Touring By Bicycle

I celebrate bicycle touring. Cyclists don’t see the world—they experience it. Biking is quiet, scenic, physically active but not necessarily strenuous, non-polluting, and it can afford a stimulating social experience with friends, family, and the local people. You get a feeling of the place, integrate with people when you stop to ask for directions and fill your water bottle. And you’re in nature. Unlike a car, you’re exposed, unprotected from the cold and rain and the wind. That very raw experience is its beauty. Of course, it can be hard and stressful, but discomfort is forgotten when you achieve your goal, leaving a rich memory. In a car you experience little else but boredom, anxious to get it over with—many people feel more worn out on a long car trip than an all-day bike ride.

I have met many people who count the long-distance bike trip they took as one of the highlights of their life. It certainly is for me.

Bicycling works well with camping. Every part of Europe and North America is accessible to bikes from spring to autumn. Many people use bicycle racks on their cars to get them out of the urban areas, bike for a couple of days, then drive back through the city. I used to take off the wheels and throw mine in the back seat of a VW.

Successful bicycle touring can spontaneously happen, as in just hopping on a bike and following your whim, but it’s usually better to have a plan, especially if you’re going to a foreign land. It’s a good idea to study the place you’re going to, not just topography, but history and customs. This is crucial if you’re traveling to developing countries.

Use good equipment, including a good touring bike. There’s nothing worse than a squeaky pedal or an uncomfortable saddle. The drive train should be smooth and free. If you camp on your trip, a cheap camping mattress or poor tent make the experience a suffering. Use bicycling clothing. Probably the biggest mistake beginning bicycle travelers make is taking too much equipment. You need less clothes than you think—you can usually buy things along the way. Leave your headlights, horns, packets of dehydrated foods and foot pumps at home. Take extra tubes and, if you’re going to be gone long, take an extra tire plus tools to do minor repairs. Some people take a camp stove and aluminum pots, but they take up a lot of room. You buy food along the way—fruit and trail mix and sandwiches and lots of unhealthy drinks. Most bicyclists on a trip eat a lot, treat themselves to high carbs and decadent food, but they usually lose weight at the end of it, so if you want to drop five pounds, take off for a week of high energy riding.

Youth hostels in the US tend to be only in the cities while Europe has a much wider distribution. Many are only open in summer. Each cyclist or group make different daily mileage. Most people can pedal thirty or forty miles in a day. That’s probably the minimum. Some go more than a hundred. A metric century, 60 miles, is something that fit people can do daily after a little training. Make your first trips short, day trips or overnighters, until you feel comfortable with yourself, your bike, and your equipment. Riding a loaded bike is different than a Sunday ride on a bike path. Your brakes, for example, are not as efficient downhill because the extra weight creates more momentum, so spend a bit of time getting used to it.

Plan not only where to go but when and in which direction. The main winds come from the west, so it’s usually better to ride east, although every time I ride it seems that the wind is in my face. Some places have distinct dry seasons such as California and the Mediterranean where it doesn’t rain in summer. Some areas are sweltering in the height of summer. I was in northern Mexico one July, and I couldn’t go further. There’s less wind in the morning than the afternoon—I find morning the best time to ride. June is a wonderful time to travel because the days are much longer than in September.

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