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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Day 17, 21 Sep, Un temps merveilleux à Paris

‘A wonderful time in Paris’ … that’s what it means in French, not that I speak French, but it seemed appropriate to title it as such (thanks to Google Translate). After all, we are talking about Paris — the City of Romance, where at almost every corner you can see couples locked in passionate embrace, oblivious to the world around them.

I love Paris, and I am certain I will walk its streets again one day. The people are beautiful, although a bit pompous and arrogant at times, but, that’s Paris for you. Love it or loathe it, Paris never lets you go without a twinge of regret.

There are so many are things about Paris (and France) that I love — the cheese,  the wines (which, litre for litre, is cheaper than Coke), even by our standards. I particularly enjoyed sitting on a bench in the park munching on a piece of bread and some cheese while a cold wind blows boisterously. Occasionally, the sun would break out from the clouds and warm up the day, and one’s heart.

I love cycling the streets of Paris, with the sound of my wheels chattering a duet with the cobble-stones. At times, I would be weaving between the neat rows of trees with its golden hued leaves rustling in the autumn breeze, some already carpeting the ground with a honeyed, caramel-coloured layer, reminding one that the seasons are changing.

And wherever you turn, like much of Europe, elegantly crafted Parisian buildings make you stop and wonder at their bourgeoisie-ness, clearly reflected in the ornate embellishments that adorn much of their facades.

Am I waxing too lyrical? Well, I suppose it’s because I’ve allowed myself to be enchanted by it. But words can only say so much … let the pictures paint an even more beautiful story ……

Cycle paths among the golden-leaved trees

The bridge that leads to The Invalides, and where Napoleon is buried

One of numerous crossings on the Seine

Strictly for pedestrians, these walkways by the Seine are perfect for romantic walks

Architectural excess, or art?

Love is everywhere in Paris

The classy neighbourhood of Parsy where I had to pass through to get to the centre of Paris.

Of course, I had to get myself in some of these photos as well….but not too obstrusive, I hope. It’s a crime to be in the centre of every photo that’s shot during a holiday…you know the type 🙂

Tourist poseur shot at The Lourve

This Filipino couple on their honeymoon (who asked me to take their picture) were so impressed with my adventure that they insisted I took a photo with them. Nice people.

Tourist poseur shot #2

Posing with a couple of cool cats busking by the Seine.

The Seine seems to attract all kinds of buskers and entrepreneurs, like this guy. Sure its free for 10 minutes, but would you time your massage down to the last free second and get up immediately? Very clever, these frenchies.

Le Quartier du Pain is one of Paris' foremost boulangeries, famous for their award-winning baguettes.

How good was their baguette? Well, I finished this Baguette Campagne in one sitting...it's that good.

I wanted to visit this swanky LV store but they wouldn't allow me to bring my precious bicycle in. Too bad, they lost some business that day 🙂

The recumbent is alive and well in Paris; this one is for hire. Very cool. Notice how aerodynamic the roof is.

Not so alive and well for this bicycle.

A visit to Paris would not be complete without a pilgrimage to Notre Dame

The intricate stonework on the entrance of Notre Dame's main entrance.

I didn't bother with going up to the tower, not with a queue this long. Notre Dame is after all, a must-see for tourists.

The imposing interior

inside notre dame

(Click to enlarge pic)

eiffel night

Close-up of Eiffel Tower by night (click to enlarge)

Enchanting Paris by night

Enchanting Paris by night (click to enlarge)

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Day 14, 18 Sep, In Bruges

Ray: After I killed him, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through – “Get the f#@# out of London, you dumb f#@#s. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges f#@#ing was.

[pause]

Ray: It’s in Belgium.

 

Ray is Colin Farrell in the dark and wickedly funny movie ‘In Bruges’. Shot entirely in the old city of Bruges, the story is about 2 Irish hitmen (played by bushy-browed Colin Farell and the excellent Brendan Gleeson) sent to Bruges to lie low after a botched job.

The dialogue is sharp, witty and coarse, but I was more fascinated by the backdrop of Bruges in the move. I had to include Bruges in my plans.

So here I am, In Bruges. I’m gonna be a tourist again.

But when I woke up this morning, it seemed to be colder than usual. I would have to add another layer of clothing to keep warm. The campsite is about 15 minutes bike ride from the centre of Bruges, where it’s ringed by canals and the remnants of some fortifications.

I hadn’t bargained for the ridiculously high number of tourists though, and they were all over the place. Not nice. Buses and buses of them, many in orderly groups being led around like dumb sheep by their herders. Many others were sightseeing on boats floating through the many canals … damn, they were everywhere.

After I tired of the crowds, I pointed my bike in the opposite direction and explored the less popular parts of the city. Unencumbered freedom on wheels. Again, advantage cycle-tourer.

So here’re the pics of my little jaunt through the cobbled streets of medieval Bruges, or Brugge, as the Belgians call it.

One the entrance to the old part of Bruges that dated back hundreds of years. A busy main road is just off to the right bordering the canal.

Bruges lives up to its reputation as the ‘best preserved medieval city in Belgium’

At the town square, a Salvador Dali exhibition was being held

The town square is quite huge…this row of buildings flank one side of it.

A different kind of bike rack, which I couldn’t use.

It was easier for me to lock my bike to a lamp-post when I went to explore a building nearby. The 2 ladies are American tourists … eating fries.

Cycling through the streets of old Bruges, I could just imagine what life was like when Bruges was in its prime hundreds of years ago.

Canals and bodies of water covered the entire city.

as well as shady tree-lined roads

One of the quieter streets with no tourists in sight. The autumn leaves added a warm touch to an otherwise cold day.

At the Our Lady’s Church, simple on the outside,

but exquisite on the inside.

It was also famous for this statue — Madonna and Child by Michelangelo.

Real homes inhabited by locals. I had an interesting peek through the wooden windows of the house seen here.

Just next to it is this quaint little bridge.

One of the many boatloads of tourists plying the canals throughout the day.

Almost all the streets in central Bruges are paved with cobblestones

A sculpture that paid tribute to the humble bicycle.

Sometimes, I’d act like a tourist, too 🙂

.

One of the first things I do when visiting a new place is to get a free map. I loved the one that I found at the campsite reception. It’s called ‘Bruges. Free map for young travellers’. Instead of the usual boring spin, this particular leaflet dished out tips and advice in a very tongue-in-cheek manner. The introduction, and some of the tips, deserve a mention here:

ACT LIKE A LOCAL

Bruges has 3 million visitors a year. Almost 1 million take the tourist boat, and many also do the horse carriage. No wonder it’s called ‘The Venice of the North’, there are some swans on the water, and there’s a Michelangelo statue in a church. Do you care? Of course not. Very well, then start acting like a local!

* Use your bicycle to run over tourists. It’s what we do as well. Kamikaze bicycles are for rent all over town.

* On your face! Most people in Belgium say ‘Sante‘ when they toast, but around here ‘up je mulle’ does the trick. It literally means ‘(I toast) on your face‘.

* West Flemish, the dialect in Bruges, is the most powerful dialect around. To summarize it; just pronounce half of the sounds. For example, ‘pannenkoek met chocolade‘ should be pronounced as ‘panne’oe’e me cho’ola‘. Ask help from any real local.

* Do not salute people with a stressy ‘Yo!’, but go for ‘Yuuu‘ or ‘Yooo‘ while pointing your finger at the person you’re greeting. Don’t wink or whistle though.

* Choose the right football team. Club Brugge (blue and black) is always high in the first division and regularly gets to the Champion’s League, but Cercle Brugge (green and black) is the proud underdog. The worse they’re playing, the more enthusiastic their fans get.


And then there are ‘QUESTIONS TO PISS OFF THE LOCALS’

* Oooh, I know this tower! It was built for the movie ‘In Bruges’, wasn’t it?
* When does Bruges close?
* Where is McDonalds?

Charming little town, isn’t it?

Tomorrow, I head for Kortrijk, near the French border.

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Day 1, 5 Sep – Frankfurt to Geisenheim, meeting up with old friends.

I was seriously overweight when I checked in to KLIA for my midnight flight to Frankfurt. My checked-in baggage, that is — my Surly and a box containing my tent, Thermarest, sleeping bag, a duvet, my cycling shoes, tools, stove, cookset etc etc.

MAS only allowed 20kg of free baggage per person, but the nice boy who was checking me in turned to me with a smile and said (in Malay), ‘It’s like this, Sir, you’re 9kg overweight.

But I tell you what, I’ll give you a 5kg discount ok?…and you just pay the balance of 4kgs’. ‘Ok, I replied. ‘So how much per kg? The nice boy looked at me with a nice smile and said ‘RM160’

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The nice boy who wanted to charge me RM640 for being overweight

Ok, that explains the nice smile… because RM160 X 4 equals a ridiculous RM640! My reflex action was typical — bargain like crazy. I put on a nicer smile than the nice boy and spun him some baloney about my being so skinny and why don’t he consider the fact that there were other passengers who carried excess baggage around their waists (and which the airline couldn’t charge for) and on and on….

I was very surprised when he said ‘Ok, ok … I’ll give you another 2kgs discount but…that’s all I can do, ok?’ I paused for a bit and wondered if I could push my luck. ‘Ok la’  I said. What was I to do? Overweight is overweight. So, while Lilian went to pay the bill, I checked in my bike at the oversize baggage check-in and that was it.

After 12 hours of squirming about in a not-too-comfortable seat, and with some shut-eye in between, I arrived at Frankfurt at 6.30 in the morning. The moment I stepped out of the airport, the cold autumn air bit into me so sharply I was totally unprepared for it. I guessed it must have been about 10 degrees. Undaunted, I quickly put on a sweater, pushed my RM160-overweight baggage to a quiet corner and began to slowly reassemble my bike.

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Re-assembling the bike outside the airport

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One and a half hours later, I pushed off onto the main road and headed for a bike shop near the airport where I planned to buy a front rack, and a pair of panniers to match. Germany was, after all, the home of 3 very popular brands of touring equipment — Ortlieb panniers, Schwalbe tires and Tubus racks.

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The road leading out of the airport wasn’t that busy. It was a cold grey morning though…

 

5 minutes from the airport and a nice tree-lined bike path is mine to enjoy. It was my first taste of a typical European cycling path. It was serene and it wound its way through a light forest … I was suitably impressed.

Finally, I found the bike shop, but it wasn’t open. The owner was off to some Eurobike fair or something. So I asked and was directed to another bike shop nearby but no luck, they didn’t have a front rack that could fit. The owner was nice enough to give it a try though

I decided to then head for Geisenhem instead to look for my old friends from Penang — the Pohs — Eva and her 2 sons, Aljoscha and Mavin. The boys and my kids grew up together as neighbours but after they moved back to Germany, we lost touch with them.

It was really a wonderful coincidence when I found out after I had decided to start my Tour of Europe from Frankfurt that the Pohs were located in my intended path along the Rhine heading north.

Crossing the Mainz…then I got lost

 

Apples seem to be in season… I was tempted to help myself

 

Back on the Rhine cycle path, I was came upon some kind of dance performance

The bike paths here are very well-marked.

 

With sights like these along the river, there’s no hurry to get where i’m going

 

Geisenhem was only about 50kms or so from Frankfurt but since I didn’t have a proper map yet, I got lost somewhere between Wiesbaden and the Mainz river. After repeatedly asking some locals for directions, I made it back to the banks of the Rhine and followed it as advised.

After clocking 80km, I reached Geisenheim On The Rhine, but not before I had to deal with a vicious (and cold) headwind that blew incessantly…so much so I was down to a miserable 10kph at certain stretches.

Exhausted, I rolled into the quaint and charming little town of Geisenheim and as soon as I entered the town platz, or square, the bells of the town’s beautiful cathedral tolled a stunning chime to mark 6 o’clock.

The beautiful cathedral in the town square. and just across the front door of the Pohs’ home. A good sign of His grace shining  upon me … or so I’d like to think 🙂

 

The Pohs’ home, where Eva and her kids live on the second and third floors. It’s a century-old charming little building that oozed old-world charm. It was in the town square itself but even more amazing, the bedroom windows looked out to the church itself.

 

Anyhow, the reunion of sorts with the Pohs was simply a blast. Aljoscha and Mavin had both grown up to be strapping young lads, and Eva looked pretty much the same as when I last saw them in Penang. Over dinner in their cosy townhouse kitchen, we reminisced about old times and it was just wonderful to be able to see familiar faces 10,000km away from home.

Next: Exploring Geisenheim and the neighbouring tourist town of Rudesheim.

Distance today:: 83km
Distance to date:: 83km

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Tour of Europe, the making of a dream.

As all travellers will tell you, it’s the preparation and planning that make up half the excitement of a journey. Likewise, in preparation of my upcoming Euro tour in September, I’ve been scouring the many travelogues, forums and cycle-touring blogs on the net, notably crazyguyonabike.com — a treasure trove of tales and research material for any would-be cycle tourer.

Inevitably, one comes across many inspiring quotes and catch-phrases, some albeit a bit cliched, but nonetheless, one particular quote resonated with me : ‘It’s risky business travelling alone, but it’s equally risky when dreams remain dreams.’

A few years ago, I had planned to do something any self-respecting, bicycle-racing afficionado dreams of doing — to stand among the crowds along the Champs-Elysees in Paris and cheer on the winners of the final stage of the Tour de France, the greatest bicycle race in the world.

Well, it was a grand dream, and the plan was simple — ride from London to Paris (including a ferry crossing of the English Channel, of course) and then fly home from Paris. But somehow, Europe seemed so far away and the whole thing never quite shifted into higher gear and it remained a dream.

Occasionally, in casual conversations with my boss, SP Lee, the topic of France would crop up (his wife is French) and he would say, ‘Go la, Mike, you’ll love it, especially if you’re cycle touring. It’s hard to find any part of France that’s not nice.’ Well, I can fully attest to that claim, from what I’ve seen following the daily live coverage of Le Tour on the Eurosport channel.

Interestingly, one of the reasons people all over the world tune in to watch the Tour is to see France in all its glorious summer splendour —  the cameras on board the helicopters covering the race would would zoom in on notable landmarks, even circling them to give viewers a proper look — well, at least half the non-bike racing viewers were, if the commentators’ claim are to be believed.

2008 rolled in and still Europe didn’t feature in my touring plans; I had decided to ‘conquer’ Vietnam and Laos instead — 21 days across some of the most massive mountains I had ever ridden. It was a magnificent tour and I finally ticked off the last 2 Indochina countries on my  list that I had yet to set foot on.

In 2009, there was still no sign of Europe in my plans; this time, I had decided that I would take it ‘down under’ — Oz-try-lia!

As usual, the plan was simple — a 1,200km jaunt from Melbourne to Sydney on the south-eastern flank of the Australian continent. Along the way (if I was lucky), I’d get to throw a couple of snowballs in the Snowy Mountains.

I had also timed my arrival at Melbourne to coincide with the annual Around the Bay in a Day cycle ride — a 140km ride around Philip Bay that’s so popular, all places are usually taken up. I had registered but luckily, I hadn’t paid yet.

Then sometime in May this year, my recumbent-riding friend (and ‘No to ISA Freedom Ride‘ buddy) Joseph Koh reported from out of the blue that he’d just come back from a mini Euro tour — 2 weeks in Germany, Czech republic and Austria.

Actually, he had gone there with Jorge (another ‘No to ISA Freedom Ride‘ buddy) to participate in some solar-vehicle challenge in Stuttgart, and he’d taken the opportunity to do a tour while he was there.

Intrigued, I called him up to ask about his trip and in the ensuing conversation, I also told him about my intended Aussie trip. But his reply was, ‘Eh, why you want to do Australia? The scenery is boring la … and it’s pretty much the same all the way!’ Of course, he was speaking from experience, having ridden there before.  It then occurred to me that he might just be right.

I recalled seeing the photographic results when using Googlemap’s street-view feature to visually check out the route, and it really was pretty much the same the entire way — sparse, not very green in some areas but still captivating in its own way. Fortunately too, that I hadn’t succumbed to AirAsia’s incredible early-bird offers to fly with them to Australia yet.

And so, my Tour of Europe dream finally came to the fore. It seemed like now or never. Yes, it could be risky business travelling alone in Europe. German, Dutch, French or Flemish — I did not speak nor understand any of these languages.

Europe is far away. Europe is expensive. But, it would be equally risky if my dream remained a dream…..

Next: Realising my dream, even though July has come and gone and the Tour de France peloton had long crossed the finish line at Champs Elysees …

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