It’s always nice when people get in contact either to give their own perspective on cycling in Europe (or indeed elsewhere) or seeking advice and guidance. Jess contacted me back in June via this post – The Alps, Security, Water & The Ciclopista Del Sole – that was originally written in 2011. Here’s what she said:
Thank you so much for your gems of knowledge and experience, and for sharing them so freely. I am spending some time in Italy currently and plan to cycle home on the Eurovelo5 / Via Francigena starting mid July. I know there has been mention on a few posts from people cycling the route backwards (to England) but I haven’t managed to find any responses from you. Do you have any thoughts about going the other way or any further gems of wisdom. We haven’t done any cycle touring (but are keen commuter / leisure cyclists) before and are a mix of very nervous and quite excited. We are two 27 year old girls and plan to start in Lucca / Pisa and end in London.
Thank you so much again for you blogging, I’m not sure I’d be doing it without all the information you’ve given.
I duly responded:
Thanks for the email and for taking in an interest in my cycling exploits as recounted on my website / in the books. It’s always good to hear from people who are planning something similar and I’m always happy to offer any advice that I can. That said, I never hold myself out to be an expert in these matters; I’m still a rather naive touring cyclists at heart and there are many out there who put me to shame with their knowledge of all things cycle touring.That said, I’ll have a go… 🙂
First of all, if you are regularly cycling to work and for leisure, you’ll have no problem with longer distance cycling. Your body will be accustomed to being on the bike and the challenges of even a cycle of a couple of thousand kilometres, stretched over a few weeks, will not be too onerous. That’s not to say you won’t be knackered on some days but the effort of climbing a big hill / mountain is worth every drop of sweat when you get to the top, gaze at the view and then realise you can freewheel down the other side.
Thinking about the route that I took – over the Gotthard Pass – I’m trying to imagine what it would be like in reverse and where the biggest challenges might be. Obviously climbing the Alps from Como, through Ticino (the Italian speaking part of Switzerland) and then heading up the big hill north of Airolo will get your heart pumping but for much of the rest of the route to the UK, it’s just a bit up and down. Nothing too epic. There are some river valleys that you can follow; the Rhine, the Moselle perhaps, the Meuse… You could follow the Rhine all the way to Rotterdam if you wanted a ride from Andermatt (close to the Gotthard Pass) which is predominantly downhill or flat. There’s a cycle route – EuroVelo 15 – that follows the Rhine all the way from source to sea. I cut across Switzerland rather than follow the Rhine more for reasons of time than anything else. The Swiss have an excellent network of cycle routes that are very well signposted. If ever country in Europe had their own version of this website – https://www.schweizmobil.ch/en/cycling-in-switzerland.html – no one would ever go anywhere on anything other than a bicycle.
The combination of being nervous and being excited is a good one; I felt exactly the same and still do today whenever I go anywhere new on the bike. You tend to worry about the stuff that never happens but that’s human nature I suppose. I would recommend camping as it’s a great way to ‘be at one with nature’ (which makes me sound like a hippy) but it’s also great fun and an excellent way of meeting people along the way. Also, look into using the website WarmShowers (which isn’t as dodgy as it sounds, in fact not at all dodgy!!). It’s CouchSurfing for touring cyclists and it’s another great way of meeting like-minded people.
My only other piece of advice would be not to plan too much detail. I’m tempted to say don’t plan at all, but everyone needs a plan of sorts, even if it’s just a starting place and a finishing place. The problem with detailed planning (routes, accommodation, mileage etc…) is that it imposes extra stress / deadlines on your journey. You are on holiday and not having a plan to stick to makes life a lot easier. If you fancy spending an impromptu day sitting in a café in Strasbourg eating croissants all day, so be it… Campsites will never turn away cyclists (well, apart from that one in Castellane…), hotels and hostels are on every street corner in Europe as are places to buy food and eat. You can see where I’m coming from.
Hope these musings are of some use. I would recommend reading my book about cycling to southern Italy but then again I would. All three books will give you a good idea of what it’s like to set off without really any detailed plans and survive in one piece.
So good luck with your trip when it arrives. Send me some pictures from the top of a mountain somewhere… and have fun!
Best wishes and happy cycling.
Well, this week I heard back from Jess. Here is what she said:
I’d firstly like to apologise for taking so long to thank you for your email below. When I sent my email I was only half expecting a reply. Without the reply though I certainly wouldn’t have felt brave enough to cycle home from Italy!
With a friend, I did cycle back from Lucca to England over 17 days. It was an incredible experience and the first of many bike touring adventures I’m sure. Just wanted to share a little video my iPhone helpfully made of the trip, and thank you again for your very encouraging words. It turns out you don’t have to do a huge amount of planning to successfully cross the Alps on a bike. We camped 15 of the 17 nights and it definitely was the best decision to be self sufficient; camp-stove cooked food tastes out of this world after a day of cycling!
Best wishes and happy cycling,
…and here is the video. It contains some very familiar scenes from my own cycle (in the other direction) over the Alps in 2010: