Wikipedia describes bicycle tourism as: “self-contained cycling trips for pleasure, adventure and autonomy rather than sport, commuting or exercise.” Touring can range from single to multi-day trips, even years. Tours may be planned by the participant or organized by a holiday business, a club, or a charity as a fund-raising venture.
I am sure many of us have envisioned rolling through France or Italy on bicycles, stopping for lunch in a quaint pastoral village, and enjoying a wonderful Bordeaux varietal. Unfortunately the world is not flat, the weather is not constant and roads are mostly designed for cars and trucks. This is not to say that travelling by bicycle is not pleasurable and rewarding but one must be aware of the implications of such travel and be prepared.
Many people become infatuated with the idea of traveling by bicycle but are unsure how to begin. Experienced riders know the simplicity of bike travel is one of its great joys, but to the curious newcomer this new world of possibility can appear bewildering. Below, you may gain some answers to common questions, and find some tips to demystify cycling.
19th Century historians speak of bets being taken in London for riders of hobby horse machines pushed by the feet rather than pedaled. These machines were outpacing stagecoaches. Many enquiries were made as to the name of ‘them queer horses’. Some called them ‘whirligigs’, ‘menageries’ and ‘valparaisons’. The bicycle’s evolution made longer distances feasible when they began to be propelled by pedals on a small front wheel. Journeys grew more adventurous. A writer for the San Francisco Chronicle set off around the world in 1884 on a 50-inch bicycle with a money belt, a revolver, two shirts and a rain cape. He spend two years on the road and wrote a 1,021-page book. Twelve years later two friends set off to conquer the world on bicycles, riding 19,237 miles, through 17 countries, in two years and two months. The first cyclists, often aristocratic or rich, flirted with the bicycle and then abandoned it for the new motor car. It was the lower middle class who profited from cycling and the liberation that it brought.
The bicycle gained from the outdoor movement of the 1930s. The Cyclists’ Touring Club advertised a week’s all-in tour, staying at hotels recommended by cyclists. The youth hostel movement, that started in Germany and spread abroad, advertised a cycling holiday with participants staying at hostels in the 1930s. It was estimated there were ten million bicycles in Britain to one million cars at the time.
Since 1980 there has been a growth of organized cycling holidays provided by commercial organizations in many countries. Some companies provide accommodation and route information to cyclists travelling independently. Others focus on a group experience, including guides and support for a large number of riders cycling together.
The scale of bicycle touring and its economic effects are difficult to estimate, given its informal nature. Market research, for example, indicates that, in 2006, British cyclists spent £120,000,000 on 450,000 organized cycling holidays and a further 2.5 million people included some cycling activity in their annual holiday.
There are a variety of ways to travel by bicycle from entirely self-supported to very supported that can make travelling more or less challenging. Distances vary considerably. Depending on fitness, speed, inclination, and number of stops, most riders travel between 50 to 150 kilometers per day. A short tour over a few days may cover as little as 200 kilometers while a lengthy adventure may cross a country or circumnavigate the world. I have completed several trips in a variety of ways and found that about 100 kilometers per day and two weeks in duration does not a lifestyle make. I would note, however, that after about two weeks you are becoming acclimatized, start feeling very fit, are becoming part of the cycling community, and begin to have thoughts of embarking on a world tour. Be careful with that!!
There are many different types of bicycle touring that are influenced by a person’s predispositions, lifestyle, and aspirations:
Lightweight touring, informally called credit-card touring, is when a rider carries a minimum of equipment and a lot of money. Overnight accommodation is in hostels, hotels, pensions, or B & Bs. Food is purchased at cafes, restaurants or markets. (my favorite)
Ultra-light touring differs from credit card touring in that the rider is self-sufficient but carries only the bare essentials and no frills. You rough it and stay where you can.
Self-supported touring is when cyclists carry everything they need, including food, cooking equipment, and a tent for camping. Some cyclists minimize their load, carrying only basic supplies, food, and a lightweight tent.
Expedition touring involves extensive travel, often through developing nations or remote areas. The bicycle is loaded with food, spares, tools, and camping equipment so that the traveller is largely self-supporting.
Mixed Terrain Cycle-touring, is also called rough riding whereby cyclists travel over a variety of surfaces and topography on a single route, with a single bicycle. Focusing on freedom of travel and efficiency over varied surfaces, cyclists often adopt an ultra-light camping approach and carry their own minimal gear.
Supported touring is when cyclists are supported by a motor vehicle, which carries most of the equipment. This can be organized independently by groups of cyclists or commercial holiday companies. These companies sell places on guided tours, including booked lodging, luggage transfers, route planning, and often meals and rental bikes.
Day touring varies in their size of the group, length, purpose, and methods of support. This may involve solo cyclists, group rides, or large organized rides with hundreds to thousands of riders. Their length can range from a few miles to century rides of 100 miles or longer. Their purpose can range from riding for pleasure or fitness, to raising money for a charitable organization.
Sub-24hour-Overnight focuses less on cycling and more on camping. Typically, one would depart on their bicycle in the late afternoon or evening, ride to a campsite in a few hours, camp, sleep, and ride home the next morning. This type can require very little planning or time commitment.
I have participated in some level of most of these types of touring and have found that at this stage of my life (64 years of age and retired) I am most likely to enjoy somewhat supported travel while largely using my credit card for sustenance and accommodation. An example was a recent trip down the Oregon Coast. We travelled from the Washington State border to the California State border in about 10 days. There were four of us with each person driving the support vehicle every fourth day. We stayed in hotels and ate in restaurants. I have also travelled much more self-sufficient with no support vehicle through France and around Newfoundland. There are certain benefits to the latter manner of travel as well but one is much more subject to the elements and a greater level of fitness and fortitude is required.
- Pick a date.
- Start saving and/or ensure there are adequate funds on your credit card.
- Get a bike and gear.
- Choose a direction.
- Start pedaling.
The World is Your Oyster:
Well, it’s not quite that easy, but almost. You should initially decide where you want to ride. Besides considering the obvious, ie. scenery, history, and personal interests; look for low-traffic routes and/or roads with good shoulders. Keep in mind that many of the areas you’d like to see by bicycle, such as national parks, can be clogged with traffic and not a place you’d like to venture on a bicycle. Also topography may be a consideration. Several steep climbs can make a fairly short day into a very long day. Mountain bikers usually look for routes with little or no motorized traffic and as little pavement as possible. Their biggest question then becomes: Can all of the route be ridden with a loaded bike or trailer?
Many resources for finding bicycle-specific routes that emphasize safe roads and rideable trails can be found online. There are an abundance of sites offering bike routes and tour maps. Most western countries offer tourism agencies and local cycling clubs that provide a wealth of information about their local areas. These sites offer many helpful hints about an intended trip by people that have been there and done that. Many countries have very well developed cycling systems such as France and Holland where cycling is an important factor of their culture. A little research is required. Of course if you are travelling with a support agency, they will provide all your directions. An example of a site that outlines several routes, both long and short, in France is: http://about-france.com/tourism/cycling-holidays.htm
Many countries have specified cycling routes that are largely removed from vehicle traffic. I rode 1200 kilometers of the Loire Valley in France that was an excellent route. The regional planners managed to place our adventure through numerous historic sites and villages without exposing us to any significant vehicle traffic. In some cities we found well-marked paths through areas denied to motor vehicles and through the most historic areas. Keep in mind, however, the world is still not flat and the weather does not always cooperate. Be prepared.
Next, you should determine how you wish to carry your gear. Will it be panniers or trailers? Panniers are luggage that attaches to your bicycle on racks that sit over, or next, to the wheels. Quality racks are available to fit nearly every bicycle. Trailers come in many varieties, usually with one or two wheels. Most are easy to attach and fit on almost any bicycle. Panniers excel on paved-road riding and single-wheel trailers are at their best on rough, unpaved terrain. Both can work well for nearly all types of touring. Personal preference has the final say.
What to put in your new bags.
That depends upon what kind of travelling you are planning to do. If you are a credit card wielding, hotel staying, support vehicle dependent kind of guy like me, you don’t need a whole lot. You bring your trusty credit card, a day pack with camera, snacks and plenty of water. Some nice wet or cold weather clothes might be nice. Of course, a telephone in case you get lost and a map or trusty GPS device to guide your way. You can, however, pretty well carry your whole house depending upon the nature of your travel. Instead of listing all the available options, I will offer a useful link to a website that provides a very bountiful checklist for all types of travel. Again, you don’t need to bring everything. The more you bring, the greater the burden. You have the final say and may actually discard a few things after some challenging inclines. The site is called: Your Complete Bicycle Touring Gear Checklist and can be reached at: http://bicycletouringpro.com/blog/jim-dirlams-complete-bicycle-touring-gear-checklist/
Tourism agencies, chambers of commerce, or convention and visitor’s associations are helpful if you want to camp (inexpensive, independent, closer to nature) or stay in hotels. As stated, I am old and a little smarter than some. Consequently, I prefer to stay in hotels or B&Bs. The problem is, you never know how far you are going to travel in a day or a week. I, therefore, prefer to carry a small laptop or tablet and book my hotel rooms one day in advance. This has always worked with discounts for online bookings and your pace is set daily rather than prior to leaving home. Weather, injury, or obstacles can thwart the best laid plans. A word to the wise: if you are booking accommodation sight unseen, check where your hotel is located with proximity to desirable amenities and potential obstacles. It is never nice climbing a huge mountain to your hotel at the end of an 8 hour day of riding and finding no restaurants within several kilometers or at the bottom of that huge hill you just ascended. The view might be nice but you may have little appreciation.
You could get a gym membership and a personal trainer, join a local cycling club, and spend several months building up fitness, just like a real athlete. Alternatively, you could attain an equal (or higher) level of fitness by cycling all day, every day, during your first few weeks on the road. I, personally, prefer the latter. I try to maintain some level of fitness throughout my life but I am never prepared for 8 hours a day in the saddle. However, after about a week, you start feeling pretty good. A few pounds have come off and you have achieved some level of symbiotic alliance with your bike. A big padded seat helps to facilitate this. After the second week you are ready to take on the world. Another word to the wise: a modest amount of merriment in the evenings and a good night’s sleep will make the day to follow much shorter and more enjoyable.
Beyond a healthy pair of legs, a good set of lungs, and a keen sense of adventure, an appropriate bicycle is one of the more essential components of your trip. Cycle touring beyond the range of a day trip may require a bicycle capable of carrying heavy loads. Although many different bicycles can be used, specialist touring bikes are built to carry appropriate loads and to be ridden more comfortably over long distances. A typical bicycle would have a longer wheelbase for stability and heel clearance, frame fittings for front and rear panniers, additional water bottle mounts, frame fittings for front and rear mudguards/fenders, a broader range of gearing to cope with the increased weight, and touring tires which are wider to provide more comfort on back roads.
“Ultra-light tourers” choose traditional road bicycles or randonneur bicycles for speed and simplicity. However, these bikes are harder to ride on rough roads, which may limit route options.
For some, the advantages of a recumbent bicycle are particularly relevant to touring. Recumbent bikes are those strange looking contraptions whereby the rider is sitting back and peddling in front.
To lessen the weight carried on your bicycle, or increase luggage capacity, a bicycle trailer may be your choice. For a “supported” rider, luggage carrying is not important and a wider range of bicycle types may be suitable depending on the terrain.
I have travelled on touring bikes, hybrid bikes, mountain bikes, and standard road bikes. Depending on the terrain and trip duration, I would recommend a touring bike for comfort, strength, and practicality. It may be somewhat slower than the lighter bikes but you will arrive with fewer aches and pains, while ready to enjoy a relaxing evening and better refreshed to embark on the next day’s journey.
Always remember, you are still a tourist. This is just another way to see the world, albeit, more intimate and self-reliant. Stop and smell the roses. Visit historical sites. Take some pictures. Stop for that Bordeaux varietal (one glass is recommended). A little daily planning is important when booking your accommodation. Consider the must-visit sites along the way. Perhaps book a room one town earlier. It is OK to take a day off, nobody is keeping score. If you come across a particularly interesting place, have a few aches or blisters that need attendance, stay two nights. Your body and mind will thank you. We only have so many days to enjoy, so enjoy every one.