Bike CampingTaking the time to keep things delicious near Tok, Alaska.
Hot Tips from Team Pedaling South
By Torrey Pass
Is your budget the only thing holding you back from hitting the road? Start packing! My wife Lucie and I left Montreal over a year ago with meager savings, and so far have made it over 20 000 km from Anchorage, Alaska to northern Argentina. While it's true that we couldn't have gone very far without unfailing support from our sponsors, families and friends, our journey has been possible and continues in part thanks to a few equipment and, er, lifestyle choices, for lack of a better term.
Here are a few tips for riding on the cheap while staying happy and healthy. They should apply to touring in any remote region where fancy bike shops are hard to find.
Equipment: Cheap, Simple, Durable, Repairable
What: Tempting though it may be, you don't need to invest thousands of dollars in an internet-researched custom touring bike. If you can lay your hands on a “golden age” steel mountain bike from the 90's, you'll have an awesome travelling companion. Slap on some tough tires, drill the rims for fat schraeder valves, retrofit a 7- or 8-speed drive train and you're pretty much ready to take on the world.
Why: The standard wheel size outside of our bike boutique reality is 26 inches, and the rest of the world hasn't heard of those skinny presta valves. If you're riding 700c wheels with presta in a southern country, be prepared to special order your tubes.
Steel is a great option because, unlike aluminium, if your frame breaks you can have it fixed on the fly; in countries where things get repaired instead of thrown out or replaced, pretty much any town with a population greater than 100 has a resident welder. Steel racks are ideal for the same reason.
9-speed (let alone 10- or 11-speed) has not yet reached the pueblos of Mexico and beyond – if you're on a longer tour lasting several thousand kilometers, you'll need to change your chain at least once. 6-, 7- and 8-speed drivetrains all use chains of the same width, and you can usually find one for around 5$ in a hardware store. A 9-speed chain, however, will run you about 30-50$ anywhere in the world, and can only be found in extremely rare high-end racing shops. Cost and availability of 9-speed cassettes and chainrings will likewise cause frustration and blow holes in your budget.
V-brakes are standard everywhere. You may save your rims with disk brakes, but you'll never, ever find spare parts if you need them. For the same reason, STI shifters (integrated brake-gear levers for road bikes) are inadvisable because of their high replacement cost and virtual non-existence south of California. Hydraulics of any kind should be dutifully avoided.
Living the Dream: Meet Tent and Stove
Once you take hotels and restaurants out of your budget, you can go really far on a few bucks. Our first rule is to avoid paying to sleep somewhere when possible (99% of the time). This rule may seem strange when riding through countries where accommodation can be had for $5 a night or less, but it adds up. People we've ridden with who indulge in the odd hotel room require at least twice our monthly budget. Best to keep that door closed. In most of the world, you'll be riding through a lot of orchards, pastures and wilderness; few will deny your request to throw your tent among their mango trees for the night. This is also a great way to meet people and creates possibilities for cultural exchanges that just don't happen in the impersonal, monetary relationships that go along with paid accommodation.
When exploring urban areas, try online hospitality networks like Couch Surfing, Warm Showers and hospitality.org to find interesting people who want to meet you, hear your stories and offer you a couch for the night. Firefighters (Bomberos) in Latin America also have a tradition of welcoming touring cyclists.
Even in expensive countries, if you prepare your own food you can eat well on a few dollars a day. In some countries such as Peru, however, it actually seems less expensive to buy a meal than to cook one. Our daily menu involves oatmeal with coffee for breakfast, a basic but filling 1$ market stall lunch that includes soup, a main dish and a drink, and then a “home-cooked” meal, often pasta or rice with veggies, for supper. When travelling through pricier places like the US or Costa Rica, we just take away the restaurant lunch and snack more often throughout the day on leftovers, sandwiches, yogurt, bread, bananas and cereal.
Learn to thrive, not just survive
We've met touring cyclists who hammer till sundown and then cook instant noodles and set up in the dark by the light of their head lamps. After 3 or 4 days on the road, these people are worn out, malnourished, and in dire need of a hotel, a restaurant and a laundromat, which means big spending. For the sake of our sanity and our batteries, Lucie and I have gotten into the habit of pitching the tent with about an hour of daylight left. This leaves us time to make a nice nutritious supper, hang out and relax before bedtime. We carry our favorite spices and condiments to keep things delicious, and our big water bag helps make us more autonomous and less dependent on towns. We try to wash a couple of items of clothing per day (mostly in service station restrooms), which keeps us smelling and looking our best for those countless first impressions along the road. While our approach may be deemed as overly civilized by more hard-core riders who log more daily miles and hours in the saddle, we've found it makes our epic trip more sustainable and enjoyable overall.
My Next Trip
For my next bike tour, I'll hop on my custom road bike with an 11-speed Campagnolo drivetrain and ride from Montreal down through New England, where every hamlet harbours a bike shop with the parts, tools and expertise needed to keep me rolling. I'll throw a toothbrush, a pair of socks, a rain jacket and a credit card in my fanny pack and spend an indecent amount of money on charming B&B's and seafood bistros. On our current tour, however, we'll stick to our frugal and functional approach, which will allow us to make our way through Patagonia and all the way down to the “end of the world”; we hope to arrive in in Ushuaia, Argentina in good health and high spirits in the coming months.
To learn more about Torrey and Lucie's adventure, visit pedalingsouth.com.