(updated from the 2015 FAQ)
How long do you tour?
My trips have ranged from one to sixteen weeks. The vast majority have been ~three weeks.
Do you buy a bike when you arrive?
No, I take the one I’ve had since 2006.
On my first tour I flew into London, panniers in hand, with the intent to buy a bike there. Imagine if you will arriving in the center of New York City with a plan to buy a bike, while dragging non-portable luggage. I had a hard time finding a bicycle shop, much less one that wasn’t filled with state-of-the-art high tech ($) bicycles! I finally found a shop and left with a touring bike, but it was a very stressful time. In hindsight, going to somewhere like Cambridge would have made a lot more sense.
How do you get your bike there?
The bike is typically packed in a box, as checked luggage. All I have to do is turn the handlebars sideways, and remove the pedals. I pack much of my gear with it in the box. Really the challenge is getting the pedals off the bicycle.
Taking a bicycle with you adds other challenges. Each airline charges a different amount for carrying a bicycle, ranging anywhere from $0 to $300, each way! You also have to be sure that each leg of the flight is on a plane large enough to accommodate a bicycle box.
The other concern is the bike arriving at my destination when I do. I try to plan as few layovers as possible (typically one), and then for ~4 hour/layover (enough time to have the bike change planes, not enough time that they set it aside out of the way). If the bike misses the plan, it will usually show up the next day.
What will you do with the box when you arrive?
When I’m following a circular path, sometimes I can store the box in a hostel, and use the box again on my return. When not, I figure it out at the end.
For most trips trip, I reassemble the bicycle and panniers at the airport, and cycle out of the airport, waving a fond adieu to the box. I deal with how to get the bicycle back at the end of the trip.
About a week out of Madrid, I was talking with a couple of Spanish cyclists about my plan to take a train back to my starting point in Paris. They said there was no way to get a bike on a train from Madrid to Paris, and that it was going to be a problem even getting it on a plane! They invited me to stay with them in Madrid, and the girlfriend of one was a travel agent, and she helped me come up with a plan of having a bicycle shop disassemble the bike and ship it home, while I flew back to Paris. That was going to be a pain, since I’d be sans-bicycle in Paris, but it was better than the alternative.
That issue being resolved, I spent the next few days touring around Madrid. The day before my flight I decided to cycle into the airport on the off-chance there was a better solution. I asked at the counter whether they might have a bicycle box, and the woman at the counter said, “You mean like this?” and pulled a box out! Problem solved. The bike being lost anyway when I flew into Paris is another story…
Isn’t there water in the way?
I’m going to tie pool noodles to my bike, and flippers on the rear wheel…
I get this question every time my path crosses water. I take a plane or ferry, like everyone else. (And no, I won’t ride in circles on the deck, they won’t let you.) Everyone seems to ask this question and think it’s original and funny.
How far are you going?
Absolutely no idea. However far I want to go.
The total distance doesn’t matter after a certain point. It’s just a matter of how long I will be away from home.
How far will you cycle every day?
Averaging 40(ish) miles. Weather, hills, head/tail winds, what shape I’m in, as well as what’s along the way, factor heavily into that. I tend to start slow, and build up distance over time. I also take days off to rest and recover.
I usually average ~10 mph, so that’s about 4 hours of cycling spread out across the day. I’m really slow-the typical cyclist in the US in spandex and neon is typically going 18-28 mph. They can cycle in a couple of hours as far as I go all day!
On my first tour in 1989, I was in southern Germany figuring out what my current cash situation was, and realized that with my average daily spending, I would be out of cash before I was back in England for my return flight. After some calculations, I decided if I significantly increased my daily total miles I could make it back. I arrived in England having done 250k / day for about 10 days, and was out of cash. I expected to spend my last night there camping in a field, but woke that final day to find the two cyclists I’d met the night before had paid for my campsite. The US Customs officials let me through Customs to go to an ATM to pay the import duty on my maps.
How much does your bicycle weigh?
My bicycle, with racks but no gear, weights 28.5 pounds. My gear (including panniers) weighs roughly 22 lbs (10 kilos). My bicycle, fully-loaded, with food and water, weighs roughly ~72 lbs.
What will you eat?
Anything not moving fast enough? The same things I eat here really. A lot of grains and fruits. And cookies.
I was in Denmark with a German cyclist I’d met along the way, doing the mundane task of shopping for groceries. As I loaded up my basket with my usual supplies he grabbed my arm and said, “Not those! Those cookies are 1500 kilocalories. These! These cookies are 1800 kilocalories!”
Nuts are good for fat content. Protein will also help stabilize your energy levels.
Do you travel by yourself, or with a group?
Typically just me, although I run into cyclists along the way that are headed along the same path.
On a recent trip I started by dragging a couple of friends along with me for the first third of the trip. For the next third I was (mostly) alone, but for the third third I cycled on the El Camino with Sam. While I enjoy the group cycling thing, this time I’m seeking some lazy alone time. Now for next year … but that’s another story.
On a trip in Sweden, only two days out of Stockholm I ran across another cyclist tinkering with his bike. Turns out he’d made a bet with his friends that he couldn’t cycle to Norway (I believe there was also a girl involved). He’s bought a bike at a second-hand shop, tossed together what he could find, and was making his way in that direction. We cycled together for four days before our intended paths diverged enough that we went our separate ways. It was a great fit. I had touring experience (including the tools to improve his cycling circumstance) and he could fill me in on the wheres and whys of how things worked in Sweden.
Does your wife go with you?
Long-distance cycling (and going walkabout in general) really isn’t Marnie’s thing. That’s not to say she hasn’t done it. She came with me for a week during one of my four week trips to England, and our honeymoon was four weeks of self-supported cycling in Ireland.
And your wife lets you?
I’m always confused by this question. Marnie and I don’t “let” each other do anything. But to answer the root of the question, Marnie’s OK with it. Mostly.
Do you know where you’re going to stay?
No, I don’t have a detailed itinerary.
Before the dominance of Amazon, it was hard to find maps in advance for parts of Europe, and if you could find them, they were more like 1:1,000,000 scale (mostly super-highways), so not really useful for touring. I’ve even had to go so far as land in the airport, and buy my first map in the airport book store. Now I can usually find 1:300,000 or so scale maps on-line, which are more appropriate for touring to find my way.
Do you use a GPS?
I use the GPS on my smartphone.
While I typically carry a map as backup, I now rely on the GPS on my phone, and the OSMAnd+ app (which provides all the country map and POI information without requiring cell signal). It’s especially helpful in a big city. But to rely solely on one device, or not banging it into something and being without direction? Nope.
Where do you stay?
Historically it works out to about 40% camping, 40% hostels, and 20% “Other.” That can depends on the country, and how good my maps are.
Sometimes even when I have a plan it’s not quite what I expect. Once after a day of pouring rain, I arrived at my intended hostel to find it full. I headed to a campground on the other side of town as my alternate camping plan. But as I stood there in the lobby of the campground, soaking wet, with it still pouring rain outside, I saw they rented those small camping cabins. I spent the night toasty warm and dry, with wet gear draped about the room to dry out.
“Other” can be any number of things. I’ve camped wild (off into the countryside off the road), as well as stayed in abandoned buildings (and even a castle once). I’m occasionally invited to stay with people. A couple of times I’ve even stayed in a hotel!
While I haven’t had a lot of luck with them in the past, I’m also likely to give couchsurfing.com and warmshowers.com (with cyclists as the membership base) a try here and there. I prefer to meet people, and you don’t meet people while trying to hide in the woods. On the other hand, if I’ve met someone and am cycling with them, then that again makes more sense.
I was somewhere in the “wilds” of Denmark where I saw another cyclist clearly looking for somewhere to sleep that night off the side of the road. We talked for a while, and I joined his that night, where the two of us swapped stories by headlamp-light. We cycled together for the next couple of days until destinations caused us to go our separate ways.
I could never do that!
Cycle touring isn’t for everyone. There are all sorts of emotional and physical reasons why someone couldn’t bike tour. But you don’t have to be in spectacular physical shape. Europe is small (there’s no point in Ireland less than 100 miles from the ocean).
Everything in Europe tends to be closer than you expect. My home state of NC has an almost identical population and area as Greece. If you look at North Carolina, it has hostels in three places: On the coast, in Raleigh, and in the Appalachians. One night in Germany I went to five different (and full) hostels before spending the night in the campground across the street.
I have a personal theory that every country has the same number of interesting things. When you compare the US to most European countries, those things are a lot closer to one another. You just don’t have to bike far to find things to see, you just have to break the mindset of only visiting capital cities.
How much does your stuff weigh?
I travel fully self-supported–tent, sleeping bag, stove, etc. I pay close attention to weight, and over the years have collected top-end gear, so my entire touring rig is about 10 kg. But my first tour was an aluminum army mess kit and a Boy Scout-style pup tent. I prefer to be able to support myself for as many use-cases as possible, but people also credit-card tour, where they rely on getting a room every night.
Aren’t you afraid?
To be honest, I range from blasé to terrified. The first few days are always hard, as I have to figure out what’s going on, and settle into a routine. Even then, I know that while many days will be awesome, there will be those days that suck. And that status can swing at a moment’s notice.
But the payback on that investment is spectacular.