Still looking for a New Year’s resolution? Why not head off on a two-wheeled adventure in 2013? Bike touring encapsulates the essence of low impact tourism – particularly if you ride out of your own front door, or use public transport to reach the start of your journey.
Travelling by bicycle is affordable and healthy. It’s a chance to spend money locally and connect with other cultures. It’s the perfect way to tune in to the environment around us: fast enough to cover ground and glean a sense of change, yet propelled at a natural pace that our minds can comprehend. Bike touring isn’t just a physical challenge but a mental one too: a time for contemplation and discovery. Bicycles are simple devices, so it’s fitting that bike touring is a great de-clutterer of mind and body.
There is no shortage of travel companies with a plethora of organised bike tours on offer. Some are more socially responsible than others; Bamboosero for instance, is geared towards supporting community projects like their grassroots bamboo frame building initiative in Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda. Bike Africa offers a series of excursions that inform as much as entertain, as it’s homepage states: “Each program is unique and highlights the diversity of the culture, social institutions and environment, and the complexity of the history, economy and society.”
But for the real flavour of bicycle travel, trying your hand at an independent tour is sure to reap the most rewards. Plot your own route. Pare down your worldly belongings to the contents of just a couple of bicycle panniers. Be the engine and reach your destination on your own steam. Bike touring promises a sense of empowerment and accomplishment like no other.
There are a multitude of inspirational websites and blogs to help with the planning process: if you have a location in mind, the chances are someone’s been there and shared their insights. The longstanding Crazy Guy On A Bike is a good place to begin your research: it’s a bountiful collection of ride journals documenting two wheeled travels from all around the world. If practical advice is what you seek, free online guides, like the comprehensive Bike Touring Basics will help you decipher all the details.
Most of what you need to know will be learnt along the way. There are plenty of hints to help you find your path though. Be at one with your steed and ensure it’s as comfortable as your favourite chair – a professional bike fit may well be a wise investment. Consider too the terrain, the direction of the prevailing winds, the bureaucracy of travel visas and the availability of sustenance and accommodation. If you’re headed to far flung destinations, communication may be an issue – learning a few words of a local language will invariably go a disproportionately long way.
Family adventures are even richer still. Tap into national bike routes, like Sustrans, the UK’s sustainable transport charity. Germany and the Netherlands make particularly appealing destinations, with their infrastructure of traffic-free bike paths – the latter has more than 200 long distance, sign-posted bike rides and 70,000kms of bike routes. With their easy gradients and gentle scenery, river rides like the Danube, Rhine, Rhone and Loire all make perfect family destinations. Cycling families have toured through Asia and Africa – even from the tip of Alaska to the depths of Patagonia.
Indeed, keep an eye on the news but resist being overwhelmed by the hysteria of mass media. Bicycles are unifying. They tap into a deep-rooted sense of freedom. It’s no understatement to say that they bring out the best in people, and travelling by bike opens doors to impromptu hospitality and friendships the world over. More often than not, it’s where you least expect it. Organised examples of this camaraderie include the cyclist’s hospitality network, Warm Showers, where like-minded travellers open their homes to complete strangers – as long as they’re on two wheels. In Latin America, for instance, a collection of Casa de Ciclistas provide bike-friendly havens, a lawn to camp on and a workshop to maintain your bike.
Is bike touring tough? It can be – but in a good way. After all, being out of your comfort zone is sure to reawaken the senses. Do you need to train? Not necessarily. Although the fitter you are the more you’ll enjoy yourself, the appeal of bike touring is that you can start at your own pace and, quite literally, go from there. Just to be sure to embark on a series of shakedown day rides with every iota of gear you intend to carry – chances are, you’ll soon be jettisoning belongings.
And then, just ride. Ultimately, bicycle touring is about embracing life and seeing where it takes you. There’s harmony to its rhythm. A cathartic simplicity.
Eat. Sleep. Ride.