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Europe


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Start: May 6, 2002 Madrid, Spain

Finish: July 29, 2002, Warsaw, Poland

Over 4000 miles

I have wanted to take an extended “global” bike trip for the past 10 years, and initially I planned this trip as “Lisbon to Shanghai” which would have taken about 10 months. But costs and girlfriend objections forced me to pare it down. I still want to finish the rest, which would be from Poland through Central Asia and across China. But I don’t think I can do it in one shot.

Goals & Planning

My goal for the trip was to see and experience countries that I had not been to before. So in planning the trip I researched areas that seemed interesting and weren’t too far out of the way. But since I was more interested in the cultural aspects of the various countries, this lead to the following constraints: 1) I would spend more time in urban areas in order to visit museums, restaurants, etc., 2) I would have to stay in more hotels, 3) 1 and 2 would lead to higher cost/day for the trip. On previous trips, by camping 90% of the time and preparing my own meals, I could get by on $20-25/day. For this trip I budgeted $62/day. I intentionally did not camp that much (25% of the time).

I also planned not to ride every day. I took a day off in major cities to be a tourist. On the days I rode I planned about 60 miles/day on average. But one thing I misjudged was the directness of the route. I did my initial planning on a large-scale map of Europe, and planned my route almost as the crow flies, but when I got there I found I had to zigzag all over (I stayed on back roads) which greatly increased the mileage. As a result I had to bypass some things I wanted to see (Cordoba and Granada in Spain, Lisbon, Venice, Prague, and Vienna). Actually I didn’t mind too much—riding in and out of major cities is a pain—and dangerous.

I also did not take into account how much the mountains would slow me down. I got hit hard in southern Spain and in the Alps. Very little distance as the crow flies but still lots of miles due to the switchbacks and curves.

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Equipment

Although I had an old touring bike, it was 20 years old and because of the advances in technology I decided to buy a new touring bike, a Fuji “touring design”. I also bought new panniers, a new tent and new stove. I debated getting a mountain bike but decided that most of my riding would be on paved roads and a touring bike is better designed for that.

The bike performed well. I had only two flat tires, 3 broken spokes and had to replace the chain once. The biggest problem was a pedal defect, which required me to replace the pedals in Poland because a nut that holds the bearings in place got stripped. The other problem was a new type of Kevlar tire, which did not sit well, requiring much less air pressure than I normally put in. I also went through several pairs of brake shoes, but these were easy to buy and put on. Otherwise just the usual maintenance. I did carry tools to make repairs on just about any component of the bike, and had spare tubes and tire, brake and derailleur cables, etc.

However, my panniers fell apart. I had Topeak “touring” panniers but they started ripping at the seams after a couple hundred miles. I had to sew them shut with copper wire. This continued for the next several hundred miles. They survived the trip but are completely trashed.

Weather

I should have done more research on this. I assumed Spain would be sunny and warm in May but it was actually cold and wet in Madrid and in northern Spain. I even ran into snow at one point. But in southern Spain it was so hot I had to stop periodically to cool down. On the really wet days I had to cut the ride short after six hours or so because it was also cold. This slowed me down in northern Spain where it rained for five straight days. Otherwise I had pretty good weather. It was blistering hot in France and I had a few rainy days in Czech and Poland but nothing major. But the weather extremes necessitated that I have clothing for all occasions, which of course added bulk and weight.

Terrain

I enjoy riding in the mountains because it’s more interesting, but I was really challenged a few times (click on video) .

Southern Spain was tough because it was so hot, then in the Alps between France and Italy I crossed over a 2300-meter pass and a few smaller ones. But the Alps between Italy and Austria about killed me. Daily for five days I was grinding up 2-3 mountain passes at 1800-2000 meters. These were fairly steep climbs (at times over 15% gradients) and long – 20 km. So it was uphill for 2-3 hours, then a downhill zoom for 15 km, then up for another 2-3 hours, then down, etc. Very tough on the knees and thighs. The curves and switchbacks really slowed me down as well. After crossing into Austria the terrain became much more friendly.

Camp or hotel

I intended to camp at least 50% of the time but it ended up being much less. This was because part of my objective for the trip was the cultural experience, so I wanted to spend more time in cities. In addition, during rain and extreme heat a hotel is a lot more comfortable. Finally, I had the money to spend on hotels, which I didn’t have in the past. I admit I felt like a wimp sometimes. Where I would have camped in the past, this time I grabbed a hotel. They were cheap, and I’m not getting any younger either! Campgrounds in Europe are nice because they have hot showers and restaurants. Otherwise I camped “free”, which is quieter and more enjoyable but your meals are simpler and no shower unless there’s a creek nearby. But there were many days when the temperature, humidity and bugs were so bad that camping would have been very uncomfortable.

Language

My language capabilities were so-so. Spanish is my strongest language but the accent was tough to decipher at first. I knew a few words of Portuguese but was really lost there. I speak some French so no problem there and in Italy I managed to get by speaking bad Italian and French. In Austria I had to dredge up my German that I studied 20 years ago but even that helped. It was in Czech and Poland where I was clueless. I bought a couple books and learned some basics but very rudimentary. Normally this was not big problem, since even in remote areas it’s possible to buy things, etc. using sign language and knowing a few words. But even simple conversations were impossible. I learned a few key words like “left”, “right”, and “is this the road to Warsaw?” Knowing the language allows you to have a richer experience because you can talk to the locals, read the newspaper, etc.

Health

No major problems. Just very fatigued at times, especially in the rain and cold and extreme heat. And soreness going over the mountains. I did get big blisters on my hands and some numbness in my fingertips. Otherwise just sunburned and lots of bug bites. And I lost almost 20 lbs! I’m in great shape but it won’t last.

Costs

As I said, I could have spent a lot less than $62/day if I just camped out and stayed away from restaurants but that wasn’t an objective. Portugal, Spain, Czech and Poland were much cheaper than France, Italy and Austria. For example a 1.5 liter bottle of water cost about 0.5 euros in Spain. In France it was 2 euros. By the way, using the Euro was great. No need to fool around changing money. The euro is good in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Austria. In Czech and Poland I had to change money to get the local currency.

Other

Some other observations: it is amazing how pervasive American culture is in Europe. I had a radio and would listen to local stations. What do I hear? Yes, some local music, but more often the latest from Britney Spears, Eminem and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. On TV I saw the Simpsons in every language from Portuguese to Polish, as well as other popular shows—Star Trek reruns, Friends, Seinfeld, movies, etc. Front page newspapers talked all about American politics, down to cabinet level. So while the Czechs know who Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld are, how many Americans know who the president of Czech is?

Good maps are key. I got lost many times in Portugal because roads (and even entire towns) appeared that were not on my map, so I was constantly checking to make sure I knew where I was (I hate being lost). My compass saved me more than once.

While people cheered on the Tour de France racers, they don’t have the same opinion of bike tourists. Instead of cheers and applause, when I rode by everyone stared at me like I was some kind of freak. It got really annoying after awhile so I started staring back at them. You get tired of people looking at you like you have three heads, but in the small towns I was in I guess I did look a bit odd.

There are very few laundromats in Europe so I was constantly searching for places to wash my clothes. Creeks, public restrooms, campgrounds, hotel sinks were the usual way. Washing clothes was a daily chore.

Highlights

I’ll try to list the most memorable events in each country

Spain
- The food was great—I fell in love with gazpacho
- Madrid, Sevilla and Barcelona very exciting cities. I could have spent a week in each.
- Some very nice mountain views in the south (Andalusia- Sierra Morena) and in the north (Asturias – Picos de Europa)
- Figueres – The home of Salvador Dali - great museum
- Watching the world cup with the Spaniards

Portugal
- Porto was interesting
- My first taste of white port (great and cheap)
- The Algarve, southeastern coast – sheer rock faces drop down to the ocean

France
- La Camargue wetlands nature reserve
- Numerous gorges and steep valleys (Gorge de Verdon, etc.)
- Good food
- Marseille – crazy place
- Good camping
- The climb up to Lombardo pass on the Italian border

Italy
- pizza and cappuccino
- Milan
- Wine region of Piemonte – and the wine
- The Alps on the way to Austria

Austria
- Salzburg
- Beer
- Mauthausen concentration camp
- Good bike trails

Czech
- Beer
- Learning the language
- Cesky Krumlov – a quaint little town

Poland
- Beer
- Krakow
- Auschwitz concentration camp
- The language
- Kielbasa
- Chlodnik

Things I could have done without
- It rained the very first day from start to finish
- Being run off the road in Portugal – one of four falls but none serious
- Near- hypothermia in northern Spain
- The mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies, and every-other biting fly you can imagine in France and Italy
- The busy roads around all major cities. It was terrible trying to compete for a strip of the pavement with trucks and busses
- The roads in Poland were particularly bad. Lots of big ruts and potholes
- The moron in a town in Portugal who would not let me shower at the campground—even after I offered to pay for an entire day!
- The hills took their toll on my knees—I could barely walk some days.