Cycling Europe’s 15 Top Tips For Long-Distance Cycling
In recent years the travel writer and cyclist Andrew P. Sykes has given a talk at the Cycling Touring Festival in Clitheroe, Lancashire. The family-run festival is a wonderful, friendly event and in 2018 took place in continuous sunshine from beginning to end over the weekend of the 4th – 6th May. In every year that Andrew has attended the festival, it has afforded him the opportunity of preparing a new cycle-touring related talk. This year he was in reflective mood, looking back over the ten years of his career as a long-distance cyclist and writer (as documented through his books and his popular website CyclingEurope.org) and he came up with a list of fifteen ‘top tips’ for long-distance cycling. Some are serious, others less so. Some you will wholeheartedly agree with yet you will, without doubt, disagree just as passionately with some of the others. So here they are, with a little explanation and video illustration, Andrew P. Sykes’ Top Fifteen Tips for Long-Distance Cycling…
1. Do a trial run
Prior to embarking upon the first of the three long-distance cycles across Europe in 2010, I thought it wise to test if I was cut out for multiple days in the saddle. So, the previous summer, in August 2009, I headed up to Berwick-upon-Tweed for a week-long cycle along the Pennine Cycleway, route 68 of the National Cycle Network. You can read more about that particular ride here.
In preparation for cycling in Norway on the third long European cycle from Tarifa to Nordkapp in 2015 I wanted some experience of cycling in a more challenging environment so I took the bike to the north of Scotland for a coastal ride from John O’Groats to the island of Skye. Read more about that adventure here.
2. Never buy a one-person tent
I did and was soon regretting it as the rain fell in the August of 2010 as I was making my way from southern England to southern Italy. It was a tight squeeze when trying to sleep with all the cycling gear stored inside the tent out of the way of the elements. Is it really worth saving a kilogram or so of weight when you could be carrying a tent for two people? I’ve since upgraded my tent twice with each new one being larger than the previous. If you are keen to keep the weight down, go on a diet.
Read more about my recent choice to upgrade to the Vango F10 Xenon UL2+ here.
3. Don’t let the weather put you off
Given the choice we would probably all opt for sunshine over showers. But we can’t change the weather, so get used to it. If you really are bothered by getting wet on a bicycle, it’s time to consider alternative means of transport. What’s more, sometimes, a downpour can actually be a lot of fun. Below is a short extract from my first book, Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie. I was in the east of France and it was very damp to say the least…
“Suddenly the clouds blackened and my road descended steeply into the valley. It was almost as if Mother Nature herself had told her minions to put on a show to impress. And I was. As I cycled along the road the rain pelted down. Arriving in the valley bottom there were flash floods with me struggling to cycle through the currents of water. It was great. And so was the scenery; the bland rolling hills had been replaced with one dramatic steep sided valley with a monster of a river in the bottom; The Meuse, my new best friend, which didn’t fail to impress as I continued my ride along its banks all the long, winding way to Charleville-Mézières itself. I later posted a sentence to the blog that summed up what an invigorating end it had been to a very, very wet afternoon; The adventure started today!”
4. If you see a mountain, cycle towards it
Yes, they can be hard work and incite profanities to be uttered as you crawl your way to the top, but the sense of satisfaction at having conquered these beasts of solid rock is only matched by the glorious views. Worth every ounce of sweat expended and every expletive expressed… As far as Europe goes, these are the mightiest of the lot and when climbing the Alps back in 2010, I chose to do so via the Gotthard Pass:
You can find the posts that I made at the time of climbing the Alps in 2010 here. There were plenty more mountains in 2013 as I cycled ‘Along The Med…‘ including the Peloponnese, the hills of Albania, the Alps (again), Mont Ventoux and the Pyrenees – see the original posts here. And even more of the buggers when I cycled from ‘Spain to Norway…‘ including, once again, the Pyrenees and the peaks of southern Norway: the original posts are here.
5. Try to be lucky!
But… things didn’t quite go to plan on the other side of the Gotthard Pass. Broken spokes put the entire trip at risk. Would I be able to repair the bike in Airolo, the small town at the foot of the mountain in the Italian-speaking Swiss region of Ticino? It wasn’t looking good. Would I have to catch a train to Milan to repair a rather poorly Reggie? Watch and read:
6. Write about your adventures
It was never my intention of writing a book when I set off to cycle to southern Italy in the wet summer of 2010 but I was expressing my thoughts online via this website. You can still read those original post from ‘Crossing Europe…’ here. Indeed you can also read the posts from the second and third continental crossing here and here. But there are many other ways of recording your journey whether it be via social media or a more private diary. Writing provides a space in which to reflect carefully upon what has happened on your journey and helps put things into context. Was it such a bad thing that it rained all day long?
7. Avoid taking planes
When it comes to travelling, few things can be more of a hassle than taking your bicycle on a plane. There are ‘solutions’; bike boxes (as demonstrated here by Neil Wheadon) or using a courier service to do all the carrying (but not the worrying) as I did in 2015 when I flew to southern Spain prior to the trip from Tarifa to Nordkapp without Reggie the bike. More details here. But rarely have I been more flustered whilst travelling on two wheels than when, in the summer of 2013, I arrived in southern Greece after having stepped off a flight from the UK and tried to put the bike back into working order… without a functioning pump:
8. Find iconic places to start and finish your trips
Watch and listen:
See what I mean? Nobody would have ever described the flat where I was living in central Reading in 2010 and the place from where I set off on that first continental ride as ‘iconic’ (although I’m sure the architect would have had a good go at persuading you…), but for the other five departure and arrival points I had either spectacular views or magnificent structures (or both) to inspire me as I set off or help me celebrate when I pulled on the brakes for the final time and stopped cycling. Very memorable moments. Very memorable places. (Apart from my flat in Reading…)
9. Never look at route profiles
Can ignorance be bliss? As we’ve seen in top tip 4, “If you see a mountain, cycle towards it” but we don’t need the detail, do we? We don’t need to know how many false summits we are about to encounter or just how steep that section in the middle is going to be or, as I discovered in Greece in 2013 as I was cycling through the Peloponnese mountains (which, admittedly, I only realised were mountains when I crossed the Corinth Canal and noticed them looming vertiginously ahead of me) that there would be a painful sting in the tail of my day as the road suddenly decided to climb some 200 metres to my destination at Levidi. There’s no doubt about it; ignorance is indeed bliss and route profiles should be avoided.
10. Stay at Camping Castel San Pietro in Verona
A bit of a specific one but… There are many contenders for the top spot in my list of cycling-friendly campsites. The ones that leap ahead of the rest are those where a nice area has been set aside for travellers who arrive with a small tent but no car, the wonderful (if potentially confusingly named) ‘free camping area’. No hedges to prevent you from fraternising with your fellow campers, just a patch of hopefully luscious grass upon which to pitch the tent and relax. But at Camping Castel San Pietro, an establishment that clings to the hill overlooking Verona, the humble free camping area has been elevated to a small walled garden with vines providing the shade. Then there’s the cooking and eating terrace next door… and then there’s the view. On my jaunts around Europe, it has yet to be bettered.
11. WarmShowers hosts will probably not murder you
The WarmShowers website is a fantastic resource for travelling cyclists. Basically it’s Couch Surfing for those who move around on two (self-propelled) wheels but with the added bonus that you almost always have one thing in common with the people who stay with you or indeed host you on your own travels: cycling. WarmShowers has been mentioned on a regular basis on this website – explore the posts here – and I’ve met some great people over the years on my travels around Europe. Only once was I a little concerned, high in the Pyrenees in the summer of 2013…
It turned out, of course, that Eddy – the Belgian – was just as friendly and welcoming as everyone else…
12. Quit your job at least once to go off on a long cycle
An easy one. I could just about fit the first two of my trans-European cycles into the summer holidays of a school teacher. That wasn’t going to be the case in 2015 as I cycled from Tarifa to Nordkapp so there was only one thing for it; I quit my job and I have yet to regret the decision…
13. Bear in mind that cycling isn’t really about cycling
Yes, the physical act of ‘cycling’ is about cycling but cycling, well… is also about so much else…
14. Be curious, ask questions
One of my major concerns when setting off on my very first long-distance cycle – along the Pennine Cycleway in 2009 – was whether or not I would be lonely. I soon discovered that my worries had been misplaced to say the very least. People were curious and asked lots of questions; ‘where have you come from?‘, ‘where are you going?‘, ‘why are you cycling?‘… I’ve always tried to reciprocate the curiosity and my travelling has been so much richer and more fulfilling because of it.
15. Always take time to stop and stare
Start practising now. Stare at this for a couple of minutes:
Many more top tips in the books of course…
- Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie (2011)
- Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie (2014)
- Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie (2017)
Happy reading. Happy cycling…