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Training Series: How To Train for a Cycling Tour

Cyclists love the feel of the open road. Many of those who become avid lovers of the sport stick with it because of that freeing feeling — leave all your worries at home and just ride.

For that kind of cyclist, a bike tour is the ultimate experience. They can let go of everything and ride for days with nothing to worry about but enjoying the sights and sounds along the way. 

Maybe that sounds like a great plan to you, but you’ve never quite had the foresight to make it happen. Planning a multi-day bike tour does take careful preparation in order to create an enjoyable experience. That’s why we spoke with our friend and mentor, longtime cycling Coach Darryl MacKenzie, to make sure we could break down the process clearly for you.

Here’s what he had to say about preparing and training for a cycling tour.

What Is a Cycling Tour?

“A tour is what many cyclists dream about,” says Coach Darryl. “You simply ride, eat and sleep, and it goes on for multiple days. You have the freedom to just concentrate on your bike.”

Although there are shorter overnight tours, what we’re exploring here are more extensive, serious outings. In a classic bike tour, you’re on the road for five to seven days exploring somewhere outside of your normal geographic area.

One of Darryl’s most memorable touring experiences came when he rode with a touring company down the Pacific Coast Highway. He’d done the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles by car before, but nothing compared to experiencing it over seven days on the bike. 

Pick Your Flavor of Bike Touring 

One of the joys of bicycle touring is that you can basically make the experience almost anything you want. You can go hardcore, bringing a tent and everything else you need in a backpack and a couple panniers. Or you can pack light, bring your credit card and rest easy in hotels along the way.

There are countless ways to do a bike tour that fall between those extremes. Some tours are self-guided, and some are led by a group or organization. Sometimes it’s a big event like the AIDS/LifeCycle tour to benefit AIDS research. Other times, it’s just four friends taking turns with one carrying gear in the car while the others pedal. And, for the most ambitious, there are rides like the Race Across America, which goes all the way from San Diego to Annapolis, Maryland. 

The beauty of planning a bike tour is that you can choose any flavor you like.

How To Prepare for a Bike Tour

So, once you’re chosen your route, how do you prepare for a bike tour, or what Darryl calls the “iconic vacation for cyclists”? Here’s how to train for a cycle tour:

1. Carefully Examine the Course

To properly plan your tour training, you need a clear idea of what to expect on the ride. And for that, you’ll want to look at two things: distance and climbing. 

Find out the distance you’ll do on the longest day, along with the average distance you’ll pedal each day over the course of the whole tour. Then find out the same information about climbing — hardest day and average daily climb. These are the most important metrics you’ll need when training for bicycle touring. You don’t want to be the rider that can’t make it up the hill or who runs out of gas early on the longest day.

2. Start Training 4–6 Months in Advance

Ideally, you’ll give yourself plenty of time to prepare. This may be difficult if you live in a cold climate and need to start in winter, but the longer you can give yourself to prepare, the better the experience will be. 

3. Work on Distance First

The first thing you’ll need to get used to about bicycle touring is that you’re going to be riding a lot. In terms of distance, it may be much more than what you’re used to. If you show up unprepared, you may not be able to do it. 

To prepare for this, the key is to start by riding on the flats and work up to where you’re comfortable riding flat rides that are at least 80% as long as the longest ride you’ll do on the tour. So, if the longest day of your tour will be 100 miles, work up to where you can do at least 80 miles on the flats.

4. Add Climbing Second

Once you’re accustomed to the distance, you can focus on climbing. Here, you want to be comfortable with the average feet per day you’ll climb on your cycling tour, along with the percent grade you’ll typically face on those climbs.

As Darryl says, “The only way to get better at climbing hills is to climb hills.” To train for this, you’ll want to make sure you work up to hitting both targets. If there’s not enough climbing in your area, you can practice this on a stationary trainer but, ideally, it’ll happen out on the road.

Make sure you get to where you can climb the average daily amount you’ll need to climb on your tour. You can even target one hill and repeatedly climb it on a ride to get the total feet of climbing you need.

You also need to target the grade of those hills. For instance, if the ride has an average incline of 7 degrees, you should plan on climbing 7-degree hills. If that’s hard to come by in your area, simulate it on the trainer or put weights on your body to increase the difficulty level.

5. Condition Yourself for Consecutive Days

Even if you’re used to long rides, you probably don’t normally pedal every day. That’s another challenge of bicycle touring — you don’t get breaks. You’ll need to be ready to ride day in and day out until it’s over. 

You don’t necessarily need to practice the full length of your cycling tour beforehand, but you should get used to riding a sold string of days. For a five-day tour, Darryl recommends riding at least three days in succession about two weeks before your ride. For a seven-day tour, plan on riding five consecutive days.

6. Get Used to the Food 

This applies particularly to guided tours where food and sports drinks are provided throughout the week. In that case, you don’t get to choose what you eat, and what they provide may not be part of your normal cycling diet. That’s especially true when it comes to sports drinks. If you have strong flavor or brand preferences, you may not be thrilled to make a sudden switch when the ride starts. 

“If you can’t stomach it, you’re going to have a very tough week,” says Coach Darryl. “Youre more than training your legs and your butt, youre training your gut.”

To get used to your tour diet, reach out to the promotor or check their website about two months before the ride to find out what they’ll be serving so you can start including similar food and drink in your daily diet and training regimen. 

7. Pack the Right Clothes

Finally, since you’re planning for a multi-day trip, you’ll have to think about clothes. Ideally, you should bring along one set of cycling clothes for each day. Otherwise, you’re going to have to find a way to wash your clothes at each stop so you’re fresh for the next day of riding. 

Here are a few other things to consider about your cycling clothes:

  • Research the weather all along your route so you can plan to bring the right clothes for any temperature changes you might encounter.
  • Bring a couple pairs of cycling shorts with different patterns in the padding so you can alternate patterns for better comfort.
  • Do the same thing for your cycling gloves. Changing up the patterns on both of these will help prevent chaffing or sores from rubbing in the same spot every day.

8. Use a Comfortable Saddle

Last but not least, as Darryl puts it, You really need a comfortable saddle for this.”

When you’re riding all day, every day for a week, you’ll be highly susceptible to saddle sores if you don’t have a comfortable saddle in place. A tensioned leather saddle that moves freely with your sit bones is a non-negotiable for that much riding. 

To learn more about finding the right kind of saddle, read our post on the benefits of leather bike saddles. 

Now that you know how to train for a cycle tour, what’s holding you back? Close your laptop, put down your phone, and start planning.


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay