Creativity and Fear, My Road Trip Companions

Kite boarding in Resia, Italy

The winds over the Cascade Mountains in Washington always punch airplanes around. As I sat in a 20-seat propeller aircraft during a recent trip, the metal creaked, the engines roared, and the pilot fought winds so strong the flight attendants stayed seated the entire time. (Never a good sign.) Luckily, I happened to be reading a book chapter about fear.

But I’m not talking about that kind of fear.

I’m talking about creative fear. The kind that stops you in your tracks and makes you say no, to shelve an idea, curb a project and stay safe. As Aristotle said, “to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

Liz Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, describes how she pictures any creative endeavor as a road trip with twins named Creativity and Fear. They’re always there, but she sets ground rules before the trip: Fear gets no radio station control, and definitely doesn’t get to drive.

Creativity, meanwhile, rides shotgun and picks the music, points out restaurants, and picks fun side diversions along the way, loving the ride. Yet through it all, Fear sits in the backseat with arms crossed and points out how stupid it was to take the road trip, that everything is going wrong, and whines about taking a pee break.

Lounging by a lake in Italy

Lounging by a lake in Italy

I fight fear every time I hit publish on a blog post or video. Blogging is easier these days since I’ve published 120 of them (how did that happen?!) without anyone shipping me off to the gulag for dissent. However, I’m a neophyte with video, so each completed work is a large percentage of my lifetime efforts. It’s a new arena where I’m equipped with a fork and spoon as I wish for a trident and lion-emblazoned shield.

Luckily, there are no other gladiators, and my life isn’t at stake. Just my self-confidence.

But hey! Learning with no expectations is good for me; video taps a different part of my brain versus writing or photography. Chelsea loses me for hours as I disappear into editing or drift off thinking about a fun angle for a shot. I know a well-done video when I see one – I think we all do – so efforts at this new endeavor frustrate me sometimes. But while these little video compilations don’t meet my vision for desired quality, they’re training, a method to figuring things out.

Ira Glass from This American Life said it well: “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good… A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this…And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

Every time I “finish” a creative project, a part of me still cringes because I know it’s not perfect. Making something feels like physical effort akin to scaling a castle wall, and publishing is tossing the work off a turret into the commons for all to see. Yet there, open and exposed, is where a project teaches me something. Readers email with support or (hopefully constructive) feedback, and I also ask for input from people whose skills I respect. (Brady, you wily film maker, you’re right – moving text and cross-fades are lame.)

If I don’t do that, there’s no improvement – I’d send text shooting across the screen and execute bad transitions forever. Instead, progress. Or at least it feels that way.

Wandering the castle grounds in Prague.

Wandering the castle grounds in Prague.

Just like this blog, which has expanded beyond what I expected when I started tapping keys two years ago, I have no idea how video will add to my life. Maybe it’s just a fun side project, a good outlet for my curiosity. Or maybe I can leverage those skills, our travel experiences, and my writing to tell stories about issues that needs attention. I felt too awkward to film the Syrian refugee situation when we were in Salzburg, but that is a perfect example of a story that needs to be shared.

Footage from our cycling trip in Europe is my current video medium. I’m parsing my way through it to learn new skills like decoupling video and audio for voiceovers, layering audio tracks, plus discovering free creative commons music sources. And while Fear sullenly plays Solitaire and Creativity babbles on about all the adventures around the bend, I’m enjoying the heck out of this road trip.

Check out my latest video – it’s a quick 1:20 and, I dare say, my cleanest one yet. Please let me know what you think!

sudtirol bike path

13 Countries, 2 Flats – European Bike Tour Stats and Favorites

Sudtirol bike path magic

I’m one of those weirdos who loves tracking numbers. They help me understand and frame the world, my data-gobbling brain dining happily when served courses of city populations, distances traveled, workout stats, or even Quicken files tracking our spending. I’ve dialed this back over the past few years to avoid turning into Spock, but still find it fun.

Did I mention that we’re done with our summer bike tour of Europe? We are! And since I enjoyed compiling stats for our 2014 U.S. tour, I repeated it this time – welcome to the summary of our 3.5 month bicycle tour through Europe in 2015. We’re currently relaxing post-trip (i.e not biking) in New York City before we head west to Idaho (on a plane). 

The route! Starting in London, we pedaled 2,500 miles, took a couple ferries, and hopped on a few trains.

The route! Starting in London, we pedaled 2,500 miles, took a couple ferries, and hopped on a few trains, finishing in Prague.

This tour we aimed to mix cycling with maximum enjoyment, a shift from the mostly physical challenge of last year. To accomplish that, we rode less mileage and parked the bikes for more days off. Both touring styles are worthwhile, but I had more fun during this European cycle tour thanks to mixing up the activities.

Below is the breakdown, a compilation of favorite places, distances and time on the bike, and other random tidbits. Data can’t fully capture the experience, but perhaps it helps an aspiring cycle tourist wrap their head around the hard data and think, “hey, I could do that.” (You can!)

Onward.

A big brdige span over the River Drau in SE Austria.

A big bridge span over the River Drau in SE Austria.

All the Info

  • Total distance ridden: 2,440 miles (3,935 kilometers), the same distance as flying from San Francisco to Hawaii, London to Toronto, or Amsterdam to Timbuktu.
  • Number of countries we pedaled in: 13 (almost as many as the 15 states as we crossed during last year’s U.S. tour).
  • Favorite cycling area: Italy’s NE Sudtirol region, followed closely by Slovenia (which still wins my favorite country award). Ah, the Alps are so fantastic!
  • Biggest surprise about Europe: there is a ton of farmland and animal agriculture, which I hadn’t encountered during previous travels since I kept to metropolitan Europe. Corn fields are everywhere and the stink of animal feedlots tinted the air in many areas of the continent. Some countries (Belgium, parts of eastern France, and Hungary) hinted of the American Midwest in terms of their crops and landscapes.

    The hilly southern edge of Austria still had corn!

    The hilly southern edge of Austria still had corn!

  • Total days touring: 103 (June 13 – September 23, 2015)
  • Days pedaling: 64
  • Days NOT bike touring: 39, almost 40% of the trip. Compared to last year’s U.S. ride (only 18 days off), our aim for Europe was more time to explore, relax, and hang with people we met along the way. We gave ourselves permission to laze about, explore cities with friends, lace up the running shoes, sit in cafes and read, or mountain bike. Mixing it up was very fun, and we’ll aim for this style of touring in the future.

    Hiking (followed by swimming) on a rest day at Lake Bohinj, Slovenia.

    Hiking (followed by swimming) on a rest day at Lake Bohinj, Slovenia.

  • Average time pedaling each day: 3.8 hours, barely a part-time job.
  • Extra calories burned per day: 3,000-5,000. I ate almost non-stop (but what’s new).
  • Average distance per day: 38 miles (61 km), close to our initial plan of 40 miles per day.
  • Total pedal strokes: 934,000, give or take a few.
  • Longest day: 55.7 miles (90 km) and 5.25 hours of pedaling in Slovenia.
  • Elevation gain: 85,754 feet (138,000 m). That’s 16 miles straight up, but only 1,355 feet per day on average.
  • Number of cycling networks traversed: 11, though I’m probably missing a few. Europe has fantastic cycle networks and resources for cycle touring.
    Bike in German=rad. Perfect.

    Bike in German=rad. Perfect.

  • Days without a shower: Zero! Ah, Europe, the lap of luxury.
  • Number of other bike tourists encountered: Hundreds! Compared to the U.S., where we went 61 days without seeing another cycle tourist, Europe was a buzzing hive of activity. We’d see at least a few long-distance tourers per day and dozens of people out for day rides.
  • Favorite things about touring in Europe:
    • Well-signed, no-car bike paths made route planning easy, plus lowered stress levels since we rarely spent time fencing with big trucks.
    • Frequent towns or cities, which meant easy logistics for water, food, and lodging. Even the tiniest villages had historic guest houses or inns, so we stayed in cities far more than our U.S. tour. Lodging values were fantastic too.

      Colmar in the Alsace region. We stayed with a friend of mine I hadn't seen since studying abroad in Sweden.

      Colmar in the Alsace region. We stayed with a friend of mine I hadn’t seen since studying abroad in Sweden.

  • Things I missed about the U.S.:
    • The wide open wilderness of the States dwarfs the nature in Europe. The U.S. is BIG, and though it makes logistics tougher, pedaling for hours in the middle of nowhere carries a special magic. The east side of Glacier en route to Canada comes to mind.
    • Communication created some headaches. With 10 languages over three months (none of them Spanish, argh!), the constant roadblock to speaking with people sometimes made us feel frustrated and isolated. I acknowledge that I have no room to bitch since people were accommodating, friendly, and spoke pretty good English (along with French, German, Dutch…).
  • Longest continuous climb: 11 miles from Austria up up up to the Czech Republic. This was also our biggest elevation day at 3,500’, though an honorable mention goes to the hilly Ardennes region of Belgium for working us over.
  • Steepest climb: multiple 19% passes in the Alps. The toughest pass was from Austria up to Slovenia, a 6-mile onslaught so consistently steep it was almost laughable, followed closely by Resia Pass from Italy into Austria. (Moral: don’t try to cross the Austrian border!)

    Top of the pass from Italy into Austria.

    Top of the pass from Italy into Austria. We stayed in the lakeside village (Resia) for a few nights.

  • Most memorable song along the way: A cheery five a.m. wake-up whistled rendition of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” on the ferry ride from England to Holland.
  • Oldest accommodation: a 1,000 year-old monastery in England featuring a fun, challenging obstacle course. We stopped for a couple nights to celebrate my 33rd birthday, but my attempts to beat the obstacle course record were thwarted by old age.
  • Most countries biked in during one day: three – Luxembourg/Germany/France, Italy/Switzerland/Austria
  • Hottest temperature: 110℉ in Venice – our weather app said “feels like 125℉.” We agreed.
  • Numbers of days over 95℉: ~30, plus a handful over 100 as Europe busted through many heat records. We made two personal videos documenting our vow to never bike tour in July-August again unless it’s in Scandinavia or a place with outdoor A/C and lakes every three miles.

    Wheat fields in Germany.

    Wheat fields in Germany.

  • Most scoops of gelato in one day: Six each, a three-visit day to our favorite vegan-friendly gelateria in Rovinj, Croatia when temps soared to triple digits. Cycle touring and burning a few thousand extra calories per day has its perks.
  • Swimming-in-humidity award: Hungary, where we got up at five a.m. to beat the heat.
  • Favorite cathedral: the stunning Strasbourg spires. We happened to be there for the  booming sound and light show celebrating the 1,000 year anniversary of the cathedral.
    Strasbourg cathedral
  • Most days off in a row: Eight, including no-bikes-allowed Venice and five days relaxing in Croatia with our buddies to avoid scathing heat.
  • Flat tires: Two for C, 0 for D.
  • Tires replaced: Always an FAQ from people we meet… But not a single one! C’s rear tire was getting a bit thin by the end, which is why she picked up two quick flats with just a week left in our trip. My rear tire (a Schwalbe Marathon) now has 7,000 miles on it and is going strong.
  • Other bike troubles: Two broken spokes for my bike thanks to cobblestone beatings. The rear wheel on my tough Salsa Fargo managed to survive a week of pedaling before we found a bike shop and ate lunch as the delightful old-school, long-haired owner in cutoff jean shorts grooved to jazz and fixed my rear wheel.

    Austrian sunflowers

    Austrian sunflowers

  • Number of push ups done to avoid turning into an all-I-do-is-bike upper body wimpo:  6,035. (Yes, I track weird things.) Since cycling is so exclusively lower body, I also did pull ups (usually at kids’ playgrounds), core work and elastic band exercises to stay physically balanced. I highly recommend doing this while on tour, not to mention stretching frequently so hamstrings don’t shrink to one-third their previous length.
  • Probability of returning to Europe with bikes: 100%
On the other side of the pass from Slovenia to Austria. The couple who took this picture was 1) headed up and 2) not as happy in their flex shot.

On the other side of the pass from Slovenia to Austria. The couple of bike tourists who took this picture were 1) headed up and 2) not happy about it.

Thanks to all the new friends who fed us, housed us, and generally brightened our day along the way!

Thanks to all the friends who fed us, housed us, and generally brightened our day along the way!

Sudtirolo, the Italian Cycling Paradise You’ve Never Heard Of (Video)

Bicycle Touring Sudtirol

Südtirol or Sudtirolo. South Tyrol. The Italian Dolomites. Whatever you call it, the NE corner of Italy was our favorite cycle touring location from our trip through Europe.

A German traveler first insisted we visit this place, a sentiment echoed by other people we met along our way. They were right; the little-known, sparsely populated region is a captivating area. I could see myself living there for an extended period sometime.

Castles (not for rent, unfortunately) and a bike path by the river. Woot!

South Tyrol lies in Italy’s far northeastern tip. It is distant from Rome to the point of autonomy, and even retains most of its tax revenue rather than passing it along to the national government. The region was formerly part of Austria (almost 3/4 of people speak German as their first language) and retains that country’s efficiency and organization. On the other hand, its capital, Bolzano, has won the Italian “best quality of life” award. (In fact, all menus and signs feature both German and Italian.)

On top of that, throw in a stunning mix of scenery and riverside cycle paths through mountain valleys or through picturesque Italian towns. Fair warning that even with the bike paths, there are some long, steep climbs! The mountain biking was also awesome, and I can’t wait to get back to explore more of that realm.

A rest day mountain bike ride in Resia through three countries (Italy, Switzerland, and Austria).

A “rest day” mountain bike ride in Resia. 40 miles, three countries (Italy, Switzerland, and Austria) and most of the climbing done via gondola. The Europeans know what’s up.

If you are planning to cycle here (do it!), the links and details are in my logistics post about bicycle touring through Europe. Everyone else just check out the photos and video documenting our two weeks in this cycling paradise (email subscribers click here, web visitors can watch the embedded version below). I finally bought some real video editing software and had a great time trying new features and honing my video production skills on this 2.5 minute compilation. More to come…

A flooded valley now sports this church spire in the middle of the lake.

A flooded valley now sports this church spire in the middle of the lake.

A rest day and long walk along the water in Resia.

A rest day and long walk along the water in Resia.

An evening rainbow on the mountains behind Toblach, Italy.

An evening rainbow on the mountains behind Toblach, Italy.

This dual wavy bridge was quite cool and is a part of Bolzano's stellar bike path system.

This dual wavy bridge was curved both sideways and up/down. It’s part of Bolzano’s stellar bike path system.

Chelsea pedals her way up a climb toward Austria.

Chelsea pedals her way up a climb toward Austria.

A view of the Alps across Lake Resia.

An evening view of the Alps across Lake Resia.

Resources, Links and Apps for Bicycle Touring in Europe

Bicycle touring in Europe has something for everyone, with terrain ranging from flat, well-signed bike paths to mountains and the challenge of the Alps. After 3.5 months exploring by pedal power, I absolutely recommend a cycling trip here. Whether your trip is long or short, self-guided or with a company, there’s great times to be had for both newbies and seasoned cyclists.

Why? Logistics are easy, with frequent lodging, water, and food sources; it seems there’s town every 5 miles in most of Europe. Plus, businesses cater to cyclists. And if you’d like to skip certain areas, train routes are plentiful. Throw in the fun of varied languages and cuisine, tons of history, and beautiful architecture and it’s simply a fantastic cycling destination.

This post describes technology and online resources to help make your European bicycle tour a success. I also list each of the 13 countries we visited and link to my favorite cycling and lodging networks in each of them. Using my external brain in Evernote, I compiled and organized these as we traveled, which made sharing easy. Hopefully it saves you a ton of time!

The route! Starting in London, we pedaled 2,500 miles, took a couple ferries, and hopped on a few trains.

The route! Starting in London, we pedaled 2,500 miles, took a couple ferries, and hopped on a few trains.

Technology to Make Your Trip Easy

Given my love of technology, I’d be remiss to not start here. In fact, only one set of paper maps were harmed during our trip (it was in England, I confess). Otherwise, we didn’t use hard-copy maps at all.

“Real” maps weren’t necessary – really! And neither was a turn-by-turn GPS device; a smartphone loaded with the right apps made navigation a cinch. That said, the correct tool spells the difference between pedaling happily along versus pushing your bike through stinging nettles on a forgotten animal trail. (I did both, but prefer the former.) Below are specific tools that I used, and perhaps also read my post about tech details for traveling:

  1. Galileo Offline Maps – my go-to phone app for touring, Galileo pulls info from the Open Cycle Map database. I tried others (Long Haul Trekkers have a great list of offline navigation apps), but Galileo is my favorite. It costs just $2 and you can download individual countries (for free) as you need them. I toyed around with downloading .gpx routes into apps like Bike Hub from biroto.eu, but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. If you use a GPS, perhaps it could help you out.
  2. ACSI – this app dials into the ACSI European database for 8,500 campgrounds that are inspected on a yearly basis (i.e. they don’t suck). You can buy individual country info or just snag the entire continent’s worth of data for $13.
  3. WifiMap – if you aren’t traveling with a hotspot or don’t have Google Fi service, this offline list of wifi hotspots and their passwords can come in quite handy, though the utility varies depending on the area because the info is crowdsourced.
  4. Warmshowers.org – this network of cyclists is a great resource for staying with local people. We used it frequently during our U.S. tour in 2014, but found it tougher to arrange in Europe with everyone on holiday. It’s definitely worth checking out! There’s a great app for it as well.
  5. Booking.com and AirBnb.com – after a long day of cycling where you don’t feel like camping (such as when it’s raining or 100 degrees outside), it can be nice to book a place and not search around at the end of the day. We used the Booking.com app mid-ride some days to nail down a place so we could land without having to search for lodging. It was our favorite since there isn’t any time-sucking back and forth communication with a host, but we used Airbnb probably 25% of the time, especially for longer stays in one place when we wanted a kitchen or a full apartment. I should note that Booking.com also has apartments in some locations.

    Enjoying the view from a balcony in Resia, Italy.

    Enjoying the view from our balcony in Resia, Italy. I loved how many balconies were festooned with bright flowers.

  6. Google Maps – an oldie, but a goodie. Same as with Galileo, I’d save locations or map things before we left for the day. I tried voice navigation using ear buds initially, then decided it was unnecessary.

With the above, you’ll be fit as an Olympic marathoner for figuring out where you are, where you’re going, and where the heck you’re going to sleep. The pedaling is still up to you – I haven’t found an app for that. But now that you know how to find routes, which ones should you follow? Read on!

Crossing from Italy to Austria, Switzerland in the background.

Crossing from Italy to Austria, Switzerland in the background.

Dedicated Bike Routes, Cycle Paths, and Other Resources

We landed in London with no set route beyond a ticket out of Prague. That’s always our favorite method for exploring, though we knew of 14 EuroVelo cycle routes criss-crossing Europe like strands of a golden cycling spiderweb. Following those routes or regional networks, we spent many days on quiet country roads or bike paths, not to mention that many cities also had great cycle-only routes.

 Just follow the stickers! Crossing into France from Germany on the EuroVelo 5.

Just follow the stickers! Crossing into France from Germany on the EuroVelo 5.

Compared to the United States, there are far more resources in Europe for bicycle touring. I used the below to plan:

  1. EuroVelo (EV) routes –  the backbone of any route planning for a European cycling trip for those seeking to follow bike paths or cycle routes. The EV frequently follows local/regional maps (see below), but this overview is great for developing a general route plan.
  2. Updated October 19, 2017: Bikeroll.net looks like a great service to check out. I haven’t used it during a tour, but it looks clean and simple to use. Here’s the instructions for using it.
  3. OpenCycleMap.org – this compiles both the EV routes and regional maps to show low-traffic roads or bicycle paths. Most touring apps that I found pulled from this database.
  4. Bikemap.net – if Google Maps doesn’t have cycling options in the country (Italy, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Czech Republic), this is a great option to scope out potential elevation profiles, such as this quad-tester from Sudtirol in Italy.
Jen and Dave from Long Haul Trekkers cruise through a misty day in the rolling valleys of Slovenia.

Jen and Dave from Long Haul Trekkers cruise through a misty day in the rolling valleys of Slovenia.

Regional Bike Routes in European Countries

The EuroVelo routes are great, but what if you want or need to deviate from those? Fear not – there are many local resources available. Here’s each of the 13 countries we visited and the resources I used to navigate, all arranged in alphabetical order:

Many of the bike paths are old train lines, which means we rode through many cool tunnels like this.

Many of the bike paths are old train lines, which means we rode through many cool tunnels like this.

  1. Austria – not only is the scenery fantastic, but it doesn’t get any better than Austria’s bike infrastructure. Clear signage, car-free paths, and even bike maintenance stops. The best part? The word for “bike” in German is RAD. North to south, the Alpe Adria route rocks through the Austrian Alps. East-west, try the mountain-cutting Inn River Path from Switzerland to Germany and the Drau Cycle Path from Italy to Hungary (we rode both of them). Or just check out all of the country’s paths.

    Digging the views near Innsbruck on the Inn River Path.

  2. Belgium – you’ll need multiple resources here. First the Fiets Routes for the Dutch-speaking Flanders (northern Belgium), where we followed the famous Tour de Flanders. Then the southern, French-speaking part has two – RandoVelo and Ravel will help you through the famous WWII battle zone of the Belgian Ardennes. Fair warning that an 80k day will stack up 1000 meters of climbing in these steep hills. Here’s my post about our Belgian experience.
  3. Croatia – cycle routes here are more, shall we say, suggestions? Narrow, winding coastal roads with no shoulders and a few country roads for a breather. I recommend riding here in the shoulder seasons and getting up early to avoid traffic. It’s beautiful, but stressful riding. We joined two friends and their dog for this portion of the trip.
  4. Czech Republic – this country features an insane number of cycle routes. I can see why cycle touring is one of the favorite activities in this country, as routes are well-signed and typically follow quiet country roads. It holds a special place in our hearts since Chelsea and I met there in 2006.

    Cesky Krumlov in the southern CZ.

    Cesky Krumlov in the southern CZ.

  5. England – the National Cycle Network is the place to go for designing your cycle tour through Britain. We spent a week riding from Oxford east to the coast, and I’m looking forward to returning to explore the Lakes District up north.
  6. France – sorry, not much help here as we simply followed the EuroVelo 5 route through eastern France into the pretty Alsace wine region near Strausborg and Colmar. The super-popular EuroVelo 6 runs from France’s western edge straight east and is reportedly quite good.
  7. Germany – as you might expect, the Germans have cycle touring figured out. Their cycle network is solid, as is their list of accommodations (bike and bed, as they call it) for cyclists. We didn’t spend many days in Germany, but I found it easy to navigate.

    Storks are good luck in Europe and we saw nests like this all over.

    Storks are good luck in Europe and we saw nests on houses all over.

  8. Hungary – the EuroVelo 6 is the most common way people ride through Hungary, which is predominantly farmland. We came in from Slovenia/Croatia and pedaled around Lake Balaton, which was…ok. The beautiful north side of the lake is the only part of the trip I’d recommend (here’s the blog post about our experience).
  9. Italy – we only cycled in the NE part of the country, the beautiful Sudtirol. These two resources laid out the routes nicely. A German traveler in England insisted we visit this place and described it as a combination of Austrian efficiency and Italian quality of life (all menus and signs are in both languages, which was interesting). He was right: go here. This was our favorite mix of scenery and silky cycle paths, most next to rivers through the Italian Dolomites. (Side note: the mountain biking here rocks. Check out the riding in Reschenpass, which starts in Italy, into Switzerland and Austria, and then back to Italy. First time I’ve been to three countries in one ride. Did I mention there are four gondolas that haul you and your bike uphill?)

    A perfect bike path through Sudtirol.

    A perfect bike path through Sudtirol.

  10. Luxembourg – this tiny speck of a country has a great cycling network both in the countryside and in the picturesque capital. And lots of steep hills.
  11. The Netherlands – all you need is Nederland Fietsland. Flat terrain, perfect cycle paths, and more e-bikes than you’ll see anywhere in the world, Holland is a cycling paradise. It also has a “friends of cyclists” network where locals host cyclists. According to my friends there, the downside is the terrible weather. Here’s my post about our time there.
  12. Slovenia – a favorite country from our trip, especially the NW portion in the Julian Alps. Nice people, laid-back cities, and varied, pretty landscapes made for a great time there. However, while Slovenia lauds its cycling, I couldn’t find a digital copy of their bike routes. Luckily, the Galileo app worked well.

    Chelsea gives a final switchback into Slovenia the what-for coming over the pass from Austria.

    Chelsea gives a final switchback into Slovenia the what-for coming over the pass from Austria.

  13. Switzerland – of course the Swiss have their cycle network totally dialed. We didn’t spend much time there, but look forward to coming back.

And that, my friends, is the logistics download for countries we visited during our European cycle tour. For countries not mentioned, I recommend simply Googling “country name + cycling network” to see if there’s a regional resource. It seems there usually is.

Europe has my vote as a great cycling destination. And we weren’t the only ones out there – I saw an incredible number of people of all ages using the excellent bike infrastructure. Don’t let the language barrier intimidate you either, as nearly everyone speaks English and people are very helpful. For your next trip there, leave the backpacks at home and try exploring on your bike. It’s an experience you won’t forget.

What resources, tools, apps or other intel do you have for anyone looking to cycle tour in Europe? This post is intended as a long-term resource that will build over time, so please add your thoughts in the comments or shoot me an email.

Heading up to the top of Reschenpass in NE Italy.

Climbing to the top of Reschenpass in NE Italy. With views like this, we lingered and spent over a month in the Alps.

What Refugees in Salzburg Taught Me About Speaking Up

Underground in Salzburg with Syrian refugees

During breakfast in Innsbruck, an American woman nearby leaned over to chat. Lamenting a canceled flight, she lowered her voice and said conspiratorially, “we drove down from Hamburg instead of taking the train because of, you know, all the Syrian refugees.”

I didn’t counter her comment. Later, however, I couldn’t stop thinking that I should have questioned the statement instead of avoiding confrontation and burying my voice.

What I didn’t say to this woman was that Chelsea and I had recently spent hours reading about the conflict in Syria. Or that we’d researched relief organizations and were heading to Salzburg with hopes of assisting the waves of refugees arriving via train from Hungary en route to Germany.

Why do people speak of others the way she did? The refugees leaving their homeland are fleeing civil war, taking only a couple bags of possessions. Meanwhile, this lady from Virginia sat next to her starched-shirt professor husband and followed up her bigoted statement with, “thank goodness the pool here is clean.” 

We learned that Germany, bucking convention, may accept 800,000 refugees by the end of the year (in comparison, the U.S. may take up to 10,000 in 2016). Now, however, German services were overwhelmed and they, along with other European countrieshad shut their borders, even going so far as to pause train service from Austria. Pedaling our way toward Salzburg three days later, we noticed a mile-long line of cars at the German/Austrian border as policemen checked vehicles.

Police block the entrance to the train platforms.

Police block the entrance to the train platforms.

Cut to the scene yesterday in the Salzburg train station. Tired families rested on any surface they could find; meanwhile, police officers blocked the train platforms. Suddenly a rush of people flowed by, mothers towing wide-eyed kids, fathers shouting and herding their family through the melee. A train was departing to Germany and the wall of police politely, but firmly, allowed a small number of individual families through. One group at a time climbed the stairs to seek their fate in the west.

We talked to a volunteer named Tomas who was providing coffee and tea for people. “The refugees live on rumors; they hear a train is coming, so they run to the platform. No train. Then one comes while they’re sleeping and they miss it. There’s no rest, no ease.” He ushered us past security and into an underground parking garage, the temporary home for hundreds of refugees who slept on folding cots or the ground. As unaffiliated volunteers, Chelsea and I helped out as we could.

Thin blankets and donated foam sleeping pads in the garage.

Blankets and donated foam sleeping pads in the garage.

I grabbed piles of thin blankets to serve as beds and laid them on the cold, dirty concrete of the parking garage. At the same time, I studied the refugee families coping with their situation. Teenagers in hip jeans flipped through their phones. Kids played with balloons or ran around, lost in their imagination; their drawings festooned a concrete pillar, a make-shift art wall. Parents mostly sat dully, perhaps storing their energy for the next rush to the train and a fresh chance to rebuild their lives.

We returned the next day. I kicked around a soccer ball with a tireless kid, then spoke at length with a few refugees. An Iranian man in his early 20s, a light and sound engineer, had applied for amnesty in the U.S. to escape persecution for being a Christian. Two years into the process, he left home and walked for days. Sick of waiting in Salzburg, he was considering striking out on foot for the German border and asked us if we thought it was possible to cross.

I also talked to a young Syrian, Muhammad, who had paid 2,000 Euros for a ship to Greece, then shelled out many bribes to navigate Serbia and Hungary. Twenty days into the journey, he aimed to make it to Belgium or England. When I commented on his red sweatshirt, emblazoned with the American stars and stripes, he said “I love America!” Then he showed me his phone’s red, white and blue case. My thoughts returned to the breakfast conversation with the American woman in Innsbruck.

Laying out blankets while a family passes the time in the background.

Laying out blankets while a family passes the time in the background.

I’ve encountered conversations like this too many times. The short (but unreal) discussion with a complete stranger in small-town Oregon who ranted about “the BLM and their damn gun-toting dykes” comes to mind. Or the man in Upstate New York who loathed gun control because he wanted to be able to shoot his cannon. Usually I slip into a friendly, aloof stance and excuse myself quickly. This latest chat, while relatively benign, reminds me that sticking up for others who are victims of hate and ignorance is necessary.

Dishonesty can wield the sword of an outright lie, but it can also fester in the silence of a truth unsaid. Not voicing an opinion can unwittingly condone actions or allow the speaker of hateful comments to believe their thoughts are held by everyone else. I’ve pondered this deeply since reading Sam Harris’s essay Lying during this trip, and Martin Luther King’s brilliant quote comes to mind: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Breathing the diesel fumes wafting through the underground shelter, I made a resolution. No more will I stand with a fake smile on my face while someone spouts hate or bigotry. It’s time to engage in a respectful, firm way, to tell my side of the story and share my opinion. I’m sure the experience won’t always be comfortable, but I’m hopeful that Oscar Wilde was correct when he penned, “There comes a time when speaking one’s mind ceases to be a moral duty, it becomes a pleasure.”

A big thanks to our dear friend Hilary Wang for inspiring us to get involved with this issue. If anyone would like to contribute to help the refugees, The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is helping some of the four million people fleeing Syria; until October 13th, Kickstarter is (for the first time) helping fund raise as well. Google is currently matching contributions up to $5.5 million to UNHCR and other organizations.

Eye Candy From Slovenia, My New Favorite European Country

View of Lake Bohinj in Slovenia

Some places stick with me like a bright splinter of happiness lodged in the memory banks. With views like the one of Lake Bohinj above, I’ll be dreaming about Slovenia for awhile.

As we climbed over the mountains out of Croatia, I didn’t know what to expect on the other side. I’d heard of the views, the friendly people, the quiet country roads perfect for cycling. As rumors tend to go, all of that was mostly true, though we did ride some narrow highways and joust with traffic here and there. The cities, even smaller ones, all featured separated bike paths, a stellar surprise. Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana (LubJub, as we called it), is criss-crossed by a network of cycling paths with great signage that made exploring by bicycle fun. That’s more than I can say for most big cities.

A lovely night in Ljubljana.

A lovely night in Ljubljana.

Overall, Slovenia was a mix of beautiful terrain and a quiet, laid-back atmosphere not overrun by tourists. Prices for food and lodging were about 2/3 the price of western European countries like Belgium or Austria, and it sported good food, easy navigating and pretty cities. It’s a small country packed full of variety – rolling mountains to the southwest, a picturesque capital in the center, vineyards to the northeast, and jagged peaks of the Julian Alps to the northwest. We pedaled through it all.

Slovenia is right in the center. After taking the ferry from Venice to Croatia, we headed NE out to Hungary before looping back west into the Alps.

After taking the ferry from Venice to Croatia, we headed NE through Slovenia, then east to Hungary before looping back west again into the Slovenian Alps.

Overall we spent three weeks in Slovenia, crossing its borders multiple times. Our favorite part, the Alps, required sweating over quad-testing 18% mountain passes to/from Austria, which was totally worth it. Lake Bled was romantic and lovely; Lake Bohinj (a place I could stay for multiple months) was an adventurer’s paradise tucked into the mountains. Bohinj featured paragliding, mountain biking, trekking, and all the fun available on a pristine mountain lake. It’s my top destination recommendation from all our time in Europe so far.

Enough said. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story. Have a great weekend, everybody.

The idyllic Lake Bled and the famous church atop an island in the center.

The idyllic Lake Bled and the famous church atop an island in the center.

Chelsea and Jen enjoy the view in central Slovenia.

Chelsea and Jen enjoy the view in central Slovenia.

Even in the rain, Lake Bled is uber-romantic. Where else does a heart frame a castle, after all?

Even in the rain, Lake Bled is uber-romantic. Where else does a heart frame a castle, after all?

Locks of love decorate a bridge in Ljubljana.

Locks of love decorate a bridge in Ljubljana.

Slovenian hills don't mess around - 15%+ grades were common, even on bike routes. The views made up for it.

Slovenian hills don’t mess around – 15%+ grades were common, even on bike routes. The views made up for it.

Paddling across Lake Bohinj in the NW part of Slovenia.

Some SUPers on Lake Bohinj in the NW part of Slovenia.

Embracing the tourist life to row a swan boat out to the romantic castle in the center of Lake Bled.

Embracing the tourist life to row a swan boat out to the church in the center of Lake Bled.

Rolling through the scenic valley near Kranjska Gora in the far NW corner of Slovenia.

Rolling through the scenic valley near Kranjska Gora in the far NW corner of Slovenia.

Chelsea throws down on a soon-to-be 18% pass north out of Slovenia into Austria.

Chelsea throws down on a soon-to-be 18% pass north out of Slovenia into Austria. Steep in, steep out, but totally worth it!

Cycle Touring in a Hungarian Heat Wave

Pedaling Lake Balaton

The situation was dire. “They don’t have chocolate-covered rice cakes!” Chelsea reported, walking out of our favorite European grocery store, Spar. “And no ajvar either.” We were scarcely 100 pedal strokes over Hungary’s border and already were forced to continue sans our favorite snack and red pepper spread. Whatever – we hadn’t made it this far to only to crumble so easily.

The country’s history is a tough one. Smack-dab in the middle of Central Europe, Hungary was once a wealthy empire ranging from coastal Croatia east to the Black Sea. It was an industrialized nation and Budapest rang with discourse, music and art. Then the ramifications of two world wars carved up the illustrious empire and resulted in half of ethnic Hungarians living outside the new borders and 70% of its previous land holdings stripped away and handed over (or returned) to other countries. This split the beating heart of industry from the lifeblood of raw materials necessary to feed it, crushing the economy.

Sign of the times? Progress rooted in the old.

Sign of the times? Progress rooted in the old.

Though many Hungarian leaders pushed for neutrality during WWII, geography forced it to join the Axis powers. One book I read said, “they could either be broiled by the Germans or boiled by the Russians.” When Hungary tried to negotiate a surrender to the Allies, the German forces stomped in to occupy the country. Then the Russian troops invaded and pillaged. They also extracted onerous war reparations that undermined the Hungarian economy, weakened the previous government and paved the way for 50 years of Communism.

President Harry Truman, a die-hard Midwesterner, once told a Hungarian diplomat that he’d like to visit to learn about their agriculture system. He never made it before the Iron Curtain slammed shut, but if I had a few lines to report back my superficial findings based on my 10 days touring there, I’d say:

“Dear Prez Truman – fields of corn, wheat, rye and sugar beets cover the majority of the countryside. It feels like a Soviet-influenced version of Illinois. Uniform boxy homes cluster together in empty villages, the eerie silence broken occasionally by a tractor gnashing up the street. Elderly people creak by on bikes so rusty it’s a miracle the frames hold together. The cheery flowers in window boxes, so often seen in Western Europe, are gone.”

And then I’d tell Harry to watch the video I put together from our time in Hungary; it’s at the bottom of this post.

Hills of Hungary

Frankly, cycling through Hungary felt more like survival than fun, and we had a hard time enjoying it. The agricultural terrain felt monotonous and the heat hung on our backs like a scorching blanket of coals. We struggled to connect with the place in our usual way, though everyone we interacted with was incredibly cordial and friendly. One memorable evening was a nice Warmshowers stay with a lovely family in the countryside. They told us of the difficulties of starting a business or homeschooling children in a country that is still shaking off old Communist conformity.

Rising in the dark to beat the heat, Chelsea and I were pedaling each day by the time sunrise tinged corn stalks with a crimson hue. One memorable bonus was the roadside stands with delectable, juicy watermelons from southern Hungary. I ate mounds of the delicious fruit every day, spooning it directly out of the rind until my belly swelled, round and taut as the melons themselves.

Sunrise start!

Sunrise start!

Our route was a 400-mile loop out of Slovenia. The destination: Lake Balaton, a blue oval in the midst of Central Europe’s Great Plains that attracts tourists from all over the area. We put the lake in our sights after reading about the excellent bike paths circumventing its shores. Parts of the lake are so shallow that it’s possible to wade out hundreds of feet and still only be up to your waist; people stand around chatting like they’re hanging out in a park.

Wading in Lake Balaton

Balaton felt like two different worlds depending which side we pedaled. The flatter south shore featured rental houses and resorts that spawned hundreds of people and their inflatable beach equipment. Bike paths were often crowded with tourists (takes one to know one) who wandered about like bowling balls between bumpers.

The north was less developed, hillier, and more scenic, and we wound our way through grape vines as we gazed out over the crystalline blue lake from excellent vantage points. Our favorite stop was a rest day in the town of Balatongyörök, where we gulped delicious homemade strawberry lemonade on a restaurant terrace overlooking lake and enjoyed a couple hours of respite before retreating to the comfort of air conditioning. Unless squeaky beach toys and crowds are your idea of a fun bike tour, my recommendation would be to stick to the northern side of Lake Balaton.

North side of Lake Balaton

The silver lining to difficult days on the bike is that they make the rest of life easier in comparison. Cranking on pedals through blinding heat and boring scenery steels me to other tasks that might seem tough, but really aren’t too bad. Plus, hard days of cycling usually (but not always) beat a day in my old engineering office or dealing with a plumbing leak at home. At least that’s what I like to tell myself.

Our last day in Hungary was a good one, and years from now I’ll probably recall our entire trip there in a positive light. We were on the road by six a.m. and rode through winding country roads lined by corn. Tractors chugged past and we cruised with scarcely a break. Five hours and forty miles later, we’d crossed into Slovenia and were sitting by the pool at an odd Soviet-era pool complex. We then cooled off and ambled over to Spar to pick up some chocolate rice cakes. It’s the small things that keep us going some days.

Here’s that little 2-minute video I put together for Mr. Truman documenting our experience in Hungary. Enjoy.

Chelsea rolls along a bike path on the south side of Balaton.

Chelsea rolls along a bike path on the south side of Balaton.

Sharing the Road – Cycle Touring with Friends (Plus a Video!)

Team Awesome

“What’s the limit on the number of cinnamon rolls?” I asked. “I’ve had three!” confessed Dave. “After three, let’s go get gelato,” Jen chimed in.

That was just Wednesday. Days cycling in Croatia and Slovenia with our friends sped by fueled with gelato and Jen’s badass vegan cooking skills. Long swims in the warm Adriatic Sea cut the scathing summer heat; we spent evenings sitting at outdoor cafes listening to the mix of Italian and Croatian bubbling around us. Cycle touring with our buddies was a fabulous few weeks of our bike tour, yet the rendezvous almost didn’t happen.

We started our trip in June from London, whereas Dave and Jen began in Norway in early May. The plan was to meet up, but soon they were in southern Austria and we were in Belgium, with 25 hours on a train in between. Close, but not close enough, we concluded with disappointment during a Skype conversation.

So understandably, Jen was surprised two weeks later when Chelsea shoulder-checked her on the cobblestone streets of Rovinj, Croatia. “Hey, it’s Chelsea!” Blank stare from Jen. “From Portland…” Jen’s confusion lifted and big hugs followed. Dave, the inside conspirator, finally came clean on our surprise arrival, which he and I coordinated using stealth language like “the eagle is coming in for landing.”

A perfect night in Rovinj.

A perfect night in Rovinj.

Woodrow Wilson once said, “Friendship is the only cement that will hold the world together,” a statement I wholeheartedly agree with. Making our friends the priority despite the obstacles, I set aside my must-pedal-every-mile ego and skipped plans to cycle through Switzerland. Instead, we took a train south through the Alps from Basel to Milan, the most graffiti-stricken city I’ve ever seen.

We chugged across northern Italy to Venice, a city as beautiful as all the hype. For two days, we embraced the cliched magic and walked hand in hand along canals, gondolas sliding by. No cars are allowed in the city, which makes it a pedestrian paradise. And (surprise!) we also learned upon arriving that bicycling is not allowed.

A peaceful moment in Venice.

A peaceful moment in Venice as a gondola slides by a bustling restaurant.

Venice is a network of 118 islands built upon sunken pillars – an upside down forest, I heard one tour guide say. And those paved islands are divided by canals and connected by steep bridges with steps. On our arrival and departure days, we slogged through triple-digit weather that melted gelato faster than Donald Trump can piss off John McCain. Lugging our bikes up steps, past selfie stick-hawking vendors, and between tourists downing pizza slices, it felt so ridiculous that I could only laugh at the irony of two cycle tourists carrying our bikes through possibly the only city in the world that forbids cycling. CrossFit Venice.

Fireworks over the canals of Venice. We happened to be in town for a yearly festival.

Fireworks over the canals of Venice. We happened to be in town for a yearly festival.

All the effort was worth it: traveling with Jen, Dave and Sora was fantastic. The mix of four cheery personalities, plus a cute dog licking faces and chasing sheep in her dreams, created laughter galore. Chelsea got into touring through riding with girlfriends, but this was my first time doing an extended bike trip with anyone else. I would absolutely do it again.

As we spent time with  Dave and Jen, a few lessons-learned cropped up. If you’re considering doing a tour with buddies (and you should!), hopefully these items help set guideposts to make sure everyone stays happy and has a great experience. Cycle touring can be a time that unites you for life.

  • Set expectations up front. Run through the nuts and bolts together so everyone is on the same page and no one thinks Dakota is a total a-hole for seizing control of navigation. (Sorry Dave, it’s a control freak thing.) The four of us discussed preferred mileage per day, budget for places to stay/camp, start times each morning, and other basics. This simple conversation set the tone early and let us focus on cycling and enjoying one another’s company. Well, I enjoyed their company at least. (Jen, sorry I ate all the watermelon.)
  • Everyone needs a Road Name. Dave “The Veganator” and Jen “Muscles/MoSo/CinnaMon” quickly realized I never stop eating and dubbed me “The Woodchipper” – picture stuffing food into a hopper followed by a buzzsaw sound. MWARRRR. “Feed it to The Woodchipper” became the mantra when there were leftovers. Chelsea is “The Hammer” for crushing hills as if they were pieces of bubble wrap. Sora is “Borba,” though she really just wants to eat baguettes all day so Bread Hund (<–German for dog) would be more fitting.
  • Accept that more people equals slower pace. Even if you all ride at the same speed, everyone has different needs for rest/picture/food/bathroom breaks. Respect each person’s needs and just reeeelax. (I’m talking to you, Dakota.)Team LongHaul and Traipsing
  • Embrace your sense of humor. This applies to most things in life, and more so in cycle touring. As hungry and tired cyclists navigating a foreign land in summer heat, communication could have quickly devolved into Alien vs. Predator. A well-timed joke, or just a goofy grin, instead turned potential friction into laughter. Dave’s sing-song rendition of Sora the Bread-Loving Hund’s voice never failed to crack me up.
  • Divide and conquer. Split up tasks. Dave and I took on route planning, navigation, and bike maintenance; Chelsea handled lodging and food shopping; Jen the Pro Chef also shopped and whipped up incredible meals like panzanella and desserts like cinnamon rolls. We all developed a keen eye for finding the panacea to hot temperatures, gelato.
    Jen's delicious panzanella.

    Jen’s delicious panzanella.

  • Figure out the money stuff. During past travels, I’ve tracked every transaction in a little book. This time around, I’m challenging my obsessive compulsive data side and only keeping track of lodging. While hanging with Dave and Jen, we split places to stay and both purchased groceries. Traveling as a group allowed us to rent awesome apartments and split the cost, which saved us all a ton of cash, which we dutifully reinvested in gelato.
    Gelato
  • Keep talking to people. It’s easy to only hang out with one another. We did this some days, but also made an effort to hang with locals. An Airbnb host joined us twice for dinner and showed us how to make Istrian soup, a delicious wine-soaked bread drink. We enjoyed another evening with a cheery Croatian family and their homemade wine (are you catching a theme?) as we discussed Communism in former Yugoslavia (the older generation consistently seems to miss the good old days prior to the wall coming down).
  • Time apart is smart. Just like any relationship, make sure there is downtime where everyone isn’t hanging out. Even if this is just everyone blue-facing on their phones or computers, time to just relax and chill is important. Then you can get back to brilliant jokes and high-brow discussions regarding divesting oil holdings (Dave, I concede).
    Time "apart"

Have an awesome time. Remember how lucky you are to travel with great people. Now that we’re in our 30s and many friends are involved in careers or raising children, it is difficult to find amigos with whom we can head out for an extended trip. Traveling with Jen and Dave bonded us all and was a grand adventure. Even the ups and down of tough days cycle touring couldn’t overshadow how much fun we had together.

Suns out, guns out

We bid adieu to our buddies in a green valley in Slovenia. They headed south into the Balkans as we pedaled east toward Hungary, memories of our time together lodged in my memory. It was time for The Woodchipper and The Hammer to ride some extra miles to burn off all the cinnamon rolls and gelato.

I’ll leave you with a fun video compilation of our time together, or click to watch below. Ciao!

 

Advice for a New Long-Distance Bicycle Tourist

Cycling through vino in France

This post is for the person dreaming of hopping on a bicycle and embarking on a self-powered journey. All you need are limbs for propulsion, a bike to haul gear, and a dash of audacity.

The hardest advice for me to follow is my own, but the below is rooted in my personal cycle touring experience. Prior to last summer, I’d done two weekend cycle tour jaunts. Then we ripped off the training wheel Band-Aid and rode 4,000 miles through the U.S. in 2014. I’m sure a few of our friends wondered whether we’d make it. Heck, we wondered if we’d make it. Yet we survived (and enjoyed) our trip. Now here we are, nine countries into a bike tour through Europe, with many miles and lessons picked up up along the way.

Crossing into France from Germany on the Euro Velo 5 bike route.

Crossing into France from Germany on the Euro Velo 5 bike route.

Bike touring is a wild, wonderful way to travel, and everyone’s experience is different. Take whichever nuggets of advice speak to you and ignore the rest. May tailwinds find you wherever you pedal.

    • You don’t need a special bike. Don’t let lack of a shiny, brand-new touring setup stop you from hitting the road. You can tour on almost any bike. A $100 yard sale bike or $4,000 titanium rig both have two wheels. Same thing for tents, stoves, sleeping bags and pads; you don’t need the ultra-light version. Logistics are quite simple. Just get out there and pedal. As a bonus, the heavier the gear, the more calories you burn and the more you get to eat.
    • Say yes to invitations. Always accept when someone invites you to join them for a meal or to stay at their home. (Unless they’re wearing a hockey mask and carrying a running chainsaw.) The best parts of touring include unplanned, serendipitous meetings with people. I’d never have flown in a seaplane in New York if shaking my head was my reaction to an invitation.
    • It’s your trip, so ride only as much as you desire. That century you want to crank out for bragging rights? It only matters to you. Nobody cares how quickly you finish the tour, the average number of miles per day, or the total elevation ridden. (Well, nobody except your addicted-to-Crossfit friend who needs NUMBERS, damn it, to wrap their head around any accomplishment.) But everyone else? They want to know the craziest and coolest places or people that you met along the way. How the trip made you feel. Which vista made your heart sing, and maybe a tale of the wettest, worst day on the road. But the mileage? Thirty per day is fine, and so is 100. Take what feels good and go with that. Feel free to curse under your breath when a 23 year old and his friend rip by you like drag racers. Their speed, and your plodding uphill grind, are both a-ok.
      Villages along an old canal
    • Accept that not everyone identifies with what you’re doing. As my uncle Steven respectfully commented after we’d ridden to Chicago, “I think you’re insane!” Also, people who don’t tour have no idea why you’re doing it, but they’ll have a story about another cycle tourist doing something way cooler than you such as riding a vintage Big Wheel around the world while building orphanages along the way. Accept that the random dude in Indiana with a story to tell isn’t trying to trump your experience; he’s merely looking for common ground. Laugh and go with it.
    • Eat real food. Lots of it. Hunger will become an annoying companion who taps you on the shoulder every hour – “just sayin’ heyyyy.” Try to consume healthy whole foods and not just Poptarts. Your body is working hard and good food is important. I am amazed how many grocery stores in the middle of nowhere have ingredients for a crisp, hearty salad. Feel free to eat your body weight in chocolate here and there too.
      Chelsea's vegan enchiladas plus wine from the French region of Alsatia.

      Chelsea’s vegan enchiladas plus wine from the French region of Alsace.

    • Your butt is going to hurt from all the hours grinding on a saddle. Get over your pride early and grease up. Vasoline works great and you can find it in any gas station. Learn to apply lube discreetly, such as by the side of a busy highway at rush hour with your back turned to the road. Most policeman have bigger fish to fry than indecent public self-groping.
    • Pack light, but bring a couple comfort items. A few luxuries from home go a long way. Bring a Kindle reader, a journal, coffee making equipment or tech to stay connected. I recommend leaving your teddy bear at home unless he’s the trip mascot, and certainly if you won him at the county fair and he outweighs your bike.
    • Audiobooks and podcasts will preserve your sanity on the long, tough days. Anyone who claims they don’t need these magical devices are too Zen to need a bike (levitation is faster for travel) or haven’t tried them yet. I borrow books digitally from the library, and podcasts are always free.
    • Keep things in perspective as shit goes awry. Travel opens you up to life’s randomness; bicycle touring doubly so. Weather, be it rain, heat, cold, or wind. Hills. Flat tires. Closed grocery stores from 2-5 (seriously Europe?). Hosts cancelling at the last minute. Some days will go to plan, and others will pour rain and your bike will tip over while you’re getting directions, carefully distributing all your electronics into a puddle. Accept that best-laid intentions are mere dandelion puffs in a stiff breeze, and also that swearing loudly in a foreign land makes you look like a moron. You are lucky enough to bike tour. Try to appreciate it, even when all you want to do is kick your bike into a ditch and stick your thumb out to hitchhike.
      The worst days are canceled by brilliant cities like Colmar, France.

      The worst days are canceled by brilliant cities like Colmar, France.

    • People want to help you. They’ll wonder what the heck you’re doing riding a bicycle in the middle of nowhere – “what’d you do, get a DUI?” – but someone you’d never talk to in your hometown will be your champion. They’ll buy you a burrito in a restaurant in Valentine, Nebraska or offer a spare tube for a flat repair in Los Angeles. Even the guy with an old beater truck plastered with NoBama stickers will rescue you when bike trouble occurs, not to mention break out his stash of prized bourbon later that evening.
    • None of your friends will have any idea where you are or how hard that day in the wind/rain/sun/hailstones felt. Know they love you and support your trip, but accept that life goes on in your absence and that you will be disconnected from the day-to-day of many people in your life. Send goofy videos of you escaping from a thunderstorm, or sing off-key happy birthday messages, but don’t expect anyone to catch every post. And don’t take it personally when people you expected to follow along have no desire to keep track of you.
      The day-to-day of touring. This wonderful, cool fountain near the Swiss border in France felt delightful.

      The day-to-day of touring. This wonderful, cool fountain near the Swiss border in France felt delightful.

    • Send your mom a note whenever you can letting her know you’re ok. She’ll love it.
    • Embrace safety. Endorse your inner cyborg and get a helmet or bar-end mirror to keep track of your riding partner and, more importantly, texting teenagers. You don’t look cool in Spandex anyway. I feel naked on a bike without one. Oh, and get a bell or horn for your bike. Yelling “on your left” invariably makes people step into your path, especially when you don’t speak the language. Everyone knows what a bell means.
      Car-free bike routes are absolutely the best.

      Car-free bike routes like this one in France are fantastic.

    • This isn’t a beach vacation. Bike touring is physically and emotionally challenging. Some day whip by like summer vacations on a Slip-N-Slide, while others drag like a Saturday spent taking the SAT’s. On the toughest days, make sure to stop to run through a sprinkler or goof around on a random piece of playground equipment. Pull over to moo at cute baby cows or play fetch with a dog at a picnic area. There’s no hurry.
    • Cherish your days off. Unless you are aiming to win Race Across America, don’t ride every day. Enjoy and explore a cool city with new friends. Sit around. Go for a run and see if your muscles remember what not biking feels like. Read a book. Call a friend or write a blog post. The more I cycle tour, the better I appreciate days to relax and absorb a place at a slower speed.

There are 237 excuses for staying put. Careers. Student loans. Love interests. Family. Pets. Societal norms. Fear. All of that is real, but in a decade, you’ll remember and cherish the memories of pedaling the world and expanding your horizons.

Your current life can probably pause, but the new you itching to break out, to have an adventure, won’t wait forever. Feed the explorer inside you before it calcifies and forgets how to run wild. Let that explorer bellow like a bull moose as you sweep down a mountain pass.

Just go. No reason needed other than your desire to wander. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”

The imposing, giant Strasbourg cathedral.

The imposing, giant Strasbourg cathedral.

We happened to catch the 1,000 year millennial of the Strasbourg cathedral. This light show detailed each statue and window on the enormous cathedral.

We happened to catch the 1,000 year millennial of the cathedral. This light show detailed each statue and window on the enormous building.

Cycling Through Belgium – Beyond Beer and Chocolate

Bruges at night

When I imagined Belgium, I pictured rivers of dark chocolate, a tradition of cycling, beer so strong it would make Hulk Hogan wobble, and fairy tale architecture. Expectations set, we pedaled south from the Netherlands and arrived via a tree-lined path fit for royalty.

Our first stop in Belgium was Bruges. Our hosts, who run an amazing B&B and also give tours of the city, are often asked, “What time does the city close?” as if it were a Disney Land kingdom. As a pleasant surprise, the hordes of tourists we were warned about never arrived. Or perhaps my expectations of “busy” is based on places like New York City, where foreigners clog the streets like cholesterol.

Canals in Belgium

There is magic in ancient cities, subtle hints of centuries gone. It is present in the echoes of foreign languages off an old cathedral, or the dark hues of old beams in a restaurant. Wandering into the Rose Red bar with its hundreds of fabric roses suspended from the ceiling, we ordered a “sampler” of Belgian beers. Sampler indeed. Four practically-full glasses arrived, plus a bottle of Westvleteren Trappist recommended by our beer-genius friend Lucy. Two hours later, heads fuzzy and hearts happy, Chelsea and I wandered along the cities canals past spotlit historic buildings and ate more chocolate. Hey, when in Bruges…

Beers in Belgium

A wonderful surprise was having the Belgian vegan community graciously host us. Chelsea commented on the Bruges Vegan blog and the author, Trudi, extended an invite to stay with her and her husband. We pedaled up to their picturesque country property and enjoyed a relaxing day talking, eating delicious garden-fresh meals and hanging out with friendly donkeys. For our next stop, Trudi posted to a Facebook group and Lyra and Martin opened their home in Ghent to us. Sitting around their table with their three dogs dozing around our feet, I was struck that two Americans were learning about Belgium from a Brazilian woman and her Dutch husband.

The nuanced differences of a foreign country trump obvious statements like, “wow, the language ain’t the same as back home.” (For the record, in Belgium the people tend to speak Dutch in the north and French in the south.) Through fun dinner discussions, we learned that yard sales are a once per year event done via a city permit. The idea of an every-weekend yard sale in the U.S. cracked our hosts up. Insurance is a bedrock-strong right in Europe, and not having the secure foundation of health care for citizens is unthinkable to anyone we have discussed this with. In the legal realm, I found the inheritance laws in Belgium goofy; a parent can’t write their kid out of the will. Maybe kids in the U.S. are brats and parents need more choice?

Helping out on the farm! Thanks for the amazing hospitality, Trudi and Jim.

Brushing Babette, the world’s nicest donkey. Thanks for the amazing hospitality, Trudi and Jim.

We bid farewell to our friends – why doesn’t it ever get easier? – and rode SE through Belgium toward Luxembourg (here’s the map of our route). Europe responded with a record-breaking heat wave where the thermometer rose as if attached to a hot air balloon and days blurred to a haze of 95 degrees and 80% humidity that felt like riding in a sauna. We pedaled past wheat and corn friends interspersed with grazing cattle. Very few people in northern Europe use air conditioning, so refuge proved elusive. Instead, we soaked our jerseys and hair as often as possible (a feeling better than eating dopamine-laced raspberry sorbet), then rejoined the fray. Cold showers at night were divine.

Sunrise start in Belgium

Following the famously difficult Tour of Flanders route, we bounced our way over the gamut of road surfaces – I’ll admit to cursing the sadists who marked “bike route” for one cobblestone-hell-path. Next up were the hills of the Belgian Ardennes region, site of the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. I couldn’t begin to imagine how terrifying traveling through would be with howitzers lobbing explosives in my path. The serene villages and bustling markets felt a world apart from that chaos as we crossed onto the smooth country roads of Luxembourg.

Behind us was hard work and heat, but also delicious chocolate and great new friends. Inside my head were memories of laughs around meals and a welcome so warm any traveler would feel at home.

Bike touring England

A colorful vegan meal at the Bruges vegetarian restaurant "De Bron."

A colorful vegan meal at the Bruges vegetarian restaurant “De Bron.”

The nice part about hills is that there's always a downhill side. Here's a nice Dutch couple on a tandem ripping downhill in Chelsea's wake.

The nice part about hills is that there’s always a downhill side. Here’s a nice Dutch couple on a tandem ripping downhill in Chelsea’s wake.

Mirrors in Belgium

Tips for Working Remotely Overseas (Even While Bike Touring)

Hanging in Bruge

As a digital nomad, my freedom to work from anywhere hinges on internet access. Our European cycle tour this summer would be impossible without bits of data buzzing toward me across the Atlantic. I would love to shut my laptop and vanish into the Alps, but disconnecting for so long isn’t an option (yet). A link to the nets and tech to stay plugged in remain necessary.

I have tools and programs for working remotely figured out and it’s easy to stay connected in the United States. I simply use a Verizon wifi hotspot or my iPhone’s data plan. For this trip to Europe, I needed similar solutions with a few tweaks.

Switching on an expensive international plan and paying overseas roaming charges with Verizon or AT&T didn’t make sense. Handing over a gold coin to surf the net for a minute sucks; I’d rather spend that money on delicious dark chocolate in Belgium. There are much better ways to have a data connection.

Taking Your Tech With You

If you’re seeking to escape and disappear off the radar, by all means stick your computer and phone under a mattress and head to the airport. Nothing in the below list is tricky, but most is necessary given the long-term nature of our travel+work arrangement.

  1. iPhone 5 plus Mophie Juice Pack Plus battery case – this adds 120% to the battery, enough to get me through an entire day of use with navigation, audiobooks, or podcasts.
  2. Ultrabook laptop – simple and light enough to not make me curse it on long climbs.
  3. XCom Global wifi hotspot – the heartbeat keeping me jacked in to The Matrix (more below).
  4. Goal Zero Venture 30 solar panel and battery pack – great for camping and long days on the bike to keep things charged.
  5. Lenmar USB 4-port charging pack – handy way to keep cords organized since I just leave them plugged in.
    Charging things in Europe is infinitely easier with a battery pack that has multiple USB ports. I keep four cables plugged in and ready to charge our tail lights, GPS and phones overnight. This is especially handy when electrical outlets are sparse, a common thing.

    Charging things in Europe is infinitely easier with a battery pack that has multiple USB ports. I keep four cables plugged in and ready to charge our tail lights, GPS and phones overnight. This is especially handy when electrical outlets are sparse, a common thing.

  6. DSLR camera (a beat up old Sony NEX-3 with an 18-200mm lens) and a GoPro – I’ll acknowledge that these items are not necessary for work…
  7. 1,736 USB charging cables, typically snarled into an epic Gordian knot
  8. Updated September 2015: I shot a lot of video on this trip and ran out of space on my laptop, which seriously cramped my style (or ability to develop any). Next trip, I’m bringing a portable external hard drive. They’re small (3 x 4 x 0.5 inches) and weigh 1/3 of a pound. I just ordered a WD Passport Ultra 2 terabyte drive.

Everything on that list is straight-forward except the wifi hotspot. For that, I researched like crazy and wound up settling on a XCom Global hotspot as the linchpin for keeping me connected. When I asked, the company generously sponsored us for our trip. There are other options out there (TEP Wireless is one), but I don’t have any experience with their services.

Ceiling in a church

XCom Global Wifi Hotspot

For my Verizon hotspot, I had to visit a physical location to activate it. What a pain. Planning a trip overseas comes with logistics – should I bring the giant cowboy hat, and which color Hawaiian shirt to pack? I didn’t need more to-dos. XCom proved to be e-a-s-y.

The process involved filling out a brief web form with my desired start date and selecting the countries I’d be visiting. I had the hotspot shipped directly to a hotel room in England and activated automatically on the arrival date. Simple and clean, the way things should be. Since this is a rental, there are no contracts or the need to buy anything. Renting works well for our fairly long trip, but I think it is especially handy for a shorter trip, especially if it’s business related. Here is more info on their hotspot, which is spendy at $15/day but perhaps worth it depending on your needs.

Connection Quality

During our travels through 13 countries in Europe, we had service most places. That’s a heck of a lot more than I can say about AT&T back home. Signal strength varies, but usually I can use my phone for Google Maps, log into email, surf the web and operate various work programs. I save downloading movies for wifi, and syncing large amounts of data for a daily backup isn’t recommended, but streaming quick videos online is totally possible. Score – I can still watch Gangnam Style every night.

One annoying thing: the hotspot will sometimes get disconnected when usage spikes over 200 MB/day. This isn’t XCom’s fault; the “Fair Usage Policies” of European telecom countries lets them cut a connection when some arbitrary, unstated amount of data is consumed in a certain (also unstated) time period. Update at end of trip: this has now happened a half dozen times or so (I lost count). Each requires an email (weekdays only) to XCom customer service. If I absolutely needed to be connected to the internet and was paying $15/day for this device, I would seriously question whether this was worth it.

One complaint I had for my Verizon hotspot was that it died after about 2 hours of use. So far, the XCom unit is getting about 4-5 hours. That’s enough for a solid day of cycling using it for navigation as necessary, and I can also plug it into a battery pack.

A brief stop at an office...

A brief stop at an office…

Communication While In Europe

Texting and Phone Calls

I keep my phone on airplane mode in Europe and only use wifi. We arrange most lodging via email with a host, using an app like ACSI to find a campground, or booking a place directly through a website. Texting could prove useful for a quick heads up regarding an arrival time, though I frankly haven’t needed it with email. Skype can send texts for $0.10 each, but you can’t get responses (annoying). Google Voice/Hangouts can be a good option, but doesn’t work in every country. There are tons of apps out there – WhatsApp is great – that send messages, but fewer people in Europe seem to have smartphones or popular apps that we use in the States. T-Mobile has an international plan with unlimited text and data, but the service only runs at slow speeds equivalent to Edge in the U.S., which is too slow for my needs.

I use Skype for calls back to the U.S. A wifi-enabled phone like one from Republic Wireless or one of its many competitors works well too. To avoid language mix-ups with hosts and businesses, I try to communicate by email versus phone whenever possible. There are many text translators online to interpret text from an email.

My cell phone is not unlocked (dang it AT&T), so I can’t plug in a Europe-based SIM card. This hasn’t been an issue, and I don’t want to find a new SIM card for every single country we visit anyway – six of them (so far) in three weeks of pedaling. Crazy as it sounds, even locals only have non-roaming coverage on their phones in their own country. This means that if a Belgian drives 10 miles north to Holland or 50 miles south to France, they are charged roaming rates the same way an American is charged while visiting Canada. Given that all 50 states in the U.S. fit under most cell phone plans with zero roaming, I find it hard to believe European telecom companies get away with this. Rise, RISE, and take to the streets, people.

Update September 2015: Google Fi just leapt into the arena with an incredibly tempting plan. $20/month unlimited texting/calling in 120 countries around the world, plus $10 per gigabyte. Mr. Money Mustache has a great write-up about it.

Making new friends in Holland.

Making new friends in Holland.

Wifi

Wifi is everywhere so far. Most bars, cafes and lodging have it. Some connections are fast, but (like anywhere in the world) a place teeming with laptop-toting students will have dragging wifi speeds. Hotels can also be slow. Couple that with the recent proliferation of electronic crime and I prefer to use my wifi hotspot whenever possible rather than a public, unsecured connection. Call me paranoid, but the information I read or listen to leads me to believe we leave in an insecure online world where genius hackers can intercept a password faster than I can hoover down a piece of chocolate cake.

One tricky thing with wifi in Europe is that many of the “open” connections in restaurants or hotels are set up through the local communications company. They are free for local customers of that company who have a phone plan, but you can’t log in as a foreigner unless you have a local phone number. This means that many open wifi connections end up not working, which is annoying.

Tech tip: the app Wifi Map is a crowd sourced database of wifi locations and passwords. The paid version allows offline access to the data. For those of you traveling sans hotspot, this app is mandatory.

Getting some work done in a cafe in Belgium with live violin music from a street musician below the window.

Getting some work done in a cafe in Belgium with live violin music from a street musician below the window.

Navigation

Some people love maps. I prefer the quick and easy method of using my phone, both with wifi on and off. I’ve tried many mapping apps, yet keep coming back to the old standard of Google Maps. I’ll get maps for big countries like France, but it never seems worth it for smaller countries where we won’t be around long. Luxembourg is only 40 miles across – we crossed it in a day. I will say that Google Maps occasionally calls a rutted, rocky goat track from the 15th century a road. Character builders, I call ’em.

I’m always plugged in while we travel. Blindly wandering a city to discover hidden gems is fun, and we do it all the time. But route finding at the end of the day while tired and hungry is worse than taking a calculus final with a hangover. Much handier to plug an address into Google Maps to help avoid marital strife arguing over directions. I’d rather hang out with new friends than wander lost through an industrial area while our hosts wonder if we took a wrong turn and disappeared toward Estonia.

Tech Gear: The Summary

A solar panel, charging pack, a laptop, and multiple cameras certainly aren’t necessary for everyone traveling in Europe. Simply having a smartphone can keep you sporadically connected. Initially, I was planning to explore Europe without a mobile wifi unit, but I’m relieved I didn’t. For a short-term business traveler or digital nomad trying to work remotely, a wifi hotspot like XCom Global’s may be necessary. Given the cost and how often we’ve been disconnected by carriers, I will likely look into other options for our next overseas trip. I’m not sure what else is out there, but consistency of connectivity is #1, especially if you’re paying for it. Google Fi could be a great option, as I mentioned earlier.

In general, with the above tech helping me out, I haven’t skipped a beat with my work during this trip. We cycle and explore during the day, hang with new friends or relax in the evening, and then I flip on the laptop to hammer out some work at night. I was concerned about balancing all these activities, but this adventure is proving fun (except maybe the last week with its 95 degree days) and low stress.

And there you have it! Am I missing any tech you always take on trips? Any other secrets for a data plan in Europe that I missed and should check out? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email. If my opinion on any of this changes, I’ll update this post later in this overseas jaunt (see above!).

Belgium flowers and cycle touring

England to Holland By Bike (and a Ferry)

Middelburg, Holland

Traveling by bicycle is a surefire way to create delicious highs, but also generate lows that drag along like a heavy anvil. And just as night needs the sun to tip its rays over the horizon line every morning, bliss shines brightest after hard work and challenge.

We were not blessed by fair-natured weather fairies the last few days. England almost left us with only memories of sunshine, but rallied to serve up a surprise whopper of a rainstorm minutes away from the ferry terminal, our rain gear buried in our bags. Wet as muddy dogs in a puddle (but considerably less happy), we dripped our way into a restaurant overlooking a choppy North Sea. Two full dinners later (plus lots of cups of tea), a wave of cheer washed over me as I looked east across the Channel toward Holland, our next destination.

Tea time

Revived and happy, we pedaled our bikes into the hold of a gleaming ship, a 13-deck giant complete with a multiple restaurants, private lounges, a gambling hall, and enough foreign languages spoken by passengers to rival the floor of the United Nations. Our cozy cabin for the overnight trip featured bunk beds, shiny accents, and, we learned the next morning, a loudspeaker whistling a cheery rendition of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as a wake up call. A Dutch voice then told us, in politically correct terms, that all passengers should rouse their lazy butts and “prepare to disembark.”

I'M ON A BOAT!

I’M ON A BOAT!

We emerged from the ship for European Union passport control by amiable Dutch border guards. “How many days will you be here?” 88. “Do you have enough money?” I sure hope so! Tick tick tick – our 90 day time limit in the Schengen Zone began. (U.S. citizens can only stay for 90 out of 180 days.)

And we were off…straight into the maw of a raging downpour. Not fazed at all, the unassailable Dutch were out en masse in packs of riders cranking around the best network of cycling paths I have ever seen. Cars, obviously second-class citizens next to bicycles, drove slowly and yielded to us at roundabouts, a nice change from England.

Holland flowers

It’s not just a myth: EVERYONE in Holland rides bikes. From kiddos to people in their 80’s, people get around on bicycles. We saw everything from carbon racers to clunkers, but the majority of bikes were practical and designed for comfort. (The flat terrain makes that a bit more doable, I think.) E-bikes are common, which I think is a terrific way to stay active, and also a great way to make me and Chelsea feel weak and slow when we’re passed uphill by a zippy senior laden with groceries. Stores have two cars and 58 bikes parked out front, and train stations have literally hundreds of bikes stored outside. It was clear that cycling in Holland is the linchpin for a healthy, connected way of life.

Quintessential Holland

Bike parking in Holland

Back on the bikes, our weather-beaten spirits rose skyward as we spun through pretty canal towns. Europe’s architecture practically emits a cozy glow to warm even the most sodden traveler, and (again) hot coffee and tea over lunch did the trick. The next 30 miles included a short ferry ride and riding past tall wind turbines that slashed the sky as headwinds insisted we were going the wrong direction. Ah, some days just aren’t the best for cycling.

Wind turbines in Holland

Our route south through Holland followed the 2015 Tour de France Route, which kicks off July 4th.

Our route south through Holland followed the 2015 Tour de France Route, which kicks off July 4th. I totally got 1st place in the prelude!

One of the perks of renting out our house and working while I travel is that we have zero guilt about staying in a hotel when the weather is horrible or if we want a comfortable night’s stay. Chelsea is the resident genius at finding fantastic accommodations at bargain prices, whereas I will try to save $5 to stay in a dingy former brothel next to a freeway. (She has, shall we say, better attention to detail than I do.) For the remainder of this trip, and possibly our lives, I will handle navigation and she will handle lodging.

For our first night in Holland, she scored a gorgeous room at the Grand Hotel in Burgh-Haamstede. After being devoured by the elements all day, we relaxed tired muscles in the steam room, made fools of ourselves in the pool, and were reminded once again that the magic of bliss lies in the contrast between ups and downs.

The next day’s forecast called for downpours, but not enough to drown out hot beverages, solid exercise, and gorgeous architecture. It was certainly insufficient to snuff out the joy of taking each day as it comes, whether a sparkling moment in the sun or a rain-soaked hour in the saddle.

Grand Hotel Burgh-Haamstede

Chelsea in front of the Grand Hotel.

Holland countryside

Friendly sheep in Middelburg

Well hello, random flock of sheep in the middle of a city…

Pudding Wine? I’ll Just Have the Chips, Thanks

Tree-lined pathI’ve never had trouble ordering a drink before. Then I went to England.

“I’ll have a water,” I told my server at a London restaurant. He stared at me as if I were speaking a dialect of Baboon. “Wa-ter,” I repeated. He shook his head, sorry to be dealing with someone so incredibly stupid.

Two more tries, both of us 100% certain the other was a bleeding idiot. Then, he got it. “Oh, woh-tuh!”

If there is one experience so far that sums up the difference between England and the U.S., that almost-fail of a drink order is it. You see, I’ve found most things are similar to back home, but all experiences contain a slight tweak.

Tweaks like smaller vehicle exclusion gates. Either my bike is fat or this pathway is too narrow...

Tweaks like smaller vehicle-exclusion gates. Either my bike is fat or this is too narrow…

 

There’s the language, which is the “same,” yet totally different. Speed bumps are “humped crossings” (giggle) or “sleeping policeman,” as a speeding taxi driver told us. Pants are underwear, and trousers are pants. (I still haven’t figured out which to wear as an exterior layer.) Courgette is zucchini, aubergine is eggplant, and “the dog’s bollocks” means “that is the shit.” Pudding is dessert, as in “pudding wine” for a sweet finish to a meal. And while we’re talking about food, all lodging features hot water boilers for tea, but never coffee makers.

As you may know, everyone drives on the left side of the road in England. Easy enough, right? Well, this is terrifying on a bike and makes me feel hunted at traffic intersections. I carefully look both ways, but fully expect a vehicle to drop out of the sky and crush me nonetheless. Roundabouts replace stop sign intersections and act as slingshots for the vehicles that gun through them like rocket ships trying to escape a planet’s pull.

Fields and paths

Luckily, most of our days are spent on car-free paths like this.

Away from cities, bike lanes and the national cycling network make for quiet, scenic riding. Compared to touring in the U.S., equivalent mileage takes much longer here. In the States, we might follow one or two quiet highways all day, which allowed for consistent pedaling. Route finding is tougher here, with dozens of tricky turns to navigate. Beyond that, the riding is slower through gated fields, bumpy canal walkways with ancient bridges, and gravel paths in the middle of nowhere. It’s a shift in mentality to ride fewer miles, but we’re handling it nicely so far.

The National Cycling Network is a mix of narrow country roads, dirt paths, and canal walkways that cross England. Follow the signs for a good ride!

The National Cycling Network is a mix of narrow country roads, dirt paths, and canal walkways that cross England. Follow the signs for a good ride!

Slightly random, but I am impressed by the ADA accessibility. Most toilets (as bathrooms are called) are designed to accommodate wheelchairs, with low sinks and plentiful grab handles. Hand dryers also replace paper towels. It’s as if the country is designed for the least physically capable. Perhaps I’m reading into it, but to me that’s a representation of England’s willingness to take care of society’s fringes, whether through welfare, medical care, or something as simple as a handle to assist getting off the can.

Tipping is also different. It’s rarely done, and then only at nice restaurants of the type we aren’t allowed to patronize in full spandex cycling garb. I think the lack of tips explains why bartenders will kick people out at exactly closing time. A British woman told us that servers and salespeople in the U.S. felt overly saccharine and helpful; to us, the distant, pre-occupied employees seem almost rude. I should also point out that tipping is unrelated to, “no fly tipping,” which means “don’t dump your junky furniture in this field.” (In the U.S., the sign would say “no illegal dumping.”)

We enjoyed four days of parties and festivities in and around London for my good friend Ryan's wedding to his beautiful and oh-so-nice new wife, Dhara. (She also kept our attendance a secret, down to giving us Indian names on the seating charts!) My first time to a Hindu wedding, which was so fun!

We enjoyed four days of parties and festivities in and around London for my good friend Ryan’s wedding to his lovely new wife, Dhara. (She also kept our surprise attendance a secret, down to giving us Indian names on the seating charts to hide it from Ryan.) My first time to a Hindu wedding, which was so fun!

People still live in houses. Except here in England, many residences are OLD. Like, built-800-years-ago old. People who visit the U.S. marvel at the shiny, big, and new; we are struck by the quaint and ancient. Pedaling along country lanes past stone fences laid centuries ago, bouncing over cobblestones in a tiny village, or enjoying a chai in a market square (every city we’ve seen has a walking-only central shopping district), we are struck by how present history is here versus covered by “progress.” Back home on the west coast, old is 120 years. Here, that’s scarcely a blip on time’s fickle radar. When a gravestone laments the death of someone who died from The Black Plague, that is old.

Pedaling through a centuries-old village north of London.

Pedaling through a centuries-old village north of London.

It feels good to be bike touring! Assembling the trip and traveling abroad was exhausting, but jet lag’s gloomy mist has cleared and our brain’s are working again. I am quite relaxed compared to last year when we pushed hard on the bikes and threw down mileage every day. We smile and laugh at town names like “Leighton Buzzard” or “Heath and Reach” and take each day as a fresh adventure. Less mileage means the slower going is fine, a nice treat.

Bridges and canals

In fact, we decided to kick back for an impromptu birthday stop today at That Amazing Place, a 1000 year-old monastery turned B&B. I could wax poetic about this divine location for a full paragraph, but suffice to say it features both a custom-built obstacle course AND complimentary wine refills while relaxing in the hot tub with a view of the English countryside. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my 33rd birthday! (Unfortunately, I missed the obstacle course record by a bit. I must be getting old.)

In two days, we’ll roll the bikes aboard a night ferry on England’s east coast. The next morning, we’ll wake up in Holland and wheel south toward Belgium. And that’s what makes Europe the dog’s bollocks: each country is a short hop (or pedal) away, yet represents a new language, fresh customs, and a totally different experience. I may continue to have issues ordering drinks, but at least we’ll be back on the right (excuse me, correct) side of road soon.

Back windows

Still gotta handle logistics! D gets a haircut in the central square in Bicester (pronounced "Bister").

Still gotta handle logistics! D gets a haircut in the central square in Bicester (pronounced “Bister”).

A heron hunts for his dinner along a canal with houseboats in the background.

A heron hunts for his dinner along a canal with houseboats in the background.

Bikes, Europe, Go!

Bike tour Europe

Our latest trip has me excited, and also thinking about time zones. It’s a strange neurosis.

As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane across the Atlantic Ocean while Chelsea snoozes at my side. Tired travelers shift in their chairs around me, struggling to make the seven hour flight passably comfortable. According to the plane’s flight tracker, it’s -55 degrees outside with a 75 mph tailwind as we pass south of Greenland.

Three weeks ago, I was mountain biking in Santa Cruz. Our summer plan was in place: another few weeks in California, then motoring north to the Pacific Northwest for sunshine in the forest. It was nice to have plans…and then we scrapped them! A day later, we bought plane tickets and changed direction completely.

The new plan? A 3.5 month bike tour in Europe. Fly into London to surprise a friend at his pre-wedding party (only his fiance knows to expect us). Pedal for a few months. Fly out of Prague to attend wedding festivities at a farm sanctuary near New York City. In between the nuptials, there’s no set route and no plans except to explore, enjoy, and spin on as many no-car bike paths as possible.

This tour is going to be different than last year’s U.S. jaunt. For one, the distance is shorter – it’s barely 1,000 miles from London to Prague – which allows us to meander. We did that much mileage in just Montana during our bike ride to Maine last year! We could scorch through 1,000 miles in a few weeks and still have ample time to linger in French cafes and perfect the jaunty angle of a beret. Instead of cranking out miles every day, our goal this year is to linger in areas we love, keep our daily mileage below 50, and treat this less as a physical challenge than an exploration of culture and beautiful places.

We talked through this trip last fall when we were stoked and physically strong from 4,000 miles of bike touring. By the end, however, the logistics of 101 days of touring had drained our energy and we were tapped out like sugar maples after a long season. We needed to just hang out awhile, and planning a European tour was too much at the time. As we left for our Utah jaunt in March, we told ourselves that the one thing we wouldn’t do this summer would be a bike tour in Europe.

Whaaaat shall we bring for 3.5 months of biking, camping, and looking hawt in cafes? Can't believe all this stuff fits in four panniers!

Whaaaat shall we bring for 3.5 months of biking, camping, and looking hawt in cafes? Can’t believe all this stuff fits in four panniers!

Still, the time is never right for a big trip overseas. I could conjure excuses for a decade about why doing this another year makes more sense. First and foremost, my business is cranked to the max right and taking a lot of my time. I will also be dealing with being nine hours ahead. At 5 pm European time, the west coast of the U.S. is just sitting down with their coffee to check Facebook and their morning emails. At midnight, it’s lights out here and merely mid-afternoon back home.

I’m leery of handling this, but confident it will work out. I’ve learned that a strong foundation sometimes only imparts enough of a launch pad to let me stand in one place and dream. To attach wings to a dreams requires wrapping uncertainty in a fiery bear hug and jumping into the deep end with it. When I look back, anything that excited and scared me, even as I sprang off the diving board, invariably resulted in my learning something about myself or the world. Sometimes there’s wreckage to pick through, a burning heap of a failed attempt, but that’s usually not the case. I’m not setting out to build a new enterprise – I simply need to take my tried and true remote work techniques to a new level.

There’s magic in pushing the envelope into discomfort. While I’m wary of the lug nuts on my business loosening and a wheel or two clunking off into the dust, what this is going to do is force me to innovate. The simple aspects of my work will be easiest to outsource; it’s the functions that I think (pretend?) are unique to me that will take creative engineering. But the more I think about having the entire day free to just ride and explore, with work starting up in the evening, the better it sounds. There are always silver linings.

Taking the bikes apart to box and ship them through on the plane. SCARY.

Taking the bikes apart to box and ship them through on the plane. Thanks for the help, Steve!

The worst case is posting up in a town and simply working remotely late at night all summer. The best case (my favorite) is that we have an amazing time exploring the European continent on a relaxed schedule and, as a side benefit, further extricate myself from the day-to-day mechanics of my business. With a bucket list that includes many off-the-grid adventures with weeks away from a cell connection or a laptop, I need systems in place to take care of this. Nothing like a fire under my arse to accomplish it.

More updates to come as we wheel our way east across the continent. Cheers to no plan, the unexpected, and the network of bike paths that apparently crisscross this area of the world. Follow along with daily shots on Instagram (@traipsingabout) and I’ll also be updating this blog as time allows (and this trip map). This latest adventure is officially launched!

P.S. If you have recommendations for places to visit or have friends we could meet up with, let us know! We’d love your input.