Pedalling into the sunset
The idea of chucking life’s routines in and heading off into the sunset is an appealing daydream for many people. One possible escape plan would be to pack everything onto a bicycle and get pedalling. HOT’s Rebecca Snotflower speaks to Paul Welsh, Sussex boy and mechanic at Brighton’s DIY bicycle repair workshop Cranks, who took to the Continent to find out for himself about the pros and cons of such a trip.
Paul, where are you and how are you doing?
At the time of writing, I am in Coldstream, Scotland – at my mum’s house, taking stock of the past two months!
Am I correct in assuming that there was no planned destination/time limit or point of return for your journey?
That is correct. I had been thinking about a bike journey like this for a number of months. Inspired by some of the blogs I visit, people I know and general boredom with the life I had been living. Our interim goals were pretty serious, as the seed of this trip had been planted when our friend moved to Melbourne and I had thought of riding out there to visit him. In more realistic terms, we were gonna go until our money ran out. In the end, I capitulated psychologically a lot sooner!
What bikes are you and your travelling buddy Julian riding?
Both of us were riding 90s steel mountain bikes. These are great do-it-all bikes, and for touring they can be a great budget option. They’re usually really sturdily constructed and so they’re able to support the weight of camping equipment without affecting the handling. They’re not the lightest though, but that’s not a primary concern when you’re touring. Reliability was paramount for us. We’re both competent cycle-mechanics so we made our choice based on what we had available and the ease of finding spares and repairs. They did well, we had no problems at all, which made carrying the heavy tool kit all the more galling.
What kit have you taken with you and what has been the most valuable item (apart from your bikes!)?
We took a lot of stuff! I was worried about taking too much stuff as it’s apparently a classic rookie mistake, but I don’t think we did too badly. We were camping, so we had tents, sleeping bags and mats, stoves and such-like. This stuff is really quite heavy and bulky, but it’s your home, so it’s worth carrying a bit more to be comfortable. I think the most valuable item has been the four-litre water bag, it’s a great way of carrying a larger volume of water as it can be strapped to the top of your gear and we really needed a lot of water as it was so hot!
Have you needed anything that you didn’t have?
Nope! I spent a lot of time researching equipment and I think I’ve covered most situations, but you can always buy things that you need along the way…
Have you dropped any unnecessary kit?
Yes, we found out very quickly that if you don’t strictly NEED something, then it’s a candidate for being dropped in the name of weight-saving. In the end, I left behind a pair of hiking boots as I was wearing sandals non-stop, and a cheap bivvy bag and tarp – they were simply too heavy.
I see from your blog that you had a tough first week of rain and illness, and hopped the train to Marseille. Tell me more about the circumstances which lead to the decision.
So, in retrospect, it was a bit of an omen. I was really uncomfortable for three days or so, eating practically nothing and yet still cycling as much as I could manage. At one point I absolutely had to lie down, so even though it was raining hard, I stopped, retrieved my poncho from my gear, wrapped myself up in it and lay under a tree. Julian says it was at this point that he knew I was really quite ill. For me, just lying down, even though I was soaking wet, was amazing relief!
As we had set an interim goal to see the Tour de France from the roadside, we soldiered on through the downpours until we could complete this. On our ‘final’ night before we saw Le Tour, there was probably one of the worst rainstorms I’ve ever been in, which when coupled with an army of slugs and mosquitoes, made it pretty poor camping. But we did it, we saw the Tour go past for all of 30 seconds and they smelled amazing! It was so weird, they were pushing a wall of fragrant air ahead of them, I didn’t expect this at all, but it was the clearly the smell of clean washing. I’ve never felt so grubby in my life.
After this we we truly sick of the rain and wind, so we just surmised to take the train somewhere, anywhere, as long as the sun was shining there. In France, that means south, and for us, Marseille. Summer awaited us, a mere 900 kilometres and seven hours away.
Were there any problems taking your bikes on the train?
Well, the large intercity trains in France require you to book your bike on and we had not really planned for this. When we went to the train station in Reims we were expecting just to book for the next day and have time to organise ourselves for the long haul. In actual fact we had to take a train that day, just two hours later, to arrive in Marseille at about 10pm. The next problem was that for one leg of the journey, Lyon-Marseille, we weren’t allowed to carry bikes at all, so they had to be made into ‘luggage’! This meant buying a load of black plastic bags and tape and attempting to disguise them. It also meant we had to carry our bikes and luggage when changing trains. 30-40 kilos is not easy to carry at the best of times, let alone up and down stairs across a train station with five minutes to change trains. Then we got on the wrong train, as we were panicking about missing it, and didn’t discover our mistake until we were more than an hour under way! It all worked out in the end, though, and we arrived in Marseille at about midnight, two hours late. The moral of the story is, nothing is easy…
What was the best bit and the worst bit of the journey?
I think the best bit was crossing the Apennines between Florence and Bologna. We set out to do a mountain climb, and from the map it looked quite steep, but nothing could have prepared us for what we met! It was about 1,000 metres of climbing over 12 km, the largest climb either of us had attempted and with fully-loaded bikes no less. It took about 4.5 hours and it was very tough, but what a feeling to complete it! It was a beautiful view from the top and after the long, hot climb, descending into the cool mountain valley was bliss. We camped at 700m above sea level by a lovely little river, it was really, really nice.
The worst part has to be the constant discomfort. Variously was I hot, sweaty, thirsty, hungry, saddle-sore, worried about where I was going to sleep, and itchy from mosquito bites! Sometimes all at once. The other bad thing was not being able to speak the language, it really makes you feel quite stupid when you can’t communicate properly with people in shops and such. It’s lucky that a lot of people want to improve their English or we would have been sunk!
Were there ways in which you supported each other whilst cycling?
Drafting! This is something that we just fell into, we needed to cover 30 km quickly before a hostel shut for the night but it was terribly windy. After downing huge Coca-Colas at a McDonald’s we set off determined to make it. We just naturally took turns at the front, the other person tucking in behind to benefit from the shielding of the person ahead. It’s incredible how much energy you can save when you do this. Take a turn at the front pushing hard, then when you’re tired, let the other person take over and have a rest. It was great fun too!
What has the trip taught you about cycling… and what has it taught you about yourself?
This trip has reinforced something that I was discovering about cycling over the years – you really can just jump on a bike and cycle anywhere. It’s not like taking a trip in a car or on a train, OK, it’s harder and takes longer, but you will get there eventually. It’s a great feeling to know you can power yourself like that.
The second part of this question is particularly poignant for me. One of the things which was in my mind whilst planning this trip was that I felt ‘too comfortable’ in my cushy day-to-day existence in England. Well, having been pretty uncomfortable for a while, I have found out that it’s actually really quite nice to be comfortable. I missed a whole load of things that were unexpected, people, places, drinks, my routine… I am a bit of a soft-skinned millenial in the end, but I will keep trying to toughen up!
What advice would you give to others considering going on a cycle tour of this nature?
It’s cliche, but just go. Plan it as much as you want, but don’t over-plan. It’ll all fall apart and you’ll find new ways to go anyway. If going somewhere warm, go early or late in the year. We travelled in mid-summer and it was just too hot and buggy. The bike doesn’t matter, we saw people on all kinds of bikes, old, new, flash and ordinary. It may seem daunting but it’s a lot different once you’re moving. The things you worried about probably won’t matter and you’ll encounter new problems that you didn’t know you could have, haha.
Find out more about how the adventure went at Paul’s blog Pedal Metal.
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