Steve and Abby Rideout recently completed a bike trip through Cambodia and Laos. Here, Abby Rideout coasts through the mountains of central Laos.
Bjorn Dihle sits with curious kids just after crossing the border from Cambodia into Vietnam. Ultimately, over the course of a half-hour snack break, the crowd would grow to more than 50 kids who would teach Martin and Dihle a few words in Vietnamese.
Story last updated at 1/23/2014 - 11:34 am
When my boyfriend and I decided to bicycle through Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand in the fall of 2012, friends and family in the Lower 48 thought we might be a little crazy.
Friends in Juneau were more likely to offer experience-based tips.
There's the friend - Julienne Pacheco - who bicycled from Skagway to Banff, and from Fairbanks to Kluane; she and her boyfriend, Peter Flynn, have also done trips in the Pacific Northwest. There's my boyfriend, Bjorn Dihle, who, after graduating from high school, strapped a duffel bag to a bicycle rack and pedaled across Canada and into Maine. He also did a trip from California to Florida the spring before we met. And then, once you start talking bike trips, you realize how contagious they are: Steve and Abby Rideout recently completed a Southeast Asia trip (we didn't know when we planned it, but Southeast Asia really lends itself to cycling.) Our landlord of last summer, Milt Barker, bicycled the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and circumnavigated Corsica. A Trip South entertains Capital City Weekly and Juneau Empire readers with stories of bicycling through South America. University of Alaska Southeast Associate Professor of English Kevin Maier is teaching a class on cycling culture - which includes weekend cycles through the countryside - next semester in Angers, France.
And those are just some of the people I knew about before I started asking around.
My personal impressions aside, it seems like most people, Juneau-based or otherwise, see bicycle trips as a growing national trend. We encountered bikers of many nationalities while cycling Southeast Asia - a Japanese man who planned to cycle for years; a honeymooning Hungarian couple who'd been cycling the world on their reclining bikes for a year and a half and planned to cycle two more; an Australian woman bicycling home, from China, to raise awareness for skin cancer. Comparatively we didn't see many Americans, but the number of Americans doing bicycle trips seems to be growing. And Juneau certainly seems to have its share.
Juneau resident Milt Barker has done two bicycle trips with Gustavus resident and friend Peter McKay. The first was in 2000, along the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route which starts in Leon, France, and ends in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. In 2003, the two circumnavigated Corsica.
They traveled with the national Bicycle Adventure Club, which Barker likes because it's volunteer-run. While independent travelers carry panniers along with them, the club's arrangements allowed them to bicycle free of their luggage.
"To me, it's one of the most wonderful things you can do," Barker said. "Just being outdoors all day long, for two weeks, for somebody that's got a desk job, is just an incredibly great experience. And to do it in places like Corsica, which are just spectacular ..."
Recent UAS graduate Sammy Becker, who was raised in Wasilla, just returned to Juneau in January after completing a 1,500-mile, three-month trip cycling from El Salvador to Costa Rica.
Her friend, who is also from Wasilla, planned the trip after living and bike commuting in San Francisco and the Lower 48, she said.
They met a lot of fellow cyclists along the way - many from England, one from the U.S., and a "gypsy band" of 12, some former circus performers, from Uruguay and Argentina. That group played instruments and made money performing, juggling, and telling the future in a crystal ball.
"I've always been interested in this idea of human-powered travel," Becker said. "Seeing something on a slower rate - not on a bus, not hostel-hopping around. Being really intimate with wherever it was. It's somewhat romantic."
Now, she's thinking about doing a trip in the late summer or fall of this year, perhaps from Alaska to Montana.
"If you have the time and really want to spend quality time somewhere, biking is the best way," she said.
Domestic and international adventures are a regular part of Steve and Abby Rideout's lives. They'd done a number of self-powered trips before their cycle trip, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and trekking in Nepal and South America. Southeast Asia, however, was their first bicycle trip.
"It was a good way to explore Southeast Asia while getting a little bit of exercise and seeing some of the non-touristy areas," Abby said.
"It provided for a continuous trip," Steve added. "I always like being able to draw a line from "A" to "B" instead of skipping (around)."
They were year-round bike commuters in Anchorage before leaving on the trip. Afterwards they relocated to Juneau.
Abby pointed out the difference between cycling in countries like Cambodia and Laos, where drivers are used to bikes, versus the U.S.
"In Southeast Asia, bikes are really common," she said. "So are handcarts. So are different forms of transportation. Cars are more accustomed to seeing different types of transportation, so it made it easier."
Steve said he thinks difficult trips are getting more popular in part because of the Internet.
"Ten years ago even, if you wanted to bike through Southeast Asia... it was a really ballsy move," he said. "There was a lot of unknown. Now you can find any information about anything you want to do. I think the Internet is huge for that." (They contribute to the general pool of Internet-available adventure knowledge on their blog, thosecraftygringos.blogspot.com.)
The Rideouts, too, met interesting cyclists along the way. One man had been biking around the world for 19 years, writing occasional newspaper articles to fund his travel.
"This was a way of visiting a different part of the world where there wasn't really an appealing long-distance hiking route, but it's still the human-powered travel element, and the continuous travel element of it," Steve said. "It matched up well with what appealed to us."
Cycle Alaska has hosted "Bike Adventure" lectures for the past few years, in which Juneau residents talk about their experiences biking in Europe, North America, South America and other places. Many people have done multiple trips, said owner John McConnochie.
There's also road biking just outside Juneau - the "Golden Circle" from Haines, to Haines Junction, to Skagway; the Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay from Haines Junction to Haines; and, of course, the prominence of the Alaska to Argentina route.
Word of mouth helps spread the popularity of bike trips, McConnochie said - friends hear about trips other friends have done and want to do something like that themselves. The baby boomer generation also plays a role, he said: running may not be as viable, but bike trips can be an active challenge while on vacation.
"It's a combination," he said. "I don't know if you could nail it down to one thing."
JP Zamarron, who has worked at Cycle Alaska in the summer, said he went on his first long cross-country bicycle tour in 2009. He noticed a trend.
"What I noticed was that many people were hitting the road in some way as a result of the recession, which was peaking around that time," he wrote in an email. "In general on the longer tours you typically meet college students or retirees, who are both at stages in life that are generally more conducive to taking these extended trips."
One man he remembers clearly had lost his job and been out of work for a while.
"He figured he might as well take advantage of his 'free time' and accomplish his goal of riding from coast to coast," Zamarron said.
UAS Associate Professor of English Kevin Maier road raced and trained extensively in Eugene, Ore., where he lived before he moved to Juneau. The motivation of a trip helps him bike more in Juneau, where the road network isn't quite as extensive and there may be more adverse weather conditions, he said.
He's made bicycling a regular part of his vacations.
"Pretty much anytime I leave I take a bike or I rent a bike somewhere," he said. "I think of those as the best vacations, because you come back and you can indulge in French pastries and not worry about it - and you have this slow experience of the countryside that you don't get unless you're walking. And it just feels great. It's a wonderful kind of fitness."
He's also made biking a part of his working life: he cycles with friends after academic conferences, and he's teaching a class on French cycling culture in Angers, France, this fall. As part of the class, the 15 American students will cycle through the French countryside each weekend.
He cited Ernest Hemingway, a subject of many of his classes: "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motorcar only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle."
Everyone I talked to who has done a bicycle trip is planning or hoping for another one.
I was pretty upset when my bicycle lock was cut and my bike was stolen (not in Juneau) shortly after I'd returned to the United States. Bjorn's bike made it all the way to Kuala Lumpur and then, exhausted, self-destructed. That was about a year ago. Neither of us has really been for a ride since.
Writing and researching this article, however, has certainly not done much to alleviate my own personal wanderlust. We talk about a lot of different ideas, but right now, the most attractive is the most challenging: bicycling from Portugal, across Europe, Eastern Europe, the parts of the Middle East happiest to see Americans, and then into China.
First, however, we've got to get bikes.