As the summer cools off a bit, this time of year is great for bike touring. The Internet is chock-full of information about bikes, gear, destinations, how-tos and every other aspect related to loading up your bicycle and hitting the road. In this column, I’ll just focus on the why.
Why tour by bike?
The journey is the goal, not the destination
When you explore new areas by bike, you are a part of the landscape. At bike speed you are an active participant. Waves and friendly nods are common from the local folks along your route. By cycling through an area you get know it intimately. All of your senses are included: the aroma of a cool forest or fresh cut wheat; the weather is a constant uncontrollable companion. Fast descents push you quickly through microclimates of alternating hot and cool spots. Long slow climbs allow you to see, smell, and hear the streams, wildlife, urban landscapes, rural communities and human touch of the landscape that can be so easily missed as you drive by at 50 mph in a car. To enjoy bike touring to its fullest requires that you reframe your thinking from one that focuses on reaching a destination to one of savoring the moment and enjoying the journey.
The satisfaction of accomplishment
If you tour enough you will encounter the “epic day.” Epic days almost always involve some unexpected huge amount of climbing or a long, unplanned detour. Midway through an epic day you think you’re nearly done; it’s only late at night when all of your energy is completely spent do you realize the enormity of the day. When you look at the map and see what you did. Or when you lay in your shelter and your body is beyond the beyond, but your mind is alive and awake; you’ve had an epic day. I don’t know of a similar type of satisfaction of accomplishment than biking through an epic day and feeling that joy. Even tours without epic days provide a huge sense of accomplishment; just knowing that you traveled and explored an area by your own power is extremely gratifying.
A test of ingenuity and flexibility
Stuff breaks, the night falls too quickly, the destination you had been aiming toward has somehow fallen through or is not suitable. By approaching bike touring with an open mind, a loose schedule, and a sense of adventure, mishaps can be a great moment to teach patience, ingenuity, and to test your ability to be flexible. Mishaps can also expose opportunity that you might otherwise dismiss or miss entirely.
There is a bike tour for everyone and it can be super cheap
You can go at it all alone or with a group. You can haul all of your gear so you are self-sufficient for days, or you can sign up with a touring outfit that will haul your gear and fix you dinner at the end of the day. You can tour by credit card, staying B&B’s and hotels. You can camp every night or every other night. You can tour the country side, the cool roads of the national forests, through towns and cities, over mountain passes, or just out your back door to experience your region with a whole new perspective. You can tour for a single day and be home by dusk; you can tour overnight; you can tour for weeks, months, or even years. You can tour on an old mountain bike, a race bike, or a fully loaded touring bike.
After you have bought your bike and gear, you can bike camp for as little as $10 a day; the majority of your money will go to food if you are good at finding camping spots.
Eat all you want
Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of bike touring is that you can eat and eat and eat-the food is your fuel. When I tour I pack away about twice the number of calories per day than I normally consume. And every bite tastes wonderful. I’ve always come back from tour weighing less than I did the day I left. What’s more, if you tour during summer or fall when local produce is being harvested, you will eat the best of the best. Cycling through Washington in late summer and early fall brings wonderfully ripe fruits and vegetables by the truckload, often bought right off the farms where the produce was grown.
The more you tour the more you learn about what you are good at, what gear suits you, what kind of touring your prefer, the kind of folks (or none) that you prefer to tour with. Just like anything that you spend time at, you gain skills that you didn’t have before. You get better and stronger at climbing; you learn how differences in loading a bike and seemingly miniscule adjustments can make a huge difference in how a bike handles. You learn, often by necessity, how to repair and properly maintain your bike. You understand what is hype and what is valuable when buying gear.
Perhaps most importantly, you learn about your own limitations, fears, weaknesses, and your abilities. I’ve not found a better way to learn about myself than when I’m bike touring, where I can quietly reflect for hours and the only sound I hear is the occasional chatter of my touring partners, or the running of water in a roadside stream, or the rush of wind; and the constant, persistent whir of my chain passing over my drive train as I pedal towards the next unknown.
John Speare grew up and lives in Spokane. He rides his bike everywhere. Check out his blog at http://cyclingspokane.blogspot.com.