Advice for a New Long-Distance Bicycle Tourist

Cycling through vino in France

This post is for the person dreaming of hopping on a bicycle and embarking on a self-powered journey. All you need are limbs for propulsion, a bike to haul gear, and a dash of audacity.

The hardest advice for me to follow is my own, but the below is rooted in my personal cycle touring experience. Prior to last summer, I’d done two weekend cycle tour jaunts. Then we ripped off the training wheel Band-Aid and rode 4,000 miles through the U.S. in 2014. I’m sure a few of our friends wondered whether we’d make it. Heck, we wondered if we’d make it. Yet we survived (and enjoyed) our trip. Now here we are, nine countries into a bike tour through Europe, with many miles and lessons picked up up along the way.

Crossing into France from Germany on the Euro Velo 5 bike route.

Crossing into France from Germany on the Euro Velo 5 bike route.

Bike touring is a wild, wonderful way to travel, and everyone’s experience is different. Take whichever nuggets of advice speak to you and ignore the rest. May tailwinds find you wherever you pedal.

    • You don’t need a special bike. Don’t let lack of a shiny, brand-new touring setup stop you from hitting the road. You can tour on almost any bike. A $100 yard sale bike or $4,000 titanium rig both have two wheels. Same thing for tents, stoves, sleeping bags and pads; you don’t need the ultra-light version. Logistics are quite simple. Just get out there and pedal. As a bonus, the heavier the gear, the more calories you burn and the more you get to eat.
    • Say yes to invitations. Always accept when someone invites you to join them for a meal or to stay at their home. (Unless they’re wearing a hockey mask and carrying a running chainsaw.) The best parts of touring include unplanned, serendipitous meetings with people. I’d never have flown in a seaplane in New York if shaking my head was my reaction to an invitation.
    • It’s your trip, so ride only as much as you desire. That century you want to crank out for bragging rights? It only matters to you. Nobody cares how quickly you finish the tour, the average number of miles per day, or the total elevation ridden. (Well, nobody except your addicted-to-Crossfit friend who needs NUMBERS, damn it, to wrap their head around any accomplishment.) But everyone else? They want to know the craziest and coolest places or people that you met along the way. How the trip made you feel. Which vista made your heart sing, and maybe a tale of the wettest, worst day on the road. But the mileage? Thirty per day is fine, and so is 100. Take what feels good and go with that. Feel free to curse under your breath when a 23 year old and his friend rip by you like drag racers. Their speed, and your plodding uphill grind, are both a-ok.
      Villages along an old canal
    • Accept that not everyone identifies with what you’re doing. As my uncle Steven respectfully commented after we’d ridden to Chicago, “I think you’re insane!” Also, people who don’t tour have no idea why you’re doing it, but they’ll have a story about another cycle tourist doing something way cooler than you such as riding a vintage Big Wheel around the world while building orphanages along the way. Accept that the random dude in Indiana with a story to tell isn’t trying to trump your experience; he’s merely looking for common ground. Laugh and go with it.
    • Eat real food. Lots of it. Hunger will become an annoying companion who taps you on the shoulder every hour – “just sayin’ heyyyy.” Try to consume healthy whole foods and not just Poptarts. Your body is working hard and good food is important. I am amazed how many grocery stores in the middle of nowhere have ingredients for a crisp, hearty salad. Feel free to eat your body weight in chocolate here and there too.

      Chelsea's vegan enchiladas plus wine from the French region of Alsatia.

      Chelsea’s vegan enchiladas plus wine from the French region of Alsace.

    • Your butt is going to hurt from all the hours grinding on a saddle. Get over your pride early and grease up. Vasoline works great and you can find it in any gas station. Learn to apply lube discreetly, such as by the side of a busy highway at rush hour with your back turned to the road. Most policeman have bigger fish to fry than indecent public self-groping.
    • Pack light, but bring a couple comfort items. A few luxuries from home go a long way. Bring a Kindle reader, a journal, coffee making equipment or tech to stay connected. I recommend leaving your teddy bear at home unless he’s the trip mascot, and certainly if you won him at the county fair and he outweighs your bike.
    • Audiobooks and podcasts will preserve your sanity on the long, tough days. Anyone who claims they don’t need these magical devices are too Zen to need a bike (levitation is faster for travel) or haven’t tried them yet. I borrow books digitally from the library, and podcasts are always free.
    • Keep things in perspective as shit goes awry. Travel opens you up to life’s randomness; bicycle touring doubly so. Weather, be it rain, heat, cold, or wind. Hills. Flat tires. Closed grocery stores from 2-5 (seriously Europe?). Hosts cancelling at the last minute. Some days will go to plan, and others will pour rain and your bike will tip over while you’re getting directions, carefully distributing all your electronics into a puddle. Accept that best-laid intentions are mere dandelion puffs in a stiff breeze, and also that swearing loudly in a foreign land makes you look like a moron. You are lucky enough to bike tour. Try to appreciate it, even when all you want to do is kick your bike into a ditch and stick your thumb out to hitchhike.

      The worst days are canceled by brilliant cities like Colmar, France.

      The worst days are canceled by brilliant cities like Colmar, France.

    • People want to help you. They’ll wonder what the heck you’re doing riding a bicycle in the middle of nowhere – “what’d you do, get a DUI?” – but someone you’d never talk to in your hometown will be your champion. They’ll buy you a burrito in a restaurant in Valentine, Nebraska or offer a spare tube for a flat repair in Los Angeles. Even the guy with an old beater truck plastered with NoBama stickers will rescue you when bike trouble occurs, not to mention break out his stash of prized bourbon later that evening.
    • None of your friends will have any idea where you are or how hard that day in the wind/rain/sun/hailstones felt. Know they love you and support your trip, but accept that life goes on in your absence and that you will be disconnected from the day-to-day of many people in your life. Send goofy videos of you escaping from a thunderstorm, or sing off-key happy birthday messages, but don’t expect anyone to catch every post. And don’t take it personally when people you expected to follow along have no desire to keep track of you.

      The day-to-day of touring. This wonderful, cool fountain near the Swiss border in France felt delightful.

      The day-to-day of touring. This wonderful, cool fountain near the Swiss border in France felt delightful.

    • Send your mom a note whenever you can letting her know you’re ok. She’ll love it.
    • Embrace safety. Endorse your inner cyborg and get a helmet or bar-end mirror to keep track of your riding partner and, more importantly, texting teenagers. You don’t look cool in Spandex anyway. I feel naked on a bike without one. Oh, and get a bell or horn for your bike. Yelling “on your left” invariably makes people step into your path, especially when you don’t speak the language. Everyone knows what a bell means.

      Car-free bike routes are absolutely the best.

      Car-free bike routes like this one in France are fantastic.

    • This isn’t a beach vacation. Bike touring is physically and emotionally challenging. Some day whip by like summer vacations on a Slip-N-Slide, while others drag like a Saturday spent taking the SAT’s. On the toughest days, make sure to stop to run through a sprinkler or goof around on a random piece of playground equipment. Pull over to moo at cute baby cows or play fetch with a dog at a picnic area. There’s no hurry.
    • Cherish your days off. Unless you are aiming to win Race Across America, don’t ride every day. Enjoy and explore a cool city with new friends. Sit around. Go for a run and see if your muscles remember what not biking feels like. Read a book. Call a friend or write a blog post. The more I cycle tour, the better I appreciate days to relax and absorb a place at a slower speed.

There are 237 excuses for staying put. Careers. Student loans. Love interests. Family. Pets. Societal norms. Fear. All of that is real, but in a decade, you’ll remember and cherish the memories of pedaling the world and expanding your horizons.

Your current life can probably pause, but the new you itching to break out, to have an adventure, won’t wait forever. Feed the explorer inside you before it calcifies and forgets how to run wild. Let that explorer bellow like a bull moose as you sweep down a mountain pass.

Just go. No reason needed other than your desire to wander. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”

The imposing, giant Strasbourg cathedral.

The imposing, giant Strasbourg cathedral.

We happened to catch the 1,000 year millennial of the Strasbourg cathedral. This light show detailed each statue and window on the enormous cathedral.

We happened to catch the 1,000 year millennial of the cathedral. This light show detailed each statue and window on the enormous building.