Like biking through the landscape of Basque Country, there are lots of ups and downs when taking your first bike tour. With each new adventure comes learning, and my biggest learning was there was no reason to be fearful about it. Fear so often holds us back from doing things we want to do (like traveling more!), and 90% of the time our fears are unfounded. I was fearful about the tour being too hard, I would have to bike in heavy traffic on busy roads, I would be out of shape, I would not have a good sense of balance, and my butt would hurt. I had elements of all of those things happen, but never to the degree that my imagination was dreaming up. Or never to the degree that I was miserable or felt like it was a bad decision. In fact, all of those things were merely little bumps in the road that were overshadowed by the bigger, beautiful things like the incredible scenery I was able to experience at a slow pace, the food, the friends, the joy of being outdoors and being active; those were the things that I remember from my first biking tour!
So the fear once again was unfounded, a lesson I seem to learn over and over again.
I’m not the only one with biking fears, read my guest post about Jennifer’s fears of biking in Thailand.
Bike Tour Tips and Things I Learned As a Rookie
As I peddled and peddled, I had a lot of time on a bike to think about all of the things I learned on this trip. Some of these are tips I learned and will take forward with me into my next bike tour, and some were specific to my Basque Country biking experience, travel, and life in general. I think that’s one of the best things about doing active outdoor travel like this, there’s a meditative quality to it where you are able to clear out those day to day cobwebs and really examine your thoughts, feelings, and life in general.
Bring Your Own Helmet
I had only taken ½ day biking tours prior to this trip and on those shorter tours they always furnish helmets, so when I packed I didn’t even think about taking a helmet with me! Then I found out I was supposed to bring one…oops! Thankfully the tour company loaned me one. Biketours.com clearly had a helmet on their biking packing list – I just didn’t look! Rookie mistake. Make sure you check the packing list!
The Weather in Basque Country Changes Quickly Be Prepared
This beautiful landscape in Northern Spain sure is moody. The Atlantic coast of Basque country is one of the rainiest regions in Spain, but that’s exactly what makes it so beautiful, lush, and green. Each morning we’d start with foreboding skies filled with plump dark clouds. When we started the day it was normally raining, however after a little while on the bike, it the clouds broke and eventually by lunchtime it was sunny. The afternoons were often filled with blue sky and popcorn clouds. But I learned to never pack my raincoat far from reach, as it was inevitable that the moody Basque country clouds and storms would come back. In the entire week though, we only got really rained on three times. It surprisingly wasn’t an issue and I found the moody clouds to be perfect for landscape photography!
I’m Not Particularly Fond of Riding in Cities
Since I’m not really an expert rider…yet…I found that as a beginner I wasn’t too excited about riding in cities. Traffic, stoplights, pedestrians, and trying to make sure I kept up with my group and didn’t lose them made me pretty anxious. Luckily, our tour avoided riding in cities most of the time. We often ended in small villages and rode right up to our little hotels. Getting out of Bilbao and into San Sebastian were the most challenging as they were by far the biggest cities we went to. However, our guide kept us on bike paths whenever possible and we all looked out for each other making sure we lost no one. Teamwork!
If you aren’t comfortable riding in cities then be sure to check the detailed itinerary closely, or talk to a bike tour advisor before you book so you can pick the right tour for you.
Traveling With Retirees is Enlightening and Drama Free
At 48 years old, I was the youngest person in the group. Due to time of year and the level of difficulty (beginner/easy), the tour group was mainly 60 and above. At first I was a little concerned I may not enjoy it as much since there was no one my age; boy was I wrong. I loved traveling with this awesome group of retirees. There was no drama, everyone looked after one another, and there were no cell phones or selfies. (except for me of course…the young, irresponsible one!) Traveling with older people does catapult my thoughts into my own aging process – something I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable with, but I do think it’s important to think about it occasionally. I was so impressed with this group of active outdoor enthusiasts; it certainly inspired me to consider what I would be doing in my 70’s and 80’s and what I could do now to assist with that.
Sometimes English Isn’t The First Language…Embrace the Diversity
I’ve been on many tours where there are people who do not speak English as their first language. I hadn’t given much thought to their plight before. However, for this tour there were 15 of us in the group; 3 English speakers and 12 German speakers. For once I was in the minority language and it was quite a strange experience. As frustrating as it was at times to wait for translations and wonder if we were getting the thorough explanation the Germans got, it was a refreshing role reversal for me. It reminded me that that world doesn’t revolve around America (which is always good to remember), and it gave me a really strong appreciation for any tour guide who runs tours in multiple languages; it’s not easy.
One of the cool things about BikeTours.com is they specialize in working with European local companies, so you may find yourself in the minority as an American. This may be intimidating to some, but it’s all in how you think of it. You can either sulk that you aren’t with people like yourself, or you can embrace it. Travel by definition takes you to new cultures and experiences, and if you aren’t open to that then you may just want to put that passport away.
Not only did I see Spain, but I also felt like I ‘saw’ Germany too. I was surrounded by an awesome group of Germans, and the Basque architecture was very similar to Southern Germany and Austrian Chalets. Many days I had to remind myself I was in Spain! Being in a diverse group meant I learned about the overall European climate, politics, and culture! Travel is about people and connections, and I was reminded that no matter what is going on in the news and world stage, it’s simply about people meeting people, listening, sharing, and being curious and open minded.
Cheese is Addicting
Duh. Hard, aged, soft, cow, sheep, goat; it was all incredible and in abundance each and every day. As a kid I used to dream of getting locked in a candy store overnight, but as an adult I dream about getting locked in a cheese store overnight. Each day we’d ride by cows, goats, and sheep, and I thanked each and every one of them for their delicious cheese they produced. Every afternoon we parked our bikes, and had a lunchtime picnic. However, it wasn’t your typical picnic with hot dogs and hamburgers and potato salad. This was Europe; it was high-class picnicking! The picnic was the most incredible spread of local cheeses, cured meats, fresh breads, tapenades, pates, and deserts. Each day I loaded my plate with cheese, and somehow hoped that I wouldn’t end up heavier at the end of this trip. Europe biking tours rock!
Miniature Horses Are Really Curious
The beauty of being on your own bike is you can stop and take pictures or interact with something unexpected…like miniature horses! On day two, I was bringing up the rear taking photos of the wildflowers. I was in the process of trying to catch up with the group, when I was surprised to see them in the distance stopped and off their bikes. I could make out some animals in the distance intermingled with them. As I got closer and took in the scene, I realized it was a herd of miniature horses – ultra friendly miniature horses! To my surprise, the horses were just grazing, with no fences, so they walked right up to us fearless. In fact, they were so fearless, pretty soon I had them sniffing and rubbing against my bike tires! I expected to see sheep, cows, and goats – but miniature horses? No way. Every day on a bike tour you have new surprises!
An Electric Bike Makes a Bike Tour an Actual Vacation
When most people think of vacations they think of lazy days by the beach, not biking 150 miles! However, if you aren’t already an avid biker, you can still have that ‘easy breezy’ vacation feel on a bike trip if you have an electric bike. Thanks to the electric boost you get as you peddle, you can pretty easily get up steep hills without breaking a sweat. It basically flattens out the hills. It’s as easy as laying on the beach, but this way you get to see much more!
I reserved an ebike because I was recovering from knee surgery and in all honesty I had not trained one bit on a bike. I was a true rookie. At first I was a bit self-conscious about having an ebike, but after a few days on it I was happy I got one. I know myself, without an ebike I would’ve spent a lot of time in my head chastising myself about not being in shape while walking up hills. I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy my time nearly as much. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel badly as I blew by an 80 year old laboring up hill on a regular bike as I practically levitated by!
I Don’t Like Coasting
Since this was a beginning/easy bike tour, it meant that in addition to ebikes, sometimes we had even more help. We were often bused up to the top of a large mountain pass or hill so that all we had to do was coast down it. I love the idea, however I’m also a competitive person who likes to challenge myself. Simply coasting down and not moving the pedals when I didn’t really earn it felt strange to me. So now I’ve learned that on my next bike tour I need to pick something that has less ‘vertical help’ and is a bit higher difficulty rating.
Biking is Great for Your Knees
I’m happy to say that my doctors were right; biking is really good for my knees! I never had a day where my knee was swollen or sore. In fact, besides my butt being sore, nothing else really was. It’s a non-impact sport so it’s perfect for recovering from a knee injury or for anyone who has knee issues. Granted, the use of the ebike was also a big factor in the lack of soreness no doubt!
Be Prepared to Spend Some Time In Your Head
As I biked, my mind wandered into deep corners it hadn’t been in for a while. Before my injuries, I used to run all the time and it was my time to sort things out in my head and sort of awake my creative side. Since I haven’t been able to run I feel like the lights have gone out on the meditative, creative side of my brain. However, I found biking as a great substitute for this much needed time. Biking (and running) gives me a time when my body is moving, but my mind is still. As I peddled on the easy pathways, it was a time for me to simply think. I questioned my life and direction, gave myself a little coaching, and was able to strategize for the future; all while enjoying fresh air and exercise.
I’m not really sure why it took me so long to do a biking tour, but I can guarantee this one won’t be my last. Based on some of these learnings on the first trip, I think I’d love to try a self-guided trip either solo or with a friend or two. I like the idea of finding my way around and not being on any schedule. However I will miss having a picnic of cheese prepared for me each day! I also think the boat/bike tours sound pretty cool too. So, next time I want to give my knees a break from hiking, you can bet I’ll be back on a bike, and I’ll bring my own helmet this time!
How you can Find your Perfect First Bike Tour
Visit and talk to the bike tour advisors at BikeTours.com to help you choose a perfect first (or any) bike tour that will fit your style and fitness level! They specialize in Europe bike tours guided and self-guided!
I was a guest of BikeTours.com on this trip, however all opinions here are my own.