Beer and baguettes: A wrap up of my trip from Bonn (Germany) to Marseille (France)
As I have alluded in several of my previous posts, I had been in preparation for a 9 week trip to Europe earlier this year during August and September. It all started back in 2009 when I first stumbled on the idea of cycle touring. The idea instantly appealed to me. It represented a pure and true way of travelling. A way to really see the sights, smell the smells, meet different people, get away from the crowds and off the beaten track. I especially liked the idea of being self sufficient; carrying your own shelter, sleeping and cooking equipment so you can essentially set up camp wherever you want.
I spent the next few years following discussion topics on various cycling forums, reading Crazy Guy on a Bike journals and trying to soak as much information and knowledge as I possibly could. In the past 12 months I started to purchase equipment and gear, reassuring myself that everything was not only good for touring, but also handy to have for general use and commuting – I was right! My major purchase was my Vivente World Randonneur commuting/touring bicycle which I bought in early 2012 in preparation to do some touring in the near future. I had a few ideas about where I would like to tour, that being somewhere in Europe. I considered to maybe head up north to Scandinavia or head down south towards France. But I didn’t have a set plan. There was simply too many options and so many places I wanted to visit and cycle through. I decided to just buy the tickets to Germany and then make plans once I was there. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake on my behalf. I’ll explain why soon.
So after a few weeks of car travelling and checking out the local area where my family live in north-west Germany and the north-west of France, I decided that going north to Scandinavia wouldn’t be a great idea as it would most likely be cold, wet and boring cycling during late summer/early autumn. Although I had already spent a couple of weeks car touring in France, I still wanted to go back to the good food, interesting culture and architecture and better weather.
I figured that heading south from where I was in Germany would be a good way to also see some of the sights of Germany too before getting to France. My brother was also keen to join me on my first part of my journey through Germany, which was great as he speaks a reasonable level of German, after living over there for the past few year, something which became invaluable as we got lost regularly on our tour.
In summary, the first part of our trip through Germany went something like this: amazing cycling and scenery, morale draining headwinds along the river paths, signed but often rough and confusing cycle paths, lots of post-ride hefeweizen beer, debilitating knee issues, lots of bread and pastries every day, getting lost in a regional area of Germany, almost getting heat stroke and passing out from dehydration after running out of water on a Sunday when all shops are closed, having an old couple take pity on us and give us maps and a cook us lunch, an amazing flat, scenic canal path (on the French side, south of Strasbourg), and many overpriced campgrounds (or ‘campingplatz’ as they are known locally).
After seeing my brother off at the German-French border town of Breisach, I continued on my way south-east towards Marseille with the aim to cycle along quiet country lanes, eat lots of good French food, meet some cool people and get off the beaten track. I can say upfront that I accomplished all of these goals to various degrees, however I was constantly plagued by knee pain (first in my left knee during the German section, then in my right knee in France). I was aware of these issues before I left and tried to do as much as I could to prevent/reduce the problems before I left including seeing a specialised sports podiatrist, buying orthotic shoe inserts and kinesiologic tape, as well as seeing a well-known bike fitter. However these measures proved ineffective as I was in a lot of pain and barely able to keep on cycling every day after only 4-5 hours of riding. This was extremely frustrating as my knee was the only part giving me real issues. Sure my hands and shoulders were a little bit sore after a few hours, but it wasn’t bad enough to stop me from riding. I’d often feel like I had the energy to ride another 20-30km for the day, but the pain was simply too much to bear even with painkillers and taping. Due to this I would often have to call it a day by 4pm with only 70-80km under my belt.
Although the French roads were generally smooth and of good quality, and the drivers generally courteous and careful of cyclists, there are barely any marked or dedicated cycle paths in France. This meant that due to my lack of planning and inadequate scaled maps I often had no idea where I was and had to follow main roads which were signed so I knew I was going in the right direction. Add this to the knee issues and my morale was quickly diminishing By the time I got to Valence, battling a storm the day before and almost getting run down by a truck due to the extreme gusty side winds, I had enough.
In my desperation to finish the job I decided to take the train for the rest of the way to Marseille. The train from Valence to Marseille was cheap, fast, direct, comfortable and very easy to take a bike on. However be warned that this is the exception on French trains; they are often very indirect and difficult to take a bike on with you due to poor designed carriages and stations. I often had to carry my fully loaded bike down and then up large stairs as I was only given a few minutes to make the transfer which was challenging to say the least.
Despite my issues and challenges I encountered (aka ‘character building exercises’) I did enjoy the trip and it was a memorable experience. I learnt a lot about bike touring too. Little things like how to keep yourself sane while cycling 7-8 hours a day solo, how to keep your nerves on narrow, winding French alpine roads with cars passing at 120km/ph, how to keep your morale/energy levels up (music and pastries!), and what foods can and cannot be cooked on the Trangia stove and so on.
The four most important things I learnt during my trip was that:
1. It’s better to travel with someone else: Just make sure that you are both ready for the experience, have a sense of humour and can handle challenging situations. Although the situation while riding with my brother of often getting hopelessly lost and running out was water was tough and tested our patience, we were both ultimately glad to have each other around for company and safety. I really struggled being totally alone in a foreign country with no mobile phone access for two weeks after departing Germany. I think that my experience would have been quite better if I was travelling with a person who spoke French and knew the area a bit better. E.g. I missed a few good paths simply because I didn’t know they existed until someone told me about them later.
2. Do some planning: You don’t have to have your trip planned to the exact hour. Of course allow for some spontaneity and flexibility. But don’t do what I did and just totally wing it hoping that it would all work out. Often you will get lost, miss good sections of path/scenery etc because you didn’t do enough research and mark sections to ride through. There’s nothing worse than having to stop every 5km on the side of the road squinting at a inadequate road map trying to figure out where you are and where you should be going. Our most enjoyable days were when we knew where we were going and could just cruise along at a decent pace. I found that writing cue cards was an effective technique, with the name of each town/village and rough distance between each one so you know you’re on the right track without needing to take the map out. A good quality GPS/cycle computer would also be a worthwhile investment in my opinion.
3. Bring maps of various scales: We only had one map of a large scale showing only major roads in France. This became problematic as there are smaller roads everywhere through France which are perfect for cycling, but I didn’t want to risk getting too lost especially with the bung knee liming my range. I brought my HTC smartphone with me which was handy as you can get free WiFi just about everywhere in France (ask for “wee-fee”) and download Google maps in offline mode. However the small screen and lack of GPS was difficult to work with other than emergency/basic planning from a cafe somewhere.
4. Get any health issues sorted out as much as possible well before leaving: To be honest even though getting a bit lost, or cycling on major roads or up a few hills was a bit annoying, it would have been a lot more bearable if I wasn’t simultaneously trying to cope with painful, sore knees at the same time. I knew my knees weren’t reliable and I didn’t seek any help with it until only a month before I left. This simply wasn’t enough time and I paid the price for it eventually. So if you have any issues like this make sure you go get it sorted out before you leave, or maybe consider your route and daily distances carefully if you can’t! The only things that should be sore while cycle touring are your legs at the end of a long day and a few hills, and even that should go away after a shower, massage and a rest. Hand, knee, shoulder, back, butt etc pain while cycle touring are not normal and should be warning signs that something needs to be fixed or adjusted.
I hope my experience will help others who are planning their first cycle tour. I know it was a valuable exercise for myself and I am looking forward to my next tour. Hopefully pain and drama free in the future.