Since I began my project four years ago I haven’t once left home on a tour where I wasn’t either riding a great distance or preparing for a long journey. When Michele and I leave for Brittany on Monday night it will be the first time that I’ve gone on holiday on my bike for decades. There are no mileage goals and our itinerary is just a thread of an idea of where we might go and what we might like to see. Add in the fact that I haven’t ridden any distance with anybody else and this trip begins to look refreshingly different.
The word holiday hasn’t featured on my radar for years, mostly because I’ve given everything I have in order to ride my last three rides under the banner of Riding2Recovery. Along with the three books I’ve written (the third is being edited now) there hasn’t been time or energy for anything else at all.
It’s clearly time to share a gentle tour with somebody I care a great deal about. Time to take a step back. This will undoubtedly benefit my currently fragile health while allowing me to continue to explore the world by bike. Discovering new places with another person is one of the great joys in life as far as I’m concerned and Michele has always wanted to cycle in France.
The most difficult aspect of this trip is what to take in terms of equipment. I’ve outlined a few things in previous articles but the weather is so changeable that it’s providing me with a headache. The temperature has plummeted in the last week returning to something more akin to April than June. The last thing I want is to be under equipped for cool nights and evenings. It looks as though we will err on the side of caution and carry more clothing than I normally would at this time of year.
When I was in Brittany in late May last year I found myself using every single item of clothing I possessed due to cold evenings allied to strong north-easterly. Comfort meant staying in the tent in order to shelter once I had eaten my evening meal. That isn’t something I want to repeat. An extra fleece and some warm legging are definitely going in the trailer box, along with my silk sleeping bag liner for cooler nights.
One thing that’s the same every year is the way I think leading up to a tour. I start off thinking about a minimum of equipment and then the what-if’s start to play on my mind. What if it rains lots and a whole layer of clothing gets drenched? What if I can’t sleep well due to cold/discomfort? What if I don’t have the tools I need for all the basic jobs that might need attention? What if my phone/iPad call it a day and I don’t have a map? The list of what-if’s is a long one as my mind tries to cover every possible eventuality. It usually leads to me adding far more gear to the pile in my spare bedroom than I should and I generally then end up getting all positive and cutting it back down during the packing stage when I meet some kind of compromise as well as finding peace of mind.
There are a few additions to my normal list of favoured items as there will be two of us this year but outside of that little has changed. Past experience is a wonderful thing. You not only learn what you need, but what you prefer. I spent years avoiding Trangia cookers feeling they were slow and heavy but using one for the last three years has proven this notion completely wrong. I now adore my little stove with all its quirkiness, and its simplicity, and easy-going nature. I tried the lightweight version, which I only use for short trips, but felt it isn’t anywhere near as efficient, stable, or easy to use in windy weather.
I think it’s important for all would-be tourists to find out what works best for them and then let this govern their choices. The author Josie Dew has travelled the world and written many great books on her cycle adventures. She carries far more equipment than I ever do but it suits her way of travelling. You can read as many books on how to do cycle touring as you wish, but only experience will tell you how you really want to do it.
There are many people who travel with a minimum of equipment. They are often willing to make real sacrifices on the basis that they don’t need many of the items I carry as normal. Ultralight gear means you can travel safely and with a basic level of comfort without a cooker, tent inner, spare clothing and suchlike. To do this you have to happy with what you are left with and whilst I did some of this many years ago I personally feel it is no longer an option.
It can be cathartic to only have the bare necessities. Travelling light means much less stress on you and your bike. Generally speaking, the more you carry the slower you travel and this in turn means fewer miles and a higher need to rest and recuperate. Perhaps more importantly, carrying less connects you much closer to nature and what it is to be a human being. I know people who do this while living off whatever they can forage from the land. This is the extreme end of touring but one that can be immensely satisfying if it suits you.
Riding from dawn to dusk, then finding a place where you can safely spend the night is a challenge in its own right. It’s a long way from what I prefer to do and it’s unlikely that I will ever tour this way other than for the occasional night out in good conditions. Until you try these things you never know how it will affect you but I suggest if you want to do that to do it in your own back yard where getting home is easy as a first trip.
At the other end of the scale are those people who travel with everything they desire. The weight penalty of this is only a problem if you choose to combine the kitchen sink with terrain that’s challenging. Pick a flat route and take your time to cover distance and it’s amazing how much comfort you can take with you, especially if you use a trailer rather than loading your bike like a donkey.
Routes like the Eurovelo routes that are under development (www.eurovelo.org/routes) are built with the notion that hills should not have gradients that exceed 8%. La Velodysee, the route I used to get to the spanish border from Roscoff in Brittany last year, is all but flat for 1300 kilometres of its 1450 kilometre length. This means anybody can cycle it. It’s also 80% traffic-free and signed throughout its length meaning it makes a fine journey regardless of fitness levels as long as you have time on your side. During the twelve days or so that I took to ride this route last year I met every type of tourist there is, all of whom were doing it their own way and all of whom seemed to be enjoying the experience.
That is what makes touring so special. It’s indefinable in terms of how it should be done. People do whatever they have the time and fitness to take on in a way that meets their own needs for a challenge and expectations. My trailer and box weigh more than some people’s total equipment, but it’s how I like to do it and it suits me to travel this way in the mountain terrain and climates I tend to be drawn to . If I was planning a long tour in a hot climate things would be different. My needs would change and therefore my equipment would reflect this.
The most frequent question I get asked is “how many miles a day do you do?” I get asked this by cyclists and tourists alike and the answer isn’t a simple one as it depends on so many factors like the weather, terain, how I’m feeling, and many other things. For those setting out for the first time I would suggest that you take it easy, go for a distance that you know you can manage comfortably. At the end of your tour you want to remember the views, places, people, and how it made you feel. If you return home having thrashed yourself over too many miles that is what you will remember most and it can have a negative effect on whether you tour again or not.
For some people it’s the challenge of the miles and time taken to cover them. For many others it’s simply about being out there enjoying moving slowly under your own steam. I fit comfortably into this latter category and have no desire to move into the former. During my previous rides there has always been plenty of time to ride for many more hours when I chose to stop instead. For me, the opportunity to sit and relax from mid afternoon, recovering from my efforts, has been both a choice and a necessity forced by my illness.
I spent much of my younger years pushing myself way too hard for my own good and age has had a calming influence. To have finished my chores and be able to watch the sunset or the view from my tent is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. I can feel myself calming as the day draws to an end, absorbing everything that the onset of evening brings with it. In this respect my illness has forced my hand and also given me a gift. Had I not experienced my last mental collapse I doubt very much that I would be able to be doing the things I’m now engaged in and that is a blessing.
To travel and enjoy any part of the world under your own steam is a rich and rewarding experience. Even a relatively cheap mountain or hybrid style bike will handle the stresses placed upon them. Knowing your own desires and limits is more important than anything else when you set off for the first time. Remembering these limits and not feeling that you should do it this way or that way will stand you in good stead.
I’ve met people who are on cycling tours involving thousands of kilometres by doing 40-50 kilometres a day and camping, and conversely I’ve met those who do several hundred of kilometres a day to whom a combination of light-weight and speed is the only way. Touring is a continuum and you can place yourself anywhere you like upon it. If you get it right for your needs and desires I guarantee that you will want to do more and have a great experience at the same time.
As for Michele and I. We intend to take a slow pace, enjoying the places we discover and people we meet as we go. We are flexible in our plans and ideas as well as our equipment and distances. Where we end up is a bit of a mystery. It could be anywhere and that is makes it so exciting. I will stay in touch through this site and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/#!/GraemeWillgress. I hope you enjoy the pictures and posts that will follow.
Au revoir, see you next time………………………..