What I’ve Learned Cycle Touring 7,000 Miles on a Vegan Diet

Pedaling up Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park cycle touring

This post first appeared here on Mind Body Green.

Over the past two summers, Chelsea and I have cycled 7,000 miles through 14 countries. No sag wagon, no designated route—just leg power, our bikes, gear, and desire for adventure.

During our travels, we accept local advice and hospitality, wake up open to each day’s surprises, and wing it whenever possible. But one thing we are always adamantly consistent about is our food. For ethical, health, and environmental reasons, we choose not to eat any animal products.

The bike tours were challenging, eye-opening, fantastic—a full range of emotions every day. From headwinds to breathtaking views to searing heat to idyllic European villages to crumbling rural towns, we pedaled through it all. Navigating cobblestone cycle paths in France was a pain; finding great vegan food while burning 5,000 calories per day proved to be a simple aspect of the trip.

Here’s what thousands of miles and a couple million pedal strokes of cycle touring on a vegan diet has taught me:

Few people are surprised about your food choices

Special diets are everywhere now, and most people know someone on one. “Oh, my cousin is gluten-free” or “my brother eats Paleo” was a common refrain. Tiny cafés in Nebraska (not exactly a vegan stronghold) easily accommodated our needs by piling vegetables on hash browns.

Getting enough protein is not an issue

Even biking 50 to 80 miles per day, my body repaired itself and built muscle. I trimmed fat, but my leg muscles grew. I even added muscle to my upper body by doing daily upper-body workouts. When people ask me where I get my protein, I can honestly say that I simply eat lots of plants. No powders, no supplements—just real food. I’m more concerned about fiber—only 3 percent of people eat enough each day, versus 97 percent of people who get enough protein.

Just over the pass in Glacier National Park.

My energy levels were firing

Unlike the days when I’d eat a giant sandwich with cheese and meat and sink into an afternoon stupor, plants don’t bog down my body. A veggie burrito or big salad crafted from ingredients in any grocery store keeps my system cranking. I was biking eight hours a day and still had energy to do push-ups each night.

Recovery was super fast

I rebounded and recovered quickly from physical efforts that would have previously sidelined me for a couple of days. Since a plant-based diet leads to lower inflammation, faster recovery from athletic events or workouts is an added bonus.

Many top athletes are vegan

I was attracted to a vegan lifestyle by the potential health benefits. Badass vegan athletes like UFC fighter Mac Danzig, ultra-marathoners like Scott Jurek, and triathletes like Rich Roll inspired me to give it a shot. While I wasn’t cranking out record-smashing 100-mile runs or choke-holds, I noticed an increase in performance.

Seeing and smelling animal feedlots opened my eyes to the plight of animals

Biking past stinking feedlots in the rolling hills of Iowa and Austria was gnarly. Getting buzzed by animal transport trucks on their way to slaughterhouses reinforced my desire to completely opt out of animal agriculture.

The excellent bike paths of Slovenia with the Julian Alps in the background.

Western Europe is a plant eater’s paradise

Countries like Belgium, Spain, and Germany are years ahead of the U.S. in terms of vegan awareness and availability of plant-based alternatives. Grocery stores stock inexpensive organic produce, and almost every restaurant server knew the word vegan, even in rural villages. Big cities are a plant-eater’s promised land—Prague has 26 vegetarian restaurants!

We didn’t have to worry about refrigerating food

This is a small thing only a cycle tourist will appreciate. When we were pedaling through the middle of nowhere for days at a time, unspoiled food was a big deal.

Both Europe and the United States grow amazing amounts of corn and soy

I knew the Midwest U.S. was a breadbasket. It was a surprise to discover the same in Europe, where much of the countryside is used for crop production. Between the two, we spent literally two months cycling past fields of corn and soy—90 percent of it aimed for animal consumption.

Traveling made us vegan ambassadors

In some areas, we were the first vegans anyone had met. “Wait, no cheese on your pizza?” People were incredibly nice and also intrigued by our food choices. Many asked questions. Our goal was to be knowledgeable and speak from a place of conviction (animal rights) or data (health and environmental facts). The biggest thing? To be genuinely friendly and meet people at their comfort level.

Touring through the Adirondack Mountains of New York on a perfect fall day.

After thousands of miles of cycle touring, our belief in a vegan lifestyle has never been stronger. Few choices affect personal health, the environment, and animal welfare as much as opting out of animal agriculture does. Meat and dairy consumption is declining, restaurants are increasingly catering to vegans, and vegan alternatives like Beyond Meat are flourishing. Traveling as a vegetarian or vegan will only get easier.

As Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary says, “This lifestyle is not about deprivation; it’s about living inspired.” I encourage people to check out movements like Meatless Mondays or the 30-Day Vegan Challenge. See how your body feels and adopt what works for you. Then get out there on your bike and start training for your next (or first) bike tour.

I plan on pedaling thousands more miles as a vegan, so maybe I’ll see you out there!

9 replies
  1. Eric Chatham
    Eric Chatham says:

    Hi! I am interested in learning more about eating vegan on a bike tour. I like the part about recovery and energy, two things I struggle with. Do you have any books to recommend, or did you just jump in with trial and error?

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Hey Eric!

      Here are a few of my favorite resources.

      Books: Brendan Brazier’s Thrive – great recipes for energy bars from a badass triathlete
      Book: Dr. Michael Gregor’s How Not to Die
      Blogs: veganrd.com – this woman is very knowledgeable about many things.
      nomeatathlete.com – solid facts about being an athlete on a vegan diet.
      nutritionfacts.org – Dr. Gregor and his team aren’t funded by any monied interests (vegan, meat, or otherwise). He combs through huge amounts of studies and I trust him more than any other physician out there. He doesn’t take a salary or make any money from his venture.

      General Idea:

      Frankly, I don’t worry at all about protein, calories, or any of the macronutrient things. I just try to eat big quantities of fruit, nuts (trail mix is great), and vegetables as the base, with grains as a good base. I don’t eat bread very often, but am not afraid of a tortilla wrapped around a ton of grub.

      The big quantities thing is essential: you need to eat bigger portions when you aren’t eat super-calorie dense meat and cheese. The upside is that your body processes plants more effectively, which results in feeling better after a meal instead of that water-logged feeling after a big meal.

      Recipes

      For recipes on tour, check out our friend Jen and Dave’s great touring blog. Here’s their recipes page: http://longhaultrekkers.com/category/recipe/ They’ve cycled all the way through Europe (Norway to Turkey) and then flew to the southern tip of Patagonia and are biking north to Portland, Oregon. Oh yeah, WITH THEIR DOG. Whoa.

      Go-To Meals on Tour

      Some of our go-tos for simplicity are: huge salads (buy ingredients at the grocery store), no-cheese pizza with all the vegetables you can find (even the midwest has pizza everywhere!), and stir-fry type dishes.

      Hope that helps anyone looking for specifics. Here’s to touring on a vegan diet – you can do it!

      Reply
  2. Jen
    Jen says:

    Oh man, if I ever doubt my vegan choices, all we have to do is cycle past a herd of crying cows at a feed lot. It’s such an awful sound. We’ve loved cycle touring as vegans (hey, thanks, guys!). Like you, we feel that we recover faster and can go longer each day. Sure, I’ll feel sore at the end of the day, but nothing like my days of an omnivore diet.

    In our experience, many people/cultures do not understand what veganism means. In many places, we’ve found that there is not real distinction between vegan and vegetarian in their language, and even though we show them the handy dandy vegan passport, they still think we eat eggs. In a lot of places we’ve traveled, namely the Balkans and South America, it gives us the opportunity to explain what we eat and help them better understand our diet.

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Awesome insight! You can write a totally different take on vegan cycle touring since you’ve been in places we have not. In much more trying circumstances! I admire you sticking to a vegan diet in the hinterlands of Patagonia. HIGH FIVE.

      Reply
  3. Michael Patrick
    Michael Patrick says:

    Nice read. Thanks. I’m about to continue my worldly bike tour again. Thinking about ditching the stove. Did you travel with a stove? Wondering if a vegan diet can be accomplished without being bored with non cooked meals. What percentage of your meals could be prepare without cooking?
    Thanks,
    Michel

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Good for you! I’d say a vegan diet can definitely be done without a) being bored and b) a stove. We rarrrrely used ours and stuck with lots of salads, burritos, and other cold food…but then again, it was mid-summer! We also ate out when it made sense as a way to break things up. Messkitmaven.com is a good resource (Jen is a good friend), though she cooks more than we did. Enjoy your trip!

      Reply
  4. Kaia
    Kaia says:

    This is great news for me, I’d been wondering about maintaining a vegan diet while travelling. I’d be interested to see the challenges that come from cycling through regions like Kyrgyzstan!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      It certainly gets more interesting in countries that aren’t as developed! That said, people seem to make it happen, though I think nutrition might suffer a bit if there are zero fruits and vegetables around. Then again, animal products don’t do much in the positive for us anyway according to oh-so-many studies. Good luck in your travels!

      Reply

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