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Introduction to Bicycle Touring

What is Bicycle Touring?

Bicycle touring is riding a bicycle for a single day ride to multiple days, weeks or months over long distances with the goal of adventure and visiting regions away from your home. This may include other cities, states/provinces and countries around the world. These tours may be organized on a solo basis, by a group of friends, a cycling club (local or as a guest into another city), a charity or a tour operator.

What is the best time for bicycle touring?

When I am planning a tour my friends always ask when I am planning on going and the answer is always the same.
  • If you will be cycling for a week or two in Europe or North America the best time is from mid-May to the end of June or early September until the end of October. This is because the weather is generally good, airfares (if necessary) are cheaper and there are fewer tourists at the various attractions such as castles or parks that you may wish to visit.
  • However also consider any special events that you may wish to include into your trip such as watching a stage of the Tour de France which is held in July. Another example is I sometimes take a large group of cyclists from our local club to Montreal where we ride during the day and in the evening attend the Jazz Festival.
  • If joining an organized bike tour or charity ride you will of course need to go during the scheduled dates.
  • If visiting other parts of the world always check on weather conditions as there is nothing worse than cycling during the rainy season day after day or when it is extremely cold, that is no fun.
The season you plan your bicycle tour can have a major impact on your enjoyment so consider carefully.

Types of Bicycle Touring

There are many different types of bicycle touring:
  • Self supported or fully loaded touring - you will be carrying everything on your bicycle including lightweight tent (or bivy sack) and other camping equipment plus food. Usually front and rear panniers are required. You will be planning your own itinerary.
  • Credit card or lightweight touring - you carry a change of clothing, some tools and toiletries in your rear panniers and stay in B&Bs, hotels or hostels overnights. Meals are at cafes, restaurants or purchased at grocery stores/markets. You may plan your own itinerary.
  • Ultralight touring - similar to lightweight touring except you carry only essential items.
  • Supported touring - normally organized by a tour operator or charity and offers a vehicle which transports your luggage to the next stop on the itinerary with accommodation arranged. The route is planned for you, sometimes meals are arranged, rental bikes may be available and there may be an experienced guide. Here is some additional information on guided cycling vacations.
  • Day touring - where a group of cyclists are staying in a city or region for a few days or week and going on daily rides. For instance on one cycle vacation a group of us rented a villa in Tuscany for one week and explored the area daily on our bikes. You may rent cottages, cabins; camp; or stay in hotels if in a major city. You may do this type of bicycle touring in combination with lightweight touring.
  • Bike Overnights - usually on a weekend where you cycle to a destination and return the next day, spending the night in a campground or hotel. Very common on charity rides and there may be SAG support.
  • Expedition touring - this is for the more experienced who visit more remote area while long distance bicycle touring, usually for an extended period of time. They will be planning their own itinerary and carrying camping gear and more.
These are general types and I have taken cycle vacations where I joined a guided supported bicycle tour for one week and then continued for lightweight self-guided for the balance of the trip.


Planning Bicycle Touring Trips

What is the average distance you ride daily?

A few things to consider when planning your cycling itinerary:
  • It really depends on the route and time you have. For example if taking the popular cycling route between Passau and Vienna I might allow for one week so I just divide the total distance by seven. When bicycle touring I sometimes an extra night or two at selected places where I might want to explore further.
  • It also depends on your average speed (remember you are riding loaded), the terrain (hilly, rolling, flat), stops to sightsee and available campsites or accommodation.  I usually cover between 50–100 kilometres (30–60 miles) per day although some of my friends go further.
  • On one tour in Switzerland between Lausanne and Montreux we only rode 33 km as we wanted to fully explore both towns. Meanwhile in Tuscany we cycled from Greve to Lucca, a distance of 110 km in one day as there wasn’t much of interest along the way.
At the end of the day it depends on the type of tour you prefer when planning your itinerary.  Sometimes it is better to explore one region thoroughly, or you may be on a long distance trip with limited time and need to spend a lot of time in the saddle.

Do you rent or take your own bicycle?

Both, I have rented bicycles in Switzerland, Italy and England. While in other parts of Europe and another Italian trip we took our own bikes. Things to consider:
  • Cost to carry your bicycle on a airplane
  • Quality of rental touring bicycles
  • Issues associated with packing a bike and getting it to the airport
  • Rental costs for bike
  • Rental location
  • If on a guided tour and rentals are available
It is best to use your own bicycle where possible and in North America I always use my own bike. However sometimes a rental touring bicycle is best, particularly for journeys under 14 days.

Do you reserve accommodation in advance?

Yes and no. It depends on how many cyclists are riding together whether I expect hotel or B/B accommodation to be available on arrival.

Advantages of reservations

  • Do no need to rush to destination each day
  • On rainy days I appreciated having something waiting on arrival and no having to search
  • Able to have accommodation in busy destinations or during special events. For instance in Germany and Austria it can be difficult finding accommodation on Friday and Saturday evenings.
  • Know price in advance and generally find better priced accommodation. Saves on tourist office booking fees.
  • Can save valuable time during your cycle vacations. Having to search for accommodation on arrival typically takes 30 to 90 minutes.
  • Able to locate more interesting places at a reasonable cost that I would not otherwise find… a former monastery in Hungry, medieval stone walled hillside hotel in France, Bed and Breakfast in busy Montreux, a villa in Tuscany for a week.
  • If cycling with a group of friends ensures you find enough rooms in one location. Riding into Garmisch, Germany on one trip we went to the tourist office and ended up in three different Bed and Breakfasts around town.

Advantages of not having reservations

  • You can have a more flexible itinerary, particularly in bad weather. Once we required major repairs to our bicycles which required a number of phone calls to adjust our route.
Some information on locating international accommodation. If only one or two cyclists are riding together unless attending a special event I would be reserve, when requiring 2 or 3 rooms like I usually do I generally reserve in advance.  


During the Bicycle Tour

Must you use a touring bike?

Deciding on whether a touring bicycle is essential for your journey depending on the type of trip you are going on:
  • No, if you are lightweight touring or supported touring a good road bicycle with some racks for your panniers will work fine. You may wish to consider slightly bigger tires.
  • Yes, if on a self supported or expedition touring you should have a touring bicycle as you will most likely have front and rear panniers for the extra gear such as a tent (or bivy sack) and camping equipment.
A number of my cycling friends have both touring and road bikes for different types of rides.

What if you run into serious bike repair problems?

Our group of cyclists has had a number of issues over the past years. We ride only with a basic tool kit, bike pump and spare tire tubes. I know others carry more items but it should not be necessary unless riding in more remote regions.
  • With one exception we have been able to quickly get our bicycle repaired and back on the road. In Tuscany one of our group put his damaged bike on a local bus and left it at a bike repair shop while we toured nearby Florence using local bus transportation.  Our only exception over the years was in the Cotswolds where the local bike shops were more interested in assisting their regular customers and quoted either high prices or a lengthy time to complete for what was really a simple job.
  • In Germany the bike mechanics were great even though they did not speak English and on two occasions our bikes were fixed within 3 hours. In smaller towns some of the repair shops are only known by the local citizens so you may need to ask about the location.
  • It is surprising how helpful people can be at times, road angels, who have helpful me by taking a damaged bike in a pickup truck to the repair shop and other acts of kindness.
If you do any amount of cycle touring you are going to encounter a repair issue, just have the confidence that you can handle it.

Not speaking language of country you are visiting

Surprisingly, this is a question I get a lot, particularly from people who do not travel much.
  • I only issue I have ever encountered in reading the restaurant menu in some small towns in Europe so I just point to something and hope for the best. In Europe many people like to practice their English with us.
  • Some riders take phrase books but I like to travel light so I just learn a few key phrases such a hello, thank you, bike and the odd menu item.
  • In Hungary along the Danube bike route the local people didn’t speak English but they recognized foreigners and just pointed in the direction we were to go. In a German bike repair shop I pointed out the issue to the mechanic who understood and fixed my bicycle to my satisfaction.
So do not get too concerned about not being able to speak the language of the counties you are visiting, it is just part of the cycling adventure and you may have some interesting stories to tell when you get home.