So You Want To Bicycle Tour? Two Veteran Riders Share Their Tips
Read how two women have seen the world from the vantage point of a bicycle seat. We hope that our experiences inspire you to embark on your own adventure!
Bicycle touring is my favorite way to see new lands and I have one family to thank for introducing me to the world of two-wheel travel; the Happs.
Barbara Happ is now 76 and she continues to tour with her husband, Norman. Barb started touring at age 32 when her husband’s family planned a tour around the Finger Lakes in New York state. Over her lifetime she has toured in both the United States and Europe.
Since my teenage introduction to touring with the Happs I have ridden across Canada and through six European countries. My trips have been self-guided, with one other woman, though not always the same woman. The tours have ranged from 16 days to two months.
How do you plan a tour?
BH - I set a goal, check the climate, look at the location(s), check the dates, and then the long-range planning and dreaming phase starts.
CD - My bike partner and I figure out places of interest. Once selected, our biggest challenge is arriving at the starting place at the same time because we live on different coasts.
How do you train?
BH – I maintain my physical fitness with fun rides almost daily and then stretch them longer. Before the most recent self-contained Ireland tour, we went on a two-day, fully loaded overnight ride to a B&B 40 miles in the summer to Purcellville, VA. Sweaty! I also swim three times a week and workout too.
CD - I carry books in my panniers to simulate the weight and slowly increase the weight and mileage over the months.
What kind of bicycle do you recommend?
BH- Generally, I’ve found that my bike (and tour) match the phase of our life. I started with a 10-speed road bike, then mountain, hybrids, custom road, tandems, hybrids again, now Fuji ebikes. They fit all our biking needs now! We rented ebikes in Ireland and by coincidence they were the same as we own! Flying with
bikes to England and Norman and Barbara Happ, Ireland, 2019
MO was ok a while
ago. Now we rent overseas and enjoy fixed-based tours.
CD - I tour on a mountain bike that was made in 1988. The more miles I put on that bike, the more sentimental value it has, the harder it is to replace it. I like the more upright body position than a road bike and the steel frame provides a smoother ride than a lighter aluminum frame. I use the narrowest street tires that fit the rims to help reduce friction.
Have you ever used a folding bike?
BH- Folding bikes are a challenge. We took a Bike Two'sDay tandem to MO in two special suitcases and the assembly took too much time!
How do you pick where to visit and where to stay overnight?
BH– I camped on our early tours, then used hostels with kids and campgrounds. We have used B&Bs and lodges on many group tours and hotels when local B&B’s are not available.
CD– I did a lot of free camping when I was younger. I like camp grounds and youth hostels too as they are an economical option and common in Europe. In Europe many farm houses rent rooms and that's a nice alternative too.
Have you ever had an accident while touring?
CD– The short answer is no. I’ve found that when riding with someone else, it’s important to always stay no further apart than earshot from each other. I learned this when my bicycle slipped in a rain storm and my bike partner couldn’t hear me yell.
What are your top three recommendations regarding things you do when you’re touring?
BH - Do lots of planning but be flexible. Pack light. Always carry your food and water and check on the surfaces for riding.
CD – I reserve a hotel room at the beginning and end of the tour and explore the town the day after arriving to mitigate jet lag. I eat the local food and never eat American foods when abroad. If I’m in a foreign country, I learn enough “travel speak” so that I can be polite, reserve a room over the phone, ask for directions, and ask how much something costs.
Do you ask locals for their recommendations when you ride into a new town?
BH - Locals are car oriented mostly. I don't ask except for rest rooms and vegan food options. While many tours include wineries, historic sites, museums etc., we just keep on peddling for it is the biking we enjoy the most. We ask other bikers about their trip, but they often had other goals. For example, in Ireland we met a couple a bit older and on narrow tire touring bikes. They were biking similar routes but they stayed two nights in each B&B and had their luggage brought to the B&B.
Norman and Barbara Happ, Ireland, 2019
What has been your favorite place to tour and why?
BH– I love the Shenandoah Valley for its beauty, rolling hills, long stretches of biking along the valleys near streams and over mountains! We like Rails to Trails, particularly the W&OD (daily), and the Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania is also a favorite. Tow paths are narrow and often crowded with pedestrians. We have our own hybrid bicycles with relatives in Los Altos Hills, CA and love the trails and hills there too! (we don't ride ‘off road').
CD- Austria has been my favorite country because they have a wonderful path system that connects the towns and cities. The paths removed the stress of navigating traffic and getting lost. The country’s scenery was so stunningly beautiful that I felt like I was riding through a post card. And their food was fresh and delicious. They don’t have an organic designation because everything there is grown organically.
Cindy Dick before a ride into town from the camp ground
Zell am See, Austria (2012)
What have you learned from touring?
BH- Have a good buddy, a plan, GPS (and sometimes RideWithGPS) but don't over plan and take too much. Know your limits (for example, I like a private bathroom and a 35-45 miles/day now), have contingency for foul weather (lights, good equipment and clothing, a good book, a place to walk or swim). If on a group tour, ensure you have options away from the group (unguided touring is good!). As you age, plan trips with the appropriate length, difficulty, and options that fit your physical ability and interests. We started with bicycle camping with our kids, then we went on long weekend and annual tours with a great group of friends...mostly VA, MD, WV, NC, DE. And then we ventured abroad.
CD - When I biked across Canada the summer after I graduated college I had little money so I came up with fund raising ideas to cover the two months of expenses. From that experience I learned that I can do anything as long as I plan and prepare. I also learned that people like to help.
Tell us about your trips overseas?
BH- We loved the two recent bike and barge tours in Europe because we didn’t have to pack up every night and the meals were mostly great on the barge (we are vegans). Biking was mostly flat and fabulous in Germany, Austria and The Netherlands.
CD– After biking across Canada, I biked through The Netherlands, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic in one trip. The next one was through Sweden and the most recent one was in Austria. Some of the countries were picked because they were places of our heritage.
Has touring changed for you from when you were younger?
BH- YES! Biking is our main activity almost every day, all year round. We have such good memories as we’ve aged. Only a few of our friends still bike and they are either faster or slower than us. I'm 76 and my husband is 77.
CD– Before the Austrian trip in 2012, I felt a little more vulnerable than ever before I embarked on the trip. Once in Europe though, I felt at home. It also took me more time to train and recover in my late 40’s as to when I was in my early 20’s.
Laurie Krzywda (biking partner) on the path in Austria, 2012
Why would you recommend bicycle touring to someone?
BH – The fresh air, exercise, fun, meeting people, and going to places that I would not have found alone. It’s a great way to see the world!
CD– I find that people aren’t threatened when they see we’re on bicycles loaded with gear. (And it’s not because they see us as women. On the Canadian trip, my partner and I had a flat top hair cuts and I can’t tell you how many people asked us, “Where you fellas from?”) My bike partner and I have been invited into houses for meals or given a place to stay. We’ve had food brought to us or bought for us. We were even asked to sign a family bible! I’ve learned that people like to help. I also love not knowing what each day will bring.
Additional tips have been added below. If you have questions about bicycle touring, please write email@example.com. Please note that we don't give brand recommendations because equipment changes frequently.
Bicycle – The number one rule is to be comfortable! You’ll be riding for hours at a time, day after day. If you are carrying your own gear, the front and rear forks need to have holes so that bike racks can be attached. Racks hold the panniers.
Panniers– These are your bags. I recommend the Ortlieb style because they are waterproof, durable and have reflector markings. These are the yellow and red bags in the picture. They don't have as many separate pockets as other bags and that's because more pockets equals more seams.
Gear - Do your homework when it comes to gear. You don’t need more than a couple days of clothes: one outfit for walking around town, two good pairs of bicycle shorts, bike jerseys, a pair of bike gloves, a helmet, bike shoes because they have stiffer soles and can clip into the peddles. I like the shoe that you can walk in that have clips. This allows me to use that shoe to comfortably walk around town. Bring comfortable shoes when in camp.Bungies and duct tape can solve many problems. Know how to change a tire and carry a tire patch kit and spare tube with you. A bike pump. Sun screen is a must! A camping headlamp, sleeping mattress, pot, pan, cup, plate, bowl, utensils, “swiss army” knife, and a tent. Do a trial run with all your gear before you leave. Having a speedometer helps you know the distance traveled. If traveling outside of the US, make sure it also measures distance in kilometers. Also see the photo above for a list of equipment.
Tools – If you are flying your bike to your starting location you will need to remove your pedals. I borrow a pedal wrench from a bike store and carry it with me. A compact tool repair kit made for bicycles and tire irons is a must.
Tent – I like a three-season tent with a long fly that extends over the entrance. This way, you can fit your panniers under the flap if you want, or even cook there if it rains. Waterproof the seams on your tent, even if they are factory sealed. And make sure you have a ground cloth.
Camping stove – If you are camping and traveling abroad, make sure the country you are traveling through sells the camp stove fuel you need. Fuel can vary from gasoline, propane, to white gas. I also like the type of stove that has a lighter switch and doesn’t require matches.
Sleeping bag – I sewed a sheet like a sack and slip that inside my sleeping bag. This way I can use the sheet that the youth hostels require and it’s easier to wash than my down sleeping bag. I prefer down because it compresses to the size of a football. You just have to be careful not to get down wet.
Maps - Waterproof your maps and only carry the maps you need. Or use your GPS if you have a smart phone. Be aware of international charges when using your smart phone.
Youth Hostels - If you are touring in Europe and want to use youth hostels, find out if they require an international membership. Most youth hostels are not just for youth but if they are, they will say so. Youth hostels are less expensive than hotels and you get to meet a myriad of people from around the world.
When flying your bike - Since 9-11, most airlines require that bicycles are boxed. I get a bike box from my local bicycle store. There are two challenges with boxing your bike and having it fly on a plane – risking damage and finding a bike box for the return flight. Take off your wheels and pedals, release the air in the tires, and remove the derailleur. Make sure you have the tools to put everything back together upon arrival. One time I landed and the bike arrived but the airline temporarily lost my bag that had my pedals. Protect the teeth of your gears so that they don’t poke out of the box or get bent. Pack your panniers in large duffle bags and hold onto the bags for the flight back. Pick an airport that is easy to ride out of once you hit the road.
Rain gear – This is probably the most important piece of clothing you have. If you get sick, the tour is usually over so invest wisely. Rain gear should be breathable, good quality, and designed for bicycling. This means the jacket sometimes includes air vents and has reflective piping for safety. Get rain booties. It took me many tours before I discovered the joy of having dry feet while riding through the rain. I also recommend, but haven't used yet, a rear fender to reduce spray.
Pick your riding partner wisely - Traveling this way is a different kind of vacation because there are inherent stresses built into the adventure. When traveling somewhere out of your comfort zone, everything you do becomes a decision. This is compounded in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language; navigating road signs, buying food, reading menus, and communicating with the locals can be stressful when you’re hungry and tired. Dealing with inclement weather can also be challenging so being prepared and supportive of each other makes all the difference.
Take time for yourself - As Barb mentioned, take time away from your group. Spending time away from your bicycle partner doesn’t mean you don’t like them; it means you just need time for yourself.
Attitude - Be open to the adventure and enjoy not knowing what the day will bring.