Maybe like us you are taking advantage of the winter season to plan and dream about your cycling adventures for Spring and summer 2024. Or maybe you’re packing up your bike right now and heading to warmer weather. Swift Ambassador Anton Krupicka has some advice and lessons learned on Bicycle Touring Internationally. Read on for some of his insight into packing up your ride and navigating in new places.
Tips & Tricks for Bicycle Touring Internationally
By Anton Krupicka
Although I’ve been fortunate to travel extensively as a professional ultrarunnner for the past 15 years—every continent except Antarctica, in fact—before this past fall I’d never gone on a bike tour overseas. For five weeks in September and October, my partner (and fellow Swift ambassador) Hailey Moore and I traveled in Slovenia and Italy. The trip was bookended by work obligations for each of us, but we were left with about three weeks in the middle to ride our bikes. We divided this into a 400mi/5-day loop in western Slovenia, starting and finishing in the capital of Ljubljana; a 600mi/8-day point-to-point ride from Trento in northern Italy to Rome in the south; and a final 200mi/3-day loop through the Dolomites in northern Italy.
In the process of a collective 16 days and 1200 miles on the road we learned some things. I’ll break my insights into four buckets—planes, trains, lodging & bike set-up.
Flying With A Bike
Flying with a bike comes down to one big decision: should you buy a travel case for your bike? Although I had never toured internationally before this trip, I’ve ridden a bike internationally several times, about half of those being on my own bike (riding rentals the other times). As such, I already committed to the wheeled bike-bag years ago. The reason being that I had tried the just-pack-it-in-a-box thing before and found it to be nearly prohibitively heinous. Dragging an unwieldy cardboard box on public transportation and around an airport in addition to your other luggage is, shall we say, unpleasant. On par with wrestling that mattress out of your bedroom and up and down a couple flights of stairs when you’re changing addresses. It sucks, and the suffering is not short-lived. So, my advice is, if you’re planning on flying with a bike more often than once every couple of years: get the case. Or beg a friend to borrow one.
If you do decide to buy your own bike travel case, choose it wisely. Not only are they expensive (a few hundred dollars), but they’re bulky, making it awkward to store them in between trips and also tough to meet the airline 50lb weight limit. My soft-sided EVOC bag weighs 21lb empty. At 6’1”, I ride XL steel frames. My bike weighs 24-25lb without any of the bulky extras, like touring luggage, shoes, bottles, helmet, sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, etc. These things are tough to fit in a carry-on. Hailey has an Orucase review bag that has its own set of pros and cons. One major pro, however, is that it only weighs 14lbs while still being of high-quality construction that seems to protect the bike just as well—that’s a big difference!
I pretty much only fly United—I decided years ago to commit to just one airline for awards/upgrades reasons—and their bike bag policy is relatively friendly. If not oversized, it simply counts as a piece of checked luggage, no extra charge—if you can keep it under 50lb. Over 50lb and you’re hit with a whopping $200 fee…both directions! Do the research for your specific airline.
Okay, this is a big one. While we had some friends who were kind enough to provide a couple of small assists with their cars, we otherwise got around via our bikes or public transportation—trains and buses, but mostly trains. And the trains in Europe are broadly comfortable, clean, efficient and popular.
In both Italy and Slovenia, the crucial thing was differentiating between regional trains and “fast” trains. The regional trains are just like they sound: they serve a limited region and stop often to drop-off/pick-up commuters, students, etc. However, they crucially have one or two cars—designated by a giant bicycle logo on the outside of the car—specifically designed for transporting complete bikes that either hang from hooks or slot into a stand. In general, there is no extra cost for bringing a bike aboard, but in some instances a separate ticket is required for your bike—there are only so many bike slots available in the car, afterall.
The problem is that getting across a country on these regional trains requires switching trains a few times, and the trains stop more often. When we took the train from Rome back to the start of our Italian tour in Trento, there was a direct “fast train” option that took less than 6hr. Of course, that was the option we initially chose, not realizing that bikes are only allowed on those trains if they’re boxed or bagged up, as if you’re getting on an airplane.
So after eating the cost of our first tickets, we consulted a representative at the station ticket window and ended up booking three separate regional trains with an itinerary that took twice as long but allowed complete bikes to be rolled onto the train. As far as we could tell, that itinerary wasn’t even an option at the digital self-booking ticket kiosk or on-line. So, as un-pro as it feels, definitely just go to the ticket window and make sure you are purchasing tickets for trains that allow complete bikes.
Alternatively, you can go through the hassle of locating a cardboard bike box, breaking down your touring rig to fit into the box, and then lugging that to the train station. Basically, pick your poison, I guess. We chose the longer train ride. The trains are way more comfortable than, say, airplanes, but we did lose an extra half-day to transit. To us it was worth it to avoid the stress of boxing and unboxing our bikes.
While cyclotouring we generally camp. This is to save money but also because sleeping on the ground is usually the experience we prefer to have when bike touring. We have the entirety of our lives not on tour to sleep in our bed.
Of the 16 days we were living off our bikes on this trip, we rented four hotel rooms. One night in Trieste on our Slovenian tour, one unplanned night in Bologna (I got a migraine, my first ever), and then the two nights we were in Rome. Of course, we tried to get the cheapest rooms we could, but they all still ended up being 100-140 Euros, each. These are touristy cities, and even in the supposed off-season, prices are high. Most critically for bike tourists, European hotels are small. The elevators are small, the rooms are small. Almost every room we stayed in, it was extremely tight to fit a bed and two bicycles in the room. Comically tight. Not much to do about it except pay a boatload of money for a bigger room, I suppose. It’s just part of the experience.
The dozen other nights, we slept on the ground. Early in the trip, an acquaintance advised that “wild camping” is allowed in Italy, and we took that to heart. However, we basically used the same tactics and common sense that we employ when choosing bivy locations while touring in the States. This means that for convenience’s sake we occasionally set up camp in what felt like ambiguously public spaces—in the trees alongside a bike path, the edge of a field or pasture, on the grassy verge of a sports field complex, etc. Owing to bugs, we pitched a tent every night, so we weren’t being uber-stealthy, yet we were never hassled or even made to feel uncomfortable. Be respectful, and follow your instincts.
We spent two nights total in two different official campgrounds, complete with showers, laundry, designated sites, etc. Both times, we did so begrudgingly, mostly because they were crowded and not cheap—around 40 Euro. However, owing to the lack of vast public lands in Italy, sometimes this option felt strictly necessary.
Hailey and I are not heavy-duty cyclotourists. We generally keep our packs pretty minimal, and I would say that style is especially advantageous when touring abroad, mostly due to the hassle of negotiating public transportation with a heavy bike, and also the aforementioned airline weight limits. Hailey had a full frame bag, Olliepack Seat Bag, Catalyst Pack, Moxie Top Tube Bag and Gibby Stem Bag. I was riding with an Olliepack Seat Bag, Full Frame Bag and Zeitgeist Pack.
As for the actual bike build, when on long, committing tours, I always prefer to keep my bike as analog as possible—no electronic derailleurs, no hydraulic brakes.
Charging batteries is a hassle when on tour and I’ve had two different electronic derailleurs spontaneously fail on me in the last few years. Both required warrantying them with the manufacturers—there was nothing that I nor a professional mechanic could’ve done to get them working again. This would, obviously, be a nightmare while on tour, especially in a foreign country. As for hydraulic brakes—I loathe soft brakes and you’ll never see me attempting a brake bleed in the field.
For this trip, I had cable-actuated disc brakes (remember to remove your brake rotors when packing up your wheels!) and a bar-end shifter on my drop bars. I feel confident working on these systems with nothing more than a simple multi-tool. The only maintenance I performed on this trip was replacing my front brake pads—lotsa long, winding descents in the Dolomites!
Having said all of that, Hailey was riding a review bike from a Polish frame builder and it was built up with the latest greatest wireless shifting and hydraulic brakes. And she didn’t have a single issue beyond having to stay on top of her battery charging.
Just like here at home, a bicycle is an amazing way to experience a new landscape and culture. Traveling by bike forces an immersive experience with the local scene that is easy to miss when otherwise flitting from touristy spot to touristy spot. While it might feel intimidating to add another layer of uncertainty to traveling abroad by doing so via bicycle, the richness of experience is ultimately commensurate with the extra challenge and I heartily recommend it.