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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂