Lessons I've learned the hard way from 15 years on a bike

Last weekend, while getting ready for a three-week cycling tour of New Zealand, I realised that this year is the 15th anniversary of the first time I ever bought a bicycle.

Sure, I'd had bikes before as a child, but that was the first time I'd ever walked into a shop and opened my wallet for one. It's been a long and life-changing journey since then, with many lessons - some of them learned the hard way. 

Of course, things don't have to be learned by trial and error – or discomfort – but sometimes those are the realisations one savours the most.

As I packed up my bike, here are a few things that sprang to mind.

Buying cheap can cost you

Trust me, I'm not a gear snob – far from it – but over the years I've learned that quality in cycling equipment is regularly worth the price.

There was the grim discomfort and derriere damage of an Audax Alpine Classic done in cheap knicks. The internet bargain $12 handlebar bag that wasn't waterproof and soon sagged out of shape, leading me to buy the reputable brand I should have chosen all along. The myriad low-end lights that soon flickered and died.

And that first bike, which I soon ditched for something better when I kept breaking its spokes with my weight, and a new wheelset would have been a false economy.

I haven't completely learned this – I still get sucked in by a costly bargain now and again. But hey, I'm getting better.

Flats and tweaks

On that second bike, I started to range further afield, but it wasn't until I rode into a national park that I suffered my first flat – with neither the knowledge or the means to fix it.

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A hitchhike and a cab ride got me to a bike shop, where I resolved not to find myself in a similar situation again.

Of course, puncture repair skills are not a requirement for every type of bike riding. But I realised that if I was going to get serious about cycling, I needed to learn some more self-sufficiency – and while there's little joy in fixing flats, the first time I repaired one on the roadside was surely the sweetest.

I leave the harder stuff to the experts but there's a lot to be said for being able to tweak settings and replace some perishables. And it's amazing what YouTube videos can teach you.

Sitting pretty

I'd finally bought a racer, but there was a problem with longer rides - the saddle and I weren't getting along.

I asked friends, I bought and borrowed alternatives, I even thought about quitting the drop-bar life, but nothing was working until a bike-fit specialist put me on to the saddle I've been gratefully using ever since. 

Since that find, I've used the knowledge of what works for me to buy a softer, broader saddle from the same stable that's ideal for the tourer, which I often take on unsealed roads.

Like the original, it pushes me in all the right places, but not the wrong ones. And I marked my seat post before taking the bike apart, just to make sure everything lines up properly.

Taking the easier road

When I started getting into riding more seriously, I'd sometimes just pick a destination and find my way there, through trial and not a few errors.

And my route choices could turn out to be unpleasantly hard - shoulderless roads with high-volume traffic, unlovely conduits when a more scenic option was available.

There was no single incident that changed my course, and I still ride busy roads, but I began seeking out back routes.  It helps that it's so much easier to do with modern technology, including cycling computers, smartphones, GPS maps and Google Street View.

I'll be sampling the Otago Central Rail Trail as part of this trip. It'll be nice to be able to lower the hyper-vigilance one has to use on regular roads.

Lightening up

My first day of cycle touring was one of my worst days - a big distance, a laden bike, an uphill route and a howling headwind.

Things got better, but that trip remains my most challenging, possibly because I was busy learning that the see-sawing between good and bad experiences is all part of the fun.

But in the trips that have followed, the load has been getting heavier. I've been adding things here and there, including "just in case" items - and on my last long trip, I was paying for it on the hills, big time.

There's a favourite saying about packing for cycle touring: Lay out your gear, then remove half - but make sure it's the right half.

So I've chucked out a bunch of stuff and will see where it leaves me.

By the time you read this, I should be three days into a planned loop around the lower end of NZ's south island.

Here's hoping that my gear is holding up, my maintenance skills have beaten any challenges, my saddle is still comfy, my route choices are ideal and I'm not learning another lesson the hard way about not bringing the right gear. 

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

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