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Travel by Bicycle Worldwide

Bicycling Tours Worldwide

Travel at the Speed of the People You Want to Meet

Faintly, I heard rhythmic clapping and gospel-style singing. Although I felt terminally hungry, low blood sugar usually meant headaches, not hallucinations. However, this was the Transkei region of South Africa and anything seemed possible.

As I followed the sound toward a small cluster of Zulu huts about a quarter of a mile off the road, a woman appeared in the entryway of the windowless hut. Not wanting to impose, I stopped and smiled. “You like church?” she asked.

“Yes.”

She ushered me into the hut, where I joined a circle of worshippers. Christian ritual and African dance fused into a religious celebration like no Sunday service I had ever seen. The worshippers, who looked like an extended family, clapped, danced, and chanted for almost an hour in the dim light of the hut.

Having cycled in Vietnam, Laos, and most recently in South Africa, I have learned to travel at the speed of the people you want to meet and join them when you are invited. Riding in a car is like living in a bubble: the view is great but it isn’t much fun. On the other hand, being outside the bubble is work. So beware, casual Sunday bicyclist.

Here are a few things to consider:

Have van, will bike. Veteran cyclists know that organized self-contained tours offer more flexibility than supported tours. Want to stay an extra day at the great hotel by the beach? No problem. Unfortunately, such a tour means, by definition, that if you want it, you carry it.

Supported tours, which feature “sag wagons” to help with the load, also often offer structured activities, such as guided museum or city tours. In Vietnam, we visited tunnels dug by villagers to protect themselves from American air raids. Negotiating the 10 miles of rutted dirt road on my touring bike to get to the site would have been bone-jarring and wheel-bending, assuming I would have been able to find it at all. Loading everybody onto a van is much easier.

Supported bike tours cater to all types. Finding a tour that has people you enjoy being with is as important as the destination country itself. Consider the route and accommodations, and interview past participants. If you want primarily a biking experience, choose a tour that cycles about 75 miles per day. This will discourage most novice riders, but it will also reduce the amount of time you will have to see the sights. For those who want a more leisurely pace, around 30-45 miles a day is appropriate.

Ask the tour organizer for a rough demographic of the group. What is the average age of the cyclist? Are they couples or mostly singles? Are children included? How many participants will ride? Has the company had any repeat customers? Finally, ask for a referral. When talking to the former customer, ask how knowledgeable the tour guide was about the area.

The best indication of the level of difficulty is whether the tour company offers rentals. No diehard cyclist would ever rent a bicycle for a tour. Companies that offer bicycle rentals are trying to appeal to a wide audience.

Half the clothes, twice the money. This age-old adage for packing applies even to tours with a sag wagon. Bring several pairs of high quality padded cycling shorts since they require at least a day of hanging to dry completely. Tight-fitting biking jerseys are pretty but not necessary; tee-shirts will do for those on a budget. Always wear a helmet. Aggressive driving is not limited to the U.S. Cycling gloves not only offer padding from vibrating handlebars, they also will provide protection in case of a fall.

Expect to have some flats and bring patches and a few extra tubes. Before you leave, have a bike shop inspect the bike for worn brakes, cables, tires, etc.

Again, the best way to get to know the local people is to stop. An amazing number of people will just want to practice their English along the roadside, so give them time. Meeting people is why you escaped the bubble in the first place.

Bicycling Tour Company Options

The following organizations offer bicycle touring options around the world:

International Bicycle Fund, ibike@ibike.org, www.ibike.org. Tours worldwide.

International Mountain Biking Association, www.imba.com.

Europeds (www.europeds.com)

Euro-Bike and Walking Tours, www.eurobike.com

Backroads (www.backroads.com), or the ads in Bicycling magazine.

Van Gogh Tours, www.vangoghtours.com. Trips throughout Europe.

Prague-Vienna Greenways, www.pragueviennagreenways.org. Trips in Austria and the Czech Republic.

I Bike Italy, Inc., www.ibikeitaly.com. Trips in Italy.

Ciclismo Classico, www.ciclismoclassico.com. Trips throughout Italy.

International Bicycle Tours, www.internationalbicycletours.com.

--The Editors