I’m a traveller first and foremost, and that is my main reason for loving cycling. I can’t think of any other mode of transport that will allow you to see this much, get this close to your destination or give you this much flexibility; cars whizz past, trains don’t allow you to stop, tubes do both in depressing darkness, and whilst walking is great, it’s just, well – slow.
Cycling, on the other hand, is fast enough to move you along at a nice pace, but slow enough to notice that hidden cafe, laugh at that funny sign or discover things your guidebook didn’t mention. Outlandish as it might sound, cycling is my favourite way of exploring and one of my top tips for travellers. And, no, great fitness is normally not required, nor does it necessarily make you all hot and bothered.
Here’s how to make it work.
Stop and stare...
Stop, as in take time to investigate all the interesting things you come across. The whole point of the exercise is to see (and eat!) things you otherwise wouldn’t, so allow yourself time to depart from schedule. Thanks to cycling, I’ve been in a Nepalese traffic jam caused by cows (very cute, and being on a bike I got past when everyone else was stuck), discovered Norway’s best cinnamon buns in Lofoten, and seen the world’s oldest prefabricated house in Austria (Villa Blumenthal in Bad Ischl – dismantled and reassembled three times, no less), none of which I would otherwise have done.
City sightseeing or country-side excursions? The first requires a guide book and a vague idea of route, if you want to visit specific sights, whilst cycling shorts might be a good idea for the second. Either way, a good map is rather useful, since losing yourself in interesting alleys or country lanes is only fun if you can find your way back again. And you’ll save yourself some bother if have some idea which routes are best in advance.
Also, figure out where to rent the bikes before you leave home. If you are going to Holland, say, then it’s fairly safe to say that you’ll find more bikes than you’ll know what to do with, and a decent hotel in any location ought to be able to help you, but it’s still a good idea to come armed with some phone numbers of rental companies.
…and just as you’ve prepared yourself and made all those lovely plans, be prepared to scrap them. Ask around, listen to local advice and change your plans accordingly. The old town of Seville isn’t made for cycling, as it turns out, but the river area is, and the guy who thrust bikes at us on the island of Aegina in Greece really had a point.
Cycling is a bit like having a dog, I’ve noticed – it gets you talking to people. The bike might not be quite as proactive in that department as the dog, but cyclists tend to be friendly folk who like to stop for a chat with like-minded people. Great for swapping tales and recommendations on routes.
Conversely, if you’re in a country where cycling isn’t part of the culture, you’ll have a ready-made conversation topic with any local who stares at you with bemusement and incredulity. He, or she, will have a great story to tell friends of that mad foreigner who thought cycling in Athens was a good idea (yes, that was me), and you might get some insider tips on where to point your wheels next (much head-scratching here from the Athenians, but there was consensus that the islands were very nice. Rather missed the point of cycling in Athens itself, but still).
Weave food into your trip
A snack stop in Croatia
Apart from building up an appetite, thus making cream cakes guilt-free pleasures, a day on a bike can take you via markets, bakeries, pubs, cafes and restaurants, and the one does not necessarily exclude the others. You can make scheduled stops at famous eateries, even if they’re several miles apart, or be impulsive and stop wherever takes your fancy. Either way, there’s no better way to try local delicacies, especially since you can expect to burn at least 400 calories per hour (and that’s conservative). No reason not to put it back on again…
Patisseries make the world a better place…
Whether it’s just some dried figs from the local market you passed by or a full-on picnic, making use of that front basket or pannier is just plain sensible. You never know what you’ll find, and a beautiful view or a scenic park bench become even nicer if you’ve had the foresight to make a stop by a local bakery. It is my firm belief that the world becomes a better place when experienced alongside pastries, tarts and cakes of all descriptions…
Just one snippet of practical advice – nothing is much fun when you’re parched and dying of thirst, which is a not too unlikely a scenario unless you find yourself cycling in the Indian monsoon. Nothing is much fun in the rain either, though, to be honest, so I’d stick with bringing plenty of bottled water for excursions in dry’ish weather. Having said that, being caught in a sudden downpour in Denmark was one of my best cycling experiences – we were by the beach, so decided to abandon the bikes and go for a rainy swim since we were soaked through anyway. We dried up over a hot chocolate back at our cabin and agreed that it was by far our best outing of the trip.