Tag Archives: Oxford Bike Works

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.

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 🙂

–> 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.

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.

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.

19 & 20 August 2015 – Toulon and Mandelieu-la-Napoule

I think I’ve been pedalling along the Cote d’Azur; not sure where it starts and finishes, but it’s definitely around here somewhere. It’s pretty too, but very busy, and expensive. I’m enjoying it but also looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet at some point, perhaps when I head inland towards Venice, or in Croatia. Here are my routes and stats for the 19th and 20th.

Two entries for 20 August as my Garmin turned itself off, as it is want to do sometimes when being charged off the dynamo; when the charge stops it thinks it better go to sleep.

–> 19 August 2015 – bike service and to Le Pradet, Toulon
Leaving Marseille was actually quite hard, as I’m slightly anxious about the route ahead, and this is probably the last set of friends I’ll stay with until I’m back in the UK. It’s been brilliant meeting up with several of them, and has made me realise how much I’ve missed everyone and the French lifestyle; will have to plan a return visit soon, and will make sure is coincides with Stephane being onshore.

Smaug looking a bit sorry for himself; needs some attention

Smaug looking a bit sorry for himself; needs some attention

I was also worried about my bike, which still needed new tyres and a service. It’s proven difficult to find touring sized tyres (26×1.35), perhaps because it’s the summer and they’re selling out quickly, as was suggested in one shop (bit dubious about that). I should stop worrying really, as my head knows it’ll all be alright, it’s just my heart being silly; I’m prone to a bit of anxiety from time-to-time. I have everything I need on my bike and can wild camp if there are no campsites, and it’s not like the rest of my route is devoid of shops! Gotta keep pedalling and having adventures, plus raise some more cash for the Big C; donations welcomed here (helps with the motivation) – www.virginmoneygiving.com/james

Thanks to Sophie for hosting me for a couple of nights, and good luck with your future plans! I hope you’ll all be able to come and visit me in the UK soon, but best to wait until I’m back in the country, and have found a permanent abode; my house is rented out until May next year, so thinking of moving out of Norwich into the countryside. I might even buy a couple of chickens, and a dog, always wanted a dog. Of course I’d need of get a trailer for aforesaid animal to go cycle touring with me; the dog, not the chickens, although…

After bidding goodbye to Sophie I was packed and on the road by 09.30, and had a couple of bike shops on my radar to try for tyres and a service. Thanks to Nick Paton for assisting with a few technical questions and shop locating, appreciated; he also phoned Oxford Bike Works to double-check what tyre sizes I could fit on my rims, marvellous support, and Richard from Oxford Bike Works always very helpful. Anyway, back to the cycling.

It was a long climb out of Marseille, from Pointe Rouge up past Luminy and over Les Calanques to Cassis. I just put Smaug into a low gear and pedalled slowly, being passed by a few roadies who all shouted encouragement; love that about France and Europe in general, all cyclists very friendly – saying that it’s often the same on the UK. It turned out to be less of a challenge than anticipated, so either my legs are a lot stronger than I thought, or the hill isn’t as big as I remember; probably a bit of both. There were some lovely views on the way.

The descent to Cassis was lots of fun, even if my brakes were slightly dodgy, however I had to slow down rapidly close to the town due to the sheer volume of traffic on the road; loads of cars trying to get into Cassis and down to the seafront. I decided to give it a miss, not wanting to get embroiled in the chaos and sour my mood.

I pedalled on to La Ciotat, where I stopped at a boulangerie to grab an early lunch; needed to replace energy burnt on Les Calanques. French boulangeries really do make for great food stops, and I hope they have similar in Italy and down into Eastern Europe.

After riding past several beaches, and dodging around quite a lot of traffic not moving very fast (always satisfying), I made it to Bandols, then on to Sanary-sur-Mer where I turned up towards Ollioules and my first possible bike shop; Oki Bikes. I had to wait for them to open at 14.30, so have to admit I nipped to a McDonalds a few km away to take advantage of their free wifi, and also mange a cheeseburger or two; nowhere near as nice as boulangerie fare.

Unfortunately Oki Bikes couldn’t help, but they did direct me to another bike shop just a few hundred metres away; Velo 83. Upon entering Velo 83 I immediately got a good feeling about the place; well-appointed workshop, lots of spares, great range of bikes and stock, and customers just kept on arriving. Luckily I was there just as they opened after lunch, so managed to get Smaug straight into the workshop. They didn’t have exactly the right tyre size, but they had some that would do the job, fitted my rims, and didn’t rub on the mud-guards; XLC Malamut – 26 x 1.75, so a bit chunkier than my last set but that might be handy as I travel down through Eastern Europe. This being the third bike shop I’d tried I thought it prudent to go with what they’d got, especially as my Marathon Plus were looking extremely worn. Ideally I’d like to put another set of Marathon Plus on Smaug, however these will probably do me until I’m back in the UK, or perhaps Germany where they might have some that are the right size for touring (26×1.35). I also got my brakes changes, and gears re-aligned; I can now use all my gears again, which hasn’t happened for a while. It turns out the bit of my frame on which the rear deraileur sits was slightly bent, probably from when the bike fell over with all the panniers on it (heavy fall), and needed straightening; they had a handy device for doing just that.

After a few complimentary figs and a chat with Romain, the owner, who is very enthusiastic about bikes which always gives you confidence, it was time to get back on the road. As a parting gift they gave me a new cycling top; my current one does look a bit shabby now, so it was probably well-timed. I’d recommend Velo 83 if you’re passing that way and need something done; excellent service and friendly staff.

New cycling top; Luc Alphand is a skier turned motorcyclist from Serre Chevalier

New cycling top; Luc Alphand is a skier turned motorcyclist from Serre Chevalier

Getting Smaug serviced and new tyres fitted was a big weight off my mind, however I still had some pedalling to do to get to a campsite. I rode onwards to Toulon, passing straight through the busy city before stopping at a campsite in Le Pradet. The campsite turned out to be a bit expensive, but as it was late (19.00), and I was tired, I decided to stay.

After eating a bit of pizza I’d bought the boulangerie earlier, and a can of baked beans, I was ready for an early night, although I had to evict a hornet type varmint from my tent before I could sleep peacefully; hornets slightly more dangerous than the voles I encountered Vittangi, that put holes in the bottom of my tent!

I pedalled 85km today, but it was a long day due to the bike shop stops. On to near Nice tomorrow, so getting close to Italy.

–> 20 August – to Mandelieu-la-Napoule (near Cannes)
Today was a longer day distance wise, covering 135km in about 7.5 hours. I don’t ride particularly fast, so the fatter tyres don’t really matter, but I can ride quite a long way when I want to; relatively speaking, nothing close to Mark Beaumont’s distances. He just rode the North Coast 500 non-stop, that’s nearly 840km in 35 hours and 41 minutes, a pretty astounding feat of endurance. Stats here.

I was very comfy in my tent when I woke up. It’s so much easier camping when it’s not as hot, and you’ve got a bit of grass to sleep on. Hilleberg Akto are great tents, but not as cool when it’s hot, compared with other makes. I’d still recommend them though, as mine is going strong after nearly 4 months on the road this tour, and 3 months back in 2013 on my Bike around Britain tour, plus a few weekends in between.

I set off from Le Pradet at about 09.00, immediately joining a cycle path (Littoral route) that runs all the way to Bormes-les-Mimosas. This was a definite bonus as there was a lot traffic on the road again, which can only be expected at this time of year on the Côte d’Azur. It was nice and flat to begin with too, giving me a chance to ease into the day, and say hello to lots of other cyclists going both ways.

It proved to be a very scenic day, riding along the D559 up to St. Tropez; I didn’t actually go into the town as it would have been rammed. I passed countless beaches on my way to Ste Maxime, then up to Frejus. The water looked very inviting, even if the beaches were packed. I’ll have to make an effort to go swimming in the sea again soon, but will wait for somewhere a little less busy; it’s a bit tricky stopping for a swim in the middle of a day’s touring when you’re on your own, and don’t want to leave anything unattended for too long.

I stopped for lunch in Sainte Maxime, enjoying a baguette and Tarte-au-Citron from a boulangerie; I’ve decided this tour needs more in the way of tartes, so will be sampling them as much as possible forthwith – there may well be a tarte of the day posting on twitter.

Tarte-au-citron in Sainte Maxime

Tarte-au-citron in Sainte Maxime

I must have passed millions of €’s worth of expensive yachts and motor cruisers today, as well as a lot of pricey looking and sounding cars; Maserati, Porsche, Ferrari etc. There’s obviously a lot of money on the Cote d’Azur, however it almost feels a bit too decadent to me, when there so many problems in the world needing urgent attention. I know people have the right to spend their money on what they want, but it would be fab if more donations could be made to causes trying to tackle climate change, threats of extinction, educating children in worse off countries, or feeding people in need etc etc. For the moment I’m trying to minimise my spending, but it’s tricky in this but if France as everything is expensive, especially the campsites; again to be expected in August.

There followed a lovely coastal stretch up from Saint-Raphael to Mandelieu-la-Napoule, near Cannes. I’d already cycled over a few big hills, and the day finished with more, however I didn’t notice too much as the scenery was stunning; loads of coves, little beaches that can only be accessed easily from the sea, and red rocks (must be iron ore).

The roads were again heavy with tourist traffic, so I had to be a bit on alert, but made it safely to the campsite in Mandelieu-la-Napoule; Camping l’Argentiere. I stopped for supplies before the campsite, however found it quite tricky to get to the shop; there were cars parked everywhere, and had been all along the route today, jammed into every available space. I’d passed a lot of police looking slightly hassled in the heat and traffic, and several doling out parking tickets; must be a very good source of revenue down here.

Camping l’Argentiere is a nice site, and worth a mention, it being slightly cheaper and with a friendly owner who was playing his guitar when I rolled up. He found me a small space to camp in, despite the site being nearly full, and I was able to take advantage of the free wifi which is a rarity in this part of the world. I enjoyed a few glasses of wine, it being my last night in France, with a blog update and some planning, before turning in, feeling more confident about the route ahead.

Italy tomorrow! And I’m almost up-to-date with this blog (only one day behind). Going for a cold one now, and to listen to a guitarist.

30 & 31 July 2015 – Benicasim and Sant Carles de la Rapita

I don’t have recorded route/stats for 30 July, as my Garmin crashed and needed a factory reset, however I’ve plotted the route I took and included the link below, along with a link to the 31 July ride:

–> 30 July – to Benicasim (Azahar camping)
I probably cycled about 130km today, partly due to a wrong turning which nearly took me on to an auto-pista, because I wasn’t concentrating. Lets call it 120km to be on the safe side; I don’t know for sure – as mentioned my Garmin crashed. At the moment I’m using a large-scale map which doesn’t show all the roads I pedal down, and misses out quite a lot of the smaller towns and villages. Having my Garmin break caused a slight issue on the navigation front, however I can’t go too wrong as long as I keep following the coast North East; just gets tricky where lots of roads converge or diverge.

I packed up after a relatively good night’s kip, with no storms having made an appearance quite yet. Piers supplied a cuppa before I rode off towards Valencia; much appreciated, thank you. It was a nice ride along the coast, with the landscape getting a lot greener, and the appearance trees in abundance. A bit of cloud cover helped keep things cooler; the ‘cover’ steadily built all morning. There were a lot of road cyclists out, mostly ‘senior’ clubs by the looks of it; guess a lot of retired folks as the younger generation would be working. The density of fellow cyclists led to a high wave/ola/allez-allez density as I approached Valencia, at one point having to dodge around a Mini with a bent axle; the wheels were at a very odd angle.

On route to Valencia; lots of trees!

On route to Valencia; lots of trees!

Just outside Valencia I diverted away from the coast to visit a Decathalon, continuing my search for a hammock; sadly they were out-of-stock, again. I think I’m going to give up until France, unless I pass another one directly on my route. The diversion set me up nicely to cross the city in pretty much a straight line. I opted out of a site-seeing circuit, having been advised there wasn’t an awful lot to see, at least not compared with the likes of Salamanca or Leon. Valencia was busy but easy to cycle through, however it did start raining as I pedalled along; whilst very refreshing I had to seek shelter when it turned torrential, to avoid getting completely drenched. The rain was brilliant as it dropped the temperature to about 23 degrees Celsius, which was sheer bliss after riding in the mid to high thirties for so long.

A long ride to Castellon de la Plana followed, which was mostly quite boring, passing lots of fields of orange and lime trees, as well as plenty of olive groves. As already mentioned my Garmin crashed and wouldn’t restart, and I took a wrong turning which nearly had me pedalling down a motorway (River would have been proud). Luckily there was an exit just before the auto-pista properly started and I was able to loop back around and on to the correct road.

There was one dramatic bit, I think in Port de Sagunt, where I initially thought the thunderstorms had returned. It turned out to someone setting off a load of fireworks from on top of one of the tower blocks, with plenty of artillery barrage type affects going on. I don’t think many of the locals would have been very impressed, but it entertained me for a bit; it was probably kids, due to it being broad daylight.

I made it to Azahar camping for about 16.00. Azahar is just next door to Benicasim, another coastal town with beaches and lots of hotels. I set up in a nice shaded spot, which wasn’t so vital today due to the cloud cover, then visited the local supermarket for supplies.  I spent a relaxing evening doing some planning and updating my blog. I think I’ll reach Barcelona either on Sunday or Monday; will probably stretch the ride out until Monday, then spend a couple of nights in a hostel to visit the city properly – hostels cheaper during the week. As always any plan is subject to change; could just end up cycling straight through and on to France if it becomes too much hassle.

Azahar camping

Azahar camping

A big storm hit later on in the evening, complete with thunder and lightning, which gave my tent a good wash, as well as Smaug; good to get rid of some of the accumulated dust. The water ran down the hill in torrents, and I was slightly concerned the small patch I was camped in might get washed away, however thankfully the water mostly ran around my tent. Rumblings of thunder and flashes of lightning continued into the night, along with heavy downpours, keeping things cool, although not mosquito free. I happy to report my the Hilleberg Akto remained dry throughout, despite the best efforts of Thor and his cohorts.

–> 31 July 2015 – to Sant Carles de la Rapita
A factory reset on my Garmin Edge 810 seemed to do the job, meaning that was up and running  ready for the day ahead, even if it did wipe all data on the device; thankfully I’d recently backed everything up to my laptop and online at Garmin Connect.

I discovered a bit of water had leaked in through the ‘varmint’ holes in the bottom of my tent; see previous blog post from Sweden (Vittangi), where my tent was attacked by a vole. Thankfully it was only a small amount and dried pretty quickly. Waiting for the tent to dry out and a slow pack up led to a late start, not leaving Benicasim until 09.30; positively decadent!

A Via Verde took me down the coast from to Orpesa, meaning I avoided a big climb and spent several kilometres off-road, enjoying a decent track alongside the sea. The Via Verdes run on old train tracks and are used by walkers, runners and cyclists. It was really nice riding along without any traffic, enjoying the scenery and cooler weather, and saying hello to all and sundry. There was even a longish tunnel to cycle through, although someone doing circuit training was blowing a whistle in it which was a little shrill. It would be great if there were more Via Verdes on my route, however sadly they seem few and far between; nice to take advantage when they do appear though.

Unfortunately the Via Verde ended and it was back to the N340, which was full of heavy traffic; I’m not sure why more of it doesn’t use the motorway which runs roughly parallel, perhaps it’s a toll road. Thankfully I left the busy road at Alcocebre, opting for a bit of an adventure along the coast which confused my Garmin due to riding on ‘unpaved roads’.

The coastal route ran for about 16km to Peniscola, through the Parque Naturel Sierra de Irta. The bumpy track, from which you can access lots of mountain bike trails, is mostly used by 4×4,’s or other cyclists. I was fine on my Oxford Bike Works Expedition Bike, but it was slow going, taking care to avoid the bigger rocks and pot holes to minimise the chance of spoke breaks or worse. I decided I didn’t care about speed today, especially after positively ambling along the Via Verde earlier, so just took it easy, enjoying the trail. It felt very peaceful and remote, being away from the main road with just the sound of the sea for company, and the occasional light rain shower keeping it cool. I said hello to the odd cyclist, and only saw about 4 cars, moving very cautiously, on the whole trail. Some great views, and it smelt wonderful; sea, seaweed, pines and just generally fresh. On one bit I turned a corner to see a father and young son dash naked into the sea, splashing around laughing, and being watched bemusedly from the shore by their mother; I pedalled past unnoticed.

I stopped for a break in Peniscola, sniggering slightly at the name (I know, infantile, but even the smallest thing can be amusing after a long time solo cycling…). It’s a picturesque town, with the older bit built on a peninsula that juts out into the sea; a walled town with castle sitting at the top. As usual there were tourists in abundance, eating ice-creams, enjoying the beach, or just generally bimbling about. I got into a slight fracas with a few kids with water-pistols, and had to use my water bottle as ammunition; luckily I was rescued by parents as was severely outnumbered with no chance of reinforcements or evac – they had me cornered on the sea front, and Lobster was hiding, damn that cowardly crustacean.

After cycling along the promenade for a bit and splashing through several flooded areas (good fun), I had to rejoin the main roads for a while. The N340 proved to be busy still, however I turned off it to the Alfacs campsite down by the sea, just west of St Carles de la Rapita; I kept wanting to say de la Raptor, sounds much more impressive.

I was in for a bit of a shock at the campsite; it had grass, something I haven’t been able to pitch my tent on for a long time! I could push my tent pegs in without the aid of a rock, and the ground had a vague spring to it, especially after the rain, bliss. I should mention that the weather today had been excellent, with the occasional rain shower again keeping things fresh, and clouds keeping the sun at bay. A drop in temperature and a bit of fresh air does wonders for one’s energy levels and alertness.

The campsite is right next to the sea, and has its own small beach area. Despite the pebbles I wasn’t deterred from a quick dip in the Mediterranean, my first of the tour amazingly. It was really refreshing, and the salt water helped stop irritating mosquito bites from itching. Then I decided it would be a good idea to wash my cycling gear again, which may have been an error given a massive thunderstorm hit shortly afterwards, complete with heavy rain. I watched for a short while then retreated to my tent whilst my washing got re-washed; it wasn’t very dry by the morning.

Evening spent doing some reading and surfing, from the comfort of the on site bar, over a couple of cevezas. On towards Tarragona tomorrow, Barcelona not far away, and more adventures to come.