Hola! In case you missed it, during April and May, we’re pedaling a big loop around Spain and Portugal.
Prepping for our trip, I realized only 1.6% of my friends know what the heck bike touring is all about. From the basic to the more elaborate, questions poured in. And SO, here is my handy-dandy primer for anyone wondering how this bike touring thing works!
Hannnnng on. What the heck IS bike touring?
Three ingredients: you, your stuff and a bicycle. Add pedal power.
Go places. Meet people. Eat SO much food to fuel more pedaling. Bike, eat, handwash laundry in the sink, sleep, repeat. Hate headwinds, always. Welcome to bike touring!
Nuances and approaches abound. Everyone has an opinion about the best way, but you can do it on a $5,000 bike with custom gear or a $100 bike wearing a ratty backpack. Either way, it’s phenomenal way to see the world.
Bike touring sounds hard. Why do you do it?
In my early 20s, I traveled to 30 odd countries in a year, ticking them off as “been there” even for a lone day in Latvia or a night in Poland. I saw most of it from a train or bus window.
These days, I prefer to see less and (hopefully) experience more. Bike touring exposes us to the terrain, weather (good and bad), smells, sounds, people, animals and other facets of life that we’re insulated from while traveling by plane, train, bus or car. Bees buzzing in an orange grove or a pretty bird at a lunch spot come to mind from the last two days.
The pace is perfect – juuust fast enough to cover ground, but slow enough to pause in places you’d otherwise blow through in a car. As a bonus, it’s easier to visit small villages or rural areas while biking compared to train or plane travel. In Europe, most people hit big cities – Paris, London, Vienna – and miss the less touristy zones that offer a lot. I prefer fabulous places like Alcala del Jucar, a pueblo with houses built into the cliffs that looks like Cinque Terra, but didn’t have a single foreign tourist staying there.
Don’t you get tired/bored/wet/a sore butt?
All of it. Frequently all in one day!
The ups and downs are starker with bike touring relative to motorized travel. You REALLY appreciate the big meal after a long day on the bike; the sun shines oh-so-sweetly after a couple hours pedaling in the rain. Fresh-squeezed OJ is THE BEST. And ohhhh man does a shower and a bed feel good after 8 hours cranking into a headwind. It’s all about contrast. (Did I mention I hate headwinds, those soul-sucking, #%!$#% creations del Diablo.)
Contrary to the above, it’s not all a sufferfest either. Most days feature beautiful landscapes, generous and friendly people, and a sense of adventure I just don’t get by zipping down the highway in a metal canister. “Earning your turns” in backcountry skiing or mountain biking: doing hard work makes the sense of accomplishment sharper and sweeter.
Or at least this is what cycle tourists will tell you… Maybe we’re lying?
What’s your route?
We flew into Barcelona and are riding a clockwise loop around Spain and Portugal. Here’s my super rough route on Google Maps, which I created more for figuring out our necessary mileage to ride the entire loop. In no way does this show actual roads we are riding; I merely plugged in big cities along our route and will dial things in a day or two out (or on the fly) during our journey using the app Komoot (see below under navigation).
If you want to follow each day, I’m posting our rides on Strava. Here’s my profile.
How far do you ride each day? How long does that take?
For this trip, we’re taking it relatively easy and aiming for 40-50 miles per day. On past tours, 50-70 mile days were common. However, Spain is HILLY and we’ll find ourselves on some crazy-ass goat paths at times, so that’s part of my rationale for mileage.
We’re also planning to do more hiking, running, and exploring cool Spanish cities on this trip to mix it up. We average ~8-10 mph (depending on terrain) when we’re moving, so a 50 mile day is ~6 hours of pedaling, plus 2-3 hours during the day of off-bike time (meal stops, food shopping, resting, peeing in fields). Bike, eat, sleep… There’s a reason I hadn’t blogged on the trip yet!
What if your bike breaks?
There’s always something with this many miles on a bike! I put together a comprehensive kit and we’re prepared for many mechanical issues (brakes, flat tires, spokes, derailleur adjustments, and broken racks). Beyond that, it’s up to the kindness of strangers to get us to a bike shop!
Are you working while you travel?
Yup! Per our usual, this isn’t a “vacation” so much as traveling while working. Europe is nice because the 9 hour time difference allows me to enjoy the day and then I check on things in the evening. Having a cell plan makes it easy to still explore cities without being tethered to a computer every night.
How do you navigate?
By the seat of our pants! We don’t plan ahead, so it’s a mix of looking at low-traffic roads on maps (hard copy or online). For past tours, I’ve used a variety of tech and paper maps. This time, I’m using the GREAT app Komoot and won’t buy any paper maps.
Do you listen to music, podcasts or audiobooks?
YES. Believe it or not, sometimes biking all day can get boring. (Shocker!) Some people love to disconnect completely while traveling and let their thoughts run rampant. I enjoy that, and it’s also wonderful to disappear into an audiobook or podcast interview during a bruiser climb over a steep pass or into h#@dw!nds.
How do you deal with different riding paces?
Patience and love! I also carry way more weight to even things out. Downhill, Chelsea zooms along. If there’s a headwind, we cruise at the same pace if she drafts off me. On big climbs, I wait at the top. 🙂 When it gets REALLY steep, I ride ahead, then run back down and push her bike uphill. #supportivespouse
Where do you stay?
A mix of three options: camping, hotels/various guesthouses, and an amazing hosting service called Warmshowers (like couchsurfing, but for touring cyclists). It usually comes out to about a third each.
For THIS trip, however, we are celebrating Chelsea’s 40th birthday and decided to leave the camping gear at home, tee hee! Spain is chock full of cool, affordable guesthouses and we’re going to scope them out. As I write this, I’m sitting by a warm fire in the pueblo of San Pedro in an ancient Airbnb.
Do you book everything in advance?
Noooo way. For a short trip, I suppose that could work. Not for multiple weeks though.
Plus, one of our favorite parts of bike touring is the relaxed, open travel pace. There’s constant serendipity with meeting people (seaplane ride, anyone?), cool towns where we want to stay longer, or days where we ride longer (or shorter) depending on weather and energy levels. Booking ahead takes away flexibility and can create a domino effect of rush rush rush, which is not how we like to travel. We book 1-2 days out at most.
How do you wash your clothes?
We travel with a high-tech, custom clothes washer: our hands. Whether in a folding camp sink or a hotel sink, we grind our clothes around for a few minutes with some soap and water, rinse things out, and hang them up. (Quick-dry everything!) If they aren’t dry the next morning, we “yardsale” them on our bike racks while we ride orrrr ride with a wet shirt for a bit. #keepingitclassy
Do you rent bikes?
Negative! For such a long trip, we wanted our dialed-in touring bikes. My Salsa Fargo travels on the plane boxed up in a standard bike box, whereas Chelsea’s Co-Motion Pangea breaks in half and fits in a standard suitcase. Airlines charge for my big box, but Chelsea’s Pangea is free for international flights. (Although I got lucky and didn’t get charged for our flight to Barcelona!)
How do you carry gear – backpacks?
OUCH. My nether regions hurt just thinking about pedaling day after day with a backpack on. (It’s tough enough without one!) We carry gear in various bike bags, the largest of which are saddlebags (aka panniers) that attach to rear racks on each of our bikes. I also have a frame bag and we both have some small easy-access bags near our handlebars for snacks and tech.
How heavy are your bikes and gear?
With empty bags, fenders and racks, our bikes each weigh in around 35 pounds. My total gear for this trip is ~30 pounds (packing list post coming at some point). Chelsea is rolling super light and her stuff weighs in under 20 since she doesn’t have a camera or a laptop.
That said, we carry ~5 pounds each of water/orange juice/coconut water. Add food to that and I easily have 50 pounds of gear. Load me up enough and it makes our riding pace more similar!
How do you go to the bathroom?
Like true opportunists! Various lodging that we stay in, restaurants, cafes, grocery stores… It ain’t rocket science. Oh, and loooots of peeing outside during the ~8 hours each day that we spend outdoors. Spain seems to lack public bathrooms, especially in rural areas, but we’ve had no problems.
How much does it cost to ship a bike?
It varies dramatically depending on the airline. Typical amounts are $100-200 each way. (Damn you, scammer airlines!)
How do you get internet/cell phone?
Local SIM cards! With lots of countries and plenty of competition, they’re cheeeap in Europe. Make sure your phone works on GSM networks over here though – if your phone is unlocked, you should be good to go. For Spain, we bought Vodafone cards, which claims the best coverage in Spain and cost us $20 for 15 gb of data.
Are you meeting any friends along the way?
You know it! We spent time with Marc and Clara in Barcelona and will connect with the Long Haul Trekkers again to ride from their home in Granada to Seville. If it lines up, we’ll meet up with our world-trotting friends Hilary and Don during their mid-life gap year.
What do you eat?
So. Much. Food. We’re both vegan, so it requires a bit of planning, but so far Spain has proven quite easy to find great options. I’ll write a full post on this later!
And with that, time to kick back and enjoy this fire. Incoming soon: tales from our first week pedaling through Spain!
Got more questions about logistics? Comment below or send me an email! Perhaps an FAQs 2 will happen later.