My credit card touring adventure
Credit card touring is exactly what it says on the tin - a bike tour propped up by your credit card. No support, no bags, no hassle. Here, Joanna Farmer shares her experience
Women’s bicycle touring is nothing new. Long before Juliana Buhring became the fastest woman to circumnavigate the world by bike, ex-headmistress Anne Mustoe blazed the trail for long-distance tours. Born in 1933, she gave up her job, bought a bike and took to the road aged 54, completing an epic solo journey of 12,000 miles across Europe, India, the Far East and the USA. But today’s time-poor lifestyles mean taking to the road for months on end isn’t practical for most of us.
Credit card touring is a bite-sized way to experience the freedom of bike touring and achieve your own distance-riding goals while you’re at it. Simply pop your plastic in your jersey pocket to cover your food and accommodation, pack a few essentials, hop on your bike and off you go. You can go further afield than your normal weekend ride and it can be a pretty cheap getaway if you choose pub accommodation or a B&B.
When I decided to embark on my own credit-card touring adventure with my friend, Joy, we set ourselves two simple parameters. First, we needed to hit that magic 100 mile mark on day one. Second, our budget for two days was £50 each, including accommodation. Here’s how we got on and what we learnt along the way...
I have never thought of myself as high maintenance, but a quick tot-up of the products I use every day just to get out of the house is horrifying. Face wash, exfoliator, moisturiser, sun screen, eye cream, flash balm, shower gel, body lotion, shampoo, conditioner, heat protection spray, hair serum, curl cream, hand cream, cuticle oil, toothpaste, lip balm... I was either going to need pull a trailer behind the bike for all this stuff or I had to get smart about my credit-card tour packing strategy. My commuting rucksack is tiny – just 5 litres capacity – and I needed to make that work for me.
Step one was to eliminate all luxuries. Bye bye serum, flash balm, cuticle oil. Hello chamois cream! Step two: find some multitasking marvels. For me, that meant using shampoo as face wash and shower gel and finally finding a use for all those freebie sachets ripped from magazines.
Then there’s the civvies you’ll need for time off the bike. Yet again, multitaskers are key: vest tops with built-in bra, leggings and lightweight ballet pumps that weigh nothing and pack nice and flat in a rucksack.
Note to self: I did the grotty thing of wearing the same kit on day two. My thinking was that I didn’t want to run the risk of sitting on a soggy pad with soggy feet on the second day of riding, but next time I’m taking spare shorts and fresh socks – no matter what I then have to jettison.
We’re going on an adventure!
Assuming you have been able to get through the packing process, navigation nuances are next. The challenge here is that you don’t have local knowledge of good roads for cycling and it’s really hard to tell just by looking at a map. A good get-around for finding a bike-friendly route through villages rather than towns is to download .gpx files from past sportives (see UK Cycling Events) or contact local bike clubs to see if they’ve got favourite routes to share. Plotting a route using an app like Ride with GPS allows you to adjust your mileage and cobble multiple routes together.
My top tip would be to take a paper copy in case your Garmin runs out of power before your day is up – you could be 7-8 hours in the saddle if you’re aiming for a 100-mile day like we did.
And we’re off
We set off on a cold and damp morning with that niggling feeling that we’d both forgotten something really important (like hair serum).
On a credit card tour you need to be confident you can ride unsupported for a long distance and fix basic mechanical problems yourself. Yes, the credit card is there to get you out of trouble, but you might get a puncture or break your chain 15 miles from the nearest bike shop. There’s no rescue van, no welcoming tent at the next village hall with mechanics, jelly babies and bidon refills. That realisation hit quite hard as we rolled out of town that day. Did we have the right kit? Would it rain? I started to get really anxious. We were going a long way away! 100 miles. In one day. On our bikes!
Luckily, my ride partner knows me well enough to realise that I need a good 5-10 miles of riding to settle down before I can start enjoying it. Sure enough, I gradually became more aware of the colour in the fields, the smells in the air, the sound of our wheels, and really started to enjoy it. Remote, quiet, beautiful, colourful.
We set off from our home in Bedford and headed north west through Northamptonshire. In June this part of the country is beautifully green and sleepy and blissfully free of traffic. The land rolls gently up and down through farmland and pretty villages, punctuated by riotous hanging baskets proudly displayed in cottage doorways.
Castle Ashby provided our first pitstop; a picturesque English country house set in a village estate accessed by narrow lanes. Perfect for bikes and our budget as the cafe gives a discount for cyclists!
Riding on, we cut through the dark green acres of Salcey Forest, with the pine scent strong in our noses. It’s these small yet significant details that you’d miss in a car. On to Tyringham with its pretty stone bridge and cows mooching about at the riverside; crossing the M1 – a brief reminder of the busy life we’d left behind; heading south into Buckinghamshire and definitely on a mile-munching roll! Warming up, jackets off, sunglasses on, we stopped to eat when we felt like it and put the hammer down when the road was good.
By the time we reached Leighton Buzzard, the kids were coming out of school, but we still had 40 miles to go if we were to hit our target of 100 miles / 160km on day 1. The landscape was noticeably hillier now – a bit further south from here and you’re on the edge of the Chilterns. Legs were starting to feel heavy, but high up in Great Brickhill we were rewarded with the best scenery of the day.
Damn you, Garmin
When we rolled into our lodgings that afternoon after a long day in the saddle, we realised with a sinking feeling that we were short of our target by 10km. Gutted! How did that happen? I crashed on the bed, and told my friend ‘that’ll do for today’. I was tired, hungry, disappointed and done in. But she isn’t one to settle. “Have a cup of tea”, she said, “put a couple of sugars in it. We’re gonna crack this hundred!”
If it wasn’t for that kick up the backside, I realise now that I’d always look back on this trip as ‘the time I nearly rode 100 miles in a day’. Looking back, I realise how much it means to have support over those many hours of riding. When your legs are dead, you’ve run out of food, you’re stopping and starting in traffic and wondering why you ever started this craziness, it takes a good friend to remind you to smile, share their snacks and point you towards the finish line.
We scoffed a Twix and were off again down the back lanes. We found one that was 2km long and rode it five times back and forth. It’s funny how your mind can play tricks on you. Despite feeling like I was running on vapours pre Twix, on the final leg we found something within us to sprint-chase a local club of guys to the end of the road. Whether it was the spirit of competition or thoughts of the beer and fish and chips waiting for us, we finally clocked up that magic hundred.
Because of our £50 daily limit, our accommodation was a cheap and cheerful pub B&B with an accommodation block that we shared with van drivers and builders we could hear snoring through the walls. Still, it was clean and dry, with a hot shower. And after a hearty chip supper and a couple of “hydrating” beers, we were so tired we would have slept on the grass in the pub garden if we’d had to.
Day 2 was never going to be easy. Setting off during rush hour, there was none of the romance and excitement that we’d had the day before. Our route wasn’t great either – long, slow climbs on busy roads with really, really aching legs. I felt completely deflated.
We had ended day 1 as victorious Centurians; day 2 felt like starting all over again. Those first 10km were awful. I felt sick. Was this the infamous ‘bonk’? Or was it one too many ‘hydrating’ beers? Muttering under my breath that I was never cycling again, I mapped out twenty café stops we could make between here and home. It’s the small treats that can turn that mental block around. See a buzzard – stop the bike and watch it hunt. Come across another cyclist – stop and share a bit of banter about what you both love.
Those final miles back home were hard, but as we rolled up to our front doors that sense of achievement was huge. I have friends who have biked from Lands End to John O’Groats -100 miles a day, every day, for 9 days. But as a cyclist, it’s about what’s epic for you. And this adventure felt epic! We set out to find out what a credit card tour was like and came home celebrating the longest ride of our lives. Would I recommend it? Absolutely!
Find a good friend, plot a route and pack like a pro. I guarantee that the one thing you’ll find, wherever you decide to go, is a brilliant affirmation that you’re capable of so much more than you thought possible.
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