Biking the backroads – what a wonderful way to travel!

By Jim Johnson
This article appears on page 22 of the June 2016 issue.
A group of cyclists from Tennessee head out to explore Slovenia.

Some years ago, a cycling group I was with rolled into a village square in the Slovenian countryside and we started to fill our water bottles in a fountain. A white-haired gentleman seemed to listen intently to our small talk, then walked over. 

“England?” he asked. “No, America,” we responded. 

He stepped back, took his hat off and placed it over his heart, reciting three of the few words he knew in our language: “God bless America.” 

A woman who identified herself as his granddaughter joined us and explained, “His village was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The Americans liberated it.” 

Grandpa listened and nodded, putting his arm around a woman in our group. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Having interactions like this is one reason I prefer to explore a country by bike. Those chance encounters aren’t as possible when you travel by faster means. 

As one online writer put it, traveling by car, train or bus is like watching a beautiful movie pass by, but if you travel by bike, you’re in the movie.

Why tour by bike?

One thing I’ve realized over the years is that the older I get (I’m 61 now), the more I enjoy traveling by bike, and tour companies are now making it easier than ever for travelers of all ages to enjoy the wonderful experience of bicycle tourism. 

Most commercial bike tour operators work out all the logistics for you. They make the reservations at each hotel along the route and usually transfer your luggage for you each day. 

You can choose how easy or difficult you want the trip to be, whether you want to have a guide or not and how much money you want to spend. 

As more people choose two wheels over four and active lifestyles as opposed to sedentary ones, the business of bicycle tourism has propelled itself into the fast lane. 

Cycling is for just about everyone — people of all shapes, sizes, ages and ability levels. Opportunities abound for children, who now can ride behind mom and dad in a bike trailer, tag-along or tandem. 

For adults, there’s the choice of road bikes, mountain bikes and the increasingly popular hybrid (sometimes called trekking) bikes. 

There are even electric bikes for those of us who need a bit of a push, as well as tandem bikes for couples (and for visually impaired riders paired with sighted cyclists) and recumbent bikes for those who wish to take a load off their backs and backsides. 

It’s called slow travel, and it’s a great way to experience a new culture, landscape and people. 

Also, bicycle tourism is flexible. There are one-day rides and weeks-long routes, trips that are organized for you down to the last detail and adventures you can plan, yourself, and even as you go. 

You can choose routes that meander along a scenic bikeway or follow roads that race you from town to town. 

You can go to Africa, the Americas, Asia or one of the abundant popular destinations in Europe. 

Bicycle tourism is for fun. It’s typically not a means to train or get in shape (though you can certainly do both). Rather, it’s a way to create the best kind of souvenir: a lasting sense of the road you traveled and the places you visited. 

Types of tours

Bicycle tourism encompasses several different types of touring: commercial or self-supported, with a guide or without, with lodging or not. There are lots of options. Here’s a breakdown.

Guided: On a guided tour, you have a guide, a set plan and a structured daily schedule. These tours usually have just about everything planned out for you: hotels, rental bikes, routes, meals, luggage transfers, sightseeing tours and more. 

The guide will be there to show you the region and to help in case of breakdowns (mechanical or human). Guided tours are usually group tours, unless you book a private program. 

Self-guided: I find these tours to be the most popular form of bicycle tourism. They cost less than guided tours but still maintain a level of support and convenience that allows you the flexibility to explore on your own without sweating the logistics. 

A priest in Macedonia welcomes visitors to a  hilltop chapel.

The tour operator still makes all the arrangements. However, it’s your responsibility to get to the next hotel each day using the maps and detailed tour instructions that are provided for you. Self-guided tours typically include lodging, breakfast, luggage transport from hotel to hotel, tour descriptions, maps, detailed route planning and, often, a service hotline. 

Supported tours: These tours are a hybrid of the self-guided and guided tours and might also be called “semiguided.” They are similar to self-guided tours with one primary exception: the addition of a support van (but not a ride-along guide, as a guided tour would have).

Self-contained tours: There are two types of self-contained tours: organized and independent. 

Organized self-contained tours usually have representatives from the tour company or association riding with you. However, riders carry their own gear. These can include camping overnights, hotel overnights or a combination of the two. 

An independent self-contained tour means the cyclist does all the work, from planning the logistics and routes to carrying all of his/her own gear.

How to start?

If the thought of bike travel far from home is a bit daunting, even if organized and supported by someone else, then start local! There’s no better way to jump on the saddle than to, well, jump on the saddle. 

Who could turn down this sweetheart in Bulgaria selling almonds soaked in honey?

And start simple. Bike tours don’t have to be long and challenging. Ride from your house to a hotel 15 miles away, stay overnight and return home the next day. You’re a bike tourist!

In fact, the best way to prepare for and learn more about this wonderful activity is to start at home. You’ll be able to quickly counter any perceived hurdles you might have, such as doubts about equipment, navigation or ability. 

Another great way to start is by participating in a local charity or organized statewide ride, which gets you cycling in your own region with the comfort of other cyclists pedaling next to you.

How to choose a tour

If you aren’t sure where to start in planning a trip, here are some questions to consider.

Should I go with a local tour operator? I believe that the best way to experience a new land and culture is with the guidance of locals. 

What’s my budget? Until recently, you had a choice of two extremes: “on the cheap” self-contained tours, where you’re entirely on your own, or expensive all-inclusive luxury tours. Now there are alternative, mid-range programs, typically self-guided tours offered primarily by local overseas bike tour companies. 

Where do I want to go? Researching destinations is a good place to start narrowing your search. To determine your preferences for destinations, ask yourself some key questions: What are my interests? (Castles, family-friendly activities, wine, regional cuisine?) What sort of terrain and scenery would I enjoy? (Mountains, forests, plains, rivers, the sea?) Do I want a “familiar” setting or a more exotic (and even challenging) one? Do I prefer countries where English is widely spoken or am I excited by the challenge of using translation dictionaries and hand gestures? And do I like hot weather or a more temperate climate? 

Do I prefer riding with a guide and a group or being more on my own? Guided and self-guided tours offer somewhat different experiences, and each has unique advantages (and, to some people, disadvantages). Frankly, I love both. 

If I’m feeling more independent, especially in a country where I know the language or feel comfortable, I’ll often opt for the flexibility of a self-guided tour. If I run into trouble, I can call the local company’s hotline. 

If I want camaraderie and really want an insider’s view of a region, I’ll often opt for guided. Decide which suits you best.

What’s my ability level? Are you a leisurely rider looking for modest miles or are you very comfortable on the saddle and looking to ride long distances? 

Do I want to ride every day? Most bicycle tourists enjoy traveling each day, cycling from Point A to Point B and sleeping in a new location each night. The scenery changes and the varying experiences are gratifying. Still, there’s something to be said for staying overnight in one town and doing day trips. You don’t have to pack each morning, you can settle in, and you can really get to know a location. You’ll also need to decide if you want rest days or a pre- and/or post-tour extension built into your itinerary. 

A group of cyclists riding through the rolling hills of Provence.

How far do I want to ride each day? Remember, you are on vacation and there will be a lot to see along the way, and you’ll be riding for several days, usually back to back, so don’t use your weekly Sunday ride at home as a guide to how many miles you can cover in a day. 

You should think about how comfortable you’d be occasionally riding in light to moderate road traffic or if you’d prefer a bike tour that primarily follows a bike path. Terrain and riding surfaces (packed dirt, gravel, asphalt) should also be considered. 

Bicycle touring is a wonderful way to see and experience the world. Even if you’re not a regular cyclist, don’t feel threatened by the idea of a bicycle adventure. It’ll change the way you travel — and the way you see the world. 

Jim Johnson is the owner and founder of a bicycle touring company.