Me, asking for mid-ride water refill at a cafe in France: C’est
possible que j’ai un bouteille d’eau?
Disdainful waiter: Of course!
For some cyclists, riding a bike is exercise. I am not one of them. For me, cycling is a form of travel. My dream is to ride my bike all over the world and ride every good back road on the West Coast. I love my bike for its ability to get me out of town. The standard greeting from my cycling friends, when they haven’t seen me for a while, is “Where’s the next bike trip, Jay?” This chapter is a naked attempt to infect you with my disease. I want to turn you into a person who always has a to-do list of cycling destinations.
There are an infinite number of ways to do a bike trip, from an overnight to years spent circumnavigating the globe. I’ll describe some basic types and the logistics and gear associated with each.
These are trips where you drive to a good ride, ride it, then drive to the next ride, and so on. You stay in motels or airBnB’s, and you may stay in one town for 2 or 3 days, doing 2 or 3 local rides, before moving on.
Pick an area. It works best to dedicate a trip to a geographical area: Western Oregon, Greenville, Santa Cruz. I’ve done trips that attempted to survey the riding in an entire state, but this takes at least 3 weeks. You can use the tools in the Finding a Ride chapter and map out and schedule each ride before you start, or you can wing it by driving to the local bike shop and saying, “Where’s the killer ride around here?” Bestrides.org will guide you if you’re riding anywhere on the West Coast.
Ride easy. On a bike vacation, you want to ride every day or nearly so, which means you don’t want to ride so hard one day that you need a recovery day following. So do every ride at 50-75% effort. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a long ride or a big climb; it means, do those rides at a relaxed pace. Get into the scenery, take some photos—get completely out of your at-home training mentality. And don’t take risks—you don’t want to spend the rest of your vacation off the bike, healing.
Ride only the good stuff. On vacation, time is short, energy is short, so don’t do the 15-mile unrewarding ride to and from the start of the good riding—drive to where the good riding begins and start there.
Get a bike rack. You’ll need a way to transport your bike in or on your car. It’s easiest to just put your bike in your trunk or back seat, and far more secure from theft. This can get messy, so you might want to get a bike bag or chain snood to keep dirt and grease off your upholstery. But unless you have a van, you can only do this with one bike, so as soon as you’re traveling with a buddy you’ll need a bike rack. Racks are expensive and come in many forms. Thule and Yakima are the two best-selling brands, but others are worth considering.
There are lots of variables to consider. First, where will the rack go, on the roof, on the trunk, or off the trailer hitch? Each has its pros and cons.
Roof rack advantages: they can hold a lot of bikes, they keep the bike up high where it’s out of the dust cloud you kick up when you drive on dirt, and they (usually) secure the bike via the front wheel drop-out, so the bike frame isn’t sustaining wear.
Roof rack cons: you have to lift your bike up over your head, which can be hard if your vehicle is tall or your bike is heavy, the bike is in the wind, which can mean there’s a layer of bugs on your bike after a buggy drive, and you will eventually drive under a low-hanging branch or into a carport with your bikes on the roof.
Trunk rack advantages: they’re cheap, they often can be installed and removed in a moment so you don’t have to have them on the car all the time, thus they’re easier to protect from thieves, and they keep your bike free from bugs.
Trunk rack cons: they’re less solid than the other types, they’re more easily stolen when they’re in place, they usually can’t carry multiple bikes safely and easily, your bike rides directly in the dust cloud you kick up on a dirt road, you can’t get into your trunk when the bikes are in place, they often hold your bike via rubber bands around the frame, which can cause serious damage to your bike’s paint job, and they can mar your car’s paint job. An expensive and elegant trunk rack made by Sea Sucker uses suction cups and is reported to work well.
Trailer hitch advantages: they’re strong and secure, they can hold several bikes, they keep your bikes free from bugs, and they often use a securing rail system which doesn’t threaten your paint job.
Trailer hitch cons: they’re expensive, they’re heavy, unless they’re designed to swing out of the way you can’t get into the trunk when they’re in place, and your bikes ride in the dust cloud.
After struggling with these pros and cons for years, I finally bought a mini-van and now put both my bikes inside effortlessly. Best decision I ever made in my cycling life.
Whichever rack system you choose, scrutinize it in three ways: 1. How are the bikes secured? Is there potential rubbing or wear anywhere? If so, your paint job will be a shambles eventually. 2. How hard is it to get to gear stored in the car when the bikes are in place? And 3. How flexible is the system when it comes to handling irregularities—huge tires (you may want to transport a mountain bike), techno advances—can it deal with through-axles or disc brakes?— or unconventional tube shapes (some racks assume your downtube is round). You will not always be transporting the bike you have right now.
Some racks require removing the front wheel; some don’t. The advantages and disadvantages are obvious. If you don’t have to remove the front wheel, you don’t have to store the wheel, keep it from harm, and remind yourself not to drive off and leave it after the ride. But you have to lift more weight, and lift it higher, to get the bike on the roof, and you have to clamp the bike somewhere other than at the dropouts, so you run the risk of frame damage.
However you load your bike, if it involves removing the front wheel, when you take the wheel off, lean it against a car door you must open or close before driving off, and nowhere else. That way you won’t be able to leave the front wheel behind, which you invariably will do sooner or later if you don’t follow this rule. Once a friend of mine and I were packing up after a ride on the Main Street of a small Gold Country town. As we drove off, a local came out of a store and began waving his arms and screaming at us. We figured we had violated some local shibboleth. We prepared ourselves for the verbal abuse we assumed was about to come. When he got close we could hear he was yelling, “Don’t you want those wheels?”—the two front wheels we had left leaning against the storefront.
Wear travel clothing. You need a clothing system that doesn’t have you packing twenty jerseys and twenty pairs of socks but also doesn’t have you doing piles of laundry every night. The solution is anti-bacterial (aka anti-microbial) clothing. Buy socks, underwear, and base layers that don’t smell—either because they’re wool or bamboo or because they have silver particles imbedded in them. This stuff isn’t particularly expensive and can be sweated in day after day for a week or more without noticeable odor, thus cutting your daily laundry pile down to jersey and shorts. There are no anti-bacterial shorts or jerseys (remember from the Clothing chapter that “anti-microbial” means something else when applied to shorts), so you’ll have to launder those. I travel with three bibs and three jerseys and wash the day’s outfit every night.
How to do laundry on the road. Doing laundry in motels or private rooms is an art. Don’t look for a laundry machine—you’re only going to do a few small pieces. Carry a small bottle of gentle detergent—cycling clothing doesn’t like harsh soaps. If the motel sink will hold water (about half the time, in my experience), fill the sink, add detergent, handwash, rinse, and wring. Chamois need special attention, so I rub them down with motel bar soap and scrub them manually.
You aren’t done. You want your gear to dry as fast as possible, so lay the wrung garments on a motel bath towel, roll the towel up, lay it on the carpet, and walk all over it. This is much more effective than wrapping in a towel and wringing. Your jerseys will dry easily in a day, your shorts in a day or two. Lay out or hang the damp clothing in your car, where the greenhouse effect will dry them more quickly than a motel room will. Remember to keep your shorts out of direct sun.
If the motel sink won’t hold water, wash your clothes in the bathroom wastebasket—it’s clean because it’s lined with a plastic bag. Take the bag out. Get water from the shower/tub if the wastebasket won’t fit under the sink spigot. If this disgusts you, you’ll have to carry a washtub in your car.
Eating on the Road. Of course you can eat at restaurants three times a day (or hit the free motel breakfast in the morning), but it’s unhealthy, expensive (except for the motel freebie), and time consuming. I typically eat one meal a day at a taco truck or small ethnic restaurant (friendly, interesting, tasty, cheap), and eat the other two meals in the motel room or on the bike. For this you need a small traveling kitchen, which for me consists of
- 1 plate
- 1 bowl
- 1 ea. spoon, fork, butter knife
- 1 small cutting knife, in a scabbard
- paper towel roll
- 1 waterproof Tupperware-type storage container, large enough for a sandwich or half a dinner
- 1 cool chest, medium size
What you carry in the way of food is up to you, but the whole point of this is to eat well and simply, and some foods travel better than others. I typically carry
- a squeeze bottle of olive oil
- a loaf of good bread, bought at the artisan bakery in whatever town I’m in
- a small container of stevia
- a small bottle of lemon juice (it plus stevia gives me a healthy break from water)
- tea bags
- fruit (it’s more fun to buy it on the road)
- fig newtons
- dried fruit
- an avocado
- canned food: chili, soup—bring a can opener or limit yourself to pull-off tops
- dry cereal
- nuts (peanuts, almonds, walnuts)
- Rice Dream (it doesn’t need refrigeration until it’s opened, and you can get it in individual packets)
- instant oatmeal
- snack bars (not on-the-bike bars, which are too calorie-rich for snacking)
If this sounds a little thin for a dinner, don’t worry—most of the time on a bike trip you’ll be on the bike for lunch, surviving on energy drinks, bars, and gel, so you can find that falafel stand for dinner.
It’s possible to do multi-day loops without loading down the bike with gear, if you have a small group of riders and one vehicle. Have the SAG vehicle carry the gear and have a different driver drive it every day. Each day the driver drives to the end of the day’s ride, parks, then rides the route backwards toward the approaching peloton. When they meet, they all ride back to the SAG together. That way no one misses more than a few hours of riding.
Car-Free Bike Trips
My friend Brian does 3-14-day train/bus-based rides. He lives in a city and doesn’t have a car, so all his trips go like this: he rides from his house to the train or bus station, gets off in some good riding spot, rides a continuous route for the 3 to 14 days, jumps on a train or bus at the end of the route, is transported back to the city, and rides home. The challenges of such a trip are substantial, but Brian sees more back country than I, with my one-day loops and out-and-backs, ever do.
Plan ahead. This sort of trip is logistically demanding and requires careful planning. Obviously, you have to start and stop your riding at public transportation. You have to lay out a continuous route—you’re going to pedal every mile from the start of the trip to the end. So you need to preview your roads carefully, making sure that every mile is rideable—no freeways, no rutted dirt roads, no off-limits private property. Streetview (see Finding a Ride) is indispensible here. You have to make sure there will be food and water along the route. You will probably want a water filter (there are nifty ones for about $100). You need to plan nightly lodging, because if you were camping you would need to carry camping and cooking gear, which is another kind of riding (see Bikepacking and Touring below). Leave your plan with someone who will notice when you don’t show up on time and alert the authorities, and never deviate from the plan, so the authorities know where to look.
Carry everything you need. You need to carry enough gear to survive, which necessitates at least a backpack/hydration pack and probably also a rear wheel rack with satchel.
Along with your cycling clothes, you need a change of clothing once you’re off the bike, which consists at the least of long-legged lightweight travel pants, socks, travel shirt, and a fleece pull-over. If you’re bold enough to do this kind of traveling in iffy weather, you’ll need a warmer layer and rain gear. There are several companies that specialize in lightweight, quick-drying travel clothing, Patagonia being the most famous and the most expensive.
The bulkiest item is shoes. You can get by with slipper-type shoes (Tom’s are light and compact), or sandals in the summer, if you’re only going to walk to a restaurant and back. But if you’re going to do real walking, it’s worth the bulk to carry full-size shoes.
Expand your tool kit. You’re going to be on your own for some time, so take more accessories and tools than you may carry on everyday rides: chain tool, large multi-tool and/or hex wrenches, spare tire and at least two spare tubes, tire boot patch, patch kit, mini-pump, the means to deal with a broken derailleur, spare spokes, spare shifter cable, duct tape, wire, plastic zip ties, and perhaps a screwdriver and pair of pliers. If your bike has replaceable derailleur hangers, consider carrying a spare.
Get a gravel bike. The best back roads head up into the back country and turn to dirt. The dirt roads eventually turn back into pavement and return to civilization somewhere other than where you started. This is ideal Brian Loop territory. If you’re limited to pavement, you’ll find yourself riding out-and-backs, which ruin the logistics of loop riding, or skipping a lot of wonderful roads.
Bikepacking is backpacking on a bike—self-supported camping. As with backpacking, you’re usually exploring the outback and are out for 2 days to a week. It’s a complete cycling subculture, as a google of the term will reveal. It appeals to exactly the sort of person who likes to backpack, and it’s often done on a mountain bike, but a touring or gravel bike will work also.
Obviously you need gear—all the gear you’d need backpacking. Ideally it’s superlight, therefore expensive, but if you ever backpacked you’ve got it already. I won’t list gear for you, but go to bikepacking.net and click on “individual set-ups” to see how practiced bikepackers do it. You can do without a tent if you can stand a bivy sack, a waterproof sleeve you put your sleeping bag in. A large part of the art is figuring out ways to pack all the stuff on a bike, which involves you in rear-wheel racks and lots of satchels that hang from your frame and handlebars like Christmas tree ornaments.
Touring, also called riding loaded, is like a long car trip on a bike. Touring cyclists ride great distances (across the US, or the West Coast from Canada to Mexico) and are out for weeks, months, or years. Unlike bikepackers, they’re typically on main roads, and they ride touring bikes, never mountain bikes—heavy road bikes that have very low gears, are as close to indestructible as possible, and are easy to repair when they break. They haul 50 to 80 lbs of gear, either in panniers (saddlebags, pronounced both PAN-yers and pan-YAYS) front and rear or in a trailer pulled behind them (the BOB being the most well-known brand). They often tour in groups for safety and companionship, and their social hub is the Adventure Cycling Association, which will help you link up with other like-minded riders going your way and sell you beautiful maps for all the major touring routes in the US, amazing maps that even tell you where the bathrooms are along your route.
Touring appeals to a distinct personality. The physical discomfort can be major. I have a touring friend who once wrote a blog about her ride across the country. For the first three days, she rode and camped in constant cold wind and rain. She loved it. And a loaded bike, or one pulling a trailer, handles like a semi. And because touring cyclists usually have several hundred or a few thousand miles to cover, they usually take the most direct route, so they end up on big, trafficky roads. It’s not for me.
Organized Group Rides
There are organizations that, for the love of the sport, organize group rides along pre-determined routes. These rides typically scribe a loop through a large geographical area, are cheap compared to professionally guided trips, often involve tent camping and outdoor cookouts for meals, cover about 60-70 miles a day, and involve a large number of riders (often in the thousands). The advantages of such a trip are 1) your gear is schlepped for you, so you ride unburdened, 2) the route is chosen by someone who knows the area, so in theory the riding is high-quality, 3) logistics like water and food stops have been taken care of for you, 4) you’ve got a lot of company, so you don’t feel at risk or lonely, and 5) there’s assistance at hand if you have a mechanical or get sick. The cost is low because the numbers are large, you don’t have to pay a guide, the tenting lifestyle costs the operators very little, and usually the organizers aren’t looking to get rich.
This is the easiest, cheapest way to sample long-range, multi-day riding, and it’s so popular that rides like Cycle Oregon fill their two thousand slots within hours of opening up the reservation window on the website. The biggest names in this field are Cycle Oregon, RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), and the Bicycle Tour of Colorado, but there’s probably at least one in every bicycle-friendly state. Many of these tours change their routes every year, so many riders are regulars, showing up year after year. The only drawbacks are 1) since the route is continuous, you spend some time riding mediocre roads to get from one good road to the next, 2) it’s a zoo, which can seriously interfere with your communing with nature, and 3) you have to do the riding every day, whether you feel like it or not, whatever the weather, and at roughly the group’s pace. Tours have SAG vehicles for gear and for emergencies, but they aren’t there to give you a lift when you get tired.
Bike Trips Outside the US
Professional Guided Tours
A big step up from the organized group rides in luxury and expense are the trips run by professional guiding companies, of which there are hundreds. Here you’ll be in a group of perhaps 20, be led by a charming and knowledgeable guide who rides along with you, and probably eat in local restaurants and sleep in quaint inns. The cost can be astronomical—several thousands of dollars a week—and the accommodations can be 5-star. But not always. If you don’t care about fine food and fine accommodations, there are budget companies where the riding is just as good. These companies do a lot of hand-holding, so if you’ve always wanted to cycle in foreign lands but were afraid of the risks, this is a great way to break the ice.
Tour companies have definite personalities. Some care only about the riding, and will ride you to death. Some (like Backroads) promise a leisurely tempo. Some care more about the food and wine than the riding. Some specialize in off-the-beaten-path lodgings and restaurants. Some stress the culture and history of the region. Some combine riding with rafting or hiking. Some welcome non-riding partners. Some are run by retired pros and offer you the chance to ride with them (and expect you to keep up). Find the company that rides with the same philosophy that you do. If you’re into relaxed tempos and gazing at the scenery and you sign on for a trip full of 80-mile, 8,000-ft-elevation-gain days, you’re going to be miserable. Companies want you to know what you’re getting into and are usually up-front about their priorities.
Some companies are huge, world-wide corporations, but running a guided cycling trip doesn’t require a lot of capital or infrastructure, so there are lots of mom and pop companies doing it, and you shouldn’t pooh-pooh them. The mom and pop live in the area, know it inside out and love it, and have lots of personal connections with owners of little restaurants and inns. Also, your group will be small, so the company can put you up in the six-room hotels and ten-table restaurants that are the beating heart of Europe. If you go with a large group, you will spend your time in big hotels and restaurants that are largely indistinguishable from American Marriotts and Red Lobsters.
The moms and pops also tend to not be in a hurry, and they’re more likely to accommodate a non-riding spouse or older rider. The best tour I ever did was with a company so small I’ve never heard of it except when a friend told me about them, a company consisting of a husband and wife and their best friend. They led a total of three tours, in the three regions where they lived (southern Spain, western Portugal, and Sussex), and they were as interested in the history and culture of the region as they were in the riding, which suited me. But small can be dangerous as well—the worst tour I ever did was run by a company consisting of one guy, recommended by a friend, who turned out to be a sociopath.
Some companies arrange everything from your departure from your local airport until your return to same. Other companies say, Show up in Lucca on such and such a day. If you’re going to Europe for the first time, the first approach makes things much easier, but it also means you can’t do anything but the tour. When I go to Europe, I want to stay a while and ride around on my own when the guided tour is over, so I always end up making my own travel reservations.
Bicycle Adventure Club
The BAC is a cycling club that exists to organize bike trips all over the world. The trips are open only to members (so you have to join, for a moderate fee, and renew every year) and are limited to small groups, and since the trips are whatever individual members want to organize and lead, the list of offered trips changes all the time. Since the club is run by members for the love of it, costs are absurdly low and the integrity is high. There is only one downside: since the trips are cheap and good, they fill rapidly, so you have to plan your big bike trip at least a year in advance. If you know what you’ll want to be doing in 12 or 18 months, BAC is the best bang for the buck in the world of guiding cycling trips.
Riding from a Base
The easiest bike trip to set up on your own is one where you fly to a central location—a city or an alpine valley—and do out-and-back day rides from your base for a week or so, then fly home. There are professional guiding companies that operate this way (typically in a valley surrounded by mountain passes), but it’s so easy you can do it yourself. The drawback is you only get to ride in one small area, but there are lots of places in Europe where that’s hardly a handicap—Sienna, Lucca, Bassano del Grappa, and anywhere in the Alps, Pyrenees, Asturias, Mallorca, Provence. Untours is a travel company (not specifically geared to cyclists) that specializes in getting you set up in an apartment in the city of your choice and turning you loose with a phone number to call in case you need assistance.
Dedicated Cycling Resorts
There are resorts that cater to cyclists. They’re always situated in locales where there is a lot of great riding, and the advantages they offer are many: routes and route maps, guides, company, local knowledge, help with the language, and, perhaps, quality rental bikes. The operators are locals, so you’re closer to the culture than on a bike tour, which may be run by Americans.
Renting a Car
You can rent a car upon arrival in a foreign country and drive from ride to ride, just like a car-based bike trip in the US. Driving in Europe is challenging but possible, thanks to GPS—don’t even consider driving without it—and Europe, while not as car-friendly as the US, does accommodate cars, even in the villages. The freedom of having both your bike and a car is unmatched, and it’s a good way to travel with a non-riding partner. I’ve done trips where my wife and I would drive to a new village every day or two, I would get up at 6 am every morning and go for a two-hour ride, then the two of us would explore our surroundings by car and foot.
You can even carry your bike box in your car from lodging to lodging, thus allowing you to fly in one airport and out another (flying “open jaw,” as it’s called). Just make sure the car is big enough. But there will inevitably come the moment when you drop off the car and have to get from the car rental company to the airport by cab, and at that point you’ll find that European cabs are usually miniscule economy cars and your bike box won’t fit anywhere inside, so you’ll need to find the rare cabbie with a) a roof rack, b) twine, and c) an adventuresome spirit that’s willing to flout the law.
On any European trip where you’re your own guide, you need a great paper map. The gold standards are Michelin road maps and Touring Club Italiano maps. They show every road in a region, and distinguishes between the major arteries (which you want to avoid when riding), the secondary roads (which you want to stay on), and the tertiary roads—the dirt and gravel roads (called in Italy the strade bianche, or “white roads”), which you want to avoid unless your bike is ready for them. Maps come in different scales, and you want the largest (most detailed) one you can get, which is usually 1:200,000 (1 cm of map represents 2K on the ground). Remember, the bigger the ratio the “smaller” the scale and the less detail you can see.
European road maps maps are too big to carry comfortably in a jersey pocket, so I photocopy the region I’m going to explore in sections, then carry the one photocopied page I need for the day’s ride in a Ziploc bag and leave the other pages in the hotel room.
If you have a smart phone, you may be tempted to plan routes and navigate using its map functions. Certainly a phone can help, especially when you get lost, but you can’t get a sense of the region and your options—the lay of the land—from a touch screen. I still work from paper.
The Credit-Card Loop
The cheapest, logistically simplest, most daring, and most freeing way to explore a region by bike is to take a bicycle, a backpack, a set of street clothes, and a credit card, fly to some starting place, and ride a loop from village to village. This is not touring, which you do on a tank of a bike with 80 lbs of gear. This is on your 16-lb road bike, with two pairs of bibs, two jerseys, one light rain jacket, one fleece pull-over, a set of lightweight travel clothes, a pair of slippers, and a credit card.
At first this sounds impossible, but I have friends who do it every summer. You can’t do it just anywhere—you need relatively warm weather, a network of small roads, and a culture with food, lodging, and an ATM every 10 miles. In other words, you need Europe.
You don’t need to plan your route and you don’t need reservations, thanks to Europe’s Tourist Information Centers. These wonderful boons to travelers are in almost every substantial village and town in Europe. You ride into town, ask where the TIC is, go there, and ask for a room for the night. They find you one and give you directions, for free. And, since rentable rooms are in every other house in Europe, they never say “Sorry, we’re full,” unless the Tour de France is in town. Michelin map in hand, you can wander at will, knowing that a village with an available room is never more than a few miles away. Glorious. Something every cyclist should do at least once..
Flying, Renting, and Shipping
If your cycling vacation takes you further from home than you can drive, you have to arrange for a bike to be there when you arrive at your destination. You have three choices.
Flying with Your Bike
Taking your own bike on an airplane has a long list of downsides. You have to buy or borrow a bike box, partially dismantle the bike, pack the bike in the box, drag the large, heavy thing around airports, usually pay a hefty fee to the airline for their inconvenience, pray the bike isn’t damaged in transit, re-assemble the bike at the other end of the flight, find a place to store the bike box during your tour, then do it all over again for the trip home. Plus, unless you’re going to schlep the box around with you as you ride, you’re committed to returning to your tour starting point, to pick up the bike box. Which means you have to arrange your riding in a loop—no small limitation.
There are ways to keep the unpleasantness to a minimum:
- Rent a hard-shell bike box from your LBS or borrow one from a friend who has one. Boxes are expensive, and you’re going to use yours at most once a year unless you’re on the racing circuit. Use the crevices in the bike box to pack other travel gear, but not your shoes or anything else your trip is ruined without, since security is not high in a bike box.
- Make sure when you make reservations at your first place of lodging after landing that they are able to store the bike box until you come for it at the end of your trip. Hotels and motels are surprisingly OK with this.
- Bum a paper bike-shipping box from your local LBS. They get them every day from bike companies, and they throw them away. Supposedly they’re protection enough.
- Take a bike that can stand the punishment of travel and is easy to repair. Consider taking a metal-frame bike. Replace anything proprietary, fragile, or otherwise hard to replace (especially any exotic wheels) with generic, easily-available parts. Outside the US, bike shops don’t stock much in the way of parts, So leave the carbon wheels and carbon bottle cages at home. When I broke a water bottle cage in Seville, a thoroughly modern city, I spent a day trekking all over town before I found another.
Tips on how to avoid airline oversize charges and get baggage handlers to baby your box are legion. Here are a few:
- Get a “cheater” bike carrier, one that doesn’t violate the airline’s maximum luggage dimensions or is designed to disguise what it is you’re carrying.
- Tell the check-in person that your bike is “athletic equipment,” “electronic equipment,” or anything that will make them like you and it.
- Write “Large-Screen TV” on the bike box.
- Fly with an airline like Southwest that has no oversize fees.
- Buy a collapsible “travel bike.” Such bikes fold up or come apart via couplers so they fit into smaller travel cases—easier to haul around and small enough to fit within the airlines’ regs on checked luggage. These bikes aren’t toys—they’re fully functional bikes. The Ritchey Breakaway and Bike Friday are the most highly regarded models.
Renting a bike at your destination is easy if you’re going with a professional tour company or staying at a cycling resort, and doable if you aren’t. There is only one drawback, and it’s a doozy: you have to ride someone else’s bike. For me, this is a deal-breaker. Other people don’t mind. If you rent, make sure the rental bike is good enough to make you happy. Tour companies typically rent heavy, indestructible, inexpensive bikes, which are convenient for them and no fun for you. Make the company be explicit about what you’ll be riding. There’s no point in spending thousands of dollars to ride legendary Alpine passes and then hate it because you’re riding a tank. I once did a tour in southern Spain where I brought my bike and everyone else rented crummy hybrids from the company. I flew up the hills while they all suffered and complained.
If you rent, take your own saddle, pedals, and perhaps stem, and carry a tape measure and a full set of measurements—seat-to-pedal distance, saddle-to-handlebar distance, drop from saddle to handlebar, seat set-back behind bottom bracket—so you can replicate your set-up on the rental bike. And if you have an on-board computer, take it and everything it works with—the mount, the sensor, and the magnet—because your rental bike almost surely won’t have a computer and you’ll want to know at least how far you’re riding and how fast.
If you want to take your own bike and don’t want to mess with airlines, companies like Bikeflights.com will ship your bike for you. Box it up and they’ll pick it up at your house and deliver it anywhere. The word is, it works well. It’s attractively cheap within the US, but prohibitively expensive if you’re going to Europe. When I tried to ship my bike to Italy, Bikeflights’ rate was slightly less than what the bike sold for.
Things to Know About Europe
Don’t assume you can pay your bills with credit cards or dollars. Most of rural Europe, where you’ll want to be, runs on cash and the national currency. The more off the beaten path you are, the more this is true, because the economies are black (locals don’t report income to the tax people). But there are ATM’s everywhere, so you can always get the cash you need. Make sure your debit cards work in Europe before you go, carry cards from two different companies, and get as much cash as you can manage every time you use an ATM, because there is usually a flat fee irrespective of the amount of the withdrawal.
Despite what people tell you, not everyone in Europe speaks English, and the most interesting people are the ones who don’t. And the ones most likely to not speak English are the governmental employees (postal workers and such), with whom you sometimes must converse. So know some conversational version of the national language or expect to do a lot of miming. Speaking the local tongue is where the fun is anyway. My memories of conversing in the local language rank up there with my memories of the cycling. No one ever laughed at me or got offended because I wasn’t saying it right. Electronic translation apps make speaking foreign languages easier every day, but they mean you’re staring at your phone instead of making eye contact.
If you find learning foreign languages intimidating, here’s an easy method:
- Make a list of everything you figure you’re going to want to say (it’s a surprisingly short list).
- Use a translation website to translate the list into the local language.
- Read the list into a recording on your phone. Read a sentence in English, wait 10 seconds to give yourself time to say it in the other language, then read it in the other language.
- Listen to the recording every day for a month.
This is much more efficient than working with a language-learning program, because such programs don’t know what you will want to talk about and so will try to teach you stuff you won’t use—car repair, dating, liquor (if you don’t drink), and so on—and will not teach you stuff you need. I never saw an Italian language program that taught me how to say La mia gomma ha bisogno di aria (“My tire needs air”), but I knew I’d need it so it was in my list.
European roads aren’t well-signed. They have names and numbers like American roads, but typically that information isn’t posted on road signs anywhere. Instead, you get town names at intersections: “Lucca” and an arrow. This is less helpful than at first appears, because there may be several routes to Lucca from a given intersection. I remember riding to a four-way intersection in Italy and seeing signs reading “Pisa (this way)” in all three of the new directions.
Don’t expect locals to know where you are. They know how to get around, but they don’t know what any of the local roads is named. So don’t ask “Is this Road 84?” Ask, “Will this road take me to Nice?”
Bike theft isn’t the problem in Europe that it is in America. When I tour in Europe, I don’t carry a bike lock. But I’m not leaving my bike alone in cities. If I was going to park my bike in Amsterdam and walk around, I’d carry a lock. Any place of lodging will have facilities for storing your bike securely.
Americans have a lot of false notions about the European temperament. You aren’t going to be welcomed as a friend. You aren’t going to be invited to have dinner with the family. You aren’t going to be loved because you’re a cyclist. Yes, cycling is a much bigger sport in Europe than in America, and you won’t meet the outright hostility that cyclists often encounter from motorists in America, but you’re just ordinary to them, and Europeans generally have a strong sense of privacy, theirs and yours. They will leave you alone unless you invite them in. The more rural you get, the more this is true. A courteous, cool distance is what I encountered throughout Northern Italy and Spain. Only in southern Italy will your stereotypes be acted out.
Americans are often told that Europeans don’t like Americans. This is not true. Europeans don’t like loud, obnoxious, pushy, vulgar people who find local customs inconvenient and who can’t be bothered to learn how to say “hello” in the local language. Just don’t be those things and they’ll like you fine. Adopting a touch of formality never hurts—in France I would always say “Bonjour, Madame” to the store clerk instead of just “Bonjour,” and, while it was hardly obligatory, it invariably earned a big smile.
By far the friendliest, most outgoing, funny people I’ve met in Europe are the French, despite their reputation. They were also the only people who applauded my attempts to speak their language, despite their reputation.
Food is problematic in Europe for cyclists. Europe’s justly famous cuisine is built around sit-down meals that are glacially slow, expensive, and served only at conventional mealtimes. Most Spanish restaurants close after lunch and don’t open for dinner until 8 pm, for instance. Cyclists need to snack and graze and keep riding. Europeans do not snack. All forms of convenience food—fast food, energy bars, delis—are hard to find. Snack food in a European cafe is usually delicious, toxic fluff—a pastry, typically. Protein sources are particularly rare. Even a decent sandwich is a rare thing, since Europe thinks a sandwich is two pieces of bread with cheese and/or salame in the middle—better than nothing, but slim pickings to us. You’ll probably end up eating out of grocery stores, which means bread, salame, cheese, and fruit. Healthy diets or specialty diets like gluten-free are hard to stick to, since the four European food groups are fat, sugar, white-flour bread, and coffee. Breakfast is an especial problem, since Europeans think breakfast is coffee, juice, and a roll (and charge a lot of money for it). Despite the space and weight penalty, I try to bring energy bars and protein powders from home. One bright spot in Italian cities is the tavola calda, the “hot table,” which is their version of our delicatessen. There you can order a pint of pasta salad and a piece or two of cooked chicken. By the way, that Italian sandwich is called a panino, not a panini—panini is the plural, “sandwiches,” like spaghetti (“little strings”).
People love to tell you how wonderful the European train system is. Indeed, you can ride with your bike easily and efficiently on trains in Europe, and you can get a Eurail Pass to save some money if you’re going to do a lot of it. But the trains only travel on major corridors between large population centers, so they won’t go to the small towns and villages where you’re probably most interested in riding. Expect to be dropped in the center of a city and have to ride to the good riding. It’s common to find that trains don’t go within 50 miles of where you want to ride.
Europe is a foreign culture, which means things work differently there than they do here. So you need a guide, a source that explains how you buy a train ticket or address a waiter (don’t call him “garçon”—he isn’t a “boy”). The best source I know for such information are Rick Steves guidebooks, which all have excellent general-information introductions.