Story by Dana Lacey
Art by Jason van Horne
While we had Bob Blumer locked in our offices, toiling away as guest editor for the Food Issue, we decided to grill him about his globetrotting gastro-cycling adventures and find out what would possess someone to bike 1,000 kilometres on their vacation. And just to be sure he wasn't rounding up, we checked in with one of his cycling companions, Christina Hudson. We also asked Canadian cycling legend Steve Bauer, now a seasoned cycling tour operator, how to get the most from a vacation on two wheels.
Bob Blumer is halfway up a glacial mountain on the South island of New Zealand, veins bulging in protest. "Ihateyou, Ihateyou, Ihateyou." The words squeeze past his lips as he struggles to maintain cadence. His mantra, muttered over and over, is deceiving. On the contrary; on two wheels – in a new country with promises of meals yet untasted – this gourmet-driven cyclist is in his element.
This climb is part of Blumer's first two-wheeled foray in a foreign land – after years of not riding at all – and his rack-less bike marks him a newbie. He's so focussed on his pedal stroke that he barely notices the group of picnicking cyclists until a woman named Christina Hudson catcalls him. "If you’re not carrying panniers, you have to do it twice." Climber humour.
That was 12 years ago, and the pair have been riding companions ever since. Every couple of years the two – along with a motley crew of biking buddies scattered across the world – will pick a 1,000-kilometre stretch somewhere on the planet and pack their bikes onto a plane. Their cardinal rule: a minimum of 100 klicks a day or don't even bother getting out of bed. They'll meet at the airport and often start the ride right there.
Blumer, the Food Issue's guest editor, is a host on The Food Network, while Hudson was in the diamond marketing business and is currently a fitness expert. Both are dedicated bike travellers, but in between, their jobs keep them busy most of the year. The trips serve as an excellent escape from the demands of their daily lives, although it's anything but relaxing. Just how they like it.
There are other rules. Come April, the group will start bouncing around ideas. India? Too much traffic. Sri Lanka? Too much politics. A suitable destination has paved roads, minimal conflict and, above all else – and this is key – great food. That last bit falls under Bob's purview. Mountains? No problem. "There's nothing like the exhilaration of going downhill once you’ve conquered a climb," Hudson says.
There's another rule: you never go back. The group has ridden Tasmania, Thailand, Myanmar, Ireland, Spain, Vietnam, New Zealand (try the lamb), Tuscany and Sicily. (Everyone dandyhorse spoke to for this story agreed – Italy had the best grub.)
In some countries, the towns are really far apart and one wrong turn can double your mileage, leaving you racing to get to a town before nightfall. (It’s safest to bike when the sun is up.) They don't carry tents. "Camping or cycling," Bob says. "Choose one." Each day they aim for a town on the map and bunk in a B&B – a great way to meet the locals (and who wants to pitch a tent after a day in the saddle?). So long as you're happy with basic accommodation, you don't have to bother with reservations.
Steve Bauer takes a bit of a different approach to travelling by bike. The Olympic medallist and Tour champ is owner/director of competitive cycling's Team Spidertech and founder of high-end touring company Steve Bauer Bike Tours. He's been leading tours for more than a decade and has never seen a shortage of adventurists that want to spend their free time exploring a new country while pushing their physical limits. Then they pamper themselves – expensive hotels and lavish restaurants, mixed in with the best of local fare.
"There's a beauty in travelling by bike," Bauer says. "You're in touch with the environment. You can drive to a wine region by car but you don’t feel the bumps in the road or really smell the vineyards. You're missing out." On two wheels, you can dip through alleys and navigate tiny mountain paths. Locals receive you differently, especially those living in mountaintop villages. They've been known to clap as cyclists pull in, or invite them in for a drink. When his wheel bent out of shape in France, Blumer tipped a mechanic a block of cheese so he would fix it on the spot (the wrench happily obliged).
The ideal ride has a variety of terrain, Bauer explains. "You want to be able to climb, but to spin the legs on flat areas as well." He also plans for variety in diet, mixing in a variety of gastronomic restaurants with easy-going regional fare. His favourite ride is through Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. "Mont Blanc is one of the biggest challenges in France," Bauer says. The tour winds along a "fabulous network of roads, restaurants and hotels." His trips are fairly exclusive and each night winds down in a high-end hotel (but not before a generous bout at the bar, of course).
Blumer seeks out the Ma and Pa restaurants or scours markets for local fruits, meats, breads and cheeses. In a guest house in Tasmania (where kangaroos outnumber cars and asking for the wrong beer in the wrong part of town is tantamount to treason), Blumer was let loose in the kitchen after their host admitted he wasn’t culinarily gifted. He pan seered barramundi, a local fish, and served his fellow riders along with the host's family.
One barely-there mountaintop village in Thailand had a main strip dotted with tiny food huts. "Vendors don't compete for your business," Blumer says. "They sit silently behind their wares and wait for you to choose one guy's hut." They went for the one pumping Beatles tunes and people from neighbouring huts – navigating through the towers of Fab Four memorabilia – helped the owner prepare the food. The speciality: fresh green papaya.
While leading a group tour alongside a Tour de France mountain stage this summer, Bauer sent a vehicle ahead to set up some barbecues. By the time he and his riders got there, a picnic of French bread, local wine and plenty of stinky cheeses had been spread. The cyclists devoured food as pro riders swarmed past. "We drink a lot of wine and eat a lot of good food. I think [the cycling] balances it out in the end."
Bob's crew has had some less than savoury experiences: They politely declined the offer of crawling larva and betel leaf in Thailand, searched in vain for half-decent pho in the outskirts of Vietnam and found all the food in Newfoundland, in Blumer's words, "a garlic clove short of flavour."
It's safe to say that global bike trotters do a lot of drinking. Blumer sometimes races ahead on the day's last leg, parks in front of a local tavern and orders everyone a drink. "Beer never tasted so good as at the end of a long day of biking," he says.
What other vacation promises that you return with a fitter body than you left with?
Embarking on a bike trip?
The three travellers offered up 10 tips and tricks:
1. Always talk to the man at the fork in the road. A lot of small towns are really far apart. One wrong turn can double your mileage.
2. Tour companies often publish their routes online. They've already done the hard work for you. Use them as a starting point for charting your route. Read travel blogs written by cyclists. Know what you're getting into.
3. Despite what your local sales guy may say, any bike can be used for touring. Find one that fits your size and install a rack.
4. Bring bike lights, extra tubes, bell, pump, basic tools (adjustable wrench, Allen keys, multi-tool, duct tape, bungie cords), lock and rain gear.
5. Wear comfy cotton clothes. Bring lots of socks and underwear. Shower in your biking gear. Strap the wet clothes to your rack and let them dry as you ride.
6. Bring power bars. Only eat as last resort. (See page 36 of the Food Issue for some tasty homemade recipes from two of Toronto's top chefs.)
7. Keep your panniers light or you'll want to stop halfway up a hill and dump them out. Mail stuff you don't need (i.e. rain gear) ahead to the final destination.
8. Bikes on planes are packed in plastic or cardboard boxes. Plastic can be a burden but you can ship it ahead to your destination. Cardboard is disposable but not as easy to find in a pinch.
9. Prevent saddle sores with generous application of Vaseline. Readjust your seat every other day.
10. Your Swiss Army knife is your best friend – especially the corkscrew.
Dana Lacey is a freelance writer and photographer in Toronto, and senior editor of dandyhorse. This story appears in dandyhorse magazine's Food Issue, on newsstands now! Get dandyhorse here or subscribe today!