First Time Bicycle Travelers, Ryan And Joe, Cycle Across The European Continent


Where did you go on your bicycle tour? And for exactly how many days were you on the road?

We started in Lisbon, Portugal on May 11, 2013 and traveled to Madrid, onto Barcelona (which took 2 weeks). From there we hugged the coast through the south of France and Italy all the way down to Pisa. From here we went to Florence and north to Venice. After Venice we rode down through Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro. We started back inland at Albania and Macedonia before reaching Greece. Then From Thessaloniki we headed straight east to Istanbul, where we finished on July 21. In total the trip was 71 days through 12 countries.

What was your biggest fear when planning or preparing for your trip by bike? And how exactly did you overcome that fear?

Well, one rather big fear was my health. A year or two ago I did a 800 km week-long bike ride in Japan and by the end my knees were both swollen and simply walking was painful. After the pain went away I went and had a proper measurement of my bike and realized my saddle was 3cm too low. They raised it, it felt awesome, and I thought that was the end of that. I cycled everyday to work with no problems. Then I began to train for this Euro ride by riding the 25km to and from the office fully loaded. Well, the pain came back pretty much immediately. I thought, “Crap, not again!” I was really worried given this trip was about six times the distance as the trip that gave me so much problems. I did a lot of trials and adjustments to the bike and nothing seemed to work, even riding 50km was tough. I went to the doctor and they did an MRI on both my knees and discovered that both my meniscus were torn. So I was really feeling nervous given the fact I was promoting the hell out of this ride to friends and family, not to mention trying to raise money for a charity. My friend and riding partner, Joe Whitney, was also nervous since he too had quit his job for this ride!

In the end, a second opinion from a sports doctor was that in fact it was not the meniscus that was the problem. The pain was coming from lower down on the knee, which suggested it was a weak ligament, which would just need to be conditioned.

So off we went to Europe and the ride began. There were two riders, four knees, and thee of them were wrapped! Luckily I had pain killers for when I needed them but the doctor was right, the knee just needed to be conditioned. By the time we got to central Spain the wraps came off both knees and I felt great! Very strange indeed! Like I said, I cycle nearly everyday and thought I was a fairly experienced cyclist, however it all went pear-shaped when I loaded the bike up.

The second biggest fear, health problems aside, was simply, can we really make it all the way across Europe!? We had been planning and planning this trip for months and it seemed as though the day to cycle would never come. It’s a strange feeling you get and you build up this trip in your head to monumental proportions. Even as we were in Spain and France, to think we would actually cycle to Istanbul seemed impossible. I can’t imagine how people feel that cycle around the world! This was the longest ride for both of us and even if my knees were in perfect health it would’ve seemed overwhelming. But somewhere around Italy, I suppose, it hit us that, yes, we can, and will cycle to Istanbul.

The way to overcome these fears was to take things day by day. That’s really what touring is, right. Ticking off 100km each day. 100km soon turns into 1,000km, and days turn into weeks, and next thing you know, you’ve crossed a continent.

What was the thing you liked most about your bicycle touring experience?

Gosh, tough question! So many things. First, the travel. So many times on this trip I looked around and said, “I can’t believe I’m ______!” I can’t believe I’m in this city or that city, I can’t believe I’m cycling across Europe, etc, etc. I never thought I would be in certain places and to see iconic and historical monuments just blew me away.

As most cyclists know, the hospitality of complete strangers is one of the things you encounter on these kinds of journeys, and boy, did we ever! It really is amazing the bond you quickly form with people. We stayed with a few host families along the way and they really put on a feast for us, inviting the whole family around. We ate and drank and told stories all night. Also, just the well-wishes from people at shops, hotels and cafes that we met along the way. When you tell someone in Spain that you are riding to Istanbul, they think you are NUTS!

The reason I love cycling is because when you are touring all you care about is riding. Everything else in life is irrelevant. Your only concerns are cycling, navigation, my health, my bike, and where am I going to sleep and eat. Nothing else matters.

Next was the solitude. Since you are on the bike all day, everyday, all you can do is think. You can’t escape it. At times it felt like a three-month self therapy session, which felt great. Anything and everything I was concerned or worried about, I thought about in great detail.

Probably the biggest thing I enjoyed was the bonding with a great friend. I really couldn’t have asked for a better riding partner. Joe and I have been friends since high school and we have become closer over the years. I was planning on doing the ride solo until one night over beers in Tokyo when he said he was in! I love the solitude of riding but I did worry that this length might do my head in, so when he agreed, I was ecstatic! We kept each other motivated throughout the trip. I was reduced to tears by the infantile humor and had to pull over on several occasions! Great memories! And it was fantastic to sit and have a beer at the end of the day and talk about the day, joke, and reminisce on the past.


What was the thing you liked LEAST about your bicycle touring experience… and how did you think that aspect of your travels could be improved upon in the future?

I really don’t know if there was anything, really. Perhaps the fact that I always felt overwhelmed by the amount of logistics involved. Every time we found wifi it felt like we had a million things to do. Find a hotel, find our route, document things on Facebook, email people about this or that. And also because we were riding for a charity, we had to constantly update and check how our fundraising was going. But I think all of this just comes with the territory. In the end it was all worth it. We made it across Europe and in the process raised some money for an amazing organization, Photohoku.

Name three things you learned from your bicycle tour:

This is easy. First, if you have a dream, do whatever it takes to make it happen, damn it! Like most people, I too had always said, “I’ll do it someday.” Which, lets be honest, means never. But I was inspired by a quote I heard on a TEDtalk actually. It was, “If not now, when? If not you, who?” It is one of those kind of disposable motivational phases that we all hear, agree with, but then soon forget and go on with our routines. But it stuck with me for some reason. Cycling across Europe seemed so overwhelming and impossible, and it required several months of planning and a lot of money to do, but now that it’s over the pay off has been infinitely more rewarding than the stress it took to execute.

I knew this before the trip but it was reinforced further that people are genuinely good and no matter our religion, income, politics, or where we are from, we are all the same. We all have the same dreams for ourselves and our family and friends.

I have learned that when you leave your comfort zone, throw out your inhibitions and open yourself up, you will be amazed by the people you meet and the positive energy you receive!

Do you think you’ll conduct more bicycle tours in the future? If so, where do you want to go? And why do you want to go there?

For sure! I still want to cycle across America. Being as I have lived abroad for nearly a decade, I would love to go home and see my country. There are so many places I haven’t seen yet! I would love to see the Rockies and the Tetons! About a year ago I was reading blogs like crazy, many of which were TransAmerica trips and the stories and photos blew me away. In the next year or two I would like to return to my home state of Iowa and do Ragbrai with friends and have my folks be our support vehicle.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is planning their first bicycle touring adventure?

DO IT!!!!! As impossible as it might seem, do it! You will learn so much, about people, yourself and life in general. And much like the travel bug, the cycling bug bites hard! Joe and I are not pros by any means and we really only got into cycling a few years ago. But now we cycled across a damn continent! So it was a rather quick progression. It always seems impossible until it’s over.


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