One of the most common questions that new bicycle tourists ask about relates to the actual distance that they should plan on traveling each day of their tour. Almost always the right answer comes back. This answer is that the average daily distance that you should travel during a tour is the distance that you feel comfortable covering and that meets your personal goals.
Although this is the "right" answer and one that eventually you will formulate on your own for each tour that you go on it doesn't really give you very much help when planning your very first tour so I'll give you a set of rough guidelines to consider.
Most cross continental cyclists describe their average day as being anywhere from 120 to 140 km in length although most have pushed for the occasional longer day and all report at least a couple shorter distance days. These shorter and longer days are usually connected in some way with a planned rest day.
My longest riding day so far was 187.81 km of riding on a day with no real winds or hills to speak of. When you consider driving 187 km in a car that seems like an incredibly long distance partly due to the sheer boredom of just sitting there, pressing the pedal and holding the steering wheel for so long. On a bike 187 km is a long distance but a very enjoyable one as you enjoy the scenery along the way. Still to complete that distance in a day you have to give up other opportunities like stopping at museums, meeting people etc compared to a shorter distance day.
There are numerous examples in web journals of people going for even longer days but as you read the pages you will find that their tours were more focused on distance to be covered or a very tight schedule that allows little room for shorter distance days. In fact during my Round Lake Michigan tour I setup my tour the same way with a requirement to cover 160 km per day with two rest days. This forced me to ride from early in the morning to almost dark if I wanted to ride the distance, meet people and see the sights along the way. Ultimately I gave up a rest day so that I could reduce my daily distance and enjoy the ride more each day.
Whenever I introduce someone to touring for the first time I typically aim for 50 km days. I find that this distance is enough to give them a real sense of accomplishment while still allowing them plenty of time to stop for rests, visit sights of interest, talk with people and laze around camp at the beginning and ending of the day.
Each tour I plan for a different average daily distance in accordance with my goals. For my longer tours when I am trying to round a great lake or something similar within a set amount of vacation time I try to plan for average days of 120 km per day. This is a nice distance that gives me plenty of time to do the things that I like to do.
For weekend tours I usually aim for shorter distances of from 80 to 100 km per day. This still gives me plenty of riding along with lots of free time. As the longer days of summer recede I have to take into account the shorter daylight riding time as well so this decision tends to fit well within that need.
When planning your touring daily distance don't forget to take into account the need for rest days at reasonable intervals and the likelihood for strong head winds and severe weather. During that same Lake Michigan tour I was lucky enough to only encounter one day of seriously strong headwinds. On that day I was lucky to average 6.6 miles per hour at one point and I ended the day after only 88 km, far below my hoped for 160 - 200 for the day.
If you were asking me for a specific recommendation on the distance to consider for your first tour then I would likely recommend a relatively short daily distance of 50 km per day. If your first tour was planned to be a longer, multiple week/month tour then I would still recommend starting at 50 km per day for the first few days anyway before gradually ramping up to the 100 to 120 km per day that most cross continental cyclists seem to prefer.
One last comment that often haunts me during a bicycle tour was passed on to me by a cross continental cyclist.
He started out by mentioning the sorrow he felt for people who saw the world only through the windows of an airplane speeding from one place to another. He felt that for those people the trip was about the destination.
He went on to talk about bicycle touring as being more about the journey and less about the destination but he mentioned that as the daily distances increased your ability to see the world really decreased. He mentioned the numerous roads that looked interesting that he passed by, the museums that he failed to visit and the people that he didn't meet along the way.
He left after making a comment that as he has grown as a bicycle tourist he has steered away from the longer distances and much more towards shorter distances and lots of free time. In this way he can explore and visit as he much as he wants without being on a tight time leash ultimately making him a much more fulfilled person.
Interesting words indeed and worth consideration. I believe that he crossed two continents to come up with them fully.
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