Sometimes the best way to take a road trip is to abandon roads — and cars — entirely.
And sometimes you can get a lot farther on two wheels instead of four.
Ruth Kazez knows this better than anyone.
Kazez, of State College, has completed five 1,000-mile bike trips through Europe, each in three weeks or less.
She and her family cycled and camped through Greece, Portugal, France, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and many other countries, often sleeping in tents and always taking in the sights.
While such a trip sounds daunting, Kazez, a six-time Iron Man participant and an age-group champion at the 1999 World Championships, is no stranger to grueling bike rides. For her, a leisurely 1,000-mile, cross-country ride goes by in a breeze. In fact, Kazez planned her cycling trips to coincide with the dozens of races she competed in around the globe.
Still wiry and fit as an octogenarian, Kazez is decorated with more than 500 medals, ribbons and plaques touting her athleticism.
But can anyone take on a trip like this?
“Absolutely,” Kazez said.
“Even though I was very athletic, my husband wasn’t,” she said with a laugh. “You don’t have to do anything special to take trips like this.”
Kazez said though she typically cycled about 50 miles per day, a good pace is about 15 mph — and 12-13 mph is “cake.”
For slower cyclists, 10 mph still gets the job done while not having to spend the entire day in the saddle.
“So is it realistic to do a trip like this? Of course!” Kazez said. “If old people like (us) could do it, someone younger can certainly do it.”
Part of the appeal of a cycling trip is that you are experiencing your vacation as you travel.
Unlike traveling via car or plane, which is a means to an end, Kazez favors cycling because it’s an experience in itself — and walking is much too slow.
“When you take a trip like this, all you’re doing is cycling,” she said. “So you have plenty of time to get where you’re going and still see everything.”
A cross-country cycling trip is about enjoying the journey and not focusing on the destination.
Kazez said she would often ride ahead when she “felt the need to go fast,” while her husband, a slower cyclist, would go at his own pace and catch up with her down the road.
“I would just pull over at an interesting spot and wait for him,” she said. “And then we would continue our ride together.”
Cycling across the countryside can take much of the stress out of a European vacation. Without a stringent itinerary, it’s easy to discover local treasures and truly explore — and not have to worry about missing the next train to London or a prepaid tour of the Uffizi.
Kazez, who studied art in Paris as a young woman, said there is art and beauty to be found everywhere in the old country.
“The things we go to a museum to see here (in the U.S.), they’re around every corner there,” she said. “Seeing it in person is so much better.”
Kazez cautioned that a venture like this isn’t for people who can’t handle uncertainty.
“I like question marks and blank spaces,” she said. “If you don’t like them, this type of trip is hard.”
However, being open to the unknown doesn’t mean you can’t be prepared. Kazez has plenty of tips for making the most out of a cycle through Europe.
She and her husband would be sure to always have at least one backup place to stay each day within 20 miles of their first choice.
Proper packing is vital as well.
Kazez said after you finish packing, take a break — and take out most of what you packed.
“I would always take out three-quarters of what my husband packed,” Kazez said. “He had to go with one-fourth of what he had.”
And the most important key to these kinds of trips, Kazez said, is to not think like a tourist.
“Tourists feel like it’s important to see something famous,” she said. “You have to be able to register things on your own without having them translated into something you’re supposed to like because it’s famous.”
Instead of beelining for the marquee cities like Rome and Paris, Kazez recommends taking the chance to wander through smaller towns. It can be much more cost-effective — and much more enchanting.
Without battling crowds and jockeying for position to see the Mona Lisa or take a photo in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you get a chance to experience the culture of the country and not the culture of tourism.
“You can take a car to famous places to sit with other Americans and eat American food,” she said. Or, you can cycle down the road less traveled and create your own adventure.
“You have to experience it,” she said. “Otherwise you witness other people having the experiences and not have them yourself.”