Bike Touring offers a unique way for independent adventure travelers to find new places, meet new people, and face new personal challenges anywhere in the world. There is no feeling in the world like barreling down a tall mountain keeping pace with the traffic while the world around you turns into a blur and the wind gets loud. Of course, world has had or currently has a bike. Even more universal than cars or busses, everyone remembers the feeling of freedom they felt the first time they rode without training wheels, the magic of an expanded universe that their first bicycle offered them. On a bike tour, you can expect to be greeted with joy and wonder by strangers every single day of your trip. People will want to know where you are going, where you have been, how much the bike weighs, and more. And behind every question, you will find a mixture of admiration and disbelief as well as the nagging, sometimes unspoken thought – “I wonder if I could do that” More than anything else, traveling on a bicycle is a great way to meet people.
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On my own travels, I have had lunch with bikers, truckers, farmers, and scientists – all drawn to me by the site of my loaded touring bike outside a diner and my helmet sitting on the table. If you like meeting people, bicycle touring is the very best way to see and meet the world around you.
Traveling by bicycle is very inexpensive: there is a joke among touring cyclists that we make poor candidates for would-be thieves because everyone “knows” that no one with any money at all would willingly ride a bike that far. It’s mostly true too. When you travel by bike, you save on rentals, gas, insurance, parking, maintenance, and a host of other fees the car tourists have to pay. Thanks to low-cost hike/bike campsites and touring cyclist networks, even housing costs are cheaper than those who travel by automobile. For anyone traveling on a budget, a bike is the cheapest and best way to get around.
You can go where cars can’t: Bicycle travel is becoming more and more accessible every year on a bicycle tour. Many cities and countries in Europe are particularly well suited to bicycle travel. Even in the car-centric US, many long-distance bike trails and bike-friendly routes have been developed. In particular, the “Rails to Trails Conservancy” works to convert old unused train and canal grades into multi-use trails perfect for cycling. Two of the best are the Katy trail in Missouri and the GAP/C&O trail that runs 350 car-free miles from Pittsburgh all the way into downtown Washington DC
You will go slower and see more: In a world where cars are too fast and walking is too slow, Bicycle travel moves at just the right pace. Seeing the world at 10mph gives you time to notice the little things that get lost in the blur from inside a car. You can see more, smell more (not always a good thing), and hear much more than you would otherwise, and when you happen upon something really cool – like a bunch of Elk standing in a field – you can just roll off the side of the road, stop and watch them for a while. Just about everyone wants to slow down and enjoy life a little more – on a bike, you can.
You may even get in shape: Probably the most obvious aspect of cycling is overall fitness. On tour, you will ride anywhere from 40-60 miles a day – maybe, even more, when you get in the groove – and even when you are not riding, you will spend more time walking from place to place. You sleep better, get more fresh air and burn off hundreds of calories, providing you with guilt-free dinners at the end of every day.
Yep, bike touring is a hell of a great way to see the world. Before you start packing your panniers, though, there are a few disadvantages to traveling by bike, be sure to think it over and decide if bike touring is right for you; here are a few of the drawbacks.
CONS: Why bike touring sucks.
You will cover less ground each day: If you are in a hurry or the type who feels that the perfect journey is one that crams the most sightseeing into every day, bike touring will not be for you. Bike tours tend to be laid back affairs, more about enjoying the journey rather than the destination. While some cyclists do put in very high mileage days, for most, the joy of riding and seeing the world at a leisurely pace is what bicycle touring is all about.
You may do less: Especially for people on short tours, you will most likely take in fewer “touristy” things. Part of this is because getting from place to place takes longer, and part of it comes from the fact that you may be tired at the end of the day. If you are already in good cycling shape, exhaustion will be less of a factor on all but the windiest or hilliest of days, but since the point of a bike tour is to ride a bike, overall, you will have less time to spend on ‘normal’ tourist activities.
Security will be more of a concern: Bike theft is a reality, and when everything you need for your trip is on the back of your bike, you are much more vulnerable to thieves. Theft becomes less of a problem in rural areas than in cities, and even in towns, a heavy, fully loaded touring bike is not a good opportunity for would-be thieves, many of whom are looking for an easy, quick grab and go targets. Good locks and mismatched gear are great theft deterrents, but when everything you need to get through the day is strapped to your bike, some part of your mind will always be wondering if it is safe every time it’s out of sight.
Not everywhere is set up for bicycle travel: While the roads in the US are becoming more bike-friendly, and trails and bike routes abound, this is still the land of the car. There may be long distances between towns in rural areas, and in the city, traffic congestion and irritated or careless drivers can make cycling a challenge, to say the least.
Bike touring is more challenging than motorized travel: On a bike, everything has a potential impact on your day, sudden storms, hills, road closures, and wind can all change your plans in an instant, and delays that may change car travel plans by an hour or two may cost you a day in extra riding. Many experienced cyclists learn to just ‘roll with it’ knowing that the unexpected is part of a journey’s joy. Still, if you have limited time for your trip, a long detour, foul weather, or broken gear could dramatically alter your plans or even end the trip prematurely.
On my own bike tour around the United States, I’ve experienced all of the good and bad aspects of long-distance cycling, and I still feel that bicycle tours are one of the best ways to see the world. There are challenges with any form of transportation, and compromise is always a part of independent travel. There is no better seat for the adventurous, physically active traveler who wants to see the world at a human pace than the one atop of touring bike.