"In Love with Bicycle Touring" - Molly’s Adventures in Canada, Europe, and Beyond
“I think I was born in love with bicycling,” writes Molly Bannerman. From the moment she laid eyes on her first red bicycle on her 5th birthday, she was enchanted: Little Molly asked her dad to put the bike beside her bed, so she could fall asleep touching it. (Aww!)
“Cycling really helps me overcome fears. I feel like I can figure out almost anything on my bike.”
Molly now lives in downtown Toronto, where she works as a community development social worker and is a daily cycling commuter. She’s completed extensive bike tours both solo and with friends, in parts of Canada, the USA, Europe, and Hawaii.
In this exclusive interview, Molly shares some of her greatest rewards and challenges when traveling by bike.
Molly, what inspired you to try bike touring?
My first “tour” was a short 3 or 4 day ride after I got a new bike for my 30th birthday. It was no big deal. Then a couple years later a friend of mine asked if I wanted to ride the Cabot Trail, a 300 km route on the east coast of Canada. The maximum elevation was 1,470 feet, but more than that - there was a LOT of steep ups and downs. It was so steep at times that my front wheel wouldn’t stay on the ground, and we had to do switchbacks across the road to get up.
I remember it as being incredibly beautiful, continuously wet and cold, and hard. Then years passed and at some point, it felt like my life got harder and confusing. I quit my job and skipped between jobs trying to find something I loved to do or where I fit in. The idea of biking always came to my mind as a solace from the complications. I wanted to be near the ocean, on long open roads.
“I skipped between jobs, trying to find something I loved. The idea of biking always came to my mind as a solace from the complications. I wanted to be near the ocean, on long open roads.”
I met an amazing woman who’d cycled parts of the west coast in BC, Washington and California. I kept looking at pictures online, and I was in love with the idea, but wasn't sure I could do it alone, so I decided to talk to people about it until my dream came true. And it did: Eventually I found a friend who wanted to do the trip with me.
That’s when I fell insanely in love with touring. It was a 3 week tour from Northern Oregon to San Francisco along the coast. A friend went with me, and then another friend joined us part way. At first we biked for 11 days straight, and my friend wanted a break, but I didn’t. When I was riding I felt so happy. None of the things swirling around in my head were there any more. I didn’t have to sort anything out, I just felt happy and free.
After that I felt more and more confident to tour: sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. But every time, the openness of the road and riding for hours felt amazing.
“At first we biked for 11 days straight, and my friend wanted a break, but I didn’t. When I was riding, I felt so happy.”
What inspired you to travel in Europe by bicycle?
At some point I decided I wanted to visit a good friend in France, and what better way than incorporate a bike tour? So I planned my route, flying to Bilbao, Spain and riding north along the Atlantic coast, and then east to the Mediterranean Sea, eventually flying home from Montpellier, France. All in all my trip was 1500 km, and 15 days of riding.
At first I wanted to cycle on some established separate bike routes along the way, but in the end, I preferred the roads: The bike routes were bumpy and hard to follow. I spoke almost no Spanish or French, which made it a bit more intimidating, but thanks to online translation – I managed.
Where did you sleep at night in Europe?
I camped along the way. The first thing I did was go to a cycling shop in Bilbao to ask for the best route to the coast. It’s a very hilly region, so I was having a hard time figuring it out in advance. They gave me great advice, and by noon I set out to take a funicular past some of the busy streets (and seriously steep hills), and then I rode north and east to a small place called Leikeito along the coast. I camped at Endia campsite, and I could barely stay awake until sunset that first night. In advance, I had found some campsites along my route, but I also just figured it out along the way.
“In advance, I’d found some campsites along my route, but I also just figured it out along the way.”
What are some of your favorite memories from that bicycle tour?
I rode through amazing small Spanish towns, where I had delicious pastries and coffee, met friends of friends for tapas, and saw some amazing old churches and other beautiful villas. The roads were hilly but beautiful along the coast.
After I’d crossed into France, the weather was over 40 degrees often and one day, and I realized I’d ridden in a circle and gotten lost. I was so tired at that point, having ridden 105 km (65 miles) and unsure how far I still had to go (a ways!) – so I called my WarmShowers host, and they were so lovely and came with a trailer to come and get me. They made a huge delicious dinner, did my laundry, and shared lots of delicious wine. They invited over a their brother who spoke a bit more English, and it was really fun. They convinced me to ride back and see the enormous sand dunes of Arcachon before continuing on.
The brother, who lived in a very small place outside a small town near Belin Beloit asked his neighbors if I could stay the next night in their tiny house – which they weren’t using. So the next day I had the most beautiful ride seeing the beautiful sand dunes on the coast and then headed back along country roads. The brother, his neighbors, and their son all gathered and had a big delicious dinner with me. I slept so well that night, having ridden 96 km.
“I rode through small Spanish towns, where I had delicious pastries and coffee, met friends of friends for tapas, and saw some amazing old churches.”
You mentioned that cycling helps you to find stillness in your busy mind. Were you able to enjoy that same freedom and mental quiet during your solo ride in Europe?
In the beginning my head was so clear. Everything felt free. But as I traveled I became more aware of this feeling of riding on the side of the world, in silence most of the time. With drive and passion, but also awareness of dichotomies about the chaos and peace, fear and anger and joy, beauty and pain in the world.
I thought a lot about many of my friends at home who had lost close loved ones to drug overdose. And my own losses. And the way society – governments, care providers, families, deal with this kind of loss. I thought about the things that people don’t recover from. I thought a lot about the expectations of gender. The denseness of these expectations. But on many days, my head felt clear and free. My body felt strong. And I felt proud that I had accomplished something each day: I’d seen vast amounts of land. I’d communicated with many people despite my poor language skills. I’d eaten incredible foods. And I felt renewed.
“I thought about friends at home who’d lost loved ones to drug overdose. And my own losses… I thought about the things that people don’t recover from. I thought a lot about the expectations of gender.”
Did you experience fear on your bicycle travels?
I was honestly terrified. I think I made myself physically sick before the trip, I was so scared. I’d planned to spend most of my nights camping, but beyond that – I had no idea. I had a rough route, that was it. And I was terrible at speaking Spanish and French. I was terrified of the hills in Spain, and the route seemed difficult and confusing. I was terrified of bike problems that I might not be able to fix. And I was terrified of being alone.
How did you cope with your fear?
Ultimately, just facing it. I knew deep down I could always find a train somewhere. Or find some other way out. But mostly, I just faced my fears. And cycling really helps me just overcome fears. I feel like I can figure almost anything out on my bike.
“I’m often a pretty shy person, but something about bike touring makes me excited to chat with people I meet.”
What surprises you about bicycle touring?
One of the things that surprised me the most is that no matter how hard the ride, I feel strong. I mean, sometimes it’s hard, for sure. But at the top of a long steep incline, I feel great. And on the way up, I usually find this awesome inner focus that gets me through. I focus on my breath, and it becomes so peaceful.
I’m also often a pretty quiet and shy person, but something about bike touring makes me feel excited to chat with people I meet along the way. Maybe it’s because people are curious about touring and ask questions – or if they’re touring, I have lots of questions for them. It’s kind of like a tool to talk to people. Or maybe I’m inspired by the massive amounts of dopamine being released from all the exercise. Whatever the reason, I always feel really happy to meet new people and learn about them.