The best way to see any country, in my opinion, is by bicycle. On bus tours, all you experience are hordes of tourists, tourist attractions, and souvenir shops. On a bicycle, you can get away from the tourist traps and get into the countryside where you find the real country and the real people are. Not only that but with bicycle touring you also get awesome exercise and the rewarding feeling that comes from a good day’s tour.
Below I will show you two ways to do multi-day or even multi-week long-distance bike treks: group tours and solo adventures.
Group Bike Tours
The best way to get started with bike touring is a group tour. The beauty of this is that you can go by yourself even as a beginner – just choose a country, book a tour, and go. A typical tour just requires that you show up with your biking shorts and a small suitcase. They provide the bikes and a SAG wagon (Support and Gear). This is a vehicle that follows you around and carries your suitcase, spare parts, and has space to toss your bike should you become too tired to continue the day’s ride.
A typical tour will provide all your snacks and meals throughout the day as well as organize all the accommodations. If there are things that are not provided, they do a good job of making this clear. On the occasional rest day, it’s common that meals on that day are on your own.
Generally, organized group bike tours can be a blast. They are a great place to meet other like-minded cyclists and strike up friendships that can last a lifetime. Group tours are not for everyone though, since the pace, route, and exploration are dictated by the group, not the individuals.
The way it typically works is that there will be one guide at the front leading the way and another at the back (the sweep) making sure that nobody gets left behind. To keep people from getting lost, the guide will require that the entire group stops at certain forks in the road for a snack break and rest stop to allow the slow bikers to catch up so everyone can be shown the right way to go.
This actually works quite well. The fast riders end up zipping thru the landscape but spend a lot more time at the rest areas and the slower riders experience a more leisurely ride but don’t get so much time at the rest stops. If they are too tired or out of shape to keep up the pace (rarely happens) then they can opt to ride the SAG wagon part of the way. It’s a really nice and proven system.
There is one downside to group tours that I actually view as a benefit. It isn’t anything that you specifically book, but you can bet on this happening to you on any group ride. On every tour, there is one problem person. The funny thing is, that years or decades later you forget all the really nice people but still get chuckles from thoughts about the difficult people. Rejoice in these clueless, high-maintenance people knowing you will treasure their memory forever.
I mentioned above that I do group tours as well as solo tours and there is a good reason for this. In Europe where bike roads have been well established for literally hundreds of years. In other regions biking is not yet well established and a good bike road to bike on often has to be shared with motorized traffic.
Local guides on these group trips know all the new routes and can literally make the difference between a stressful, dangerous, and joyless ride into a euphoric, mind-blowing ride.
Many times on my Asian tours I have had guides break from the pre-determined route to take us on beautiful new concrete roads thru the countryside that had literally been poured the week before and were completely void of car traffic. This is where not even the latest update for the best GPS Navi will get you. By the way, the best navigation method is an offline solution, and not Google Maps, which may be banned in some countries (China).
Anyway, that is why I do group tours anytime I bike outside of Europe or North America.
How to choose a group bike tour
Each tour company has a different niche. Some like Backroads, which I have never used, are very expensive and pampering. Others like RedSpokes cater more to the budget-minded traveler who gets a thrill staying in a bamboo hut now and then without running water or electricity. Then there are companies in the middle like Bike Asia. (I have no affiliation with any of them.)
Westerners (and especially Americans) on average have very limited vacation and are also typically limited in what seasons they are allowed to take vacations. Often, the time of year you travel will determine where you can go. If you really want to bike in Borneo but you can’t find a tour the month you want to visit there is a very good reason. It’s because it’s monsoon season or it’s 100 degrees with 100% humidity. Simply browse the offerings of the various bike tour companies and see what tours are offered at the time when you plan on taking your vacation.
Comfort or adventure
There are two approaches to your first group bike tour. The first is to make the first tour as easy as possible. For this, you choose a destination country that is relatively similar to your home country. For example, you can do a bike tour in England or maybe the Netherlands (both English-speaking) and then choose a very pampering style tour company like Backroads.
The other approach is the one I would recommend if you like to shock your system like me. Go for it and push your comfort zone. If you have never left your continent before, then do it with a bang – choose China. China is an amazing and vibrant country and is about as different from Europe or North America as you can get. A perfect first experience! If you do choose this shock and awe approach, I strongly recommend Bike Asia tours for a reliably high-quality experience.
Solo Bike Touring
Solo bike touring is an adventure on a new level. By solo bike touring I mean a trip where you plan every aspect yourself, carry your own gear, and are completely self-sufficient. This kind of trip is truly liberating because there are few times in life when you can focus on just one important task. In this case, it’s getting from point A to point B. There are many challenges and logistical issues to solve on a trip like this but that is what makes it so incredible. It’s like the Wild West of two centuries ago in America. There is nobody to coddle you, either you sink or you swim so you better have your act together. There are two types of solo bike touring.
Hardcore folks camp every night so they need to carry all their camping gear. This kind of self-reliance is the most liberating of all and the cheapest. You can travel like this for months on end for just the price of groceries in the store. The problem is that it can get real old real fast as gas stations become your hotel. When you camp illegally in Europe, there is often no water so you just have to slide into your tent and bag dirty. To get cleaned up, you use the bathroom sinks and soap at gas stations to scrub yourself clean. This kind of travel already sounds wonderful … until you wake up the third morning in a row to pouring rain.
I often travel with a sleeping bag and tent as a backup plan, not a primary plan. What often happens when on a long-distance biking trip is that after a few hours of riding you realize your progress is not nearly what you hoped for and that you will not make your destination. In these common instances, you have a choice of stopping in the town you are closest to now or biking 8 more hours until 10 pm when it’s dark because there are no hotels in-between.
Camping gear gives you flexibility either as the primary or secondary plan.
By the way, I compiled some helpful tips to ride faster and farther on long days in the saddle to ensure you hit your daily minimum mileage.
Booking or not
When you are solo bike touring the big question is always: Do you book all your hotels in advance or not?
If you book your hotels in advance, you know you have a place to stay despite it being high season but this comes with a downside: You lose all flexibility. If you pass a really nice village and see a room to rent you can’t stop because you have already paid in advance for a hotel in the next town. If you have brutal headwinds and pouring rain you still need to ride that 100 miles to get to the hotel you have paid for.
When planning this type of trip in the comforts of your home with a warm cup of coffee, it’s extremely easy to overcommit and calculate with the best-case scenario. Realistically, you end up biking 12-15 hour days. When bike touring there is hardly any chance to make up time, but no shortage of opportunities to lose time. If you do this kind of trip, plan days with a maximum distance of 50 miles or 80 km (depending on elevation changes of course).
The other approach is to make no hotel reservations. Biking in Europe is usually done in summer when it’s really hard to find a hotel after 1 pm and with this kind of touring you can end up wasting a lot of time looking for places to stay. In turn, you get ultimate flexibility. If you do this kind of biking, I strongly recommend you bring camping gear as a backup plan. A smartphone with the Airbnb app has revolutionized this kind of travel. Although the hotels are booked months in advance, it’s much easier to find an Airbnb room to rent on short notice.
A detailed look on that topic here: Bike Touring Basics Equipment & Logistics
Getting a bike to do a solo tour is a pain in the butt – there is no perfect bike to do it all. Remember though I am talking about solo touring here. When you do a group tour, the organizers take care of this stuff for you. Usually, they tend to provide great bikes when doing group tours. On a solo bike tour too, you can just bring your cycling shorts and rent a bike. Sounds great, but exactly how many days do you want to waste shopping around town for a bike that fits you?
As an alternative, you can simply ship your bike with you in a cardboard box. This actually works really well but can get very expensive with airline fees and also time-consuming with all the preparation, disassembly, and assembly.
The third way to get your bike to your riding destination is the easiest, cheapest and fastest way: travel bikes. A travel bike is a bike you can put into standard-sized airline luggage without extra charge. The rule is that the total sum of height, width & depth has to be less than 62″. Please read my foldable bike buyers guide if you want to know more about this. Again, there is no perfect solution. Packing these bikes safely into a standard-sized suitcase takes 4-6 hours and requires some basic bike mechanic skills. As far as I know, there are no bikes available that quickly and easily fit into an airline suitcase without tools.
As a fourth option, which is more limiting in the distance from your home, you could try to combine a road trip with a bike trip and take your bike with you on a bike rack. That car can double as a moving tent, SAG (Support and Gear) vehicle. It’s a great option to always have a safe backup at hand, but also to limit the sense of adventure.
The last piece of the puzzle for solo bike touring is navigation. As with the other topics, this is a balancing act between structure and freedom. You have to navigate yourself to get to your destinations, and you can go wherever you want. With enough leeway in your planning, you can even take voluntary detours if interesting ones present themselves. In any case, planning and changing plans are part of the game. Even with the best, most precise planning process, unforeseen circumstances will occur. That’s the beauty of the adventure.
The most important aspect here is that you strike the best balance for you between route planning in advance and staying flexible for ad-hoc changes. I find the most comforting rhythm is to always plan 2 to 3 days ahead, but no more. This allows you to focus on each day individually with peace of mind but also adapt to weather and road conditions. A nice paved road on your map may turn out to be a gravel grinder.
While being out there, possibly out of cell phone coverage, offline navigation is the top priority. Even if internet connection or WLAN hotspots are available, relying on their availability is risky at best. For more on how to do this in a foreign country, read my article on offline route planning and navigation.