George Byam set for his 22nd bike tour

The prospect of shipping off to a foreign country for a week to pedal around can seem overwhelming. But take it from George Byam—a bike-touring expert who’s logged hundreds of miles—touring on two wheels is the best way to travel.

Byam, 73, of East Grand Rapids, Mich., a husband and father of three children, is retired from running his business, the Terryberry Company, which specializes in employee recognition programs and jewelry. He’s been on 20 BikeToursDirect tours so far, with two more planned in 2012.

We sat down with Byam to learn about his best touring days, and to get advice for the road.

BikeToursDirect: How would you describe your fitness level?
Byam: Oh, my cycling ability is minimal. I choose tours that are classified as leisurely or easy. I’m in great condition, but I hate hills. I never look forward to a nice steep climb.

I think bicycle tours are the ultimate recreation. When I’m touring, I probably go an average of nine miles per hour and I stop about 60 times a day to take photographs, and I like to ride about 35 miles a day. I also enjoy meeting locals on tours and getting in conversations even if I can’t speak the language. One of my mottos is to never take a bike trip in a country where I can speak the language—even English-speaking countries aren’t the same as speaking English in America. It’s always fun to communicate with people when you don’t use the same sayings.

BikeToursDirect: How long have you been taking cycling tours?
Byam: I probably took my first foreign trip in 15 years ago. While I’ve taken all-inclusive tours with sag wagons and guides, I really prefer the style of tours available through BikeToursDirect. These tours give me more flexibility and freedom.

Why cycling and not cruising, or traveling by train or bus? Byam: When you travel by train, you’re typically zipping along too quickly to take in the countryside. Walking trips would be too slow. The bike tours allow me to cover a good range of landscape and I can go whatever speed I want.

BikeToursDirect: What makes a bicycle tour great?
Byam: I prefer a variety of rolling hills and flat stretches and changing scenery to keep it interesting. Really the people you meet and the places you go make a good tour. The route, the people, the restaurants, the weather—all of these make a great tour, including rain!

What makes a great tour isn’t what’s planned—it’s the unexpected. My rule is that things only become memorable when they don’t go as outlined. When sometimes goes wrong on a tour, if it’s a mechanical problem or poor directions, the trip becomes very memorable. You learn more about yourself and how you cope with problems in those situations than any other time.

BikeToursDirect: Do you have a favorite tour?
Byam: No, I don’t really have one. I’ve really enjoyed the tours I’ve taken in Italy, including Bolzano to Venice, Friuli-Venice-Giulia and Apulia.

BikeToursDirect: What are the advantages to touring alone? The advantages to riding with a companion?
Byam: Touring alone allows you to create your own schedule. I can start whenever I want in the morning and stop as frequently as I please. Traveling with another person adds conversation and you can share meals with a touring companion. With a larger group, you may encounter extra hassle with decision-making.

BikeToursDirect: Do you prefer self-guided or guided tours, and why?
I prefer self-guided tours, with no question about it. I started touring with guided outfits because I didn’t want to get lost. But now, I’ve come to love reading a map and trying to decipher what the locals really mean by what they’re saying. Most of the countries I’ve visited to a stellar job of signing the road—sometimes better than the signage we have in the United States.

BikeToursDirect: How would you advise someone to choose a tour?
I always take into consideration the time of year a tour is offered, the temperature and skill level. Some tours utilize a combination of roads and dedicated bike paths, and some are all on dedicated bike paths. In all of my touring history, I’ve never had a car come close to me while riding. I don’t consider riding on European roads to be nearly as dangerous as American roads.

BikeToursDirect: What’s your best advice for someone going on a first tour?
I suggest just going and learn by doing instead of trying to figure out a tour before hand. If the weather is going to be questionable, keep your upper body dry and warm. Pack at least three different weights of shirts, including a T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt and a heavy sweatshirt. Also, I like to bring a windbreaker or something that makes me more visible to cars if I’m traveling on roads.

Depending on the weather, some cyclists prefer to wear long riding pants for colder rides. I always ride with a handlebar bag or rear rack to carry any essentials. On warmer tours, I’ve found it’s essential to carry plenty of water on your bike. Consider the distance between each town or village and bring enough water for the day. You never know how far it may be till you pass a filling station or convenience store.

BikeToursDirect: Why do you like to work through BikeToursDirect?
Working with the owner, Jim Johnson, is a real pleasure. He is very prompt with e-mail communication, which makes it so easy to book tours and ask questions. The communication aspect is excellent. I’ve had a problem on the road before and I had to call Jim, who put the touring company in touch with me very quickly to resolve the issue.

Interview by Laura Jane Walker