France is roadie heaven; beautifully smooth tarmac, quiet roads with courteous drivers (excluding the visiting Brits, cheers guys!). We thoroughly enjoyed our time in France, following initially the coast then venturing inland and across to Belgium. The main lessons we learnt in France was that decent maps are a must and stopping before you get tired and hungry is best. Occasionally we ventured onto cycle routes that sounded ideal, a EuroVelo route perhaps, or the Val du Seine cycle path. Alas, these were more often than not a bust, and consisted of either stony tracks that doubled back on themselves or were poorly signed, or, my favourite, were actually major roads with no separate lane, just the occasional sign telling motorists of your existence. So we resigned ourselves to D roads, simply navigating from town to town. This proved to be direct and effective although not overly sociable or picturesque.
Entering Belgium, we rejoiced in the flat roads, especially when the wind was behind us. Initially the road quality worsened, but then the cycle lanes appeared. It seems that pretty much every road in Belgium has a well surfaced, separate and protected cycle lane aside it, as well as several routes just for cyclists and pedestrians, predominantly along the canals. The Netherlands followed in a similar suit, but with even more separate cycle routes, cutting through fields past idyllic scenes of windmills and cows. This is the sort of place that cycle tourers dream of, paths you can ride two abreast on, the occasional park bench for some respite. It is ideal for family cycling and seems highly successful in getting the population out on their bikes. After initial confusion at the green number signs we worked out the cycle network system that is the same in both countries. The number marks an intersection and has arrows pointing to the next intersections in various directions. Using the online route planner, we were able to quickly plan routes that were easy to follow just by jotting down the order of numbers. After initial scepticism we are converts to the system and would recommend anyone travelling here for a longer time invest in the various maps and books available for the networks.
So far the bikes are holding up well, a little dusty perhaps, but running smoothly. This is after an early failure of my freewheel, which isn’t a reflection on the quality of the part so much as one of those things that goes wrong every 1 in 1000. In terms of fit and comfort on the bike there has been the odd bit of tweaking, I got a new seatpost that pushes my saddle further back as the pressure was on the wrong area and causing discomfort. Other than this it’s been a case of breaking the Brooks saddles in even more and they’re now pretty comfy. Switching to friction shift gears took some getting used to at first but they’ve proved to be very reliable and shift easily from gear to gear. The only other bike related purchase we’ve made has been of a small chain lock, this is easier to use than our cable and padlock, and is ideal for café breaks etc, which we’ll be reducing now. We’ll soon have my old D-lock as well, this is for situations where we may have to leave the bikes locked outside for some time, for example when staying in cities.
The Ortlieb panniers are holding up perfectly, with the odd scuff as a badge of honour. Their contents have now gone through several iterations. Clothing has moved from the back two panniers to the front, this makes handling better with less weight at the front and they’re split nicely between everyday wear and harsh weather wear. The rear panniers were then split toiletries and electrics in one, kitchenware and walking boots in another. This has also just changed, with the prospect of wild camping everything that I’m likely to need overnight is in one bag with less used things in the other. I won’t lie, this upsets my anal packing tendencies but is more functional. We’ve also shifted group items, I will carry all the sleeping gear, electronics and some kitchen items, Phil has the tools, tent and stove/pans. We both have considerable space for food.
So far we’ve been using my Surface quite regularly for social updates, as well as indulging in Netflix in hotels and hostels. This will soon stop as we start wild camping more often, so there will be less chance to recharge the batteries or access to Wi-Fi. To be honest this is something I’m looking forward to, it’s easy to default to the internet for entertainment when it’s an option, but I’m excited to be able to just sit and take in our surroundings when we’re wild camping, perhaps enjoy a book or game of cards. Generally, one of the ambitions of this trip is to try and simplify our lives and get away from sensory overload from phones, computers etc. With this in mind we have decided to get a Garmin Etrex 20x, which may initially sound contradictory to the ethos of simple. However, the plan is to use it simply as a non-paper map, providing information at various scales, rather than planning routes and strictly following them. In fact, our hope is that it will allow us to venture off if we see something, knowing that we’ll be able to find our way back on course, or check for the next town or woodland. The Etrex runs on AA batteries so should be simple to keep running. The downside to having less electricity will be my GoPro, which with its short battery life will be used less frequently. I had both a compact camera and dSLR at home, but am glad to be without them as the dSLR in particular takes up a lot of space and in reality we’re not spending a great deal of time taking photos so much as taking a quick snap or video on the move and Phil’s Lumix is more than up to the job.
Camping so far has been sparse, as quite early on it became apparent that Phil’s ¾ length self-inflating mat did not offer a good night sleep and mine was not much better, no longer inflating by itself at all. So we’ve decided that comfortable sleep is a worthwhile investment for the next 2+ years and have ordered an Exped Hyperlite Duo. This packs down tiny, weighs next to nothing yet inflates to a pretty squishy, and insulating, 7cms. This is a new product and my concerns are about its durability, so we’ll see how well it stands up to our abuse, however it was the only tapered and lightweight air mat for two that I could find and should tick all the boxes. The tent is holding up okay, with us getting faster at assembling and packing it away. This is good as being inner pitch first we’ll need to get it up quick in the rain. The only issue so far has been a considerable amount of condensation most mornings, one of the vents broke so perhaps this is the issue, we’ve now duct-tape fixed it so will see if the situation improves. One item that I’ve been chuffed with is our tarp, which has formed various guises of picnic blanket, shade maker and bike coverer, for its small size it’s a worthwhile purchase. Our first attempt with the stove proved to be difficult. The flame went out several times and we struggled to maintain pressure in the fuel bottle, however these seemed to be just teething problems and it now works simply and efficiently.
As visible from the photos we generally live most of our time in one or two sets of clothes, mainly one pair of shorts, perhaps a different t-shirt if we’re feeling particularly grubby. However, after stopping in Rotterdam I treated myself to a simple dress and Phil to a polo shirt. For me this doubles as pyjamas, but mainly it’s about having at least one item of clean clothing that only goes on after a shower, allowing you to feel fresh off the bike. Looking at my two front panniers crammed full of clothes I speculate that I must be able to get rid of them, but every attempt at a purge is fruitless, most of the items are for cold weather or insect plagued areas and so we’re reluctant to risk getting rid of them now when we’re likely to need them later. In hindsight it would have been best to take only the clothes we needed for the first six months, summer/autumn in Europe and then replenish as required. Before leaving I was working in an outdoor retailer and the lure of staff discount enticed me into buying various items that will be unnecessary for six months, perhaps longer. The other big item that I would change would be my walking boots. Waterproof is advisable, but in retrospect waterproof shoes would be sufficient and either using the trainers I already had, or getting some sandals for hotter weather as a second pair.
This is an area that I’m sure will have changed dramatically in another 3-6 months. Currently we’ve been enjoying our honeymoon, using the money we had from wedding gifts to allow us stays in hotels and campsites and meals out. This will change after this weekend as we head southeast, reduce our spending, wild camp and freeload as much as possible. At this moment we’re excited about the prospect of this, eyeing up potential wild camp spots, discussing ways we can make our shops cheaper and convincing ourselves that plain pasta is manna from heaven.
With a destination to reach each night we’ve generally pushed ourselves and done 50-80km a day in only a few hours. With less structure and no campsite or hotel to reach we will take each day as it comes and stop when we’re tired or find a nice area. A local recently chatted alongside us as we rode and commented on our speed, which at 15-20kmph is perhaps fast for our bikes and load, but the truth is we both enjoying cycling and enjoy cycling fast. This is unlikely to change, however we’ve already started to take more breaks and stop for longer, eating and resting as necessary, rather than just pushing on until the next town.
It’s a steep learning curve when travelling together, quickly realising that communication is necessary and getting to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They’ve been occasions where we’ve nearly crashed into each other, looking out for signs or suddenly turning. And I for one am definitely prone to hangriness, this seems heightened with heat and stress. The short 30km day into Rotterdam that turned into a 50km day in 30°C+ heat through traffic on empty stomachs led to me being quite snappy and unhappy. Cities in general are proving to be hard work to get in and out of, as well as expensive, plus dragging all the kit up three flights of stairs and a ladder is an experience I’m in no hurry to repeat. Our route going forward will generally avoid cities and go through smaller towns and villages, which we’ve found to be friendlier and easier to navigate.
What we can’t live without:
Tarp – multifunctional and small
Flip-flops – light and easy to pack, great for letting your feet breathe
Sunglasses and suncream – worth investing in, stay safe out there kids
Packable daysack – little 15l rucksack that packs into its own pocket, great for supermarket shops
Ellie’s freewheel – failed and replaced
Ellie’s seatpost – hopefully with a new owner after leaving it with the bike shop
Homemade skirt – I was ambitious and made a skirt that would be for off the bike/pyjamas, I didn’t do too well, it was too loose and bulky
T-shirt/vest – these were just unnecessary extras
Thermos – Phil likes his tea so wanted to be able to have a hot drink, but being summer it simply wasn’t getting used
Tea strainer – again ambitions of buying loose leaf tea and making cups in the evening or morning have not turned into reality.