From Riga to Tallinn: Why I Chose a Self-Guided Cycle Tour

I just rode my bike from Riga (the truly lovely capital of Latvia) to Tallinn (the equally enchanting capital of Estonia). You can read about my actual journey last week (three links here, here and here) for all the emotional and experiential aspects of riding more than 500 km across the Baltics. It was a fantastic trip for me, challenging but just the right amount.

Following my trip, Catherine posted about how mine inspired her to do some touring of her own. Kim has also just finished riding her bike up and down many hills in Yorkshire and other parts of England. Sam, Sarah, Catherine and Joh are about to embark on the Friends for Life Bike Rally again. Jean and others have posted in the comments about their experiences cycle touring. These different conversations made me think about all of the different ways to ride bikes far, and why we do it.

There are dozens of different ways to do cycle touring, and different approaches fit different people, different climates and different countries. Over time, I’ve figured out that a hybrid of guided and hardcore improv is right for me.

I’m not the truly hardcore person who gets on bike in, say, Bangkok, with a tent, no plan and a couple of maps and rides for weeks. I’ve met those people — I admire those people — but I’m not one of them. But the more cycling I’ve done, the less inclined I am to also do a fully supported trip. I’ve done those in Vietnam, Laos and Sri Lanka, and had wonderful experiences — but these trips tend to have a bit more of a cultural aspect to them than I strictly want. That means, for example, there will be a visit to an historic site that means a 3 hour bus ride and little time on the bike that day, or they really want you to experience cities A and B so they build in a 2 hour bus transfer. Or suddenly you’ll find yourself in a cricket farm with a plateful of crickets and shots of rice wine. At 10 am. Not the mid-morning snack I want. On those trips, I also had a bit of an experience where the riders liked riding more than the guides did, which meant we were sometimes arguing for more time on the bike — which was odd for a cycling trip.

For me, guided trips are great for countries that are hard to navigate linguistically or in terms of terrain — and I’m sure I’ll do them again. I have my eye on a trip to Mongolia. But for places where maps and cycling trails are plenty and many people speak some English, I lean more and more to self-guided.

A few years ago, I did a completely unplanned trip in Bavaria with a couple of friends. We had one map, a few euros, a couple of tents and hired bicycles. Because one of my friends was living in Germany at the time and understood both the etiquette of camping there and could speak German, I felt comfortable pitching tents in random fields as needed, though I preferred campgrounds or guest houses for the showers. We had no plans, and no real destination — just five days to cycle. We took a train from Frankfurt to somewhere random to start, and at the end, got on another train. It was great.

I’ve realized that I really like the sensation of traveling fully from a set point to another point, seeing both the glorious and the mundane. My second last night on this recent trip was in a weary working town with only one utilitarian guesthouse hidding at the back of a soviet-era apartment block behind a steel door. I enjoyed this as much as the flourishing resort town the night before.

For this trip, I wanted something between the totally improv option and the thoroughly guided. I wanted a narrative-friendly route – a distinct from A to B that had some heft to it, I wanted to go to a couple of countries I’ve always wanted to see, and I wanted a trip with some weight to it that would make me feel like I’d had both an experience of seeing new places and also accomplishing something significant.

Enter Baltic Bike Tours. They do tons of guided trips, but also offer this self-guided option where they give you a decent bike, a route and a bunch of maps, and book places for you to stay. This was important to me, because Latvia and Estonia are very rural outside Riga and Tallinn, and I didn’t want to camp. It was important to me to have a destination I could predict with a bed at the end of it.

They offered the option of transferring my bags from place to place for me, noting the bags would be there by 5 or 6 every day, but I declined that for two reasons. I’ve done that before on point to point hiking trip, and I found it frustrating to not always have my bags there right when I arrived, especially if it was rainy and cold. (This also happened at the end of the Bike Rally last year, when I was running around an old convent in a towel looking for my bags).

More important, though, I wanted the sensation of having transported myself and all my necessary things fully on my own across more than 500 km. There is something really spiritually gratifying to me to be able to say that at 52, I have the capacity, the strength, the fortitude to propel myself and a loaded bike across a significant distance, by myself. Since I got on my first bike at the age of 8 and it became the way for me to explore by myself the towns near the one we lived in in Germany, my bike has been the most grounding place for me, the way to feel in harmony with the world around me. Sam posted a story the other day about a long-distance cyclist and why she likes to ride alone, and there were many echoes with what riding alone for me does. And for this trip, that meant being fully self-supported.

As I wrote in my daily posts, the ride was sometimes challenging, particularly with the wind and occasionally, with rain and confusing navigation. But it also brought me right to the edge of the sea, and past the intimate spaces of rural lanes, and the rhythms of mornings in small towns, and the kindness of people to fieldpoppies by the side of the road. And every day as I pulled into that night’s home, I felt a huge sense of myself at my best, the kind of inner affirmation that goes past words. Just me, exploring, finding, reaching.

Tomorrow I’ll post a bit about the practical side of doing this kind of trip.

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