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Biking Abroad

On my travels, I’ve biked in three countries-Costa Rica, Mexico, and Belgium. Although Mexico and Belgium’s rides were more leisurely, short rides than anything else, something to do while visiting Isla Mujeres and Bruges, Costa Rica’s was a ride undertaken to get from point A to point B (from the town of Puerto Viejo where my friends and I were staying to the beaches of Punta Uva, about five miles away). Although I’m hardly the Tour de France type and haven’t owned a bicycle since my early teen years, I’ve become interested in one day taking a “bike trip” in which the bicycle, not planes, trains, or automobiles, would serve as the only form of transportation (at least during the “bike trip” part).

I started investigating bike trips after seeing a special for one in Budget Travel magazine. It was a seven night cycling trip along Spain’s famed Camino de Santiago through BikeTours Direct, a European outfitter. The $698 (USD) cost included seven nights’ accommodations at inns and hotels along the camino, luggage transport between the hotels (no you are not expected to pedal with your luggage strapped to your back), route maps and instructions, and daily breakfast, which in Spain means coffee and a roll. The website listed the tour’s highlights, including the Gothic cathedral of Astorga (where the tour begins, about a 3.5 hour bus ride from the capital of Madrid), gastronomy in Galicia, the Oribio River, the ‘Iron Cross’, and the piece de resistance, the Cathedral of Santiago. BikeTours Direct classifies the difficulty of their tours into four different ability levels-easy, leisure, moderate, and challenging. The Camino de Santiago tour is rated moderate and according to the website is intended for “cyclists in good physical condition,” as the average daily distance is 32 miles. Okay, so perhaps this is not the tour meant for me.

Last year I read Grounded, a travel narrative by Seth Stevenson about a man and his girlfriend who decide to circumnavigate the world without once taking a flight (I wrote a review for it that you can access here). One of their modes of transportation is biking the length of Vietnam,down from the capital of Hanoi to its largest city, Ho Chi Minh. If you’ve never seen a map of Vietnam, it’s a very skinny but very long country; when people travel there, if they are pressed for time, they will usually  visit either the north or south but not both. Stevenson is dismayed to find that upon meeting his fellow tour mates in Hanoi, most of them are either serious bikers or athletes (he and his girlfriend are not). “We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to take this preparation advice seriously (doing several weeks of strenuous biking). A friend of ours used to lead bike tours through the French countryside, and she told us the people in her group (all of them older and wealthy) would generally dump their bikes on the side of the road after just a few miles, giving up in a huff and hailing the comfy support van.” Once into their biking journey, Stevenson realizes just how much he underestimated the challenge of traveling by bicycle, especially in an extremely hilly country like Vietnam. “I quickly, and miserably, realize that I must have been fueled by adrenaline for the first twenty miles. It’s worn off now. Less than halfway into the final leg, I’m soaked in sweat and panting, mouth agape. My heart is thumping so fast that I can no longer distinguish individual beats. A heavenly white light is creeping in at the edges of my vision.” Although reading this part of Grounded would make anyone who has ever contemplated doing a bike trip abroad think twice before booking, I know that unlike Stevenson, I would make sure I had followed the recommended preparation guidelines and take them quite seriously, since the idea of riding in the support van the entire trip seems a bit ridiculous.

I did find one tour under the easy rating which was a seven night self-guided tour of France’s Mont St. Michel and Brittany. These are areas of France in which train and bus service is not the most plentiful (many tourists rent a car for ease of getting around) so a bike trip seems ideal. It still lists the average daily distance as 28 miles, but unlike in Vietnam or on the Camino de Santiago tour, I at least know that the terrain is generally flat. However, the website did say that along the coast headwinds can be a occasional problem, so I’m not quite sure which is the lesser of the two evils. In northern France I’ve only ever been to Paris and I am dying to visit the French countryside, especially the region of Brittany. And even with how touristy Mont St. Michel is described as being (at least during the day with all the day trippers), it still looks to be incredibly magical.


Although I’m not planning a bike trip anytime soon, namely because at the current time I am not an owner of one and I would have to get in serious shape, I think down the road it would be an unforgettable experience. If you’ve ever done a bike trip abroad, I would love to hear about it, so please share!

Me taking a rest during our bike ride in Brugge, Belgium

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