Why go cycle touring?

Could this be the answer to goal free touring?

Could this be the answer to goal free touring?

I was reading a friend’s blog this morning and he wrote something that struck a chord with me. James is currently riding from the most northern tip of Europe south towards Spain and beyond and he is now in central France. This is what he wrote; “this tour is a bit like a scouting trip finding cool places to come back to ……”. (You can read James’ blog, Self Propelled Life here.) The reason it made me smile is because I can remember Gill and I making exactly the same observation more than once during our travels last year. I’m pretty sure I have heard the same sentiment from other travellers too which is why I am pondering the very nature of cycle touring and why we do it.

With a few exceptions where people are trying to break records I think it is reasonable to describe cycle touring as a leisure pursuit rather than an endurance sport but the more I think about it and the more complex it gets. I always used to think of it as moving from place to place at a relatively relaxed pace, stopping to explore wherever interest dictated. In reality I have found it is rarely as simple as that and there are numerous reasons for this.

Firstly, most people touring are on a holiday or a fixed term break from work. In other words they have a pre-defined amount of time at their disposal and this immediately introduces an element of urgency into the trip. It shouldn’t but it does in my experience.

Secondly most tours have a goal of some sort. Given a fixed time span most tourers will pore over maps calculating how far they might get in the given time and working out a route accordingly. The problem is that no matter how relaxed you are about the daily mileage and ultimate destination you have still set yourself a target to measure your progress by and thereby introduced that element of challenge. It’s this element of challenge that adds a further complication I feel. You see if you take away the challenge, the target, the goal, then you are in danger of taking away the motivation and incentive that keeps you going when times get tough. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is why are we going on the trip in the first place. I have heard endless criticism of foreign tourists, particularly Americans, who come to Europe and ‘do’ Scotland for example in a couple of days. As cycle tourers with a goal of reaching a particular destination in a given time are we not guilty of a similar mistake? This isn’t a criticism of anyone by the way, with only one exception every trip I have done has had a proposed duration, length and end destination. If I am questioning anybody’s motives then they are my own. Of course travelling on a bicycle at the limited pace that it dictates will always reveal more of a land and culture than racing around in a car or a coach but the principles are the same. I am certain I have used the phrase, ‘done the coast of Britain’ once or twice in the last few months. What does that mean?

That black line did become a bit of an obsession I admit.

That black line did become a bit of an obsession I admit.

Gill and I are tossing around ideas for what we might do in the future in terms of another adventure. We haven’t even decided yet that it will necessarily be by bike but if it is then I would like to think that we might set off with a very different goal to the last time. I like the idea of taking away all goals that involve places, times, distances and pace and replace them with learning, observing, meeting and talking. It sounds like a simple thing to achieve but I don’t think it is. We can certainly avoid any final destination in a given time and we can avoid setting any kind of daily mileage target. We can go away without a computer on the bike and even, to some extent without a knowledge of how long we will be away. What I can’t imagine doing though, is touring without maps. Once you introduce maps into the equation you get distances and with distances comes times and before you know it you have fallen back into the old traps of measuring progress. This leads to feelings of achievement or the lack of as you inevitably trace your route across the map. When I first moved to Essex as a twenty something with no friends down there I used to amuse myself at weekends by walking a compass bearing through London. I discovered all sorts of interesting places that way. It certainly added an element of adventure to a walk across London and I wonder if it could work for cycle touring. We live in Lancashire so maybe if we took a bearing on Dover to start with, mounted the compass on the handlebars and set off in a vaguely south easterly direction. It might work.

The idea of drifting through a country or region with no set agenda sounds lovely to me. To stumble on a place of interest and rather than making a note to come back another time simply pitch the tent and stay as long as necessary to explore it. But there is a catch. I do wonder if I would be able to just let go and really enjoy the moment. Or would I suffer a constant itch at the ‘lack of progress’. I wonder if having no geographic goal would simply lead to lethargy and ultimately to losing interest in the trip. But does it matter if it does? If we go back to the question of why go cycle touring in the first place and answer it; to see places and meet people, then surely it doesn’t matter how far you go or where you end up does it? What do other tourers think? I would love to know. Anybody out there that has toured like this?


7 thoughts on “Why go cycle touring?

  1. In reply to your comment on my blog, and thinking about this some more; I totally agree when one is touring alone you feel more driven to push on. Actually, I’ve only toured with another person briefly, but we did pause a bit more often. I don’t know why but I just feel the urge to keep on pedalling to the next place, probably because I have goals, and even though I’m ahead of schedule I don’t want to slow down; although I’m going to force myself to over the next few days otherwise I’ll overshoot an RV with my parents! I always enjoy it when I do pause, so maybe I should more often. Maybe it is the journey a lot of us like more than the destination. One thing i’ll always try and do is remain flexible and if somewhere looks promising take a detour, and say yes to adventure me along the way; I like taking those small turnings down country paths when you’re not quite sure where you’ll end up.

  2. This is a very interesting post.

    I often read online of people planning their trip very thoroughly, knowing exactly where they’ll stop and how many miles they’ll do. I have always had problem understanding this sort of approach. As you said, if cycle touring is about discovering new places and meeting people, planning to that extent reduce the chances of exploration and encounter.

    What I always try to do when exploring (by bike or on foot) is to account for more time than I know I need. This helps me be more open to opportunity. I make a point of not having a bike computer so I cannot worry about mileage and speed. I see on a map how far I’ve been but I don’t fret about the miles. But I do usually have a goal in mind which mean I don’t tend to veer off path that much. And by doing so, I fall in the trap you mention in my own way.

    I am going to be cycle touring in Portugal for three months next year. This is way more time than needed to cycle through the country but I don’t want it to be a ‘I’ve done Portugal’. Instead I’m planning on it being a meander in the country to get to know it. I am grappling with the idea of having a very rough map and mainly using my compass to help me navigate my way around. This is a scary thought but I think it would help immensely in freeing me from the constraint of distances and destination turning into goals.

  3. Interesting discussion – I discovered James’ blog recently when planning a route around the coastline of Britain. I too like to cycle tour alone. My tours started three years ago when I lost my job. My wife’s family live in Germany just across the Dutch border. I used to cycle 7 miles each way to work in London so decided on impulse to get the ferry from Harwich to Hoek on my hybrid and ride down to see them – a total of about 350 miles. It took me two days there and three back (I added an extra day in because I enjoyed it so much). I absolutely loved the feeling of freedom to stop and go as I feel. Since then I have cycled in Holland, Germany, Belgium, France and Denmark.

    I plan my routes ahead with a Garmin but I don’t plan anywhere to stay. That means I can keep going as long as I feel like it. Sometimes this backfires – I ended up having to knock on doors in a small village on the Elbe near Hamburg to find somewhere to sleep. As luck would have it an elderly American lady used to run a small hotel and put me up for the night. Since then I have the Booking app on my phone so can generally find somewhere if needed. That means if the weather changes or the bike has a problem I can just stop close to where I am and find a bed for the night. I generally travel off peak which helps.

    I agree with Allysse that having a route planned in detail tends to make me focus on distance and speed too much. Actually with me it is the ETA number the Garmin estimates your arrival time to be. I start to really focus on it if it slips a few minutes – which is stupid if you are cycling 7 hours per day with regular breaks.

    I would like to try the “lets just go for it” approach but I think I would end up in really crappy towns and miss a lot.

    I read a great book by Anne Mustoe who started cycle touring after retiring as a teacher. She used to look up the ancient transportation routes across Europe/Asia/wherever and work her way roughly along those. As a result you get plenty of history and great places without being a slave to a specific road – more of a general direction.

    Anyway happy cycling

    Ed (Lancastrian living in Suffolk)

  4. Hi Tony and thanks for another interesting blog. I know what you mean about spotting places all the time thinking “I must go back there for a better look” whilst shooting on through to th next meal/overnight stop. All my trips have been done with time constraints, and indeed money constraints, which no one has really mentioned yet. Despite this, I have a a direction in mind rather than a destination, “let’s see how far I can get in the time available” sort of thing, and generally plan not more than twenty four hours in advance. Where I have been very lucky is that Anthony, despite not cycling himself, is happy to come and retrieve me by car from wherever I’ve got to (so far this includes the Spanish border, the south of France more than once, Amsterdam, and Verona!). That way he gets to see some new places, and on the way back I can haul him off to visit the interesting places I’ve spied out on my way through, often spots that one would completely miss by car.What’s not to like?
    I have to confess to two new toys: a mini mini iPad which allows me to plan and book my next days ride, as I was beginning to find the accommodation uncertainty stressful, and , very recently, a Garmin etrex (multipurpose!) which with the city maps will save an awful lot of faffing about looking for places at the end of the day. Neither of these replace real maps of course, which remain, along with the compass, firmly fixed to my handlebars.
    My latest “buzz” is micro touring with my road bike, now equipped with a seat post rack and pack with magic little open out panniers, into which I can get enough to sustain me for a mini tour of three to six days, plenty to go ‘sploring in a new area. Lots of fun and endless possibilities…

    • Hi Jan, lovely to hear from you. It sounds like you may have found the Holy Grail of cycle touring. If you could just clone Anthony and making him commercially available I think you could be on to something! Love the micro touring too, sounds like fun. All the best, Tony

      • Sounds like an idea! Could keep him busy…was thinking about you a couple a weekends ago when we were at Scourie:you picked the right year for your big tour, this May/June has been unrelentingly and viciously cold and windy and would have been very discouraging for cycle campers. In seven weeks back in Scotland I managed only two seakayak outings and three short bike rides; it was freezing…Now sunning ourselves back in France, thank goodness.
        Last summer was brilliant in Scotland which was just as well as we were mostly there, and we were able to do a massive amount of sea kayaking, including ten days in Shetland at the beginning of September. So no big cycle tours, just short forays eg from Nevache to Verona via Turin in October.
        Hope to catch up with a proper tour this summer, may be the German sea coast ….

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