Europe Bicycle Touring
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This page last updated on: October 29, 2015
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By David May

Clothing for Bicycle Tours, Choosing Panniers, Packing Panniers.

Packing for commercial bicycle tours, or self-organized tours with luggage transport:

On commercial tours or self tours with luggage transfers, you can pretty much bring whatever you want (sometimes subject to weight or size or number of suitcase limits), and wear while cycling whatever you wish. You can choose to appear to others, on your bike, like a racer, a tourist, or even a lady or a gentleman. At night you can dress as elegantly or plainly as you wish.

The author has his own opinions about the advantages and disadvantages of clothing types and materials for biking, but has never succeeded in changing anyone else's mind. Major factors in deciding what to wear on your commercial tour are your body build, and the image you wish to project. Another factor is how many hours a day you are going to actually spend cycling, as compared to shopping, dining, and visiting tourist sights, and whether you wish to look like a cyclist while you aren't cycling. Another factor is your tolerance for heat, cold, and or perspiration.

You may choose to bring along, or not, your bicycle seat and/or pedals, some basic tools for adjusting your bike, and a handle bar bag or pannier, depending upon your needs and what your group supplies.

Pannier Selection for Self-Contained Bicycle Tours:

If you are taking a self-contained biking tour, where you must carry everything on your bike, your packing and clothing choices are much more constrained. The first item of business is choosing and sizing panniers.

The number and size of panniers you will need depends upon the style and length of your bike trip. If it is a short, light touring (non-camping) trip with minimal changes of clothing, and few books or accessories, perhaps two bags of 15 x 10 x 5 inches (38 x 25 x13 cm) will do. If it is a longer, light touring, trip, you will probably need two bags of roughly 16 x 13 x 6 inches (41 x 33 x 15 cm) (or if you are using a "touring bicycle" perhaps four small panniers. Volume ratings (liters or cubic inches) are not comparable between brands—some of the volume ratings may be substantially "puffed up". Therefore compare if possible before buying, or get actual dimensions.

I use and like (and mostly fill up) an earlier version of the Jandd Mountaineering's "Large Mountain Panniers". These are theoretically expandable to by 50% or more, but I think you should save most of that extra capacity for unexpected purchases along the way. I had several bad experience with earlier panniers that used systems with elastic cords or springs to attach the bottom of the panniers to the bicycle, and/or lightweight clips to attach the top. I recommend avoiding this type of system, because on a bump the bag may jump off the carrier.. My present bags (Jandd) use heavy metal clips at the top and hooks at the bottom that are cinched by straps through strap clips and retained by Velcro-type attachment.. It takes a few minutes to remove the panniers, but they have never come loose. The time it takes to dismount the panniers is a bit inconvenient. However, and advantage is that you can leave the panniers on your bike while visiting tourist sites on foot, and feel confident that nobody will walk off with them.

In addition to my panniers, I use a large handlebar bag to carry my map, camera, cell phone, snacks, and other small items that I plans to access during the day. After trying several systems, I have found that I prefer a strong snap in system that additionally has an adjustable wire that loops over the stem and prevents the clip from rotating on the handle bars. This was purchased in Europe. The handlebar bag you buy must fit properly on your bicycle, so you should try to take your bike with you when purchasing one.

For a bicycle camping trip, which requires a load of 35 pounds or more, four smaller panniers— two on the front wheels, two in the rear, are best, for both balance and aerodynamics. Some say it is better to ride with four panniers even on a light touring trip, but I prefer to stay with two panniers, for logistical reasons: Two are easier to carry to a hotel or on a train, and are also less time-consuming to load on a bicycle. As discussed on my page on bicycle selection for a tour, the weight distribution among front and rear panniers will depend upon whether you will be riding a hybrid or a touring bicycle. Most of the weight needs to go in the back on a hybrid, and in the front on a touring bicycle. Experiment to find an optimal distribution for your own bicycle.

Panniers and Rain - Although my panniers are not completely waterproof, my packing system using slider plastic bags (see below) keeps all my items dry during a long rain..

Only a few models of panniers, notably models of the Ortleib brand (www.ortliebusa.com), or the Hurricane models from Jandd (http://www.jandd.com), are completely waterproof. These panniers, however, typically make it much harder to access a range of your gear. Beware false claims of waterproofness. A waterproof bag must be seam-sealed, and needs complete coverage at the top. If you are going to take it off your bike and lay it on its side, then you will need panniers with rolled tops, similar to a hiking dry bag.

There are undoubtedly other good brands out there, but most of the bags I looked on line at in writing this page were designed for commuting or small outings, and not for extended touring; or didn't appear to be even water resistent; or didn't meet my criteria for secure attachment..

A final point about panniers: Do make sure that the rear rack of your bicycle is of a strong and durable type (many are not), and lengthy enough to allow clearance between your heels and the panniers. It is best, if in doubt, to test this while riding.

Packing for Self-Contained Bicycle Tours:

Keeping your Gear Dry: Rain occurs (often unexpectedly) during many cycling trips. I have tried rain covers over my panniers and they have never entirely prevented rain from entering (nor with hiking backpacks, for that matter). Therefore, unless you do own truly waterproof panniers, I highly recommend that you pack all of your clothing and other items in slider plastic bags.

The use of individual plastic bags has three other advantages: first, it keeps you organized—for example all white cycling socks are together, all maps and papers are easy to find ; second, it seems to help prevent the wrinkling, soiling, leaking, or messing up of clothing, papers, toilet articles, and so on; third, it allows you to "slide" items into tight spaces in the panniers However, opening most all of the bags at night and closing them again in the morning is a real nuisance.

My experience over the years has convinced me of the following: (1) Large plastic garbage bags used as saddlebag liners make it impossible to access items during rainstorms without other things getting wet. Nor are they easy to use. But this is a viable option. (2) Zip-lock® bags, in saddlebags, do not stay zipped. (3) Larger individual plastic bags, sealed by rolling them up and holding them with rubber-bands, are effective but are clumsy and not very compact. (4) Slider bags are effective, work very easily, and last for more than one trip; their advantages far outweigh their slightly higher cost. I compress each bag to get out excess air before sealing, and then usually put one or two rubber bands around each bag, to help keep the bags as compact as possible.

There are various sizes of slider bags: Use the sandwich size bag to carry wallets and day-maps with you on drizzly days, and, in your saddle bag, to carry tissues and spare toilet paper. Use the quart size to carry socks, handkerchiefs, belts, and underwear, as well as film and camera supplies. Use the gallon size to carry shirts, pants, pajamas, sweater, rain jacket, toilet kit bag, accessories and first-aid bag, guide books, maps and papers, and food items for snacks or picnics. Use the two-gallon bags to carry dress shoes, fleece jacket (in cool weather), or to protect a 35mm camera.

Biking wear: Assuming that your trip is a longer one, and that you would like to wear clothing that is clean and fresh, you will need to bring many changes of clothing, or do frequent laundries.

My observations are that European bikers on long tours or out for a club ride using road bicycles wear polyester bike clothing, but that local riders on a city bicycle or hybrid typically wear street clothes.

If you choose to ride in cotton clothing, you will need either (1) to bring along many changes, which will fill and weigh down your saddlebags, but, none-the-less, for tee shirts in summer, is feasible for up to a week; and (2) find a way to dry your cotton clothes, either by staying more than one night in one hotel or camp ground (unless you arrive early and the weather is sunny), or by use of laundromats in big towns.

Polyester garments breathe well, and dry overnight in most weather conditions. (However, their looks or feel are objectionable to some riders.) One cycling jersey and one pants can suffice for a trip of any length if you wash them every night. And you will probably need to do so, as synthetics tend to retain or even build up odors. Take along an extra jersey and pants if you wish to skip the washing routine occasionally.

When hand washing garments, drying time is substantially decreased if each gar met (with excess water wrung out) is rolled in a dry towel (if available). I always carries a thin nylon line and miniature clothespins (available from camping stores or catalogues), which I tie between firm supports in his hotel room (such as door hinges or TV supports), if the hotel does not provide adequate hanging space. If a hotel provides a hair dryer, its use can vastly speed up the drying process.

In the fall, winter and spring, you will also need to bring at least one pair of removable leggings or over-pants and a sweater or fleece jacket. I use a helmet cover in cooler weather and for some long descents in moderate weather, and carry a baseball cap for use when not biking. In all seasons you will need a breathable windbreaker-raincoat (if it is not breathable you may be warm, but you'll be wet from your perspiration); and if cold heavy rain is possible, rain pants.

Eyeglasses: You should definitely wear very large glasses, or goggles. The wind blowing in your face at normal speeds, including gusts from passing trucks, and swirling eddies, can damage your eyes. Not to mention the air-flow during descents at 30 miles per hour. Your eyes also need protection from glare. I like very well my oversized eyeglasses that darken in bright sun. "Transition" lenses get better each year, and now become quite dark in bright conditions.

Evening wear: You may want to carry appropriate clothing for the evening. Europe, like the USA, has gotten quite informal, so this is not absolutely necessary if you frequent only moderate hotels and restaurants or camp. A cotton or polyester collared shirt and pants, or blouse and skirt can remain usable for up to 10 days, particularly if you can gain access to an iron or someone who will iron for you. If you plan to walk around a lot or dance, or perspire profusely, you probably need to bring extra changes, or take extra days to do laundry.

If you plan to stay in chateau hotels and eats in starred restaurants, you may wish to carry a dress shirt, wool slacks and a tie; or a wool or silk skirt and blouse. A light sweater takes up much less space than a sports coat or dressy jacket, and also hides wrinkles in a shirt or blouse. Even very fancy restaurants will usually let you in with a sweater. You will also want to bring a pair of shoes for evening wear.

Non-Clothing: Apparel will take up most of the room in your saddlebags, but not most of the weight. You may have chosen to completely draw up your itinerary in advance; or, to play it by ear. Otherwise, if you are planning ahead by a day or a few days, you will want to carry a hotel and restaurant guide (or a camping or hostel guide), or, if you have the time to prepare, photocopies of relevant pages. You will need to carry maps, or a GPS. You may well want to carry one or more tourist guide books, or a book or magazine, or a planner, or some paper to keep a record of where you've been.

Tablets or phablets?: Or perhaps the above is becoming obsolete, and you will try to get by with a tablet or smart-phone. At this writing, wi-fi is becoming ubiquitous, as is cell phone service. Potential problems are unfamiliarity with the local language and town names. Thus, I think, some paper maps and tourist material will remain usefull.

You will carry a selection of toilet articles (ideally in smaller sizes), plus, perhaps, a sewing kit, an eye glasses repair kit, any medicines and ointments, an oral thermometer, nail scissors, adhesive strips, safety pins, a sleeping mask and ear plugs, extra rubber bands, extra facial tissues, a small roll of toilet paper, writing pen, laundry soap, mini-clothes line and mini-clothes pins, spare batteries, and a short piece of rolled up duct tape. If you are staying in youth hostels, mountain huts (refuges) or the dormitories of Gites d'Étape you probably will want to carry a light cotton sleeping sack, which you can buy, or simply bring along a large, long, lightweight piece of hemmed silk or polyester fabric (say 5 x13 feet or 150 x 400 cm) which will weigh approximately 4 ounces (100 g).

If you have made a light-weight portable bike bag to carry your bicycle on fast trains, you will be putting it folded into the bottom of your panniers.

Bike Repair Items: You should carry a tire patch kit, one or more spare tubes, extra brake pads (water resistant type) if yours are worn, extra spokes (particularly if you bring a an older, non-metric bike) extra screws and nuts (to replace those that may be stripped, break or come loose), and tools. Strongly consider buying a kit of multi-size combination bike tools, which save both weight and space and some extra Allen keys (which are very small and light weight). I keep my tool kit, oil, a clean cloth, and a few rubber disposable gloves (purchasable at pharmacies) easily accessible in a small kit in my handlebar bag.

Know how to adjust your brakes, derailleurs, handlebars and seat, how to straighten a wheel with a spoke wrench, how to change brake pads, how to add a link to a chain, and how to repair a flat tire. These are the most common problems by far, and they are not hard to master.

Carry a heavy, sturdy bike lock for use it. I never leave my bicycle on the street at night. (See the page on security on this site.)

Food and Water: You will want to carry at least a liter (quart) of water with you, more if you do not plan to patronize cafés and it is summer. You will want to carry food for quick energy snacks; and depending upon your touring style, snacks, lunches, or dinner. In Europe, your choice of wonderful treats—from cheeses to pastries to smoked fish and meats to fruits and nuts—as well as staples, is very large.

Next Page: Bicycle Tour Safety and Security

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