Sunday, 27 April 2008

Across Europe on two wheels

Meet Rob and Ruth. They’re currently cycling from Vienna to Düsseldorf via Olomouc, Prague, Berlin and Sweden and this is an edited version of a conversation I had with them about their trip.

What’s been the highlight of your trip so far?

It would have to be riding through those woods near Blansko and stopping for a drink at that little village of 120 people. And those bike track signs after we left Laa and crossed into Czech were extremely good.

The Austrian ones aren’t as good?

They were fine, but I have to say that once you cross the border it gets better. I thought that Austrian and German bike signs were good but the ones just south of Brno took it to a new level. The accommodation’s been good, but we’d recommend that if you’re carrying camping gear on your bike that you leave it until May when all the campgrounds are open.

As you’d expect the scenery’s been good. Particularly when you follow the bike paths, they take you to scenic places. If you get on a main road, which is something we try to avoid, you’re watching and thinking about the traffic all the time. The Greenways cycle trails very rarely take you on a main road, but we lost the track at the town where the spas are. Teplice. Don’t know what happened there.

You wouldn’t want to completely rely on the Greenways map. We have had experience in the past when the signs have been switched around for a prank. That can get a bit frustrating. Often the locals will show you how to get on to a bike track. We thought that Czech people would have little or no English, but it’s been quite good getting directions, even in quite small villages. You’ve got to know the words for right and left: Vpravo and Vlevo.

How far do you cover each cycling day on average, if there’s an average?

Well on this trip so far we’ve done 364Km. We did as little as 20km one day, and I think the first day we did about 56km. We did 75 one day. On an average day in average conditions we’re comfortable with 50 – 60. It gives you time to muck around and look at things.

Would most touring cyclists cover more or less than that, and do consider yourselves fast or slow or average cyclists?

We’re deadset plodders. We go at a casual pace, and never put ourselves in a position where we have to be in a hurry. We like to arrive at a town before 5pm or even earlier. We’re early starters; we’re on the road by 8am. We reckon five or six hours a day is a maximum; you don’t want to be cycling all day. You want to be able to stop for a cuppa or for a bite to eat.

With some of the long distance cyclists I’ve met, it seems to be a disadvantage of the way they travel that they’re just hell bent on covering 120km a day and go from dawn to dusk without ever stopping to look at anything.

On our last trip, from Gabianko in Slovakia to Vienna, we did 110km into a headwind in one day. That was no fun at all. We considered stopping and camping out because you ride through some beautiful woods in a national park. If we’d had fresh water with us we would have.

How long do you expect your whole trip to take?

After Poland we’re coming back here, down to Blansko again and we’re going to cut across to Prague then pick up the Elbe River to Dresden and Berlin. We’re being met at the border by a German friend of ours on his bike. From Berlin we’re going up to the island Rugen and getting the ferry to Sweden. We’ll cut across to Copenhagen, back into Sweden up to Stockholm, down to Gothenburg, across to Fredrickshaven, Jutland, the Danish mainland and then down to Düsseldorf.

And that’s the end of the trip?

Yep, we’re flying home from Düsseldorf in the first week of August. We’ve got four months for the whole trip, which should be plenty of time. We’re still in the first two weeks. We arrived in Vienna and had three nights there because we had to buy our bikes and get set up and we’ve been cycling now for ten days.

I wanted to ask you about the bikes and whether you bought them here or brought them with you from Tasmania.

No we bought them here; we went to the same bike shop as last year. We were very happy with last year’s bikes. One of them was an Austrian built KTM, which Ruth took home. So it’s Rob’s turn to get a KTM to take home this year. At the end of the trip we intend to sell one and take one home on the plane.

Is it difficult to organize getting them on the plane?

No it’s very easy. We stressed out about it for three months last year, but when we rode into Düsseldorf, we rode past a bike shop and said to this guy “Is it possible to get a bike box to fly home with our bike? He took me into a store room with 50 boxes, and said “How many do you want?” We snuck our bike up into our room in the youth hostel, dismantled it and boxed it all up.

With a handhold in the back and one in the front and our backpacks on, we just got on a tram and went out the airport. Took it to check in, the girl said “Here’s a docket; take it to number 27”. The guy said “fine” and put it on. Next thing we saw it in Melbourne, easy as that. We had to clean the bike carefully, because if it’s not clean Customs in Australia will clean it for you and charge you $500.

What other equipment did you arrange at the beginning of the trip?

From Australia we brought thermarests, sleeping bags and a good tent with a big vestibule. We also bring a little trangia stove so that we can boil up some porridge or pasta if we’re camping somewhere. We brought a basic repair kit and our helmets with us because they can be very expensive in Europe. We bought tubes here because they had to match the bikes, but basically you bring everything with you.

Have you used the repair kit yet?

Hahaha! Last year we went 3500kms without a puncture. This year we left the youth hostel in Vienna and said “let the journey begin”; we went about 100m and I had a flat tyre. We looked at each other in total disbelief. We took it back to the bike shop because I didn’t want to use my reserve tube so quickly. And then on day three we’re riding along on this lovely Sunday morning by the river and Ruth went over a bump and there was that clunking noise and you just know. Another flat tyre. And it’s always the back wheel.

How much do you think your luggage weighs?

We actually weighed it, and it came in just under 40kg, so there’s an extra 20kg each over the back wheels. In hindsight it would probably be good to have a rack on the front to spread the weight. We’ve actually slimmed it down a lot, we’re carrying very few clothes and we don’t buy souvenirs. 20kgs might sound a lot, but when you’ve got tools and spares and things, it’s not. Just the big D-lock weighs more than 2kgs.

Have you had any trouble with security?

Not yet. When we’re in a café, if it’s a nice day we’ll sit outside or just find somewhere we can glance out the window. If we go to a supermarket one of us goes in and the other minds the bikes. We’re aware that bikes get stolen a lot, but so far no problems.

Where did your trip last year take you?

Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest. Back to Bratislava on a slightly different route, then along the Danube to Passau and down the Inn river. We cut across to Munich, down to lake Constance, back up the Rhine to Basel, Freiburg, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Cologne and then it was getting very industrial, so we went across to Maastricht in the south of Holland and followed the Maas river up to Arnhem before cutting across to Amsterdam. That took about three months.

It’s quite hilly there in southern Germany…

Oh, south of Munich we were really pushing it.

Were you literally pushing the bikes at some point?

Oh yeah, sometimes you do. We’ve got no qualms about getting off and walking. In fact if you’re riding all day it’s nice because your body is doing a different activity.

Any pieces of advice for people who’d like to do what you’re doing?

Just get out there and do it.

Safety is the biggest thing. You’ve got to be able to change your plans and adapt and if it’s really raining hard or something, just pull in and spend the night. You’ve just got to accept bad weather and have the equipment to cope with it. And don’t stress.

Good advice from a couple of very experienced cyclists. Thanks Rob and Ruth! May your travels be filled with tailwinds and well-marked trails...


Anonymous said...

Awesomeness. When do you start on your trip? Maybe I should cycle around Vietnam... hmmm. (Probably not!!!)

Captain Oddsocks said...

Yeah, they're pretty awesome those two. As rob puts it, he's "the wrong side of fifty" and here am I in my 30's wondering if I'm really capable of covering half the distance in double the time, in a country where I understand the language...

I hope I'll be able to get started on my big trip towards the end of May. Maybe you could do some riding in Czech instead of Vietnam, Vltavska...? ;-)