i know high-end brands are all good, how about cheaper folding bikes)?

    Weren’t you afraid of catching some nasty disease, malaria, diarrhea, leichmaniosis- just to name a few. What basic medications did you carry?
    You had ordinary clothing, why didn’t you choose professional cycling outfits (seems to me like must)?

    Do you have plans repeating such adventure on some other continent?
    Good luck & thank you,
    Petra

  4. blackkuwahara
    25th March 2015 at 6:58 am #

    Read your story crossing africa is very inspiring me. I do touring with my BF frequently, but still around 2 or 3 days in a row. Your story will push me to have great advanture crossing Bali & lombok island (a beatiful island in Indonesia). I planned to get there on mid of April .. next moth.

    Wish i could have some good memories there

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