- It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. – Ernest Hemingway
Cycling allows you to see places close up and at a slower pace. It keeps you aware of your surroundings and you get to experience a place more intimately than you would as a bus or taxi passenger. You'll see more of street life and meet people going about their daily business. It is also a great way to return from your holidays fitter and healthier than when you left, and puts less burden on the environment.
Cycling is becoming easier in many western countries for both getting around town or for long distance touring. In Europe, Canada and America, money is being invested in converting old railways, building dedicated cycleways and putting in cycle lanes on busy roads. In Asia and Africa, the pattern is very different. In China, Vietnam and India, the bicycle was often the dominant mode of transport. Here, cycling is in decline, and has been thought of as a sign of past poverty. There is some signs of a return to bike transport in these countries, because of congestion and health benefits, particularly in China. Even in India, cycling is beginning to benefit as it is taken up by parts of the middle classes.
In Africa, the bike has been marginalised for a long time, despite being a cheap way to provide local mobility.
For tourists and adventurers, there are definitely better and worse places to cycle, but there's not many places you can't reach by bike.
You can tour by yourself, or you can go with a commercial guided tour. These have the advantage of making all the logistical and accommodation arrangements, and usually bringing your luggage along in a van, but can be very pricey.
Touring is quite a popular kind of adventure holiday, and you can find many blogs detailing people's experiences, cycling independently in places you really wouldn't expect.
Biking is a good way to get around in many cities. Some even have bike sharing programs for short-term bike rental, mostly cheaper and more convenient for getting around than ordinary bike rental. See Bike rental below.
Mountain biking deserves an article to itself. Hilly, less accessible places make exhilarating riding, but you will want a bike built for it. If you are going off public roads, check the relevant legislation (e.g. in England biking is allowed along public bridleways, but not along public footpaths).
Instead of bringing your own bike, you can rent a bike in most towns, for a few hours, a day or longer. Price per hour usually goes down quickly as rental time increases. Places to ask include bike shops, tourist businesses and tourist information points. Think beforehand about what type of bike and what equipment you need. Some firms charge extra for headlights and locks even when such are more or less necessary. Some equipment you find necessary may not be easily available.
Many cities have bike sharing programs for short-term bike rental, including:
- New York City
- Washington, D.C.
- Miami Beach
- Rio de Janeiro
- Buenos Aires
Generally speaking such programs consist of at least one (sometimes hundreds of) centrally located bike-rental station where you can automatically rent bikes with your phone, an app or a special pre-paid card charged to your credit card, your phone bill, your bank account or the aformentioned pre-paid card. Traditionally most cities have offered their own system such as Ecobici in Mexico City or StadtRad Hamburg in Hamburg, however in recent times some companies have specialized in this kind of service. Most notable among them is nextbike (operating mostly in Europe, but also in New Zealand) and call a bike which belongs to German railway operator Deutsche Bahn. Both are based on a rate per time which is charged by the minute (call a bike) or the half hour (nextbike). Usually the maximum time you can rent a bike is 24 hours (with rates capped at roughly ten to fifteen Euros a day) but you can return a bike any time you want and get a new one (you have to allow for a short waiting period of about 5 minutes).
As this system is still new and many companies are entering the market expect things to change rapidly and coverage to vary depending on revenue and local politics. Some cities also pay for their bike-rental operator to offer the first x minutes for free. Typical rates should be 8 cents per minute (call a bike, no discounts) or one Euro per half hour (nextbike, no discounts), however nextbike for example offers a discount of roughly fifty percent (with a free first half hour) for a price of three Euros per month valid for all cities and all bicycles operating on the nextbike system. Call a bike gives a 25% discount for all BahnCard 25 owners (also good for 25% reduced fares with Deutsche Bahn). Numerous city owned or city run systems give discounts for residents, special offers for tourists (sometimes in combinations with public transport discounts) or discounts for owners of week or month tickets for public transport.
In the United States (notably) Washington and New York City the systems are notably more expensive, as more of the revenue is generated through user-fees whereas nextbike earns most of its money through advertising on the bikes and stations as well as local cooperations.
Maps and routes
Cycling information and routes are usually found online, often from local authorities websites. OpenStreetMap, has user compiled cycling routes available rendered as a layer on its main website, and cycling routing maps available to download to Garmin devices that you can mount on your bike. There are many apps that can be downloaded to smartphones that take advantage of OSM data.
Google Maps also has cycle route layers for many places and Android phones already include it.
Similar to motorists, cyclists have formed associations for mutual assistance as well as political lobbying soon after the invention of modern cycling. Some organizations in fact date back to before the first motorist associations. Besides political advocacy, they usually offer roadside assistance, maps for cycling trips, lists of "bike-friendly" accommodation, discounts with their partners and a newsletter. Other minor benefits may be included as well. The biggest associations usually exist in countries with a healthy cycling tradition and most European cycling clubs cooperate in the European Cyclist Federation. In the USA the League of American Bicyclists that was founded (under a different name) in 1880 is the major nationwide cycling organization.
Many cyclist organizations evaluate the "bicycle-friendliness" of cities in regular intervals. Cities are judged along criteria such as public policy, availability of facilities, the general attitude towards cycling and other factors. As these reports are intended to shape public policy they are usually available for free in their entirety. They are a good resource to determine where cycling is a breeze and where it is a challenge.
Advice and tips for cycle trips
There's a host of tips and advice available which is helpful especially if you're planning a longer journey. Correctly packed bikes can be taken on most trains, ferries and planes, and even sometimes on buses.
You can bike anywhere, but there are places where cycling is particularly good or easy. These are some of the more popular destinations and cycle routes, to give you a taste of what's possible.
Cycling in Africa has declined, and is below western levels in most countries. This seems to be in part because of poor infrastructure design in most cities and a perception of cycling as dangerous or as associated with poverty. Cape Town has a few cycle paths and lanes, but it is an exception even in South Africa.
Cycling the length of the African continent is one of the great touring challenges. Heat, disease, wild animals, poor roads, bike maintenance and logistical challenges stack up against experiencing the extraordinary landscapes and peoples.
China still has a high proportion of cyclists, although traffic can be dangerous. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Suzhou continue to have very good cycle infrastructure, even if car traffic is much more dominant than it once was. There is a 70 km segregated cycle lane between Shanghai and Suzhou. Hong Kong has less cycling than the mainland, but is beginning to become more bike-friendly, with a network of dedicated cycle paths around the New Territories.
The Yunnan-Tibet Highway has become a particularly popular challenge for touring cyclists. The end part of route isn't easily navigable for foreigners, however, because of restrictions on entry to Tibet. See also Yunnan tourist trail and Overland to Tibet.
The Karakoram Highway leading south from western China to Pakistan is a popular, though very challenging, cycle route.
Japan can be a good place for cycling. Drivers are more polite than almost anywhere else and cycling is quite common in some cities, like Kyoto.
An excellent series of maps are called "Touring Mapple". They are produced for Japanese Motorcycle tourists, but have a great deal of useful information for Bicycle tourists. They list scenic routes, campgrounds, hostels, and numerous minor roads. As they are Japanese language they are of limited use for general navigation for those without some Japanese reading skills, however they can be quite useful when supplemented with an English (or romaji) map. Translations of the index are available online.
Bikes are required to be registered at a police station, though this is unlikely to be enforced if you are touring. Officially, cycling on pavements is outlawed, but this seems to be generally overlooked; in any case many pavements are officially dual use. Children, by law, must wear helmets.
A well known route is the Shimanami Kaido Bikeway, that connects the main island of Honshu to Shikoku, and runs from Onomichi City to Imabari City, a distance of 70 km. Some other popular routes are the Kibi Plains Cycling Route from Okayama to Soja, Hamanako Cycling Course around the lake in Hamamatsu, and the nations' longest cycling course, the Tonegawa Cycling Road, stretches from Gunma Prefecture through Saitama Prefecture all the way to the Pacific Ocean, totaling 170km.
Nearly every large city and many small cities have Rentacycle options, usually for a single day at a time but longer rental options are sometimes available. In areas with well-known and popular cycling routes, there are certain to be places to rent bicycles, so it is not necessary to bring a bike to Japan unless you are planning more original routes or traveling across country. Some places, like the aforementioned Shimanami Kaido and Kibi Plains Cycling Route allow you to rent a bike at one end and return it at the other end.
United Arab Emirates
One of only three countries in the world which mandates bicycle helmet wearing for all ages (the others being Australia and New Zealand) and, of course, it can be hellishly hot. Fuel and air conditioned vehicles are as cheap here as anywhere in the world and both recreational and commuter cycling is paltry.
Most people still use bicycles in Vietnam, so cycling there can be a good choice. However motorised traffic is rapidly coming to dominate Vietnam's roads, especially near Saigon, meaning it is no longer the cycling paradise it perhaps once was.
National Highway 1 is a well-known route for long cycle tours, being Vietnam's main north-south road. There are plans to upgrade it to a six lane highway however, so it may not be a great route for much longer. The southern 1,100 km tends to be more popular, as it is reputedly more scenic and include long stretches of beach.
A popular alternative is to choose parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was the network of supply routes used by the Communist north to supply their troops in the south during the Vietnam War. This takes in the rural areas, crosses into Laos, and is much tougher cycling.
Cycling in Pakistan is very common. Cyclists often cycle the Karakoram Highway through the Hunza Valley in Pakistan to China. The Khunjerab Pass, at 4863 m, is the highest paved international border crossing in the world and the highest point on the Karakoram Highway. Organised tours and books about the journey are available.
Cycling in India is very common, and is becoming more popular as a leisure activity. There a number of informally known routes that are popular, but few that are officially designated. A few areas and routes worth mentioning would include:
- Manali to Leh - around 500 km through parts of the Himalayas
- Alibag coastal, flat, prone to wind
- Pune to Panshet Dam taking in Sinhagarh Fort
Australasia and Oceania
Australia is making efforts to improve cycling, and cities like Brisbane have better routes and city hire schemes. Australia was the first country in the world to impose uniform national mandatory bicycle helmet legislation, beginning in 1990 and it is illegal to ride without a helmet (except that in Tasmania this law only applies on public roads and in the Northern Territories there is an exemption for adults cycling along footpaths or on cycle paths).
Cycling is not a major commuter activity in New Zealand (except in Nelson), although it is increasingly popular as a sport and leisure activity and mountain biking is particularly well developed in Nelson.
Beware of buses and trucks on main roads as many drivers will not give you sufficient overtaking clearance; proportionately, five times as many cyclists are injured and killed on New Zealand roads as in the Netherlands or Singapore! You should also be prepared for the large distances between towns and cities and the generally windy weather. While there are some areas of New Zealand that are flat, most tourists cycling in New Zealand will find that they need to be able to cope with long hill climbs and variable weather conditions.
- See also: Cycling in Europe
Most Western and Central European countries have well-developed tourist routes, in addition to commuter cycling in cities. Netherlands and Denmark are especially well-known for their bicycle infrastructure. In France, cycling is a national sport, although cycling in most cities is not as good as in northern Europe. Bike-share schemes have become increasingly common in European cities in recent years. See the "get around" sections of the corresponding city articles for more detail on that.
Beirut's downtown has a car-free Sunday.
Petra & Wadi Rum
Touring in Canada
The Route Verte has 3,059 miles of tracks in Quebec, including leisure and commuter routes. They claim it is the most extensive network in North America.
City cycling in the U.S. can vary from the downright awful to the very good. Car culture is very strong, but encouraging cycling has asserted itself as a political idea, for environmental and health reasons in some places. Portland and Minneapolis are the biggest cycling cities. Los Angeles has a sizeable number of cycle paths.
Some major destinations, like New York are improving their cycling facilities and culture but suffer from traffic problems which might put off visitors. A Manhattan Waterfront Greenway encircles most of Manhattan. Washington has growing commuter bike usage, a bike share scheme and some long bike trails.
The U.S. is a huge country, with extremely varied terrains, and a strong cycling movement. Dedicated bike trails, as they are called in the States, are a growing leisure phenomenon.
Touring in the USA
The U.S. has 41,420 mi of (unmarked) national routes planned and put together by Adventure Cycling Association. The routes use the most bike-friendly facilities available, including dedicated cycle trails, old railway lines and quiet roads. They link up the major population centres and tourist destinations like the Grand Canyon and national parks. Some are focused on historic events.
Maps and supported tours are available.
- TransAmerica Trail - 4,262 mi
- Pacific Coast Route - 1,853 mi
- East Coast Greenway - 3,000 mi, quarter complete
- Great Divide Trail 2,493 mi
- Mississippi River Trail 2,000 mi
- Underground Railroad 2,000 mi
- Lewis & Clark Trail 3,252 mi
More info: Adventure Cycling Association map
Official marked US and state routes are included on OpenCycleMap. There is an effort to create a full official marked US cycle network: the first few routes have been designated, based on the ACA's network of routes.
There are of course many, many more state and local bike trails.
Central America and the Caribbean
In Nicaragua cycling is a good way to get around medium sized towns like León and Granada, whereas Managua is anything but a bike-friendly destination. Traditionally locals prefer motorcycles if they can afford them, but poverty means that you will be seeing bikes and even horse-drawn carts and horses even on city streets flowing through normal traffic. Most cities and many hotels have bike rentals for around ten US Dollars a day or less and you can buy a cheap bike even in remote places like San Carlos, Rio San Juan starting around 70-100 US $. Traffic on most highways is not that high, but then again, neither is the quality of roads. Drivers are accustomed to sharing the road with horses and pedestrians so as long as you are visible enough they should be able to react accordingly. Keep in mind that city-drivers, and especially those driving a taxi, can be reckless next to the suicidal, this is – once again – especially true in the greater Managua area.
Brazil has some reasonable cycling in some cities. Rio de Janeiro has a few good cycle paths and cycle hire. São Paulo has dedicated cycle ways, and nearby Guarujá has extensive cycle paths. Curitiba has over 100 km of cycle ways, one of the largest in the country. Overall, cycling is common, but traffic conditions don't make cycling as easy as it could be.