Sunday, May 13, 2012

Exploring by Bike: Alternative to Touring

Ballycastle Waterfront Path
While I both travel and cycle a great deal, I have come to the conclusion that bicycle touring is not for me. This is not to say that I have anything against bicycle touring at all; it sounds like fun for those who enjoy it, and I love reading others' accounts of it. But it does not appeal to me personally for the same reason I've never liked touring in general: I am not satisfied passing through places. For instance, the idea of touring Ireland - that is, trying to see as much of the island as possible by going from town to town - would leave me feeling disoriented and empty. I enjoy getting to know a place, connecting to it in some way. And I don't feel that I can do that via sight seeing and moving on. 

Ballycastle Waterfront Path
The way I see bicycle touring, is that it is first and foremost about traveling by bike. But what if we want to delve deeper rather than go further? Exploring by bicycle could be a rewarding alternative. 

Ballycastle Waterfront Path
My idea of exploring involves choosing a location of significance, and committing to staying there for whatever length of time is sufficient in order to feel settled. For me that means a minimum of a week. The key is then to have something to do there other than sightseeing in of itself. A work-related project. An artistic, literary or research pursuit. Relatives or friends to visit. Something that anchors me to the place and provides an occupation. 

Ballycastle Waterfront Path
Long ago I've noticed that when we approach a trip as a vacation, we expect the place we are visiting to entertain us. But that approach cannot possibly reveal what this place is truly like. For that we need to actually experience it in a real-life setting, as a temporary resident with a purpose rather than as a tourist. We will still get to see all the sights while there, but everything we see will attain a far greater sense of context and personal meaning. 

Ballycastle Waterfront Path
We will also be much more likely to notice nuances that might have otherwise evaded us.

Ballycastle Waterfront Path
So where does the bicycle come into all of this? Well, to me the bicycle makes an ideal tool for exploring, in that it allows me to set my own pace and to vary that pace spontaneously. I can go as fast or as slow as I like. I can cover long distances or I can ride around in circles. I can carry all that I need with me for the day, transitioning easily between cycling for the sake of cycling, exploring, and transportation. On my first day on the Antrim coast my travel radius was tiny, but I rode quite a bit. Another day I might find myself 50 miles from my home base. 

Ballycastle Waterfront Path
On my bike, I can feel the landscape open up and reveal itself to me as it never does with any other mode of transportation. I can also ride to the grocery store - or to the pub, or to the library, or to a meeting, or to a friend's house.

Ballycastle Waterfront Path
The bike allows me to feel at home, comfortable, and entirely independent in the place I am exploring and I couldn't ask for more. Maybe I will tour some day. But for now I prefer to stay put and go deep. The bicycle is as perfect of a companion for this kind of travel as it is for touring. The possibilities are endless.

51 comments:

  1. V, that's exactly how I've come to feel about touring. It's too fast, and the pressure to get from one place to another as quickly as possible is frustrating. I'd build in time for a leisurely ride, but folks naturally wanted to get from A to B, which defeated the purpose. When I'm planning trips now, I'm planning them so that my groups stay in place for a day or two, and we walk a lot. I love the idea of bike "exploring," and I've added in time to bike in a couple places on my tours this summer. You've inspired me to think about how to run an entire trip that way. I wonder if anyone in Europe rents a fleet of Bromptons? :) I bet that would be an ideal way to see many countries.

    On that same topic, I read a NYTimes article about how one can rent eBikes and ride a purpose-built path across the Swiss Alps, which I have to say is the ONLY way I will ever bike the Alps. That's high on my list of trips I need to organize someday! That's the only "bike tour" I'd consider now.

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    1. You could also have your group stay in N Ireland and rent a fleet of vintage roadsters!

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    2. Does he actually rent them??!!

      If he does, I'm ALL OVER THIS for next spring. Seriously. I would set that tour up in a heartbeat!

      When I run my trip to Ireland this summer (room's still available, folks), we'll rent bikes on the Aran Islands to tootle around. It's the best way to get around them, actually. But they aren't bikes like that!!

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  2. I run bike tours, but I try and add a twist. For me, cycling has never been about reaching the destination, its about taking your time and stopping whenever anything takes your fancy.

    We stop and play rounders in fields, have impromptu drinks in pubs, and its all helped along with speakers on the back of our bikes. So if we want to take it particularly slow (or fast, downhill) then we have the perfect music to accompany us.

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  3. Hello Velouria,

    Ballycastle must have got the sunshine to itself today!

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    1. These pictures were on Friday afternoon. 2 hours of sunshine sandwiched in between violent rain storms. Both were beautiful actually.

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  4. Good points (Lucy and my good friend Rideblog),and good points and food for thought,V. I've yet to do any touring,my son and I have plans to try our first mini-tours together over his Summer vacation in betweenst 4th and 5th grades.

    We will,I think be doing a hybrid between touring and exploring,as we aren't planning many "miles per day",but intend to experience each place and every moment,whether we actually move down the (rail)trail to camp further that night or not. Thank you for this post,makes me think fondly about things to come,my friend :)

    The Disabled Cyclist

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  5. I think this a very insightful distinction, which goes well beyond this issue of how one uses a bike in travel. The idea is not to see as much as can be seen in a relatively short period of time, but to experience a new place as deeply as possible and along as many dimensions as one is open to.

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  6. I agree that you have to spend time in a place with a purpose to really get to know it. For this very reason we like to live and work in different parts of the world. We also like to explore by bike.

    But for us touring has a different purpose. We tend to do longish tours (currently been on the road for over five months) and for us it is more of a lifestyle. Life is reduced to what you are going to eat, where you are going to sleep.
    Every day you ride somewhere you have never been before.
    Riding across in myth international borders is especially exciting.
    There is a line on the ground and then everything changes.
    It might be shallow but it is facinating.

    John l
    http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/southamericaminitour

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    1. Thanks for commenting here John, your website is wonderful.

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  7. "But what if some of us want to delve deeper rather than go further? Exploring by bicycle could be a rewarding alternative." Must it be either/or? I reject the dichotomy of depth versus distance. I enjoy both modes of exploration mightily, but seldom on the same journey. Indeed, touring for me is about long hours in the saddle, in introspection over large swaths of landscape, watching ecotropes shift as I skirt the boundaries of my own endurance. It's more about inner exploration than of places, especially of built environments and culture. That's where its depth comes from. About exploring places more closely, I couldn't agree more about bikes being a wonderful vehicle for that. I just don't see it as an "alternative" or more "deep" mode of travel than touring.

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    1. I would say it must be either or during any given trip (as you also point out), unless one has infinite time to do both. I don't think some people realise there is an alternative to touring, where they can still bring a bike but stay in the same place and explore the surrounding area.

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  8. Without regard to price in most any location here I would prefer access to a car, bike, a good pair of shoes, public transportation and a dog-specific backpack.

    I find cycling overly stressful at times, but walks reveal those intimate details lost thru the world at even 8mph.

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  9. I think touring and exploring, as you describe here, can be entertaining. But touring has a more limited appeal, both from the perspective you talk about - passing through places rather than exploring places - and because it requires a lot of energy to move your bike from place to place, at least when doing unsupported touring. The physical nature of touring can be overwhelming. I have enjoyed tours from overnight trips to over 6 weeks on the road, though not recently, and have also enjoyed bringing my bike with me to explore an area. The latter is certainly much easier to plan, you can enjoy the weather, no matter what it is, and you can be more flexible when opportunities arise.

    I enjoyed your post from last year about a extended trip to the north shore. It seems similar to what you are doing now and both seem quite fun.

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    1. Yes, a different North shore : )

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    2. I once worked on the North Shore and rode before and after work frequently. It was nice but not as exotic as the Atrim coast seems to be.

      I've heard about the steep roads that are mentioned in the comments. I've been up and down some serious hills but nothing quite resembling 20% slopes.

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  10. I totally understand what you're saying about getting to know a place and anchoring yourself to it so that you can experience an everyday life there as well as get to know the area. It certainly is a rewarding way to travel.

    I think that it is possible, perhaps if only in part, to achieve the same touring. After all, touring does not have to mean dashing between places with your nose to the bitumen. It can mean spending days in a place, learning about it in much the same way as you describe simply by sorting out touring chores; the library for emails, the gossipy corner shop for nosh, the local for the regenerative qualities of ale, etc.

    I tour like a snail. It has to involve lots of food, gossip with the locals, and horizontal musing in scenic places. I like to immerse myself in an area. That is the beauty of legging it off with a tent and a bike, you get to make the trip exactly what you want. I only mention this because I get frustrated that "pedal 75kms, put the tent up at dusk and bolt down some pot noodles, then repeat it all tomorrow" is sometimes seen to represent all bike touring.

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  11. Truly. Personally, my great hope when travelling is to find myself entangled in some murder mystery or train robbery, not much hope of that spinning through town trying to get to the Hotel in time for an early dinner, bed and departure by daybreak(ish).

    I've read enough Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene to know that if I want to have any hope whatsoever of being forced into the stolen Jaguar by the (immodestly dressed) Dianna Rigg-alike get-away driver than I have to be prepared to put in the time sitting in Pubs and loitering about newsagents(whatever the hell that is), which I am. Nobody ever found themselves swept up in a scheme to smuggle fake Chinese Bromptons into the country after rinsing out their shorts and dropping 2 melatonins.

    Spindizzy

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  12. “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

    Ride well and be safe out there.

    OKB

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  13. How do you find the Brompton to ride on the Antrim Coast? I hear the roads can be challenging there.

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    1. So far I have only been puttering around, but will do my first real ride today.

      I would describe much of the Antrim Coast as uncycleable, period - Brompton or not. Be prepared to walk your bike up stretches with crazy grades unless you are someone like The Blayleys. Bicycle tourists here do *not* take the coastal road most of the time, but go a bit inland.

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    2. gearing is, imho, a/the major brompton weakness, but most would argue (very validly) that it was only ever designed as a commuter, and that the lack of gear range is because it is so usable beyond its design parameters. I've rohloffed mine (it works, in deeply, intensely satisfying ways), and still wish brompton would bring out a 305 big apple version for off-roading..

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    3. The Brompton can be geared pretty low for touring, with 6 wide gears. Mine is, and back home I can do most of the same hills on it that I can do on any roadbike. So the difficulty here is not Brompton-specific. I am talking about 20% + grades in some sections. But as malachi mentions below, there are flat stretches as well. You just need to plan your coastal route with all of these things in mind.

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    4. yes, mine started life with the reduced gearing, too (which, frankly does not provide a mountain bike type granny gear either) but then one looses that at the top, spinning away like crazy at 20 mph stops being fun after a while an a 300% gear range (as opposed to a rohloff's 500 or so) only goes so far..

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  14. I'm not sure where people get the sense that touring is 'pressure'. No rule says you have to move on every day or that you can't do 80 miles one day and only 20 the next.
    BTW I'm at http://www.onmyowntwowheels.com with some pics of rural ireland, including Ballycastle and the Torr Road.

    You are wrong to dismiss the coast road as uncycleable. South of Cushendun, and all the way to Larne it is practically flat. Put the Brompton on the bus to Cushendun, if you must, and tootle south to Carnlough and Glenarm. You won't find an incline at all on that part of the coast, though you might meet the wind.

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    1. Sorry not the entire coast is uncycleable of course. But every day I've been here so far I've met cyclists who arrive to Ballycastle all sweaty and disappointed that they can't ride the entire way along the scenic route. There are parts that are quite bad unless you are in top climbing shape.

      I will definitely be cycling all around here, combining coastal rides with inland detours and taking the bus when necessary. Cushendun is very pretty, but I have not been beyond yet.

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    2. Oh and the link you posted does not work for me. This does however. Will have a look through your posts and pictures.

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    3. malachi, i like the idea of cycling as mood surfing (no pun intended), never quite saw it in that way, though it's certainly how I've experienced it

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    4. There's a youtube vid of 184 cyclists on a charity ride that takes the Torr Head road. No notes included about how many finishers. Looks like a great spot to be if you must get off and push. And there does seem to be a fashion for attempting it overgeared. One rider apparently a friend of the videographer is using a low of 42x23. A few riders crest the rises at a smart pace but no one is shown using a low gear.

      The absolute limit comes when the front wheel can't be kept down or traction can't be found. Both of those do happen. On ordinary substrates roads can't retain pavement steeper than 27% and the limit for most bikes and riders is somewhere around there.

      Hills are fun even when you can't do them and must walk.

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    5. Oh I wish I was there now!

      Part of the coast road just outside of Carnlough is closed off for repairs now. Instead, you have to take a detour up to Garron Tower - a wee bit steep, but I love it for the odd sprint if I've enough power left in my legs. There's a school at the top (St. Killian's College I believe) with some nice stone buildings. You get a wee bit of shelter from the wind up there.

      In Cushendall did you see that insanely steep hill right beside the turn off for Ballycastle)? You would need a climbing rope or an elevator for that one. The tea shop down the side street is more inviting though.

      In terms of going inland my personal favourites are climbing Glencloy out of Carnlough, ascending and descending Glenariffe (Waterfoot), and if I have the legs on a good day, it would have to be Glenaan.

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  15. I'm not sure what the problem with the link is, it works for me, but you can use myowntwowheels.blospot.com

    I'm at mal.odoherty@qub.ac.uk - I'm writer in residence at Queens university - and you can approach me directly if you think I can be of any help.

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  16. oh you lot seem to have not discovered that cycling can be cathartic..climbing is so much more fun when you're not in top climbing shape..

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    1. "I do not think that word means what you think it does".

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    2. yes, i realise on your side of the pond words have to be understood literally, by googling it, around here we tend to use them more figuratively, conceptually

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  17. I think you are wrong here V in your characterization of touring.

    For me touring has always been about the journey and not the destination. You make the journey what you want it to be.

    Tony

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    1. Touring is definitely about the journey, that is my understanding of it as well. But what I am saying is that I want to stay in one place and explore the surrounding area, not journey with the bike. I don't think it would be accurate to characterise a series of daytrips from a home base as a form of touring, would it?

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    2. I have heard the term "hub and spokes touring" used for the kind of bike travel you've described.

      It's great to have lots of models for bicycle travel and vacationing -- S24O overnights, long camping tours, inn-to-inn tours, and bicycle explorations such as your current trip. Something for everyone.

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    3. for me a lot (in fact almost all) depends on whether I'm doing it alone or with a friend/s. touring, alone, can become - if for more than say three days, very alone and, well, lonely. with friends it's a shared journey/experience and very different. staying in one place alone can be more reassuring and structured and (pardon the psychobabble) containing, so not so alone, but also more boring.

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    4. I found to my horror cycling alone in County Clare last October that many of the Bed and Breakfast houses didn't want to take in a lone traveller and have to make a bed and cook for only one person. This made finding a bed for the night a horrific ordeal sometimes, and in the dark of winter evenings with your legs starting to feel like rubber - a greater hazard that I'd anticipated. Still I always got a bed in the end. There is a lot to be said for getting your comforts secured and dropping your bags and riding for pleasure.

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    5. Derf: To each their own. I find cycling with groups quickly devolves into the sort of 'If it is Wednesday this must be Verdun' sort of travel. Every person has their own trip goals. The group as a whole has to compromise at every turn.

      Touring alone, however, I frequently have changed agendas mid-trip. If something interests me, I'll stay on.

      To Malachi's point, however, it can be a pain as accommodations and restaurants as well, often assume the single traveller is not worth the effort. Even when I make clear I have the wherewithal to pay extra, it can be a pain.

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    6. I love touring on my own and maybe spending a day or two with friends if possible. I have to say though that I always seem to meet up with some lovely folks and can still find it hard to get 'alone' time.

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  18. I'm very much enjoying your travelogue. I was planning a trip to Ireland a few years ago that involved both cycle touring and staying for an extended visit in my grandmother's old cottage, but was unable to go. I'm inspired by your words and photographs to move it back toward the front of my bucket list! Thank you.

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  19. Interesting perspective... as much as I enjoy touring by bicycle, there are occasions when I wish I could stop for more than a night, say, and get a real feel for a place. With time short, it's almost impossible to escape the regimen of a schedule. The notion of arriving at a destination and exploring it by bike is an appealing alternative and a folding bike would seem perfect for the job.

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  20. As implied by Ground Round Jim, there is a time to ride, and a time to walk, a time for trains and a time for cars. The traveller should use the mode that best facilitates his or her objective. That being said, the bicycle is a wonderful compromise as it provides something of the power and efficiency of a car as well as some of the intimacy of travelling by foot.

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  21. I tour, I meander, I explore and I do it all by bicycle. I just spent the weekend in Savannah, GA. Meandering about by bicycle, fortunately we were able to find a appropriate sized rental bike for my bride, so we meandered together. I rode my Dahon Classic III that lives in my car trunk. Definitely need to upgrade to a Brompton or two.

    Aaron

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  22. Wow. I had actually stopped commenting here due to reading from a google feed, but had to make the effort to say thank you for this! I had been gearing up to get a custom touring bike. I wasn't excited about the cost but I'm tiny and oddly shaped and it seemed unavoidable - and now I realize I would eventually have come to the same conclusion you did anyway! This solves so many problems: 1. Lower cost 2. Easier travel and assembly, even compared to a coupled bike 3. No need for bike-friendly hotels 4. Ability to go on 'bike trips' with non-cyclists and still spend time together 5. Solves the problem of what to do with the bike travel case during the trip 6. No need to buy all the fancy gear needed to carry everything with you every day 7. It's easier to find a single bike-friendly destination than a bike-friendly tour (for the skittish).

    I am going to the Brompton shop this weekend. I can't thank you enough for the thousands of dollars you just saved me on something I wasn't going to get to do that often for all the reasons above. I plan to take the Brompton everywhere!

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  23. Jennifer in ScotlandMay 15, 2012 at 5:51 PM

    I'm really inspired by your Ireland posts, especially this one. It hadn't really occurred to me to have this kind of trip by bike, as opposed to touring with gear (which I enjoy reading about but don't aspire to do). As a non-driver I also love that you got to your destination by public transport. It makes me want to work on a similar plan! I am reminded once again why I love this blog.

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  24. Those really are some beautiful pictures - you certainly had the weather that day. I use my bike to commute mostly but I'm blessed to be able to ride through some lovely countryside on the way. Unfortunately, I have to fight back the urge to spend the day just mooching through the lanes rather than going to work on an almost daily basis! Once the weather pics up over here, I foresee a few spur-of-the-moment "bike-led" days off...

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  25. "The key is then to have something to do there other than sightseeing in of itself. A work-related project. An artistic, literary or research pursuit. . . . Long ago I've noticed that when we approach a trip as a vacation, we expect the place we are visiting to entertain us. But that approach cannot possibly reveal what this place is truly like. For that we need to actually experience it in a real-life setting, as a temporary resident with a purpose rather than as a tourist."

    I was excited to read this, because I've had exactly the same thought. The funny thing is that I came to the conclusion that bike touring is the solution to the problem, not an instance of the problem.

    I had long wanted to see Western Europe. But by the time I had the money and time to go, I was jaded by having had the opportunity to live and work in several foreign countries, and the idea of shuffling from guidebook site to guidebook site turned me off.

    Re-framing the trip as an epic bicycle journey gave me a project and a purpose that captivated my imagination more than seeing guidebook sites: I would attempt to get from Madrid to Northern Italy under my own steam. Getting off the tourist track and into backwaters would set me up for the serendipitous encounters and feeling of discovery that are what I have always loved best about travel. Riding a roadbike with a 25 liter carradice saddlebag and staying in hotels, I could cover 50-100 miles a day cycling, find a place to stay, changed into street clothes, and spend the afternoon puttering around town. If I found myself in a particularly interesting place or was sick of biking, I could stop there for a day or two and do more siteseeing on foot, or just sit in a cafe and read my book.

    I missed most of the famous cultural treasures that I would have seen jetting between bigger cities with a faster mode of transportation, but I had long ago realized that I didn't get as much out of seeing the famous sites themselves as I did out of all the unplanned things that accompanied the visits to the sites--seeing the people, hearing the language, figuring out the layout of the place, how its economy worked. On this trip, my daily bike ride replaced visits to famous places as the "job" that allowed me to have all those second-order experiences. It wasn't as good as an actual job for connecting you to the place, but better, I think, than the pure self-indulgence of being a tourist.

    That's the only bike tour I've ever done. I'm not sure I would like it as a way to see an area where tows were farther apart (e.g. North America) or where roads are poor and people would think it an extraordinarily strange way to travel (e.g. Central America). But I think it was an unparalleled way to spend a month seeing the "monde plein" of rural Western Europe, where you can make out the next village from the steeple of the local church, and where you can see (and sometimes hear and taste) the pays/paises change every hundred miles or so as you cross from valley to valley.

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  26. You were right that it is impossible to show pictures of your folding bike without its identity being glaringly obvious. No matter what small piece of the bike you show, it's so obvious it's a Brompton! Haha oh well. Anyway I love seeing pictures of it, so please don't be shy. I hope a review is on the horizon.

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  27. I think you understand why I don't describe my bicycle tours as "vacations." I have always enjoyed them, and they were certainly a break from whatever job I was working at the time. But I, too, need to feel a deeper connection to the place in which I'm riding. Also, I find that my senses are more keenly attuned when I'm on such a trip, and I feel more creative. So, I'm not really "vacating" anything besides whatever job I'm working.

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