The best way to see any country in my opinion is by bicycle. On bus tours, all you see is hordes of tourists, tourist attractions, and souvenir shops filled with tacky gee-gaws made in China. On a bicycle you can get away from the tourists on busses and trains and get into countryside is where you find the real country and the real people are. Not only that, with bicycle touring you get awesome exercise!
What it takes to be a great bicycle tourist
A lot of people are afraid to leave the country for their first time. They dont know the language, they know nothing, but don’t worry because that is what your guides are there for! There are only two requirements to be a successful bike tourist. First is that you have a sense of adventure because problems WILL happen and you need to be able laugh at them. The second requirement is that you have to be flexible. They do things different outside the USA, thats why you are traveling – so you can experience a different lifestyle. If you need Cheerios for breakfast, a PB&J sandwich for lunch, and a hamburger for dinner then bike touring is not for you. If you need to know your precise bike route in advance, along with the terrain profile then bike touring is not for you. The problem is that road conditions change weekly or daily and your guides will change the route at the last minute to give you the best experience. To be a great bike tourist you need to relax and let your guides do what you are paying them for. Laugh and have a great time!
Physical conditioning for bike touring
To do solo, unsupported bike touring you have to be VERY fit because you are going to be dragging a fully loaded 100 pound bike up 8% grades for hours on end. On the other hand, group bike tours accomodate all levels of cyclists and most tour companies will rate the trip on its difficulty. If in doubt, ask them so your expectations are set properly. Its just as annoying to be an advanced cyclist and only be allowed to bike 40km a day as it is to be a beginning cyclist and be faced with hot, dusty, steep climbs 8 hours a day. Regardless of the rating of the trip, you need to be in reasonable biking shape so make sure that in the 3 months before your tour, you are biking similar distances that will be expected on the tour. Dont stress though, remember the tour will have a SAG wagon should a day be too tough for you.
When talk turns to interatinoal travel, the first thing that most Americans think is “OMG, its SO dangerous in that country”. Our “news” here in America is designed to be sensational and to scare people because scared people watch longer and see more commercials. Yes, there was a terrible terrorist attack in Sri Lanka the week after I left the country but lets put that in perspective by looking at the homicide rate in various countries that I have visited recently:
Ways to do bicycle touring
I did my first bike tour in the Black Forrest region of Germany in 1989, that was back before GPS, smart phones, or tablets. I had to navigate with a paper map and a compass and was immediately hooked. That first trip I biked from youth hostel to youth hostel but since then have branched out to use camping, hotels, and airBnB for accommodations as well. Since that time I have done countless multi-week bike treks in Europe and Asia as well as one in Australia. I have learned a lot about bike touring in this 30 years and my hope with this page is to help you choose an awesome first trip so that you too will be hooked on the coolest thing on the planet. Below I will show you two ways to do multi-week bike treks: group tours and solo adventures. I actually use both, lately I have done one of each every year.
The best way to get started with bike touring is a group tour. The beauty of this is that you can go by yourself – just choose a country, book a tour, and go. A typical tour just requires that you show up with your biking shorts and a small suitcase. They provide the bikes and a SAG wagon (Support and Gear). This is a vehicle that follows you around that carries your suitcase, spare parts, and has space to toss your bike should you become too tired to continue the days ride. A typical tour will provide all your snacks and meals thru the day as well as all the accommodations. If there are things that are not provided, they do a good job of making this clear. If there is a rest day, its common that meals on that day are on your own.
Group tours can be a blast. They are a great place to meet other like minded cyclists and strike up friendships that can last a lifetime. A group tour in Borneo is where I met an Australian couple that I still cycle with to this day. Group tours are not for everyone though. Remember this is a GROUP tour, not a private tour. The way it typically works is that their will be one guide at the front leading the way and another at the back (the sweep) making sure that nobody gets left behind. To keep people from getting lost, the guide will require that the entire group stop at certain forks in the road for a snack break and rest stop to allow the slow bikers to catch up so everyone can be shown the right way to go. This actually works quite well. The fast riders end up zipping thru the landscape but spend a lot more time at the rest areas and the slow riders dont get so much time at the rest stops. If they are too tired or out of shape to keep up the pace (rarely happens) then they can opt to ride the SAG wagon part of the way. Its really a nice system.
There is a down side to group tours that I actually view as a benefit. On every tour there is one problem person. The funny thing is that years or decades later you forget all the really nice people but still get belly laughs about the difficult people. Rejoice in these clueless high maintenance people knowing you will treasure their memory forever.
I mentioned above that I do group tours as well as solo tours and there is a good reason for this. In Europe where bike roads have been well established for literally hundreds of years, biking in other countries is not yet well established and a good bike road to bike on this week becomes a dangerous speedway for cars the next. Local guides on these group trips know all the new routes and can literally make the difference between a stressful, dangerous, and joyless ride into a euphoric, mind blowing ride. Many times on my China tours I have had guides break from the pre-determined route to take us on beautiful new concrete roads thru the countryside that had literally been poured the week before and were completely void of car traffic. A lot of Americans will scoff and this and say, “just look at Google Maps”! Good luck with that, Google is not allowed in China 🙂 Anyway, that is why I do group tours anytime I bike outside of Europe.
How to choose a group bike tour
I have traveled with many tour companies and on every continent except Africa and Antartica. Each tour company has a different niche. Some like Backroads, who I have never used, are very expensive and pampering. Others like RedSpokes, who I have travelled several times with, cater more to the budget minded traveller who gets a thrill staying in a bamboo hut now and then without running water or electricity. Then there are companies in the middle like Bike Asia, who I have taken two great trips with. With Bike Asia I did China and also Sri Lanka.
Americans have very limited vacation and are also typically limited in what seasons they are allowed to take vacations. Often, the time of year you travel will determine where you can go. If you really want to bike in Borneo but you cant find a tour the month you want to visit there is a VERY good reason – its because its monsoon season or its 10,000 degrees with 1000% humidity. Simply browse the offereings of the various bike tour companies and see what tours are offered in the time when you plan on taking your vacation.
There are two approaches to your first group bike tour. The first is to make the first tour as easy as possible. For this, you choose a destination country that is relatively similar to USA. For example, you can do a bike tour in England or maybe France and then choose a very pampering style tour company like Backroads. The other approach is the one I would recommend. Just like in fitness, shock your system. Go for it and push your comfort zone. If you have never left America before then do it with a bang – choose China. China is an amazing and vibrant country and is about as different from America as you can get – a perfect first experience! If you do choose this shock and awe approach, I strongly recommend Bike Asia tours as I have taken two and found them to be 5/5 stars.
Solo Bike Touring
Solo bike touring is an adventure on a new level. By solo bike touring I mean a trip where you plan every aspect yourself, carry your own gear, and are completely self sufficient. This kind of trip is truly liberating because there are few times in life when you can focus on just one important task – getting from point A to point B. There are many challenges and logistical issues to solve on a trip like this but that is what makes it so incredible. Its like the Wild West of two centuries ago in America. There is nobody to coddle you, either you sink or you swim so you better have your act together. There are two types of bike touring. Hardcore folks camp every night so they need to carry all their camping gear. This kind of self-reliance is the most liberating of all, and the cheapest – you can travel like this for months on end for just the price of groceries in the store. The problem is that it can get real old. I have a friend at Sweat4health who bikes like this and a quote from him is that “Gas stations become your hotel”. What he meant by this is that when you camp illegally in Europe, there is often no water so you just have to plot into your tent and bag dirty. To get cleaned up, you use the bathroom sinks and soap at gas stations to scrub yourself clean. This kind of travel sounds wonderful … until you wake up the third morning in a row to pouring rain.
I do often travel with sleeping bag and tent, but as a backup plan, not a primary plan. What often happens when biking on a trip like this is that after a few hours riding you realize your progress is not nearly what you hoped and that you will not make your destination. You have a choice of stopping in the town you are in now OR biking 8 more hours until 10pm when its dark because there are no hotels in-between. Camping gear gives you flexibility.
Solo bike touring – booking or not
When you are solo bike touring the big question is always – do you book all your hotels in advance or not? If you book your hotels in advance, you know you have a place to stay despite it being high season but this comes with a down side – you lose all flexibility. If you pass a really cool village and see a room to rent you cant stop because you have already paid for a hotel in the next town. If you have brutal headwinds and pouring rain – tough, you need to ride that 100 miles to get to the hotel you have paid for. When I do this type of trip planning, I ALWAYS over commit and end up biking 12-15 hour days. If you do this kind of trip, do what I say and not what I do – Plan days with a MAXIMUM of 80km.
The other approach is to make no hotel reservations. Biking in Europe is usally done in summer when its really hard to find a hotel after 1pm and with this kind of touring you can end up waste a lot of time looking for places to stay BUT you get ultimate flexiblity. If you do this kind of biking, I strongly recommend you bring camping gear as a backup plan. A smart phone with the AirBnB app has revolutionized this kind of travel. Although the hotels are booked months in advance, its much easier to find an airBnB room to rent on short notice.
Solo bike touring – equipment
I have been doing this a long time. Getting a bike to do a solo tour is a pain in the butt – there is no perfect way. Remember though I am talking about solo touring here. When you do a group tour they take care of this stuff for you and I have always had great bikes when doing group tours. On a solo bike tour, you can just bring your cycling shorts and rent a bike. Sounds great but exactly how many days do you want to waste shopping around town for a bike that fits you? You can simply take your bike with you in a cardboard box. I did this my first trip back in 1988 and it actually worked really well. I took an old mountain bike and planned on just leaving it in Europe after the trip to avoid the expensive bike-box charge from the airline on the return flight. The third way to get your bike to Europe is the way I have been using for 25 years now – travel bikes. A travel bike is a bike you can put into a standard sized airline luggage without extra charge. The rule is that height + width + depth has to be less than 62″. I have owned two Bike Friday New World Tourist bicycles and a Co-Motion Americano which is my current travel bike. Please read my foldable bike buyers guide. Again, there is no perfect solution. Packing these bikes safely into a standard sized suitcase takes me 4-6 hours and requires some basic bike mechanic skills. As far as I know, there are no bikes available that quickly and easily fit into an airline suitcase without tools.
Solo Bike Touring – choosing routes
Solo Bike Touring – navigation