by Elizabeth Everett Cage
I was 19-years old with a big backpack and a rail pass when I first saw Europe. Dashing from city to city, the countryside flashed by. I was comfortable in the cities but intrigued by all the space between. I learned of the European network of long-distance walking tracks and, while I didn’t dare explore them then, the idea of a long, self-propelled journey settled into that internal file marked “someday”.
In 2015, aged 46, I found myself on the far side of divorce and planning a midlife gap year. My someday had arrived. Over the years, I had taken to riding my bicycle around Sydney, for recreation and transportation. Now, I realised, I could ride around Europe rather than walk.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What is a bicycle tour? For me, it’s simply travelling from one place to another to another on a bicycle. I might spend two or three days on tour, or I might spend months. Beyond that, I’m not fussed – ride any bicycle that suits, wear comfortable clothes, carry my gear or arrange for someone to transfer it for me. I might even go on an organised tour and meet new people as well, if I like.
1. If you can ride 10 kilometres you can tour
I wasn’t a Lycra-clad road racer when I decided to tour, but I was able to ride a bicycle for a couple of hours at a time.
The fitter you are, the easier it will be, but if you can ride five kilometres to a café, have a coffee, and ride home – you can start planning a bicycle tour.
Hills, I hear you say, what about the hills?
Like anything in life, if you approach hills one pedal push at a time, you eventually reach the top. It’s okay to stop and catch your breath. It’s okay to walk and push your bike. Whatever it takes is fine.
2. Experience more on a bicycle and share it with fewer fellow tourists
On a bicycle I cover less ground but experience so much more.
For me, a perfect touring day starts with a leisurely breakfast followed by riding to my next destination in time for a late lunch. I may only cover 30 to 50 kilometres in a day. But I fully experience that distance – I smell the sea, and hear how the church bells in the village behind me are out of synch with the bells in the village ahead; I spot small and fascinating sights I’d never see bolting past in a car like a beautiful village garden or a small Commonwealth War Cemetery. I feel the breeze on my skin – and, yes, sometimes the rain – and appreciate the way my body feels as I pedal along.
Bicycle touring is the antithesis of motor touring – in a vehicle I sit, inert, encapsulated in a controlled environment, watching the countryside pass by framed by the limit of my windows. I am in a bubble, not in the countryside at all.
As mass tourism becomes ever more mass, the opportunities to experience places and cultures away from crowds of Instagram-posting travellers becomes more and more difficult. On a bicycle, I am fully in the place, all day, every day. I pass through places completely devoid of tourists and yet alive with local life and culture. Even popular destinations, like Normandy in France, are peppered with small villages and towns that simply aren’t on the radar of most tourists – and yet they have old churches, and cafes on cobbled squares, and market days, and a steady flow of locals collecting baguettes from their patisserie. What more can I ask of France than that?
3. Environmental benefits
As I’ve become increasingly aware of the damage done to the planet and environment by long-distance travel, one way to balance that out is to diminish my footprint when I get where I’m are going. And there is no better way to do that than touring by bicycle.
4. Eat everything
Even a leisurely day of riding burns a lot of calories. When I’m on tour I can have a second croissant with my morning coffee, and a pretzel with an afternoon beer, and the cheese plate after dinner, and a few gelati along the way too, why not?
5. A sense of accomplishment
At the end of a day’s driving I often feel restless, stiff, maybe even a little agitated. On a bicycle tour I reach the end of the day feeling physically tired, in a good way, and mentally relaxed.
I find the act of riding to be meditative and mindful. Navigating my route demands just enough from my brain so as not to be entirely idle but allows for a kind of spaciousness, in which to simply be present in the place.
6. What makes is hard?
The route to touring can be challenging but, in the end, rewarding. Once you’ve solved some basic riddles you can include tours in all manner of journeys, be they local or on the far side of the planet.
First and foremost: what to do about the gear? Do you buy your own touring bicycle and fly with it? Or rent locally? Will you be camping? Or only staying in paid accommodation?
Do you go alone? With a friend? In a couple? With a group? If you go alone, it can be lonely – or liberating. If you go with others, you must negotiate riding styles and speeds.
And, of course, the best riddle of them all: where to go? There are magnificent tours you can undertake right around the world. Where to begin?
7. Where to learn more?
When I first started learning about bicycle touring, I found information and inspiration on these websites:
Tom’s Bike Trip– Tom and a friend set out to ride around the world and make a film about it. Things happened along the way – including that his website developed into a great resource for would-be bicycle tourists. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom a few years ago; he’s a lovely guy and that shines through on his website.
Crazy Guy on a Bike– Don’t be put off by the fact that it looks like a web page from the 20thcentury – this is the largest collection of ride diaries in the world. Some are well written, some are not, but no matter where you are thinking of riding, you’ll find someone whose already been there and written about it here.
Unclipped Adventures– Teegan Philips blogged about her first big ride through a series of handwritten and drawn posts. It’s funny, an inspiration, and a joy to read. Spoiler alert: she had no experience, was making it up as she went, and had an amazing time of it.
The Adventure Cycling Association is dedicated to touring in the United States and has a lot of great routing information for that country as well as good general information of bicycle touring.
EuroVelois the website for the 19 long distance cycling routes which crisscross Europe. This is where my dreams are made. I want to do all of them.
Get out for a ride.
And then, talk to someone knowledgeable about touring gear (whether you are buying your own or renting at your destination the more you know about what you need and is suitable to you and your journey the more comfortable you will be).
When you are ready to start planning in earnest – whether for a touring holiday or to include a shorter tour within your larger holiday – get in touch with Anthea to discuss your options.
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