On a ride in Tuscany, we stopped where the leader of a bike tour was loading bicycles onto the roof of a van. “Where are you from?” he asked. We told him. “Just the two of you?” “Yes”, we replied, “any suggestions for interesting routes?” He gave us two. Then he smiled and said enthusiastically, “You go where you want, when you want, you are doing it the right way”. He was about 30 yrs old and Don and I were nearing 60. It IS the thrill of the open road; the excitement of adventure and it is mentally and physically exhilarating. And you can do it!
I didn’t really appreciate bicycling until I was 50 years old. Perhaps it was the many alternatives, the time crunch, the old bike with its flat tires, the sport’s emphasis on youth and speed which I no longer had. By the time I reached 50, I fell in love with the bicycle again and have discovered new and wonderful ways to enjoy cycling. Bicycle trips have become a mechanism to stay in touch with many of my friends and family members. We now take vacations where there is good cycling. I still have trouble fixing a flat tire yet I’ve taken my bicycle to France and Italy, not without some angst. The world has become more bicycle friendly and more health conscious. The two are related.
This book includes a description of what worked for my friends and me and suggestions for cycle touring. My emphasis is on enjoyment, not distance or speed. It is pleasure touring, not competitive cycling. When asked where I cycle, I often reply from beautiful site to beautiful site and from restaurant to bistro. Indeed, the bicycle is a vehicle to take you to wonderful places. For me, it is not a challenge sport. We often take two hour lunches. We rarely cycle more than 40 miles/day, usually 25. If I am going to rent a bike, I take my own seat and usually find it preferable to the one already mounted. I never biked with someone who wore a Lycra body suit–I would have trouble fitting into one at the start of a trip. I am a “Sunday rider” except for a few select weeks and weekends when I am touring. On most Sunday mornings, a dozen of us usually ride 10 miles over a few well-worn routes and stop for coffee and conversation for one hour before going home, usually by noon. Yet, for certain select weeks, I will joyfully bike every day in some place I have never seen before.
Once, I bicycled 75 miles in one day and, as I flopped into my motel room bed lacking the energy to brush my teeth, I said “Never again”. I love bicycling, but I barely bike 700 miles/year. There is a bike path near my home in St. Louis and I often bike the 7 mile loop. It is always a delight. Also delightful is my annual 1-2 week bicycle touring trip. I tour with a friend all day every day and the bicycle is our vehicle of choice to go from one site to another. Some of my most pleasurable rides were less than 20 miles for the day and I rarely average more than 30 miles/day on my tours. It is not necessary to torment your buns to have a wonderful vacation with a bicycle. Even in France, which may be the best place to bicycle, we have had superb vacations averaging 25 miles/day or 40 kilometres/jour with barely enough time to see all the local interesting sites we wanted to see in the long daylight days of summer. The purpose of this book is to convince you that you can have a wonderful bicycle vacation even if you do not bicycle regularly, even if you cannot bear to think of bicycling more than 30 miles in a day. Moreover, I did not begin to bicycle vacation until I was past 50 years old. Neither did my friend, Don, with whom I have taken a majority of my annual tours. The reward is that wonderful feeling of being in tune with your surroundings, the joy of not only seeing a field of flowers but actually smelling them. It is a cousin to hiking and totally different from automobile touring. Even now, I recall looking out of the sliding glass doors of our B&B in Provence, a beautiful open field of flowers, the mountains in the distance, the smell of breakfast, good fresh coffee, mouth watering rolls, local lavender honey, olives and cheese. We moved our table onto the lawn in the morning sunlight and planned the day’s tour–a bike ride to nearby villages and gardens, perhaps a picnic lunch under a tree in a farmer’s field, more touring and be back in time for a glorious dinner with the cost of room and all meals not much more than $100/day for each of us.
At the Gettysburg battlefield one summer day, we spent several hours bicycling and hiking, touring the entire area. It would have taken too long to just walk and it would have conveyed much less meaning seeing it through the window of a car or breaking the mood by going back to a hot car to get to the next battle area. From the car, it is like watching a movie but I wanted to be in it and I can do that on a bicycle. That same sense of participation was felt even more strongly when we toured the beaches of Normandy in France. Riding along narrow bike paths in constant view of the sea, the battlements and the monuments seemed to surround us, open in plain view. We had the time to think about what happened there more than 50 years earlier as we cycled down village roads that connected towns I had heard about in books and documentary films.
After we both achieved our 54th birthdays, my friend Don and I have gone on an annual summer 1-2 week biking trip for the past 10 years. Don lives on the East Coast so we meet in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Calgary, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and Burlington, VT. Our standard technique is to meet at the airport, rent a car, get a bike rack or use our own, load the bikes on the rack and head off. Thus, we are mobile beyond our preferred biking range of ca. 20-45 miles/day. With the car, we can begin our cycling at an appropriate place allowing us to choose the most enjoyable cycling route, typically covering as many miles as terrain, topography, tourist stops and weather dictate. We can stay in B & Bs out of town and drive to restaurants of our choice. We do love to eat well after a full day of biking and that is a critical factor in choosing where we bike.
By planning our own trip, we can choose the length of the trip, the time of the year, as well as the location. We choose the general location first. Most frequently, we stay in a central location for 2-4 days taking day trips with light gear and then, on the basis of local tips, what we have seen, weather, etc., move on to another location. On our first bike tour, which was in Michigan, Don and I stopped in a bicycle store as soon as we arrived and the owner said that if it were he taking a tour he would immediately go to the Leelanau peninsula a few hundred miles north. We did and he was right. The key is to choose a location with many scenic areas in close proximity. In many parts of the U.S., France or Italy, that is easy.
With my west coast friend, Arthur, I have bike toured self-contained, carrying everything I need on rear panniers and a handlebar bag. It is more confining but, in many ways, more gratifying.
In preparation for my first trip with Don, I read books and articles that outlined routes, especially circular routes, focusing on those that were not too long in distance. To our surprise, we almost never followed them. We always found something better, especially in France where the excellent topological maps allow you additional choices and improvisations on the spot. These maps are available there locally and worth the expense (approx. $10 per). Alternatively, there are GPS systems and apps that will cover almost anywhere in the U.S. you would like to bike and as long as you have a good battery and a clear link to a satellite, you can ride with confidence.