Before we launch into the details, from route planning to gear to cycle touring culture, I thought it’d be fun to assemble ten reasons why you (yes, you!) should get your wheels on the road for the first time. Personally, I could go on forever about why cycle touring is the greatest thing since sliced bread and how you should start planning your trip right now, so it took considerable effort to trim this list back to just ten.
As you’re probably already aware, I get extremely excited about bicycle touring — my enthusiasm for it borders on the spiritual. So some of the points below may seem a little… vague? Just be ready for that.
With that said, let’s begin with something concrete:
1. It’s cheap
In the beginning, it doesn’t feel like bicycle touring is very cheap at all. It takes time and money to assemble a touring bike and the gear you’ll need to support yourself on the road. But think of this as a down payment for long-term, dirt-cheap and repeatable adventure.
Normal travellers take a backpack or suitcase with a few clothes — a relatively low up-front cost — but their trips are packed with expenses: meals in restaurants and cafes, rental cars and petrol, bus tickets, train tickets, plane tickets, tickets for museums and other attractions, the list goes on.
For my first really big tour, I spent about USD$1,000 on my touring bike — as much as a long distance international plane ticket. But once I hit the road, my expenses averaged out to less than $20 per day during three months in the United States. Once I crossed into Mexico, things only got cheaper from there. I had the camping gear I needed to cook my own food and build my own shelter, and aside from the odd patch kit, mechanical check-up or ferry ticket, I didn’t pay for transportation. Cycling turns your body into an engine so, in a roundabout way, the money you pay for food also goes toward your transportation.
It’s also surprisingly easy to hide a bicycle and a tent, meaning it’s easy to avoid paying for a campsite if you’re really pinching pennies. Free hospitality platforms like Couchsurfing and Warmshowers are there for when you feel like, well, a warm shower. And if you’re saving money in this way, having a meal in a restaurant or a night in a hotel room will feel like incredible luxuries.
2. Meeting “other tourists” becomes a luxury
There’s no getting around it: if you’re a cyclist on the road, you’re an outlaw in car country. On the empty spaces between villages, towns and cities you’re almost always meeting far more motorized traffic than pedal-powered vehicles.
So when you do meet another cycle tourist, it’s almost like you’ve met a long-lost friend. Here is someone who doesn’t mind your geeky padded pants or the fact that you haven’t showered in a day or two. If you’re travelling in opposite directions they can offer valuable information about the road ahead, with a focus on cyclist-relevant features — meals, campsites, road conditions, worthy detours. Motorists can offer this as well, but only a cyclist can tell you whether the hills and distances associated with some roundabout scenic route truly are worth your sweat and sore legs. And even if you’re just catching up for a few minutes at the side of some lonely country road, the intensity of your shared experience creates a kind of bond that traditional travellers rarely find in one another.
3. Get to know the places in between
This is where that old cliche comes in, the one about travel being all about the journey and not the destination. For many travellers, the “journey” involves sitting in a car and driving to the next destination. For you, that same journey can mean days or even weeks of camping, struggling up ranges and hurtling down hills, tasting the air as it dries out or becomes slick with rain, feeling the folds and ripples of the country beneath your wheels. In short, the world is no longer a series of places separated by periods of sedentary driving in some cocoon of steel and glass, but a single landscape spreading out and changing in all directions. Does that make sense? I hope it will.
Meanwhile, the cycle tourist is rarely a passive observer in these places. In many towns and villages all over the world, the arrival of a cyclist on a loaded touring bike will attract attention from local people. They’ll want to know where you’ve come from, where you’re going, how on earth you’re doing what you’re doing. You’ll often get the same questions you fielded from your friends and family back home. This conversation can get a bit old (in Mexico we called in “The Interview”) but it helps to break down barriers with local people. This is a social style of travel. Before you know it, you’ll have made a new friend — and who knows where that will take you? Which leads me to the next item on our list…
In rural Durango, a family pulled over on the highway to borrow a bicycle pump. They needed enough air to make a mechanic in the next town.
4. It’ll get you out of your comfort zone
In my experience, bicycle touring is all about familiar rituals in unfamiliar places: you wake up, make breakfast, pack up your camp, hit the road, ride until sundown and then make your camp again. Between these little touchstones of routine, all you have to do is ride and see what the day will bring you. Even the act of finding a place to camp (“I wonder where we’re sleeping tonight?”) becomes an adventure. It’s amazing what can happen when you move slowly through an unfamiliar place.
5. You’ll get fit
If your bike fits you correctly (we’ll talk about this in a later post), cycling is a relatively painless form of exercise. It lacks the kind of repetitive, joint-ruining impacts that make long distance hiking or running so arduous. Though deceptively simple, bicycles turn relatively small amounts of human energy into surprisingly speedy movement.
It isn’t completely necessary to be physically fit before you begin your trip, though it will make things easier for you from the outset. By the end of an extended bike tour, however, you can count on being in the best shape of your life.
I have never learned to true up a bent wheel — let alone build one from scratch. Luckily, even remote Mexican desert towns have skilled bike mechanics.
6. Learn new skills
As I mentioned before, cycle touring is all about performing familiar rituals in unfamiliar places. It doesn’t take long to master the relatively simple skills of finding shelter, cooking your food, reading road maps and performing basic maintenance on your bicycle. And yet, those simple skills will take an independent cyclist around the world.
It’s often said that the most difficult aspect of long distance cycle touring is “the mental game.” This is a tricky one to talk about because we all have slightly different brains carrying slightly different baggage, and everyone experiences “the mental game” differently. At the end of the day, bicycle touring is not a cure-all for any mental anguish or anxiety you’re currently experiencing at home. In fact, stripping your daily life down to those simple routines may force you to confront those sources of anxiety in a way that you mightn’t have in your busy daily life.
That said, in my experience the simple act of putting yourself outside your comfort zone and living the life of a travelling cyclist in an unfamiliar place can add enormously valuable new perspective to your life. Much of the foundation of my current worldview came from the experiences I hinted at under point #3. I have watched close friends on extended bike trips come face-to-face with demons that were much easier to ignore in their old lives. “The mental game” might break you down in the short term, but it will probably make you stronger in the long run. We’ll talk more about the mental game in a later post.
7. Ride down the road, or around the world
It can be just as much fun to bike through a place that you already know well. My first ever bike tour was from Newcastle to Brisbane, along the east coast of Australia. I had covered this country on countless family road trips and surf missions as a kid, but I barely recognised the place as I now saw it from little gravel back roads and back beach campsites.
Recently, I did my first bike tour that did not involve driving or taking motorized transport to the starting point. My partner and I mounted our bikes outside our apartment building and rolled away. Two days later, we were back again. You don’t have to wander far from home to find adventure.
Never pay for gas again.
8. It’s sustainable
Let’s start with the obvious one: cyclists burn calories, not hydrocarbons. Even if you take a plane to reach your starting point, the carbon footprint of your trip will be much smaller than it would’ve been if you weren’t cycling. There are other advantages to cycling over driving, both for long distance travel and everyday commuting: you’ll never get stuck in traffic, nor will you waste cumulative hours of your life in the humiliating ritual we call “looking for a parking space.”
A less-obvious source of sustainability is the money we spend in local communities. Traditional destination-based travel tends to concentrate tourist dollars in very specific geographic areas, and over time the local economy morphs to accommodate it. You can see the effect of mass tourism on cities like Venice and Amsterdam: neighborhoods full of Airbnbs and expensive tourist traps, with very little room left for real daily life. Cyclists, on the other hand, can spend as much time in the “in between” places as the destinations. For us, the interaction between traveller and local is less of an economic relationship more of a cultural exchange. Cycle touring is still rare enough in many parts of the world that you might be the first bicycle tourist someone has ever seen — you are just as interesting to them as they are to you.
9. It’s completely customizable
Not sure about cycling alone? Take a friend! Not sure if you’re physically capable of carrying your bags over long distances on your own? Try a tandem bike! Not interested in everyday logistics? There are numerous guided cycling tour companies that take care of everything — all you have to do is ride. Not keen on carrying all that gear? Try “credit card touring”: all you need is a change of clothes and some toiletries, let a bed and breakfast take care of the rest. Have you got children or pets you want to bring along? Plenty of cyclists tow their dogs in trailers, or carry their kids in specially mounted child seats. Whatever your needs, there is almost certainly some kind of set-up to suit you.
If you want to ride a tandem with three buddies and a fourth in a support car, it’s been done before.
10. Eat literally as much food as you want.
So much of the joy of travel comes from trying new food. And cycle touring will make your stomach feel larger than it ever has before. Put these two things together, and you’re on your way to culinary bliss. This might feel like an anticlimactic way to end this post but trust me: the simplest food stuffs (peanut butter, fried chicken, fresh fruit, a humble taco) will never taste the same after a few days on a loaded touring bike.
And there you have it! Ten reasons why you should start planning your first long distance bicycle tour. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments, or hit me up at email@example.com.
Next week, the real fun begins: We pull out a map, dream some big dreams and start planning a route.