Tag Archives: Bicycle Touring

Hit the road…James

I haven’t been on a decent cycle tour for a while, so decided my September break should be used for a pedal round some parts of the UK I haven’t visited before. I did the coast in 2013, and marvellous it was, but decided to head inland this time.

I set off from Salhouse, my new place of residence (moved earlier this year), through Norwich then down to Bury St. Edmunds. Day 1 took me to Cambridge via a slightly different route to the one I’d normally take. The bit down to Bury was alright, but not keen on the road from there to Newmarket. What was nice was to be on my bike again, letting the miles drift by, taking in Autumn sights, sounds and smells, and feeling work stress vanish surprisingly quickly.

After staying the night at my brother and sister-in-law’s house in Cambourne, saying hello to their new chickens, and playing with my niece and nephew, I set my sights on Oxford. I decided to try cycling along the Icknield Way, an ancient trail that runs from somewhere near Thetford all the way to Oxfordshire. It is cyclable, but not really suitable for a touring bike; would be fine for bike packing. After about 20km of hard riding, where my panniers kept dragging on the grass, I swapped it for the road, crossed over the M1 and into the Chilterns, a range of hills my brain had conveniently decided to forget about.

Now I’m fairly fit from cycling to and from work, and longer rides at the weekend, but Norfolk doesn’t have a large number of hills and a fully loaded touring bike weighs quite a lot. I didn’t have to push up any climbs, but there was quite a lot of huffing and puffing, and a bit of swearing. The Chilterns cycle way is a beautiful ride though, and nice to pass through somewhere I haven’t visited before. I stopped at a campsite near High Wycombe for the night, conveniently situated next to a pub, splendid. Incidentally, quite a few of the campsites on this tour, completely by ‘chance’, were situated in close proximity to pubs…a clear sign the gods were smiling on my efforts (apart from Loki who conspires with the sheep).

After a restful night I pedalled off to Oxford, stopping to eat blackberries on the way. It started to rain so I didn’t pause for long in the city, but did find a good pie shop to acquire lunch from. From there it was another pleasant cycle through the countryside, chatting to a few cyclists along the way, and perhaps stopping for a cheeky cider to cool down. My next campsite was near Malborough; forest campsite, cheap, cheerful and quiet, just the job, although there was a psychotic hill to get up just prior to the campsite, on tired legs, that took some doing.

I awoke to a grey and damp day, but with the prospect of Avebury and Stonehenge on the horizon, places I’ve wanted to visit for a while. From Marlborough it’s a reasonably short ride to Avebury, where I stopped to look round the museum, and to pause for thought amongst the stones. There’s a lovely looking pub in the centre of the village, probably close to the centre of the stone circles, but it was a bit early for lunch and besides, wasn’t open yet. I really liked Avebury. There weren’t a lot of people about, the museum was good, and the place had a nice feel to it.

After a good wander about I set my sights on Stonehenge. There I was pedalling along, up and over hills, splashing through puddles, damp but enjoying myself, when I started to pass fields of sheep. Now I’m not saying it was definitely them, but feels a little bit coincidental that as I got near the top of a particularly long climb, where the rain really started in earnest, and the wind picked up, I fell victim to a puncture. I pulled over onto a farmer’s track to fix it, with rain infiltrating my waterproof. A flock of the devils regarded me with suspicion, and not a small amount of malice, from a nearby field.

It took me quite a while to fix that puncture, and there was quite a bit of cursing whilst the sheep continued to watch me, chewing, and occasionally bleating. Travelling Lobster was absolutely no help, you probably won’t be surprised to hear. I have a new back wheel as the old one wore out, and tyres seem particularly tricky to get over the rim; more practice required probably, but hopefully not in the vicinity of sheep.

I plunged down the other side of the pass towards the Salisbury plains and Stonehenge, getting slightly lost due to not looking where I was going and just enjoying freedom from the flock. Thankfully a helpful local pointed me in the right direction, and after a diversion round some closed roads I made it to Stonehenge.

Stonehenge was good to visit, but expensive, and very busy. A warden told me I was there on a quiet day, but there were still bus loads of tourists arriving, being shuttled to the stones, taking a selfie and then getting back on their coach. To be honest the place felt a little dead, which was disappointing, perhaps due to the volume of people and general feeling of disrespect folks had for the ancient monument. I still enjoyed seeing the henge, and taking a turn around the museum to learn a bit more about what they’d found here, and the speculations on how it was built; personally I think it’s obvious that druids flew the stones here, as per Terry Pratchett. I noticed a small number of tents and caravans on some land next to Stonehenge, and wonder if they are there all year, perhaps travellers and pagans wanting to be close to an ancient nexus of power, who knows?

I rode the short distance from Stonehenge to the campsite near Berwick St. James, ideally located for anyone wanting to visit the area, and cheap if you’re on a bike. Whilst there I bumped into a fellow cycle tourer, Carl, on his way down to Cornwall to visit family. It was his first cycle tour in about 10 years, and he was loving it. Unfortunately he had the headwind the next day, which I managed, for once, to avoid.

From Stonehenge I pedalled to the New Forest, passing through Salisbury on the way. I spent the day cycling around the forest, stopping for a double Cornish pasty break Lyndhurst. I spoke to a couple of locals who confirmed the village is always that busy; an endless stream of traffic flowing into and out of it, as ‘they’ refused to let a bypass be built in the seventies. I love the New Forest, despite the fact it’s a bit crowded, even in September. The gently rolling landscape, trees, heathland and wildlife are to be savoured.

After watching a convoy of horse and traps pass me on the road, making there way from some kind of event, I stopped for the night in Ashurst, possibly my favourite campsite of the tour; the staff were really friendly, the campsite beautiful with animals mixed in amongst the tents, and there was a pub next door! I had an interesting conversation with a 70 year old Australian lady about tents. She was travelling round the UK and was admiring my Hilleberg Akto, thinking it would be good for her next adventure; you’re never too old!!

After a restful night, post thunderstorm, I had a early start to try and make it down the coast to my parents house near Hastings. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, and had a back up plan to stop in Brighton, but was hopeful a strong tailwind would help me on my way.

I took the ferry from Hythe to Southampton, then rode round the back of Portsmouth and along the coast following a different route to that which I took in 2013, when I used a few more ferries and island hopped. The weather got steadily worse as I pedalled, with the wind building and rain getting harder. I did however pass several cycle tourers going in the other direction, who were having a much harder time of it; at least I was getting mostly blown in the right direction.

That was a tough ride, in-spite of the tailwind. Even for me it got a bit sketchy at times, especially when I got blown into the verge and had to perform a rapid and not particularly elegant dismount. One can forget just how powerful the wind can be! After around 107 miles, the longest leg of the tour, I made it to my parents house and shelter from the storm, which was really quite brutal by that point; very wet, very windy, kinda exciting.

I had the next day off, drying stuff, catching up with Dad, and meeting my friend Ian for lunch. Mum had travelled up to Cambridge to help look after my niece and nephew, but I hoped to rendezvous with her on my way back to Norwich.

Feeling rested and well fed I set off back North, through East Sussex and into Kent. East Sussex really is quite hilly, but lovely countryside and lots of familiar sights from my childhood. I made my way to Gravesend to get the ferry over the Thames; a passenger ferry you can take your bike on, much easier than going through London. Landing in Essex I rode to Kelvedon Hatch, the site site of a ‘secret’ nuclear bunker, with a campsite nearby which was most welcome after the busy roads and increasingly bad weather. It was another stormy night, with my tent getting somewhat battered, but the Hilleberg Akto is practically indestructible, despite the holes in the groundsheet caused by the voles (varmints) in Sweden, and once again did me proud.

From Kelvedon Hatch I rode back up to Cambridge and Cambourne, overnighting with family again and meeting up with Mum, before the final leg back to Norwich the next day. The weather was again a bit inclement, whatever that means, but the sun did come out as I pedalled through Thetford Forest. The dry spell was short lived, forcing me to take shelter under the bandstand, which isn’t a bandstand but I can’t remember what it’s called, in Wymondham; luckily there’s a baker nearby which helped pass the time.

I arrived back in Salhouse after pedalling around 600 miles, losing a few pounds, and generally feeling a lot more relaxed. Link to the map of my route:

https://www.strava.com/athletes/11810278/heatmaps/7ef5dc22#8/51.90967/-0.18951

To close here are a few pictures from the last couple of week’s in Norfolk, where Autumn has really taken hold. Autumn is my favourite season, and Norfolk looks beautiful.

Norwich beer fest soon!

Autumn adventures

I may well have extolled the virtues of Autumn before on this blog, however it really is my favourite time of year with the countryside looking beautiful, lots to forage, and plenty to do before the harsher winter weather sets in.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had lots of opportunities to get out and about, both on two wheels and a few mini holiday breaks further afield.

Suffolk has plenty of places I haven’t been before. A short break saw visits to cosy small villages, RSPB Mimsmere with its Marsh Harriers and waterfowl, and Sutton Hoo which I hadn’t been to for several years.

I swapped my bike for a short stint in a row-boat, discovering it’s quite hard to go in a straight line if you don’t notice the boat also has a rudder.

As well as lots of birds to spy, and a few deer, Mimsmere also had an abundance of fungi to get confused about. My mushroom identification skills are sadly lacking.

Still a few flowers around as Autumn continues, and pine cones with their interesting Fibonacci sequence geometry.

Amongst adventures further afield I still managed to get out for a good cycle around Norfolk; not as flat a county as you might think, and great at this time of year with less holiday traffic.

Autumn is also deer rutting season, and we visited Holkam Hall for a wander around the park. Some of these Fallow deer really know how to pose.

After misplacing my camera (Canon SLR) for about 12 months, it’s nice to have found it again, although I think I need a bit more practice at focussing using zoom. These Red deer came out alright through.

And Holkam grounds look lovely with the leaves turning, and more fungi to get confused about.

There were also several quite spooky trees; apt for Halloween.

It’s been very mild for the time of year up until last week, however it looks like the colder weather has arrived with November, in time for bonfire night. This did not however deter a group of friends and I heading off to camp in the woods for the weekend. Armed with the right kit you can still be nice and toasty in your sleeping bag, and I’m thoroughly sold on hammocks versus sleeping on the floor, even if my hammock did nearly tip me out at one point; could have been user error. Camping out in the wilds of Norfolk exposes you to some beautiful sunsets.

The woods were warmed with candle light, campfires, friends and good food cooked over glowing embers. There might have been the odd glass of mulled wine too, just to stave off the cold.

And some dramatic fire poi action to round off the evening. No-one set themselves on fire this time around.

That might have been the last campout for 2016, however I would like to get one more in during December, just to round off the year; already missing the campfire, woods and good company. I might have to take some whisky with me if it gets much colder, if I can wrestle it from Lobster’s grasp; he is still around, and still needs a wash.

Lobster likes whisky as well as chocolate apparently

Lobster likes whisky as well as chocolate apparently

Happy Autumn adventures everyone.

Troll Hunting

I was going to write a blog with some post referendum thoughts. Some musings on how we have to be careful we don’t make the decline of the UK, recession and doom a self-fulfilling prophecy, and commenting on the general air of insanity, panic, vitriol and political nonsense that seems to have gripped the nation recently…

…but it’s my birthday and I want to focus on happier things.

After work today I went for a pedal through the Norfolk countryside, enjoying the sunshine, nature, smells of summer and mental freedom elicited through just going for a bike ride. Sometimes it’s nice to let your imagination run wild, and regress to a child-like state-of-mind, something us adults probably don’t do enough.

It’s amazing how your sense of smell can evoke such powerful memories. Today the smell of recently cut grass took me back to seemingly endless childhood summers, helping in the garden, exploring the countryside and going on adventures, or just lying in the sunshine and spending time with family. A wonderful period of life that was, of course, taken for granted at the time, but which truly were the moments when you were most free, as a child, with none of the burdens of adult life and responsibility.

So for a couple of hours this evening I left my adult mind behind, and entered the world of pretend. I stopped worrying about anything else and lived in the moment, letting my imagination do whatever it wanted too.

It’s a liberating feeling, and something I find easier to do when pedalling. Something about the motion of the bike, combined with mild exercise and being out in the countryside helps you enter a somewhat meditative state. You can let you mind relax, take some deep breaths and try to switch your head from rushing from one task to the next, to a more creative and playful place. The feelings of stress that can build up over the day or week just vanish.

So if you get the chance, go and have some play-time, and hunt some trolls. With all the mental health issues going on at the moment, maybe that’s what everyone needs.

Caveat: No trolls were harmed in the making of this blog, and any inferences to anti-social or violent troll behaviour is purely speculative. I’m sure most trolls are very nice, once you get to know them.

 

 

Strange things did happen here

If you go down to the woods today…you might see something odd; me falling off a slackline. Slacklining was originally invented by climbers, but has developed a wider appeal over the last few years, and is definitely up there on my list of self propelled sports. Learning to walk across a 2 inch wide piece of webbing is proving pretty tricky, but great fun, and gets me out into the woods at the weekend which can’t be a bad thing. I can only manage about 5 metres without falling off at the moment, however I’m sure controlled bouncing and backflips are only a few weeks away. Travelling Lobster has already attained a much higher level of competence, however I think that’s due to a lower centre of gravity and more limbs; basically he’s cheating.

Lobster demonstrating how to walk a slackline in Bacton Woods

Lobster demonstrating how to walk a slackline in Bacton Woods

There are allegedly several benefits to be enjoyed from slacklining, including better balance and posture, improved core strength and concentration, and perhaps even a reduction in your chances of ankle or knee injuries when participating in other sports, which can’t be a bad thing. One can enter an almost meditative state whilst walking the line, as you’re only concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, and getting to the tree at the other end. Unfortunately my meditative state is usually broken after a few seconds as I tumble off. It’s also pretty hilarious, which helps – laughing is good for the soul. I’ve been learning with a friend, who incidentally is far better than me; the inadvertent monkey noises, arm windmilling, intense expressions of concentration and frequent bouts of swearing are all cause for much hilarity. I’m not sure what people out for a walk in the woods think, must look and sound a bit strange, but I’d throughly recommend it as a cheap, fun, and non environmentally harming activity. Of course you’ll need a bit of patience, but one can look forward to feats such as those being shown off by the individuals in this YouTube clip (I’ve got a way to go yet):

There are loads of YouTube videos you can watch on slacklining, with some pretty amazing stunts, including some people riding bikes over them which I’ll have to try at some point; maybe not with all my panniers on though.

Talking of cycling, two cool things this week, the first being I had my first ever go on a tandem bicycle. There’s a vague plan afoot, with a friend from work, to ride from Cambridge to Norwich on a tandem, raising money for charity. I was slightly dubious of this idea to begin with, especially as my fellow tandem rider hasn’t actually ridden a bike for 25 years, however the initial feasibility study has proven successful, so watch this space.

The second cool cycling thing this week is tickets have gone on sale for this years Cycle Touring Festival in Lancashire. I went to the first one last year, which also marked the start point for my 6 month European cycle tour, and can thoroughly recommend it for meeting like-minded individuals who don’t think you’re a bit strange to go off pedalling for weeks, months, or in some cases years, living off what you can pack on your bike. My friend Tony, who with his wife Gill pedalled around the coast of Britain in 2014, following a similar route to mine from 2013, recently wrote an entertaining blog post about the festival and its attendees – http://www.gillandtony.co.uk/its-a-tribal-thing/

You can get tickets for the festival via their website here: http://cycletouringfestival.co.uk

I should probably explain the title of this blog post. Usually I find coming up with a title for a blog pretty easy, but for some reason I’m failing tonight. I’m going to stick with the lyrics from a song I’ve had stuck in my head for the last few days, ever since watching Mockingjay Part 1, which I really enjoyed and very much lived up to the books. ‘Strange things did happen here’ is quite apt in many ways, as lots of strange things do happen, some of which I’ve described above.

And now on to the not so good strange things. Five dead sperm whales have been found on the East coast of England over the last few days, having beached themselves, probably because they got lost in the North Sea where their sonar doesn’t work too well. The North Sea is too shallow for them compared with their normal ranges, meaning they get lost, and if they beach themselves on a sand bank they suffer cardiovascular collapse and organ failure; not a very nice way to go. Sadly this isn’t an uncommon event on our coastline, but I’m hoping it wasn’t caused by humans in this instance; maybe just the whales getting lost whilst chasing their squid prey, rather than getting confused by sounds in the sea originating from us, or becoming ill from a build up of toxins and beaching themselves (PCBs, plastic, radiation etc). I really don’t want to see any more pictures of people taking selfies with dead whales, or as I saw earlier today someone attacking the carcass to claim teeth as trophies; people are pretty awful sometimes.

This week we’ve continued to see strange weather patterns afflicting much of the world, with freezing temperatures in parts of South East Asia that don’t often go below 10’C, massive snow storms hitting the East coast of North America, and now the UK is beset by more gales and wet weather; although we have it lucky in comparison, at least most of us have central heating. The frankly worrying weather patterns are again caused by hot air being drawn up over the Arctic, including Greenland, forcing cold air south, disrupting the Jet Stream and turning weather normal for this type of year on its head in many areas. This will no doubt melt more glaciers and contribute to sea level rises in the season when these glaciers should be expanding. Reading the science behind this, the culprit is again the human race, due to unchecked CO2 emissions causing global warming in places that really don’t need to be warmed, and thus climate change. It seems obvious we’re in for rough times as the climate further destabilises, although who knows, maybe it’s just a blip; the evidence doesn’t seem to back up a blip though, with CO2 levels at their highest in 3 million years*, causing temperature rises that are warming our atmosphere and seas with devastating consequences.

*http://robertscribbler.com/2016/01/26/arctic-heatwave-drives-deadly-asian-cold-snap/

On the subject of CO2 emissions, the low fuel prices we’re seeing at the moment can’t be a good thing can they? A massive increase in oil production, from tapping shale reserves (fracking) has driven prices down, which in turn must have lead to an increase in use, with demand still rising in China and other fast developing countries. Wouldn’t it have been better to keep prices high, by increasing taxes? This would in turn:

  • Show down consumption, meaning reserves would last for longer. It’s not like we’re sustainably farming oil. We don’t plant a new crop every year and thus replace reserves; once it’s gone it’s gone, with some of the alternatives such as Biofuels having equally damaging consequences for the environment.
  • Limit CO2 emissions from cars, planes etc, and thus help with meeting targets set in the Paris COP21 agreement
  • Increase tax revenue that could then be spent on good stuff, like researching and implementing alternative clean energy sources (fusion, renewables), the NHS, or feeding and homing the homeless

I don’t claim to understand all the economics behind the oil price changes, but it seems to be driven by human greed yet again, as well as politics; wealth and politics won’t matter much if we  don’t have a planet we’re able to live on. Can we at least, as I think Stephen Hawking recently said, avoid completely destroying Earth until we have invented viable space travel and are able to colonise other planets; although quite why the human ‘plague’ should be inflicted on other worlds I don’t know, not until we mend our ways slightly anyway.

I’ll pause there on the doom and gloom front, but you have to admit it’s pretty strange how we seem driven as a race to ultimately destroy ourselves? I read a blog today where the author used the phrase ‘challenge our sense of entitlement’. This really struck a chord with me; I think we need to really challenge our sense of entitlement to what we take for granted; excess consumerism, driving a car, burning fuel, waste, our place in the Earth’s ecosystem etc.

I’ll finish with a few humorous, or in the case of the latter touching strange things.

  • Trout tickling. How on Earth was that ever invented?  Did someone just randomly get in a river one day and approach fish with rather strange intentions? This was one of the topics we contemplated whilst slacklining in the woods, and is something I think I need to try at some point. If you don’t know what it is there are videos on YouTube.
  • Ferret Legging. This is the sport where contestants put ferrets down their trousers and see how long they can keep them there. The custom allegedly arose in Yorkshire, which perhaps explains a lot, with individuals trying to hide there poaching activities by keeping these furry and sharp toothed creatures hidden down their trousers; sounds hazardous to me.
  • Cheese rolling. This is another bizarre British tradition, which takes place at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucester. Locals started racing rounds of Double Gloucester cheese down the hill, and now people come from all around the world to participate. This has apparently been going on for hundreds of years, however it sounds like something the Victorians would have invented to me, as was for example Morris Dancing, another odd but entertaining pastime. I think I might right a blog just on odd British pastimes.
  • The performance artist Marina and Ulay reunite: I saw this video a while ago, and remembered it the other day. I challenge anyone not to be moved by it.

The animals of Cycling Europe

From the Arctic tundra of northern Norway, to hot arid climes of Spain, and the varied landscapes of Eastern Europe, I came across a variety of flora and fauna as I pedalled my way around Europe this summer. Whilst some of the animals were too quick to be photographed, such as the Black Woodpecker I saw in France, or just to fast as was the case with the hares in Sweden, I did manage to capture a few on camera; mostly dogs and cats as they tended to make their presence known, whilst in search of fuss or food.

In the far North there wasn’t initially a lot to be seen, aside from a few friendly trolls lurking around Nordkapp.

On the road South to Honningsvag I was pleased to see reindeer, but reminded of Scandinavia’s penchant for hunting at the hostel where I was staying.

I came across more reindeer and a couple of living  moose on my way to Finland and Sweden, and was constantly accompanied by the sounds of birds singing, as the snow thawed and Spring arrived.

I was of course always accompanied by an animal of sorts, Travelling Lobster, and I shouldn’t forget that I am also classified as part of the Animal Kingdom. I couldn’t have done without my ‘jovial’ companion, even if he wasn’t one for doing much pedalling.

Travelling Lobster modelling a catalogue pose in Sweden

Travelling Lobster modelling a catalogue pose in Sweden

The Lobster had a fondness for cows. I’m really not sure why, however it could be to do with his addiction to chocolate, and realisation that cows are integral to its manufacture. It was he that ate all the chocolate I was forced to buy to feed this addiction…honest.

Has anyone else found that some cows get quite excited when you cycle past them? I quite often found they’d follow me as I pedalled past their field, and that they’d sometimes break into a run to keep up. This happened to me a lot on my cycle tour in Scotland in 2013, and I’m wondering if it’s something to do with my red panniers.

As well as cows I encountered lots of goats on my way around Europe, more so in the South where herds sometimes blocked the road, and sometimes on campsites where they were used as environmentally friendly lawnmowers; don’t leave your washing out near them though.

Birds were often to far away to get a good picture, or moving to quickly, however wildfowl proved more easier to photograph, especially when they wanted food.

I lost count of the number of birds of prey I spotted, ranging from huge numbers of buzzards, to Black Kites, massive eagles where I couldn’t be definite on the species, countless Kestrels, and soaring falcons. They were often being mobbed by gangs of crows intent of driving them off; crows a long with pigeons were a constant feature around Europe. Birds of prey weren’t the most lethal of feathered friend I came across, although thankfully I only saw a sign warning of the dangers of the following.

Pretty sure flying sheep don't count as birds, but a worrying development nonetheless

Pretty sure flying sheep don’t count as birds, but a worrying development nonetheless

Yep, sheep, I really hope they don’t evolve wings, no one would be safe. I encountered many sheep ambushes on my tour around the coast of Britain in 2013, and became convinced they were after me and possess some kind of hive intelligence, with a grand conspiracy in play. I came across many more sheep in Europe, however they weren’t quite as vicious as their British cousins.

On the dangerous animal front there isn’t much to report. The only bears I saw were on signs, stuffed, or statues thereof, and although I visited a wolf sanctuary I didn’t see any as they were all asleep.

I guess the most alarming animals of the whole trip were the dogs encountered in Greece, Turkey and Eastern Europe in general. Often wild or feral, they would chase me, snarling and barking. My scariest experience of the whole tour was being surrounded by a pack of 7 or 8 growling feral dogs in the hills outside Thessaloniki. On the flip side I came across a lot of friendly hounds, who were more than happy to say hello and stick their noses in my panniers looking for snacks.

Cats were also a common feature along the way, especially further South. They’d often arrive to inspect my tent and panniers, or to just say hello and settle down beside me in the sunshine.

Horse drawn vehicles became more common in parts of Eastern Europe, however I happened upon many equine beasts elsewhere.

On the farm animal front, I met a few when staying with friends on their farm in the Ardeche, a wonderful break on my tour that I’ll always remember.

And then there were a few exotic or miscellaneous beasts, or imaginary creatures, that I came across.

Finally here are a couple of nice landscape shots, although really I could do a whole series of blog posts just show-casing some of the amazing panoramas I pedalled past.

Poppies in France, not far from Paris

Poppies in France, not far from Paris

Spain also had some stunning countryside

Spain also had some stunning countryside

All these pictures were taken using the camera on my iPhone 6. I considered taking my Canon digital SLR, however it’s just another piece of baggage and thing that I could potentially lose or get stolen, so decided against it in the end; good decision I think.

Still thinking about ideas for my next cycle tour adventure; likely to be a series of shorter expeditions I suspect, to fit around work, but looking forward to whatever they will be next year – for starters mountain biking around some bothies in Scotland has got to be a good plan.

Cycling Europe – bike and kit review

I couldn’t tell you how much all the kit I took with me around Europe for six months weighed, maybe 35 kg, including my bike, I don’t think I ever weighed it. There was certainly quite a lot of ‘gubbins’ involved, making me slightly jealous of the ultralight tourers I encountered with nothing but a sawn-off toothbrush and a credit card for comfort, however not as much as I’ve seen some people take with them.

The following is a review of some of the kit I toured with. It’s worth mentioning that, aside from a few maps, I finished pedalling around Europe with all the kit I started with, apart from one Icebreaker base layer which disintegrated somewhere in Spain.

Travelling Lobster even made it back, although he still needs a wash; a more erstwhile travelling companion I could not have asked for, despite his lack of assistance in the pedalling department, or any department aside from sightseeing and chocolate eating.

Travelling Lobster helping with tour prep

Travelling Lobster helping with tour prep

The Bike
–> Oxford Bike Works – Expedition Bike
Here are a few photos of the bike, christened Smaug, in transit on the way to Nordkapp, then on to Tarifa, followed by Istanbul, before returning back to the UK.

Smaug is based on the Expedition Bike design from Oxford Bike Works, with a few custom tweaks such as the addition of a dynamo hub, as well as a Brooks saddle. I wanted something simple, strong, and reliable, and was not disappointed. Richard from Oxford Bike Works did a great job with the specification, in partnership with Tom Allen of http://tomsbiketrip.com renown.

The steel frame proved resilient, using Reynolds 525 tubing. Some people use aluminium frames when touring, however I prefer the additional strength from steel, even if it is heavier, and the fact you can weld it back together again if it does break; aluminium doesn’t take too kindly to a welding torch. I wouldn’t go near carbon on any part of a touring frame. I also chose the colour red, as everyone knows a red bike goes faster, and that, along with the fact it flew up and down mountains and breathed fire, led to the name Smaug.

I changed the rear cassette and chain twice, once in France on the way to Tarifa, and once upon my return to the UK, so not bad considering that’s over 10,200 miles. I also had to replace the chain set (front rings) once back in the UK. The Schwalbe Marathon plus tyres performed admirably, as you’d expect, although I did suffer from more punctures than on my previous long tour around the coast of Britain. I think the punctures may have been more down to a duff batch of inner tubes, or more likely my impatience whilst mending them. I had to change my tyres once in the South of France, to a set of Malamuts which although larger did the job, and once upon my return to the UK; the rear tyre only just made it back.

The Shimano brakes were great, and simple to change when I needed to. I had to swap the cartridge shoe inserts for brake blocks at one point, as I couldn’t find any replacement inserts, however I was glad of the simple set up, and that I didn’t have to fiddle around with disc brakes. I’ve also heard disc brakes put more strain on your wheels, due to their stopping power which can cause more spoke breakages; I hate spoke breakages so more than happy to forego the extra stopping power and complexity.

Brooks saddle - perhaps the most important part of the bike

Brooks saddle – perhaps the most important part of the bike

Perhaps the most important feature on a touring bike is the saddle. I started with a gel saddle, however soon found this became uncomfortable after long days in the saddle, and caused chafing; gel saddles may be great for a commuting but I would not recommend them for long distance touring. I swapped it for a Brooks B17 in Sweden, which took until Spain to wear in, but proved an excellent choice with no more complaints. I suspect this Brooks saddle will last me a very long time, and will almost certainly move between bikes.

My favourite gadget had to be my SP Dynamo Hub, which did a fantastic job of charging my Garmin GPS and iPhone, as well as powering the fantastically bright Luxos from light. I sometimes wonder if bike lights are getting a little too bright, to the point where they pose a danger to drivers by blinding them, however the Luxos does have a dip and full beam setting, and it was great on the occasions I had cycle at night, especially on the last stretch to Dieppe in the early hours of the morning.

Only two problems over the course of six months, the first being several spokes that all broke at once, and the second being the bike stand. The spoke breakages resulted from the gears being knocked out of alignment during the plane flight, meaning the chain slipped off the top rear ring, and slid down in between the cassette and spokes, chewing several of them up; luckily I wasn’t far from a decent bike shop. I should mention that I had no problems with the rims; Rigida Sputnik 26” (559), 36H, Schrader valve. If I had to choose a vital component of a touring bike, aside from the saddle, it would be the wheels. After having numerous problems with my factory built wheels on my Bike around Britain tour (different bike), I’d always go for hand-built wheels where they use decent spokes (factory built often use shoddy spokes). With such a heavy bike, due to all the luggage, wheel strength is massively important if you want to avoid mechanical issues. I was also happy with 26 inch wheels, rather than going for 700cc size. 26 inch might be slower, however that doesn’t particularly matter when you’re touring on a heavy bike, and there are two distinct advantages; increased wheel strength and ease of finding replacements.

Bike stand attachment deformed over time

Bike stand attachment deformed over time

The bike stand itself was great, however the point at which it attached the bike deformed over time, and eventually made it unusable, probably due to the weight. I think you can attach it slightly differently to the bike, by fitting the clamp over the top of the chain stay tubes, which would probably increase durability, however I might go with one of those clip on bike stands next time. I definitely missed having a stand after it broke, however I wouldn’t say it’s a vital component of a touring set up, as you can usually find somewhere to lean your machine.

Other points:

  • Ergon GP1 BioKork lock-on grips were comfortable, spreading the weight across my palms, however I’d think twice about wearing gel cycling gloves with them. After while they caused me significant pain and actually damaged my hands; the combination doesn’t work, and once I removed my gloves the pain and nerve damage went away. I swapped the standard bar ends for longer versions, which I prefer as it gives me more alternatives grip wise, and more to pull on when I’m standing up on the pedals going up hills; probably do that too much.
  • Tubus racks proved excellent, with no breakages to report, unlike the Blackburn racks I used on by Bike around Britain tour.
  • Using Shimano PD-M324, combination SPD/flat pedals gave me a choice between clipping in, or riding unclipped occasionally for a change, or when I changed into trainers for a bit. My Shimano MT71 cycling shoes were an excellent choice, and comfy to walk around in off the bike.
  • Never go without mud-guards on a cycling tour, I really valued mine; they save on laundry bills and a wet behind.
  • I chose to use security skewers for my wheels, to minimise the chance of theft. I think this is a good idea, however remained nervous throughout the tour of losing the security allen key!
  • I added an extra bottle cage for my stove fuel bottle, bringing the total to 3 cages on the bike. This proved a very good idea, as I had to drink vast amounts in the hotter countries, so was glad of two water bottles, and further bottles stuck through the webbing over my rear rack.
  • I liked the little touches such as the brass bell.
Brass bell still ringing clearly after 6 months on the road

Brass bell still ringing clearly after 6 months on the road

You can find the full specification of the Expedition Bike on the Oxford Bike Works website here: http://www.oxfordbikeworks.co.uk/expedition/

Overall I’m extremely happy with my choice of bike for the Cycle Europe tour. It coped with 6 months on the road, covering over 10,200 miles in all sorts of conditions; snow and freezing temperatures in Scandinavia, rain, weeks of hot weather with temperatures exceeding 40′ Celsius, all sorts really. I wanted something that could contend with rough trails and tree root ambushes, for example through woodland or up and down mountains, as well as road riding, and this machine rose to the task. I’m sure it will continue to serve me well on future tours, although I have just noticed a few rust spots on the front handle bars I’ll have to deal with; wear and tear to be expected.

One last point to mention. This bike could be regarded as expensive, although not versus some road bikes, however I chose to pay more because at the time I could afford to, and wanted a quality build. You don’t however have to buy an expensive machine to tour on, a second-hand mountain bike will do. The most important thing is getting out there, giving it a go, and enjoying an adventure on the road. There’s absolutely loads of advice on the Internet on how to achieve this; send me an email or leave a comment if you can’t find it and I’ll do my best point you in the right direction. The hardest bit is setting off, the rest just happens 🙂

Panniers
–> Ortlieb front and rear classic panniers
No issues with these. They’re the same ones I used on my Bike around Britain tour in 2013, and they’re still going strong. I’ve only ever had to replace one bolt, and although they have a few nicks and small holes in them I think they’ll last for years yet. Ortlieb panniers are fully waterproof, which is a real bonus in wet conditions, however the only downside is stuff sweats in them when it’s hot, meaning things can get a bit smelly, or smellier; still wouldn’t choose anything else though. I also used a 35 litre Ortlieb dry bag, on the top of my rear rack, which I stuck my tent, spare shoes, hammock and other bits and pieces in.

Bike lock
–> D-Lock and Kryptonite Kryptoflex cable – effective security but a bit heavy. Some would say a lock is unnecessary with a heavy touring bike, however I wouldn’t go without, especially when travelling solo.

Camping and misc stuff
–> Hilleberg Akto Tent
My Hilleberg Akto Tent is the same one I used on my tour around the coast of Britain in 2013, and several times since then, and is still going strong. I’ve re-waterproofed it once, which also helps with UV resistance, and it didn’t leak all tour. Compared with some tents it can get a bit too hot in sunny conditions, however this is a feature of tents in general, and the warmth is welcome in colder conditions. With a small porch area it has plenty of room to store your panniers in, and even a bit of shelter to cook under should the need arise. After 6 months my Akto definitely became a home from home.

Only a couple of issues to report:

  • Doesn’t react well to attacks by Varmints. Voles had a go at it in Sweden one night, emerging from their dens under snow drifts to menace me. It’s very unnerving feeling a small rodent moving under your tent at night, and very annoying when they naw holes in your ground sheet and bite through the retaining cord underneath the tent!
  • I’ve had trouble with the tent zip a few times, with it breaking/un-threading and needing to be re-threaded using a pair of pliers and a lot of patience. This can get kind of annoying, especially after a long day and if it’s raining. I’m not sure what caused it.

–> Multimat – thermal sleeping mat and Deuter Travel Lite 300 sleeping bag
This combination served me well over six months, despite the thermarest being punctured so not offering a lot of padding; it still provided a layer of insulation and I got used to sleeping on the ground. The sleeping bag was warm enough, especially when used in conjunction with a set of thermals. The trick to being warm when going to sleep is being warm when you get into your sleeping bag, so a quick run about or a few press-ups were sometimes in order.

–> Hammock
My Ticket to the Moon hammock was a late addition to my touring kit, having acquired it in Marseille, however I wish I’d had one before then. They’re great when it’s hot and there are suitable trees around, even if you just use it for sitting in, rather than sleeping overnight. Spent many a lazy hour chilling out in my hammock after a long ride.

Me in hammock, siesta time

Me in hammock, siesta time

–> Misc – never go without cable ties and gaffer tape. Handy for mending all sorts of things, from  holes in the bottom of your tent to temporary bike fixes, or emergency clothing repairs; my shorts were a little threadbare by the time I got home.

One more thing on camping, as it’s a question I’m often asked. I didn’t always know where I was going to stay each night when I set off in the morning, although I could get ideas on campsites via asking people, an app on my phone, or the Internet.  I tended to plan a few days in advance, but remain flexible in case I wanted to divert to see something interesting. If a campsite didn’t materialise, or a ride took longer than expected, I always had the option to find somewhere quiet and wild camp; when you have a tent, bivvy bag or hammock, you’re never without somewhere to sleep.

Cooking – Whisperlite International – MSR
Great for cooking on, using my Tatonka pans, although didn’t use it a lot after Scandinavia as cold meals were fine. Like the fact you can use unleaded petrol to fuel it, which is available everywhere, unlike some gas canisters. I took a few bits of cooking kit with me including a chopping board that I rarely used, although a sharp knife is vital; had my trusty Bison Bushcraft sheath knife. I was also never without a bottle of Tabasco sauce, or equivalent thereof, to spice up a bland meal. Noodles and pasta featured heavily on the cooking front, as did frankfurters at one point. I ate a lot whilst on tour,including lots of biscuits and Haribos to replace burnt calories. It’s kind of difficult cutting down on food intake after consuming 4000 plus calories a day for 6 months, however I need to do so otherwise the kilograms are going to pile on.

Maps versus GPS
My Garmin 810 GPS worked well on this tour, only needing a factory reset once, and helping to guide me through some confusing parts of Europe. I wouldn’t however always trust it, as it did send me through an army base in Albania, and attempt to do so again in a few other countries. Up until Turkey I also used paper maps, which in general I prefer, however they became tricky to source them in Eastern Europe, so for the return leg from Istanbul to the UK I used a combination of my Garmin and the maps app on my iPhone; worked very well. A bit of preparation each night, memorising key towns or villages along the route, goes a long way to easing navigational issues.

Clothes
I had to take clothes with me that were suitable for the cold conditions of Scandinavia, and parts of the return leg through Germany and into France, as well as the hot conditions of Spain and Southern Europe. This meant some clothes, such as my Rab down jacket, weren’t used a lot, but made a good pillow. I also valued my two buffs (like a snood), which provided protection from the cold, rain, and sun, as well as a pollution mask sometimes; a buff is another piece of kit I wouldn’t go without – simple but effective. My BBB Cycling Sportsglasses worked a treat, with different coloured lenses for different conditions, and for once I didn’t lose or break them! You don’t have room for a lot of clothes, however things like merino base layers don’t need washing that often, and there’s always somewhere you can rinse things through, even if it’s stream in the woods. Don’t go without swimming shorts of the equivalent; can’t miss opportunities to swim in gorgeous and cooling rivers and lakes, or crystal clear seas.

Gadgets
I’ve already mentioned my Garmin Edge 810, and my iPhone which doubled as my camera for the tour. The camera on the iPhone is excellent, and saves on space when compared with lugging around a bulky SLR. You can also use it to record good short movies, which I need to do more of in future. I took an Apple MacBook Air for blogging and browsing purposes, which fitted easily in my rear panniers. Finding wifi wasn’t too much of a problem, although I was amazed that wifi in Western Europe, and the richer countries, was in general much worse than in Eastern Europe and the perceived poorer countries. If I couldn’t find wifi I nearly always had 3G or 4G, which bizarrely I don’t always in the UK, so could tether my phone to my laptop if I really needed to do some planning. I had PowerMonkey-eXtreme solar charged battery pack which I used a few times, but didn’t really need as my dynamo hub worked so well; it was a good back-up in any case.

 

Aside from a hammock, which I bought half way round anyway, there was nothing else I thought I really needed. In retrospect something to scare off dogs wouldn’t have been a bad idea. The best idea I came across for this was from a French couple touring with their 6 year old son; an air horn, which dogs flee from.

You can find a full list of the kit I took with me on the Gubbins page of my blog, however feel free to leave a comment or send me an email if you’ve any questions. I’m sure I’ve missed something out.

Next blog post will be something fun; the animals I encountered whilst on tour, which will feature a lot of dogs, as well as the occasional Llama, and several cats. Here are a few warm up pics.

Cycling Europe – the final scores

That’s it, tour done, a weird feeling after being away for nearly 6 months. It’s still quite hard to take it all in, having pedalled from Nordkapp, Norway, in the Arctic Circle, the Northernmost point of Europe accessible by road, all the way to Tarifa in Spain, the Southernmost point, then across to Istanbul and Eastern Europe before pedalling back to the UK alongside the Danube. Today was my first day back at work, which mentally drove home that this adventure has come to an end, however I’m sure there will be plenty more in the future.

Overall I’m very happy with how it all went, having encountered no insurmountable obstacles, and visited lots of great countries and places. It’s all about adding brilliant memories to the bank, by filling the time I have on this planet with new, exciting and varied experiences whilst I have the chance. To choose but a few; I’ve swum in the sea and rivers, lazed in the sun, climbed mountains, whizzed down valleys and gorges, slept in forests and under the stars, tried lots of new food…and drink, stayed with old friends in France and made lots of new ones across Europe, met my parents in Spain on the Camino de Santiago route for my birthday, and challenged myself to see just how far I can pedal, in all sorts of conditions, and on a variety of road and trail! As with my tour around the UK coastline in 2013 I was reminded of how friendly, generous and welcoming most people are, something the media have an unfortunate tendency of distorting at times. Even the weather was mostly kind to me, although I won’t miss cycling in temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius in Spain, or the headwinds and rain of Denmark.

Here’s my final route map:

Cycling Europe - final route map

Cycling Europe – final route map

And a link to this in Strava, where you can zoom in:

https://www.strava.com/athletes/11810278/heatmaps/7c5e7d05#10/52.63298/1.25881

One of the most common questions I get asked is ‘What was your favourite bit?’. I find this almost impossible to answer as it was a journey of such contrasts; Scandinavia with its wonderful wilderness and nature, snow and ice abounding whilst I was in the Arctic Circle, the Camino de Santiago, the dizzying heat of Spain with its ancient towns and cites, France that I just love anyway, the fantastic Croatian coastline, crazy Istanbul, friendly Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, and cycling alongside the Danube through picturesque forests and gorges in Germany and Austria – very good food and again friendly people in the latter two too. The more I think about it the more I remember great experiences, with any bad points or anxieties I felt at the time slowly fading into the background. I still think one of the best ‘bits’ is all the people I met along the way, especially those with whom I pedalled for a bit. Finishing the tour with a stop off at the Yestival festival, with more great people, buckets of inspiration and motivation, topped it all off; it also added a certain symmetry to the tour, having started at the Cycle Tour Festival in May, which along with Yestival is going in the calendar for 2016.

Here are some updated tour statistics and facts you might find interesting, or not, depending on how much you like numbers.

  • Start point: Honningsvåg (Norway)
  • End point: Norwich (UK)
  • Number of countries visited: 23
  • Distance pedalled: circa 10,230 miles or 16,460 km
  • Longest day: 120 miles (193km)
  • Number of days on tour: 175
  • Number of rest days: around 31
  • Average distance per day including rest days: approx 58 miles or 94km
  • Average distance per day excluding rest days: approx 71 miles or 114km
  • Number of punctures: 8
  • Number of new tyres: 4 – back on the Schwalbe Marathon Plus now
  • Number of new spokes: 6 (all at once due to chain slippage spoke mangling incident in Sweden)
  • Number of new chains and rear cassettes: 2 of each
  • Number of new chain sets: 1
  • Number of new brake pads: 6
  • Number of new cables: changed them all once
  • Number of new saddles: 1 – the Brooks saddle has been a wonderful replacement
  • Min temperature: -2 degrees Celsius
  • Max temperature: About 42 degrees Celsius in Spain
  • Windiest conditions: Denmark – about 5 hellish days of headwind mixed with rain
  • Favourite stop: With friends in France (Ardeche, Provence, Marseille), followed closely by Tarifa and Istanbul.
  • Most useful gadget: SP Dynamo Hub, for recharging my phone and Garmin
  • Friendliest country: Not had an unfriendly one, however Albania or Serbia probably win – Eastern Europe in general; can’t count France as was with good friends there anyway!
  • Scariest encounter: the dogs in Greece, and specifically when I was surrounded by a feral pack when cycling up the hill out of Thessaloniki
  • Weight lost: about 2 stone (13kg), although I’ve about a half stone on since I’ve been back due to still having a huge appetite but not cycling 100km each day; gonna have to fast soon.

If there are any other stats you’re interested in let me know, and likewise shout if you’ve any questions.

I’m also very happy to have raised £1,600 for charity, which equates to nearly £2,000 with gift aid, which I know the Big C will really appreciate. Thank you all for your sponsorship; definitely helped keep me motivated at times. If you haven’t already and would like to make a donation you can do so via the link below:

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=james

Another common question, which people ask me nearly straight away, is what’s next? I’m starting to respond by asking them what adventure they have planned instead! I have lots of ideas, but I doubt they’ll be anything quite as long for a while; need to save up some money if I want to go on a long tour to Canada, South America, Morocco, or South East Asia, which are all on the list.

I’ll be attempting to write a book about this latest tour, mainly to see if I can write a book rather than earning lots of money off it, and I hope to continue filling life with great memories by going away on shorter adventures. Things on the list so far include mountain biking around bothies in Scotland and perhaps Wales, hiking the Coast to Coast route along Hadrian’s Wall, kayaking and camping on the Norfolk Broads, starting to rock climb again and visiting the Peak District, learning how to kite surf, taking my Kendo 1st Dan grading, and lots of local micro adventures in Norfolk; just sleeping out under the stars whenever possible, after cooking over a campfire or stove, and waking up as the sun rises. Always up for company on trips if you fancy getting outside and enjoying life.

I’m going to pick out some of my favourite photos from the tour over the next couple of weeks, to help prepare for book writing, but I’ll also post them here for folks to enjoy, and to hopefully give you ideas for places to visit. To kick things off here’s where it all began, in Nordkapp Norway, after flying out form the Cycle Touring festival in Clitheroe, UK:

Thanks again for reading and support along the way; as with the sponsorship it’s really appreciated and helped keep me going. And Travelling Lobster says hi; he still needs a wash!