On the road

The Basics of Cycling Touring

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When someone says the word “cyclist”, the image that likely comes to your mind is a spandex-clad, wiry Lance Armstrong look-alike standing in his pedals, mashing up a steep incline.  But that’s not all that cycling has to offer.  My personal love of cycling has nothing to do with speed, and everything to do with touring.

So what exactly is touring?

There are many different types of bike tours, and whether your tour will entail simply picking your bike up and going for an afternoon, or require vacation time, planning, packing, camping supplies and maps, is up to you;  but ultimately touring is a lot like taking a road trip:  the goal is to get from point A to point B while taking in the world around you.

So what kinds of tours are there, and what can you expect from them?

Supported Rides

When cyclists talk about “Support” (or SAG) on a ride or tour, they are referring to the existence of a vehicle that provides as-needed assistance to the cyclists participating in the ride.  This may include providing basic cycling repairs, transporting cyclists who experience mechanical failures and/or non-life-threatening injuries, and providing access to refills on food, water, and supplies through established stops along the route.

Most Century rides are a good example of supported rides:  Hosted annually to raise money and/or awareness for the group and/or a particular cause, cyclists register in advance and can pick from several routes ranging anywhere from 15 to 100 miles, depending on the specific ride.  Rest stops provide an assortment of food and drink options, and occasionally volunteer bike techs to assist with mechanical issues, while a roaming van provides support for riders that need it in between the rest stops.  I’ve participated in several around the DC/MD/VA area, including Six Pillars and the Seagull Century;  The Covered Bridge Metric Century is a remarkably pleasant ride through Amish Country in Lancaster, PA.

Guided Tours come in a couple different flavors.  Available in most major cities in developed countries, guided day tours are a great way to learn about a city.  Much like your traditional sight-seeing tour (and comparable in cost), a group of cyclists will follow a tour guide on a predetermined route, stopping to learn about sights along the way.  You cover far more ground than you would via a walking tour, but get a better feel of the city while also burning far more calories than on a tour in a bus or trolley.

There are also several companies that  operate multi-day tours across the US and Europe;  Some companies offer select routes in less developed areas of the world.  These tours last anywhere from five days to several weeks, covering a variety of terrain for cyclists of all experience levels.  Many of them will offer differing distance options within the same ride — with the riders opting for the shorter routes climbing into the van at specific points along the route while the die-hards pedal it out to the final destination for the day.  These guided tours can be pricey, but offer the convenience of managing logistics relating to lodging, sight-seeing, and food along the route.  I’ve personally never been one, but their sites offer a wealth of information about routes, preparations, etc.:

Unsupported Rides

That said, it’s entirely feasible to do all of these things without the guidance of organizing, responsible party;  and if you’ve ever taken your bike out for a spin in the neighborhood, you’ve participated in an unsupported ride.

Unsupported tours basically take your standard neighborhood jaunt up a notch, or eleven:

Rail trails are mixed use trails that were created from historical railroad paths.  Trains don’t like inclines very much, which means rail trails offer cyclists, runners, pedestrians, and occasionally even equestrians relative ease of use;  Some of the historic, preserved rail trails stretch hundreds of miles across multiple states.

Most large cities will have some sort of mixed use trail a novice cyclist can access, but sometimes these trails hide in plain sight.  DC has an extensive network of these trails, and yet I’d lived in the area for over a decade before realizing any of them existed.  It wasn’t until I started cycling that I realized what an amazing resource I had at my disposal.  If you need a place to start, Trail Link is an extensive database of such trails across the country.

Cycling can also be incorporated into otherwise non-cycling themed trips fairly easily by renting a bike to navigate the sights on your own.   The same major cities that offer guided bike tours will likely offer bicycle rentals, and the proliferation of bikeshare services offer economical ways to obtain a bike when you’re not at home.  Conducting a self guided sightseeing rides may require a little more up-front planning in terms of mapping out your route, and it can be harrowing to cycle through streets when you don’t quite know where you’re going, but much like the guided tours, it offers the option to cover way more ground than you would be able to do by walking.

But let’s face it — After a while, cycling around the neighborhood gets boring.  This is where tossing your bike into the car and taking a trip out of your city can alleviate the plateau that comes from taking the same routes every day.  When I begin to itch for new rides, I use a little internet sleuthing and apps like MapMyRide and Strava to find routes from organized rides, and then replicate them on my own.  You can also often find routes and cue sheets on sites for local cycling clubs in that area.  The Lancaster bicycle club, for example, has an excellent catalog of routes of varying distance through Amish Country.

Credit-Card Touring is the closest replication of the traditional road trip that one can have on a bike.  It involves is packing as little as possible for the duration of time you plan to be away, and leveraging credit cards is to secure food, watching launching, and hopefully, laundry.  Depending on your disposable income, a credit card fueled tour can last quite a long time and cover a lot of ground.  It also provides the fulfillment to up having achieved a feat of physical prowess while not having to give up the luxury that is a warm shower.

Last but not least, Bikepacking is an option for those who love to rough it, and want to pedal themselves to their campsite.  Bikepacking involves hauling camping gear and food supplies in addition to the clothing and bicycling equipment that one would bring along during credit card tour;  Depending on the route, and level of wilderness immersion desired, it may also involve riding across varied terrain and some investment in ultra-light camping gear.  As I’m not an avid camper, this is a form of touring I have yet to fully delve into, though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

So there you have it.  As you can see, there are about as many types of bike tours as there are places to travel.  My hope is that at least one of these types of rides has piqued your interest as something you may want to attempt in the future.  I promise, it’s a world of fun.

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