The Sweet Life Of Bicycle Touring
In the summer of 2009, friends Ian Hincks and Geoff Stanley rode their bikes across much of Canada, from the city of Waterloo, Ontario to Vancouver.
They wrote this account of their experience, which we found incredibly inspiring – words to make you get on your bike and go touring!
Bicycle touring: maybe the two words make sense to you, but together they are an oxymoron. Why ride hundreds of miles on a bicycle when you can drive in a car, or better yet fly in a plane? Why camp in the insect infested forest when you can sleep tight in a luxurious hotel? Why cook rice over a camping stove in the cold and rain when you can eat exotic and gratifying foods from fancy restaurants? Is a bicycle tourist just a loner driven by masochism to undertake anachronistic pilgrimages?
Far from it. With just a few quixotic tendencies between us, we, Ian and Geoff, rode from Waterloo to Vancouver together last summer. It was the best time of our lives. A trip in a plane, or even in a car, will certainly get you to your destination. You can even sleep the whole way there. Or you might try to pay attention as the world goes streaming by, but it’s all a blur. You don’t see the moose in the forest, and you don’t see the mountain as a humble and impregnable expression of antiquity.
It is difficult to relate the profound pleasure of bicycle touring; it’s a pleasure that takes root deeply in the soul. To feel the land rising and falling under the power of your own legs, to take immense joy in every bit of food that you consume, to understand the subtle way in which the Canadian Shield turns into the Prairies, or the way in which the sun rises and sets on the farms of Saskatchewan. I profess it is not possible to understand the majesty of the Rockies without having ridden across the Prairies to witness them rise out of the ground.
And camping! Sleeping nightly under the simple stars, I have never slept better. In northern Ontario I would wake myself in the middle of the night to look at the mysterious blanket of stars above, to see the secrets of their ascent. We wake shortly after sunrise and pack our sleeping bags and tent, our lives, into our panniers and clip them onto our bicycles. We take off down the road, pushed along by a tailwind so we are hurtling at 32 kilometers per hour.
We have no obligations, no deadlines — ultimate freedom. We soar with this wind for a few hours, and I barely notice the time going by for I am lost in pleasant thought, in the dramas unfolding in the clouds above. Around midday we stop at a grocery store and get some bananas, apples, trail mix, bagels, salmon, cheese, peanut butter, jam; find a shady grove in which to lunch, take a little nap if you want.
In the afternoon we ride a little slower, soaking in the sunshine, and by late afternoon we start looking for a place to spend the night. Today on the `northern’ route through Manitoba, we are looking at farmers’ fields and patches of woods. We find a small clearing and Ian goes to work setting up the tent while I cut some vegetables for my famous spaghetti. After dinner the writers get their writing pads out, explorers their cameras, artists their pencils and sketch pads; I go for my novel; and when the sun goes down, so do we.
So we may sleep at 10:30 and smell a bit funny, but we are not loners. About once a week, generally when we hit the big cities, we would find some generous soul to stay with. We would find these people through CouchSurfing or WarmShowers, send them a message a few days before arriving, asking “can we please sleep on your beds and maybe use your laundry machine, have dinner with you and you can show us around the city?” And they respond, “Yes, yes, yes, yes!”
Our first hosts were in Sault Sainte Marie, and I was blown away by their generosity. They knew exactly what we wanted and offered it, plus more. When we woke the next day and it was snowing (in May!), we didn’t even have to ask to stay another day.
A week later, approaching Thunder Bay, our host responded to our email with, “Hey Ian, No problem staying at my place. I might not be home but that does not matter. [...] You are welcome to take a shower. Use my towels that are in the bathroom upstairs behind the bathroom door. You may also use my washer/dryer downstairs. [...] You are welcome to a couple of beer each.”
In Jasper we stayed at the five-star Fairmont Park Lodge, but we CouchSurfed on the floor of a dorm room with Garth, a server at the hotel. With Garth, we hiked to the top of a mountain, talking philosophy and poetry and environmentalism the whole way up.
He introduced us to his friends at the hotel, people from all around the world, and we all had a barbecue by a pristine lake and a party with our new friends that night. Tell me, which rich man who flies in his private plane and pays for his hotel room will have such a glorious experience?
The beauty of being in the moment is perhaps best illustrated by quoting from my journal, after first sighting the mountains: “Their majestic beauty rose and sweltered from the land. A little later on I put on Beethoven’s Fifth. As much as I have known anything to be true, the music was not in my ears, but emanated from the land. The hills were alive. The sounds were not external or foreign, they have been eternally embedded in the trees and clouds and mountains. The first movement was belted by the triumphant trees, which loudly swayed while collapsing into the road. The second, by the impending storm, roaring to the north. And then the mountains came into view again.”
Many people I’ve talked to are enthusiastic about the idea of bicycle touring, but are skeptical of their fitness. I would like to be very clear: the physical exertion is not a big deal. If you are not fit when you start, you will be when you finish. You plan the trip, and you can go as slowly or as quickly as you like. You pick and choose when you’d like to take a break and even when you’d like to take a whole day off. We met several retired couples with minimal previous athletic endeavours, and they grew to love bicycle tours. If they can do it, so can you.
But I’ll hide it no longer: not every day is sunny and not every wind is at your back. There is an element of suffering to bicycle touring. In the Rockies we climbed Sunwapta Pass early in the morning before getting warmed up; I sort of pulled my hamstring on that climb, and the rest of the day was pretty rough. At the end of the day it was raining and cold, and we were climbing the Bow Pass. I was miserable and had to give out before we reached the top. We camped near the top of this mountain pass, in a thunderstorm.
A thunderstorm in the mountains is terrifying and beautiful. In the morning it was still raining. We got out on the road, cycled until the wind and rain froze our hands. We’d stop, eat a snack and try to warm up, change our gloves and go again. No use, hands frozen again. And so pain begets invention, and Ian wraps our hands in socks, then we dunk these inside big blue zip-lock bags to block the wind. Sure, we can’t handle our brakes or gears that well, but we couldn’t with frozen hands either.
The personal challenge bicycle touring puts to us, and that little bit of misery it offers, it makes us stronger and more confident. Later that day, my hamstring started bothering me again, so at the BC border I hitchhiked. I saw the mountains whiz by as I sat in the truck, and when I met Ian in the next town he told me what a fantastic time he had cycling the Kicking Horse Pass, and I knew that I had missed out on something great. This day proved to me the superiority of touring by bicycle.
Next time you think about travelling, consider this:
- The incredible community of touring cyclists and couch surfers.
- You get in shape without realizing it, and no dieting (one day I ate 8,300 calories).
- You go slower and have freedom, while traditional vacations can often put extra stress on you.
- No fuel burned; it’s environmentally responsible.
- It’s cheaper (our day to day costs were almost entirely for food).
- It strengthens your character.
- Riding a bicycle is fun.