This article is about training for a bicycle tour. This is especially important for your first tour. I am not a trainer nor do I have any professional experience in this matter. I can only speak for my personal experience and what I've learned from other people's experience. What works for me may not work for everyone, but it is probably a good place to start. There are also countless other resources available on training for every kind of cycling, so you can find what works best for you.
While it may work for some young people to just head out on a tour and get in shape as you go, the older you get the harder this becomes. I met a couple on the North Cascade highway a couple of years ago who were in their 60's. He had just retired and had a long standing goal that as soon as he retired they would set out on a coast to coast bike tour. They hadn't been riding at all and were in terrible shape. But they had no time limit or budgetary concerns and did not care if they could only do 20 miles a day. They suffered going over the Cascades but were upbeat and determined that things would get easier. For most of us, getting in good shape before we set out on tour will make things much more enjoyable.
Base miles and time in the saddle
Traditionally training for any sort of cycling starts with base miles. Usually this starts early in the season and consists of a lot of long easy rides. The idea is not to push it but just to get your body used to being on the bike for hours at a time. While the idea is to keep the pace easy on these rides I like to mix it up a bit. I find the best way to do this is to make sure you include a lot of hills in your route. With hills you have the choice of powering up the hill, or just gearing down and sitting back. I recommend doing both as the spirit moves you. The main thing is to get plenty of time in the saddle.
Ride every day
On a tour you'll be riding everyday except for occasional rest days. There is no better way to prepare yourself for this than to ride everyday before your tour. The best way to do this is to commute to work or other daily event on your bicycle. Getting on your bike everyday, rain or shine, is wonderful preparation for a tour. Most bicycle tourists I know like to get up and get going early. In the summer you want to get your riding done before it gets too hot, so getting out early is a real advantage. Commuting to work on your bicycle really helps you get in the mind set of doing this. Even if your commute is fairly short, just getting on the bike everyday is very helpful. Then as the weather gets better you can start taking longer and longer routes home after work, also working towards getting your base miles in.
Most bicycle tourists average about 50 miles a day. I usually say my goal is 40 miles a day, but usually end up doing around 50-60. However averaging 50 miles a day means that some days you will be going 60 or more miles. You want to be prepared for that so in your training try to do one long ride each week that is one third longer than what you think you'll want to ride each day on tour. So if you plan on riding 40 miles a day on tour, your weekly long distance ride would be 60 miles. I like to know I have plenty of reserve if I need to go even farther in a day, so I make sure I get in a number of training rides in the 80-100 mile range. An early season organized century ride is a great way to do this. It is much easier to ride 100 miles when there are lots of other people doing it and great rest stops that are typical on an organized century. I also do some long solo rides trying to explore new routes. Nothing gets you in the mind set of touring better than getting out on new roads and places you've never been before.
Mountains and wind
I love riding in the mountains, and if you're doing a long distance tour they are hard to avoid. So it's best to get used to them. Of course if you live where there are no mountains this might not be an option for you. The best alternative is probably riding into the wind. Most cyclists dread wind much more than mountains, but on a long tour you will undoubtedly have to deal with wind. So you might as well get used to it. Pick a day where the forecast is for strong steady winds. Start off into the wind and ride at a steady pace. Depending on your route you may get to zigzag a bit but remember your objective is to find a pace that you can maintain into the wind. Don't fight it, you can't win. The same with climbing a mountain. You just have to find a sustainable pace and keep going. If you want to put in some hard efforts that's great, but don't let it ware you out. When you reach the top of the mountain, or the far point of your ride into the wind, you get to turn around and enjoy the reward. On your tour you can depend on every mountain having a top and a nice downhill afterwards, but you can rarely depend on tailwinds after a day of battling headwinds. You need to be mentally prepared for day after day of headwinds, so be sure to get in lots of windy training rides. Try to plan one ride a week that includes a long climb or a long grunt into the wind.
Training for most kinds of cycling calls for some high intensity workouts like intervals. This is probably less important for touring as your goal is endurance not speed. Still there will be times when you need speed. You might try and out ride an approaching thunder storm, or get to the next town before the stores close. So even if your normal cruising speed is 10-12 MPH, it is nice to know you can pick it up and sustain 14-16 MPH if necessary. The only way to achieve this level of fitness is through some more intense workouts. There are many recipes for interval training, but my favorite is just to go out and ride some rolling hills. Rolling hills are the perfect interval training. You can power up the hills, and then spin easy on the way down. You don't have to worry about counting or timing, you just ride and go with the flow. Try and do this kind of ride once a week. It can be a relatively short ride as the objective is to go hard, not long.
Carrying a load
Most of you training will be on an unloaded bike. It could even be on a different bike than you use for the tour, although you do want to make sure you have plenty of time on that bike as well. To get used to carrying weight I like to mount all four panniers and go shopping at the grocery store. If you load up all four panniers with groceries you'll likely have a lot more weight than you will when touring, but this is good practice. For one you want to be sure your bike, racks, and panniers can handle the weight. You'll find your bike handles a lot differently with all this weight, and you'll want to take some time to get used to it. A good touring bike actually handles better with some weight once you get used to it. The next step will be trying it out with the actual gear you will be carrying on tour.
Do some mini tours
Starting about a month before your tour begins it is a good idea to plan one or two mini tours. These can be one or two night tours to someplace not too far. You'll want to pack as close to the way you will pack on your long tour as possible. Even if you won't need a particular item for a one or two night tour, take it anyway so that you'll have the same load. These are your shake down rides, and if you're camping a chance to see that you have all of the right gear and everything is in good order. This is your opportunity to experiment with load placement, to make sure you have the weight evenly distributed and everything well balanced. You might find that you need to make some adjustments to your riding position after you've gone a good ways on your loaded bike. Now is the time to make such adjustments. Yes, you may end up making further adjustments after your tour begins, but the better you can tune everything now, the better start you'll have on tour.
Don't burn out
The last thing you want is to be worn out from too much riding when your tour is just beginning. If you get started on your training routine early enough in the season you should be in fine shape for the start of your tour, so plan on tapering off and taking an easy week right before your tour starts. Don't stop riding, just skip the hard workouts and the really long rides. Just go out and spin easy and give yourself plenty of recover time so that you feel rested for the start of your tour.
Go have an amazing tour
There are many unknowns on any bike tour. Will it rain? Will I get a bunch of flats? Will the campground be closed? There is a lot you won't have any control over, but if you've trained well at least you'll know you can ride the distance, get over those mountains, and survive that wind. If you take the time to get in good shape before hand you'll have a lot more confidence when you're out there on the road. It doesn't matter if you'll be doing 20, 50, or 100 miles a day. Whether you'll be camping, hitting cheap motels, or lavish bed and breakfasts. You'll be out there seeing new places, meeting new people, and having a great time. So get ready, get prepared, and go have a great tour.