Nearly everyone I met abroad travelled from one city to another by the “standby” modes of transportation, which encompasses planes, trains, and automobiles. On the other hand, some folks like my friend, Robert Beal from the United Kingdom has been touring the world on his bicycle. I first met Robert in Tokyo, Japan where he was in the midst of his cycling journey. As someone who’s literally staying fit the further he travels, I invited Robert to write a post about his experiences and the logistically challenges he faces while cycling through countries.
I first met Mike in Tokyo as part of my cycle journey from London to Australia. A top guy and generally a nice bloke, we both share a common interest in keeping fit. I didn’t attend any of the cross-fit sessions he went to in Japan, my excuse being that I was on a rest period. Having cycled 4,000km(2485 miles) across Europe to Istanbul, I flew to Tokyo for a few weeks as a respite before tackling China.
WHERE I STARTED MY CYCLING JOURNEY
I started my journey in London, crossing the channel via the Euro Tunnel (it’s different from the Eurostar). Cycling across Europe was an amazing experience. Given the size of many countries I could cycle in and out of them in a matter of days, so I was constantly seeing new cultures, eating different food, and finding new challenges. I didn’t need to bother with taking trains or flights and repair shops were aplenty.
I won’t go into too much detail about Europe, but would highly recommend Germany as country to cycle in, and the river Danube cycle path as a great route for crossing Europe. In fact any of the river cycle paths (the Rhine, Main, Moselle) are an excellent, and easy way to get around Europe.
CHALLENGES OF TRAVELING ON A BICYCLE
It wasn’t until reaching Istanbul that I realized what I consider one of the harder challenges when cycle touring. Travelling while on the bicycle is free and easy. It becomes much more complicated (and often more expensive) when you need to travel off the bicycle. Taking flights, trains and buses can be a logistical nightmare as in many cases bicycles aren’t allowed, or need to conform to a set of regulations and standards in order to be transported.
TAKING YOUR BICYCLE ON MASS TRANSPORTATION
Bus – this will vary by country (so do your research), but in most cases you should be able to take your bicycle on a long distance bus in its natural form (ie no need to box it). Always check and ask before booking. Long distance buses may not be as comfortable as a train, but I prefer them when transporting my bicycle. The bicycle goes in (often standing) in the belly of the bus with all the other luggage. Just make sure the luggage handlers strap it in securely as you don’t want it bouncing around during the journey. China was notably very good when it came to taking my bicycle on the bus. A typical sleeper bus would cost 200RMB($32 USD) and they would often want another 50-100RMB($8-$16 USD) fee for taking the bicycle.
Train – again it depends on the country and the speed of the train. The faster trains often don’t allow you to take a bicycle on board unless it is boxed to a certain size. Having said that I did manage to get my bicycle onto a fast train out of Shanghai, but it meant wedging it behind the very first seat in the train. I also had to go through Hongqiaou station which is not bicycle friendly (lots of elevators!), so it was a far from pleasant experience. Some trains (often slower ones) have a luggage carriage (check yours does before you book a ticket). You have to book your bicycle into the carriage (paying an extra fee) and it means you’re often quite a distance from your bicycle. You also need to make sure it doesn’t get taken off at the wrong step, hence end-to-end journeys are the most advisable. I opted to forgo taking trains because of this, and chose to take the bus whenever it was needed.
Plane – flying with a bicycle can be a bit of a black art. So far (touch wood) I’ve been very lucky in terms of no damage and not being rejected. Some airlines will charge for sports equipment or have policies around taking a bicycle on a flight (if they do, they usually want it boxed). Typically the weight of the bicycle will come out of your checked luggage allowance. So if you have a 20kg allowance and the bicycle is 12kg, that leaves you 8kg to check in another bag. You’ll need to use as much of your carry-on allowance as possible and it’s worth paying a little more if an airline offers a higher checked allowance. Because it varies between airlines so much, before booking check the airline’s policy to know what you’re in for. Regarding preparing the bike you have four options:
- Bicycle case – these can be bought at a fairly high price, but will be accepted by just about every airline. They are great if you are flying in to Point A, and flying out of Point A as you can find a hotel/hostel to look after the bag for you while you go off cycling. If like me, you are flying to Point A, and leaving from Point B, having a bicycle case isn’t practical.
- Cardboard box – a cheap and easy solution for taking your bicycle on a flight. In most major cities you should be able to find a bicycle shop willing to either give or sell you (for a small fee) a cardboard bicycle box. You then just need to find some additional packing materials. For packing a bicycle I would recommend these instructions. Personally I found it a real struggle carrying the bicycle box and all my panniers, the total of which was around 30kg. Also the danger with a boxed bicycle is that luggage handlers see it as a box rather than a bicycle, so it gets treated like one. I boxed my bicycle in Istanbul, and flew to Tokyo. In Japan I took the boxed bicycle on the bullet train before finally flying to Shanghai. Since that experience I only box my bicycle if I absolutely have to.
- Plastic Bag – you can buy huge polythene bags (like from Wiggle) for very little. The idea behind them is that the luggage handlers can see the bike, so will treat it with greater care. Some airlines require the bag, I think, to stop your grubby bike marking other luggage with oil and dirt.
- No Packaging – my current method of taking my bicycle on flights. A roll of cling film wrapped around the frame can prevent scratches on your paintwork. Aside from that, turn the handlebars, remove the pedals, lower the saddle and deflate the tires. So far all airlines I’ve flown with have accepted the bike in this form. It does leave your bicycle open to damage, but if you make it easy for the handlers to move it (ie they can wheel/roll it along) then it’s less likely to get damaged.
TIPS FOR CYCLING ABROAD
It’s hard to give any specific tips as countries and continents vary so much. Here are a few generic tips though.
- Start With Shorter Distances – when entering a new country, keep the initial first few days of cycling slightly shorter than average. Just until you have adapted to the changes in climate, sunset times, road condition, traffic etc…. and are able to gauge a good daily distance.
- Mudguards – they may make the bike appear less cool, but they’re worth it, purely to keep your legs and gear cleaner. I took mine off when cycling Thailand and came to regret it hugely.
- Sunblock – cream up first thing before you start for a day (and start sweating) so the cream has time to absorb, and don’t underestimate the power of the sun when you’re out in it for 5+ hours cycling.
- Early Starts – I generally find it better to start earlier in a day than later and have to rush. Early morning can be one of the nicest times to cycle. It’s also cooler in warmer countries and there’s usually less traffic.