Category Archives: Route planning

Reflecting on our 2013 French tour

Shutters on the windows and flower boxes on the sill. Much as I would them too, my windows at home will never look 'French' like this.

Shutters on the windows and flower boxes on the sill. Much as I would them too, my windows at home will never look ‘French’ like this.

As I have already indicated in recent posts, my entries on this blog have gotten more than a little behind the times. However, the memories are still fresh and there is much to write about our cycle tour in France in 2013.

This is what I love coming to France for. So beautiful.

This is what I love about France.

This trip could more accurately be considered a series of shorter cycling tours than one big long trip. Some cyclists are super fit and measure their achievements by the number of kilometres or miles they pack into each day. This is definitely not me, I have never been an athletic type and frankly, it is sometimes very difficult to muster the willpower to get on the bike again, especially after 3 or 4 days of riding with no days off to explore and take photos. I also get very frustrated at missing out on seeing so many things along the way.

Pure magic.

Pure magic (the Canal du Midi in Toulouse).

There were three of us on this tour, me, my partner and my youngest son who was about to commence 2 years of study in France. Unlike our previous French experience, we were based in Toulouse, home of our son’s new university.

Apart from an initial desire to ride along the Rhône Valley, we decided to try ‘winging’ the rest of the 4 weeks we had to ride. This plan worked reasonably well, but personally, I think it would have been better if we had decided on a rough schedule beforehand, so that there was an overarching plan. I am a bit boring in that I like to know what I am doing ahead of time!

How many bikes can you fit into a train compartment? In this photo, there were ten!

How many bikes can you fit into a train compartment? In this photo, there were nine!

Given that there were three of us, we decided to try camping, rather than staying at B and Bs (which are mostly suited to couples or groups).

‘Free’ camping is definitely cheaper than staying in B and Bs or hotels, or family holiday camps. By ‘free’ camping, I mean staying in places that are not designated camping areas.

This was our preferred option as it would have given us the most freedom to plan as we went along and to stop when and were we felt like doing so.

Table and benches - rare luxury! In Australia, most campsites have these as standard fixtures.

Table and benches – a very rare luxury in all the campsites where we stayed! In Australia, most campsites have these as standard fixtures.

In Australia, it is possible to free camp almost anywhere outside major cities, if one is prepared to ‘rough it’ a little.

However, we were unsure of the situation in France, so read widely about what others had done. It seems that free camping is not really encouraged, although many do manage to do it quite successfully. Not being quite as young as we once were (and consequently just a tad less brave 🙂 ), we decided to plan around destinations where we knew there were camping sites. Unlike our first cycling adventure in France, we did not book any accommodation except for when we first arrived and the few days prior to our departure.

Ultimately, we used a mix of camping and hotel stops (after camping in the rain for more than 2 nights, one starts to dream about dry things.. clothes, shoes, tents…. 🙂 ). We also found that in the larger cities, the cost of a room for 3 at a cheaper hotel was sometimes less than the cost of a tent site! So it payed to look at all the options before deciding where to stay.

The first few days of riding were very, very wet! Madoqua and son enjoy a rare break in the weather. At least it was not hot!

The first few days of riding were very, very wet! Madoqua and son enjoy a rare break in the weather. At least it was not hot!

At the finish, there had been four main parts to our trip: the Rhône Valley, Millau-Albi, the Canal du Midi and Bordeaux. Each was special for different reasons, as you will find out in upcoming posts.

As with other tours, I will compile a page which references all the relevant posts, but I had better get on and write them first 🙂

Keeping a travel diary

One of the things I did not do on our tour of France was to keep a diary. Normally I am quite diligent in this regard, but I found I was tired at the end of each day and decided not to bother – simply to enjoy the riding and to rely on my photos for a recollection of the trip. This approach was not as successful as I had hoped as new experiences were numerous and I simply did not take sufficient photos to capture everything I needed.

The only technology that we had with us was a single Netbook which belonged to KJ. This was able to log onto the internet if we were able to get access to a Wifi network, which was not often.

English: Lenovo IdeaPad S10

Lenovo IdeaPad S10 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). This is identical to the one I won.

I found it very frustrating to be so limited in my communication capability and eventually I gave up altogether. I also decided that we could not rely on one device for both of us for future tours. Shortly after we returned from this trip, I won a lovely Netbook of my own, so I was set (or so I thought!).

Then Apple released the iPad and I was immediately captivated by this new device. A lot smaller, lighter and with such potential for planning, executing and capturing tours! Netbooks could not help track or plan routes and give reports on terrain and weather at a touch of a button. In addition, Netbooks were too bulky and somewhat overpowered for what we needed.

English: The iPad on a table in the Apple case

English: The iPad on a table in the Apple case (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now my iPad is a fundamental touring tool, as is my smartphone (which gets mounted to my handlebars to provide a live map – how incredibly convenient, no more paper maps to get wet or blown away 🙂 ).

Using these tools, it is now possible to write, photograph and make audio visual records of anything in real time and back them up to the cloud for safe keeping until you are ready to use the material. This makes diary entries so much easier and less time consuming at the end of a long cycling day. Photos can be captured from the SD card of one’s camera, providing an instant backup, and I have an attachment which lets me tune into local TV stations using my iPad. So we can keep up with what is going on in the world while we are away.

iPhone mount

iPhone mount (Photo credit: ryumu)

If you are considering getting a tablet device to use on your trip(s), I suggest you get it well before you go. Not only are they wonderful for capturing your tour information, they are also great in the planning stage. You also need to be familiar with using the device well before you leave home. This will give you time to find out which apps are suitable for what you want to do and give you time to learn how to use them properly.

With the latest upgrades and models of iPad and/or iPhones, it is possible to create a local internet hotspot using wifi. So all is needed is a local internet (SIM) card for either a recent model phone or iPad and all your devices can get internet access. I do not use Android or other non Apple devices, so do not know if this possible with them as well.

If you are interested in using technology on your cyclotour, I have two other posts on this topic as well:

Planning the UK trip (Part 2: Overnight stops)

This is part 2 of a of Planning the UK trip. Read part 1

HOW FAR TO RIDE?

Working out where to stop each day was limited by our desire to ride an average of about 60km (37 miles) a day. Any more than this, and there was not enough time to stop and appreciate the scenery and interesting things along the way. We averaged 59km/cycling day, so this was quite close to our desired target.

It is possible to work out ideal overnight destinations using a map and a bit of string which is what I did with the French tour. However, with the UK trip, I got a bit more technical and used the RoutePad app I have described on the Using Technology post. This gave me a good idea of the degree of difficulty we could expect in each day’s travel as well as the distance.

No planning can factor in/out 'interesting' weather

No amount of planning can factor in/out ‘interesting’ weather (Scottish Highland sunshowers)

BREAKING THE CYCLING WITH RAIL TRIPS

We had learnt from our French cyclo-tour that we needed breaks from riding every few days. These breaks allowed for some relief from the weather (particularly when it was cold and wet every day) and gave us time to catch up on correspondence, journals etc. It was also good to just relax for a day every now and again!

We planned to take the train on these ‘rest’ days. This would give us greater coverage of the country and open up new areas for exploration. But taking the train is not so easy when you are taking a bike along as well, so we had to choose our routes accordingly.

We purchased a BritRail Pass which gave us 8 days of (non urban) rail travel over a 2 month period. This was excellent value and was ideal to cover each section of the country travel we required. All we had to do each time we wanted to catch a train was to check that there were seats for us and then book the bikes on as well. This was easily done, and usually just required a visit to the embarkation station within a day or so of our intended travel. (BritRail passes need to be purchased before travelling to the UK).

The bikes usually travel in the guard’s compartment or at the end of the train. You will need to know exactly where they need to go and be waiting at the appropriate section of the platform 🙂 (Sometimes you will also need to check out how to get your bike across to the correct platform – this can be a challenge at some country stations!)

We found the railway booking staff to be very helpful when it came to finding out all this information. We had no problems getting the bikes boarded as well as ourselves and our gear at any of the stations we used.

Carbisdale Castle - an amazing Youth Hostel in Scotland

Carbisdale Castle – an amazing Youth Hostel in Scotland

Accommodation

England and Scotland have very many wonderful Youth Hostels, most of which accommodate bike riders with no problems. We stayed at these hostels wherever possible. Booking was simple, we just joined the local Australian Youth Hostel Association and then booked our overseas destinations (with ease) on the internet. Some hostels are very popular and need to be booked early. Others close for the winter, so also check availability.

In most places, we were able to get a private room, but some hostels only had shared male or female dormitories. But the rates were very reasonable and most of the hostels have kitchens, laundries and a sitting room where you can relax if you so desire. Some of the bigger ones also have a restaurant, although the quality of the food/service varies considerably.

Three Swans Hotel - with bicycle accommodation!

Three Swans Hotel – with bicycle accommodation! We really enjoyed our stay here – we were on the ground floor (no steep, narrow staircases!)

Where there were no hostels, we used the internet to search for a B&B or a local hotel. It was necessary to check with every place to ensure that there was somewhere secure to park the bikes overnight. But we had little trouble finding somewhere suitable at each of our proposed destinations. B&Bs and hotels can be booked easily using the internet.

NIGHT MEALS

One thing to watch when you are reliant on a bicycle for transport is to make sure you have sufficient food with you (if you are staying at a hostel where you intend to cater for yourself). If you intend to eat at a pub or restaurant, then make sure that your accommodation is sufficiently close to the latter to enable you to get there! While it may seem logical to just hop on the bike and ride to the nearest food outlet, at the end of a day when you have been on the bike for a number of hours/all day, this ride may not be a fun outing!

Watching a passing train while watching the bikes

Grocery stop – watching a passing train while looking after the bikes

It is also not a bad idea to keep a supply of non perishable, nutritious food in case you get stuck and have to rely on this for an unexpected meal! We were caught in persistent heavy rain one afternoon and having made it to the B&B and finally got ourselves dry, there was no way were going out again into the pouring rain to get dinner!

The muesli bars in our ‘just in case’ food stash were very welcome that night!

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route)

Planning the UK trip (Part 1: Choosing the route)

Some people really enjoy planning their cycling trips. I am not in this category yet, as I find them plain hard work! But the more I do, the quicker I get and so one day I might enjoy the process! While it is possible to cycle with a tour company, and they will do the planning for you (for a fee), this is not our preferred way of touring – we like the freedom to go where we please and change our plans at will. The UK trip was our second major tour and we had learnt a lot from the first one (in France).

Mountain bikes travel by train

Mountain bikes travel by train, hung up by the front wheel

One thing is for sure – the more effort that goes into the planning, the better the outcome will be, and the less worry you will have while on tour.

WHERE TO GO?

One of the most difficult things to do when planning a trip is deciding where to go. While traditional tours whisk the tourist around a number of destinations in quick succession, this will not be possible when you are relying on pedal power! Even something as simple as being able to get to a grocery store or restaurant for dinner may become quite a challenge!

So the routes must be chosen with care, so that there is plenty to see, do and experience even though the actual territory covered may be quite small. The trick to this, we discovered, is to use cycle friendly public transport to move to different places, then to cycle for a while in the new location before moving on again.

Pretending to be in France - fun on a deserted lane

Pretending to be in France – fun on a deserted lane

When planning our tour to the UK, we had some destinations that we really wanted to visit, but mostly we were happy to go pretty well anywhere. The ‘must see’ places were Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, Culloden, the west coast of Scotland, and Canterbury. I had also previously been to the Cotswolds area and liked it a lot, so we decided to include that area as well. The canal towpaths had been most enjoyable in France, so if there were any that fitted with our route, we wanted to ride along those too.

It worked out that if we started in London and went north, then explored Scotland, we could then return to the southern areas and work our way across from west to east. So this was our rough plan – we would see quite a bit of the UK and fit in a lot of cycling.

FINE TUNING THE ROUTE

I purchased the only book I could find on cycling in the UK. It was a Lonely Planet guide and was excellent. I spent a good while reading and researching the various rides that had been suggested by the authors. Some were easy to include (plenty of accommodation at the end of each day’s riding), while others were perplexing since there was nowhere suitable to overnight – perhaps they were intended for locals who could go home at the end of the day. Some were just too short.

An encouraging sign for cyclists

An encouraging sign for cyclists (“Allez, allez, well done!”). The sign was at the top of the steep Cleeve Hill climb!

There were a few that really sounded good, fitted with our rough plan and just needed minor tweaking to be included.

I used the internet to search for information on interesting routes that were being promoted by local councils. Some had excellent material and I downloaded and used their maps and fliers both while planning and also when riding through these areas.

Google maps was invaluable for finding addresses of places to stay (it matters a lot when a B&B is 20km the away from your desired destination – that is a long way extra to ride at the end of the day!)  It was also good to be able to have a look at the photo of the hotel or B&B and see whether they were likely to have secure overnight accommodation for the bikes.

We knew we would have access to Google maps on our iPad, which made the map management of the trip a totally different situation to what we had had in France. During our French tour, we had to rely on paper maps instead. The latter were excellent in the countryside, but hopeless in the cities. I would not tour without an iPad now – they are happy in the city or the country and their zooming power makes navigation simple.

This is part 1 of a of Planning the UK trip. Part 2 can be found here!

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route).

A new item on the menu

Many readers of this blog have expressed an interest in going on a cyclo-tour but are not quite sure how to organise this. We have completed two major tours and a number of shorter ones over the past few years and there is no doubt, seeing a new destination from the seat of your bike is one of the best ways to travel!

I have been posting stories from our tours somewhat randomly, which may be rather confusing. Consequently, I have decided that organising these posts into a logical sequence might assist others with their tour planning. I have put together a table which shows where we started and stopped, the total distance covered by each day’s cycling, train trips (to get a break from riding without losing travel time) and links to posts which tell stories about each section of the trip. There are many more stories to be told, and these will be added over time.

I think I can, I think I can.....

I think I can, I think I can….. getting to the top of a long, steep climb

You can find this information by going to the menu item: TOURS. Currently the only tour I have listed is the UK one, but I will also add the French Loire once I have collated all the information from that trip.

If you wish to have a look at this page now, you can get to it from here or you can navigate to it by using the new TOURS tab in the menu.

I intend to cross reference each new post to its relevant TOUR page with a hyperlink at the bottom of each article – to make it easy to look up background information on that day’s ride.

If you have any suggestions that would make this TOUR menu/page more useful, please let me know by responding in the comments.

KJ enjoys having the road to himself while on tour in the UK

KJ enjoys having the road to himself while on tour in the UK

Using technology to plan and track cycling routes

This post has been written in response to a request on one of my previous articles where I mentioned using technology when touring on bicycles.

When planning a ride, it is nice to know what to expect in terms of the number of climbs and their steepness, as well as an estimate of the riding distance. A basic technique for distance requires a good map and a piece of fine string. The string is laid out along the proposed route, then the length of the ride can be calculated using the scale of the map.

This very simple method was what I used when planning our French tour in 2009. In this case, we wanted to travel about 60km a day, so I made the piece of string the equivalent of 60km long and used that to see what destinations fell within our desired radius and direction. It was extremely cheap and worked well.

Smart software

[Please note that there are lots of excellent apps available that have similar functions to those I will describe in this post, but I am only going to discuss the ones that I use. However, if you have other recommendations, please feel free to list these in the comments].

RoutePad1.jpg

Using RoutePad to plan day 1 of the Scottish Highlands ride from Pitlochry to Killin (see previous posts). The map setting shows roads and terrain.

With the advent of smartphones, it is possible to be a lot more accurate with cycle route planning. I now use an app called RoutePad to examine different options for each day’s ride.

As with many good apps, it can take a little practice to get to know how to use it, but this is time well invested. RoutePad gives useful information before one sets out on each ride: distance, quantity and extent of climbs, their elevation and location.

If a change in the weather is anticipated, or extra sightseeing stops may be an option during a ride; many alternative routes can be worked out beforehand – ready for use.

RoutePad2.jpg

RoutePad plots the elevation for the proposed 63km ride to Killin

Tapping along a proposed ride puts icons onto a Google map (which can be viewed as ‘roads’ or ‘satellite imagery’ or a combination of both). The tracking thread snaps to the nearest road/walking path. Once the route is plotted, the distance and the elevation are calculated in metric or imperial measure.

I found it a bit frustrating to edit the icons when I first started, but it really just takes a bit of practice.

Once a route has been decided, it can then be viewed in the app, or saved and the file uploaded to Dropbox or emailed as an attachment. The files are easily opened into software such as Google Earth or another app such as Cyclemeter.

Cyclemeter2.jpg

Cyclemeter tracking results at the end of the Pitlochry – Killin ride (Scottish Highlands tour)

It is quite possible to also use ‘RoutePad’ to track the ride in real time, but I prefer to use a different app to do this. The reason is that I also like to record additional information such as average speed, kilojoule (calorie) consumption etc.

There are numerous excellent apps suitable for this more complex purpose and I have tried quite a few. I think that most are much of a muchness, and I finally settled for one called Cyclemeter. 

I leave my planned reference map in RoutePad and create a new file in Cyclemeter which plots my ride as I go.

Output from Cyclemeter, showing actual speed and elevation for the Pitlochry – Killin ride.

One of the nice things about this app is that it pauses automatically if the bike stops moving. This is great, as it keeps the average speed calculation accurate. It will also sync your ride details to your calendar future reference.

Hardware

There are iPhone mounting cases available which attach to the handlebars of bikes. These are water-resistant and have a transparent, touch sensitive front cover. The phone is secure inside the case and is operated with appropriately located buttons and by touching the screen.

I do have some reservations about the quality of the screw tightening device on my phone mounting case, but otherwise I am very happy with it. The cases are not cheap, though, and given the cost of the phone and the case, I am trying to come up with a better way of securing the unit to my bike.

iPhone case for attaching your phone to the handlebars

Summary

It is wonderful to have a live map at your fingertips which can be zoomed in/out as the ride unfolds. And at the end of the ride, you have a record of where you have been and your performance statistics. Be careful though, tracking your ride can use up quite a lot of your phone battery power and you may need to recharge it a bit more often during the day, depending on how far you intend to ride.