My 1st Bike Tour

May 2017 | by Rami Subramaniam

It’s been about 3 weeks since I’ve returned to the States from a European bike tour. Naturally before setting off I read many articles about people’s experiences after accomplishing a bike tour for the first time. There is a ton of useful information out there, and while most had the clichéd bullet points, they each contained at least one unique realization before it was all over. This epiphany was usually the result of something that they didn’t expect to feel. So I’ve decided to skip all the generic praises for why this is the one thing missing in your life experience resumé and focus on the item that really caught me off guard.

Firstly, what prompted the idea:

Personally, this whole idea started organically. I just graduated college on the east coast and took a chance on a well-paying job working for big oil in Houston. Having never been to the south I was excited at the idea of moving to an affordable place with no real winter, good southern food, and the ability to finally drive my car. Well I got my wish: winters were awesome but the summers were brutal, I saved up a bunch of money, never had to rely on walking or public transportation, and in the process gained about 30-pounds of fat which was primarily composed of tex-mex cheese and barbecue. Not exactly the dream come true (minus the padded savings account of course).

It wasn’t long before I realized this wasn’t the life I wanted to live. I missed the ability to walk to a grocery store without looking like a hobo. I missed the fact that there was no topography whatsoever. Most of all, I didn’t like how the car-dependent society precipitated Houston, and much of suburban USA, to develop what I consider the worst concoction of modern America; Strip Malls!

Long story short, I found myself researching more nature-related vacations. After investigating trips such as the Appalachian Trail and the PCT, I figured a European bike tour was the most feasible option given my lack of backpacking knowledge and proximity to civilization in case things went awry.

A little about the trip...

The impetus for this trip began with my best friend deciding to get married in Barcelona. This couldn’t have come at a better time as I was getting a little bored with my engineering job in Austin and was itching to move back to NYC, not to mention I desperately wanted to do a bike tour in Europe. So in a relatively short period of time, I decided to quit my job in Austin, sell my house and most of my possessions, and skeptically cross the Atlantic with a vague idea of what my route was going to be and what I needed to actually get started. What I realize now is that too much planning can sometimes result in inaction. Hence why I kept shoving this idea on the back burner for 4-years. However, I knew I had the smarts to quickly figure out what I needed when the time came.

After the wedding in Barcelona, I took the first train to San Sebastian where I planned to hop on the Velodyssey that runs the entire west coast of France for about 1200km. I purposely chose this route due to the flat-ish terrain where I could get my legs/gear ready for what I really wanted to do, tour the Swiss Alps. There I purchased my less-than-savory hybrid Orbea for a whopping $400, plus all the necessary gear (panniers, tools, lights, etc.). The total came to about $600; not too bad at all.

Overview of my bike route

Stage 1: Velodyssey – San Sebastian, Spain to Bordeaux, France- The route started out very tricky and I would not recommend starting in San Sebastian without some practice days first. Painfully hilly and virtually no shoulder with high-speed traffic, it took two hard days to bike 50-miles to reach Bayonne. Going north from Bayonne, the route was extremely bike friendly. This 250-mile leg passed the Landes region of France which took me through endless pine forests with beach towns popping up every 10 miles or so. It was no issue here biking 50+ miles a day. Wild camping was abundant and the towns had affordable hotels if you prefer that.

Stage 1 Highlight

By far my favorite was the Dune Du Pyla, the largest sand dune in Europe. Big deal, I thought, but this enormous expanse of sand easily took my breath away. I can honestly say this was that first ah-hah moment where I realized why I was on this bike tour. “To see something that no foreigner would even think to look up because of its remoteness to the usual tourist sites”. I know for a fact that if I wasn’t biking through this part of the world, I would never have stumbled upon this.

Left: Cliffside ride along the Spanish/French Border. Right: Dune du Pyla, Largest Sand dune in Europe

Stage 2: Rhine River Route – Strasbourg, France to Chur, Switzerland- It was in Bordeaux that I decided I was ready to start heading towards Switzerland. I boarded a train to Strasbourg, which sits directly on the Rhine River border with Germany. The ride to Basel brought me through some surprisingly pretty farm country. After hitting Basel, my wish came true and I started hitting those hills I was for some reason so eager to do. The route from Basel took me east towards Lake Constance and then south across Lichtenstein all the way to Chur. The entire route was very bike friendly, minus the urban biking in Basel.

Stage 2 Highlight

Upon my 1st sighting of the Alps after passing Lake Constance, I distinctly remember feeling like the whole ride could’ve been a postcard.

Lichtenstein: South of Lake Constance with the 1st close up views of the Alps!

Stage 3: Lakes Route – Zurich to Montreaux - Due to the unseasonably cold summer they were having, the main bike pass to Andermatt was blanketed with snow so I was forced to change my route and hop on a train to Zurich. Glad I made this decision, as it was by far the most scenic leg of the trip. This route pretty much has you in a fairy-tale the entire time. The only real downside to the Alpine wonderland is that you have to be ready for some killer climbs. The route is hilly from Zurich to Interlaken, and then you get into some pretty serious mountain climbs down till Zweisseman. From there it’s pretty much downhill to Montreaux. The main places I stopped in were Luzerne and Interlaken, but I would recommend trying out some of the smaller villages for a night. These were perfect little hamlets that provided endless tranquility with really nice accommodations.

Stage 3 Highlight

Upon my 1st sighting of the Alps after passing Lake Constance, I distinctly remember feeling like the whole ride could’ve been a postcard.

Left: Biking along the Lakes Route after leaving Lucerne. Right: View from my hostel in Brienz

Life changing, perhaps

Unforgettable experience, absolutely! A bike tour may not change you. It will however unleash every reason you contemplated the idea into a passion. For a reasonably intelligent person, if you are sitting in your cubicle at work considering a bike tour (or any adventure), you expect the various emotions that are associated with a trip like this. I knew I was going to experience unforeseen highs coupled with indescribable lows. I could throw out every hyperbole to describe my experience; exhilarating, terrifying, challenging, idiotic, rewarding, boring, culturally rich, inadequately prepared, etc. It wasn’t life changing because I expected all this and I planned for all this.

What I didn’t expect, or even realize till I completed the tour was that whatever logic/emotion that had driven me to even research the idea, slowly morphed into an intensity that’s hard to comprehend. I went into this thinking I was sowing my oats before settling down. I now grasp that bike touring isn’t something I want to give up on. That realization hit me when I was back in the states and took an impromptu road trip across the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. The scenery was spectacular but all I could really see were the countless bike tourists getting their daily ride in. Again, it’s hard to describe, but I wouldn’t be writing about it today if it were something that was a one shot deal. The experience sticks with you forever.

Final Thoughts

I’ll start by saying if you’ve ever found yourself contemplating a bike tour, a long through hike or any stimulating venture; you’re already halfway there. If you get bogged down in the several articles saying you need this or that, I can say from personal experience all you need is the determination. Pick a general route and obtain the necessary items and you will quickly figure out what you are missing once you start. Give yourself at least 3 days of short mileage and planned stops to figure it out. The rest will be gravy. Don’t let all the details scare you away.

The most important thing to remember is that you thought of this adventure because of an underlying passion(s). You’re aware that the current state is not providing the stimulation you need to feel fulfilled. Embrace the uncertainty and challenge.nProudly await the untold happiness you will feel. You will come out the other end more confident and sure of yourself than you could ever imagine.

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