Tips for traveling the world with a bike and a backpack

The 32nd annual Seattle to Portland (STP) Bicycle Classic is coming up this weekend.  Ten thousand riders will set out from the University of Washington and, after some 200 miles and 43,000 energy bars, end up in northeast Portland.

Looking for a unique way to experience a new country? Try it on two wheels. Above, Deric travels with his bike on a trip to Bahia, Brazil. (Photo by Deric Gruen)

Sadly, the trip has been sold out for months, so if you didn’t register way back in March, I’m afraid you are out of luck until next year.

Not to worry. There’s an entire world of road (or off-road) for intrepid cyclists to choose from. Traveling internationally with a bicycle is a low impact way to get a little bit closer to people, land and places you might never visit by any other mode.

As you ponder your first overseas experience with a bicycle, consider the following questions in planning your ride.

To go it alone or join an organized ride?

Organized group rides, such as the PolyLiban through Beirut, above, can be an exciting and safe way to experience a new country and meet other avid cyclists. (Photo by Deric Gruen)

An organized ride is a good way to get your footing and have the security of support your first time out.  I was fortunate to stumble into such a ride, the Polyliban, a tour of Lebanon’s countryside, in one of my first stops traveling with a bicycle.

Although I didn’t speak a lick of the common language, French, I got my wheels spinning climbing mountains and riding through valleys with food and lodging provided by local hosts. And we even had a military escort!

Afterwards, I set out on my own feeling more confident. Being alone meant interacting more intimately with the environment and communities I passed through, without a legion of cyclists at my side. And it allowed me to take the time to stop and smell the roses.

To tour the countryside or make your mark in city streets?

The tradition of bicycle “touring” is about riding long distances as substitute for travel by plane, train or motor vehicle. Touring provides an opportunity to experience the landscape at a more gradual pace, filling your days with pedaling under an open sky on sometimes on an open road.

But exploring foreign cities by bicycle is a great option as well. It’s a chance to get to know urban communities through a new lense and often invites the curiosity and kindness of strangers. Try joining one of the hundreds of Critical Mass rides around the globe to combine the security of a group ride with a city experience.

To bring your own bike or pick one up along the way?

By using couplings, Deric fits his entire bike into a travel-size box he takes all over the world. (Photo by Deric Gruen)

You may find it easier and more affordable to buy a bike in your destination country rather than hauling your own halfway across the planet. You can find a bicycle of varying quality almost anywhere in the world. Rent one or buy one and sell it back at the end of your journey.

But for a long distance tour, the best option is usually BYOB.

Most airlines will handle a bike with the wheels and pedals removed and handlebars twisted to the side for small additional luggage fee. If you plan on numerous destinations and want to make an investment, consider a folding bike for urban cycling or light touring. Bike Friday makes folding travel bikes right here in the Northwest.

You can also use S&S Couplings to convert almost any bike into a folding bike. R+E in the U-district or Elliot Bay Bicycles will weld on the couplings for you. I got couplings installed on my Long Haul Trucker touring bike, put it in a backpack case and took flights in the US, Europe, Middle-East, Africa and Latin America without ever paying a luggage fee. Upon arrival I threw it on my back and walked, hopped a bus or assembled it on the spot at the airport and rode off.

Are you keeping it simple?

Americans can have a tendency to make cycling complicated with disc brakes, carbon fiber tubes and energy gels. International bicycle travelers who keep it simple are rewarded. Imagine what parts you might be able to find at a roadside repair stand in Mozambique and work backwards from there.

Stick with the classic cantilever pull brakes rather than the complex, motorcyle-style disc brakes. Get wheels that can fit the original Schrader tube with the fat valve and avoid the skinny Presta tube found on most bikes these days. Invest in the best waterproof panniers available (Ortlieb) and leave the stylish satchel at home. Bring a water filter to prevent turning your carbon-neutral trip into a mountain of plastic bottles.

Deric, on a ride in South Africa above, recommends solo rides as way to set your own pace and get off the beaten path. (Photo courtesy of Deric Gruen)

If you plan on touring overnight, you’ll either need to gear-up with food and light weight camping equipment or plan your route carefully to assure you can cover the distance between towns to refuel and rest the night. Infrastructure in the Western US was built around the automobile so this can be harder to pull off.  But in the rest of the world, the distances between small towns can provide the perfect spacing for supplies, food and lodging, and finding yourself overnighting in tiny towns that are well off the tourist track.

These are some basic guidelines for tackling your overseas bicycle travel experience. Whether it is a cross-continent tour or simply taking advantage of a bike sharing program in a European city for a day, you’ll find it is a refreshing and affordable way to experience a new place, make local connections and get your legs moving.

Deric Gruen is a Seattle native who has traveled the globe on two legs, two wheels and uncounted barrels of oil.  Deric works to offset his travel emissions leading the sustainability intiatives at Bellevue College.  Deric founded Critical Mass Beirut, interned in Caribbean Affairs in the other Washington, volunteered in community development in Rio de Janeiro and assisted international delegations as a specialist for the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle.

6 Comments

  1. Hi Deric! Love your piece and also so excited to have a fellow bonderer writing for the Globalist. Hope you continue to share your unique stories and experiences with us!

  2. I have bicycled about 37,000 (59,000 kilometers) miles through nineteen countries. It is one mode of travel I thoroughly recommend for any and all who are able to do it.

  3. I have a very important question. Past two years I have biked in and around Denmark, from Copenhagen to nearly Gedser, the last town in Denmark, where the ferry to Germany is. Each time, I had a pack on, around 35 pds, 40 pds and I am 190 and the tiers popped consistently.

    This time I am going from Ibiza to Rio and touring all through Italy this summer. I will have a 65L Packpack, which I plan on putting 60-65 pds on. I do not need my tires popping five days into the trip. What EXACT tires do you recommend, also, do you recommend a mountain bike, all terrain, a road bike etc. If you could be thoroughly specific it would be great. I realize my hips and back are going to take a beating, but I am going to do this, and I must do this. :) Thank you for your insights.

  4. My sister and I are planning on doing a two-week cycling tour together and we’re wondering what tips there are for us. So I appreciate you talking about how we need to make sure we either have light camping equipment or be able to make it between towns if we’re traveling overnight. Since we are planning on going overnight during the two weeks, we’ll make sure to plan our cycling tour destinations close enough to each other that we won’t be caught out in the dark.

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