By Katie Monroe
When my family goes on vacation together, we ride bicycles. And I don't mean cruisers at the shore – we pack padded spandex shorts and get up every day and ride around 35 miles, working our way around a new country for a few weeks, staying in B&Bs, taking in the scenery from our saddles. Over the past decade or so, I have been lucky enough to pedal my way through parts of the Netherlands, the south of France, the Veneto region of Italy, western Ireland, and, this summer, Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia. We always go through some kind of tour company (International Bicycle Tours, for example), so someone moves our luggage from place to place for us. We’ve done these trips with and without guides, and in groups ranging from just the four people in my immediate family up to a record seventeen extended family members.
It is safe to say that at this point we are completely sold on bike touring. A lot of people have told me that they think we’re crazy, that there’s nothing relaxing or vacation-like about our trips, and I’ll admit: there’s a lot of sweating involved, and rain pants are unquestionably the least attractive garment every invented. (see above image: Netherlands) So why do we do it?
Biking gets you off the beaten path.
Our bicycle trips, without fail, include exactly those “not in the guide book” experiences seasoned travelers crave. It’s true that we saw St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, Roman Arenas in Provence, and the Cliffs of Moher on the Ireland coast – but I appreciated just as much the chance to glimpse something of the fabric of daily life in these countries, and it’s a lot easier to explore outside the tourist areas if you’re on a bicycle. An older Frenchman out in his garden in overalls, Italian teenagers playing soccer in an empty lot, a Dutch mother of two towing her kids to the playground on a bike – these are the sights I treasure from our trips. Moving at a pace that’s faster than walking but not as fast (and hermetically sealed-off from the world) as motorized travel allows for all sorts of surprises. On our last trip, we stopped for a water break at a quirky Cape Breton hat shop and chatted with the friendly seamstress inside. As we were leaving, we learned from her neighbor that she was something of a local celebrity, and had recently crafted several hats for Elton John!
Biking forces reflection.
I love my family deeply, but anyone can tell you that family vacations often entail Too Much Togetherness. Bike trips, for us at least, strike an ideal balance between the joy of shared experiences and the necessity of meditative alone-time. Instead of being at each other’s throats after a long day of constant chatter and collective decision-making, at the end of a biking day the various members of my family are excited to sit down and really appreciate each other’s company. We each notice and ponder different things as we pedal through these landscapes – my dad, the plant biologist, always admires the flora, for instance, while I am easily entranced by Europe's elegant transportation infrastructure. The rhythm we achieve between thinking to ourselves and talking to each other is one of my favorite aspects of our bike tours.
Biking is physically invigorating.
I haven’t always been perfectly comfortable on our bike vacations. My sister once composed a eulogy to her frozen toes while riding in Nova Scotia; we found it challenging to carry enough water to stave off dehydration in the Italian sun; climbing the 14% grade of North Mountain in Cape Breton was among the greatest physical challenges I’ve ever undertaken. Despite all this – or perhaps because of it – I feel like we have forged a real intimacy with the places we’ve traversed by bicycle, climate and topography definitely included. In addition, nothing quite justifies stuffing your face with Italian gelati, Dutch stroopwafel, French pastries, or Irish Guinness quite like a full day of bicycling. We’ve enjoyed massive amounts of delicious, rather unhealthy food on each of these trips, and invariably come home in better shape than when we left. Not to mention acquiring some really cool bike shorts tan lines.
Of course, my point here is not merely that biking is a great way to go on vacation. My experiences with biking around the world have fed directly into my passion for urban bicycling advocacy right here in Philadelphia. Much is made of the distinction between “transportation” and “recreation” cycling, but many of the rides I've taken to work or the grocery store or a friend’s house in West Philly have felt as much like "recreation" as the vacation bike trips I love so much. It's fun to experience the world from a bike seat - to be active, out in the fresh air, making eye contact with people – and that's no less true in the Pine Street bike lane as it is in the Italian countryside.
About the author
Katie Monroe is the Education and Safety Intern at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
Photos by Jon Monroe.