Riding a bike around the world seems like such a romantic way to travel. Just you, your bike, and the open road, tackling whatever may come your way. However true that may be, there is a flip side to cycle touring: the dark, cold, wet side, where misery lurks.
“When cycle touring, it's almost impossible to have the smooth without the crunchy.”
When you're sitting in your office, dreaming about getting out and seeing the world, that open road can look awfully enticing. But, the rough side can seem a little scary.
Before I left home, I was filled with doubts and fears. I honestly wasn't sure if I'd last more than a couple of weeks on the road.
(Spoiler alert: Our tour ended up lasting almost two years and we pedalled 16,000 km through 22 countries.)
I pictured myself at the side of the highway in the pouring rain, with a broken bike and no way to fix it. I imagined massive, earth-shattering fights with my husband Stephen, who was planning the trip with me. I worried about deep bone-numbing boredom, terrifying nights in the tent and banditos in the hills.
There were times when my fears cleared and I saw a different picture. Perfect days lounging on the beach, cozy campsites in the middle of an unknown forest, talking about life, love, and politics with people all over the world…
If you're having similar doubts and dreams, let's tackle them together and answer this one burning question:
Is cycle touring right for you?
Will My Butt Hurt?
This is one of the most common questions we get asked about cycle touring.
I think what people are really wondering is if their body can handle it. It's almost impossible to imagine that your regular old body, the one that gets winded just going for a walk up a steep hill, could handle riding the vast distances involved in a bike trip.
The truth is, our bodies are capable of so much more than we ever thought possible.
At the end of a long day of riding, Stephen and I were often tired, sore, and grumpy. Sometimes I felt like it would be impossible to get out of bed the next morning, let alone back on the bike. But after a big meal and a good night's sleep, I almost always felt excited and ready to climb back in the saddle to see what the day would bring.
Of course, you need to start with a basic level of fitness, but you don't need to be a gym rat or an avid cyclist. The great thing about cycle touring is that you get stronger and more coordinated every single day and you'll come home far more fit than you ever thought possible. We started out riding short daily distances of 30 km and taking lots of days off. By the end, we sometimes cycled more than 600 km in a week.
And yes, sometimes your butt does hurt, along with your shoulders, back, legs, arms, and head. When everything hurts, it's time to take a day off (or a week) for lounging on that beautiful beach you'd imagined.
Cycle touring is for you if you have a basic level of fitness and don't mind breaking a sweat. It's not for you if exercise makes you want to cry.
Is Cycle Touring Even Fun?
Before we left on tour, I often wondered if cycle touring could really be fun. All that pedalling seemed like a recipe for boredom. I turned out to be right on this one: some days on the bike are deadly dull. Once you've cycled through 60 km of pine forests (hello Latvia!) in a day, trees can lose their magic a little.
But the boredom is far outweighed by the excitement of riding through villages where other tourists never go, meeting local people who aren't in the tourist industry, and seeing flowers, trees, and animals that you would never even notice from a car.
Almost every day on a cycle tour brings a new unexpected challenge.
Whether it's a flat tire, a washed-out road or becoming horribly lost, these challenges keep you on your toes and squeeze boredom out of the picture.
Cycle touring is for you like quiet time with your thoughts and aren't bothered by boredom. It's not for you if you need constant stimulation to get you through the day.
Will I Get to See the Sights?
Museums, temples, and waterfalls make up a big part of a typical traveller's itinerary.
A typical cycle tour is more about the small things: the tiny villages you pass through, the incredible (sometimes incredibly bad) meals you eat in a shack in the middle of nowhere, and the natural wonders of our world.
That doesn't mean you don't get to see any of the big sights. Our trip took us into monumental cities like Budapest, Stockholm, Beijing, and Kuala Lumpur, where we saw our share of big-name attractions.
But there are lots of famous places that lie just 10 or 20 km off your route. When you're on a bike, you really have to be motivated to go 20 km out of the way to visit an attraction, especially because you likely have to ride the 20 km back to where you started. You will undoubtedly end up missing some of the places that every other tourist visits.
Cycle touring is for you want to see a place the way locals do, not through the eyes of a tourist board. It's not for you if you want to check off every sight in your guidebook.
Is Cycle Touring Dangerous?
On a bike, you are completely exposed to the world you travel through every day. Not being encased by the glass and steel of a vehicle leaves you vulnerable. In theory, that makes it a more dangerous way to travel, but in my experience, cycle touring can be far less dangerous than a typical vacation.
Since a bike tour takes you away from the busy tourist centres, it also takes you away from the professional thieves and con artists that can lurk in tourist hot spots. When we were out in the countryside, be it in Italy, Lithuania, China, or Indonesia, we never had anything stolen and never felt physically threatened. That's pretty good going for almost two years on the road!
Of course, just like any kind of travel, it all depends on where you go. If you want to ride through Pakistan or America, you'll have to take some special precautions you wouldn't need in China or Sweden. In cities, you have to be a little more cautious, storing your bike somewhere safe indoors when you're not riding and keeping a closer eye on your possessions.
But the majority of days are spent away from the crowds, where people are just surprised and happy to see you. Usually, people want to help you and make you feel welcome in their country, not to harm you or steal from you.
Cycle touring is for you if you can let go of irrational fears and trust people. It's not for you if you are convinced everyone is out to get you.
Will I Have to Cycle in Traffic?
Before leaving home, I imagined that we'd be forever cycling on empty country roads, encountering few other vehicles, and communing with wildlife that would pop out of the forest to greet us (yes, I was imagining a Disney movie). That's not quite the way it worked out.
While it's true that much of the time you will be cycling empty roads or even dedicated bike paths, it is almost impossible to avoid stretches of busy highway or city streets for the entire trip.
As with every other aspect of cycle touring, riding in traffic will get easier as you go along. Start your tour somewhere quiet and serene and work up to the busier places. We made the mistake of starting our trip in Italy, where drivers are universally crazy. It would have been easier if we'd picked somewhere more tranquil and bike-friendly, like Sweden.
If you really don't feel comfortable riding somewhere, there's no shame in hopping on a bus or a train to take you through the hardest parts. We did this to get out of Rome and to get into Kuala Lumpur. For us, a little public transport was a far better choice than struggling through the famously dangerous traffic in those cities.
Cycle touring is for you if you can remain calm when horns are blaring and cars are at your elbow. It's not for you if panic makes you do stupid things under stressful conditions.
Do I Have to Ride in Rain, Sleet, and Snow?
The beauty of a cycle tour is that you're exposed daily to the great outdoors. The problem with a cycle tour is that you're exposed daily to the great outdoors.
It's almost impossible to avoid extreme weather on a bike tour.
Even the best-laid plans will not keep you from getting soaked in an unexpected storm or roasted in temperatures so hot the world seems to be melting around you. We were chilled to the bone more times than we can count, we rode on days when our feet were blocks of ice and days when our bodies seemed to be made from sweat.
And afterwards? We got dry, we got warm, and we were no worse off for the experience. In fact, we were stronger for it.
Cycle touring is for you if you have faith that wet and cold (or hot and sticky) is only a temporary state. It's not for you if a little discomfort ruins your whole week.
Do I Really Have to Camp?
Most cycle tourists camp along their route to save money and for convenience. Carrying your home with you means that you will always have a place to sleep, no matter where you are at the end of the day. But, plenty of bike tourists stay in a hotel or guesthouse every night, just like we did throughout Asia.
It's called Credit Card Touring and it allows you to carry less and to shower every day. Credit Card Touring takes a little more planning because you have to find a hotel each night, and it is undoubtedly more expensive. But, if you have the patience and the means, there's no reason at all why you need to camp on a cycle tour.
Cycle touring is for you if you want to camp or have the money to spend a little more on accommodation. It's not for you if you absolutely need to be in a cheap hostel every night.
Cycle touring definitely has its ups and downs (terrible pun totally intended) and there is no way to avoid a little discomfort when you're on the road. For us, the joys and triumphs of travelling by bicycle far outweighed the inconveniences, but that doesn't mean every day was perfect.
If you're aching to challenge yourself and to step out of your comfort zone and if you're seeking the rewards that come with those challenges, then cycle touring is definitely right for you.
What do you think? Is cycle touring right for you? Can you see yourself getting out on the road on two wheels?
Hi there, I'm Jane. My husband Stephen and I just got home from a 16,000 km bike ride through Europe and Asia. Now, we want to help other grown-up adventurers achieve their travel dreams (while planning our next big adventure of course). You can enjoy our cycling adventures from the beginning or get help getting off the couch and out the door at My Five Acres.