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Beers to You: ‘Bike and beer’ redefines ‘B&B’

By Rich Ireland

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The term "B&B" is all but ingrained in our travel vernacular to mean "bed and breakfast," but for me it means "bike and beer."

It all started in May when, as an already active cyclist, I invested in a folding touring bike that I could check as standard luggage. My first outing with my Dahon Speed-TR coincided with a business trip to Seattle.

I flew in a day early, assembled my bike and took a ride on a lovely bike trail nearly circumnavigating Lake Washington. Twenty-three miles later I found myself with a few hundred other cyclists sipping craft beer and basking in the sun at Redhook Brewery's biergarten in Woodinville. I quaffed two different ales, chowed down on some pita and hummus, and then pedaled back to my hotel in downtown Seattle, burning whatever calories I consumed and then some.

The trip was so enjoyable that I almost couldn't wait for my big trip in August to cycle the region around Bamberg, Germany, an area with the highest concentration of breweries in the world. Once again I took my folding bike while my cycling buddy Joe rented a very decent bike from a shop in Bamberg.

We based ourselves in Bamberg, staying in a guest room at a local brewery. Joe and I cycled for four days, covering more than 140 miles while visiting numerous family-owned breweries. Rest assured that at no time were we over-served nor did we over-consume, realizing that we had to pedal home. In Germany, a cyclist can be cited for DUI on a bicycle, so pedaling after too many beers isn't a good idea, for many reasons.

The rolling hills of the area posed only a slight challenge to West Virginia hill-hardened cyclists, and we left Germany a few pounds lighter than when we arrived.

I was delighted when I found out about an upcoming business trip to Sweden in September. I immediately started brainstorming an idea of a bicycle side trip, albeit a very short one. I cooked up a plan to ride for two days in Belgium. I presented it to one of my work colleagues, who liked the idea and decided to join me.

The manifest grew by one the very day I was to fly out of Charleston. My brewing, biking and hiking buddy Jeff Rabatin decided on our morning hike that he was all in for the short trip. Jeff is a pretty spontaneous guy, but I never dreamed that by the time I was boarding my plane, he would have cashed in frequent-flier points and was ready to join us on the two-day bike trip later that week.

What's so appealing about pedaling hard for several hours a day while occasionally being rewarded with a beer?

I find that with cycling, the journey itself adds to the enjoyment of the destination. There is something special about cycling in a bicycle-friendly place like Germany or Belgium on mostly car-free bike paths with many others like yourself. The respect that is given to a cyclist by yielding automobile drivers at an intersection is a reassuring feeling, as if they wish they were pedaling with you.

I also think that short of "hoofing it," cycling allows you to immerse yourself into wherever you are, catching the smiling glances of the locals or smelling the freshly mown hay or even the strong smell of composted fields.

And then there's that unwavering feeling that you deserve that beer you are drinking, most likely at a small pathside café or in a biergarten while basking in the sun. Driving a car between points A and B is almost like fast-forwarding past a song, compared to cycling, which is like listening to a song all the way through to the next one.

If this kind of tourism sounds appealing to you, let me give you a few tips. Though I am still a novice, I have three successful trips under my helmet and I would like to share what I learned.

Build up your cycling endurance. You don't have to dress in matching bike spandex and ride a slick carbon-framed racing bike to pull this off. Quite the contrary. Cycle touring is not about the weight or speed of your bike; if I needed my bike to be a few grams lighter, I'll skip the extra biscuit at breakfast.

Find a bike that is comfortable for the long haul; this means a bike that fits and a touring-quality saddle (notice I don't call it a seat). It might feel really great sitting on a blob of Jell-O for a few miles, but trust me, if you start clocking 15 or 20 miles, all of that movement is going to cause some chafing. I find leather saddles the best.

So, pick your iron horse and ride it until you increase strength and work out the things that are going to hurt you after a few miles. It's a bit of a luxury to bring your own bike, so anything you can do to build up your butt and hand tolerance will help, even when renting a decent bike.

If you have found your perfect saddle, consider bringing it to install on your rental. Cycling shorts are a plus because they are designed with seams in places that help prevent chafing. Almost all of them feature some kind of internal padding, known as a chamois, which works well on higher-quality shorts.

Pick a bike-friendly destination. Would you rather pedal around a place like the concrete jungle of Houston or in bike-friendly Portland, Ore.? Be realistic about your abilities. You don't want to find out your weakness while on a beer-and-bike vacation, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't challenge yourself.

Bike-friendly destinations are exponentially safer and more fun to ride. Belgium may be the place that strikes the best balance between being unbelievably bike friendly while also being the beer equivalent of Disneyland. Germany is great as well, but you will encounter some hills.

Set realistic itineraries and goals. The first thing to do is decide if you are riding from point to point or returning to a base hotel. So far, all of my touring has been the return-to-base type; this lightens the bike luggage load. You may be able to find a luggage forwarding service to deliver your bags to the next destination if you really need to do point-to-point touring and don't want to be loaded down with panniers (bike-mounted bags) or a bike trailer.

Try to keep return-to-base trips more interesting by finding loops or different return routes so you don't meet the same cow twice. Make sure you know your limits. Factor in such things as wind and hills, which can make a 10-mile ride seem like 30.

On my Belgian trip, we returned to our base by train on our first day after a very long ride. Be sure to check the availability of rail transport when and where you will need it. Check the fare structure for additional bicycle carriage fees.

Contact the tourism bureau where you plan to ride because they may be able to direct you to outfitters that offer fully preplanned bike tours complete with baggage-forwarding services.

Use a bike/hiking GPS or cycling maps. My Garmin Dakota Hike and Bike GPS worked great in Germany using free GPS maps from www.velomaps.org. The free Velomap for Belgium was not so good; fortunately Belgium has a very well-marked bike path network and paper maps are available at almost any bookstore.

For general information on cycling vacations, check into these resources:

  • "Bicycle Touring Holland: With Excursions into Neighboring Belgium and Germany," paperback by Katherine Widing.
  • For a complete listing of cycling routes in Bavaria, Germany: www.bayerninfo.de.
  • Belgium cycling routes and map info: www.visitbelgium.com.
  • See Rich Ireland's Beers to You blog at thegazz.com.


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