Tag Archives: Cycle Touring

Brake the Cycle

A couple of weeks ago I came across Brake the Cycle, a touring company that organise adventures combining bicycles, caring about the planet, eco-communities and permaculture, with helping individuals find a new healthier and happier path in life. What better way to do that than on a bike? In short it’s all the sort of thing I’m passionate about, in trying to practise a more balanced, sustainable, and connected to nature lifestyle.

Here’s a video from their website that’s really making me look forward to touring again a bit later this year; I’m hoping to pedal down the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland.

You can check out there website here – www.brakethecycle.xyz

If you’re thinking about giving cycle touring a go, but a bit nervous and would like to do it with a group of like-minded individuals, then I’d recommend checking them out. They organise tours in the UK, such as Lands End to John O’Groats and an Odyssey in Wales, to pedalling round Spain or Greece. And they’ll carry your luggage for you! A great way to see new places, make new friends, and experience the joys of cycle touring in a sustainable way.

I recently wrote a guest blog post for them, which you can read here – www.brakethecycle.xyz/single-post/bikearoundBritain

Incidentally I have no commercial connection to this website, I just really like what they’re trying to do and may well get a few friends to join me on one of their tours.

I’ve also copied in the blog post below, as I really enjoyed writing this one, and want to keep it for posterity.

Bike around Britain by James Harvey
Riding a bike. I don’t think I could do without it now. I get grouchy if I haven’t cycled for a couple of days. If I have to use my car to commute the day is definitely worse for it. On my 10 mile ride to work I see people stuck in their vehicles, looking grumpy, frustrated, bored, and disconnected from the world outside their sterile, sealed metal boxes.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if more people used their bike to get to work? There are so many benefits to be gained from a regular pedal: mental and physical health, fitness, saving money, and less pollution. It’s actually quicker in towns, and you can eat more cake without worrying too much about the calories. You’re closer to the natural world too — not separate from it like so many people seem to be these days. As we move into Spring and everything starts waking up there’s more to see, smell, listen to and experience whilst pedalling.

Snowdrop covered bank

Take the path less travelled

Cycling several times a week also means that when it comes to your next cycle tour your legs are better prepared for it, although it’s one of those hobbies where you really can get fit on the job. I started cycle touring properly in 2013, when a major life event made me re-evaluate what’s important. I took some time out and decided, fairly randomly, that I’d cycle around the coast of Britain. Why wait until you retire to start adventuring? You never know what’s going to happen. If you have the chance to do something different, to pursue something out-of-the ordinary you’ve always wanted to do, then go for it, ‘brake the cycle’ and take that first step out of your front door. Every step after that is easier. One of my favourite quotes, from Henry Rollins reflects all this:

‘No such thing as spare time
No such thing as free time
No such thing as down time
All you got is life time. Go!’

I didn’t especially know what I was doing when I set off round the coast. I bought a bike I’d been reliably informed was decent for touring, as well as camping equipment I could fit on it, and a whole  host of other bits and pieces I thought I might need. Once I’d packed my panniers I mounted my trusty steed, and gently tumbled onto the grass outside my house. It appeared I might have to cut down on what were going to be my worldly possessions for the next three months. That was the start of realising you really don’t need much to be happy. In fact, from what I’ve observed, the more people have the less happy they often are. You meet a lot of people when touring, whether it be in Britain, or in more remote places (for us) such as Albania, Scandinavia or Turkey. The friendliest and most content people I’ve met are often those that seem to have the least, from a material possession point of view; I’d argue they probably have the much more from a spiritual and non-material angle.

Starting from Norwich and heading to Lowestoft, on the East coast of Britain, before turning North, getting fitter as I went. I almost immediately had a crash on a Norfolk coastal path, when I discovered loaded touring bikes don’t cope well with sand. This wouldn’t be the last ‘stunt’ of the tour.

It didn’t really take very long to get to Scotland, however it took a me a disproportionate amount of time to get round the coast of that glorious country. There are so many ins-and-outs, up-and-downs, sideways then back up bits. Thankfully on a coastal tour it’s quite hard to get lost, all you have to do is keep the sea on one side, and in Scotland there aren’t a lot of roads to choose from when you get beyond Edinburgh. Another Scottish bonus is you can wild camp as long as you’re sensible and respectful, so finding a place to rest wasn’t hard.

Wild camping on the shores of Loch Fyne

Wild camping on the shores of Loch Fyne

I always get asked what my favourite bits of a tour are, and it’s often hard to pick one. I know that the journey is definitely more important that the destination — the latter often being a bit of an anti-climax after all the adventures along the way. On my 2013 Bike around Britain tour I can definitely say Scotland was my favourite bit, aside from the midges which will eat you alive if you’re not careful. The coastline is amazing, especially the West Coast, and then there’s Orkney where I immediately felt at home,  and Skye and Mull which are quite different from the mainland. The wildness of Cape Wrath where I camped next to the lighthouse and ate fresh wild Atlantic salmon was amazing, and I’ll never forget cycling over the Bealach na Ba pass from Applecross, up the steepest ascent in the UK, then descending carefully down the other side with my brakes smoking. That’s feeling alive.

Bealach na Ba

Bealach na Ba

Eventually it was time to leave Scotland and cross back into England, via Gretna Green. That in itself was a culture shock after weeks in relative wilderness; coach loads of Japanese and Chinese tourists greeted me as I pedalled through, and I suddenly had to contend with roundabouts and traffic lights again, a rarity in the highlands. Then it was on to Wales which turned out to be, whilst beautiful, very wet and windy. In fact it mostly rained for all of Wales, but you get used to that kind if thing whilst cycle touring, as well as dirt and mud; my theory is your skin is waterproof, so all good. A few local cyclists I met on the road bought me the odd meal, or a pint, which kept motivation levels up.

When you’re on a long cycle tour you’re much more in touch with the natural environment you’re in, especially if you’re camping most of the time. You become attuned to the daylight hours as well as the weather, and are definitely very much a part of nature, rather than disconnected from it. On your bike you spot things you’d never see in a car, and meet people you’d never normally speak to. They’re interested because you’re on a loaded touring bike and they want to know where you’ve been and where you’re going ; this can often lead to free meals! You rest when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry, and take a diversion to see something interesting if the notion takes you. I’d challenge anyone not to feel less-stressed after a week or two of that.

 

Cycle touring - enjoy spectacular sunsets in nature's embrace

Cycle touring – enjoy spectacular sunsets in nature’s embrace

The funny thing was as soon as I rode to the other side of the Severn Bridge it stopped raining. I could look back into Wales and it was still cloudy on the other side of the Severn, however I was now in sunshine. Wales is damp, lovely country, but damp.

The South West was another highlight, although the hills were steeper than in any other part of the tour; I didn’t have to get off and push until I got to Devon. I rode to Land’s End on a wonderful sunny day, completing a rather long and unconventional John O’Groats to Lands End (‘Jogle’) trip. I laid back in the heather and dozed for a bit, listening to the waves crashing against the rocks far below. The sound of the sea, my constant companion for the three months of my  tour, is always relaxing and trance-inducing.

Lands End - listening to the sea

Lands End – listening to the sea

Along the South Coast it got a lot busier, but remained entertaining, with the odd ferry to catch over inlets and estuaries. There was more regular supply of ice-cream, and friends joined me along the way to experience a bit of life on the road.  After the peace of Scotland the South East was the opposite. A more frantic pace of life as well as an increase in traffic and prices, and more opportunities to get lost. As with everywhere folks still often wanted to say hello and find out what I was doing, or to offer hospitality.

Helford - ran out of road, waiting for ferry boat

Helford – ran out of road, waiting for ferry boat

Heading North across the Thames I joined the Tour de Latitude, taking a diversion to cycle to the music festival. It proved to be an excellent decision, a chance to catch up with a few friends and ease tired muscles, before heading back to the coast to finish the circuit back in Lowestoft, and home to Norwich.

I learnt so much about myself and the UK on that tour. Since then I’ve continued to go on adventures on my bike, including a six month pedal around Europe in 2015, taking in Nordkapp, Tarifa and Istanbul. But there really isn’t any need to leave  Britain to get away from it all, reconnect with nature, and try something new. We have so much on our own doorstep to enjoy, learn about and be part of.

You have a lot of time to mull things over whilst you’re pedalling. In the last two hundred years we’ve grown more and more apart from the natural world, somehow forgetting about it, or believing we’re above other species on this planet. There’s a constant pressure for growth, whether that be population, industrial, agricultural or economic, which is at odds with the finite resources we have access to, as well as our own wellbeing. I can’t help wondering if a lot of the mental health issues we experience today are caused by the realisation, by all of us at some level, that things aren’t right at the moment. Getting on your bike, whether that be for you daily commute to work or to take up touring, is a great way to start reconnecting with the world, to start working out what’s important, and to bring more contentment and satisfaction into your life.

People always seem to ask me what I’m going to do or where I’m going to go next? I ask, where are you going next?

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

James Harvey is a keen cyclist and advocate of two wheels for wellbeing. Find out more about his 2013 tour (with routes) here: www.bikearoundbritain.com. You can find James sharing his thoughts on the wonderfully titled www.selfpropelled.life and follow home on Twitter here @jam_har

 

Pedaling into 2018

Recently I’ve been pondering the terms ‘growth’, and ‘progress’, when they’re used to describe our aspirations as a race, in the developed ‘Western’ world anyway. It’s weird how we seem to think of progress and growth as building more, and consuming more of our finite resources. Is that really progress? It doesn’t seem to make that many people more content with their lot, or healthier, mentally or physically. If anything it just seems to create more problems.

We always have to pursue economic growth, but surely infinite economic growth is impossible when you have finite resources, and an economy that is based on using them. I think a different model is needed if we’re to really progress and grow as a species.

I’ll write a more structured blog on this in the near future. I might include some thoughts on the new Norwich Northern Distributor road, which as far as I can tell is just there to open up the countryside to more development, more ‘growth’. It’ll mean the closure of at least two of the roads I cycle down to get to and from work, which will no doubt mean more traffic channelled on to fewer roads, with more drivers getting annoyed with ‘bloody cyclists’. I’ve tried to find out some more information about new cycle paths the council might have planned to help cyclists get into Norwich safely, but haven’t found anything concrete yet. I fear I may have to pedal a slightly longer and more congested route, but will reserve judgement pending further investigations.

Rather than saying any more on the subject now, I thought I’d share a few photos from my January cycling, either from the commute, or the occasional excursion in search of pie and cake. A lot of people seem reluctant to get out during the winter months, however with the right kit it’s absolutely fine, and often more peaceful on the quieter roads. One just has to stay alert for any icy patches; might have done a couple of inadvertent stunts recently.

It’s great seeing the countryside change throughout the year. The tree branches are bare at the moment, but will soon start to bud, shutting away secrets that are currently in plain site.

And it’s time for snowdrops to appear in abundance. Lots of them on my route to work. I’m looking forward to seeing the bluebells once Spring arrives.

I pedalled home from work illuminated by the light from the blue super-moon the other day, an impressive site. My new camera phone took surprisingly good pics of it; I can use one of these for a cover on one of my short stories.

I’ve set a target of 5,000 miles (8,000km) cycling this year, which should be possible seeing as I regularly pedal 100 miles a week just on the commute. I’ll probably go for another tour in the summer or autumn for a couple of weeks, perhaps heading up to Derbyshire and over to Wales; route to be confirmed, maybe Europe instead. In the meantime I’ve been getting out at the weekend a bit, most recently up to Holt to grab a pasty and cake from Byfords. Bywords is a must visit for any hungry cyclist in the area.

My route from Salhouse across to Holt was on very quiet country roads, taking in the now closed RAF Coltishall, somewhere I don’t think I’ve been since I was a few months old (felt quite weird). It has rained an awful lot recently, meaning many of the roads have large puddles, or lakes as was the case below. I took the plunge and managed to forge through to the other side, about 30 metres away, without sinking into a pothole.

Just how far does the 'puddle' go on for?

Just how far does the ‘puddle’ go on for?

I think I might have to create an album of the churches I pass whilst out on my bike. I’m not particularly religious, but do like churches; their architecture and the often peaceful atmosphere surrounding them is attractive. These two are close to where I live, although there are dozens more, a legacy of Norfolk’s rich farming past and all the landowners competing via the medium of church building.

To close, here are a few cartoons I came across recently and thought were spot on, courtesy of @cartoonralph (you can follow them on Twitter). I think they accurately portray how disconnected we’ve become from nature, when we should be part of it, not set ourselves aside or above (there’s a blog to be done on deep ecology at some point too). The centre of the universe one is too true when it comes to our sense of entitlement as a race.

Enjoy the winter months and keep on pedalling!

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!

Cycle to work: Why pollute when you can pedal with a plethora of positives?

With the clocks changing I’ve had the opportunity for a few longer evening rides this week, altering my route home from work to take in more of the Norfolk countryside. I’m really hoping the two glorious days we’ve just had aren’t the sum of our 2016 summer; fingers crossed there’s more good weather to come.

You have lots of time to ponder things whilst you’re pedalling peacefully past pleasant panoramas. I’m sure the roads are getting busier, and the fumes from traffic worse. It made me wonder yet again why more people don’t use a bicycle to get around? There are so many benefits that come from regular cycling, and using your bike to get around often doesn’t take any longer that the same trip by car.

I start my day with a 7.5km ride to work, often with a break for a few minutes at a quiet spot to contemplate the day ahead and organise my thoughts.

Pause for thought on the way to work

Pause for thought on the way to work

Getting to work on my bike takes about 24 minutes. It could be quicker but I prefer to take a more roundabout route to avoid traffic and pollution on the inner ring road. Driving to work, which I very occasionally do, takes the same time or longer to cover a shorter distance, and leaves me feeling thoroughly wound up from sitting in traffic. I know I’m more used to cycling long distances, but it really doesn’t take very long to become accustomed to a self propelled method of transport.

A quick search on the Interweb has revealed that a few years ago the average commuting distance to work in England and Wales was around 15km. I’m not sure why Scotland didn’t get a mention, maybe Scottish commutes are convoluted due to other factors such as the threat of ambush by wild haggis. 15km, which is just over 9 miles, isn’t  very far, and as that’s the average there are an awful lot of people who commute a far shorter distance.

I was trying to think of why people don’t cycle to work, or even walk, instead choosing to use their car instead. Maybe they don’t want to arrive at work a bit sweaty, or with helmet hair, or are scared of cycling due to bad driving. The first two are often easily solved as many work places now have showers you can use, and to be honest a 25 minute cycle doesn’t generate that much unpleasantness, especially during the winter months when it’s colder. If you’re worried about your hair, well…lucky you…a lot of people don’t have much, and frankly there are probably more important things to worry about.

I do however understand people who are nervous about cycling due to the amount of traffic, and bad driving, as it can be intimidating and scary if you’re not used to it. However the only way to overcome such fears is to give it a go and build up your confidence, with a bit of defensive cycling thrown in to make sure you’re seen and drivers don’t try something stupid. Incidentally I in no way condone stupid cycling; riders should obey the rules of the road just like car drivers.

Maybe it’s better to focus on the benefits of using your bicycle, rather than what might put you off. There are so many positives to getting on you bike and leaving the car behind. I’ve compiled a bit of a list, which is by no means exhaustive, of the reasons to take up cycling, especially for that daily commute.

In no particular order…

  1. It’s actually faster  okay, not all the time, and it depends on your route and the traffic, but that’s certainly the case with my morning ride to work. If you live in a town or city and drive to work you’re likely to be stationary for a lot of the trip, whereas on your bike your moving for much more of the journey. So you’re saving time by cycling!
  2. You can eat more – this is one of my personal favourites as I love eating. Pedalling to work every day burns off several hundred calories, which I very much enjoy replacing with the occasional bacon roll, or cake off the tea trolley that comes around at 15.00 each day and which I have great trouble resisting. Guilt free eating really is a lot of fun, and quite handy around Easter time; busy consuming an egg as I write this.
  3. Lose weight  it’s really easy to lose a few pounds each week through cycling. I struggle with this one slightly as I’m really into to benefit number 2, and keep having to add another few kilometres onto my evening ride to burn off that unexpected jaffa cake or sausage roll. If you have any sort of willpower you’ll find the pounds falling off. Also, after exercise your body will continue to burn fat at an increased rate for a short time, even after you’ve stopped pedalling, which has got to be a good thing when you’re tucking into a post ride doughnut.
  4. Be healthier – there are countless health benefits associated with cycling, from a better immune system, to increased brain power, as well as a healthier heart and lungs, better bowels and a reduced risk of cancer. Allegedly it can make you cleverer as well, due to increased blood flow to the brain and boosted hippocampus development, although I’m not convinced it’s had much of an impact on me; I’ll ask my colleagues at work, I’m sure they’ll be kind….maybe I’ll just skip that one. As a result a bit of pedalling will also reduce the risk of degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimers. Finally cycling a decent distance each week can apparently also improve your sex life, although I suspect that really depends on your saddle; make sure you choose a good saddle, very important.
  5. Look younger and live longer – cycling increases your circulation and thus delivers oxygen and important nutrients more effectively around your body. Exercise of any sort also helps flush out toxins (it’s a good way of getting rid of a hangover). I just read that it can boost collagen production which helps reduce wrinkles and heal wounds, the latter being quite handy for me as I’m always banging my pedals against my shins or calf muscles. You’ll also live longer due to all the points mentioned in 4.
  6. Be happier, and less stressed, sleep better and be less tired – I’ve grouped these together as they often go hand in hand. Exercise of any kind releases endorphins which makes you happier. Time on your bike where you only need to focus on pedalling can reduce your stress levels, especially after a hard day in the office. A decent ride will tire you out so you’re more likely to sleep better, and exercise can actually wake you up which I find always helps in the morning.
  7. Less pollution an obvious one, as by cycling to work you’re not adding to exhaust fumes which do all sorts of bad things both to people’s health, as well as the environment. With climate change getting higher on everyone’s list of priorities this will become more and more important, especially after people read the latest predictions about sea level rises and the need to reduce emissions drastically. This is one of the most important benefits for me, as I’m getting quite sick of breathing in fumes and am very concerned over the dangers posed by fossil fuel burning induced climate change. The more people who cycle the less pollution they’ll be, so get on your bike!
  8. Avoid pollution – by taking the road less travelled to work, or using a cycle path if you’re lucky enough to have one, you’ll get to breathe in cleaner air. Even if you have to use main roads apparently you breathe in less fumes as a cyclist compared with a driver, which surprised me, but is down to being at the edge of the road and not directly behind an exhaust pipe.
  9. Encourage more cycle friendly routes – the more people who cycle the more there’s an argument for money to be spent on cycle paths and cycle friendly routes. This has got to be good for everyone as it’ll mean safer cycling, and fewer cyclists on the roads ‘annoying’ drivers. Likewise the more people that cycle the more used to cyclists drivers should get, and the more tolerant they’ll be, hopefully.
  10. Less traffic – in line with the above point more people cycling equals fewer cars, which in turn means fewer traffic jams and fewer accidents, as well as a reduced requirement for road mending, meaning everyone can go about their business more quickly and less angrily.
  11. Time to think – we lead such busy lives these days, often always connected to social media or otherwise contactable by phone or text. Putting your phone away and going for a pedal gives you time to contemplate whatever you need to contemplate. I often find myself entering an almost meditative state whilst cycling, and studies have shown it can increase your creativity. It’s also gives you a bit of playtime each day, and we don’t play enough these days; playing isn’t just for children!
  12. Increase your motivation – as with any exercise you’ll feel more motivated after going for a bike ride. Exercise can give you a bit of a high, which is one of the reasons people can get addicted to it. So pedalling to work should make you more productive at work, and more motivated to get off your backside at home and do those things you keep meaning to do, like go on adventures.
  13. Learn to appreciate the weather – Modern life means we’re often completely cut off from nature and the outdoors, shuffling from car to office to home and spending as little time as possible exposed to external elements. I don’t think humans were meant to be inside all the time. This is probably one of the reasons people get ill both mentally and physically, with more allergies and suchlike. If you cycle in all weathers you really love it when there’s sunny and warm day, but likewise I have learned to embrace the rain; it can be a lot of fun splashing through puddles – that playtime thing again, try it. The only weather I don’t particularly get on with on a bike is the wind; headwinds can be soul destroying if they go for too long, and I have had a lot of arguments with whichever deity I blame at the time for sending a headwind my way; I mostly blame Loki.
  14. Better communities – in a car I don’t get to say hello to people, or exchange smiles and waves. In fact people are more likely to swear at fellow commuters when they’re driving, or give them ‘the bird’. Each morning on my bike I say hello to people walking or cycling the other way, generally the same people each day, and feel better for it. A smile given, and received in turn, can really make you feel better. You can make new friends too, who knows who you might meet!
  15. Improve in other sports – regular cycling builds muscle, makes you fitter aerobically, and is good for the joints, so it can really help with other sports you participate in. Although don’t assume it’ll make you a good runner. Running hurts. I don’t know how anyone really enjoys running, unless its over an obstacle course with lots of mud and rivers to jump in.
  16. Raise money for charity – a long cycle challenge can be an excellent way to raise money for your favourite charity, as I have discovered when raising money for the Big C. Just be careful what you agree to; might have accidentally said I thought a tandem bike ride from Cambridge to Norwich would be a good idea, really not sure it is but it’ll be fun whatever.

There are no doubt plenty of other benefits that are worthy of a mention. What do you think? Anything I’ve missed which you think is a real positive produced by pedalling?

I’ll finish with a few photo’s from my cycle home through the Norfolk countryside today. It was ‘bootiful’ and I saw my first Swallow of the year which seems a bit early, perhaps not?

And please consider using a bike rather than a car for your commute to work, or to take the kids to school. Got to be better for everyone 🙂

 

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.