Secret Cyclist: Breaking down bikepacking, the hybrid between backpacking and bike-touring

It has all the fun of discovering new boroughs without the guilt of air travel
Secret Cyclist: Breaking down bikepacking, the hybrid between backpacking and bike-touring

Bikepacking through the highlands of the Tusheti region in Georgia. Pic: iStock.

Up to quite recently, I viewed bike packing with a healthy degree of scepticism. Bikepacking, also known as bike touring, basically involves going on a multi-day, self-supported cycle trip. That means you carry on your bike all your clothes, your electronics, your wash bag, everything! I used to see people bikepacking and wonder why would someone want to haul all their kit on their bike, all day long, day after day?


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A few weeks ago, the opportunity presented itself to go on a bikepacking tour with some friends. Despite my aforementioned concerns, I decided to give it a go. It was, after all, still cycling, and I do like to cycle. It was also going to be an economical holiday as we planning on camping. Finally, as we were taking the ferry, it offered the chance to go on a foreign holiday while avoiding the guilt and stress associated with air travel.

After a week of bikepacking, I’m a convert and this certainly wouldn’t be my last self-supported bike trip. Yes, the gear can be heavy and you do notice it on the bike but you just adjust the speed and the distance you cover accordingly. As for the cycling all-day-long conundrum, this took the stress out of the usual ‘what will we do today?’ question. The answer was simple: today we cycle.

We followed a part of EuroVelo 1, a long-distance cycle route that goes from Norway to Portugal along the Atlantic Coast of Europe. The section we cycled was in France where the route is branded ‘La Vélodyssée’. Life commitments meant I could only afford a week for the trip so I cycled from the port of Roscoff to the city of Nantes. Around 70% of the route was along a towpath next to the Brest-Nantes canal. Another 20% was along old railway lines converted to Greenway and the remaining 10% was on quiet country roads that were free of vehicular traffic. Any time we were routed into a town, village, or urban area, there was either a cycle lane or a reduced vehicular speed zone.

I couldn’t recommend this route more. It’s super safe and suitable for all ages and experiences. The route was scenic and we really got a sense of the culture and history of the Brittany region. We met lots of interesting people on the way and there was a great sense of community. It felt like the Camino de Santiago but on bikes and with people going in both directions instead of one.

We quickly got the feeling that bike touring is a big business in France. Campsites seemed to have anything up to a third of their guests arriving on bikes and there was a fair amount of usage of the route every day. Be prepared to say ‘Bonjour’ to people cycling in the opposite direction to you every few minutes if you bike on one of the busier routes in France. The ‘La Vélodyssée’ website is a treasure trove of information and we planned our routes, accommodation, and sightseeing based on all the information provided on this one site.

I’m conscious that I’m not exactly an expert in bike touring by just going for a one-week trip so I asked friends to put me in touch with someone with a bit more experience. David Butterly is the owner of Royal Canal Bike Hire in County Kildare and he has bike toured in Ireland, Europe, and Asia. While David has completed trips on all types of routes, it was on the Via Rhôna cycle route that he saw the huge potential for bike touring that is suitable for families and where accommodation is geared towards people cycling long-distance routes. David’s advice for anyone thinking about going on their first bike touring trip is to keep it simple: a good hybrid bike with panniers will do the trick and you only need to plan a few days in advance.

Here in Ireland, we already have some well-developed Greenway routes and the Irish section of EuroVelo 1 has been fully mapped out. Earlier this year, a consultation was also launched on a National Cycle Network which aims to link towns, cities, and destinations across Ireland with a safe, connected, and inviting cycle network. The National Cycle Network might take thirty years to be fully developed but, in the meantime wouldn’t it be great if our rural road network was made more inviting for bike touring in Ireland?

David Butterly thinks that EuroVelo 1 can be for cycling what the Wild Atlantic Way did for scenic drives and become another major tourism attraction for the west coast. He’d like to see more signs alerting drivers to the presence of people cycling on the route. We chatted a bit about how the Rothar Roads principles developed by (the Irish Cycling Advocacy Network) could be integrated into the EuroVelo route to make it more attractive and safer. Ultimately, people should feel that they are "expected and respected" when cycling on country roads in Ireland.

I had a look at David’s bike hire website after our call. I saw a great map of the Greenway along the Royal Canal from Maynooth to Longford Town. Next summer instead of Morlaix, I might be going to Mullingar.

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