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A fully loaded touring bicycle

Bicycle touring is a form of cycling where riders travel long distances, prioritizing pleasure and endurance over utility or speed. Touring can vary from single day 'supported' rides — e.g., rides to benefit charities — where provisions are available to riders at stops along the route, to multi-day trips with solo or group riders carrying all necessary equipment, tool, food, clothing.[1]


Bicycle touring is an activity as old as the bicycle. The historian James McGurn speaks of bets being taken in London in the 19th century for riders of hobby-horses - machines pushed by the feet rather than pedalled - outspeeding stage coaches. "One practitioner beat a four-horse coach to Brighton by half an hour," he says.[2] "There are various accounts of 15 to 17-year-olds draisienne-touring around France in the 1820s. On 17 February 1869 John Mayall, Charles Spencer and Rowley Turner rode from Trafalgar Square, London, to Brighton in 15 hours for 53 miles. The Times, which had sent a reporter to follow them in a coach and pair, reported an "Extraordinary Velocipede Feat." Three riders set off from Liverpool to London, a journey of three days and so more akin to modern cycle-touring, in March that same year. A newspaper report said:

Their bicycles caused no little astonishment on the way, and the remarks passed by the natives were almost amusing. At some of the villages the boys clustered round the machines, and, where they could, caught hold of them and ran behind until they were tired out. Many enquiries were made as to the name of 'them queer horses', some called them 'whirligigs', 'menageries' and 'valparaisons'. Between Wolverhampton and Birmingham, attempts were made to upset the riders by throwing stones.[3]

Enthusiasm extended to other countries. The New York Times spoke of "quantities of velocipedes[4] flying like shuttles hither and thither". But while British interest had less frenzy than in the USA, it lasted longer.[2]


Touring the countryside, 1887

The expansion from a machine that had to be pushed, or propelled through pedals on a small front wheel, made longer distances feasible. A rider calling himself "A Light Dragoon" told in 1870 or 1871 of a ride from Lewes to Salisbury, across southern England. The title of his book, Wheels and Woes, suggests a less than event-free ride but McGann says "it seems to have been a delightful adventure, despite bad road surfaces, dust and lack of signposts.

Journeys grew more adventurous. John Foster Fraser and two friends set off round the world on penny-farthing bicycles, sitting astride the large front wheel, in July 1896. He, Edward Lunn and F. H. Lowe rode 19,237 miles, through 17 countries, in two years and two months.[5] By 1878, recreational cycling was well enough established in Britain to lead to the formation of the Bicycle Touring Club, later renamed Cyclists' Touring Club[6]. It is the oldest national tourism organisation in the world. Members, like those of other clubs, often rode in uniform. The CTC appointed an official tailor. The uniform was a dark green Devonshire serge jacket, knickerbockers and a "Stanley helmet with a small peak". The colour changed to grey when green proved impractical because it showed the dirt.[7] Groups often rode with a bugler at their head to sound changes of direction or to bring the group to a halt. Confusion could be caused when groups met and mistook each other's signals.[8]

Membership of the CTC inspired the Frenchman Paul de Vivie (b. April 29, 1853) to found what became the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme, the world's largest cycling association, and to coin the French word cyclo-tourisme. The League of American Wheelmen in the USA was founded in Newport, Rhode Island on May 30, 1880. It shared an interest in leisure cycling with the administration of cycle racing. Membership peaked at 103,000 in 1898.[9] The national cycle-touring organization in the USA is now the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA). The ACA, then called Bikecentennial, organized a mass ride in 1976 from one side of the USA to the other to mark the nation's 200th anniversary. The Bikecentennial route is still in use as the TransAmerica Trail.

Social significance[]

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H. G. Wells in 1908 at the door of his house at Sandgate

The first cyclists, often aristocratic or otherwise rich, flirted with the bicycle and then abandoned it for the new motor car. It was the lower middle class which most profited from cycling and the liberation that it brought.[2] The Cyclist of 13 August 1892 said: "The two sections of the community which form the majority of 'wheelmen' are the great clerk class and the great shop assistant class." H. G. Wells described this aspirant class liberated through cycling. Three of his heroes - in History of Mr Polly, Kipps and The Wheels of Chance - buy bicycles. The first two work in drapery shops. The third, Hoopdriver, goes on a cycling holiday. The authors Roderick Watson and Martin Gray say:

Hoopdriver is certainly liberated by his machine. It affords him not only a country holiday, in itself a remarkable event which he enjoys immensely, however ignorant of the countryside he may be, but also a brush with a society girl, riding on pneumatics[10] and wearing some kind of Rational Dress. The book suggests the new social mobility created by the bike, which breaks the boundaries of Hoopdriver's world both literally and figuratively.[11]

Hoopdriver sets off in a spirit of freedom, finally away from his job:

Only those who toil six long days out of the seven, and all the year round, save for one brief glorious fortnight or ten days in the summer time, know the exquisite sensations of the First Holiday Morning. All the dreary, uninteresting routine drops from you suddenly, your chains fall about your feet...There were thrushes in the Richmond Road, and a lark on Putney Heath. The freshness of dew was in the air; dew or the relics of an overnight shower glittered on the leaves and grass...He wheeled his machine up Putney Hill, and his heart sang within him.[12]

Wells puts Hoopdriver in a new brown cycling suit to show the importance of the venture and the freedom on which he is embarking. Hoopdriver finds the bicycle raises his social standing, at least in his imagination, and he calls to himself as he rides that he's "a bloomin' dook[13]" The New Woman that he pursues wears Rational Dress of a sort that scandalised society but made cycling much easier. The Rational Dress Society was founded in 1881 in London. It said:

The Rational Dress Society protests... against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming….[It] requires all to be dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully, to seek what conduces to birth, comfort and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other.[14]

Both Hoopdriver and the Young Lady in Grey, as he refers to her, are escaping social restraints through bicycle touring. Hoopdriver falls in love and rescues her from a lover who says marrying him is the only way that she, having left alone for a cycling holiday, can save her reputation. She lowers her social status; he raises his. McGurn says: "The shift in social perspectives, as exemplified by Wells' cyclists, led Galsworthy to claim, at a later date, that the bicycle had "been responsible for more movement in manners and morals than anything since Charles the Second."[2]


The bicycle gained from the outdoor movement of the 1930s. The Cyclists' Touring Club advertised a week's all-in tour, staying at hotels recommended to it by other cyclists, for £3 10s. The youth hostel movement started in Germany and spread abroad and a cycling holiday staying at hostels in the 1930s could be had for £2. Roderick Watson and Martin Gray estimate that there were ten million bicycles in Britain to one million cars.

A decline set in across Europe, but particularly in Britain, when millions of servicemen returned from World War II having learned to drive. Trips away were now to be taken, for the increasing number who had one, by car. The decline in the United States came even sooner. McGurn says:

The story of inter-war cycling was characterised by lack of interest and a steady decline... Cycling had lost out to the automobile, and to some extent to the new electric transport systems. In the 1930s cumbersome, fat-tyred 'balloon bombers', bulbously streamlined in imitation of motorcycles or aeroplanes, appealed to American children: the only mass market still open to cycle manufacturers. Wartime austerity gave cycling a short reprieve in the industrial world. The post-war peace was to lay the bicycle low.[2]

Then came the US bicycle boom, that caught a back-to-nature trend of which the hippie movement had been a precursor. The author Charles Reich identified what he called a "consciousness" working against corporate consumer-culture in the USA. He said in The Greening of America in 1970: "When man allows machines and the machine-state to master his consciousness, he imperils not only his inner being but also the world he inhabits and upon which he depends." Such was the change that happened that 4,000 cyclists joined a ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic in 1976 to celebrate the nation's bicentennial. Its founder, Greg Siple, said:

My original thought was to send out ads and flyers saying, 'Show up at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco at 9 o'clock on June 1 with your bicycle.' And then we were going to bicycle across the country. I pictured thousands of people, a sea of people with their bikes and packs all ready to go, and there would be old men and people with balloon-tire bikes and Frenchmen who flew over just for this. Nobody would shoot a gun off or anything. At 9 o'clock everybody would just start moving. It would be like this crowd of locusts crossing America[15]

The ride, called Bikecentennial, ran from Oregon to Williamsburg, Virginia, site of the first British settlements. It defined a new start for cycle-touring in the United States and led to the creation of the Adventure Cycling Association. The ACA has gone on to create mapped routes across America and into Canada, many of them rides taking three months to complete on a loaded bicycle.


Bicycle touring can be of any distance and time. The French tourist Jacques Sirat speaks in lectures of how he felt proud riding round the world for five years - until he met an Australian who had been on the road for 27 years.[16] The German rider, Walter Stolle, lost his home and living in the Sudetenland in the aftermath of World War II, settled in Britain and set off from Essex on 25 January 1959, to cycle round the world. He rode through 159 countries in 18 years, denied only those with sealed borders.[17] He paid his way by giving slide shows in seven languages. He gave 2,500 at US$100 each. In 1974, he rode through Nigeria, Dahomey, Upper Volta, Ghana, Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Guinea.[18] He was robbed 231 times, wore out six bicycles and had five more stolen.[19]


Heinz Stücke in Paris, 1999

Another German set off three years after Stolle and is still riding. Heinz Stücke left his job as a die-maker in North Rhine-Westphalia in 1962 when he was 22. He has never been home since. By 2006 he had cycled more than 539,000 km (335,000 miles) and visited 192 countries. He pays his way by selling photographs to magazines. Outside the West, Gua Dahao left China in May 1999 to ride across Siberia, the Middle East, Turkey, western Europe, Scandinavia, then another 100,000 km across Africa, Latin America and Australia.[20]

Journeys can equally be shorter and more anonymous. Cyclo-Camping International[21] makes a point of including shorter tours with children in its annual presentation in Paris. But children have been the stimulus for longer journeys. Among tours featured by Cyclo-Camping International has been one by Brigitte and Nicolas Mercat and their three children, five, seven and nine when they left France in July 2002. They rode through Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, New Caledonia and Indonesia. They taught their children from school books as they rode and returned to Chambéry to find that not only were they ahead of their classmates but they had learned several languages on the way.[22]


Distances vary considerably. Depending on fitness, speed and the number of stops, the rider usually covers between 50–150 kilometres (30–90 mi) per day. A short tour over a few days may cover as little as 200 kilometres (120 mi) and a long tour may go right across a country or around the world.

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A group of self-supported bicycle tourists crossing Ohio.

There are many different types of bicycle touring:

  • Lightweight touring Informally called credit-card touring, a rider carries a minimum of equipment and a lot of money. Overnight accommodation is in youth hostels, hotels, pensions or B&Bs. Food is bought at cafes, restaurants or markets.
  • Fully-loaded touring Also known as self-supported touring, cyclists carry everything they need, including food, cooking equipment, and a tent for camping. Some cyclists minimize their load, carrying only basic supplies, food, and a Bivouac sack or lightweight tent.
  • Expedition touring Cyclists travel extensively, often through developing nations or remote areas. The bicycle is loaded with food, spares, tools, and camping equipment so that the traveller is largely self-supporting.
  • Supported touring Cyclists are supported by a motor vehicle, which carries most equipment. This can be organized independently by groups of cyclists or commercial holiday companies. These companies sell places on guided tours, including booked lodging, luggage transfers, route planning and often meals and rental bikes.
  • Day touring These rides vary highly in their size of the group (from solo cyclists, group rides, to large organized rides with hundreds to thousands of riders), in their length (from a few miles to Century rides of 100 miles — or longer), in their purpose (from riding for pleasure to raising money for a charitable organization) and in their methods of support (from self-supported day rides, to organized rides where cyclists pay for support or accommodations provided by event organizers — including rest and refreshment stops, marshalling to aid safety, and SAG service.

Touring bike[]

Cycle touring beyond the range of a day trip may need a bike capable of carrying heavy loads. Although many different bicycles can be used, most cycle tourists prefer a touring bike built for the loads and which can be ridden more comfortably over long distances. A typical bicycle would have a longer wheelbase for stability and heel clearance, frame fittings for front and rear pannier racks, additional water bottle mounts, frame fittings for front and rear mudguards/fenders, a broader range of gearing to cope with the increased weight, and touring tires which are wider and more puncture-resistant.

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Fully-loaded touring recumbent

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Single-wheel trailer

"Ultralight tourers" choose traditional road bicycles or "Audax bicycles" for speed and simplicity. However, these bikes are harder to ride on unmade roads, which in extreme cases can mean riding on busy roads. For some, the advantages of a recumbent bicycle are particularly relevant to touring. Other tourists find more comfort and better views riding in the upright position.

Another option is to pull a bicycle trailer. This removes most of the requirements for a touring bike.

Finally, for a "supported" rider, almost any type of bicycle may be suitable.


Many cycle tourists have published travelogues of their tours in books or magazines or on the Web that are both entertaining and informative. Some notable examples are Josie Dew (England), Alastair Humphreys (England), Ken Kifer (USA), Dervla Murphy (Ireland), Thomas Stevens (England) and Heinz Stücke (Germany).

See also[]


  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 McGurn, James (1987), On Your Bicycle, John Murray, UK
  3. Times, London, 31 March 1869
  4. In the USA the word included what elsewhere were called hobby-horses
  5. Fraser, John (abridged 1982), Around The World on a Wheel, Chatto and Windus (UK)
  7. Cycling On, Ray Hallett, Dinosaur Publications 1978
  8. John Pinkerton, int. Wheels of Fortune, BBC Radio 4, 1988
  9. Template:Citation
  10. Inflatable tyres, many bicycles then still having solid tyres
  11. Watson, Roderick and Gray, Martin (1978) The Penguin Book of the Bicycle, Penguin, UK
  12. Wells, H. G., Wheels of Chance; a Bicycling Idyll
  13. London pronunciation of "duke"
  16. Sirat, Jacques (2005), Cyclo-nomade, Éditions du Touergue, France
  17. Stolle, Walter (1978), The World Beneath My Bicycle Wheels, Pelham, London
  18. Woodland, Les (1976), Cycle Racing and Touring, Pelham, UK
  19. People, USA, 17 January 1977
  20. Meyer, Éric (2005), L'Empire en Danseuse, Rocher, France

External links[]

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