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Sean Conway on fast touring essentials

Earlier this year Sean Conway broke the record for the fastest crossing of Europe so he knows a thing or two about rapid touring by bike. It wasn’t always that way though. Here he talks about the essential things he’s learnt:

Land’s End to John O’Groats, the length of Britain, also known as LEJOG. Way back in 2008 I momentarily flirted with idea of how close to the LEJOG record of 44 hours I could get. I bought a bike on eBay, woefully large for me, smothered it in 20kg’s of kit in 5 pannier bags and set off from Land’s End hungry for adventure.

There is a famous saying that goes like this. Try, try and try again... and then give up because you don’t want to look like an idiot. Well it’s safe to say that I did just that and after about 3 hours on the bike I realised I was nowhere near the 44-hour pace. The ride eventually took me 25 days, or 584 hours.

Ignoring my complete lack of cycling know-how, I was hooked. I loved cycle touring and wanted to go further and more importantly faster. Since then I have done somewhere in the region of 60,000 miles with various touring setups. Nowadays it’s called Bikepacking which is a cool name but back then it was just exploring on a bike. I have managed to refine what I take nowadays and on a summer adventure I can get my entire setup down to around 13kg, including the bike.

Here’s what I would take if I wanted to do a self-supported ride covering 120+ miles per day with camping.

Bike:

I love steel bikes and have a race geometry bike utilising Reynolds 853 Steel. It’s actually a bike I developed with my friend Simon Stanforth. It’s called the Stanforth Conway and it’s the most comfortable bike I’ve ever ridden. I use Carbon Forks and use PRO aero bars for comfort.

Components:

A mixture of Shimano 105 (crank and shifters) and Ultegra with an 11-34 cassette on the back, which is very much needed on the hills.

Wheels:

This depends on the terrain but most of my fast touring is on roads so I use carbon disc wheels. Sometimes I do weekend tours on my carbon bike with rim brakes so I use my Dura Ace wheels. I only weigh 68kgs so I can get away with faster wheels, even if I have 5-8kgs of kit on the bike.

Panniers:

This has to be the one of the main changes to cycle touring of late. Clunky large wheel panniers have made way for aerodynamic frame and saddle bags. Before these were invented I actually just strapped a drybag behind my saddle but nowadays there are many options.

Electrics:

To keep things simple I only take a phone and I charge this from a dynamo hub on the front wheel. I’ve used Son and SP and they are both good. I use various apps like Ordnance Survey (UK), Galileo and Maps.me (when abroad) to downloads offline maps.

Camping:

I often don’t take a tent and opt for a bivvy and every time, EVERYTIME, I regret it. Unless you are racing then a tent will help you stay dry at night and allow you to relax in the evenings if it is raining. I have the Tera Nova Laser Ultra 1 tent. The Therm-a-rent Neo Air mat and either a Haglofs down (winter) or the Yeti Passion One (summer) sleeping bag.

Clothing:

I only take what I need on the bike. (I don’t take casual clothes) If I’m going to be walking around a lot during the adventure I’ll just use MTB shoes instead of road shoes. But other than that, just cycling kit and wash them in rivers or the occasional hotel using the free shampoo.

Mascot:

I have a mascot. A £1 cow I bought when I cycled LEJOG. He comes with me everywhere and even has his own Instagram account @adventuremascot

Misc:

Lastly you need some toiletries, tools, spares etc on top but if you’re in Europe you’re never too far from a bike shop so don’t take too much.

So as you can see you don’t need as much as you think. I love lightweight bikepacking. It allows you to enjoy the cycling part of the adventure more.

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