Breaking Tradition. A Different Type Of “Bicycle Touring”

By Darren Alff on - Download my FREE bike tour starter guide!

As I write this, I’m sitting in front of my laptop computer in Luzern (Lucerne), Switzerland. I’ve rented an apartment here for the next two months and this flat, located above a bakery in Luzern’s main shopping district, will serve as my home base for the first part of my ninth and longest “bicycle tour”.

From where I sit, I have a view down to the street where people walk past all day long – getting groceries at the supermarket across the way, running to work in the neighboring office buildings, stepping into one of the many nearby churches, or picking up a newspaper at the corner “kiosk”. Everyone is well dressed and put together. While black seems to be the predominant color, no one looks the same.

My apartment is better than expected. The location couldn’t be more perfect. Luzern’s famous Chapel Bridge and Lion Monument are just a few steps out my door and Lake Luzern is even closer! I have TV, Internet access, a kitchen, bedroom, bath, access to a washing machine and a huge outdoor balcony.

Outside, there are bicycles everywhere. It’s freezing (literally freezing (17° F)) and there’s snow on the ground. But despite the weather, people are out and about. This, as it seems, is life in Luzern!

But wait! I bet you’re thinking to yourself, “This doesn’t sound like a ‘bicycle tour’.”

If that’s what you are thinking, you’re right! This is not a “traditional” bicycle tour.

Traditional bicycle touring as most people know it is the act of riding your bike during the day and spending almost every night in a completely difference location. On a traditional bicycle tour, you might spend 30 days on your bike and cover 1,000 or more miles during that time. On a traditional bicycle tour, you might spend most nights in a tent without many of the luxuries you get at home. And on a traditional bicycle tour, you likely would not be in any one place for two months at a time.

So what in the world am I doing? And does this actually qualify as a “bicycle tour”?

Well, here’s what’s happening:

Back in the summer of 2008 I got it in my head that I wanted to go on another bicycle tour. I had just come back from bicycling in Aruba and felt that while I had enjoyed my time in the Caribbean, the trip had been entirely too short. No more than a week after returning from that trip, I decided that I would start planning my next great adventure… and knew that wherever I ended up going, it was going to be a multi-month long journey.

It was then that I began planning my trip. I wrote the article series “Planning A Bicycle Tour 6 Months In Advance” and soon thereafter rented out my condo in Park City, Utah for six months straight (Park City is a ski town, so renting the condo during the prime tourist months took less than a week).

Now without a place to live for six months, I had to find a place to go.

For the past two years I’ve been trying to learn German on my own, so a trip to Europe was the first thing that came to mind. “But Europe is expensive!” I thought. And it would be winter in Europe, so I wasn’t sure how I would be able to deal with that.

In addition, I had to keep working while I was away. My main source of income comes from a company called Silver Mountain Marketing, which I started after graduating from college in 2004. I knew that if I were away from home for six months straight, there was no way my business would survive unless I continued to put in the work. Nor would I have the money to actually complete the trip if the work came to a halt. So I had to keep working!

After taking these things into consideration, I decided that:

1) I could afford traveling in Europe if I kept working while I was there and my income did not go down.

2) I could go to Europe if I could manage riding my bike in freezing cold and snow.

3) If I found places to stay that cost me the same or less than what I currently pay for the mortgage on my Park City condominium, traveling through Europe would cost little more than what I pay to live back home in the United States.

So Europe it was!

I’ll go into how I found this apartment and the other apartments I will be staying at while on this trip in a future article (and I’ll tell you how much I paid for them), but now I want to get back to the issue at hand – “traditional bicycle touring”.

Because I am staying in an apartment for an extended period of time, this is not a traditional bicycle tour. This is what I call “Bicycle Travel”.

“Bicycle travel” is you… or me… or anyone for that matter, traveling with a bicycle.

In my case, I will use this apartment (and the other apartments I will rent on this trip) to serve as a home base for my travels. One third of my day will be spent traveling (some days with the bike and some days without). One third of my day will be spent working. And the remaining third of my days in Europe will be spent sleeping.

In many ways, it’s more than just “bicycle travel”. It’s a “BICYCLE LIFESTYLE”.

Back in November (‘08) I hosted a “bicycle lifestyle web event” here on BicycleTouringPro.com where I tried to get this message across (View the recaps here and here). During this event, I tried to show that bicycling doesn’t have to be something you just do on the weekends. It doesn’t have to be something you save up for and then do just once in your life. And it doesn’t have to be an activity that requires special clothes or any specific skills (other than actually knowing how to ride a bike).

What I am doing here in Europe is more than just “bicycle touring”. What I’m doing here is incorporating the bicycle into the way I live my life. Or maybe, it’s the other way around? Maybe what I’m doing here is merging the way I live my life with my traditional bicycle tours of the past?

Whatever the case may be, this is not traditional bicycle touring. And that’s okay!

There is a notion amongst many bicycle tourists that the act of “bicycle touring” has to be done a certain way. These people feel that you have to put in the miles, use the latest gear, and know all the technical terms. These are the people who log their daily miles in a journal and ride across the country only for the bragging rights of having done a long distance bicycle tour.

While this sort of touring is fine, I don’t believe it’s for everyone. And more than anything else, I don’t think those who choose to travel in other ways should be criticized or looked down upon because they are making alternative choices (I’ve seen this happen time and time again by the traditional bicycle touring world).

After nine years of traveling by bike, I’ve come to the realization that the miles you cover by bicycle are not important. While covering long distances is impressive, what’s more important are the experiences you have along the way.

When I look back on my previous eight bicycle tours, almost all of the truly magical, once-in-a-lifetime moments occurred when I was off my bike.

Let me say that again!

When I look back on my previous eight bicycle tours, almost all of the truly magical, once-in-a-lifetime moments occurred when I was off my bike.

I’ve discovered, after nine years of cycling, that it’s not really about the bike. It’s not about the miles. It’s not about gear. It’s not about panniers vs. trailers. It’s not about the clothes… or the money… or the time.

What I’ve discovered is that the bicycle you ride is simply the vehicle that gets you from one experience to the next. Everything else is entirely up to you!

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0 Comments

  1. Randy

    January 10, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Darren, I admire what you’re doing, both with Bicycle Touring Pro and with your current bicycle adventure. You’ve built this web site, in really a very short time, into an amazing resource, and now you’re over in Europe, having fun, adventuring, and working. You’re an inspiration!

  2. Dan

    January 10, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    While the bike is a vehicle, I find that the ride is part of the experience – especially when compared to auto travel.

    Looking forward to reading about your travels.

  3. Mike in WI

    January 10, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Looks like a great chance for you to see Europe at a pace that can be enjoyed…as for the the miles not being an important part of biking…I don’t agree because getting there is half the fun as noted in this short video…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99CWNPi2X-k

  4. Darren Alff

    January 11, 2009 at 2:03 am

    Dan and Mike, I agree with you that the miles are a part of the experience. If they were not part of the experience, I wouldn’t have brought my bicycle with me at all. I was just trying to say that the miles should not be THE ENTIRE EXPERIENCE. I just feel that some people get entirely too caught up on covering the miles that they forget about having a few experiences along the way. Does that make sense? Or am I entirely off?

  5. Darren Alff

    January 11, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Dan and Mike,

    I’ve been thinking about your comments and about what I was trying to say at the end of this article. And while I’m still not 100% sure I know the best way to say this, I think what I was trying to say with this article is that bicycle touring is much like the pursuit of money. People spend a lot of time trying to get it and think that they will be happy once they get a certain amount. But once they get that amount, they want more… and the game never ends.

    I guess I see the same thing happening to many people with their bicycle tours. I see people who think that riding a certain number of miles will make them happy, will make them more impressive in the eyes of their friends, or will somehow demand more respect from their peers. But in the end, none of that happens. It’s not reality! No one cares!

    Putting more miles under you doesn’t make you happy in the long run. You have some good experiences along the way, but you’d have more good experiences if you just stopped and realized that it’s not all about the miles (or the money). Sometimes, the experiences you have along the way are what is most important.

    The bicycle is a part of the journey and the journey should certainly be enjoyed. But don’t think that a certain amount of miles or getting to a particular location is going to make a difference in your overall happiness. The real difference (I think) occurs once you realize you make your own reality. You can choose to be happy once and only after you’ve completed your bicycle tour (or once you’ve made a certain amount of money)… or you can choose to be happy now and enjoy the experiences along the way.

    Leo Babauta from ZenHabits.net said it best: “Stop waiting for happiness. Happiness is right here, right now.”

    * http://zenhabits.net/2009/01/the-single-secret-to-making-2009-your-best-year-ever/

  6. Sandra

    January 11, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    I have to agree that based on my experience, touring is about more than just the bike but the experience as a whole – bike included. I think that the bike plays it’s role as it’s what ties everything together and allows you to soak in the experience, smell the countryside and see the world in a way that’s so often missed.

    When I look back on my own touring experiences it’s not the long days I put in on the bike that I miss the most. It’s the people I shared those long days with, the side adventures that we took, the cultures which we experienced and the complete strangers that we met. All of course linked by the miles put in along the way.

  7. Gary

    January 15, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Darren, you are continuing to grow as a person by incorporating cycling into your lifestyle. I appreciate your observations and ideas. Continue to think “outside the box”. Who knows where you’ll end up?

  8. Robert Halkett

    January 15, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    Hi Darren..

    You hit the nail on the head with this article. I’m on a world tour and some of the other bikers I meet on the road have been slightly critical of me. I have not used my tent preferring to stay in hostels, rooms, hotels, its the winter here and not the time to be sleeping in a cold tent in a ditch. One guy told me he had slept all winter in his tent and that’s what all bike tourers do.
    I don’t rack up hundreds of miles a day, I want to experience as much as possible on this once in a lifetime tour, often I am happy to stay in a town for a week or so. I was told by a cyclist that if I was on a REAL tour I would be doing 100 miles a day everyday.
    Some bicycle tourers can be a real pain, they are only interested in how many miles you rode that day, who has the heaviest bike and what was the longest time you went without a shower, my answers are always the same, not sure, I think about 40, I have no idea, I shower every morning.
    Your right, its not about the bicycle or equipment, the experience of new cultures and people while travelling are what’s important.

  9. Bill Bryant

    January 16, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Excellent discussion! When I think back on my fondest touring memories rarely do they involve “the bike”, it’s not even in the picture. Certainly got me to that point, situation, or experience but that’s it. The bike is critical although for me the most forgotten piece of the entire escapade.

  10. Vel

    January 17, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Nice article Darren,you are 100% right,its not about the bike, the bike is just a tool for traveling like a human being.People can approach a cyclist they feel compelled to ask questions.Ive made life long friendships in 5 minutes of conversation on bike tours.That usually dosnt happen in everyday living.

  11. Ron

    January 24, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Dear Darren.

    Well I suppose it’s all about people being different. Different people, different personalities different thinking and different individuals.
    Some like the century-a-day-tent-in-a-ditch style and some just don’t.
    Some like the ride and some like the road.
    Some like the comfort of a hotel and some will compete for the longest time they went without a shower. It’s all fine and every individual should be able to try and enjoy his own personal Zen.

    You know what, my dear Darren?
    The pursuit of money is really ok as long as it makes you happy and healthy.
    The pursuit of miles is as good as any other pursuit of happiness, as long as you find it while meditating your yoga along a whispering sound from your 38 tires rolling on tarmac.
    I can list so many reasons to be happy while riding if only I could keep track of it – there are so many! I suppose there would be a different stroke for different minds.

    At the end of a riding day all you understand is that your body and soul are a ferfect machine and all you want to do is slut it. Sometime it’s your body who will need taking care of, most of the time it’s your soul and that is why I keep on riding time and again.

    Darren I really like your observations and ideas and hope to meet you one day on the road, unshaved camping in a ditch, or in a nice hotel after your daily morning shower.

    Enjoy your winter Swiss rides and keep warm! It’s cold out there…

    See ya’

    Ron
    Matan Village
    Israel

  12. Darren Alff

    January 25, 2009 at 1:45 am

    Ron, thanks for your comments. I think you are right about bike touring being bike touring and how “every individual should be able to try and enjoy his own personal Zen.”

    This is largely what I was trying to say with this article as I feel like SOME of the more old school traditional bicycle tourists feel like touring has to be done a certain way… and it doesn’t! There are a number of different ways to travel by bike and each is correct – for that person at that time. So I agree with you.

  13. David Fisch

    February 1, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Darren, I’m pretty impressed with your perspectives on cycling and touring. I might add that getting around by bike sets me up nicely to really enjoy the off-the-bike experience. Food tastes better, sights appear so much more impressive, and when I’m feeling it good, it seems that the world treats me best! My ‘home base’ is near Lausanne, Switzerland and for the last 3 years I’ve been getting my bike ‘touring’ fix!

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