Cycle touring isn’t a unique or new thing at all. Every cycle tourist has his own way of doing it that works for him. Inevitably on every tour we’ve ridden, we run into other cyclists riding their own adventure, although I will say that almost every single one of those encounters has been with Dutch or Germans. On this last trip we met a Dutch couple in Trieste. They were riding to the airport – going home after a few weeks riding through the Czech Republic, Croatia and the eastern part of Italy. We decided they were clearly more hardcore than we because they had almost no clothing and a simple pack with their tent. They described the different campgrounds they had found and told us that we would have no problem in the Trieste area finding a place to camp. At this point we were a bit too embarrassed to admit that we were not, in fact, camping, but staying at B&Bs along our route…
However, it’s all relative and truthfully, who the heck cares how hardcore you are? In the end, we do these trips on our bicycles because it’s fun for us and we enjoy the slowish pace that lets us connect more intimately with the places we ride through. There is something wonderful about riding up a road through Irish “mountains” and hearing the sheep baa-ing all around and feeling the damp misty air brush your cheeks. Of course, it’s not so fun when that misty air turns into full on rain and you are soaked head to toe…but that’s the life of a cycle tourist, right? The conversations that we have with locals about our travels allow us to more deeply connect with our hosts and we’ve shared many a laugh and a beer with people at the table next to ours in this way.
So how do we do it? I’ll put it in list form…
1. Decide on a general region to visit. Lithuania happened because it’s our ancestral home and was Kovas’ first experience there. Ireland happened because we just wanted to go there. We love the music. Germany, Austria, and Italy happened because we had to go to Germany for a wedding and Italy has always been on our list. It looked doable on the map. We are trying to avoid the Atlantic side of the world for our next trip. Time to shake things up!
2. Decide how long you can travel. We always try to go for at least three weeks. A month is better, but who can do that without quitting their job?
3. Decide on a general direction of travel and roundtrip versus one-way. With Lithuania we had no route planned and no hotels reserved before we left. We decided on our direction of travel once in Vilnius and the night before our first morning of riding. Now, with Ireland we waaaay overplanned because we’d heard it was high season and would be hard to find B&Bs. That was a joke! There is a B&B on every crossroad. We underestimated the terribleness of the weather (wind and rain) and over-estimated the numbers of kilometers we could ride in such weather. We also had no idea the mountainous/hilly areas of Ireland were so steep (no concept of switchbacks). We ended up riding way more kilometers per day than we should have, which resulted in a lot of exhaustion and some pretty wretched Achilles Tendons. Our Germany/Austria/Italy trip was a perfect combination of planned and unplanned. We planned cities like Venice and Rome because we knew those were popular tourist destinations in the summer, so we reserved B&Bs there and then filled in the dots between those places. We had some idea of where we needed to be on certain dates, but had great freedom in our route and length of travel to get to those places.
We always invest in high quality road atlases for the region or country in which we are traveling. Since we are old-school and prefer not to use GPS, that sometimes means carrying a pretty heavy atlas that is about 9×12 and a few hundred pages. But these atlases are life-saving because they show every detail and every possible road available for any route including distances. On the trip, we decide each evening (or sometimes the morning of) where we want to get to that day and how we want to get there. It’s a pretty loose operation and very democratic.
Note: It’s really important (obviously) to decide whether you want to do a roundtrip (circular) route or a point-to-point trip. Lithuania and Ireland were circular and worked out great because we could leave our bike boxes and extra luggage at the original B&B. Germany/Austria/Italy brought a whole new challenge because it was Munich to Rome, so we couldn’t carry those boxes or heavy luggage, especially going up and down the Alps. Read on…
4. Prep the Bicycles. Our first bicycles were Surly and Ibis touring cycles that were already coupled so we could break them apart and pack them into airplane-luggage regulation sized boxes. This supposedly means airlines won’t charge you for oversized luggage, but be warned – if you are flying United, they will charge you up the wazoo for carrying bicycles (and they won’t even ask if that’s really what they are. They will assume when they see the boxes. If you can help it, do NOT fly with United, EVER).
Tires and Tubes: We learned in Lithuania that not only is it important to carry extra tubes for flat tires (no kidding, right?), but invest in the best touring tires and tubes up front. We got two flats in two days on the front end of the trip in Lithuania and spent the rest of the trip stopping at every potential bicycle store for tubes because we were concerned that we wouldn’t have enough (note: In Lithuania, once it’s autumn, cycling is no longer “in season,” so stores will not carry tubes. They will simply tell you, “Tubes? No. It’s not the season.”). Ireland and Germany/Austria/Italy went by without a hitch – not a single flat tire on either trip. We invested in great tires meant for this kind of thing.
Point-to-point riding: For Germany/Austria/Italy we got new bicycles – Salsa Fargos. We graduated to something a little more versatile (could be ridden as 29er mountain bikes) for trips when we’d want to do rougher riding, like when we hit Iceland someday. Kovas found a guy in Boulder, CO who cuts bike frames and fits them with coupling links so that they can break in half. As for the bike boxes and luggage issue, Kovas figured that if we had hardy-enough bike bags and wrapped the bikes up in disposable materials like foam, bubble wrap, and cardboard, then we could keep the bikes safe on the trip over, throw away all the packing materials, fold up the bags to carry with us on the trip, and then buy or scrounge for wrapping materials once we hit Rome (which is easier said than done…). As for our luggage, what if we had minimalist-style bags that would hold all our clothes and paniers but could be rolled up into a tiny little nothing to pack inside the paniers during the ride? He researched some materials, bought the fabric (for both bike bags and luggage bags), designed the products (dimensions, shape, etc.), and commissioned a professional seamstress to make them. They worked brilliantly.
5. Packing. Now, the great thing about bicycle touring is that it keeps you really frugal for both purchasing souvenirs and packing clothes. How many after-riding clothes do you really need? How many cycling shorts do you really need? Admittedly, it is annoying to hand-wash your underwear and bike chamois every evening, and nothing is ever really that clean with hand-washing, but it’s absolutely necessary if you don’t want to carry a lot of extra weight. We started off pretty heavy with Lithuania (I think I had a a few shirts, a pair of pants, two dresses, three bike shorts, three bike shirts, and three pairs of underwear and socks). I really ended up wearing the same thing every evening so we altered our strategy in Ireland. Ireland was tougher because it was cold and wet, so we had rain gear, leg and arm warmers, tights, and also needed to carry shoes, not sandals, as in Lithuania. We invested in some minimalist shoes that were lighter and easier to pack. For Germany/Austria/Italy, we had the added challenge of cool/cold weather in Germany, Austria, and the Italian Alps and very very hot weather from Gemona all the way to Rome (consistently 92+ degrees every day). Somehow we had to combine clothes for both warm and cold climates, rain in the mountain areas, and wedding clothes! We did end up sending our wedding clothes home in a package from Kufstein, Austria as well as extra stuff we simply didn’t need. The rest of our clothes were layer-able and we had only one outfit for cold nights and two for hot. We bought new sandals that were less stinky than Chacos and much lighter – Lizard sandals. They are amazing.
In the end, packing is definitely a personal thing. Once you have the necessities for riding and you lay out all the stuff you think you need for outside of riding, you ask your partner to critique your choices. It was a great help to have Kovas look at my things and ask when I thought I was going to wear this or that, and I did the same for him. We ended up halving our things even then. I believe I packed perfectly for the Italy trip despite all the variables.
6. The trip itself. Enjoy it. Relish it. Have a great time, don’t be afraid to try something tough, don’t be afraid to take a day off, and definitely don’t be afraid to ask the locals for directions! Some of our best stories come from those encounters! Oh, and do realize that there will be days that are just plain difficult – maybe it’s rain, maybe it’s a mountain pass, or maybe you slept poorly the night before, but regardless, it’s vacation, right? Having a partner who can keep you going is so important. So be sure that whomever you are traveling with is someone you like traveling with.