Why and How to Travel by Bike
Plus tips and tricks for bringing your bike on the plane.
Whether or not you’re a cyclist, it’s impossible to ignore bicycles’ ubiquity: Scores of American cities have bike-share programs, bike commuter numbers doubled between 1990 and 2012, and cycling gear even made a cameo in fall fashion shows.
In Europe, where the longtime cycling tradition stretches from France to the Netherlands, Germany just opened the first three-mile stretch of its 100-kilometer superhighway—for bikes. The country that brought us the Autobahn now reportedly wants to remove up to 50,000 cars from the road daily by encouraging cycling as a commuting choice.
This marks a fascinating shift in a complicated transportation game (outside of Amsterdam, where it’s been de rigeur for ages). Nowadays, many cyclists even employ a “BYO Bike” approach when traveling, spending a couple thousand dollars on folding bikes that they can fully break down and load on to a plane. It’s a luxe expenditure, sure, but any cycling aficionado who has ever rented a bike in another city is familiar with its inherent challenges: sticky or nonexistent brakes; creaky chains; a bike too small for a tall frame or too short for a long one. (If you’re renting, pros suggest you call ahead to ask for a frame in your size. Think about how you sit on a bike, too: Do you like to be upright or outstretched? Do you prefer handlebars that are even with, below, or six inches higher than the height of the seat?)
Why travel by bike at all? Hanna Scholz, president of Eugene, Oregon’s Bike Friday, a family-owned company that’s made custom folding bikes in the USA since 1992, says, “Bike riding allows you to be connected to the environment you’re visiting.” By smelling the air and hearing the sounds, she says, you’re “experiencing the sensory and becoming part of [the place]; you’re moving at a speed where you can be connected.” A car, she points out, “moves so fast that you don’t even see the details of the architecture or the cute dog you just passed or that bird. You’re disconnected.”
Scholz’s father and brother—racers who traveled with their bikes—started Bike Friday because they thought, “Wow, this is a pain in the butt,” she laughs. Bikes can be difficult and expensive to check as luggage and impossible to fit in a car. Scholz’s folding bikes start at $890, with customized versions starting at $1300 and going up from there. Some models can carry up to 200 pounds in luggage (or children); some are tandems; some (although most cyclists rely upon racks and hanging bags) can even drag a rolling carry-on suitcase behind them on the road.
Scholz thinks the trend largely traces to travelers “wanting a more active lifestyle.” Joe Nocella, owner of Brooklyn, New York’s 718 Cyclery, sells about 10 of Scholz’s folding bikes annually, and adds that “a sense of familiarity—people really in tune with their bikes” causes people to spring for a folding travel bike. “Maybe someone’s gonna fly somewhere and ride their bike around” immediately, he says, noting that “there’s a lot of satisfaction to putting your bike together and you just go,” right from the airport. Some customers tell him there’s a lot of satisfaction in hearing, “Wow! Is that a bike in a box?” from strangers. He told us about one “really rich guy” who likes to put together his bike right in the baggage claim area, showing off the fact that he’s building a bicycle, and riding it right out of the terminal.
As to which nations are friendliest to cyclists, “I have a lot of customers in Japan,” says Scholz, “which is very bike-friendly.” She sees many customers jetting to Thailand, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and New Zealand.
Beyond the obvious health benefits and connection with nature, Scholz thinks cycling is a great way to meet locals. “A person on a bicycle is not intimidating. A person in a car can be a scary person—‘Who is this person and what do they have with them?’” With a bike, she thinks, everything is made plain: “It’s a human being, and I can see what they have with them.”
It’s a persuasive enough travel choice that one of Scholz’s happiest customers decided to join her company. Hugh Larkin, 62, is a 20-year Bike Friday owner, and has worked for Bike Friday for nine years. He and his 72-year-old wife have been doing bicycle trips for decades, cycling through France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, New Zealand, New England, and Canada. A favorite recent journey? Barcelona to Rome—a breezy 838 miles.
“You meet people a lot easier when you’re on bicycle than when you’re in a tour group,” Larkin points out, echoing Scholz. The Larkins have traveled on tandem bikes and solo ones, pulling gear in suitcases behind them. Among his favorite trips are France—“the culture and the history are great; the people are wonderful”—and the Netherlands.
If you’re preparing for a bike trip, you can start relatively small—this piece on biking through the Northeast Rust Belt is inspiring—and there are plenty of supported bike tours out there. But here are a few tips if you go father afield on your own:
Go the distance
If you’re doing a one-direction trip, “you’re gonna want to average about 20 to 25 miles per day to make it worthwhile,” says Larkin. (The alternative would he having a home base of a hotel or campground, often called a “spoke tour.”)
Pack rain gear
Don’t be stuck without rain gear, including headgear that will keep your vision clear.
Ideally, your cycling clothes can work in the city, too, Larkin points out, lightening your load.
Take rest days
Don’t overdo it! You can and should bank on rest days.
Avoid overbooking hotels, which will hem you in
Depending on where you’re going, you may be able to get away with last-minute hotel reservations, says Larkin, but do your research in advance. Rural France will be different than a well-traveled tourist bike route.
Get in shape
This one’s obvious, but find a place near your home where you can start doing laps; be sure it has hills, as you’ll encounter them.
Figure out your smartphone/ charger situation, and bring a map
A well-charged cyclist is a smart cyclist; be sure to have an adapter suited to where you’re going—and bring a physical map of your destination just in case.
Have backup tire tubes and a bike pump, and know how to change a flat
Wheedle your way into a lesson on changing flat tires at your local bike shop. Pack spare tubes and a small bike pump.
Bring good lights
Another no-brainer, but whether you’re renting or bringing your own bike, be sure to have strong lights and batteries or a USB port with which to charge ‘em.
Know where bike shops are. Mark them on your map, and star them on GPS.
Just in case!
Remember that your usual go-to travel fleece may leave you sopping wet if you exercise in it. Layer with wicking and exercise in mind.