Ultralight touring: a how-to guide
Pack up your bike, fly to some exotic location, and ride to your heart’s content. I’m sure it’s a thought you’ve had more than before. One of the beautiful things about cycling is the long list of stunning holiday destinations it introduces you to. But while a great photo is all it takes to inspire a cycling trip, actually embarking on the journey is fraught with challenges. Luke Pegrum reflects on a recent trip to provide some tips on how to plan for and make the most of your next cycling adventure.
When CyclingTips published Roadtripping Norway I knew I had to experience for myself what looked so spectacular on my computer screen. On a bit of an impulse I had a quick look at the map and bought some flights to Oslo, with a loose plan to ride across the country.
But an undertaking like this throws up a range of logistical problems you must sort out before turning that first pedal stroke. The list can be daunting, from deciding on a route and finding places to stay, to figuring out how you’re going to get all your stuff from A to B.
With so much time potentially taken up planning a trip like this, it’s no wonder fully supported cycling holidays have become so popular. But if you’re the sort of person who likes to do it yourself, without the expense and fuss of a professionally organised tour, don’t fear.
I went to Norway with my regular road bike, a small backpack, and routes planned for the first four days of riding. With this, I was able to cover almost 1,000km from the Atlantic Road near Kristiansund, to the charming city of Bergen. Along the way I road up winding mountain roads, across rugged snow-capped mountain ranges, and beside pristine fjords.
And through it all, I had the pristine wilderness and quiet country roads all to myself.
Sure, it was far from a luxury holiday; I certainly didn’t smell the best by the end of it. But it was a sensational experience, and proof you can enjoy a challenging cycling tour without a support vehicle or a heavy touring bike.
So here are a few things I learnt on my trip, to help inspire yours.
Flying with a fragile carbon fibre bike is nerve-racking at the best of times. But the challenge is even greater when you are planning a point-to-point journey like mine. I wanted to fly in and out of different locations, so transporting a cumbersome bike case was impractical.
My solution was to source cardboard bike boxes from bike shops before each flight. The humble cardboard box certainly has its limitations, but it’s free, readily available and easy to dispose of. I used lots of bubble wrap and protected the ends of the forks with empty coke bottles I cut in half. This stops them slicing through the box.
It’s also important to protect the rear derailleur and hanger, which are easily bent. When I unpacked my bike in the small town of Åndalsnes (a 400km train ride from Oslo), I was horrified to find my derailleur pointing into the spokes. Fortunately there was a great little bike shop in town and the mechanic was happy to bend it back into shape for me. But I was lucky; if the hanger had bent much worse the small-town shop may not have had the spare parts to repair it and my entire trip could have been jeopardised.
This is why it’s wise to unpack and examine your bike for damage at the first chance you get. A quick look over the bike when I landed would have given me plenty of time to sort out any damage. Plus I could have made any potential insurance claim easier by getting a damage report by my airline on the spot.
It’s never been easier to find great routes in foreign lands. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, we have an incredible amount of information available on a device weighing a few hundred grams.
The best resource online is called the Strava Global Heatmap. It uses the millions of data points accumulated by Strava and overlays it on Google Maps, creating an incredible looking map that uses colour to show how popular each road is for cyclists. The darker the colour, the more people have ridden it.
The Strava Global Heatmap essentially combines the local knowledge of the riders in the area, highlighting the best routes and most popular roads.
The biggest issue choosing a route in Norway was all the tunnels they’ve built through mountains and under fjords. A road that might look perfect on Google Maps might spend half its time underground. There are few experiences quite as terrifying as riding through a dark, wet tunnel as the spine-tingling roar of approaching vehicles rattles through your bones.
Fortunately I could look at the heatmap to see if a road was as good as it looked, and figure out pretty quickly what to avoid and what to attack.
Still, at times you may have no choice but to take a road that’s not ideal. On one occasion I knew the only way across a fjord was by a tunnel that descended hundreds of metres below ground, through dense carbon monoxide, before climbing at an 8% grade back to the surface. Fortunately, having only my road bike and no bulky baggage, I was able to hitch hike with minimal difficulty. This couldn’t be said for the couple of heavily laden bicycle tourers I met on the other side, who had been trying to get a lift for three hours.
Rack, panniers… backpack?
The general consensus online is to avoid backpacks at all costs. I shunned this advice in favour of the simplicity backpacks offer.
No doubt racks have their advantages, especially for longer trips, but I worried they’d lead me away from the style of cycling I wanted to achieve on this trip. Racks make it too easy to carry more than you need, whereas backpacks force you to keep things light. In a way it disciplines you, forcing you to focus on what’s really important.
Obviously not everyone will agree — and some people’s backs won’t enjoy the extra stress — but I had no issues with my backpack and found it convenient and comfortable.
Plus it doesn’t break up the nice lines of your fancy bike.
What to take
This question really should be, what shouldn’t you take? I quickly discovered how easy it is to justify extra baggage — until you have to drag it all up a mountain. Then it becomes hard to justify what you’re prepared to keep. What you may consider ‘packing light’ at home is a lot different to when you’re out on the road deep in the hurt box.
When I set off my bag contained one spare jersey, a cycling wind jacket, arm and leg warmers, three casual shirts, one pair of shorts, a week’s worth of socks and jocks, thermal long-johns, a pair of lightweight running shoes, a sleeping bag, basic tools and toiletries, a small camera, smartphone and my wallet. Oh, and a novel for good measure.
Five hours later, as I lay on the side of the road utterly exhausted from climbing the first genuine mountain of my life, my concept of an ‘essential item’ had changed dramatically. Under the influence of a serious hunger flat, I threw out all my underwear, most of my socks and all but one shirt. The book survived, but that night I made sure I finished it so I could leave it behind too.
For the rest of my trip I had one outfit for riding, and one outfit for relaxing. Obviously, this wasn’t ideal. The very next evening, as I left my hostel to find some dinner, I swung my leg over the seat only to hear that unmistakable noise as the stitches tore out of the crutch of my lone pair of shorts.
At this point I definitely regretted leaving all my underwear in that rest stop bin. Let’s just say the rest of my trip was breezier than anticipated.
Despite this, my bag was now lighter by half and my enjoyment of the rest of the trip had a lot to do with this decision. Carefully consider every gram you take on a journey like this and ask yourself, “would I be prepared to jettison this halfway up a mountain?”
Cycle touring takes you to many remote towns away from the tourist trail. This means finding accommodation is more difficult, and can be more expensive.
I planned to stay in hostels as much as possible for my trip. Unfortunately there weren’t hostels in many of the places I stayed, forcing me to enjoy the comfort of hotels and their hot baths.
But as I progressed, I discovered a whole range of accommodation existed that wasn’t readily accessible online due to the language gap. Places like small guest houses and B&Bs offered an affordable night’s rest, but to find them I had to ask around.
It can be difficult to plan accommodation too far ahead, and it’s good to keep plans flexible when touring with so little backup. Most of the time it was easy to find accommodation the day before or even when I arrived in a town, but be careful when it comes to weekends. More than once I arrived in a town with accommodation in mind but not booked, only to discover it was a Saturday and the inn was full.
At best this resulted in hours spent looking for WiFi and new accommodation; at worst you might have to sleep on a park bench, where you’ll be kept awake all night by 23 hours of sunlight and the shrill cry of hundreds of mating frogs.
I could have saved a lot of money by camping, but this would have meant more weight and more time setting up tents after a hard day’s ride. If you’re travelling with a partner who can share the weight, a tent might be a good option. However, when you’re riding hard everyday, a comfortable bed is worth its weight in Norwegian Kroner.
Ups and downs
One of my best memories from the trip was also one of the most horrific. On the day I was planning to ride from Geirangerfjorden up the famous Dalsnibba climb, a storm front rolled in. I had limited warm clothing for this sort of weather, but I had already used up my quota of rest days. So I piled on as many layers as I could — probably enough to stay warm on a cold Perth morning but seriously inadequate for alpine conditions — and set off.
The 1,000m of climbing to the start of the Dalsnibba road was incredible. My legs glistened in the gentle rain as I tapped my way up the tightly twisting roads, shrouded in fog that hugged the mountainside like a scene straight from Lord of the Rings. But as I got higher and the gradient flattened out, the cold started seeping in.
I emerged at the top, freezing despite the climb, welcomed by a dark, ice-covered lake. Snow lay all around, and the constant rain threatened sleet at any moment. It was truly a nightmarish time to be on a bike, and I made the decision not to climb the Dalsnibba, to leave it for another time, and instead continue on to Lom, 100km away.
For the next 50km I rode at a snail’s pace, brakes clamped on, physically screaming to ward off the cold. But it was no use. I’ve never experienced cold like I did that day, when I feared I would fall off because I was shaking so badly.
But just when I thought I would have to get off to find shelter, I saw a lone RV in the distance. Desperate, I knocked on the door. Inside, a retired Dutch couple looked out the window bemused. They welcomed me in, laughing at the situation I’d gotten into, and brewed me a cup of tea. They helped me warm up, amused by the entire scene as I huddled up in the front seat of their mobile home. Once feeling returned to extremities, I thanked them and set off again into the rain.
It was still freezing outside, but the worst was behind me, and the warmth of that lovely couple’s hospitality kept my spirits up. I eventually reached Lom, exhausted, drenched and cold, but glowing.
The crucial thing to remember when undertaking an ultralight tour is you are making a trade off; comfort and self-sufficiency in exchange for speed and freedom. The key to this being successful is flexibility and creativity.
Part of the joy of travelling this way is the unknown aspect. You’re more vulnerable to things like mechanicals and extreme weather, but you also have the capacity to travel further and faster than people with more equipment. Plus, it’s often having to overcome your limitations that leads to the best experiences.