In the four years since it was first published, the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook has become a must-read for cyclists dreaming of long-distance journeys to remote corners of the globe.
With its mix of practical advice, route outlines and tales from the saddle, it has plenty of inspiration for future tours.
The next edition will hit the shelves mid-May and we can’t wait to see what it looks like (not least because we wrote the chapter on Central Asia). In the meantime, we caught up with author Stephen Lord and asked a few questions about how he got into bike touring, his favourite places and some of the things he’s learned along the way.
Do you remember when you first discovered bicycle touring?
Of course I can remember – I’m not that old! I had forgotten bicycling for a few years when I started work but then I saw a mountain bike for the first time in 1986. You looked at the bike and you saw this incredible potential to go anywhere and do anything. I bought one in New York and took it to Japan, where I worked for 6 years. It wasn’t long before I thought, I’m going to get racks on that and go somewhere with it. I was plotting my escape from the banking world at that time and it was obvious the bike was going to be a big part of it.
Has your style of touring changed over the years?
I’ve tried lots of things, touring on mountain bikes, then a few drop-bar tourers and cyclocross bikes and gradually moved towards getting tough frames and gear because I broke everything else. I think when you’re older you want more comfort. You forget that when you first toured you didn’t even have a mattress or you forgot the sleeping bag or the tent had holes in it. When you’re older, that’s just not a fun trip. I’ve found through the years my mattresses are getting thicker. The bag is getting warmer. It’s a shame in a way, but that’s the way it goes.
What bike are you riding at the moment?
I just built a mountain bike from the wheels up – chromoly frame, oil’n’coil shock, SLX groupset, cable disc brakes and downhill, disc-only rims. No braze-ons. I’ll use it for pub-to-pub touring or get an Extrawheel Voyager if I want to carry a tent. I’ve still got my Roberts Roughstuff. I bought it secondhand but it fits me perfectly. It’s a very traditional custom-build with fillet-brazing, British racing green and it came with drop bars, which I took off after a few tours. The frame-builder was horrified when he saw that and said he hoped I’d clean it if I was going to use photos of it in the book.
The Roberts Roughstuff is a very expensive bike. Do you think you need an expensive bike to go on a tour?
No, not at all. You could go with something around £500 (about $750 U.S.), if you’re looking at a new bike. Don’t go lower because you want a good groupset and you don’t want rubbish wheels. The mid-range is where to look. The Marin Muirwoods was ideal but now it’s an alu frame. The 29er is still steel though, and has cable discs. Great as long as you don’t mind 700c wheels. I don’t – but my trips are only a couple of months so I don’t worry about replacing wheels while on tour.
Can you remember one great day on the road?
There were too many of them! I think the greatest time would be the greatest place: Big Sur, California – I rode it three times. It’s absolute heaven: ozone coming off the ocean, wildflowers, the smell of the redwoods. It’s a protected area and not commercialised at all. It’s really quite hard riding but usually you’ve got a tailwind if anything. My most hilarious moments were the zany trips in Japan – you never knew where you’d end up and that made it always exciting. People seem much more obliging overseas than they do at home.
What about a few challenging moments?
Here are the things that get increasingly difficult for me: smoke, traffic and bad food. I always lose weight when I travel. I just can’t get enough calories. It’s a problem for anybody. If you ride mountains, it’s like the Tour de France every day. You’re heavily loaded, you’re going 50 miles +, you need 4,000 calories and you’re getting 3,000 if you’re lucky. And if you’re eating in Central Asia you’re eating 3,000 calories and regurgitating 2,000 of them! Getting good nutrition is a big problem for me.
Where will your next tour be?
My next tour, having built this mountain bike, is to do the South Downs Way. It’s only 100 miles. It’s a two day tour but we could probably spin it out to 3 nights. The whole thing is off road. It’s bridleway and it goes from Winchester to Eastbourne. It’s a perfect practice tour for anyone who wants to do rough touring. You have public transport at either end and there’ll be pubs each night (and maybe lunchtime too…). After that I’d like to do the TransAndalus Trail. I’m trying to get the adventure-touring feel, but closer to home. I think in Europe or North America or Australia and New Zealand you have to go off-road for that same sense of space and wildness and rural friendliness that you get touring the Third World.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other bike tourists?
The hardest thing is to let go of everything – to slip the surly bonds (that poem is well worth googling). No matter when in life you start, this really is the big one, the great unknown, a huge physical, emotional and psychological or spiritual challenge and adventure. Everyone goes through it; just be yourself and make it your trip and not someone else’s. Life is only fun when it’s the life you choose. That’s what I like about cycling, it’s infinitely individualistic and customisable.