Tour of Europe, epilogue.

Even though it was only a month, my Tour of Europe required a certain amount of research, planning and preparation on my part.

Equipment, no doubt, plays a very important part in any cycle tour. But more important than even the best equipment a cycle tourer can possess is fortitude – both mental and physical. In fact, it’s a pre-requisite – before the rubber meets the road.

Obviously, the physical demands come from the daily chalking up of mileage. But that’s mostly because the bike is fully loaded. Every incline is felt, some more acutely than others, and when it keeps going up and down incessantly, your legs will remind you of your physical limitations.

And that’s not even taking into account the sun, the wind and the cold.

Worse, there’ll be times when all around you seems such a desolate place devoid of civilisation. Then, you’d begin to question your own sanity and wonder why you’re subjecting yourself to such torture. At such times, you’ll feel miserable, lonely, and you begin to pine for the warmth and comfort of home. That’s when mental strength helps, the ability to ride through any situation and knowing that everything seems more promising in the morning.

On some days however, when the wind is behind your back, the sun is gloriously warm, and the scenery that unfolds before you enthralls you to no end, you just wish that it would never end. Everything is in place – every pedal stroke in perfect metronomic rhythm with your breathing, and everyone you meet on the road has a smile and an encouraging word for you. Honestly, on days like these, you feel invincible, you feel like you can take on anything.

However, one must never forget that there is a difference between calculated bravado and plain foolhardiness; because somewhere in between is where the real fun begins.

As for the destination, it matters not where you are heading – 10,000 kms from home, or just a 100 km round trip to the next town and back. It can all go very well, or it can go awry, usually in the most unexpected of circumstances. And yes, sometimes the thought does cross my mind – a fleeting, morbid thought that I could be mowed down indiscriminately somewhere by some careless driver on the road. But hey, what is risk-free in this world?

So far, touch wood, I have been fortunate, suffering only minor incidents and uncomplicated mechanical mishaps, nothing that a little quick-thinking and some McGuyver ingenuity won’t help save the day. And on days when you happen to meet some not-so-nice people, it pays to be like a duck — just let the bad stuff that seem to spew out so easily from their mouths slide off your feathers … and just continue on your way.

Ever heard it said that one should hope for the best, but plan for the worst? Well, you can’t be more pragmatic than that. And more so on a cycle tour.

Here’s a list of my equipment that took me through 5 countries in Europe, and back. Some worked better than others and some I’d probably drop from the list on such future tours:

The bike.


My Surly was a delight to ride. As a purpose-built tourer, it performed admirably. Its robust steel frame, its relaxed geometry; all contributed to a very smooth, confident ride; even when fully loaded. Handling and steering a fully loaded bike takes a bit of getting used to but when you’ve got it dialled in, it’s no different from handling any other bike.

– Handlebar

Sometimes called trekking bar, or butterfly bar; but one thing is for sure – it contributed greatly to the ride comfort throughout my tour. It’s very versatile, and can be used in almost any position. In fact, I angled it up as high as the cables allowed. Being upright means less strain on the triceps as well as the lower back.

Saddle
What else can I say about a Brooks saddle that hasn’t been said already? Mine is already broken in so throughout the entire 1300kms, I never once felt discomfort or pain in the butt. The other great thing about Brooks is you don’t have to wear padded pants. You do have to set it up properly though, but once that’s done, you’re good to go … and go, and go, and go. Notice that mine has its nose pointing a little higher than normal? Well, it works for me.

Wheel/Tyre
All Surlys under the 55 cm size sport 26-inch wheels. I had actually intended to change my tyres to Schwalbe Marathons when I landed in Germany, but somehow, I just never got round to it. I guess knowing that bike shops can be easily found practically anywhere in Europe made it a less-than-urgent issue. The back tyre is a new Kenda, while the front is a 3-year old WTB All-Terrainosaurus (with a patched tube inside :). Both made it back without a single puncture. Unlike 700c wheels, these 26-inchers also mean that you’ll never worry about finding a replacement tyre – anywhere in the world.

Bike stand

A heavyweight in every sense, the very solid Swiss-made Pletscher tips the scales at 600gms. To me, it performs best when the bike is fully loaded. It's also great for quick repairs, acting as as a bike-repair stand. When not in use, the 2 legs fold up neatly to one side. My ony complaint is that it tends to come loose so every once in a while I had to tighten the bolt. I didn't dare to overtighten it, as it might just damage the chainstays.

Folded and neatly out of the way. On the chainstay just above the words 'Fatties Fit Fine' is a holder for 2 spokes -- very handy.

The rest of the equipment on the Surly:

Front and rear derailleurs, shifters – Shimano XT

Brakes – XT V-brakes paired with Avid levers

Crankset – Race Face mountain bike crank, triple-ring with a 22 granny.

Cogset – 11-34. The 34 cog is a lifesaver when the incline gets really steep.

Pannier

Ortliebs are the panniers of choice for many a tourer. Mine is the Sport Packer Plus model.They’re simple, strong and most importantly, waterproof (if you don’t submerge it in water, that is). The front panniers are smaller in size and come with slings that can be attached to the sides so you can conveniently carry it off the bike. For short trips, front panniers are all you need (on the rear rack, of course).

Another indispensable piece of equipment is the handlebar bag – great for small (and important) stuff like passport, money, camera, snacks etc... and is easily removed in a flash when you pop into a store to buy something. Here, I'm cycling and popping grapes into my mouth at the same time.

Racks

This cheap, alloy rear rack took me served me well throughout the whole trip (as well as in Vietnam and Laos last year) but unfortunately, on the return flight from London, I made a mistake of not removing it totally from the bike; instead, I unbolted it from the bosses just at the top of the seat stays and kept it bolted on the back of rear triangle, which resulted in the rack being bent … not much, but enough to probably weaken it for future use. The box had likely been standing on the wrong end at some point in the flight, never mind that it was screaming 'Fragile' all over the box. I had intended to replace it with a Tubus in Germany, but since the shop where I bought the front pannier and front Tubus Ergo rack didn't accept credit cards, I decided not to use up more of my cash hoard than necessary. Lesson learnt here? Dump the cheap racks and spend some serious money on a good one.

The front Tubus Ergo is made of cromoly steel and is very well-made. It keeps the weight of the front panniers low for better displacement of the centre-of-gravity. Not cheap, but it should last me for many, many years of happy touring. Steel is actually the best material for racks because it can be easily welded should it suffer a serious knock, even in the most third-world of third-world countries.

Tent

I bought this 2-man, 2.5kg Wild Country Duolite Tourer specifically for this tour. It's a semi-geodesic tent designed for motorcyle and bicycle tourers, it packs up small enough to fit into a pannier. After a few times, I could set it up in under 10 minutes. The design is such that it sets up fly-sheet first, as the inner tent is already attached to the fly-sheet (this means that if I have to, I can set up this tent in the rain without the inner getting wet).

The ultra light-weight aluminum DAC poles are great to work with as well, and clipping the whole set takes less than a minute. Also, the covered porch area allows me to store stuff which I wouldn't want inside the tent – things like my stove (which smells of petrol), shoes, cookset etc. Not cheap at £127 but well worth the money spent. ( I bought this tent off eBay UK from an outdoor store and had it shipped to a relative in Leeds then brought back to KL, thus saving me on shipping)

Gloves

In cold weather, these Sealzkin gloves are an absolute necessity. Waterproof, windproof and breathable, they kept my fingers warm and dry, especially when the wind was really cold. They cost £28 a pair but they were worth every penny.

Sleeping bag
I would probably have frozen to death if I had used the sleeping bag that I had brought with me to Europe. Luckily, when I stayed with Eva in Geisenheim, she made me take one of theirs instead which kept me warm and snug on nights when the temperature dipped below 10 degrees. It was a bit bulky but that was the last thing on my mind during cold mornings when I was snug and warm in it. Lesson learnt here? Find out what the actual temperature range is wherever you’re visiting, especially if you’re camping, and bring a sleeping bag rated for that temperature.

Self-inflatable mattress

Self-inflatable mats are crucial when you’re camping in the outdoors and sleeping on the ground where the cold from below can literally freeze you. Sleeping bags are great for keeping you warm, but the bottom part is always compressed from the weight of your body, making it inefficient at trapping the warmth of your body. Enter the self-inflatable mattress — with it, warmth from the body is now trapped inside, forming a thermal layer to keep you snug. I never once felt the cold from the ground when sleeping on it. Instead of the expensive Thermarest brand, I bought this Thai-made Karana mattress in Thailand for about one-third the price. It packs into a neat little roll weighing only 800gms when not in use.

Cooking Stove

I got this off eBay after reading about it in a forum. The eBayer was from Hong Kong and got his stock direct from the factory in China, and costs less than one-third the price of a similar MSR Whisperlite. This particular model turns out to be very similar to the Primus Gosystem from UK. Considering that just about everything is made in China these days, I’m quite sure this is the factory that’s making it for them,

This stove is very easy to use and served me well throughout my tour.  After a quick priming, it fires up in a jiffy and boil times are amazing – a litre of water takes only 4 minutes. For fuel, I used unleaded petrol, which is cheap and easily available anywhere. The other great thing about this stove is that it also runs on methylated spirits, alcohol, and even diesel. A windshield is essential when using this stove. Mine was cut and folded from a piece of stiff aluminum used on kitchen stoves to prevent oil from spattering too far from a wok.

GPS

Garmin 60CX, considered the best all-rounder GPS from Garmin. With this I was able to track (aka laying digital crumbs as a record) my entire tour.Very robust too, weather-proof, water-resistant, shock-proof ...

My indispensable Leatherman ... I never leave home without it. It has saved the day in more ways than I care to count. My only gripe? I wish they'd include a cork-screw for opening wine bottles.

Computer

My nifty little Asus Eepc with a 7″ screen. I used it for journalling, photo management (using Picasa), watching movies, uploading and downloading tracks and waypoints to my GPS, and Skyping and surfing the net whenever there was free wifi. It came pre-installed with Linux but I had that removed and installed a  stripped-down version of Windows XP instead. Worth its weight in gold, but not for short-hauls.

Camera

All the photos from this trip were captured on this little camera — a Panasonic LX3. Some of the great features that I liked about this camera include the excellent Leica lens (with a bright f-ratio of f2.0-2.8), an impressive 24mm wide angle, an optional 16:9 format, and a small form-factor. I also carried an after-market fish-eye lens which I used to capture some alternative shots. Last year, I brought my Canon EOS 40D to Vietnam and Laos but the weight/bulk was an issue so I wised up and got this instead. All in all, a great little compact that allowed me more creative freedom than most point-and-shoots.

Other miscellaneous stuff :

Ziplocs bags — Light and takes up almost no space at all, they’re very useful for keeping food, small stuff that might otherwise get lost, and even to eat off it; eg: I used a small ziploc to prepack some oatmeal and raisins which I then poured fresh milk into, zip it close, let stand for 15 minutes and then open and eat. After which, just throw away without having to bother with washing.

Duct-tape — Another useful thing to carry around. I only carry half a roll which I then flatten for easier packing.

Cable-ties —I always carry an assortment. Great as fasteners and to hold things together in a jiffy.

Waterless hand-sanitiser — Great for cleaning hands on the go, especially when handling food.

Rain-gear — Aside from the usual rain-gear, I added a pair of rain-booties that motor cyclists use — cheap and effective. To accommodate clipless pedals, I simply cut a small hole where the shoes clip onto the pedals.

Cutlery — high tensile plastic cutlery designed for hiking works best. Light, strong and can withstand high temps.

Cookset — The one I had was a compact set and comprised a pot, a cover/plate and 2 cups. Next time, I will get a pot that can cook at least 2 packets of instant noodles easily.

Mini coffee press — I need my caffeine first thing in the morning, and with this, I enjoyed freshly brewed coffee at a fraction of the cost of a typical espresso in Europe.

First-aid kit — the usual: assorted bandages, Panadol, Lomotil, rehydration salts, disinfectant, my favourite Opsite spray-on waterproof dressing/bandage, Stingose for nasty insect bites etc etc

LED lights — I used the Cateye bike light as one of my multi-purpose lights, plus an LED headlight for hands-free illumination. I also used the Cateye as my tent lighting; simply by attaching it with a rubber band to the top of the tent and pointing it to the centre. LED lights are very economical to run and last for many hours on one set of batteries.

Clothing — The trick to staying warm (or cool) is layering. When done properly, you only need to peel off the layers as the temperature dips, or rises. Fleece is my favourite material as it’s soft and comfy, and when worn over a couple t-shirt and long sleeve jerseys, you’re snug and warm. I only brought with me a pair of Vaude long pants (which is light and dry up amazingly fast) that could quickly zip off to become shorts. Unfortunately, I lost the legs somewhere in Belgium. Other items I had with me: a windproof/waterproof Gelert jacket, winter long johns, quick-dry t-shirts, cycling jerseys, cashmere wool socks (for nice toasty toes when sleeping). I didn’t bother with cycling shorts as the Brooks saddle is comfortable without it. Another of my favourite is a Buff headgear, great for protecting the face from the sun and dust. I’d also borrowed a pair of winter cycling pants which is lightly padded in the front to protect the legs  from freezing when riding against a cold wind, but I only had occasion to use it a couple of times.

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This is by no means a complete list. And, depending on the destination and climate, one would have to adjust accordingly. But it pays to research thoroughly, as neither overpacking nor underpacking works to your advantage. On the other hand, don’t be too obsessed with compiling the perfect packing list — it doesn’t exist. As you rack up the miles, so will your experience. And nothing beats experience.

As intrepid adventurer Bear Grylls of Man vs Wild fame would say:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving in an attractive and well-preserved body but rather to skid in sideways, covered in scars, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming yahoo, what a ride!”


Happy touring, and keep it rubber side down 🙂

The Wheelosopher.

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11 thoughts on “Tour of Europe, epilogue.

  1. Good write up on your equipment Mike. I noticed the different lightweight Mavic rims on your LHT. Happens to me sometimes when I can’t decide what rim to buy / recycle / use, so just buy one rim to the consternation of the bike shops.

    I was wondering if you used one of Panasonic’s cameras with 24 mm and you photo of the LX 3 brought a smile to my face. My LX 3 is just one week old rearing to go on any bike trip.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  2. I notice you have similar issue with the kick stank that I had. A couple of things have made the stands stick on without worries. My solution here.

    As you can see, one is to wrap some cloth bar tape over the stays. I tried rubber tube, but it was not effective, too squishy I would say. This provides a bit of friction and more importantly prevents the paint from chipping. I already have chipped paint due to months of using the kickstand.

    The other is changing the bolt to a chamfered one. The top plate has a nice pit but I wonder why sometimes they ship the flat head bolts. I could not fine one easily though. The one I have has a toothed washer that adds more grip to the bolt. I haven’t tightened it too much and the setup is pretty much fuss free now.

  3. Hi Chris, the mismatched rims were a result of my wrecking the rear one when both were on my MTB, so I decided to give the front wheel a 2nd life serving the Surly, which meant having to buy just one piece of another mavic for the rear. Unfortunately, bike-shop didn’t have a red one in stock. Actually, I’m quite impressed with the wheels, both of which are 32-spokes…they held up well under all that load.

    As for the LX3, you will love that little baby. It’s a super camera. It was a toss-up between it and the Canon G10, but I’m glad I went with it. The HD video is great too.

    cheers
    mike

  4. Hi Nat, thanks for the suggestion on the stand. I’ll try it out. I think your using a toothed washer makes a lot sense…never thought about that before. I was actually planning to weld on a plate to hold the stand but I read on the Surly site that they don’t recommend this …something about weakening the stays.

  5. And finally it comes to a close… Thoroughly enjoyed it Unker Mike, thanks! Wanderlust is starting to creep in again now… 🙂

    Out of curiosity, how did you manage to charge your stuff, like the netbook, phone, rechargable batts, etc? I suppose you would grab any power socket you can find at any of your stops for food or for the night?

    • Stan the Man, thanks for ‘touring’ with me 🙂

      Regarding my electronics, I usually charge them at campsite offices. I only had 3 items that needed charging most — the Blackberry, the netbook and my camera (with spare battery). I had an iPod but that could last quite a bit. For my netbook, I usually had it charged when I’m out visiting the sites. They didn’t know it but the campsite office was actually keeping it safe for me while charging it. I didn’t want to leave it in the tent if I could help it. Some campsites are not so helpful, so I had to sit in the kitchen or anywhere I could find a socket to charge my stuff. I didn’t bother with rechargeable batteries as the only thing that used AA batts was the GPS.

  6. I enjoyed yr trip thoroughly and felt a part of your European journey as you pedaled thru each country. Your writing inspires as always, and who knows, following your “wake” could be a bad habit for me 🙂 So where’s next?

    • Al, I’m hoping to spread this ‘bad habit’ to everyone I know 😀

      My next tour? I wish it was next month …. actually, I never stop planning. And I hope it won’t be too long before I hit the road again…even if it’s only for a couple of days.

  7. Hi Mike,

    Been surfing the net once in a while looking for the whereabouts of long lost buddies. Finally got you. Email me please at the address given. Good to know that you have been having a ball, albeit on bicycles!

  8. Ah! So the LX3 is the one that took all the beautiful pics! ( of course credits goes to the man behind the lens!) Chris was telling me abt the LX7, just a few days back And I just saw him having the LX3 back in 2009!

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