Trains, planes, cars, segways, bikes — there are no shortage of ways to travel. For me, it doesn’t get any better than by cycling.
I’ve been fortunate enough to do some incredible bike trips, but ultimately my experience is limited. Truth be told, I only really became heavily interested in cycling a year ago when BMC Switzerland sent me to Belgium to ride the Ronde von Vlaanderen. Though technically not my first bike trip or really a trip in of itself, it changed my whole perspective on seeing a new place for the first time. Nothing beats the simple joy of feeling the wind against your face. Practically speaking, cycling gets you from A to B faster than walking and you can stop just about anywhere.
“Hey! That coffee shop looks cool. Think I’ll stop.”
That scenario becomes infinitely easier when you’re on two-wheels than when you’re in a car or walking. By foot, you’re naturally limited by the distance you can cover. By car, you’re subjected to all sorts of misery. First there’s an inherent hostility that comes from visiting a new place behind thousands of pounds of steel, separating you from the place. Plus there’s just a general stress that comes with driving, especially if you’re driving somewhere new. Though most who know me know that there are few things I loathe more in this world than the automobile, I can honestly say driving a rental around Puerto Rico brought me to new levels of stress.
Where did the one-way streets begin and end? Was I going the right way? Was my cautious driving going to cause an accident where people drive aggressively?
The steering wheel was punched more than once and expletives were certainly shouted.
Had I been on bike making a wrong turn down a one-way, I could’ve simply stopped and turned around without putting anyone’s life at risk. Not to mention that when I make a wrong turn by bike, it doesn’t bother me to the degree of making a wrong turn in a car. Something about cars makes any kind of error seem like the end of the world.
“Ugh! I can’t believe I have to turn my 4,000-pound vehicle around to make up a few miles after missing my turn!”
I’ve felt the above more times than I can recall when I used to drive, even though I could drive at least 60 miles per hour and could presumably make up my mistake in a few minutes. By bike, I get there when I get there.
There are the smells, too, that you get while traveling by bike. Granted this can be a nuisance if you’re cycling through the Texas panhandle’s slaughterhouse lane*, but more often than not I enjoy the smells that come with traveling by bike. Places just inherently smell different. Right now I’m in Panama City and there’s definitely a different air here than in Costa Rica or Cleveland. It adds to the memory.
Of course, traveling by bike has its pitfalls. But none of it is inherently the bike’s fault. For example, traveling by bike can be a horrendous way to get around if you’re rolling through an area designed against bikes. Sticking with Panama City for a moment, I’m looking outside and seeing two six-lane, high-speed thoroughfares along the oceanfront. Cyclists are technically welcome and there’s even a sign reminding drivers to respect their two-wheel companions, but it doesn’t look like a fun street to cycle with all the speeding death-machines, swerving as if their life depended on being a milisecond earlier. If there were a separated bike lane with some semblance of protection, then I’d be all over it. As it stands, I’m nervous to cross the street as a pedestrian much less ride a bike on it.** There is, however, Cinta Costera right along the coast for cyclists and pedestrians only, and that looks like a blast to ride.
In reality this piece should be titled, “Why Cycling is the Best Way to Travel if the Street Design and Culture is Welcoming,” but that’s not the SEO-friendly stuff that gets random visitors here. Best case scenario, the cycling infrastructure is present along with the culture to respect everyone on the road. Belgium blew my mind with bike lanes on everything from urban to rural roads. Switzerland had the most impressive marked-cycling network I’ve seen in any country, and I give them strong bonus points for lining up their network with the train stations. Because what can make bike travel tedious is a hill too steep to climb. In Switzerland, there’s a train for that.
Bike travel is becoming increasingly popular across the globe. I’ve spotted tourist bike trips across the Americas, Europe and Asia. If you have the opportunity — do it. There’s no better way to connect with the area you’re traveling.
*The Texas panhandle is not actually called “slaughterhouse lane,” but it seems to fit the stench of death I experienced during a road trip years ago.
**I don’t say these things to pick on Panama City. I actually quite like it here. Like, I’m imagining myself living here. The car-first culture is a problem in, if I had to make up a number, about 90 percent of the world.