One of the great pleasures of cycle touring is that you may eat whatever and as much as you like.
You’ll reimagine food as fuel, and the more in the tank, the further you’ll go. You may indeed gain weight, but only in your thigh muscles. Cake lovers rejoice!
By the same token, the number one rule of feeding yourself on a bicycle adventure is to listen to your body.
Your metabolism will adapt to become a highly-efficient furnace. Misjudge your intake and you will experience hunger like nothing on Earth, and finding the next bakery will be your sole reason for existence.
Many people get hung up about the prospect of feeding themselves in other parts of the world, fearing that food as we know it may be somehow unavailable.
But wherever there are people, there must be something edible nearby to keep them alive, and as long as you continue to put calories into your body you will continue to be able to turn the pedals.
Nutrition, in our five-a-day culture, is another common worry. But while man/woman cannot live on jam sandwiches and instant noodles alone, he/she can still last a good few weeks. Food on the road doesn’t have to be interesting; it just has to keep you pedalling. Vegetables are for rest days.
Where To Find Food On A Cycle Tour
There are several ways to approach feeding yourself, and they’ll mostly depend on circumstances, budget, and personal preference, in that order. Let’s have a look at them.
Fairly uncommon but worth mentioning for the benefit of those really on a zero budget is the practice of finding free food.
‘Foraging’ here is defined as broadly as possible; as well as true wild food, consider fruit from trees, vegetables gleaned from fields, and tasty surprises uncovered in dumpsters behind supermarkets and bakeries.
While difficult to rely on in an ever-changing landscape, such practices can certainly supplement, if not form the basis of, a resourceful adventurer’s diet, with the obvious warning that you should only eat something if you’re 100% sure it’s edible.
At the bottom end of the budget scale for those who actually have money is the picnic option.
You’ll rely on local grocers to keep your panniers stocked, preparing your meals on the kerb, in parks, or wherever the fancy takes you. You might carry a stove for variety, but it’s by no means essential. This DIY approach is also the standard fall-back for all cycle travellers when nothing else is available.
In populous areas, buying food can be done on a meal-by-meal basis, keeping a few snacks handy for the miles between. Sparser populations and fewer shopping opportunities require planning ahead for pannier space and ingredients. Even if food is abundant, shopping can still be a chore; consider a ritual of buying a day or two’s food each time. (You’ll learn what constitutes a day’s food pretty fast.)
Finally, if you’re wondering how things change in more exotic lands, the short answer is that they don’t. Bread, cheese, eggs, pasta/noodles, fruit and sugary soft drinks are pretty much global resources.
A few picnicking tips for cycle tourists:
- Always keep a knife handy.
- Try (carefully) carrying condiments and seasonings to liven things up.
- Many foods we refrigerate – butter, cheese, yoghurt, cooked meat – will happily last several days in a pannier.
- Stoves aren’t just for dinner; make porridge for breakfast, soup for lunch, and tea or coffee on breaks.
- Learn how to use that can-opener on your multitool before you actually need it.
The snack bar is another worldwide staple food source, and a wonderful way to try real local cuisine and get some variety in your diet.
This can still fit a relatively low budget if you choose wisely, as such places often cater for nearby workers. It doesn’t take long to figure out the ‘standard’ street food formula for a region and the going rate for meals on offer.
All the usual rules of food safety apply; if in doubt, choose the busiest joint.
Cafes & Coffee Shops
Hot beverages (and cakes) are an inexpensive luxury for many cyclists, particularly if it’s cold and wet, when it’s as much about being indoors as slurping on a tea or coffee.
Such establishments can also double up as morning ‘facilities’ for people who surreptitiously slept behind a hedge last night. (We’ve all done it.)
Those with more to spend will be in for a real treat if restaurants are in abundance on their chosen route, given the limitless appetite of the cycle tourist. If this is you, make sure to budget for extra portions of fries. (And cake.)
In some countries, restaurant visits can be affordable even for the budget traveller, so don’t write them off before checking prices. In France, for example, restaurants are obliged by law to serve a hearty workers’ lunch – the menu du jour – for just a few Euros, including wine.
No curious-minded cycle traveller is likely to make it more than a few days in any direction without ending up in someone’s kitchen or living room, being presented with more food (and often alcohol) than they could possibly hope to eat.
Needless to say, while you can predict that this will happen with a high degree of accuracy, when it will happen is a different question altogether. And so it is wise to assume that it won’t, prepare appropriately, and enjoy it when it does.
What & When To Eat
Pedalling a loaded touring bike is, for the most part, a low- to medium-exertion activity, but because it is prolonged, it’s necessary to maintain your energy levels, and this largely comes down to what and when you eat.
What to eat boils down to calories, so in a reversal of standard-issue dieting advice it’s carbohydrates and fat that’ll provide your energy needs (which is, of course, why cyclists love cake).
Snacks in particular benefit from being dense with energy; dried fruit, nuts and chocolate all count!
When to eat is another question. A huge meal will knock you out while digesting, so some riders keep breakfasts and lunches light, supplementing them with snacks as they do their day’s riding, and saving the big hearty meal for the evening. Some enjoy pigging out at lunchtime and using it as an excuse to have a nap. Some skip lunch and snack all day long. Some eat four smaller meals a day.
So design the routine that best suits you. Or just eat when you’re hungry. But always listen to your body, and give it what it wants.
Cooking on a bike tour can range from the simple to the elaborate.
The camper’s standard hot dinner – a pot of pasta with a can of something – can boost morale and warm you up before crawling into your sleeping bag, and on longer trips it may be worth bringing cooking gear for this alone.
A little ingenuity, however, can yield impressive results. Pop your own popcorn. Use a frying pan to make toasties. Juggle two pans on a single burner. Bring flour, yeast, oil and sugar and deep-fry your own donuts.
If there are more of you in a group and thus more stoves and pans, there’s nothing stopping you cooking up a veritable feast each and every evening. You’re limited only by your imagination and the ingredients and equipment to hand (and, I suppose, your cookery skills).
With cooking comes washing up, of course, so don’t forget your scouring pad!
Bonus: 5 Tips for Better Cooking On A Cycle Tour
Big thanks to Tara Alan – author of Bike. Camp. Cook.* – for this contribution.
1. Carry a spice bag.
I carry an ample number of spices with me, each in its own little baggie, all stored together in a larger plastic zipper bag. My spice bag is light, compressible, and easily packable. Best of all, it enables me able to transform almost any ingredient into something tasty!
2. Be on the lookout for small packaged items.
The next time you go shopping for food, keep your eyes peeled for various packaged items that have a long shelf life. Can you find cans of tuna, salmon, or other fish products? How about tiny jars of Thai curry paste, Mediterranean olive paste, or sun-dried tomatoes? Always be ready to supplement your food supply with small, long-lasting packages of interesting edibles.
3. Use a non-stick pot & pan.
With one pot and one pan, you can make pretty much anything! Just make sure they’ve got a non-stick coating – it makes cleanup a total breeze. The time and elbow grease required to scour burnt-on messes from other types of cookware is monumental!
4. Get inspired by local cuisine.
Shop at markets in the areas you’re travelling through, and always buy local spices. Chat or mime to food vendors and street cooks, and let them know you’re interested in their dishes and techniques. You’ll find that nearly everyone, regardless of mother tongue or nationality, can bond over a mutual love of food.
5. Think versatility.
Whether you’re looking at dishware or spices or canned goods, shoot for multi-purpose items over single-use items. For example, get a plate that doubles as a cutting board, and pack individual spices as opposed to pre-mixed spice packets so you’ll be able to mix and match them.
How do you feed yourself on a cycle tour? Any tips you’d like to share with budding adventure cyclists?