Bike touring has been my favourite way to travel since 1993, when my partner Tanya and I discovered it as an affordable way to visit her dad in New Zealand for a month. Since then, we have logged thousands of kilometres in more than 50 countries. By the time we completed a 14-month family bike return trip from Calgary to Mexico, our youngest son, then 5, had spent more than a quarter of his life on a bike trip.
Bike touring is more than a way to travel. It can be a way of life that will take you anywhere you want to go.
Long-distance bicycle touring gained recognition as a way to travel in 1896 when John Foster Fraser and two close friends set off from their homes in Britain and travelled around the world on their bicycles. They covered approximately 30,959 km in two years and two months, visiting 17 countries on three continents.
We all travel for different reasons. How we travel can have a big influence on the places we visit, the people we meet and the experiences we have.
To describe what bike touring means to me, I found inspiration in one of my favourite books I read to my kids, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. The highlighted quotes are from that book.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
My dad would often tell stories of me riding a Big Wheel when I was three or four years old. I would pedal that thing all over the neighbourhood – to the creek or to a friend’s house at the end of the block. I’m still exploring on wheels. My mom said I must have a bit of my ancestors’ Viking blood in my soul.
Bike touring can take you in any direction. Although there are many roads to choose from, the hard part is accepting if you choose one road you may not see what is down the other. I love to get on my bike and ride down the other roads.
I feel like a modern-day explorer on my bike, because it lets me discover new places, off the tourist path. Friends ask where Tanya and I want to go next, and my answer is always someplace we have not been.
“It’s opener, out there, in the wide, open air.”
Bike-touring is an “opener” – a metaphor for living outdoors, feeling the wind on your face, and the authenticity and generosity of the people you meet. You have the freedom to see places you might not otherwise or connect with locals or feel the landscape around you. Bike touring across the plains of North Dakota with my family, I recall the big sky and open spaces. The pure openness of humanity was all around us; people we met would invite us into their homes to share a meal or spend the night. Bike touring makes you vulnerable to the elements and the safety of the road, but also allows a freedom you won’t find anywhere else.
“You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.”
You will meet some strange birds and find yourself in situations and encounters you might not otherwise get with other types of travel. Riding into town at the end of a long day, all you want is to find a place to rest your body, get a good meal and feel safe. You are dependant on the generosity of others. It’s amazing how often people go out of their way to offer a piece of fruit, a cold drink or an invitation to their home. You’ll hear stories from all walks-of-life. Strangers become friends. On a bike tour, you’ll learn how to say thank you and how to appreciate simple things.
“And when you’re alone there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.”
On one of our first long trips, we couldn’t cycle sections of the Spanish coast near Barcelona for fear of being blown off 100-metre cliffs into the ocean. Tanya was so afraid she could hardly walk her bike to safety. In northern Cambodia, we dealt with the fear of being kidnapped or ambushed by rebels. The local people took us in, fed us and provided safe passage for us through a jungle region that was a hold-out zone of former Khmer Rouge rebels. Would I do it again? No. But we learned that things work out. Bike touring builds confidence and resilience, and a respect for fear.
“You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. … Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.”
We’re not all budget travellers, tree-huggers, left-wingers and other stereotypes of skinny guys on 10-speeds with tube socks. Far from it, bike touring is an active way to travel that has been embraced by many people of all ages, sizes and physical ability. I met many bicycle travellers who have passed along tips and tricks that make the experience even more fun. Bike touring is not about how fast, how far or how challenging. You can ride your bike at any speed and choose the distance and terrain. It is not a race. It is not so much about the destination but the journey.
“Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. Oh! The places you’ll go!”
You need to have the right gear and attitude. You will encounter all sorts of challenging situations – weather, road conditions, muscle and joint pain, equipment failure and other challenges. Control the controllable and prepare as best you can for the rest. Talk to anyone who has been on a bike tour, and they’ll tell stories of storms and terrible roads. They go into great detail about aches and pains or emotional breakdowns. Equipment will fail; bikes will get gritty and dirty.
Some days you’ll wonder if you could be any colder or wetter or feel more crappy. That’s all drama. I would rather talk about all the amazing things, like the food – you can eat as much as you want – scenery and people along the way. The food tastes better, the scenery will change the way you think about nature, and your mind will be clear. There is nothing better than ending a day’s ride by enjoying some snacks or a local craft beer, sitting around a table and sharing your highlights and images from the day. Wake each morning and go for a bike ride and do it all over again. Save the drama.
“You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place…”
It’s unpredictable. Sometimes the best-laid plans go to shit – or at least you think they do. Tanya and I missed a ferry from Wales to Ireland on one of our bike tours. We raced the entire day to get to the ferry port and missed it by minutes. The “waiting place” ended up being a local pub in Pembroke Dock, Wales. It may have been one of the most memorable pub experiences in the U.K. We were entertained by locals dancing and taking their clothes off to songs by Neil Diamond. We enjoyed a hearty pub grub dinner with mashed potatoes, meat and gravy, and plenty of cask beers. Bike touring requires making lemonade out of lemons, turning the “waiting place” from useless into useful and taking things as they come. “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened!”
“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!”
Today is your day. It is never too late or too early to start bike touring. Just get on your bike and ride.
And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
When John Foster Fraser and his two close friends returned from their around-the-world bike tour, he said: “For two years we bicycled in strange lands and came home a great disappointment to our friends. We were not haggard or worn, or tottering in our gait. We had never been scalped, or had hooks through our spines; never been tortured, or had our eyes gouged; never been rescued after living for a fortnight on our shoes. And we had never killed a man. It was evident we were not real travellers. Still, away somewhere at the back of our heads, we are rather proud of what we have done.” – Round the World on a Wheel”, John Foster Fraser, 1899.
What the heck is bike-touring anyway? It’s an experience.