The trip to Germany reminded me of how well Brent, Laura and I travel together. It’s also reminded me that a fourth travel companion in 2015 did not find our travel style, or the trip, a complete joy.
We’ve been working on talking a number of friends into joining our next tour in France in 2019. I thought it might be a good idea to warn those fine folks about some of the less-than-ideal circumstances they might encounter in 2019 so they can make a properly-informed decision about joining us.
Here are some of the “hardships” we anticipate for folks:
- Early Starts: No one is obligated to take early starts, but if you want to ride with Brent, Laura and me, you have to be prepared to have wheels rolling every day by 8AM at the absolute latest. This is not only our preference, but we also find there are a number of advantages to doing this. For example, you can get your daily riding done before the worst heat of the day (if the day is going to be hot); you can get your daily riding done before the afternoon rain showers (if there are going to be afternoon rain showers); you are less likely to encounter problems getting a spot in the campground because you’re some of the first ones to arrive. If you want to join us on a tour, but don't want the early starts, you can certainly set your own start times and ride by yourself, or you can try to rally some other late-starting folks to form a “second group” if you like. If you do, you must be prepared to make your own way during the day, stay in touch via text (if our technology is cooperating) to confirm where we’ve stopped for the night, and take your chances on getting a spot at the campground (no, we can’t reserve spots for you each day). In the case of a heat wave, we might even adjust to “wheels rolling” by 7:00 (instead of 8:00) to beat the heat.
- Campgrounds: A lot of us are used to the peace and serenity of backcountry campgrounds. That’s not what we’ll encounter on a cycle tour. We’ll be staying in side-of-the-road campgrounds with campers stacked one on top of the other. They can be extremely crowded and noisy (this is more of a problem in Germany than in France). Laura recommends "safety grade" earplugs and says the campgrounds can be "like Banff campgrounds on the May long weekend before the alcohol ban was put in". As far as we know, in France, you at least get your own assigned site. In Germany, tents don’t even get an assigned site in most places – you’re just sent to the “Zeltplatz” (tent place), which is a big open area, and you pitch wherever there’s an empty patch of grass. The disadvantage of assigned sites, of course, is that the campground might be full when you get there (see early starts).
- Camping… a LOT: Laura, Brent and I prefer camping. It is easier and more flexible (and easier on the budget). Given the choice, we will almost always choose camping. For example, on our 2017 tour, we checked into Penzions 4 times due to bad weather and/or lack of campgrounds, plus a BnB for the end of the trip to prepare for going home. Other than that, we camped. You are not obligated to camp as much as we do, but if you choose not to, you’ll be in charge of making your own arrangements. Since we will have a tentative destination for each day, but no guarantees, you should not make reservations more than a day in advance. In 2015, I would make reservations in the morning for that night through booking.com. Besides complications with not finding a place at all, if you do manage to book into a place, it may be more expensive than you were hoping, it may be difficult to find in the town, and it may be straight up a freakin’ hill when you get there. When you get there, you have to unload your bike and carry EVERYTHING up to the top floor (yes, you’ll always end up on the top floor… just because). Camping is easier. I do recommend sticking with us on that.
- Coffee: We do not recommend bringing a stove nor cookware on the trip. We either eat cold food “off the bikes”, or in restaurants. It’s not worth it to haul the extra gear to prepare food (or coffee) in our opinion. If you decide to bring cookware and prepare coffee in the mornings that is absolutely fine, but remember the early starts – early starts don’t wait for coffee. If you don’t bring anything to prepare coffee, you must be prepared to wait for coffee. We stop for a short or long break every hour when riding, and we try to find coffee on the first stops, but we don’t always find a place. In 2017 we even had a day where we had to wait until the next day for “first coffee”!
- Food/Meals: Our tours are not “foodie” trips. We don’t spend a tonne of time and energy seeking the exact right meal for every meal – often we’re just fueling the machine. We buy groceries to carry with us (be sure to reserve some room in a pannier for groceries, or better yet, carry an insulated bag of some kind), and often have breakfast and/or lunch “off the bikes” (e.g., yogurt, rolls, volkenbrot, cheese, sandwich meat, fruit). When it’s dinner time we often have more choice, and sometimes we have a truly special experience, but often it’s “just a meal”. In France, restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7PM. By then, we’ve usually eaten off the bikes, or filled ourselves with pub food.
- Weight Gain: It is likely that you will GAIN (not lose) weight on a cycle tour. What else can I say about that? Don't get your hopes up about losing weight. If you did a longer tour than a month, that would likely happen, but as Brent always says, expect to gain weight for the first three weeks of a cycle tour. On a month-long tour, the last week isn't enough time to make a meaningful difference, especially when the last two or three days are reserved for chores and preparation to come home. See my blog about this.
- Laundry and Hygiene: Cycle touring can be like extended backpacking. You have limited clothing with you, limited options for showers, and even more limited options for doing laundry. Europeans don’t have bathtubs like we’re used to. It is unlikely that you will be able to submerge your body into a tub of water on a cycle tour. We try to do a load of laundry every few days, but sometimes you go for longer than anticipated without being able to do some. Be prepared to stink. Be prepared to stink even when you’re on your way into a restaurant. Also, re: laundry… even when you get to do laundry, it’s not like doing laundry at home. A lot of European machines take (literally) three hours to do a load. You just may not get your turn at the machine. Be prepared to hang clothes instead of using a dryer (often a dryer isn’t even available). Be prepared to share laundry loads with others – we can’t all take our individual turn at a machine that takes three hours.
- Smokers: Unfortunately, EVERYONE in Europe smokes. Yes… EVERYONE. And they smoke in restaurants. EVERYONE smokes, and they smoke EVERYWHERE. It’s actually the one thing that makes me feel like I’m happy to come home after a trip – just to get away from the damned smoke.
- Accommodation: We have to be extremely flexible about accommodation. Often what we plan works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe we don’t make as many kms as we planned. Maybe we actually make more. We don’t make reservations ahead of time. We breeze into town hoping for the best. Sometimes we have to keep on breezing into the next town…
- Sight-Seeing: We’re not going to be able to see everything, or visit every point of interest along the way. For the 2019 trip, I will “survey” the folks who commit to coming about what they want to be sure to see, and we’ll do our best to see those things, but be prepared to leave some things “on the table” for your next trip to the area. I’ll be trying to organize our “rest days” around areas with lots to see so that folks can see as much as possible, but we’re just not going to see everything.
- Riding Expectations: We do our best ahead of time to know how far we’ll ride in a day, and how hilly it will be. But sometimes mistakes happen and we do extra in back-tracking to the route, and sometimes construction and detours happen. Try not to be too tied to your expectations of what the day will hold, because it may just hold more than you anticipated (and not always in a good way). Even on well-traveled, well-marked cycle routes HOUGs happen (that’s “Hills Of Unreasonable Grade”). One thing you can generally count on, though, is that we do take a break (short or long), pretty regularly, each hour.
- Road Surface: Often we have separated bike paths. Sometimes we’re on roads. Sometimes we’re on busier roads than we care for. Sometimes we’re on asphalt. Sometimes we’re on gravel. Sometimes we’re on dirt. Sometimes we’re on cobblestones (they’re the worst). Sometimes we’re on what I lovingly call “Edmonton Surface” (yeah, you know what that is).
- Accommodating: We intend to ride together. That means adjusting to the slowest-paced person. If someone is actually unable to do the trip, they’ll have to leave the trip (or do their own version of the trip). If someone just has a bad day, though, we’ll all have to adjust, slow down, and accommodate. If you’re the one having a bad day, and you don’t want to make everyone wait for you, there’s the option of “catching up” by train, but keep in mind that taking the train with your bike is NOT fun. We’re all “Outdoor Club” people. We know how to accommodate. Expect a lot of that.
- Your Rig: Freedom or Boat Anchor?: There will be times that your loaded bike will feel more like a boat anchor than anything else. You might have to push the whole thing up (and down) a set of stairs. You may have to load it on and off of trains. Everyone should help everyone else as much as possible, but be prepared to haul that rig around if/when necessary. Make sure you’ve chosen an appropriate bike. Brent, Laura and I can all help with that beforehand. Make sure your rig has been checked over and tuned up before the trip. If you’re likely to need new tires during the trip, consider getting them ahead of time rather than trying to buy and install them on the tour. If, during the tour, you experience a problem with your bike, deal with it ASAP and tell us about it. Don’t wait until you have a complete breakdown to do something. It’s easier to be proactive (i.e., when you’re actually in a town) than to deal with a breakdown out on the road. Note that we do not recommend EBikes. We don't know if you'll be able to get to a charging station frequently enough, and an EBike will be super-heavy to ride if it's not charged, and it will be SUPER-HEAVY to haul up and down stairs, onto trains, etc.
- Bailing Out: What if you take ill on the trip? What if you get injured? What if you get out there and you just can’t do it? What if you get out there and you just hate it? Think about how you’ll deal with that in case it happens. I will research some “bail out” points and strategies to help you out, but if you need to leave the trip early, you’ll need to be prepared to figure that out. A nice thing about the trip in 2019, is that there's a train that runs the length of our intended route (The Loire Valley), so bailing out by train will be logistically (if not technically... see "Your Rig") easy... relatively speaking.
- Other: We’ve done our best to anticipate what folks might perceive as hardships. But we’re not you, and there may be hardships awaiting you that we haven’t anticipated.
A work friend read this list of hardships and said it reads as though we don't really want other folks to come along with us. That could not be further from the truth. We absolutely want you to come along... we just want you to do that with your eyes open, and your expectations set for reality. Clearly we love these trips, and we want you to, too!