Preparing For A Long-Distance Cycle: Cycling Europe’s Top Ten

I’m frequently contacted by people who are planning their own long-distance cycle and I’m always happy to reply. I do, however, often find myself repeating the same bits of core advice, so, here is my own top ten of things that I would recommend that every prospective long-distance cyclist considers doing prior to their adventure on two wheels. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means and you may disagree with me on some of the advice I give (that’s what the ‘comments’ section is for!), but here goes…

1. Choose a great destination

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.05.29

We cyclists might like to ‘upgrade’ ourselves from ‘normal’ tourists but fundamentally (brace yourself!) we are still tourists. Few of us would choose to head off without our bicycles to a place that wasn’t interesting or beautiful or inspiring, so there’s no reason for not doing so on a bike. At the same time, consider doing something a little different. I heard someone on the TV this week say that ‘it’s only when you move outside your comfort zone that the magic happens’. How true. Don’t go crazy; circumnavigating the earth is clearly not for everyone but at the same time don’t be afraid of moving your adventure up a notch or two. Once complete, you’ll be proud of the achievement.

2. Buy an overview map

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.06.57When I’ve decided where to go, I buy a map. Modern mapping technology is great (see below) but nothing on a screen can replace the joy of crouching on the ground next to a map that shows your route in its entirety. My next cycle – at some point next year from Spain to the northern tip of Scandinavia – is still many, many months away but I already have a map of Europe (it’s the EuroVelo overview map) pinned to my wall and every few days I will stand in front of it and examine a small part of the route in detail for a few minutes, dreaming. It keeps me motivated!

3. Don’t over-plan your route

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.08.38So, you know where you are going and you know roughly your route. You might even have bought some more maps that give you more detail than the large-scale map on your wall at home. Stop! Do you really need to know more than that? If you have decided to follow a signed cycle route the work has been done for you already. If you are simply joining the dots by cycling from place to place over an extended period of time, are you really going to get out a piece of paper every few minutes to check that you are cycling along the ‘correct’ route? Forget that for the moment. Detailed route planning is a job best done when you are actually on the ground the evening before or even the morning of the cycle itself.

4. Get yourself a bike that’s fit for purpose

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.09.32You probably already have a bike that you are using regularly. The first thing to do is consider using it. It may need a few modifications – some new tyres, a pannier rack, a better saddle – but it might suit your needs just fine. That said, we all love a new bike and there are many on the market, from specialised touring bikes (like Reggie!) to hybrid commuting bikes to mountain bikes that will do the job of long-distance cycling justice. And if you are working on a budget (most of us are), don’t forget that there are places like Argos that stock a good selection of bikes. You don’t need to spend a fortune in a specialised bike shop.

5. Prepare your bike

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.10.54You have your bike, old or new. Think about where you are going and the terrain that you will be cycling over. Good quality roads? Most tyres will be fine. Rough tracks? Your racing tyres might be an issue. My own technical skills are rudimentary to say the least so this is where the specialised bike shop comes into its own. You may not have used them to buy the bike, but they will be more than willing to help you get your bike into shape. It will be money well spent. While you are there, invest in a few spares; inner tubes, spokes, cables, chain links and brake pads. You may not know how to change them yourself but you will probably be able to find someone en route who does (but who doesn’t necessarily have the bits that will fit your bike).

6. Prepare yourself

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.12.05You do not need to be Bradley Wiggins in order to cycle surprisingly long distances. But you do need to have a certain level of fitness. Most regular cyclists will have this already. In 2006 I sold my car and started commuting by bike. It is a round trip of 13 miles and it keeps me fit! You might not want to sell your call, but make a commitment to regular, moderate exercise in the months leading up to departure. You are ‘training’ for a slow cycle across hopefully beautiful countryside and up a few hills (and if you are lucky, the occasional mountain at very slow speed), not an Ironman triathlon.

7. Shed some weight

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.13.33This can be done in two ways. Getting a little bit fitter before you set off is, as mentioned above, a good idea. Losing body weight (if you have an excess of it) is highly recommended. I speak from experience when I say that cycling thin is so much easier than cycling fat. Fortunately, what better way is there to lose weight than regular exercise, which is what you are already doing! The other way to reduce the overall weight of you and your bike is, of course, to carry only the essentials. Pack your panniers, lift them up, realise how heavy they are and then repack, ruthlessly eliminating all but the essentials! Three cycling shirts? Really? Surely two will suffice or, dare I say one? Socks? Yeah?

8. Embrace technology

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.14.57I love my technology and at risk of contradicting what I have just written about minimising weight, there are certain bits of kit that I wouldn’t leave home without. A smartphone; it is a PC in your pocket (as well as a GPS tracking device) and increasingly, not expensive to use abroad. A spare battery pack (such as a Power Monkey – worth the investment), a digital camera and perhaps a small tablet computer to help you record you thoughts and post your pictures online. Like all bits of kit, get used to using them in the weeks and months before you leave, not the day before!

9. Register with Warm Showers

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.18.51If you have deep pockets, you can reach for your smartphone and easily reserve a hotel room within minutes. But do you really want to spend every night in the isolation of a soulless hotel room? Occasionally, perhaps, but even if you only use Warm Showers from time to time, the reciprocal accommodation sharing website for travelling cyclists is well worth considering. You need to be prepared to welcome visitors to your own local area from time to time, but there are few better ways to spend a night on the road than in a cycling-friendly home being fed and accommodated for free (or for the price of a bottle of wine!).

10. Prepare to camp

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 10.22.05Even if you do have deep pockets, camping can be so much nicer than a hotel. You have chosen to spend your days in the open air so why not spend the evenings there too? It’s cheap, good for meeting other like-minded travellers and fun. You’ll need to carry your tent with you – mine is a Robens Osprey 2 and it’s great! – of course (instead of those extra kilos that you have now lost through regular pre-trip exercise) and a camping mat but if you are going somewhere hot, you probably don’t need a sleeping bag; a folded sheet will suffice. If you haven’t camped for a while, go away for a weekend prior to your trip to make sure you know how to put up your tent! If you can’t find a campsite, you could even enter the world of wild camping…

So there you have my top ten pre-trip considerations. September is a great time to start planning next year’s adventure so what are you waiting for? Comments welcome!

P.S. Two other essential pre-trip activities can be found here :-)

(All the photographs above were taken from my own Instgram account.)

The Washing Machine Post: Along The Med…

Read the original post on the WashingMachinePost.

Eurovelo 3 Plus: Back Of An Envelope Time…

imageMapI’ve just been looking at the descriptions and maps produced by the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) for the Eurovelo 3 and the portion of the Eurovelo 1 that would guide me from Santiago de Compostela to North Cape. You can have a read of the descriptions here. I estimate a journey of around 7,000km if I don’t deviate too much from what is prescribed by the ECF so it’s back of the envelope calculation time! I would like to reduce the average number of kilometres I cycle each day for this next continental crossing, perhaps down to 70/80km from the 113km I averaged in 2013 along the Eurovelo 8 (or my version of it) and 11okm I averaged in 2010 along the Eurovelo 5 (or again, at least my version of the route). More time to explore, deviate, ponder, procrastinate. Three months? Let’s say 90 days with one rest day per week; 13 rest days? That brings the cycling days available down to 77 and 7,000km divided by 77 is… 91km. Mmm… A bit high. How about making it a journey of 100 days with 14 rest days leaving 86 cycling days. 7,000km divided by 86 is… 81km. Cutting down the rest days to 10 would, however, not be an unreasonable thing to do as I would need them perhaps less. A 100 day trip, 90 days of cycling, 10 rest days would require an average of 78km per day. OK. That’s that sorted. So when would I need to set off to see the midnight sun at North Cape? According to Visit Nord Kapp, in 2014 the final day that it was possible to see the midnight sun at 71 degrees north (which is where North Cape is) was the 29th July. No data is given for 2015 (perhaps you know – please fill me in) but I can’t imagine that it varies more than a day or so each year. Let’s assume that the latest date is going to be the 27th July so counting back 100 days from then sees me departing from Santiago de Compostela on… (this needs working out – hang on!) …Saturday 18th April 2015. So, to summarise;

Date of departure from Santiago de Compostela: Saturday 18th April 2015

Cycling days: 90

Rest days: 10

Distance to cycle: 7,000km

Average distance per day: 78km

Date of arrival at North Cape: Monday 27th July 2015.



Cycling with Molière / Alceste A Bicyclette

Here’s something that nicely fuses my two ‘professions’…

Training For The Tour of Britain

By Aiden Watson (@aidenwatson89)Aiden Watson #1

I’m really excited to be training for my first big race — the Tour of Britain. Like so many amateur cyclists, I found the Tour de France hugely inspiring and a great boost for my training plan.

I took up cycling last year after deciding to truly get fit. I’d maintained a fairly average level of fitness in recent years, but had never truly enjoyed working out in the gym. Cycling was the activity I loved most as a kid, and getting back on to my bike felt truly liberating. Since then, I’ve massively improved my cardiovascular fitness and strength. I started with a steady-state training programme of long and slow rides, and then gradually incorporated high-intensity training and speed work, with weekly hill drills and a distance ride at weekends.

As well as the training regime, I’ve been working hard to eat well, cutting down on simple carbohydrates and increasing my protein intake. Increased hydration has also been a focus, along with ‘clever’ caffeine consumption — such as before a fast ride. I’m eating between 5 and 10 portions of fruits and vegetables a day to ensure I get a full spectrum of micronutrients and eating quality fats such as olive oil and avocado too.

Aiden Watson #2So what has been the hardest bit about getting race-ready? Well, the first few months of training were exhilarating, but they did leave my muscles sore and aching — something remedied with regular Epsom-salts baths and plenty of rest. A clean diet was also hard to maintain at social events and weekends, so I followed the ’80/20′ principle and focused on maintaining a good nutritious diet for the vast majority of the time and not worrying about the odd lapse. After all, if I can’t enjoy the odd pizza and glass of red with all this training, then it’s just not worth it.

I’ve stuck to a structured training programme put together by race experts and have practised on terrain that mirrors the course and which is best suitable for Orbea road bikes such as mine. I’ve also invested in good-quality kit — a lightweight cycle helmet, moisture-wicking cycling clothes with excellent reflection, sunglasses with excellent UV protection and the right training shoes. I also cycle with a streamlined training bag which contains energy bars and liquid energy sachets, and I attach a water bottle to my bike.

I did have a period of over-training which led to muscle strain and pain and which kept me off my bike for several weeks. That was an important learning curve and taught me to listen to my body. I’ve also treated myself to regular sports massages since then and have supported my troubled knee with rock tape on occasion. The RICE method is also hugely beneficial, and I try to always have an ice pack in the freezer in case.

The finishing time for the race is likely to be between 3pm and 4pm, and I’m viewing it as a baseline for future races. In terms of advice for beginners, I’d say just get your bike and get outside. The hardest part is beginning, but you’ll rapidly find a hugely supportive and helpful community of cyclists who are all to willing to help you in your journey towards becoming a competitive cyclist.

Aiden Watson #3

The Cycle Show 2014: A Short User Guide

logo_cycle_show2014The end of the summer means many things to many people; for me it is the reality of returning to the classroom after six weeks of freedom from teaching French… so it’s nice to have a few good things to look forward to in the early autumn before the clocks change and we all go into hibernation mode. For cyclists, one of those things is, of course, the annual Cycle Show at the NEC in Birmingham that takes place from the 25th to the 28th September. It is, according to the organisers, ‘The UK’s #1 Cycling Show‘ so if you’ve never attended such an event before, it’s a good one to start with.

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 14.30.20I went along last year expecting it to be very much like the educational and language shows that I occasionally attend in my other life as a teacher. But there is a difference and it’s an important one. Yes, there are all the stands from the bike manufacturers and distributors (with some beautiful bicycles on display – if you are into your bike porn, you won’t be disappointed!) and you will find every aspect of cycling addressed at one of the many hundreds of stands (here’s a full list if you want to check it out), from safety to security, from to travel to adventure, from to commuting to clothing, from nutrition to tracking… (you get my drift). The list isn’t quite endless but they do seem to have every angle of cycling covered. That’s all the ‘standard’ stuff that you would expect to find. What I found more surprising were the active elements of the show. Should you choose to do so, you can actually get on two wheels and try out some of the bikes and accessories that are being showcased. If you are into your mountain biking, there’s a 1.6km track for you attempt, you can test out an e-bike as well as commuting bikes and children’s bikes. Here is the full list of activities taking place. You’re not going to get bored!

A few practicalities; the show spreads across halls 10, 11 and 12 of the NEC in Birmingham – an easy place to get to either by car, by train (get off at Birmingham International) or indeed by plane – the airport is just next door. You could even, dare I say, cycle… Adult tickets are £13 in advance with the usual concessions of course – more details here – but you can buy your ticket on the door when you arrive. There is a lot to see so you might want to consider booking yourself into a nearby hotel such as the Crowne Plaza to maximise the amount of time you have to explore the show.

Last year I went on the Saturday, which was probably the busiest day of the event although with a place the size of three giant halls at the NEC to fill, it never quite gets to the point of being uncomfortably crowded. If I could, I would probably aim for the Friday but for many of us who work during the week, that’s simply not an option. I suppose spending a day at the NEC and then exploring a few of Birmingham’s other attractions on a second day might be an option. Here is the Visit Birmingham website if you want to find out what the country’s second city has to offer (or is that Manchester?). Enjoy!


Winter Cycling Essentials: A No-Nonsense Guide

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 17.50.19By Jonathan Gardner

There’s an old Scandinavian saying which states that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”. And as far as the coming months are concerned, this still rings incredibly true for die-hard cyclists. For as we head into winter, a simple ensemble of spandex shorts and top will no longer repel the weather, regardless of how furiously one cycles. The solution? Wrap yourself up in some of these winter cycling essentials.

The Base Layer

A base layer is essential for keeping warm during the colder months. However, it does a lot more than just retain heat. A good base layer should also wick any sweat worked up, away from your skin. In doing this, it will help to minimalist that chilly, uncomfortable feeling you get when you take a break, and the built up moisture begins to cool. Generally speaking, you’ll find two main types of base layer: merino wool or manmade fibre. As you’d expect, merino wool is very comfortable and warm. But the downside is that it doesn’t repel moisture as effectively as artificial fibres. Essentially, it’s down to you to decide your priorities.

Good Quality Gloves

Good quality gloves are essential winter cycling apparel. However, deciding on a pair isn’t as easy as you’d imagine. It’s a fine balance between being cosy and having clammy, sweat-soaked hands. Crazy as it may sound, don’t go for gloves which feel instantly warm when you put them on. After 15 minutes of cycling, warm will quickly turn to waterlogged.

 A Waterproof Jacket

Keeping warm is one thing. But keeping dry whilst the rain pelts down around you is another thing altogether. This is one area where you really can’t afford to scrimp, at least not if you plan on staying dry. You’ll see plenty of cut-price soft shell riding jackets, which seem like an absolute bargain at the time. But ask yourself if it still feels like a bargain when the rain starts seeping in through the poorly-machined seams. The simple solution? Invest in a quality waterproof jacket from High Octane Sport (or another trusted supplier).

Worth their Weight in Gold

For those with the cycling bug, taking on the harsh terrains during winter is no easy task, especially if you don’t have the correct gear. So don’t be too careful with your money. A good quality base layer, as well as gloves and a waterproof jacket are worth their weight in gold.