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…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.
My husband and I with two other couples recently planned and executed a bicycle trip in the Peloponnese Peninsula of Greece—our tenth Do It Yourself (DIY) international cycling tour. Over the past decade, our group has cycled together in Italy, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Spain, France, Croatia, Turkey, Sardinia, and Chile.
A DIY bicycle tour, an alternate approach to commercial, supported bicycle touring isn’t for everyone. We pick a location and then 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.
Why opt for the more difficult alternative? The DIY choice grew out of a common love of biking, the exercise, the unfiltered view from a bicycle of people and places, and a passion for travel and new adventures. The freedom and satisfaction of doing it ourselves appealed to the strongly independent and frugal among us and the trips became an annual rite. Anticipating and planning the trip, the camaraderie of a common adventure, and the satisfaction that comes at the end of each cycling day and the end of the trip keeps us riding together. Each bicycle tour is an intimate experience in a small area of an unfamiliar country. Sharing it with good friends can enhance and complicate the trip. Along the way, we’ve honed our practical skills and discovered much about ourselves and each other. For me, navigating the twists and turns not only augments my cycling ability but also imparts life lessons. We incorporate and tweak some of what we learn on subsequent trips and some we relearn on every ride.
Here’s my Top Ten lessons learned!
1. Traveling With Friends Adds Difficulties And Delights…And Teaches You The Value Of Both
I asked my biking companions what they had 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.
One of the pleasures of traveling with friends is that the various perspectives, personalities, skills and talents of each person enhance the experience. But let’s be honest, the differences can also drive you crazy and make decision-making emotionally fraught and time-consuming.
Our biking group ranges in age from 65 to 74 and though we all exercise regularly, there are variations in strength, endurance, agility and skill. Each of us has an assortment of physical concerns and conditions, pains and strains ranging from a chronic disorder or two to the simple wear and tear gained from living six or seven decades. Similar in many ways, we differ in style, temperament, tastes, and interests.
At the end of each day’s ride there is a lovely town or village selected for its character, beauty or its distance from the last stop. We roll into town anticipating a warm shower, some exploring, and a glass of wine or beer at an outdoor café. Usually, upon arrival, each couple unwinds and then we meet for dinner at an appointed time. On early trips, we spent an inordinate amount of time choosing where to eat. We met, then walked from one street to the next looking for the “best” place for dinner, checking guidebooks, rejecting restaurants—by sight, by menu, or because an aggressive hawker “invited” us to choose his restaurant. We discussed each restaurant and compared Lonely Planet reviews with Rick Steves’ and Rick Steves’ with Rough Guide. Everyone had an opinion and the search continued. Despite our debates, there was a 50-50 chance that we would end up at a restaurant with a hawker and plastic tourist menus whose main virtue was that it was still open. The discussions weren’t rancorous, just 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. After countless restaurant searches, we realize 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’ve come to accept our many differences, and in most cases embrace them…or at least we are more actively conscious of personality traits and more likely to diffuse tensions quickly when they arise. We know each other well but are increasingly more open to being surprised. Key to our success is appreciating the value of what we each bring to the ride whether it’s language proficiency, negotiating ability, mechanical skill, humor, navigational aptitude or unfounded optimism.
2. Start With A Plan But Be Ready For U-Turns
We capitalize on our group’s array of ideas and viewpoints by making many decisions before the trip…our destination, route, number of riding days, days off the bike and where we’ll stay. This helps us to understand individual preferences for the trip and reinforces common expectations. It’s when we get to the specifics—especially when unanticipated—that our group decision-making is tested, nerves can fray and feelings may be upset.
The downside of making “upfront” decisions is that it can put unwelcome pressure on planning. Over simple dinners with plenty of wine, we’ve turned the exercise into an enjoyable prelude to our adventure. Our Friday night dinners build interest and excitement for the trip while working through issues and concerns.
We plan our route using generally agreed upon, but somewhat subjective criteria. To avoid traffic as much as possible, we prefer small, secondary asphalt (not gravel) roads. We try to keep the distance we ride each day to less than 40 miles and look for terrain that is not too mountainous. Sometimes, the criteria go out the window forcing us to adjust our group mindset (and yes, it takes some of us longer than others to reboot). When the main road we planned to avoid isn’t as busy as anticipated, the maps are wrong, or the only way from here to there is a gravel road, we alter our route.
Or, the road on the map is closed or not accessible. Take the evening in Dalyan, Turkey when Emrah, the proprietor of our hotel chatted with us as we relaxed in the outdoor bar. Emrah wanted to buy a new bike; he wondered what we would recommend. We talked about where he rides, the pros and cons of road bikes and mountain bikes and offered our advice. He asked us where we were headed the next day and we showed him a map with our planned route, a 30-mile ride along the coast to the town of Icmeler. Emrah thought there might be a better way out of town, but called a friend who frequently cycles in the area to confirm it.
He came back to our table and reported:
“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. They would take us and our bicycles across without a problem… and they did…piling all six bikes and riders into a 12-foot boat to cross the narrow but very 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.
Rarely, we disagree about which road to take, what time to leave, or, whether to make an unplanned stop. Most often, after much discussion, we compromise and continue. 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 up at some point or reunite at our day’s destination.
3. Travel Light…Really Light…But Be Prepared
Unlike a supported bicycle tour where someone carries your bags and delivers them to your next stop, a DIY tour requires a serious packing strategy. We haul everything we’ll need for the 7-10 days of riding in two panniers (saddle bags) and a handlebar bag. The goal is to carry as little as possible but everything you need.
Most cyclists focus on lightweight equipment, especially the bike, but ten pounds is the same whether taken off the bicycle frame, the rider or the gear carried. Four of us rent bikes so we don’t have much control over the weight of our bicycle frames. That leaves us with reducing what we bring…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. We get to know each other’s outfits so we’re easy to spot on a crowded sidewalk as well.
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 when 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
It seems to me that almost all the best spots for a bike tour are in mountainous regions or lie along oceans, seas, and lakes. You might think you can find a route where you ride along the valley floor or in flat coastal areas, but not so. The truth is that most scenic towns and villages are either high in the mountains, affording beautiful views and scenery or close to the always-alluring water. At a minimum, you must climb to reach the hilltop town at the end of the day or ride down to a coastal destination only to climb back up to start the next day.
One of my biking companions wears a t-shirt that says…”It’s Just A Hill—Get Over It”…and she does. Me? I hate hills; they are my nemesis, a bitter, unconquerable enemy. I’ve tried to make friends with them, but they remain my physical and emotional cycling-antagonist. While I haven’t learned to “get over it” literally or figuratively, I have found ways to co-exist.
Every year I seek different strategies to conquer the hills—counting pedal strokes, a different seat or pedal position, working out pre-ride to get in shape. I lighten the weight of my gear and try to lower my weight. In search of the ultimate answer, I’ve Googled variations on “how to make biking hills easy” and learned that although there are many theories about consumables and techniques that make cycling hills less difficult, “experts” agree there’s no magic strategy.
I’ll never love (or even like) 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. I try to relax, to breathe and find a mantra. When I think I can’t pedal one more stroke and I’m going so slowly that the bike might topple I tell myself “I can make it“, “I can push one more pedal stroke”, “I can stay upright on my bike”, 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 Someone Who Isn’t A Cyclist No Matter How Nice Or Confident The Person Is
One of the joys of cycling trips is that there are no barriers or filters between the landscape, the people, and you. The pace allows for chance interactions with nature as well as with local residents. People are usually friendly and likely find the sight of six seniors on bikes both odd and engaging.
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 the natural instinct to take the well-meaning guidance when it has to do with riding. However, sometimes, depending on our current state of confusion, we break our vow and take the advice (see Lesson 8). 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 adding time rather than saving it.
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. Nor have we directly experienced aggressive or belligerent behavior by drivers in our host countries. There is no doubt that the number of distracted drivers has increased worldwide at least in part due to the prevalence and use of smartphones. Add that to drivers who don’t like sharing the road with cyclists and the occasional downright nasty bully and the chance of being hit or sideswiped increases. Unseen on the open road, cars or trucks may come so close that they force a cyclist off the pavement. In city traffic, a vehicle may turn right as you proceed straight ahead. As long time cyclists, we are not fearful of sharing the road with vehicles, but we are aware of the dangers and are increasingly more cautious.
We’ve developed safeguards and preventative measures. On our early bicycle tours, we often wore dark, unobtrusive clothing. Black or dark blue jackets, subtle colored shirts and rain gear, the sort of clothes you’d wear every day. Over time, we’ve become brilliant…at least in our riding attire and equipment. We’ve learned that visibility is a defense. We wear fluorescent yellow or lime green windbreakers and vests, brightly colored shirts and raincoats. 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 the city center and our hotel than we had anticipated. The directions we had were incorrect. As we found our way along dark streets with no lights, we pledged to always bring or secure lights and reflectors 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 instance, mapping software has become invaluable in determining 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, hill by hill. However, now and then, reality doesn’t match the maps. The dreaded hill is not as bad as anticipated or it’s worse, the town we decided to stay in based solely on the distance (and wasn’t in any of the guidebooks) is the most idyllic, quaint and unspoiled of the trip. The lovely internet pictures of spacious rooms and charming boutique hotels can disappoint. Your behavior and mood or that of your travel companions may not be what you counted on. You may be sure you know what these old friends are thinking and feeling only to be surprised when they slip out of your pigeonhole.
As we mapped our route in Greece, I monitored it closely focused on steep elevation gains and spending hours trying to find alternate roads around the mountains. According to Ride with GPS, the steepest climb would be the road out of Kardamili. There was simply no other road out of the town described universally as “an exquisite, seaside village nestled at the foot of the Taygetus Mountains”. It was a “don’t miss” site. No way was I going to convince my friends to skip it. I worried about this massive climb for the first four days of our trip. Lying on the beach of the Messenian Bay I fantasized 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 that I would 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 easier, but dread was my companion as I anticipated the more difficult elevations ahead…and then we were at the summit.
“That wasn’t so bad.”
Everyone was relieved and baffled. We decided that the GPS route evidently went straight up the mountain rather than along the switchback road! Lessons learned (confirmed)…worry is a wasted emotion and expectations can be worse than reality or become pleasant surprises.
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 dearth or complete absence of road signage, muddled or misunderstood directions.
Maybe not so surprising are the discussions and disputes that ensue.
This is where we spend the most time discussing and debating. The trips would not be possible without some inveterate map aficionados. Although we now rely heavily on routing software, we also purchase detailed paper maps.
For us, there appears to be an intrinsic lack of confidence in the mapping software, often because it shows small, local lanes and roads not found on printed maps creating a disconnect between the software maps and the printed maps. That, combined with occasional uncertainty on the part of the GPS operator, leads to disagreement about which way to go.
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 5). 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 and don’t know where you are relative to your destination from someone who doesn’t understand you, your map, or where you want to go is likely to get you lost again. 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 your enjoyment. It’s easy to hit a pothole or fail to see a car coming toward you or from behind. 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 that 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” and occasionally there is more than one of them. Our cycling trips are subject to conditions not within our control…weather (rain, wind, temperature), terrain (steep hills, often called mountains), 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 biking 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.