Tag Archives: England

Time to get cycling again

It has, as they say, “been a long time between drinks” on this blog site. The last post was just over a year ago. This has not been due to any tardiness, simply that the events of life took over and this blog had to be temporarily put on ice.

I hope to now reverse this situation and get regular posts going again. There is so much to tell, and so many questions to ask of you cycling fraternity out there, it is difficult to know where to start 🙂

Perhaps it is appropriate to have a quick review of where our cycling adventures have taken us, the things we have learned and what we would like to try next. We have completed 3 major biking tours and have learnt so much from each of them. Each one has been remarkably different in some way.

Waiting for a train in with our loaded bikes. Let our French adventures begin!

Waiting for a train in with our loaded bikes. Let our French adventures begin!

For our first, somewhat timid foray into cycle-touring, we booked ourselves into B and Bs along the beautiful Loire Valley in France, and then rode avidly from one to the next for 4 weeks. It was a superb trip, but on reflection, we spent far too much time in the saddle, trying to cover as much distance as we could.

All things wonderfully French!

All things wonderfully French!

There was not enough time to explore unexpectedly lovely spots, and not enough rest days. And we went too late in the season and got cold. Frosty cold! But at least the rain stayed away, and we had fine weather for almost the entire month.

The take home message for this trip was not to be in such a hurry to “get there”.

Our second trip took place in the  UK. It was a cyclo-tour with a family history flavour in that we tried to visit a number of the places where our ancestors had lived.

Having learnt not to pack too many kilometres into each day, we took a bit longer to cover the same distances, but then got the train, so moved around the countryside very quickly, while still being able to do a lot of cycling. This plan worked very well, and we were able to ride in the lovely Cotswolds, the Scottish borders and highlands, around Bath and London, and along the south coast of England. Accommodation was a lot easier (and cheaper) because we stayed at Youth Hostels in most locations.

Cycling in the lovely green English countryside.

Cycling in the lovely green English countryside.

The weather was a bit more of a problem on this trip and we got drenched a number of times (there is nowhere for cyclists to get out of the rain in the UK!). One particular evening stands out in this regard: it was pouring rain (and had been for most of the afternoon) and we arrived at our destination absolutely soaked. Once we were dry, there was no way we were going to voluntarily go back out into the wet to find a meal!

Our third trip took us back to France.

One of our Hubba Hubba tents which were a breeze to carry, erect and pack.

One of our Hubba Hubba tents which were a breeze to carry, erect and pack.

We had enjoyed ourselves so much the first time, and loved all things French, especially the people. This time we packed two tents and enough camping equipment to give us some basic comforts and headed to the Rhône Valley to see what this area had to offer.

We wisely started in the north and cycled southwards, so had the Mistral (wind) helping us most of the way. The area had some amazing surprises for us, with Nîmes and the Pont du Gard being the highlights. A train trip later and we entered the Albi area which also had a few surprises in store. The highlight for me was the incredible Millau Bridge and the fun times riding through inky black tunnels on our bikes.

The amazing, 4 lane Millau Bridge, France.

The amazing, 4 lane Millau Bridge, France.

Admiring the spectacular Millau Bridge from a distance.

Admiring the spectacular Millau Bridge from a distance.

The camping lost its appeal when the weather turned wet, but it was not a problem when things were fine (I am not fond of mud!). We did find that many of the campsites where we stayed were quite expensive, and a more comfortable (dry) bed could often be found at a local three star hotel or F1 hotel.

What you can see when you cycle through one of the tunnels between Millau and Albi.

What you can see when you cycle through one of the tunnels between Millau and Albi – it was bright daylight outside!

So what is next? We think a hybrid trip, using busses and trains to go longer distances (since this worked well on both the last two trips). But getting bikes on and off trains can be rather nightmarish, and some buses refuse to carry them altogether. So we are planning to take two Brompton folding bikes, which pack down so nicely into compact bundles with wheels. The tents will probably be left behind and a greater reliance placed on finding reasonably priced hotel accommodation. Such are our tentative plans.

A Brompton folding bike can be carried on and off trains and easily  put on a bus.

A Brompton folding bike can be carried on and off trains and easily put on a bus.

The challenge now is to figure out how to get a folded bike and all my gear into a single bag or suitcase. Ideally, the case needs to have wheels and be “inversible” When the bike is airborne, it needs to be inside the bag, but when the bike is unpacked, its bag needs to be able to fold up somehow so that it can travel on the bike racks i.e. “invertible”. 🙂  Does anyone have any helpful suggestions?

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).