A bike shop is a bike shop is a bike shop. Don’t let language be a barrier to riding.

Note to the reader: This piece is about being a Tourist, not a Touring Cyclist.

Do you love to travel, but hate not knowing your way around? Do you eagerly anticipate visiting new places, but cringe at the thought of being lost in an unfamiliar place? Do you prefer to hit the ground running on vacation, but fear the thought of having to ask someone for directions because you don’t know if the person is going to be a jackass and point you in the wrong direction, or worse, lead you to an abandoned hospital where black market surgeons pay him $50 (USD) per healthy kidney?

If so, then you’re just like me. In every way imaginable. We are clearly twins separated at birth. What am I thinking right now? That’s right! “Popsicle!” Separated fraternal twins and ESP — such a strange phenomenon.

My recommendation for combatting this situation is to take a bicycle tour of whatever town, city, or countryside you are in as soon as you get there! Most major cities either have bicycle tour companies or bicycle shops that offer tours. Philadelphia, for example, has the Philly Bike Tour Company, which is an offshoot of Fairmount Bicycles (two birds). These types of companies offer tours that help you get to know a city, and many of them offer different ride options based on skill sets and interests.  Maybe you want a fast paced city sweep to help you get your bearings while learning something about your temporary home, or maybe a leisurely nightlife tour to get yourself ready for evening events, or if you’re really lucky, you could take a fancy, day-long wine tour through rolling hills and vineyards. It doesn’t matter which type you choose, though, as all of them will help set your inner compass.

Additionally, these companies usually provide you with everything you’ll need for the tour. Bicycle, helmet, lock, water, and if you’re lucky, lunch. In most cases, all you need to do is show up, and they take care of the rest. One less thing to worry about.

Dalian, China via local bike rental from Bǎikē Danche

As with any endeavor, planning is important. Prior to departing for your destination city, do an Internet search for bicycle tours within your destination city. For example: “bicycle tour chicago“. That search returned three different tours on the first page (and more can be found if you dig). Now that you have your tour companies, do a little research. Give the tour companies a call; don’t rely on what’s on their webpage. Talk to a representative of the company, tell them what you’re looking for, your skill level, and when you’re arriving. They’ll be able to tell you exactly which tour is perfect for you and can even make sure they wait for you on the off chance you’re late due to travel delays.

Once you’ve decided on a tour, book it! Don’t wait until you’re on vacation; book now. If you can, book it for as soon as you get to the city. If your flight lands at 8, get on that tour by 10. That’s plenty of time to drop your luggage off, put on some shorts (not lycra), and get a cab to the tour. By noon, you’ll already start to feel at home. You’ll also have a ton of pictures so you won’t have to carry your camera around and look like a tourist the rest of the time you’re there. Not that anyone uses cameras anymore.

Do you know why you need to book the tour now? Because when you get off of that plane, the last thing you’re going to want to do is go for a bike ride. You just spent hours crammed in a tiny seat with some kid kicking your back. All you’ll want to do is get a shower, stretch out, and watch some HBO. In reality, a bicycle ride will make you feel 100x better than lounging, but your mind will be too clouded with post-flight irritation to realize it. This is why you book prior to departure. That and who knows if the tours fill up quickly.

Plaza de Armas (Santiago, Chile) via La Bicicleta Verde tours.

Once you’ve booked, all you need to do is show up. If you can, try to get there a little early so you have time to adjust your helmet and your saddle height. Then hit the road. The most important part of this ride will be to keep your eyes open and listen to your guide. Everything you do and see now will make your stay more enjoyable because your comfort level within your new location will be that much greater. Take pictures. Take notes. Ask questions. Be a participant not an attendee.

After the tour’s over, thank your guide, and if you can, get their information in case you have any questions while you’re in town. You now know at least one person in this town, if even for only a few short hours. You could also get to know your fellow tour takers and make potential plans with them. This is great if you’re in town on business and are traveling alone.

Finally, if you’re feeling adventurous, find out if the shop rents out bicycles. There’s no better way to get around a city than on a bicycle, and after a week of cycling in a city, you may know it better than some of its residents. Once that happens, you’ll be the one making $50 per kidney!

All Photos by Troy Moustache.