In an age where almost everybody travels (or has at least has fantasized about doing so), the question of why we travel is almost never asked. When you announce that you go backpacking in Southeast Asia, or following the Inca Trail, or do a year of backbreaking work in Australia everybody just yells “That’s great!” while silently judging you for running away from something or being the cliche that wants to ‘find herself’ by screwing local beach boys in Thailand while getting drunk from a bucket (no judgement….no judgement….)
The moment you announce you’re going to travel on a bicycle, though, this changes. Why would you do that?
Not only were friends, family and colleagues slightly puzzled by our desire to do so. People we met on the road, too, were baffled by the notion that yes, we did come all the way from there to here on a bicycle. And sometimes ‘there’ was only the next village down the road! Especially in Iran and Turkey we met many very kind and helpful people that told us that there is a bus station just over there with a bus that could take us. Or the very kind Iranian that insisted that our bikes plus luggage plus ourselves would really fit into his old Peugeot, although it was very clear to everyone that it would most definitely not. Appreciated the offer though, but since it was a beautiful day to cycle, we left him behind with a severely confused look on his face.
During six months of cycling (and making it to the end, WOOP WOOP!) we’ve had plenty of time to figure out why we’re doing this. Not just travel in general, but on a bike, specifically. Here are some of the reasons.
It is slow, but fast enough.
Travelling by bike is slow (especially when we are doing it, so it seems). This allows to you to see much more than you would if you would zip by in a car, bus or plane. It is amazing to slowly see the landscape change as you drive by. The first grassy patches after cycling in the desert for days. The change in vegetation as you slowly climb a mountain pass. Wildlife on the side of the road. The smell of dead wildlife on the side of the road (one of the moments when I wish I am in a car). Yet, it is fast enough that you won’t be cycling through the same landscape for days or weeks on end. Bill Bryson complains about about his walk through endless and endless forest in “A walk in the woods. Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail”. Because you cover much more distance on a bike than by walking, this is not very likely to happen when you cycle. Except perhaps in Siberia.
It brings you to places where otherwise you would have never been…
Instead of hopping from one big destination to the next, cycling really forces you to, literally, cover the ground in between too. In Iran we could have taken the bus from Shiraz to Isfahan, like most tourists, but we would have missed out on all the tiny villages and amazing landscapes in between.
When backpacking I have been frustrated at times by the lack of transportation options outside of the big tourist destinations. If you would want to visit a faraway cave, for example, the only option might be a taxi, which especially for solo travelers, can end op costing a lot of money. When I visited Durmitor National Park in Montenegro 7 years ago, I arrived there by bus and was more or less stuck in the town, or limited to short day hikes. Only now we visited again on our bikes I realized there is so much more to see, and how absolutely beautiful it is there!
The other fun part is the freedom to take little roads to explore. In parts of Europe (Turkey, Greece, Italy etc.) there are ruins scattered all over the place, so we would often stumble on a random archaeological site. They make for excellent lunch/picnic breaks, of even camp sites!
…But you don’t have anywhere to be.
For us this wasn’t entirely true, because we wanted to make it to Spain by September (made it!) but still, in six months of cycling we took our sweet time. Spot an awesome campsite by the lake but it is only 4pm? We can stop. Want to stay in Isfahan for a week to wait until spring arrives in Northern Iran? Sure, why not. Want to stop in a bar in Italy for yet another aperitivo? Who’s stopping you?
It can be as challenging as you want.
For us inexperienced adventurers, cycling poses just enough of a challenge without really getting risky. If we wanted to play it supersafe and comfortable, we could have camped in campsites or stayed in hotels every night. If you want to get really adventurous, you could cycle through Siberia in winter, or through the Sahara, or something equally crazy. We did somewhere in between: wild camping most nights, but cycling through safe areas like Iran and Europe. The only ‘unsafe’ area of our route was Southeastern Turkey, where we took the bus. Not only for safety reasons, but mostly because it was still freezing when we passed through and we were NOT equipped for winter!
And man, the reward of reaching the top of a mountain pass after a hard climb is more rewarding than I ever had imagined.
Life on the road is simple.
On the road there are only three things that are really important, things we normally take for granted. Enough water, enough food, and a safe place to sleep become your daily priorities. Everything else is just extra. In the beginning you might worry about your sweat stained, muddy clothes but after a while this fades away. Going five days without a shower becomes the new normal. Although, I must say, it is nice that I can wash my hair whenever I want now that we are back in civilization.
The beauty of it all.
We’ve had several moments during this trip that we have been absolutely blown away by the stunning, gorgeous scenery around us. This is, of course, not exclusive to cycletouring, but the nice thing is that this beauty often comes unexpected when you turn around a corner and BAM!, it is there. In your face. Sometimes it is a wide open landscape, a river, a mountain. Sometimes it’s in the details. The first flowers of spring. A blossoming orchard. Iridescent insects buzzing around. In a world full of ugly there is still a lot of beauty to be found.
It is cheap. If you want to.
Because we are “poor” dive instructors we had to travel on a budget. Our budget wasn’t super tight by any means, but it meant that, for example, we chose to spend money on cheese and wine rather than on accommodation. We saved a lot of money by wildcamping most nights, or being hosted through Couchsurfing or Warmshowers. Our bikes are second hand, but you can find even cheaper bikes. Your bike doesn’t need to be anything fancy. It just needs to work. Most of the time. Here you can find excellent resources for nearly free cycle touring.
There are many more reasons why one would embark on a cycle touring trip, but these were the most important ones for us. What are your reasons for travelling by bicycle?