I’m going to be transparent about the purpose of this story: To encourage you to try independent cycle touring.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely a roadie whose interest probably extends far beyond doing the same bunch rides on the same roads, at the same time, with the same people, to the same cafes, to order the same coffee.
If you are reading this you probably derive a childlike satisfaction from tearing around on two circles and two triangles, and there are other places to do this than Bright and Beach Road.
Three years ago, a mate and I flew into Sri Lanka with 5kg of hand-luggage and bought two local single-speed mountain bikes brand new for about $75 each. The bikes were heavy and poorly manufactured, but did the trick given the relatively flat and short rides we did on our 5-week tour of the stunning teardrop island. At the end of our trip we gave our bikes away to kids and returned home, with a hunger for more.
I’d been to India twice before and settled on South India as a destination. I was interested in doing a cycle tour that required me to carry as little as possible. Following the Keep It Simple Stupid theory, I built up a simple touring bike as bought a ticket. That’s all the planning and preparation I did.
With the help of Bike Gallery I built a steel Surly Crosscheck frameset with strong box-section rims laced up with 32 traditional J-bend spokes wrapped in Schwable Marathon Dureme 700x35mm tyres. I found them to be perfect for the varying road conditions and even took them on a few cheeky singletrack adventures. I chose XT Shimano V-Brakes, which are much more powerful and easier to adjust than cantilevers and more simple than disc brakes.
I ran a 10speed drive-train (50-34 / 12-27) with Dura-Ace bar-end shifters. There were some very steep sections of road where fully loaded with panniers a smaller gear would have been like a holiday. SRAM do a 11-32 Apex cassette, which would have been perfect.
In terms of touring ‘additions’ I used a Tubus Logo rear rack which has a nice low centre of gravity when loaded up with two small Ortlieb Classic Front Roller panniers, which are intended for the front but fit well on the back. I also used a small handlebar bag to distribute weight to the front.
I carried my tools in a bidon including a hand-pump, a 15mm spanner, 4/5/6mm Allen Keys, a Leatherman, some lube, tyre levers and cable ties. In terms of spares, I carried two tubes, a powerlink, a brake and a gear cable and a few spare bolts. The main bidon was replaced with a Topeak cage that fits a 2 litre spring water bottle. In total I carried less than 8kg of stuff, which was the key to a comfortable and hassle-free tour. I had no punctures or mechanicals.
I landed at Goa’s small and quirky airport early in the morning and tore open my cardboard bike box and began to assemble it as a large crowd of curious taxi drivers gathered around. They seemed surprised that I was able to assemble the bike with only a few small tools; one friendly dude said “No hammer? For an Indian cycle you need a hammer to fix.”
There were no issues with the bike and after about half an hour I was on the road. In the five weeks I covered about 2000km, sometimes moving from village to village, sometimes going on unloaded day adventures.
My route consisted of exploring almost every road in Goa, hopping from beach to beach followed by a push directly East, inland over the Western Ghats toward the ancient city of Hampi in Central Kanartaka, then back to the coast through National Parks before returning North back to Goa for my flight home.
The Western Ghats are a mountain range that stretch down the West Coast of India peaking at nearly 3000m. Fortunately, the pass I had to climb to get to Hampi was only 700m. Although it was a difficult day of climbing, the day that followed was much for testing, even though it was short and relatively flat. The combination of strong headwinds, a non-stop procession of goods carriers storming through red-dust clouds to and from mines, roads that had deteriorated down to their foundations stretching for almost 50km made it one of the hardest days I have ever had on the bike. It was this day that made me sick; my body shut down.
After 36 hours banged up in a dirty local hotel watching Bollywood films, eating Bananas and drinking Oral Rehydration Solution I was ready to move on. After a final 160km day of pretty good roads I arrived in Hampi. It was well worth the trip; it’s a magical place that should be on your bucket list. I spent one week there doing some rock-climbing, walking and getting my shoulder sewn up by a fellow tourist on the floor of a guest house after an attack from a thorny tree whilst exploring riding along a trail.
I made my way back to the coast and a week later I landed in Melbourne, re-assembled my bike near the taxi-stand and rode home from Melbourne International Airport. It rained, for the first time in 5 weeks.
• Take less. In countries that are setup for tourism there is no need to take a kitchen or camp. Simply plan your ride so you can hop from town to town.
• Take the back way. National Highways and State Highways are often the shortest route, but never the most interesting or safe.
• Manage your tire pressure. When fully loaded it is important to ensure you don’t run pressure so low that you’ll pinch flat. Conversely, you’ll be bounced around terribly if you run pressures too high.
• Use a smartphone for GPS and maps. Load up maps when you have WiFi in bigger towns and you’ll have a full cache of accurate maps in your jersey pocket.
• Wear proper kit. Having nice plain kit made the rides much more comfortable. I thought it would make me look weird to the locals, but in truth, when you rock up in a small town in the middle of nowhere covered in dust on a bicycle you look weird regardless of your spandex.
• Ride your bell. Vital for safety. Ding ding!
• Wear a helmet. You may feel like you’re the only one in who does, but the cost is small and the benefit big.
• Ride early. I would generally set out just after sunrise and ride till about noon when it started to get really hot.
• Be like water, not like stone. Countries like India can be very frustrating and difficult if you resist and defend. If you relax and go with the flow you’ll have a much easier and more enjoyable time.
• Other interesting and suitable destinations for this type of tour include Laos/Cambodia/Vietnam, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Central America.