A Rough Guide to Bicycle Touring Europe

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November 3rd 2008
Published: December 10th 2008
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The last five days of this long cycling tour slipped away uneventfully. After the disastrous Maribor day my mood was not at its best and feeling, on the other hand, the arrival so close to me simply pushed me to pedal harder. I expected a more difficult terrain, instead only near Postojna I had to do some climbs worthy of note. The last real effort for this year, then it was all downhill to Trieste (the last kilometer down a hair-rising slope). Then two days of usual Italian traffic. Then Venice, and my seventhousandthirtythird (and last) kilometer ride.

During these months on the road, I've got several messages from readers who, albeit finding my stories interesting, reported their partial or total uselessness in practical terms, namely as a guide for other potential cyclists. Some have even come to ask for a GPS track of my itinerary. I won't go that far (I'm a semi-technofobic), but I will do my best in this eleventh and final episode with Rocinante so that this blog might help those who were willing to undertake similar journeys. A kind of unofficial Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, let's say.

A note: all information provided in this "guide" are the result of my personal experiences on two wheels when travelling across Scandinavia in 2006 and across Europe in the past four months. I am not infallible, I am not a professional cyclist, I am not a mechanic. I am simply someone who spends a lot of time on the road because that makes me feel free. The attached google map, for example, is only indicative. If someone with similar or higher experience in this field found technical inaccuracies or disagree on any of the opinions expressed, I do ask him/her to comment it in order to make this as complete as possible.

The Bike
Rocinante has been my faithful mount in both trips. It's an Orbea mountain bike with aluminum frame and front shock absorbers, a total weight of about 12 kilos. Rack aside, the only change I made to the bike were the addition of "horns" at the handlebars (highly recommended because it allows two totally different holds, avoiding hands and wrists' numbness on long-distance rides) and the removal of its common pedals, replaced by those with a quick release mechanism. These offer two advantages: optimization of the relationship between effort and cycled distance (especially uphill) and the constant sound position of the feet with consequent benefit for the knees. But it has the disadvantage of having to be fitted with special cycling shoes, virtually useless for any other use. There are also "hybrid" pedals, but from experience I do not recommend using them as the crank tends to hinder the smooth, immediate decoupling of the shoe from the pedal, with consequent, ridiculous falls from still positions, Will Coyote alike, when he keeps runnning beyond a cliff, oblivious of the law of gravity, but then falls down as soon as he stops.
During my travels I've met many cyclists who were using road bikes instead. These are obviously lighter, but proportionately less resistent. Also, they'll force you to stick to paved roads.

I use the kind with intermediate tread, 1.95" profile and with the rear one inflated to a pressure of 1atm higher than the front one (4 and 3atm respectively). Again, you can mount outer tubes with a thinner profile or even pure road tyres: you'll gain in speed but you will be likely to have plenty of punctures, especially on country roads. I have had four flat tyres in more than 11,000 kms.

Spare Parts and Tools
Being an optimist by nature, I carry with me the bare minimun: two extra inner tubes, the tools needed to dismount a wheel, repair and replace its tube, a pump, a 15" wrench for pedals and handlebars, an hex key set to fix brakes and pedal's attacks, a chain tool, a spoke wrench and a lubrificant spray can.
I've met cyclists with half a garage in their panniers, which would make sense if travelling in Africa or in semi-uninhabited regions, but it's superfluous in Europe where any spare part is readily available.

Essential, fundamental, basic are for me the cycling shorts, those padded under your butt, to be clearer. I could do without any frills, but I wouldn't last half an hour on the saddle wearing common sports' shorts. Mine are of the classic type, in super-tight lycra, those that sometimes can put you in embarrassing situations as already reported in a previous blog. Others use them in combination with underwear, but it is not advisable. I also use cycling shirt, equally super-tight, but I admit that this is little more than a habit and a normal t-shirt would do.
In cold conditions (say below 12-13°C) I turn to the winter suit instead, still in lycra but leg-long and padded. The one that gives you some sort of ninja look. Heat or cold, I always wear padded gloves, the gym type in the first case or the motorbike ones in the second. It is sensible to bring along a light waterproof jacket, possibly of the type with two layers to prevent it from stickin to your body due to transpiration and thus making it useless. Waterproof shoe covers are also useful, but they are also a nuisance as they have to be (or should be) removed every time you get off the bike. As for the helmet, I've always used it so far. Most fellow cyclists, however, prefer to carry it hanging to the handlebars or attached to the rack, and I believe that in future I will follow suit. Sport sunglasses are another must, at least for me. I wear them even in cloudy conditions: an insect in the eye at 40 kms/h is never pleasant.

I use two small rear panniers only, set on rack, and on top of them I tie my tent, sleeping bag and mat. All this amounts to less than 15 kgs, but please note on this point that I am an extremist when it comes to dressing modesty. If you want to have a minimum of wardrobe you'll be required to use four panniers instead. Or a towed cart. I have never tried one of them, so can't comment about it. Uphill must be a torment, this I can imagine, and I prefer to look untidy rather than suffering like a Roman galera's oarsman.

This depends mainly on climate. July in Italy, for example, means daytime temperatures consistently above 30°C. In these cases food can really be a problem because, being forced to ingest abnormal amount of fluids (I drunk as far as 7 liters of water one day!) one never feel hungry, doesn't eat enough and at night, after 100 or more cycled kms, realizes that have only had breakfast in the whole day. But what is consumed must be recovered and in such circumstances one should force himself to eat (possibly fresh food rich in liquids) throughout the day. Sport gel sold in pharmacies are also an excellent contribution of immediate effect calories. They are absolutely disgusting to the palate (is liquid sugar enriched with other minerals) and therefore I use them only in extreme heat. But I must admit they do their job.
In fresh (or cold) conditions, food is never a problem and I usually eat with great pleasure and appetite. Personally I go for an abundant breakfast rich in sugars (honey, jam, chocolate, fruit, etc..), a couple of light snacks throughout the day and a solid dinner with carbohydrate at the end of my daily effort.
Some make extensive use of vitamin pills, I prefer Nutella.

Spending 5, 6 or 7 hours a day sitting on a vaguely rough edged surface, come as no wonder that the most common problems for cyclists are usually relate with buttocks, groin and sacrum bone. In the early days, when you're still not used to it, some pain is inevitable, even after only two hours on the saddle. The only remedy is convincing yourself that... better times are ahead. But if the pain persists even after weeks of training, then it is perhaps appropriate to change the saddle or at least your position on it.
To avoid irritation problems to your privates due to perspiration, talc powder is the simplest of remedies: a good, abundant layer of it, as if you were preparing cotolette to by fryed, and they'll stay as new as ever...
Sunscreen and insect repellent would be also useful, and I put that in conditional mode because I don't like to feel anointed and sticky and so I usually prefer to bake under the sun and to feed mosquitoes on my blood instead.
Finally, I carry a first aid box, the one and only object that I am happy to bring along without ever using it.

There are mainly 4:
1) The Slovenian police. On this I've already plently written about in the previous article. And then again, skipping Slovenia is enough to avoid it.
2) Neonazis and other similar brain-damaged folk groups. These pose a danger only if you free camp, but since the two activities are usually united on the tracks of absolute freedom, I thought appropriate to list it here.
3) Dogs. Of all the beings of the creation, only dogs seem to have a visceral aversion towards cyclists. I almost prefer the Slovenian police. It's unbeliaveble: the mildest, smallest of the hairy puppies turns into pure poison to the sight of a bicycle wheel in motion and in a matter of seconds become a werewolf ready to defy you "victory or death". Tired of risking my thighs and buttocks, I bought a pepper spray made in Germany and -miracle- since I carry it on me I haven't met a single dog ready to sinks its fangs into my flesh. A true talisman!
4) Cars and trucks. Some countries (Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and partly Belgium, Denmark, Austria and France) have an ecological culture and a system of trails that never force you to face 50 tonnes mechanical giants. Others (Norway, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia) are not as developped when it comes to bicycle paths but have a limited traffic so risks are reasonably moderate. Finally, it exists the hard core of the socio-cultural third world (Italy, Slovenia and Hungary) where cycling is a high risk sport, such as rafting or paragliding.

In my personal scale of preferences you would have them in this order: 1st (in good weather conditions) Free camping, 1st (in bad weather conditions) To be hosted by locals; 3rd Small private guesthouses; 4th Youth Hostels ; 5th Camping grounds; 6th Hotels.
Free camping offers all the freedom of this world and some minimal risk. Being hosted by locals presents a more detailed and in deep view on the costumes of the place (and a shower). Private guesthouses are usually rich in character, cheap in price and are often run by elderly ladies of exquisite kindness that take a liking on a lone rider and offer dinner and/or chocolate cake "because you must be hungry after so many kms on the bike". Youth hostels I preferred them... in my youth. Camping grounds piss me off because I'm paying to sleep in my tent. Hotels are sad places where you are treated with deference just because you are handsomely paying. And I despise deference.
In summary, here is the detail of these 115 nights on the road:
Freely Hosted: 64 nights out of 115, 56%!<(MISSING)br>Free Camping: 24 out of 115, 21%!<(MISSING)br>Youth Hostels: 9 out of 115, 8%!<(MISSING)br>Private Guesthouses: 8 out of 115, 7%!<(MISSING)br>Hotels: 5 out of 115, 4%!<(MISSING)br>Camping Grounds: 4 out of 115, 3%!<(MISSING)br>Ferries: 1 out of 115, 1%!<(MISSING)br>
I had budgeted a daily cost of 20€. I ended up by spending an average of 24€ per day. This includes everything: lodging (those few times I had to pay fro it), food, spare parts for the bike, two ferries' tickets, a 75€ fine in Slovenia and the odd beers and entertainments.
To give a more detailed idea, I divided the 17 countries I've visisted by the cost of local life. From cheaper to more expensive:
1) Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary: 15€ per day.
2) Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, Austria, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Sweden (the latter only counted on alcohol free basis): 20€ per day.
3) The Netherlands and Denmark: 25€ per day.
4) Switzerland and Liechtensten: 30€ per day.
5) Norway: a world apart where a coffee costs 2.50€, a beer 9€ and a night in a youth hostel 60€.

Over the years I've travelled using all kinds of way of locomotion, but no one has ever made me feel so at peace with myself as the bike did. Not even hitchhiking. With no other way of transport I so closely came in touch with locals. To arrive sweat and tired (and happy) in a small countryside town means, 9 times out of 10, to be received with curiosity and benevolence. You surely won't pass unnoticed. Bicycle touring is for me THE way of travelling: it makes me strong, free, selfconfident... it makes me happy!

La versione italiana di questo articolo si trova su Vagabondo.net
Link: Una Rough Guide al Cicloturismo in Europa


10th December 2008

Long Route!
Good to read that You are safe back home. Was fun to have You as a guest here in norway. Also fun to read Your travelblog. Take care! Greatings from Ole Martin
14th December 2008

Great blog. Very interesting.
15th December 2008

Nice one!
Nice one Marco.... hell of a trip! Great to meet you the other night.
15th December 2008

Re: To Sniffandsnore
Thanx Rich, it was my pleasure to meet you all. In the end I decided not to go to Pulau Weh, did some research and it seems that november-february is rainy season over there. Heading back to Thailand, instead. Take care and keep up with the training.
30th April 2010

Slovenian Police
very interesting, thank you. Im about to go to the Austrian Alps and drop down into Italy (Trieste). Was interested to read more about your bad experiences with Sloevnian police but couldn't find the link. Im an English teacher living in Moscow so know about corrupt opportunist bullies like this. What happened to you?

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