This guest post is by Frazer Goodwin – he’s on Twitter as @FrazerGoodwin and you really should follow him. Frazer is English, but lives in Belgium. Enough from me, I’ll hand over to Frazer now.
“Aren’t you too old to travel that far on a bike?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked by both friends and family. But I have finally managed to complete a multiday bike ride I’ve been planning for years – a ride from my home in Brussels to my in-laws place in Sweden on an island north of Gothenburg. When I posted that I’d done it on Facebook, a good friend here in Brussels simply responded “Nuts”.
Well, I didn’t get to ride that far at 57years of age by just climbing on the bike and setting off. So this short series about my bikepacking will start with the planning and preparations I undertook before the next post details the trip itself and then a final one will review what I’ve learned and plan to do next…
I have been thinking of riding to the island off the Swedish west coast where my in-laws have a house for a couple of decades. It is after all where my wife and I married more than 20 years ago. I had planned the ride in detail for last year, but the pandemic kyboshed it then. I managed to turn it into a tour of the Netherlands to at least use some of the accommodation I’d already booked. And that trip provided me with a lot of insight about how both my bike-setup and I coped on a multi-day bikepacking trip.
Having done a great deal of camping when I was a rock climber in my youth I was amazed at how far the equipment had improved making it both lighter and more comfortable. But I was still nervous about only camping on longer rides as I was relying on electronics on the bike (phone and a Garmin bike computer plus lights and a power bank) so I needed to be sure I’d be able to recharge after two or three days – hence periodic hotel stays.
Last year’s trip proved to me that my equipment was up to the job. This was particularly the case for my camping set up. A Big Agnes “Flycreek UHV” tent that was bikepacking specific (its poles split into short sections so it can fit between the brake hoods when packed) was both lightweight and comfortable. Especially with a Big Agnes inflatable sleeping mat and pillow. The other part of my “sleep kit” was also easily warm enough – even though the Sea to Summit sleeping bag packs down to the size of a large bidon. The most important discovery though was that morning coffee was not a problem. A small gas stove, a Titanium cooking pot (gas canister and stove pack inside it on the bike) with an Aeropress make a superb morning brew to sip and contemplate the ride ahead.
But it was my computer based route planning that worked really well in the real world. I use the App Bikemap, and have done for almost nine years now. This was the first time I’d used it on a multiday international ride. And it worked just like it does when I use it for shorter rides around the local woods or to plan longer training rides on the roads around Brussels. I found myself riding a fantastic mix of quiet roads, separated bike paths, converted rail lines and even some gravel paths.
Arranging the route this year had the added complication that regulations relating to international tourism changed frequently from the start of the year. The largest impact this had was on arranging accommodation – many places, both campsites and hotels, weren’t accepting bookings from international visitors until there was greater clarity on who would be allowed to travel. Agreement on the Europass for all EU citizens allowing travel across the EU for those vaccinated, COVID recovered, or those with a negative PCR test was a great breakthrough. But by then several campsites I’d wanted to book were already full with “domestic” holiday makers. I could have tried winging it and wild camping, but that was a scenario I didn’t want to add onto the challenge with its lack of toilet/washing facilities and the risk of being moved on. It meant that there were more hotel stays than I’d envisaged – but there were still three nights in campsites.
But the most important lessons my Dutch tour last year taught me was that I needed to prepare for the unexpected. Dealing with such challenges on a trip that is already over many days requires both a mental fortitude and fitness of a level greater than otherwise anticipated in order to respond to the unexpected.
Those I encountered last year included headwinds blowing stronger than I thought possible in summer, fatigue from a poor night’s sleep, and long diversions due to river crossings being closed / ferries cancelled (including an additional 50Km when the ferry across the Rotterdam port to Hoek van Holland wasn’t running, requiring a 25Km ride upstream to the next crossing point.
These learnings meant that I’ve been very diligent training over the winter so as build a high base of fitness so as to be able to ride not only my average target of about 150km a day, but also to do an additional 20 or even 40+ Km if needed. Getting in the right mindset to be able to take on any unexpected developments was more difficult. But the bank of experiences I’d built from last year enabled me to adopt a positive mindset and know I could overcome such obstacles.
An additional obstacle in my preparations this year was an accident I had six weeks before I was scheduled to leave. By this stage I hade built up the distance of my longer rides to more than 200Km and cut back on high intensity shorter rides that had been the staple of my winter and spring. But, on 6 June I came off as my bike slipped beneath me on mud washed onto the track I was riding on a Sunday club ride.
I wasn’t going fast, but was thrown forward as I came to a sliding stop. My immediate concern was for the bike as only my right hand hurt, nothing else. But as I looked at the bike to check for damage on the bike I saw that my two fingers that were hurting were dislocated. Oh. End of the club run and off to the emergency unit in an ambulance…
In the end my priority for the bike was actually well placed. My fingers healed rather quickly, thanks to the first rate health care here in Belgium. The bike however wasn’t going to mend itself like my hand. The derailleur hanger and cassette had to be replaced and though the shifter was scratched it appeared to be working… but then that too gave out.
Desperate internet searches eventually uncovered the part I needed – a Shimano 105 hydraulic front (left) brake/shift lever. Whilst I was (nervously) awaiting its delivery I rode my old rim brake Roubaix bike that I’d previously retired to the indoor trainer after a crack in the frame had to be re-repaired under warranty. It held up for the final long training rides until the part I needed arrived and was fitted, ready for departure.
My bike and kit was ready. The route was planned and I’d prepared notes on each day (possible food stops and ferry timetables etc) as well as printing out my COVID Europass. I was healed and fit and ready for an adventure…
Part 2 to follow soon.