There are only a few places in the world where a single country spans an entire continent as the United States does North America. No matter where you turn, you are still two feet in the same land, two eyes peering out at the notion of a nation indivisible.

And what better way is there to appreciate America’s mountains and prairies, movements and people than on a coast-to-coast bike trip? The cyclists of the Big Ride Across America learned this firsthand. Powering their own passages over the Continental Divide brought home the intensity of the struggle of previous centuries’ westward-bound settlers.

Endless hours under a merciless prairie sun beat into meaning the labor that has made America America.

And at the speed of a turning wheel, they couldn’t help but meet the people – an amazing variety of people – that define American character. Contact America’s foremost bicycle touring organization – the American Cycling Association (see their web site) – and plan to tackle the 4,250-mile TransAmerican Trail, the 4,315-mile Northern Tier, or the 3,180-mile Southern Tier. You will never be the same when you are done.

Great Divide Route

Some people never take the low, paved road. Especially not if there is a remote, mountain-ridge, single-track trail that takes twice the amount of time, requires three times the expense of energy, and guarantees four times as much fun. So it is with the Great Divide Mountain Biking Route, a 2,470-mile off-road adventure that runs along or near America’s craggy cleft dividing the watersheds east and west.

From Roosville, Montana, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, this beast climbs a total of 200,000 feet and passes through the natural, frontier-land America that is steadily disappearing. It’s a challenging, equipment-battering skirmish with the elements that has been described as nothing short of spiritual. Sounds like reason enough to get away.

Pacific Coast Highway

We’re not just talking about California’s Highway 1, and Oregon and Washington’s Route 101.

Even adding the barren stretches of the Alaskan highways and the long road through British Columbia wouldn’t complete the picture. We’re talking about the whole Pacific Coast Highway running from Alaska down through the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and the length of the Andes to its terminus at Puerto Montt in southern Chile.

With Panama’s impassable Darién gap the only built-in obstacle to tip-to-tip cycling, Alaska-to-Tierra del Fuego devotees will want to tackle the tough, southern Chilean back roads and Argentinean Patagonian pampa to claim full coastal credit. That said, stopping short does nothing to diminish the impact of this odyssey.

Silk Roads

Plain and simple: The Silk Roads smack of romance and mystery. Silk (of course) and spice and camels and desert caravans. Trade across vast distance and through lands and cities whispered in poetry:

Antioch, Damascus, Baghdad, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Kashgar.

Unfortunately, today these places are embroiled in the aggravating politics of the Middle East, Iraq and Iran, the -stans of Central Asia, and China. Travel here is prohibited, discouraged, or made unrealistic by a bureaucracy worthy of the worst.

However, for an intrepid adventurer ready to dive beyond the spoiling touch of balance-of-power jockeying and meet the gentle pace of life practiced by people settled into millennia-old routines, there are few treats more exquisite.

This is especially true when enjoyed on a bike. Don’t let diesel fumes spoil your taste for history.

Travel the ancient routes at the speed of a camel without the discomfort of a poorly placed hump. From the cradle of civilization, across the remote steppes and deserts of an Asia unknown to most, to the immensity of China, biking the Silk Roads is truly living romance and mystery.

Iberian Pilgrimage Routes

El Camino de Santiago is the path scraped into being by countless wandering pilgrims hoofing it across northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. In the high Middle Ages, Santiago was one of the three main holy cities of Christendom and the only one not overburdened by politics (Rome) or torn apart by endless conflict (Jerusalem).

It thus arguably became Europe’s most important medieval pilgrimage center.

The road to Santiago, a route worn still deeper into history every year by hordes of hiking travelers, begins in a few places: St. Jean Pied-de-Port (in the French Pyrenées), Roncesvalles (on the Spanish side of the Pyrenées), and Somport (further east, in the French Pyrenées).

Many people choose to start from other important pilgrimage centers even further afield, like Paris or Arles.

The important thing, as always, is time. The whole point of El Camino is that you shouldn’t have to worry about time; you should not feel compelled to rush from site to site. You should be free to contemplate yourself and your surroundings. Covering the 500 or so miles by bike is a perfect way to do it.

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