Five minutes after meeting my hosts, I was in the shower in their garage bathroom.
Outside the small bathroom, past my pile of clothes, damp from a day’s perspiration, the rest of my belongings sat trustingly on the strangers’ patio chair.
That morning I had ridden my road bike out the front door of my Sacramento apartment. Fifty miles, five flat tires, and at least that many Clif Bars later, I rode into the front yard of a Lodi house I located on a website called Warm Showers.
My archaic bike couldn’t compare to the touring bicycles hanging in my retired hosts’ garage — they have ridden hundreds of miles in California and toured by bike throughout Europe.
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Despite the gap between our ages and experience levels, our commonalities — tubes punctured by thorns, burning thighs, sunburned knees, the satisfaction of reaching a destination by bike — led the couple to indirectly invite me into their home, or at least into their garage.
Jerry and Jeanette Neuburger repeatedly open up their residence to strangers, as long as the wayfarer arrives by bike as part of the Warm Showers network.
The international network connects travelers with free places to stay, similar to the well-known hospitality site Couchsurfing, except everyone on Warm Showers is a cyclist. The network has hosts around the world, making it possible for touring cyclists to set up extensive routes with free places to stay along the way. But you don’t have to be an experienced cyclist or be planning to bike around the world to connect with the community that has developed through Warm Showers.
The Neuburgers joined Warm Showers about 12 years ago, and they are now among more than 48,777 members exchanging hospitality on a pay-it-forward-reliant system. .
Members have access to scores of free places to stay around the world and to personal phone numbers and addresses of many members, allowing potential guests to phone or drop by.
A red Google map pin, tucked in among 700 others clustered across Northern California, including two in Lodi, marked the Neuburgers’ home on the interactive map on the website’s homepage. Their profile provided a three-sentence description and no photo. The member feedback section held one brief positive review of a traveler’s experience staying in the garage the Neuburgers call “the cyclist hostel.”
Each profile includes a “this host may offer” section. Many list six to 10 offerings such as beds, laundry facilities, storage space and food. My hosts’ offerings were minimal: bed, shower, use of kitchen.
Warm Showers does not provide any sort of background check and makes it clear that your safety is your own responsibility, so I did a brief online investigation and decided on the Neuburgers after messaging about 25 members near Sacramento.
When I arrived, my host said no one ever stayed at his home without being fed.
As we chatted about my ride, Jerry Neuburger plucked zucchini from a vine that crawled into the patio pathway and rummaged for ears of sweet corn in the backyard garden. He pointedly ignored me as I argued that I had brought my own food, and my resistance diminished as the chicken barbecued.
Jerry Neuburger, 71, said he and his wife considered a guest bed and full meal an exchange for the evening of conversation and getting to share stories with other riders.
“At first we felt kind of like you felt, too, like, ‘Geez we’re imposing,’ ” Jerry Neuburger described of his and his wife’s first time as Warm Shower guests. “And we found out that you, or us, are the entertainment, so therefore it is a lot of fun to have you here. You are paying us just by showing up. So getting to cook for you and providing a bed for you is part of the fun of it.”
Meeting other cyclists and sharing stories and advice is what led the Neuburgers to sign up to be Warm Showers members.
It adds to a bike trip to get to see a slice of someone else’s lifestyle, Jeanette Neuburger said.
“Bicycling, you meet a lot of interesting people, and they seem to be more open to you,” she said. “We found that whether we were here in the United States or overseas, people just treat you differently than when you pop out of your car.”
Jeanette Neuburger, 60, said her mother was shocked when she told her she was going to join Warm Showers and stay with hosts in Europe.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s the difference? A bed-and-breakfast, a small hotel, or someone’s house — what’s the difference?’ ” Jeanette Neuburger said.
Later, lying on the twin bed that Jerry Neuburger had moved from the hot garage to the open-air patio, I thought of a few differences that go beyond the fact Warm Showers is free. Maybe it was the Neuburgers’ offer to pick me up when I was having bike troubles earlier that day, the fresh grilled veggies or the fact that the couple stayed up until 11 p.m. sharing sagas about bike adventures.
It is all part of the biking community, Jeanette Neuburger told me.
“Although there is a whole bunch of different kinds of cyclists, once you get on that bike and start pedaling, you have a shared experience,” she said. “You all have to deal with flats, with traffic, with steep hills.”
Unlike hospitality sites such as Couchsurfing, Warm Showers members have at least one thing in common, said Mark Martin, a volunteer who manages monitoring of the Warm Showers network from his home base in Louisiana.
“Participating in Warm Showers restores people’s faith in humanity,” Martin said. “Despite the fact that the whole thing is a crapshoot and nobody really knows each other, we trust.”
Each day Martin, 60, spends about three hours sorting through the 80 to 100 new members to delete spammers, people who don’t appear to be cyclists, automated users or the occasional bed-and-breakfast attempting to advertise on the site.
When I awoke on my hosts’ patio the morning after my arrival, I was greeted with a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal.
Jerry insisted on adding air to my bike tires as I strapped my mini-duffle bag to the bike rack.
He and Jeanette waved goodbye as I rode out the back gate and became another story on the Neuburgers’ list of strangers who have stopped by to use their warm shower.