Jim Johnson, the president and founder of BikeTours.com, has almost two decades of bike touring experience (and memories!). His passion for cycling, travel, and entrepreneurship has guided BikeTours.com from simple beginnings as a one-man operation to today, a company of ten employees. While the future remains uncertain, we are moving ever-forward, adapting, and taking each day as it comes. But one thing remains the same, the bike tour memories we have, and the hope that we will make new ones in the future.
For now, here are some of Jim’s bike tour memories – from the early years of the company!
For more than 2,000 years, traders followed the Amber Trail between the Baltic and the Mediterranean carrying tin and amber. So there was a lot of history as we cycled the Amber Trail from Budapest to Krakow. Roman ruins, medieval churches, remote villages, and imposing castles cover most of the route, which traverses mountains, meadows and dense forests.
Early in the tour, I remember us riding up behind a horse-drawn cart carrying a giant elk. The successful hunter was carrying it from where he’d shot it to the town’s processing station. After a quick poll of our group, our guide took us to the processing station, where we learned about rural life, survival–and butchering.
Another day, we were passing through a valley, and our guide pointed to a farm well up the valley wall and said, “That farm has the best cheap cheese. Do you want to ride up and try some?” Despite the long climb and our confusion over his excitement about “cheap cheese” in a region where food was generally inexpensive, we joined him and headed up. As we approached the farm, we saw flocks of wooly animals. And we figured out what our guide had meant as he pointed and said, “Look at all the cheaps!” And yes, the sheeps cheese was amazing.
In one Slovakian spa town not far from the Austrian border, a client asked me about bathing customs–whether or not to wear a bathing suit in the spa adjacent to our hotel, a sizable facility with saunas, steam baths and whirlpools. I responded that in nearby Austria, it’s verboten to wear bathing suits–the custom is nude or draped in a towel. So it’s likely the same in Slovakia. At dinner that evening, a still flustered client told me of his experience: “There was no one there when I arrived, so I decided to go for it and went nude. I was sitting in a large whirlpool, when all of a sudden a few dozen people came in, probably straight from work, all wearing bathing suits. Several of them sat down in the whirlpool next to me. After 10 minutes, I had to make the decision between embarrassment and hyperthermia. Embarrassment won out, and I stood up, climbed the steps out of the tub and boldly walked out the door.”
I will never forget how he finished his story: “I’m pretty sure all four cheeks were red!”
The ultimate memory comes from the High Tatra mountains. Our lodging was in the valley, but dinner was going to be at a wonderful mountain-top restaurant. It was a warm day with blue skies, so several of us decided we’d make it the six miles to the top on our own, while the others would come by van. The weather was unstable to say the least. Halfway to the top, a freak snowstorm hit. By the time we hit the top, we had about a half-foot of snow. And after dinner, we were very glad to take the van back down to our hotel.
I’m often asked whether I prefer guided or self-guided tours. Even after nearly 20 years of touring, I still can’t decide. I love the freedom and flexibility of self-guided tours, but I also like the camaraderie and pampering that comes with guided tours.
Like on one of my earliest guided tours, from Bolzano to Venice. Much of it is on dedicated bike paths along the Adige River and passes through dense woodlands. On the first day, we rounded a bend and saw the support van in a clearing. As we drew closer, we saw one of our guides standing next to it and, in front of her, a long table with a buffet of fresh treasures from the local farmers market. Fresh breads, cheeses, fresh and marinated vegetables, sliced meats and trays of desserts. And also wine–enough to make us feel decadent but not tipsy.
As we made our way from the Dolomites to Lake Garda to Verona and Venice, these “surprise” picnics were highlights, perfect sensory complements to what we’d seen, heard, and smelled each day and perfect fuel for the ride ahead.