How does bicycle touring work?
Bicycle touring is hands-down the best way to immerse yourself in the climate, culture, geography, rhythm, topography, scent and flavor of any region. The chance to enjoy such a rich experience, however, usually comes with a price: the need for a deliberate approach to planning, preparing for, implementing and maintaining a system with more moving parts than your typical vacation.
To help you in organizing your next adventure, or in case you're just curious about how it all works, I’ve tried to summarize below what I think are the basic elements of a bike tour. The pleasure you get from your ride will depend to some degree on the extent to which you think through and address these considerations.
When evaluating how much time and money you want to dedicate to working through these aspects of touring, remember that entropy affects a bike tour just like other systems or plans. The likelihood of overall system breakdown (your tour coming to an early end or feeling more like work than fun) increases in proportion with its complexity (a longer/more independent vs. a shorter/supported tour) because the difficulty in properly planning, implementing and maintaining a system also increases along with its complexity…a way of saying that the longer the ride, the more you should put into preparation and maintenance. For example: you can have a very nice 100-mile weekend overnighter with very little planning and maybe even no dedicated training at all. Similarly, you can also have a fantastic time on a touring-company supported ride of a week or more without much advance preparation, because professionals plan, execute and maintain most of the system. A long-distance self-supported tour, however, requires a thoughtful and disciplined approach if you want to feel basically as enthusiastic, healthy and happy at mile 700 as you did at mile 70.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression— your preparation does not have to be perfect (mine never is) but the quality of your tour can only benefit from the time and thought you invest before setting out. Plus, time spent planning is sort of like daydreaming about your upcoming tour!
*Update: After thinking through this growing list of elements, I realized I could fill a couple of pages droning on about each one of them. But the corpus of human knowledge is already at your fingertips, and so I won't duplicate information that you can easily find elsewhere on the web. Consider this more of an outline of the things I recommend you think about, along with some tips based on what I've learned (often the hard way). Also, the point-of-view here comes from my touring as part of the CWU project, which entails long-distance solo touring through the United States with a concrete set of goals: cover 50-60 miles per day for at least 5 weeks at the stretch while having at least one in-depth and documented conversation with a local every day of the ride. As such, my fairly rigid approach might seem like overkill to many. You will want to consider each of the factors below in light of the circumstances and probably more flexible structure you envision for your own tour.