Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Our Bicycle Tour by the numbers

Here are a bunch of figures and facts about our bicycle tour.  They may or may not be of interest to you, but they are offered here in an effort to quantify whatever is quantifiable about such an adventure. For sure the experience is mostly subjective, but still, it may be useful to us, or perhaps others to record some of the following details.

Darryl's fully loaded bike (bike, rack, all gear, bags, and water): 30.5kg (~67lbs)

Susan's fully loaded bike (bike, rack, all gear, bags, and water): 24.4kg (~53.8lbs)

Number of flat tires: 1 (presta valve stem failed when filling tire)

Mechanical issues: 2

1. Broken spoke required replacement - due to derailer hanger getting slightly bent in transit to Europe and resulting in dropping chain off top of cassette and damaging the spokes.

2. cracked rack eyelet required welding to repair - due to lower rack screw vibrating out and rack/ pannier load stressing upper driveside seat stay eyelet. Repair was done in 30 minutes while we waited and cost ~$15.  After 1000 miles the repair is still fine and shows no signs of wear or stress.

Total distance ridden: 3338km  (2074miles)

Number of days riding: 54 days

Average distance riding per day: ~62km (38.5 miles)
Longest day of riding: 125km (78 miles)
Shortest day of loaded touring: 13km (8 miles)

Length of trip: 76 days
Number of days in Italy: 54 (9 days on Sardinia)
Number of days in Croatia: 12
Number of days in Slovenia: 6
Number of days in Austria: 4

Number of days camping: 22
Number of days staying with Warm Showers hosts: 8
Number of days staying in Milan with Antonio (friend): 6
Number of days staying in Hostels, B & B's, or hotels: 40 (far more than we anticipated, with all of the   inclement weather we set the habit early of getting a room when it was raining and kept with it as the wet spring in Europe unrolled.  Initially we also rode trains more often when it was raining, while later we either rode in the rain, sat out a day, or strategically timed our riding with breaks in the weather.)

We identified the following gear as being especially useful, valuable, or indispensible for our tour:
Darryl's stuff:

  • Koki waterproof backpack.  This is a simple roll-top sack style backpack that easilly compressed down and was used as a rear rack bag secured to Darryl's Ortleib panniers with a simple bungee cord.  In it I carried necessaries for riding, as well as lunches.  It also worked great as a daypack for off bike adventures  or city explorations and was great for carrying groceries after shopping. 

  • Revelate Designs Tangle Frame Bag.  This half frame bag was used in place of a handle bar bag or front panniers.  We have been experimenting with alternative ways to carry gear and lighten up our load at the same time.  While we ended up carrying more weight than we had hoped (or ultimately needed) we found that we could easily carry all we needed for self supported (including cooking and camping capabilities) using only rear panniers and rack bags.  The obvious downside is one of balance, which the frame bag did not fully effectively address.  If we could find smaller, waterproof, lightweight panniers (something around 1000 liter capacity) I might be tempted to use them paired with Ortleib front-roller bags (used as rear panniers).  From our experience extra space is almost always filled and results in heavy loads.  For our purposes 35-40 liters capacity (combined or with just rear panniers) gives us plenty of space (half of this capacity is used for tent, stove, pots, pans, fuel, first aid, repair, tools, etc, the other half fits my clothing and personal belongings)

  • We used our Apple iPad mini extensively.  Of course we used it for all manner of web-based media and communications, but we also used it as a navigational tool (using Apple's firmware maps app to get a fix on our location and identify roads, routes, and distances.  It's worth noting that Apple's map data wasn't always comprehensive or accurate.  It served us pretty well, but often did not show smaller roads, and on a few occasions led us to roads that no longer connect requiring us to turn back and find another way around.)  We were also able to upload photos from our digital camera to the iPad via an Apple card reader.  We did all of our blog posting on the iPad as well (using Blogger's app, which works ok but is not as easy or powerful as using the regular web based portal. Still, the iPad was a great tool and it fit perfectly in the zippered pouch side of the Tangle frame bag making it easy to access.  We paid extra for the cellular enabled version which was of course very expensive to use overseas ($25 for 100mb which was automatically renewing (dangerous!).  We kept Cellular data turned off except for those times when we needed to access web for info like directions or contact info. The real benefit was that even with the cellular data turned off we could get real time GPS positioning on map apps, this proved invaluable for navigating and route finding.
  • Lightweight tent (Big Agnes Slater 2+) was great if not a bit compact.  This ~3 llbs tent was big enough to be comfortable, but then again we never had to spend time in it when we were not sleeping (remember we either rode in the rain, or stayed in hotels when it was stormy, we didn't sit out storms in the tent on this trip).  A larger tent would allow for space to spread out a bit and hang out if need be, but then again a larger tent could easilly way twice as much. 
  • Lightweight sleeping bags (REI: Sub-Kilo for Susan (she likes having extra warmth in her bag) and REI: Halo 40 degree F rating for Darryl) worked great.  We used silk sleep liners as well to add comfort, keep bags cleaner, and add a small amount of added warmth and flexibility for the few nights it was actually hot out.
  • Cascade Designs Neo lite air sleeping pads (very small, pretty lite, and comfy (we both ended up with small, slow leaks, which from my experience is not unprecedented, but in the past I have always been able to patch such holes).  We had a repair kit but due to the small size were unable to locate and repair the leaks.  This meant that after 6 hours of sleeping or so I started to feel my shoulders and hips on the ground and would need to roll off the pad and blow it back up - not conducive to an uninterrupted night of rest.

  • Footwear.  Susan opted for a rubber soled "road bike" riding shoe and Keen style shoe-sandals for her walk about footwear.  I purchased Pearlizumi X-Alp "mountain bike"shoes with solid cross-trainer type soles that I wore on and off the bike for walking.  I brought flip flops for casual wear in camp and hotels, but rarely wore them when walking around towns or other sites.  We both used SPD style pedals and cleats.  Susan's solution allowed for a more substantial off bike shoe to wear when not riding, but on balance was a bit heavier than my solution, which was pretty streamlined.  At times I became tired of wearing the biking shoes around town, and even though they were all black, they were a bit sleek looking for town shoes.  For the most part they were comfortable and provided enough support for hiking, even on steep and  uneven surfaces.  Bigger issue for me was ensuring that I didn't wipe out when the metal SPD cleat skidded off cobblestones, or slippery rock or cobblestone surfaces (several close calls but no full wipeouts)
  • Clothing.  If you want to go light, and are willing to hand wash a few times a week we found that 2 of most clothing pieces was sufficient (T-shirts, underwear, riding jerseys, riding shorts).  The exceptions being one each of: pants, shorts, lightweight fleece jacket, rain top and bottom). Three pair of socks was good, and I brought along a pair of compression socks that Susan's brother Michael gave me, on the longer days or days when we pushed hard I enjoyed wearing them after our ride and while sleeping.
  • Wool T-Shirts, long underwear zip-neck, and boxers  (Smartwool and Ibex brand) were great, could be worn when off the bike many times before needing a wash, which we often did by hand in a sink at a campground.
    Darryl's clothing
Susan's clothing 
Items we sent back to Milan after our first month of touring, mostly these were multiple items we were not using.
Susan's Clothing

What would we do differently next time?
In general I find pedaling a lighter load more enjoyable.  There is an obvious trade off between luxuries and weight, so everyone will have to choose for themselves.  Since riding our bikes is what we do when we tour (frequently we ride 6-days out of each week) lightening our load is something that we find great benefit from.  That said see our list below of a few items that we might consider on a future similar tour. 

Susan claims she would bring the same things on a similar future tour.  Since this tour was in the spring, and ended up having a fair bit of cool and wet weather a summer tour might require a slightly different approach.  I for one would have brought fewer items, specifically some clothing items (I brought 3-T-shirts and 2 pairs of shorts, as well as 2 mid-weight long underwear tops where 2, T-shirts, 1 pair of shorts, and 1 long underwear top would have been fine), tools (I find that a good multi tool and set of folding pliers can handle most roadside repairs, otherwise bike shops can be found in most towns in developed countries at least), spare batteries, and collapsible sink (we only used it once).  

Items to consider for next tour:
  • Camp chair or stool. In Europe most campgrounds (at least the ones we visited) do not have picnic tables.  This often means sitting on the ground to relax, cook, or read.  After a long day of riding this can be tough, and for me resulted in a few excruciating cramping episodes.  Not sure what kind of chair though?  We met some folks who swore by their tripod collapsible stools, or maybe the Big Agnes collapsible chair or even Crazy Creek chair would be enough?  If touring where campgrounds provide tables this would be an easy item to do without.
  • I brought only one cycling jersey (with pockets and zippered front) and another poly shirt to ride in.  Turns out when wearing regular poly T-shirt riding I missed having pockets and zipper to regulate temperature.  Next time I will bring 2 riding jerseys, perhaps I will try a lightweight wool riding jersey as well.
  • I might bring a lightweight pair of sandal/ shoes, or running shoes for off bike wearing.  Flip flops are still great for around camp and lodging, as well as showering, but bringing 3-pairs of footwear seems excessive.  Will have to explore options here to figure out the best solution.
  • I didn't miss having a front handlebar bag (using my frame bag instead worked really well for me), but I do still see the value of a good map case.  The stem mounted map case I used was OK, but was not sturdy enough (required repairing) and seemed a bit clunky.  Will need to explore other map case solutions.
  • Maps.  In Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria the Tourist Information offices often had free maps and cycle route guides. We bought a few maps, but mostly got by using the Lonely Planet Bicycle Touring Italy guide and free maps from tourist offices.  We did buy a nice Sardinia map (1:25000 I think) and 2 maps covering northeastern Italy and the province of Lombardia.  These were helpful when planning but were only infrequently pulled out when making "Which way do we go" decisions on the road, for this we used the iPad.  I love maps, so am always inclined to buy them, still they are often relatively expensive and I wonder if in this day and age if their are better navigation tools?  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Full circle back to Milano

The day had come for us to pedal the final 75km back to Milan, the end of our journey was almost upon us. Fortunately for us there is a series of cycle routes and bike paths that covered most of our route, beginning on the dirt track along the Adda River through the Parco Nord and finishing on the Naviglio Martesana all the way into the city.  We expected that since it was Sunny and Sunday that lots of folks would be out enjoying themselves, and we were not wrong.  In fact the final 30km was a riot of humanity biking, walking, roller blading and strolling along the path in an amazing example of ordered chaos.  We wish we could have taken some photographs of the mayhem, but it was definitely full focus riding that required complete engagement just to make sure you didn't run into someone or get run off the path. 

We passed a really cool river ferry that was built from designs by Leonardo Da Vinci that used the rivers current, a ferry platform on a cable, and a simple steering rudder to move the ferry from shore to shore.  We also met some really nice people, one of whom bought us coffee and sent us along with well wishes. Whether it has to do with our mindset of being near the end of our trip, or simply increased confidence engaging with folks we have certainly found ourselves meeting and engaging with more people as the trip progressed. We finally arrived to Milan in the later afternoon and felt both proud of our accomplishments, and a bit melancholy about the end of our trip.  

We enjoyed a last few days in Milan to enjoy our last Italian Cappuccino, gelato, foccacia, etc.  Our friend Antonio was again a wonderful host, cooking great meals for us, taking us on a nice last ride through the park nearby his apartment, and escorting us to do a bit of shopping and see the sights of Milan before we departed.

Riding along the River Adda south of Lake Garda.
The early stretches of the Naviglo Martesana was peaceful and had stretches with few other folks, but when we got closer to Milan it was a zoo, but there was something classically Italian about the experience of navigating through the masses.

This ferry appeared to do brisk business bringing cars and cyclists from one shore to the other using the rivers current and an ingenious rudder system to power the ferry back and forth.

 This is the moment that we arrived back to Antonio's apartment at the end of our tour.

The next day we went for one last ride through the nearby Parco Nord.  Antonio (who just turned 80) rides his bike and takes public transportation everywhere he needs to go. (We were appreciative of his son Massimo's car though that helped make getting to and from the train station to the airport that much easier).

Italian clothes dryer - works great!

Italian breakfast of coffee, tea, and biscuits or other bread or pastry.

Even in Massimo's compact car both our bikes fit easily in the back leaving room for our 3rd checked bag and carry-ons, as well as 3 adults.

When all is said and done we both feel very lucky for the opportunity we had to undertake this adventure and proud of the way we were able to execute it.  We ended up riding just over 3300km (2075miles), and the vast majority of that was really excellent riding.  The Dolomites and Alps eluded us on this trip, but perhaps another adventure will allow us to explore their peaks and passes.  The many historical sites, cities, villages, as well as the people we met, and the food, coffee, and gelato all made for a lifetime experience.  
We now look forward to returning to the states, and soon after moving back into our home in Carbondale.  They thought of a home actually sounds pretty good, as does riding unladen bikes for a bit.  Return to work will also happen, and hopefully we can benefit from the inspiration, peace, and perspective that this adventure has provided to ease that transition, time will tell...

Caio, and Arrivaderci!

From the Madonna dei Ciclista to the Madonna di Ghisello

From Lago di Iseo we circled the lake clockwise up the west shore and then climbed up the Colle Gallo to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of cyclists: the Madonna dei Ciclisti church and shrine. Each year in late July and early August as part of a week long event a torchlight ride meets at the shrine and a special trophy is awarded to "commemorate the commitment and dedication and encouragement to those who do not give up even in the face of the greatest difficulties of life", basically this describes the practice of giving the "lanterns rouge" to the last person in a big bike race like the Tour de France or Giro. A pretty cool practice. In any case, the church has beautiful stained glass windows depicting bicycles and some interesting bicycle themed sculptures.  Frome the shrine we enjoyed a fast run down into the snarl of traffic that is Bergamo.  The clouds were looking mighty grey and ominous as we entered the outskirts of town.

We didn't actually have to ride up this road, but Darryl suggested riding it just to see if we could and what it would be like - Susan quickly vetoed this idea.

The Madonna herself giving wings to a suffering cyclist.  Perhaps she too is a fanatical cyclists as she has the super slim physique of a grand tour rider?

Arriving in Bergamo with wet streets.  Fortunately for us we were able to duck inside and sit out the downpour. Thus we arrived to Bergamo Alta (the old part of town) relatively dry and happy.

Awesome food in Bergamo. The Pasticceria's were full of yummy looking treats. We also saw amazing focaccia and pizza too.

From Bergamo we battled busy streets to get to Lago di Como.  We ended up camping south of Lecco at the tip of the eastern leg of the inverted "Y" shaped lake. From here we took a rare (for us on this trip at least) day ride. We rode up to Bellagio, and then up the famous Colle del Ghisallo climb to the Madonna di Ghisallo church, shrine, and cycling museum.

Fellow touring cyclists Rolland and Muriel from Nelson, B.C. We enjoyed visiting with them and hearing about their extensive adventures by foot and bicycle to many different continents.  

Before the top of the climb the motorcyclists also have a monument, perhaps inspired by the nearby home to Italy's Moto-Guzzi factory and museum (unfortunately for us it was closed on weekends).

The Madonna del Ghisallo is the patroness of cycling, confirmed as such in 1949 by Pope Pius XII atop the colle with the same name above Bellagio, Italy overlooking Lago di Como. There is a lovely little church there, various sculptures and monuments to Italy's cycling greats (Bartoli, Coppi, Binda) as well as a museum devoted to cycling and bicycling racing.

The alter of the church is decorated with cycling memorabilia, some permanent, some rotated through from the archives of the museum next door.  Note the bicycles flanking the alter, these appeared to serve as memorials to certain Italian cyclists who have passed on, or maybe they are just a collection of the priests road bikes with which he commutes with?

The church highlights racing bikes used in major grand tours by Bartoli, Merckz, Strada, Coppi, amongst others).

The cycling museum itself was very interesting, although it was all in Italian. Many notable historical bicycles, racing Jerseys, and other memorabilia was on display Ina light and modern facility.

The ride down was fast!  Some fun switchbacks, but a lot of brakes too as there was a fair bit up uphill traffic and the road is narrow!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

South Tirol down to Italy's lakes Region

Turns out it was a good choice to abandon our plans to ride the high passes in the Dolomites.  The picture below (which we did not take) shows Samuel Sanchez finishing the Giro d'Italia stage 20 atop the Tre Cime climb, on May 23rd. We didn't plan to watch this stage, but wanted to ride this climb and several other nearby passes.  Instead we continued south on the fine network of cycle routes in the South Tirol region of northern Italy.  These cycle routes are mostly on dedicated cycle paths, almost always paved, and often along old railway corridors.  The section down into Bolzano had lots of old tunnels and was a 20km downhill run!

We ended up in Mezzocorona, a small town that felt like a bedroom community for nearby Trento and Rovereto, but beautiful as it is situated at the base of the Dolomiti di Brenta mountains and is towered over by 4-500 meter high limestone cliffs.  We took some nice photos, but have misplaced our card reader that allows us to transfer photos from our digital camera to the iPad that we edit the blog with, so from here on out we will only be able to post photos taken with the iPad (or ones " borrowed" from online sources like the Sam Sanchez shot).  Although taking pictures with iPad is easy it makes us feel quite dorky.

We decided to try to wait out weather one more time and took a day trip on the train to watch the Giro d'Italia time trial from Mori to Polsa.  Time trials don't make for riveting spectating, but we enjoyed checking it out all the same. Again our hopes of improving weather didn't happen, and so instead of making a circuit through the Dolomiti di Brenta we continued south to Lake Garda.  The rain lifted for us and we enjoyed several days of camping (a night on the north end of the lake at Torbole and then a few nights near Sirmione at the south end). Lake Garda is beautiful, especially so with the newly snow capped peaks towering above. Lake Garda is also a very popular place for tourists and locals from all over northern Italy to visit, so it is crowded!

We had one more surprise run-in with the Giro d'Italia as we approached Sirmione. Turns out the final stage rolled right past where we were going to stay and we found ourselves able to enjoy a rode side picnic while the peloton "groupo compacto" (means all the racers were riding together in a cohesive group) flew by.

From Lake Garda we headed west to Brescia and then onto Lago di Iseo.

Cobblestone streets and sidewalks are cool and reflect a craftsmanship you rarely see in the states.  They are slippery when wet though - no wipeouts yet, but a few exciting moments for sure.

The look on Samual Sanchez's face makes us happy we stayed in the valleys.  Sure we got wet, and cold a few times too, but I don't think we suffered like the Giro riders did in the Dolomites (photo from

Lago di Garda with freshly snow capped peak in the distance.

This impressive castle in Sirmione on he south shore of Lake Garda was amazingly well preserved and neat to see.  Sort of makes the George R.R. Martin novel I am reading come alive.

We are careful to not eat pizza too often, but have had some great pizza!

Rain means some down time and down days, and down time and days are best with beer.  The south Tirol region actually had some good beer. Mostly we found light pilsners to be the norm in Italy.

Lago di Iseo. We rode a short 35km day from Brescia to Iseo dodging downpours at cafe's
 (coffee at the first stop, beer at the next).  The light on the water in between showers was amazing!

More fresh snow above Lake Iseo. Monte Isola, the island in he center of the photo is the biggest populated European lake island. We were encouraged to take a ferry out to it to ride all the way around it (all of 9km, but I'm sure it would be a nice spin.)