Tag Archives: Touring
With spring upon us now – officially, on the calendar, if not actually in practice – restless thoughts are starting to turn to touring and all the delicious expeditions that are possible if you have a decent tourer at your beck and call, or indeed any sort of lightweight reliable bicycle.
A while ago I wrote a post discussing the virtues of panniers and trailers. Today I’d like to look at the saddlebag. The saddlebag is a very underrated piece of equipment in my estimation. They are not at all fashionable these days, unless we are talking about one of those tiny discrete things that are good for carrying a mobile phone and a spare inner tube and little else. Here in England Carradice make proper old-style saddlebags, and good ones too, but hardly anyone else does. For that matter few saddle-makers, other than Brooks, make saddles with loops for attaching saddlebags any more either.
As a long-time fan of old-style saddlebags this perplexes me. Stylish or not, old-style saddlebags are ideal for light fast touring. With a Carradice Super-C expedition saddlebag (23 litres) and a Carradice Super-C expedition bar bag (5 litres) you can easily carry enough gear for a two week tour – if you are stopping at hostels or B&Bs. Here in Britain I have ridden Lands End to John O’Groats, Sea to Sea, Hadrian’s Wall and the length of Wales, from Chepstow to Holyhead along the Lôn Las Cymru using this exact combination and wanted for nothing on any of those journeys.
Better still, if you use a Bagman support rack, which attaches to the saddle rails, you do not need saddle loops to attach the bags, nor do you need braze-ons on your frame for a rear rack – an important consideration to anyone who might want to make a long weekend tour with their carbon fibre bike. I use the quick release expedition model Bagman myself, giving me the added convenience of being able to slip my saddlebag off and put it on again in seconds. It is so quick and easy, and so pleasant too to travel so light, especially when you are staying at B&Bs or wheeling your bike off and on the train to get to your starting point or back home again. Have you tried saddlebags for touring? And what was your experience?
Here’s a photo of a much younger me camping in the bush on my ‘round Australia adventure back in 1996. When I left Sydney I did so well kitted out with just about anything I imagined I might need in the 10,000 miles that lay ahead. I had all of these things stuffed into front and rear panniers and my handlebar bag.
Over the next nine months, as I pedalled through mountains and desert and across vast stretches of spinifex scrub I learned a lot about what I did and did not need to bring on a long expedition. I also learned a lot about how best to carry these things – or I suppose I should say what worked best for me. In the years since then I have tried out a few variations, such as backpacks and trailers, but have always come back to using good old fashioned panniers.
On the surface, a trailer would seem to be a good idea – you can carry plenty of gear for a long expedition and still keep your bicycle unencumbered. But that seeming advantage is also it’s undoing in my experience. The fact that you can carry plenty of gear is too often an invitation to do so; it becomes tempting to add things to the load ‘just in case’, because it’ll fit, and before you know it you are fitting things in and carrying five, ten, maybe even more pounds of additional gear plus of course the weight of the trailer itself (let’s not forget that!)
This is not to say that trailers have no uses for cyclists – they do, just not for touring. For example, I lived for a while in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, without a car, and used a trailer to bring home the shopping. It was simplicity itself. Far easier than using panniers. But this was for relatively short rides and for a specific purpose, rather than an open ended ride of weeks or months. And surely, unless you are going to be on the road for a great length of time there can be no need (that I can see) to carry the amount of gear that would make a trailer, and its extra weight, necessary or desirable.
An exception to this might be family touring. I saw this years ago along the Danube Bicycle Path where families would be touring together, Mum and Dad and the kids, quite small kids sometimes, pedalling their bikes along the riverside with Mum and Dad often towing quite hefty looking trailers to carry all the gear necessary for family holidays and travelling with children. A trailer there would be indispensible.
Otherwise, I can’t really see the need. Panniers balance the load quite nicely, if they are packed well. They typically would weight less than a trailer and the demands a set of panniers put on what you can and cannot carry will force you to make some critical weight and bulk decisions before you ever leave home. At that, unless you are setting off for the four corners of the globe, or like to bring along the creature comforts when you camp along the road, there is seldom much need for front panniers – a rear rack and a good set of rear panniers will generally see you through for most trips, if you pack smart and light.
And if you are just going for a week or so, and especially if you planning to stay in B&B or hostels, a set of rear panniers will do you just fine. A trailer in such circumstances would be a burden.
Ditto a knapsack, although I can understand how someone who is just trying out touring may not want to spring for a set of panniers – especially when a good medium-sized knapsack, which they may already have, would handily carry their gear for the duration of their experimental ride. And it may well also be the easy option if your bicycle does not have eyelets or bosses for attaching racks (more on this conundrum in a later post) and of course if you are doing much of-road touring, where squeezes along narrow trails may be tight, a good trim backpack may simply be the only feasible option.
In general though, a backpack can make you sweaty and, if it is heavy enough and not thoughtfully packed, it can affect your balance on the bike as well. When I am touring I prefer to keep myself as free and unencumbered as possibly, both physically and metaphorically and for that nothing beats the old-fashioned pannier or saddlebag.
Travel romantic that I am, I’ve always had a soft spot for those old-style French touring bikes, the sort you see in those golden-age-of-cycling photographs – bike and rider all kitted up for distant places on dusty untrammelled roads and projecting either pre-war innocence or sunny, post-war optimism depending on the date of the photo.
So naturally enough when I decided to build up my own dream tourer last year I was keen to affect a bit of that yesteryear elegance and styling for myself. And to me one of the most evocative elements of that French randonneur ‘style’ were those boxy French handlebar bags into which you could tuck a bottle and a bird and head out into the countryside for your picnic. They were de rigueur on tourers back then but have largely vanished today.
Largely, that is, but not quite, for I discovered that there are a few boutique pannier makers these days – generally in the US – that have taken to reissuing these old style randonneuring bags; obviously I am not the only romantic out there. I wanted the originals, though, if I could, and once I found that French hand-built bicycle-maker Gilles Berthoud had acquired the patterns of the old original Sologne bags – the very ones you see in the old photos – and was making them, by hand, in a workshop France, as of old, my heart was set having one of those.
Knowing my champagne tastes I had a niggling feeling they were going to be expensive, and by golly they were. Not only did you need to buy the elegant hand-sewn bag itself, which on its own was nearly twice the price of Ortlieb’s top-self bar bag, but you also required a front rack on which to support it. In addition, when using these old-style bags a decaleur – a kind of bolt-on support bar that extends from the stem – is also considered not a bad idea. It was all there in the Gilles Berthoud catalogue – randonneuring bags of varying sizes, racks and decaleurs to match – everyone you needed to achieve this stylish authenticity, all of it hand-made in France, and all of them together adding up to a pretty hefty bill.
I had pushed the boat out pretty far already in the design and building of this dream tourer of mine, but after a bit of soul searching, and being the kind of guy who can resist anything but temptation, I decided I’d regret it if I didn’t nudge the boat out that bit further and so I took a deep breath and placed my order. The parcel from France arrived a few days later. I wasn’t disappointed. The goods inside oozed class. I’d ordered the GB28 bar bag, the largest size, in grey. It was an exquisite piece of luggage, hand-crafted of sturdy water-resistant cotton, trimmed with fine harness leather. As I took it out of the box it filled the air with an expensive, leathery smell. The accompanying rack and decaleur had also obviously been constructed with the same care and precision as the bag. Any lingering doubts I might have been harbouring at my having splurged like this were cast to the winds; here was the perfect finishing touch to my dream classic tourer. Guilt be damned.
The proof though is in using, and in this I was still a bit leery. I’d bought into this old-style randonneuring set up purely on the strength of its visual and emotional appeal. In practice I’d never ridden with anything like this combination of top-of-the-wheel front rack and bag, and frankly I wondered what the effect on handling would be.
At twelve litres my new GB28 bag was nearly twice the size of any of the bar bags I’d used in the past (my Carradice Super-C at 5.5 litres, and my old Ortlieb at 7) while the only front racks I’d ever used were low-riders. I was well used to riding with those, but here the weight would be higher up, riding above the front wheel. I am happy to report I needn’t have worried. As far as handling went, I soon forgot my big new randonneuring bag was even there. The bike rode like a dream.
I’ve had bag and bike for nearly eight months now, and while my lovely new tourer led a pretty sheltered life over the winter, I put enough miles on it last autumn and, more recently, this spring to form a better – and very favourable – impression of how the boxy randonneuring bar bag functions in real life. It rests nicely on the rack, despite there being no attachment point on the bottom of the bag – something I’d wondered about when I first set it up. I suspect the decaleur helps there, in keeping it stable. There is no shifting.
As I noted from the get-go, the bag’s effect on the bike’s overall handling is negligible, really, at least not with the loads I have put in it thus far – typically camera gear in the main compartment and with the usual assortment of roadside tools and spares tucked in the side pockets, of which the GB28 has five. Modest loads in other words, but enough to count. Obviously, with twelve litres capacity at your disposal and a rack to support it, you could carry a lot more.
From a photographer’s point of view, the extra space is useful simply by virtue of its being there. With so much elbow room in the bag I do not need to fuss and fiddle to pack things away, but can just chuck in my camera and mini tripod when I have finished a shot and want to move on. This can be especially handy when the light is changing and I want to shift my perspective in a hurry. Just grab and go. And with the classic bag’s old traditional loop closures – as opposed to the company’s newer style model with the (more expensive) buckles – getting stuff in and out is very quick. It’s great.
I suspect too the extra spaciousness of the big GB28 will prove very handy when touring. I like to travel light and for week-long tours in the past I’ve managed nicely, but with a squeeze, with just my Carradice Super-C bar bag (at 5.5 litres) and a Carradice Super-C saddlebag (at 23 litres). By using the capacious Gilles Berthoud randonneuring bag instead, I have 35 cubic litres to play with. While I wouldn’t fill the vacuum with more gear, the extra space would allow for swifter and easier packing on the road and give me greater freedom to buy and carry trail snacks et cetera along the way – or to keep my cameras handy and ready for use. In short, I really like this old randonneuring set up and while its retro styling might clash with modern compact-frame tourers and road bikes, someone who wanted to dispense with panniers and travel light could do a lot worse. And if you want to grab a decent bottle of red and all the accompaniments head out into the countryside for a stylish retro-classic picnic, you couldn’t do better.
As anyone who has read many of my posts would gathered by now, I am hardly a weight weenie when it comes to my bicycles, and while I naturally prefer to travel light when I am touring – or travelling on business for that matter – that doesn’t mean I want to do without what I consider to be life’s daily essentials. I am thinking now of books.
Wherever I am going, and however I am getting there – be it bicycle, train hot air balloon or plane, I have to have something handy to read, preferably a selection of things because I am a capricious reader and never really know all that far in advance what is going to take my fancy. I might think I’d like to read, say, a Raymond Chandler mystery when I first set out the door, but by the time I am actually sitting on the plane I might well find myself more in a P.G. Wodehouse frame of mind, and wishing I’d brought one of his books instead.
Since I do not want to take the chance of being without something absorbing to read, I used to pack myself a small travelling library whenever I went anywhere – tucking perhaps three or four paperbacks in my panniers or saddlebag if I was touring by bicycle, and taking along a good many more than that if I was setting off on an assignment involving a lot of long-haul flights. My record in that regard was an assignment in the Cook Islands, which involved my flying out there and back (from England) in just over a week – eighty-hours in planes and airports; for that I packed something like a dozen books. It wasn’t so much the weight of all these books that became a nuisance, it’s the bulk as well. A dozen books fills up a sizeable portion of your suitcase.
Enter the Amazon Kindle. My wife bought me one for Christmas the year before last, after my Cook Islands trip, and it has been a revelation. Being in general the sort of classicist who prefers flat pedals and friction shifting, I’d been a bit dubious about this radical new-fangled idea of e-books and reading on a computer screen. I’m not any more. It works just fine. Better than fine, it’s great. When you put a cover on the thing, you have an open-book-shaped object in your hands that feels like the real thing instead of a tablet. You quickly forget it is an electronic reader, and clicking the button to turn a page becomes second nature. The screen, too, is as easy on the eyes as the written page, and is readable in bright sunlight as well. What’s more, a single charge will last you up to a month, so unless you’re going to be on the road a while you can get away leaving the cord at home.
It is perfect for cycling. I went on a tour of Orkney last August with something like three hundred novels in my handlebar bag and I could have taken far more – a full-sized Kindle like mine will hold 3500 books in all. And if you suddenly have a hankering for a book you don’t have, as I did this morning in my hotel when an felt an urge to read The Snows of Kilimanjaro, you can always snap it up on the hotel’s Wifi.
And the weight weenies among you who drill holes in your toothbrush handles when you go touring will be delighted to hear Amazon has brought out a newer, smaller, lighter Kindle that will still carry a featherweight 1500 books.
And a few minutes later they were off, just like that, with the crack of a hansom driver’s whip, careening through the streets of gaslit London, with a copy of Bradshaw’s Continental rail and steamship timetables and the great wide Victorian world stretching out before them, all brass and mahogany and steam. None of the hairbreadth escapes and exotic locales that followed ever piqued my imagination as much as that cavalier departure, for it made adventure on this sort of grand operatic scale seem possible.
In all the other adventure stories and explorer’s tales I read in those days the action was invariably predicated on some glamorous circumstance that I could never reasonably aspire to. I mean, nobody was ever really going to send me abroad on a clandestine mission to save the British Empire, or call upon me to shoot man-eating lions along the Ugandan Railway, or solve great geographical mysteries, all of which had been satisfactorily solved by the time I was born.
But here was a fellow just getting up from the card table and striding out the door, a host in himself, off to trot the globe on a whim and a bet – that was something I could at least imagine and relate to, even if I didn’t, like Phileas Fogg, have a fortune in sterling in the bank.
What I did have though was something nearly as liberating: a Schwinn Varsity ten-speed, my very own, and which I knew from first-hand experience could transport me anywhere I liked along the backroads of Carroll County, New Hampshire and could fill the miles with adventure. You didn’t need to be a poet to sense the difference between a trip down to the village in the back seat of the car, and pedaling there yourself on your bike: one was twenty minutes of dead time, life in suspension, and swiftly forgotten but the other cold fill and entire morning with colour and event and imaginings you might be mulling over days or even weeks later.
And to think – if even the five miles between our house and the village could be so rich and involving, imagine what five hundred such miles would be like, or five thousand, or making a trip around the world? It took but a small hop in my imagination to go from skipping school and riding over to the lake on a fine spring morning to picturing myself setting out one day on a grand globe-trotting quest, off to where there were real tigers and jungles, palm trees, deserts and high mountain passes. I couldn’t wait to go someday. More than anything I wanted to travel and see the world, and it pleased me to think that in my trusty Schwinn, propped up hopefully against the shelves of old paint tins in the garden shed, I had my ticket already.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve done a lot of travelling in my adult life, writing for newspapers and magazines and such, and in between assignments I’ve done quite a bit of expedition cycling too – I’ve ridden across America, the length and breadth of Britain, went from London to Istanbul, through Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast and in 1996-97 did a solo 10,000-mile trek through the Australian outback. I never did find the time to circle the globe though. The nearest I ever came to that was a whimsical bike ride around the South Pole a few years ago when I was down there on an assignment for National Geographic – riding a tight little circle around the pole itself and crossing, in a few cheeky seconds, every line of longitude along the way and therefore, technically and in an irritatingly strict geographic sense, riding around the world. If mine wasn’t exactly the most arduous and dramatic circumnavigation on record, I liked to think of it as it least as the fastest.
But alas it isn’t, not officially anyway. My time of perhaps eight seconds or so is not one the good folks at Guinness recognize, and fair enough too I suppose. They expect a bit more effort than that, eighteen thousand miles more effort to be precise and have set a number of other technical conditions for would-be record-setters to fill as well (for Rules see here). (If you care to read the tale of my cheeky and totally never-to-be ratified circumnavigation in eight seconds and minus-72 windchill, you can do so here)
When I ‘rode around the world’, back in the year 2000, the idea of lapping the globe as quickly as possible on a bicycle was rather an alien one. As a general rule cyclists who set off to circumnavigate the world pretty much did like Marco Polo, disappearing for a couple of years and resurfacing many thousands of miles later, lean and fit and nut-brown, and as storied as mediaeval pilgrims, with their bicycles saggy from hard use and their dog-eared passports crammed with visas and inky stamps.
But then, almost exactly four years ago, on 14 February 2008, a Scottish adventurer named Mark Beaumont captured the endurance-cycling-world’s imagination when he completed a circumnavigation of the globe in a record 194 days 17 hours – shattering the previous mark of 276 days and 19 hours set by Steve Strange in 2005, and which was the first record set and ratified under the Guinness Book of World Records strict set of rules for a circumnavigation.
Beaumont’s feat drew challengers out of the woodwork – James Bowthorpe did it in 175 days the following year and in 2010 the record was broken twice more – by Julian Sayarer in June (at 169 days) and by Vincent Cox in August, with a Guinness-ratified time of 163 days, 6 hours and 58 minutes, for cycling 18,225.7 miles.
The record was shattered once again in August 2011 by Alan Bate, albeit with the assistance of a support crew, and now stands at 106 days, 10 hours and 33 minutes. It was formally ratified by the Guinness Book of World Records just last month, although in the eyes of many round-the-world adventurers Vincent Cox’s record for a solo, unsupported circumnavigation remains the more prestigious mark and the time to beat.
One or perhaps even both of these records might not be around for much longer, for at nine o’clock this morning a group of ten intrepid cyclists pedalled away from Greenwich Park and, using the Prime Meridian as their starting line, set off on the first ever round-the-world bicycle race. It’s a race Jules Verne would have loved. Run under strict Guinness Book of World Records rules, the World Cycle Racing Grand Tour competitors – all of them riding solo and unsupported – will race each other around the globe with the winner hoping to break, at the very least, the solo-and-unsupported record for a circumnavigation by bicycle – and possibly even arriving back in London in time for the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which starts exactly 160 days after the racers set out.
Like a specter at the feast Alan Bate’s 106-day official world record is also dangling out there as a tempting carrot, although pedalling a fully laden touring bike the 170 miles or so per day needed to break it is a mighty formidable ask. And then of course there is the ultimate fantasy, breaking, by bicycle, Phileas Fogg’s (fictional) Eighty Days – a romantic benchmark one of the Grand Tour competitors described as being like the four minute mile for endurance cyclists.
The travel romantic in me loves it that there should be such a race. With its old-fashioned air of derring-do and gallant young men in jaunty jalopies, exotic locales and the weeks of hardy travel involved, it is the perfect restorative to a 21st century world made small and mean and over-familiar by cheap air travel and a gazillion frequent flier miles. As I followed the nine o’clock start from the Greenwich Meridian and monitored the satellite-tracked progress of the competitors on the Grand Tour website (follow them here) as they snaked their way through the tangle of inner city streets and out into the countryside, and pictured in my mind their coming adventures through central Asia, and the Australian outback, and the American west, the world around me seemed to become wide again, fanciful, rich in detail and ripe for discovery, the way it used to feel back when I was a kid reading Around the World in Eighty Days and rehearsing these favourite someday-daydreams on my old Schwinn Varsity. And just as I did back then, when I was sighing over the adventures of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout and Inspector Fix, I found myself feeling a bit like a kid left out of a circus and wishing I could have gone too.
Occasionally, in my more lyrical moments, when things are going well and I feel the master of my fate, I find myself thinking almost fondly of some of the jackasses I have encountered over the years, and how they have ended up – unwittingly and unintentionally, to be sure – being catalysts for good things.
One such bozo that springs to mind, is, or rather was, the editor of a newspaper for which I used to write many years ago. Having recently been elevated to the purple of high office, the man became such an insufferable self-loving prat that even in the midst of a deep recession and high unemployment that was prevailing in Australia at the time I chose to quit rather than spend another day rowing in his metaphorical galley while he water-skied and mugged for the cameras. (Think Gilderoy Lockhart if you’re a Harry Potter fan.)
And so I left. And lo, I discovered that contrary to his threats and warnings, and even contrary to my own expectations, there was in fact a world of opportunity out there just waiting to be seen and seized. I’d just needed to shake my inertia and get out there, burn a few bridges, even, something I mightn’t have done had His Nibs’ insecurities and megalomania not prodded me into action. Within a day or so I’d landed a wonderful job at Time Magazine, and from that happy move sprang all sorts of other golden opportunities and open doors, so that when I look back now, from a perspective of nearly twenty very good years later, I can see that in a kind of backhanded way I owe a debt of gratitude to the smarmy SOB wherever he is these days.
Likewise in my cycling life I feel a certain, well, a certain something, for the ham-fisted knuckle-dragging mechanic at a certain upscale London cycle shop whose ‘deluxe service’ on my Thorn eXp tourer three years ago left it in an un-rideable state.
Surly, morose, dumb as a bag full of hammers and dangerously incompetent, his ineptitude turned out to be a catalyst for good things. Ironically, for such a cack-handed mechanic who couldn’t set up and adjust a pair cantilever brakes to save his life, or make a front derailleur function properly, or even put the handlebars on straight, this guy managed, Forrest Gump-like, to set into motion an complex chain of thoughts and happenings that for sheer intricacy would have done credit to a Swiss watchmaker.
What happened was this:
I’d decided to put a new headset on my old, high-mileage Thorn expedition bike ahead of a picturesque cycling trip I’d been planning for myself in Wales. I’d been daydreaming for sometime about riding the Lôn Las Cymru, a particularly beautiful and challenging bicycle route that runs 250 miles from Chepstow to Holyhead, and finally as autumn was approaching that year it looked as though I might be able to get away for a few days and do it.
It was in this mood of jaunty anticipation that I decided to give my old tourer an overhaul and replace the tourer’s worn-out FSA headset with a brand new Chris King Sotto Voce one – your Chris King being the crème de la crème of bicycle headsets, beautifully engineered, buttery smooth, and designed to last pretty much forever.
A headset, by the way, if you are new to cycling, is the set of cups and bearings that governs the steering on a bicycle. They are not difficult to install. It’s merely a matter of pressing the opposing cups firmly and evenly onto the top and bottom of the head tube. Backyard mechanics frequently use a block of wood and a hammer to do this, but this is crude and risky since if you don’t seat the headset properly you can end up doing a lot of damage both to your bearings and to your frame. It will also void the warranty.
The done thing is to use a headset press and to prepare the surfaces beforehand with a specialised tool called a ‘head tube facer and reamer’ to make certain that both ends of the head tube are smooth, dead level and absolutely parallel to each other. The tools you need to do all this can cost several hundred pounds and unless you are running a bike shop and have to do this kind of thing all the time are not really worth buying.
And so ten days before I was due to set off for the Welsh mountains I phoned up the aforementioned London bicycle shop – just for fun we’ll call them Hammer, Wedge & Thump – and booked my bike in to have a brand new Chris King Sotto Voce headset installed and have the deluxe overall and service.
I should add here that Hammer, Wedge and Thump was hardly a name I’d plucked out of the phone book, but are widely known as a very on-trend, urban-chic, race-oriented independent shop in a fashionable quarter of London, and in whose intimate showroom can be seen some of the finest and costliest hand-made bicycles on the planet and in whose workshop toiled, so the shop’s boast went, former pro race team mechanics. They seemed a safe bet.
Not only would my bicycle have a new headset, but it would have be completed stripped down to the frame, the hubs re-greased and reassembled, the parts inspected for wear, and the wheels checked for trueness, plus the usual tweaking of brakes and derailleurs and the re-built bike given a thorough clean and polish that, the shop promised, would have it looking showroom new.
I returned home on the train that evening having dropped off my bike confident and well pleased with myself. Now I could focus on work, getting everything done before I left, knowing my ride was in good hands. On Friday I could come back up to town and pick up the bike, all ready to head to Chepstow bright and early Saturday morning.
But that’s not what happened. Instead when I arrived at the shop on the Friday afternoon the bicycle they wheeled out to me was practically a stranger, a sagging down-and-out covered with greasy fingerprints and broken in spirit. A nasty grating, rasping sound was now coming from the bottom bracket area where all had been sweet silence and smooth running before. The misaligned chainrings scraped unpleasantly on a maladjusted derailleur cage that had only a few days earlier shifted crisply.
The brakes no longer functioned as brakes. You could draw the levers back all you liked, until they touched the handlebars and could go no further, but no braking power was applied to the wheels. They continued to spin freely. The action on the levers was so loose and floppy and ineffective that at first I thought the guy had forgotten to attach the cables. But no, the cables were there, just so ropey as to be useless.
The tyres were under-inflated to the point of being nearly flat, the taillight was broken. As a final insult the handlebars were crooked.
An ugly scene ensued – over which we’ll draw the curtain of charity, for this isn’t a cautionary tale about lousy bike shop mechanics or a recounting of a bad experience with a buccaneering London bicycle shop, but rather about the curious way life’s bozos can sometimes nudge you in unexpected new directions, open new doors, and alter the course of things in positive ways you don’t appreciate until long afterwards.
With my tourer rendered un-rideable I was obliged to postpone my much-anticipated Wales trip and instead spent the weekend in my shed repairing my bike, seething with resentment and muttering obscenities under my breath the whole while – and cursing myself too while I was about it, for I am quite a decent bicycle mechanic, with City & Guilds qualifications, and my whole rationale for letting anyone else but me overhaul my bike had been to save time and bother so I could focus on work and go to Wales with a clean slate. Some time-saver that turned out to be. What worried me more than the maladjustments and sloppy rebuild, which I could fix, was the thought of what damage this bozo might have inflicted the frame itself – bearing in mind that he had been active with facer and reamer on the bottom bracket and head tube. Scary thoughts. And so before things went any further I wanted a frame builder to examine it and (hopefully!) tell me all was okay.
The obvious thing would have been to take it back to Thorn, and have them look it over, but their shop was several hundred miles away, in Somerset, and I was hoping to find somebody – somebody good – who was closer. In casting about for possibilities I discovered that Enigma – a boutique high-end hand-crafted bicycle maker about whom I had read many good things – had not long earlier relocated to an industrial park near Pevensey, not fifteen miles away. In fact, I’d practically been riding past their workshop every day all summer. I called them up, explained what happened and asked if they could take a look at my frame. They said sure: to bring it on over.
I did, feeling a little bashful bringing a heavy, hard-bitten expedition bike to a firm famed for building elite, sleek lightweight road machines out of exotic metals, but when their master frame builder, Mark Reilly, came out and saw my old Thorn eXp tourer standing there his eyes lit up and his face broke out in a smile. “I don’t believe it,” he laughed, shaking his head. “I built this frame!”
It turned out that years ago, back in ’99, when Thorn’s designer Andy Blance first conceived the eXp – what was then and for years afterwards the company’s ultimate expedition bike – he’d commissioned Mark Reilly to do the initial builds. I’d known all along that mine was one of the very first ones made, and over the years, funnily enough, had had several people comment that my particular frame seemed exceptionally well built, but I’d never known any of the back story, let alone expected one day to bump into the craftsman who’d made it.
What made me happier yet was word that the fine old touring frame was still sound. Later, as Mark and I talked about the strange coincidence of my happening to bring the bike here, of all places, we fell to talking about frame building and design and lugs and silver brazing. It was the first time I had ever met a frame builder or been in a frame-building workshop. I was intrigued, and perhaps a bit envious too for I am a frustrated artist at heart as well as a lover of bicycles and what is a fine lugged frame anyway but a sculpture in silver and steel?
When I let I heard myself asking, in an offhand sort of way: say, do you guys ever build touring bikes? Mark just shrugged and said sure; he was happy to build anything a client wanted. As I drove home that afternoon a tiny germ of an idea that had been floating around in the back of my mind for the past few years took root and began to grow – that of commissioning my perfect bicycle, the platonic ideal that would represent everything I loved about cycling and the myths of the open road: it would be a hand-built, classic tourer from the golden era of touring. I’d sketched it out in my mind’s eye scores of times, knew just how it would be, and had even gone so far as buying a few bits and pieces – a pair of classic French touring cranks, for example, and rare French touring pedals – for this someday bicycle of mine.
But until this chain of circumstances came along, started by that cack-handed mechanic in London, that led me to that workshop, my mind had never made that big, all-important leap from the abstract to the genuine possibility of my doing such a thing. Now it had. Suddenly this thing became conceivable, as real as the amiable flesh-and-blood master frame-builder I’d met and spoken with and whose workshop was just over in Pevensey.
It was another few months yet before I finally took the plunge, and rode over there with my deposit money (that story here) – but I hate to think how long the beautiful retro-randonneur that resulted from that might have remained just another of those vague hoped-for things I was going to pursue someday, had it not been for the catalyst provided by that clown of a mechanic (and who, I hear, no longer works at that shop).
And so in an odd sort of way I feel kind of grateful to him, wherever he is today, maybe not grateful in a way that would make me clasp him on the shoulders, hail him as a brother and buy him a beer if I ever meet him in a pub, but I think I can say now that if I were to come upon him stuck halfway down a well with night falling, and I wasn’t in too much of a hurry, I think I’d probably pull him out.
Idled once again this morning by snow and ice and unpleasant thoughts of what all that salty grit on the roads would do my bicycle’s drive train anyway, I find myself growing restless and fidgety, eager for spring, forming grand plans for what I am going to do when the weather warms up and the hawthorn come into bloom along the lanes.
For some time now I’ve had this daydream of riding off to the Pyrenees one day and bagging some the great cols, or high mountain passes, they have down there – the Col d’Aspin, the Portet d’Aspet, the Peyresourde, the Col d’Aubisque, the Hautacam, Superbagnéres, the Port de Bales, the Tourmalet, and dozens more, names that resonate with Tour de France drama and heroics going back to 1910.
I am no racer, as anyone who reads this blog will have already figured out, nor am I even a particularly avid follower of the Tour, although I do generally watch a few stages on TV every July (the only TV, in fact, that I do watch all year) and while I’m about it, generally work up a mild cheering interest for a few of the riders – the Schleck brothers, Mark Cavendish, and Cadell Evans being typical favourites.
But along with bicycles I’ve always had a fascination for mountains and myth and when you couple that fascination with a suite of romantic-sounding Continental place names, spectacular alpine scenery and a century’s worth of golden-age-of-cycling lore, the Pyrenees start to exert a pretty strong pull. You don’t need to be a racer to appreciate them or their majestic passes. In fact, forget racing. What touring cyclist among us can’t fail but to be caught up in the tale of Eugéne Christophe who broke his fork on the descent of the Tourmalet while leading the Tour de France in 1913. Instead of crying about it, and packing it in, he shouldered his bike and carried it ten kilometres at a brisk trot down to the village of St-Marie-de-Campan where he looked up the local blacksmith and arranged to borrow the forge.
Those were hard days when men were men, and a rider in the Tour de France wasn’t allowed to accept help from anybody if his bike broke down. And so with the clock ticking away and the rest of the field having by then ridden past him, Christophe fired up the forge, repaired his fork, filled his pockets with bread from the local bakery and set out in pursuit – only to be docked three additional minutes off his time by finger-waggling race officials because he’d allowed the blacksmith’s seven year-old son, Corni, to pump the bellows for him while he worked. Despite this, Christophe still finished in seventh place – giving racing one of its most enduring legends, and those of us of the touring persuasion, to whom self-reliance and seat-of-the-pants fettling skills are noble qualities indeed, a benchmark for on-the-road bicycle repair that has never been bettered.
So although I may be no a racer or aficionado of Tour history or legend or the great names of the past, such tales as these, together with the challenge and cachet of cycling up some of these famous old cols, make for a colourful backdrop and offer a nice narrative sense of purpose to making a cycle tour of a part of the world I’ve never been to before, would love to see, but otherwise know little about. A sort of theme, if you will, around which one can build and plan a journey and give it its own compelling logic.
And when I came across a reference a few years ago to the Club des Cent Cols – a French cycling club whose membership is open to those who have ‘conquered’ a hundred mountain passes – and furthermore discovered that they had devised a 900-mile circular route through the Pyrenees that, if completed, would give you the full one hundred in a single tour (101 to be precise) a fully fledged new aspirational daydream was born. I was forty-nine at the time, and I thought I might try to do it to mark my fiftieth birthday, but alas that came and went – as did fifty-one, fifty-two, and fifty-three. This year I will turn fifty-four, and as I sit here gazing out at the dirtying snow and slush and thinking of my new dream randonneur sitting out there in the shed, awaiting spring, it occurs to me that if I don’t make a move to do this fairly soon, I probably won’t do it at all. And so I made up my mind last night that this will be the year.
When I say that I made up my mind I should add that helps in no small way, of course, to have a generous wife who, although not a cyclist herself, is accepting, tolerant and indeed supportive of these rather selfish ambitions of mine and who has good naturedly agreed to rearrange three weeks of her summer schedule to accommodate them. Which puts the ball squarely in my court – which three weeks this summer, where do I start, and how best to plan and prepare? I don’t want to do this as a sportive, or as part of an organized event or packaged cycling tour – but to tour as I always have, alone and self-supporting; just my bicycle and I, heading into the mountains and traveling as light as possible.
It’s February now, and I decide to head for the Pyrenees in, say, July that gives me a scant five months, and while I have quite a decent base to build from, these are still some seriously tough climbs we are talking about; in all, more than 27,000 metres of uphill (three times the height of Mt Everest) if I go for the full monty, the Club des Cent Cols’ Randonnées Permanentes from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Thuir and back again, and at least 11,000 metres of climbing if I go for either one of the famously tough classic Raid Pyrenean routes. It’s a tall order, no matter which one you pick. What’s more, I have quite a full work-travel schedule between now and summer, which will make it hard to get in the miles and while there are some steep grades here in Sussex there’s nothing on the scale of those hors category climbs in the Pyrenees. But then dreams wouldn’t be worth chasing if they were easy, and as I hear the tap-tap-tapping of the meltwater coming down from the eaves, ticking away the time, I find myself growing ever more eager to get out there, shake this idleness and ride.
I had a read through it yesterday – and a very enjoyable and informative read it was. In its 246 pages, they have distilled not just their own considerable experience on the road, but that of fifty other veteran road-hardened cyclo-tourists as well, and vividly brought to life the thrills and adventure of setting out on a bicycle expedition, what to expect on the road, what you’ll need to bring along or take into consideration, risks and hazards along the way, and how to maintain and repair your gear, be it your bicycle’s drive train or your tent and cook stove – even a chapter about what it is like returning home after a grand globe-trotting adventure and dealing with the sense of anticlimax that often follows. This latter bit is a particularly thoughtful inclusion, and an aspect of adventuring that is often overlooked by lesser, run-of-the-mill guidebook writers, but as with everything else in this highly experienced couple’s book, rings absolutely true to anyone who has ever taken a long and involving tour.
Everything a bicycle tourist could possibly want is in there, and all of it well-written, well researched, well thought-out, practical, neatly ordered and nicely presented. The style is conversational, and the authors have managed to pitch it so that anybody, from rank beginners to sinewy sun-bronzed hard-cases who’ve been on the road for years, can get something out of it – even if it is just an nodding affirmation of some of their own thoughts, ideas and experiences.
Writing a guide book is a drawn-out and mentally exhausting process as anyone who has ever written one will attest. My own experience with this hard-to-do-well genre was writing National Geographic Traveler’s Guidebook to Australia. Whether I did it well or not is for others to say, but the experience of researching and writing it certainly gave me an appreciation for just how difficult it is to do a book such as this, and Andrew and Friedel Grant have done a cracking job. It would be fair to say that with this in hand anyone who wanted to could, with confidence, set out to see a bit of the world on their bicycle – be it a long weekend on leafy Sustrans route through England’s Lakes District or tackling the Takla Makan desert on the Silk Road.
The book is available through the couple’s website Travelling Two which is itself an excellent source of information for anyone planning a tour.
As I was tooling down the seafront this morning,feeling bold and adventurous and not a little rebellious, I found myself thinking back to the time I hopped aboard my bicycle right here in Hastings and pedaled off to Istanbul, pretty much on the spur of the moment; how I rolled up in front of the Pera Palas Hotel six weeks later and went inside for a celebratory beer at the Orient Express Bar, having found my way out there by guess and by golly.
What a glorious thing a bicycle is – jaunty, elegant, almost glib in its 19th century simplicity, it’s the first mode of independent travel most of us come to know as children and the last one left to us as adults in this over-governed age of ours. Think of it: for the price of a half-decent tourer anybody who wants to can set off to see a bit of the world anytime they please, free, clear and beholden to no one, right from their own front doorstep, without so much as a by-your-leave to all those jealous authorities who scrutinize, monitor, tax and surcharge our every movement these days.
There’s no paper trail, no hoops to jump through, no jackboot security at an airport, no queues, crowds, delays or cancellations, just fresh air, an open road, and the responsibility for getting yourself wherever it is you want to go. It’s the perfect restorative to a world made small and mean and over-familiar by too many frequent flier miles, and the most delicious means of escape I know. As Jim, the fugitive slave in Huckleberry Finn, said of making a getaway down the Mississippi on a raft: “A raft’s good, a raft don’t make no track.” Neither does a bicycle. Not even a carbon footprint.