One of the most common statements I hear from people when I'm out bike touring is that they can't imagine ever being able to do it themselves. I usually respond by saying that it is something most people can do, if they work up to it.

Recently, I thought of a way to remedy this by creating Armchair Bike Touring, an on-line bike touring game that runs in any browser and provides a reasonable idea of what bike touring is like (only without the thigh pain!).

I've tried to incorporate my bike touring experiences by factoring in all the things that make traveling on a bicycle both challenging and rewarding, such as, frequent eating, limited budgets, beautiful scenery, varied terrain, wind, rain, flat tires, broken spokes and getting lost. While, clicking buttons on a web browser is nothing like riding a real bicycle several hundred miles, it can provide an idea of what a bike tourist experiences. At least, that is what I've tried to do.

Gearing Up

I got the idea that became Armchair Bike Touring (ABT) in October, 2009 while playing with an IPhone and wondering what a bike touring game would look like. The more I thought about it, the more confusing the interacting parameters became. I started musing about it and the questions came fast:

How does weight affect distance and speed?

How does over-exertion affect following day's distance?

How does wind affect distance?

While containing some useful information, the responses also provided some comic relief!

I never considered making an IPhone app as I don't have access to an Apple computer nor know how to write one. Instead, I decided to aim for an even broader audience and opted to write a browser-based game.

I produced pages of notes, drew lots of diagrams, made lists, and roughed out webpages. But, the task seemed too daunting and I gave up after a couple weeks. I started planning my next bike tour instead!

After a couple of bike tours and lots of idle musing, I came up with an overall concept for the game that simplified my initial design to something more manageable. I revisited my notes, threw out some of the more difficult concepts, and designed a basic bike touring model involving wind, terrain, and calories that seemed promising. I put together a simple (JavaScript) program that proved to me that the idea was viable and the programming started in earnest.

Selecting A Route

The first issue in any bike tour, whether real or imagined, is selecting a route. Since I wanted each route to be different, I created route "components" that could be randomly assembled to create similar bike tours of any length. These components are scenery, terrain, and services.

An early design decision was to use photos from my own bike tours as "scenery" in the game. This allowed me 8 types of scenery:


I partitioned terrain into 7 types, as well:

Steep Downhill (10% down grade)
Downhill (5% down grade)
Mild Downhill (2% down grade)
Mild Uphill (2% grade)
Uphill (5% grade)
Steep Uphill (10% grade)

For services, I selected

Grocery Stores
Convenience Stores
Towns (which have the other 5 plus bike shops)

Given this set of components, I was able to create routes of varied terrain, through interesting scenery, with support stops scattered throughout.

Unexpected Events

As every bike tourist knows, not everything goes according to plan. To factor this in, I added some common events, both good and bad, to the mix. These "unplanned" occurrences are

flat tires
broken spokes
getting lost
meeting "road angels".

To deal with flat tires and broken spokes, a player has to carry repair items. While not realistic, I've limited the number of repair items a player can carry to 6, just to add some difficulty.

What happens if a problem occurs that people can't fix due to lack of the proper supplies? They have to hitchhike to the nearest Bike Store, buy supplies, and hitchhike back. Unrealistically, this all happens without delay! Also, just as in real life, patches don't always work!

Gaining Experience

There is no question that experience plays a big role in someone's bike touring ability. The only way to gain bike touring experience, is to bike tour.

To reflect this, ABT has three levels: Bike Touring Newbie, Bike Touring Novice, and Bike Tourist. The lowest level is "Newbie" and represents someone who has never done a bike tour. After completing the first tour, the player moves to Bike Touring Novice. After finishing the second tour, the level of Bike Tourist is achieved.

More experience equates to more capabilities, longer tours, and tighter budgets. Newbies ride 100 mile tours, run out of fuel sooner, get exhausted after fewer miles, and have a more generous budget. Novices go on 200 mile tours. Bike Tourists do 300 milers. Novices and Bike Tourists also have to deal with Steep Uphills and longer distances between services.

Running On Empty

The main unit in ABT is the calorie, both eaten and expended. As in real life, an armchair bike tourist has to match calories eaten to calories spent or risk running out of energy.

ABT forces players to stop and eat when their "calorie debt" gets too great. The limit of a player's calorie debt grows with experience level (Newbie = 700 calories; Novice = 800 calories; Bike Tourist = 900 calories).

A similar limit is placed on miles per day. Exhaustion sets in after a certain number of miles. If a player tries to go too far in a single day, ABT forces a stop for the night. The maximum daily distance is also dictated by experience level: Newbies get 50 miles; Novices get 60 miles; Bike Tourists get 70 miles.

In real life, hunger is immediate; on-line, not so much. To show hunger, ABT employs a fuel gauge.

The gauge not only shows the "gas" in one's tank, but also changes color to reflect the need for food. As for real, waiting too long to eat can have a bad outcome.

Distance traveled is represented by a progress bar where exhaustion is also reflected by color.

The bar showing today's distance (yellow in the above graphic) goes from green to red as the miles grow. It reminds me of how my thighs feel as the day wears on!

Spending Money

ABT assumes that you already own all your gear. The only money required is for food, shelter, and bike repairs.

Food is available at restaurants, grocery stores, and snack shops. The food completely reflects the author's tastes and sensibilities. If you don't like the selection, drop me a note and maybe I'll add your favorite food!

ABT also assumes that a player is carrying camping gear. As a result, a place for the night can be a motel or a campground. While stealth camping is not allowed, players will occasionally be offered free lodging by "road angels" met along the way.

In order to add some "real world" limitations, each tour is assigned a budget based on experience level and tour length. Budgets are shows by a set of diminishing dollar bills.

Newbies get a generous $1.50/mile ($150 for 100 miles). Novices are allowed $1.25/mile ($250 for 200 miles). Bike Tourists have to make due on $1.00/mile ($300 for 300 miles).

In real life, over-spending leads to austerity. In ABT, going over budget means no more restaurants, motels, or bike tubes!


While the main goal of ABT is to offer a semblance of bike touring realism, I've added points to provide some friendly competition. Players are awarded points for calories expended on-route biking (getting lost doesn't count!) that are replaced by food.

This is complicated by a human's daily metabolism needs, assumed to be 2000 calories a day, which also has to be replaced. Thus, putting out 2000 calories on a day of biking requires eating 4000 calories of food to earn full points.

There are various penalties associated with being forced to stop and eat or sleep, over-spending the budget, or having to hitchhike to get bike repair supplies. Players can submit their scores at the end of each tour.

One Last Thing

ABT only goes forward in time. As a result, a player can't "turn around" and go back to a previous stop, like you could in real life. Clicking on the browser's back button will unload ABT and it will have to be reloaded. Doing so restarts the game from scratch. You'll be reminded of this by an "alert" window when you first start the game.

This gives a pretty good idea of the ideas behind ABT and how it works. There is even more details available in the FAQ.

Like real bike touring, the only way to experience it is to give it a try! The link is

I realize not everyone will find ABT interesting, educational, challenging, or fun. So be it. I've certainly enjoyed creating it and hope that somewhere, someone gets inspired to get on a bike and head out onto the road!
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Copyright © 2007 by Ray Swartz