Firstly, let me just say, I am not a lycra clad, cleat wearing, five thousand dollar bike riding fanatic. In any sense.
And yet, I love the concept of cycle touring. And here’s why.
On a bike, you’re not looking at the landscape, you’re a part of the landscape. On a bus tour, you’re protected from the smells, the temperature fluctuations, the sounds of children hurtling down to the road yelling the word for “foreigner” at the top of their lungs. On a bike, you get all of this and more.
In many countries, you’re travelling how the locals travel, so kids high five you as they ride off to school, and ladies with baskets full of vegetables smile and wave as they head home from the market. In Myanmar, the road workers – mostly women carrying rocks in handmade baskets and placing them onto the road by hand – would laugh and clap and wave as we rode past. It felt momentarily like I might have been in the Tour de France (if it wasn’t for my pedestrian pace).
And the locals find you fascinating. In Myanmar, while waiting for a ferry, a group of lads gathered around to inspect our bikes. They had never seen so many gears. And wherever we went, local people were amused and bemused at the fact that we would choose to ride our bikes when clearly we could afford to go by car or bus. We were a huge novelty, and it was a great icebreaker.
You’re off the beaten path. The good bike touring companies will take you off the main roads as much as possible, because it’s not fun to ride with fume-belching trucks bearing down on you, and because it’s far more interesting to dart down little laneways through tiny villages, past sleeping dogs (I’ve only ever had one dog chase me with any malintent), stopping for photos whenever you please. If you see the locals fishing in a muddy little pond in rural Cambodia, you can stop and watch and cheerfully shout your encouragement. When your guide points out a local wedding in a stilted house and says “Do you want to go and see?” you can’t get off your bike fast enough (we were quite a hit at that wedding, by the way). When a herd of cattle cross the road in front of you, you can reach out and touch them, and generally, they don’t even mind.
You’re exercising a lot, which completely justifies that second or third ice cold beer and the small mountain of spring rolls you’ll eat at dinner.
When you really can’t be bothered, there’s an airconditioned bus with a smiling driver and an esky full of cold drinks waiting for you. Sometimes, you just can’t muster the enthusiasm. Maybe it was that questionable pork you had at dinner last night, or maybe the 35 degree heat and 85% humidity is taking its toll, it really doesn’t matter. There’s never any shame in hopping onto the sag wagon, if you’re so inclined. I decided against riding 25km up a hill to Kalaw in Myanmar, for example and it’s a decision I have never regretted.
The tough days are a bonding experience. Most likely, you start the trip as a bunch of strangers from all over the world. I’ve ridden with German neuroscientists, an English orthodontist who now lives in Hong Kong, Canadian accountants, and a bevy of Belgians among many others. By the end of the trip, you are well and truly bonded. A ninety kilometre ride on a dusty and bumpy road in Cambodia, accompanied by a stabbing pain behind my left knee for the last twenty kilometres ended with a blizzardly cold beer in the carpark of our hotel. We were covered head to toe in red dust, punctuated by muddy rivulets of sweat. It was an experience that galvanised our friendships forever (ably assisted by Facebook!).
You don’t have to be super fit. As I said, I’m not one of those people you see riding in packs in full lycra on a Saturday morning, although I don’t mind the occasional spin along a bike path around the river on my own, from time to time. Leading up to a longer bike tour, I’ll do some preparation to ensure I’m saddle ready, mainly so I’m not too sore to get back onto the bike on Day Two. When I did a couple of short tours in Cambodia, I did no preparation at all.
You’re not on the bike all the time. All of the bike tours I’ve done have included an array of non-cycling activities. Whether it’s a cooking school in Siem Reap, or a boat ride on Inle Lake in Myanmar, or hiking to a hill village near Kalaw, or drifting through a floating market on the Mekong Delta, the good tour operators will ensure that there are plenty of non-cycling things to do to ensure that your butt gets a break.
So far, I’ve only participated in guided tours in Asia, but my next big trip includes a self-guided cycling tour in France. In this case, there’s no sag wagon (gasp!), but all our accommodation, luggage transport, trip notes and maps and bike equipment are organised for us. We’ll do the riding at our own pace, stopping frequently for cheese. I’ll let you know how we go.
Fantastic bike tour companies that I have travelled with, and can highly recommend:
Spice Roads – Cycling adventures in Asia (and beyond – they now tour in countries such as Albania and Bulgaria as well)
Grasshopper Adventures – Cycling and photography adventures in Asia