Ten Lessons Learned on Ten Do-It-Yourself Bike Tours with Friends

July 13, 2017 - Susan Robinson kindly submitted this guest blog.

After a challenging, three-mile ascent cycling out of Kardimili, on the Mani Peninsula in Greece, we stop, catch our breath, and celebrate our progress. Through olive groves and stony terrain, we fly down to the next village. The crossroad isn’t signed, our maps and GPS disagree, and the maps don’t show the tiny lane on the GPS route. Hesitation, speculation, frustration, finally agreement … we choose the meandering road through a lush pass opening to a view of the gleaming Messinian Bay and in the distance, the Mediterranean Sea. Within an hour, we are the only customers at a seaside café chatting and laughing as we devour fresh Greek salads, grilled fish, saganaki, and cold drinks.

Our do-it-yourself touring style, an alternate approach to commercial, supported bicycle touring, isn’t for everyone. We pick a location and do all the legwork — plot our route, make hotel reservations, rent bicycles, arrange transportation or transfers, and plan “off the bike” activities. There are no van rides up hills, we carry our own luggage, fix our flat tires, make all decisions jointly, and negotiate the ups and downs of friends traveling together.

Over the past decade, our group has cycled together in Italy, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Spain, France, Croatia, Turkey, Sardinia, Chile, and Greece. Sharing this style of bike travel with good friends can enhance and complicate the trip. Along the way, we’ve honed our practical skills and discovered much about ourselves. For me, navigating the twists and turns not only augments my cycling ability, but also imparts life lessons. 

Here are my top ten lessons! We incorporate, tweak, and relearn them on every trip.

1 Bike travel with friends adds difficulties and delights … and teaches you the value of both.

I often ask my companions what they’ve learned from our rides. One simply said, “I learned that other people know stuff.” He got to the heart of the matter, the discovery and appreciation of each other’s ability and competence. The trips improve our skills in the art of meeting people where they are, in letting go of the need to always opine or “get my way,” and remind us that a difference of opinion isn’t a judgment.

But let’s be honest, the differences can also drive you crazy and make decision making emotionally fraught and time consuming. Our cycling group ranges in age from 65 to 74 and though we all exercise regularly, we have variations in strength, endurance, agility, skill, and pains and strains. Similarly, we differ in style, temperament, tastes, and interests.

At the end of each day’s ride, we roll into a town anticipating a warm shower, some exploring, and a glass of wine or beer at an outdoor café, then we meet later for dinner at an appointed time.

On early trips, we spent much time choosing where to eat. We met. We walked, searching for the “best” place for dinner. We checked guidebooks, rejected restaurants — by sight or by menu. Our discussions proved rancorous, time consuming, and unproductive.

Our dining criteria can be hard to satisfy … local cuisine, vegetarian options, within walking distance of our hotel, not too expensive, outside if the weather is mild, not touristy, and definitely no dress code. But after countless restaurant searches, we realized we’re all more or less on the same page, it’s unnecessary to participate in every decision, and pretty painless to go along with someone else’s initial suggestion. 

We are now more open to being surprised, and we’ve come to accept our many differences and in most cases embrace them.

2 Start with a plan, but be ready for U-turns.

One evening in Dalyan, Turkey, Emrah, the proprietor of our hotel, chatted with us as we relaxed in the outdoor bar and announced, “My friend tells me you cannot go the way you planned. The military has that road restricted, no one is allowed there.”

The good news was that we got this information before riding ten miles only to be turned back. The bad news? The alternate route was much longer: at least sixty miles with several long climbs. It also entailed crossing the Dalyan River, which had no bridge. Emrah assured us that there was a family-run boat service, and they would take us across without a problem — and they did, piling all six bikes and riders into a 12-foot boat to cross the narrow, deep river. Once on the other shore, we made our way up a rough-surfaced, forested mountain road. There were many steep climbs, traffic, construction, and wrong turns, but as the sun set we arrived at our destination, a resort hotel on Icmeler Bay.

Mostly, we compromise and continue when faced with U-turns and inconveniences. However, when feelings are strong and consensus isn’t reached, we reluctantly split up and go our separate ways. Experience tells us that rather than going along unhappily, it’s best to part and meet later at our day’s destination.

3 Travel light ... really light ... but be prepared.

A DIY, self-supported tour requires a serious packing strategy. The goal is to carry as little as possible, but everything you need.

Some cyclists focus on lightweight bikes, but ten pounds is the same whether taken off the bicycle frame, the rider, or the gear. That leaves us with reducing our gear to achieve a delicate balance of necessity versus riding ease.

Paring down the packing list is key — fewer, lighter clothes and gear, no extra food, and not as many tools. There’s no room for “just in case” packing. Lightweight bicycling shirts and shorts dry quickly and hand washing in the hotel sink is a regular practice. Colorful clothes hanging out the window to dry make our hotel rooms easy to identify. We bring only one pair of “off the bike” pants and perhaps two tops. Plus, we get to know each other’s outfits, so we’re easy to spot on a crowded sidewalk.

The “light is right” goal can be taken too far ... not having the proper tools or weather gear can make for a whole lot of misery. On several of our early trips, one friend brought just one pair of shoes for use on and off the bike. That ended after our occasionally rainy trip in France. He spent several days walking and riding in soggy shoes that never had time to dry out.

4 The hills are alive and well and so am I.

One of my cycling companions wears a t-shirt that says, “It’s Just A Hill — Get Over It”… and she does. Me? Hills are my bitter enemy. I’ve tried to make friends with them, but they remain my physical and emotional antagonist. While I haven’t learned to “get over it,” I have found ways to coexist, because ...

The truth is, most scenic towns and villages are either high in the mountains, affording beautiful views and scenery or close to the always alluring oceans, seas, and lakes. At a minimum, you must climb to reach the hilltop town or ride down to a coastal destination, only to climb back up to start the next day.

Every year I seek different strategies to conquer the hills—counting pedal strokes, a different saddle or pedal position, training to get in shape ... and I lighten the weight of my gear and try to lower my own weight. In search of the ultimate hill-climbing answer, I’ve Googled for solutions, but the “experts” agree: there’s no magic strategy.

I’ll never enjoy the challenge of riding up steep grades, but I am moving toward acceptance and dread them less. Now when my lungs feel like they might burst, my thighs scream, and my quads burn, smoldering with every pedal stroke, I remember to loosen my death grip on the handlebars, relax, and breathe. And I always know that in a pinch, I can walk the damn thing up each steep, never-ending ascent.

Another solution? This year we’re headed to Denmark where we may deal with the wind, but not hills!

5 Never trust advice about a route or road conditions from a non-cyclist.

Cycling trips joyfully offer few barriers between the landscape, the people, and you. The pace allows for interactions with friendly people who likely find the sight of six seniors on bikes both odd and engaging.

And locals are often eager to provide advice and suggestions. Regrettably, experience tells us that non-cyclists generally cannot be relied upon to give an accurate assessment of a road’s grade, the riding condition of a dirt or gravel road, or how much traffic to expect.

When an individual offers advice, we listen graciously and try to resist. However, sometimes, depending on our current state of confusion, we break our vow and take the advice, see number eight below.

Traveling from Cirq La Popie via Cahors to Puy L’Eveque in France, our maps were inconsistent as to how to get to Cahors, so we stopped and asked a farmer for assistance. He disregarded both maps and directed us to a “shorter route” — a treacherous, steeply graded, loose gravel road. Not only was it longer than the routes on the map, but we ended up walking our bikes for long stretches on the deeply rutted, rocky road.

Certainly, there have been times that road angels saved us from taking dangerous or out of the way routes, but caution is warranted. If you haven’t cycled a road, it’s hard to gauge its grade and safety.

6 Be seen and heard.

Although there have been near misses, we’ve never been involved in a collision or serious accident on our travels. As long time cyclists, we are not fearful of sharing the road with vehicles, but we are aware of the dangers on open roads and in city traffic.

We’ve developed safeguards and preventative measures. On our early bicycle tours, we often wore dark, unobtrusive clothing. Over time, we’ve become brilliant … at least in our riding attire and equipment. We’ve learned that visibility is a defense and we wear fluorescent yellow or lime green windbreakers and vests, brightly colored shirts and raincoats, and some of us have bright yellow helmet covers and colored panniers with fluorescent markers on the back.

We’ve also added flashlights and small headlights. Usually, we make a point of not riding after dark or even at dusk, but that’s not always within our control. In Croatia, our ferry docked much further from our hotel than we had anticipated, and the directions we had were incorrect. As we found our way along dark streets with no lights, we pledged to always bring lights for our bikes.

A few of us also have bells on our bikes to warn others of our approach, but a polite shout out also works. Merhaba! Ahoj! Yassus! Hola! A smile and hello in the native language can endear you to residents and make you feel good too.

7 Expectations can make you miserable or ecstatic ... learn to manage them.

Planning raises expectations about the ride, hotels, food, activities … you name it.

For example, mapping software has become invaluable in planning the route we’ll take, how far we’ll ride each day, the location of towns and services, whether the roads are gravel, and the elevation gain. However, now and then, reality doesn’t match the maps. One town we decided to stay in, based solely on riding distance (and not in the guidebooks), proved the most idyllic, quaint, and unspoiled of the trip.

However, the Internet may provide pictures of charming, spacious hotel rooms that may disappoint.

On a trip in Greece, we planned a ride to Kardamili, “an exquisite, seaside village nestled at the foot of the Taygetus Mountains.” It was a “don’t miss” site, along with a massive climb, and no way was I going to convince my friends to skip it. Unfortunately, I worried about the climb for the first four days of our trip. Lying on the beach of the Messenian Bay, I fantasized about asking the hotel owner if he knew of someone who could ferry my bike and me up the mountain. In the morning, I started the ride anxious and grumpy, sure I’d be walking most of the three-mile climb. As we rode, I was relieved to see that there were switchbacks zigzagging across the face of the mountain, making the ride much easier. The GPS route evidently went straight up the mountain rather than along the switchback road!

Manage your expectations!

8 There are many ways to lose your way ... and only a few ways to find it.

Given the amount of time and effort we put into route planning, it’s surprising how much time we spend “lost.” It happens … a missed turn, misreading a map, the complete absence of road signs, muddled or misunderstood directions, etc.

This is where we spend the most time discussing and debating. When we’re confused and frustrated, a simple solution is to ask directions from a local resident despite our vow not to take advice from non-cyclists, see lesson five above. It seems reasonable that asking for directions is the best way to correct your course, but that too has led us astray. It turns out that asking for directions when you don’t speak the language is likely to get you even more lost. 

We’ve learned to relax. Lost happens. And we’ve learned that at a minimum, when we do ask for directions, with or without a map, at least two people should listen to the answer. We’re also learning more about mapping software and respecting it more.

9 Riding is solitary … it’s about you, not them, sort of.

An oft-repeated tip about traveling with groups is to make sure that you have time alone while you travel. One of the unique aspects of cycling is that it is essentially a solitary endeavor. While you may find opportunities to ride side by side, you are more often alone with your thoughts, focused on the road and on your own performance. It takes concentration to keep a steady pace and to be aware of your environment for your safety and enjoyment. It’s easy to hit a pothole or fail to see a car. Cycling provides ample time to daydream and pass the time reflecting on the ride or on life.

For me, thoughts of failure can lurk along with the excitement of the ride. There’s no better time for unspoken comparisons and feelings of inferiority to surface than during the solitary hours of riding. I’m overly sensitive to perceived slights, judgments, comments, and actions. I know from experience that for me, such inner monologues can be the “thief of joy,” a sure way to destroy self esteem and trigger snarky comments or unnecessary disagreements.

I’ve gotten better at reining in my inner critic before she gets out of hand. And fortunately, traveling as couples means I’m accompanied by my mate of nearly 50 years who often realizes I’m brooding before I do, and does his best to bring me back to reality.

10 Every day isn’t the best ... but combined they are the best ride ever.

There are bad days on every journey, and a bike trip is no exception. Sometimes there are “… no good, very bad days.” Our cycling trips are subject to conditions not within our control … weather, terrain, bad roads, indecipherable road signs, bad directions, crazy or distracted drivers, injuries, and mad dogs. Minor irritations, disagreements, misunderstandings, passive-aggressive behavior, bad moods, competition, insensitive remarks, and frustration have the potential to mar the experience.

Somehow, the difficulties and challenges seem to magically evaporate or at least fade after a hot shower, a dip in the ocean, a cold beer or glass of wine, and dinner with friends. As we talk about the day, the latest news from home, or thoughts and plans, we realize that these friends transform the trip from ordinary to incredible.

The positive aspects of the experience eclipse the irritants. With no hierarchy and shared leadership, we are all responsible for the trip’s success and our own enjoyment of it. Relying on each other emotionally and in the tasks we share, creates unspoken mutual support, knowledge, and acceptance of each other rather than judgment of individual performance. Each ride is a personal journey and exploration, but together we do more, see more, and meet more interesting people. Sharing the challenges, the unexpected encounters, and the achievements large and small deepens the pleasure of our cycling trip. There’s a sense that together we’ve done something unique and special, creating a strong and lasting bond.

At the end of the trip tired, and very ready to stop riding, we’re also a bit sad that it’s over because it has been, “the best ride ever!” We re-enter our everyday lives knowing that the only antidote is to start planning the next ride, but we’ve also learned to relish the extraordinary experience — let the “best ever” ride age and mellow before beginning anew.

You can keep up with Susan’s travels on her blog: The Wheels Keep Turning

Photos courtesy of Susan Robinson


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Tim Simmons July 25, 2017, 8:29 PM

Excellent advice Susan. It was great reading! When and where is the next trip. (smiles)

Michael Leidig July 16, 2017, 3:16 PM

Great article, i enjoyed reading. I recently started riding with another guy and just getting used to one person sometimes takes some doing.

Peter Toomey July 13, 2017, 7:54 AM

Great tips -- and even greater insights. Thanks for sharing both. I'm copying to all my touring friends!

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