Michael Kroger, an Omaha resident, is somewhat new to hosting traveling bicyclists.
Being a traveling bicyclist himself, he joined a reciprocal hospitality app in 2019 that connects bicyclists with food, a place to sleep as well as other traveling necessities, with the bare minimum being a warm shower.
He said in his time hosting in Omaha, there haven’t been many traveling bikers due partially to the pandemic and a lack of major bike routes going through the state.
However, Bike Walk Nebraska, formerly the Nebraska Biking Alliance, aims to maintain the “bike boom” created by the Pandemic.
At the same time, work on a coast-to-coast bike trail project, converting abandoned railroad tracks to bike trails, is projected to pass through Lincoln and Omaha.
Kroger said he expects to see more bicyclists coming through the state and, with them, a need for a place to stay.
Warm Showers is a reciprocal hospitality site for traveling bicyclists. According to their website, they provide a way for traveling bicyclists to find hospitality.
Ken Francis, a traveling bicyclist and former Warm Showers board member, defines “reciprocal hospitality” as “basically couch surfing for bicyclists.” He said a major benefit to the service is avoiding the trade-off between expensive hotels and sparse campsites.
When creating an account on Warm Showers, users gain the ability to set up bicycle trips across the country, matching hosts to them to provide a place to stay, with the minimum requirement being a warm shower and a place to pitch a tent.
Francis said he has been using Warm Showers since 2013, and many hosts provide much more than a shower.
“Most of the people that I’ve stayed with have gone above and beyond that,” Francis said.
He said some hosts cook or provide food, and some offer up guest bedrooms, though Francis said the best thing he has received from hosts is lifelong connections.
“I met four families on the East Coast that took me in, and I’m still friends with them today. Like 36 years later. I go back and visit them every Christmas because I’m like family,” he said.
In exchange for being hosted, users are also expected to host. Accounts are placed on a list of hosts in their area, though they can mark themselves as unavailable at any time for any amount of time.
According to Wikipedia, Warm Showers started as a database of bicyclists in 1993. Tahverlee Anglen, the executive director of Warm Showers, said the organization started as a spreadsheet with names and addresses for hosting. According to Anglen, the exact dates surrounding the organization’s formation are hard to verify, as there are multiple stories of the founding depending on who you ask, with no way to tell which is accurate.
She said what can be verified, however, is that it began as a spreadsheet of names and addresses of people who have agreed to host and be hosted.
Anglen said Warm Showers was started in the U.S., though it now has international reach. Francis said he has been able to bike across Europe through the platform.
By connecting free and pre-arranged lodging with bikers, the site provides travelers with options that weren’t very accessible prior. Francis said a barrier to traveling is having lodging, mainly due to availability and cost.
“Back when we had paper maps before the internet if there was nowhere to camp, and we were in the middle of nowhere, we would knock on a farmhouse door,” Francis said. “We would say, ‘Can you let me pitch my tent up in your cornfield somewhere?’”
Campsites are generally a popular option for traveling bicyclists, though he said they are less prevalent near cities. Warm Showers provides people a chance to stay with a local host as opposed to resorting to often expensive hotels. Francis said he could use the money saved on his travels to give back to other cyclists.
“I totally kept on the cost by staying with Warm Showers hosts,” Francis said. “I guess I make up for it with all the people that I host. I cook for a lot of people, or depending on the time of the year they come, we’ll go and take a kayak paddle across the bay, and we’ll take him out to dinner.”
As an avid host in California, Francis said he has hosted more than 250 people over his time using the platform. Though Francis is someone who goes above and beyond the minimum requirements for hosting, he said even doing the minimum when it comes to hosting is helpful.
The biggest problem facing the site, according to Francis, is the large number of users who sign up for bike trips and keep their hosting profile unavailable indefinitely. He said these “dead profiles” make it more difficult for cyclists to connect with a host, as they waste time attempting to contact inactive or unresponsive accounts.
Alternatively, Francis said some people do not bike, yet sign up specifically to host folks coming through.
“I know a lot of people just sign up for the trips, and then they disappear,” Francis said. “Then there’s also people that don’t ride. They live in the middle of the country, and they see bicyclists coming by, and they want to help out, so it’s kind of a combination of everybody.”
Anglen said users who tour but do not host are missing out on the full experience of reciprocal hospitality. More than just getting to see different places, she said Warm Showers is unique in that it lets other cultures and places come to the host.
“Hosting really brings other parts of the world to your doorstep. If you’re hosting somebody driving by bicycle that may not have seen another human for a long period of time, they have stories. They’re from new places,” Anglen said. “It brings culture and freshness. It brings the opportunity to really break down cultural barriers by bringing people into your home that are arriving, you know, on a bicycle, which is very unique.”
Kroger expressed the same sentiment. He said when he hosts traveling cyclists. If he has time, he will provide food and company to get the opportunity to learn about them.
“If I’ve got the evening off, I’ll cook food or take them out to eat,” Kroger said. “I just like to feed off of their energy. They’re in the middle of these adventures.”
He said another reason he likes to host is that, as a bicyclist himself, he is sympathetic.
“At times, I give a guy a bag of beef jerky and just know how much that means because I was once in there, you know, riding cross-country, and just you’re so hungry all the time,” Kroger said.
Francis said he believes Warm Showers should be seen as reciprocal hospitality, not necessarily a biking club. As a board member for five years, Francis said he often wanted to promote his hosts and the connections he’s made, not the trips themselves.
“There are other Facebook groups that show people bicycling on tour. We are a hospitality group. I want to see a picture of you sitting down at a table with your host,” Francis said.
As a Warm Showers board member for five years, he said his focus never left the hospitality side of things. For him, Warm Showers is a community, not a commodity.
“My big focus has always been hospitality,” Francis said. “A lot of people see it as a bicycle organization, and I have to remind people it is a hospitality organization for bicyclists. You cannot ignore the hosts; it’s not just about the bicyclists.”
For this reason, Francis said he has taken a picture with every host he has stayed with, as well as every bicyclist he has hosted. On all of his trips, he carries the same sign that reads, “Parking for Warm Showers bicyclists only. All others will be towed away!”
Kroger said biking cross country is not only a great way to meet new people but also a good way to ease political and cultural tensions by showing people that we are similar.
“If more people biked, it would help our culture heal a little bit because we’re so at each other’s throats with politics and stuff like that,” Kroger said. “When you go out and ride your bike, you stay with a bunch of random people, you see your neighbors a lot and just interact more with people, you realize that we’re all basically the same.”
Anglen also encourages biking. While she said there is no single reason why people travel by bike, she said the Warm Showers podcast discusses the benefits of biking, such as resiliency, being in nature and letting go of attachments. She said one of the appeals to her is the freeing feeling of being on a bike.
“If you ask one user why they bike, you would get an entirely different response. There’s probably 50,000 different answers to that question,” Anglen said.
For Francis, biking is an inseparable part of his life. He encourages others to try traveling on bike to experience a slower method of travel.
“When you’re in a car, or a plane or wherever, the world goes by so fast around you,” Francis said.
He said moving a bit slower and enjoying the journey has drastically improved his travels. When staying with hosts, a cyclist is given a more personal connection to the area, especially compared to a hotel.
“It’s a great way to learn about the local people. You’re seeing the world through the locals; you’re eating their food, you’re seeing how they live,” Francis said. “Culturally, it’s amazing. I have friends all over the world now because of it.”
The experience of meeting new people through traveling and hosting inspired Francis’s self-published book, “Great Rides Across America: The Open Road Adventures of Mr. Tour.” He said one of his favorite parts of making these connections is the lifelong friends he can, and often does, go back to see again.
“It’s all because they opened their doors to me and let me stay for a few days,” Francis said. “When I revisited these people, they’re like, ‘Okay, you’re family.”
While Kroger said there currently is not a lot of bike traffic passing through Nebraska, he sees that changing as the Rails to Trails Conservancy project expands, noting that the project is roughly 60% complete and 10% unplanned.
“It’s gonna be awesome,” Kroger said. “It goes through Omaha, and you’ll be able to hop on a bike, and there’ll be old railroad beds that they turn into bike trails.”
Francis said checking out Warm Showers is a good idea for anybody who travels by bicycle or would be interested in starting out. Whether it’s looking for new friends, an excuse to fill a guest room or the chance to take the trip of a lifetime, Francis said everybody has a different reason to give it a try.
“For me, doing warm showers is my way of giving back,” Francis said. “It’s my way of paying forward for what was given to me.”