I did a five week trip to Europe to participate Transcontinental race and Paris-Brest-Paris. For a solo cyclist the logistics and planning this kind of trip takes quite a lot of effort. I have a “handicap” of flying only once per year (one take-off, one landing), primarily for ecological reasons. Another constraint is that I don’t have a driver’s license. Several people asked how exactly I managed the trip, so I wrote a rough outline of what I did and why.
Transcontinental race was held 25.7. to 8.8. and Paris-Brest-Paris 16.8. to 19.8. Exact finishing time of Transcontinental wasn’t known and I’d have to be in Paris by 15th of august. I need to figure out where to spend that week in between. Also I want to have few days of proper rest before Transcontinental race.
Last several times I’ve been to central Europe I had used the ferry from Helsinki to Travemunde. It is however about three times the price of bus and lags working wifi connection. I had used Lux express buses in Russia and Estonia, but this was 1st time I’d use it to go to Berlin. They require the bicycle to be packed so I’d have to bring a bicycle bag. For me internet connection is number one priority for travel to be tolerable so I chose the bus over ferry. Ferry connections from Helsinki to Tallinn are essentially local traffic.
During most of my cycling trips I don’t have rest days, but this time I’d have a few days off before Transcontinental and during the week before PBP. So I’d definitely bring some casual clothes and a laptop. The challenge was how to store or transport them during Transcontinental. I went through different options of how to send them to Istanbul to pick up when I arrive. There were two major problems. Service must have a way to resend the package to new address in case I had an accident during Transcontinental and even though I’d send my bag to myself I’d have to deal with customs in Turkey as bag leaves EU. I initially planned to fly from Istanbul to Paris, but eventually even sending the bag to Paris turned out to be too complicated as there was no delivery address. I didn’t want to bother any friends coming to PBP with this, so I just decided to leave my bag to Geraardsbergen and fly from Istanbul to Brussels as soon as possible after Transcontinental race.
Return from Paris was another issue. I never really figured out if I can bring a packed bicycle to ICE trains and wether I need to book a ticket for the packed bicycle. All train options from Paris required at least one change and changing trains with bicycle bag is a bit annoying.
I started looking for contacts to German randonneurs. There would be roughly 500 Germans coming to PBP who also need to get back home with their bicycles. They should know how to do it. Shortly after I had a ride share from Paris to Premnitz, 80 km from Berlin, for friday after PBP. Then I would just return to Tallinn by bus same way I arrived.
How it worked out
Helsinki to Geraardsbergen
There were actually very few surprises on the way to Geraardsbergen. I slept late on friday, finished packing, took last ferry to Tallinn, spent night at Statoil station and loaded food for the bus trip. I rode to bus station around 5 am and packed my bicycle. Bus left 6 am. I spent most of the time either sleeping, reading or online. Bus stopped every 3-4 hours and I went out for a walk whenever possible. The bus had personal Android tab with movies on every seat. Kind of like modern airplanes. I got half way through Interstellar before there was a change of bus in Vilnius. The other bus had different set of movies so I didn’t get to see the rest. I arrived in Berlin around 7 am, put together my bike and started riding. I was riding in my casual clothes. I tried to find a cafe where I could change on my cycling clothes, but I was already near Potsdam, 20 km away, until I found one. I ate breakfast and continued towards Hannover.
There are few things a travelling cyclist hates more than cycle lanes. They are very hard to follow, usually in poor condition and dramatically slower to ride than roads. Traveller is either stuck on big roads or prepared to lay his feet in mud.
I arrived to my hostel in Hannover after midnight, took a quick shover and went to bed. I slept until noon, ate well and spent afternoon in Starbucks. Cafe was included in the price of wifi.
My train to Amersfoort left around 6 pm and arrived around 10 pm. There were no places to buy food along my route from Amersfoort until after Utrecht I found a McDonald’s drive-in. I got 2 BigMac meals, stored one burger to saddle bag and ate the rest on site.
Later I rode past a 24 h gas station and then I was good until morning. Most of Netherlands is a fresh exception from bad bike infrastructure. Bike lanes are still slow to ride on, but at least they are intuitive and consistent. Belgium however was another good example of rotten bike lanes. I was riding on and off lanes that none can seriously think a cyclist would want to ride on. Eventually I found my way to the river side cycle path that would’ve taken me all the way from Antwerp to my hostel. I was at hostel around 10 am tuesday morning. End of the first stage.
Next was the Transcontinental race. I don’t dig deeper in to that subject now. It is 15 day race against the clock from Geraardsbergen to Istanbul through 4 control points. Everyone rides without outside support so it is kind of extreme test of cycle travel. Most people could do the ride in 30 days, but when you cut the time in half all kind of strange shit starts to happen. You can read more about that for example on the Facebook group.
Back to Geraardsbergen
I finished Transcontinental race on saturday 8.8. after 14 days and 13 hours. I was in Istanbul with only cycling shoes and no casual shirt. I ended up buying a event t-shirt, but spent the time in town in my cycling shoes. My flight left 4 am monday morning. Again I slept late on sunday morning, checked out of hostel and rode to Rumeli cafe by Bosphorus strait. It was the finish line of Transcontinental race so it was nice to spend time sharing stories with other participants. Traffic calmed, by Istanbul standards, by 9 pm and I rode to Ataturk airport. I wrapped my bicycle in secure plastic and travelled to Brussels by teleport. Sit down, close your eyes, wake up in destination.
There was a gas leak near Brussels airport that blocked all car traffic, but there was alternative route for bicycles and pedestrians. Ride to Geraardsbergen was otherwise just the usual. I stopped at a shop for food and bar for cafe. This time I knew to ride directly to the river side cycle path.
I needed to do bike service before PBP so I went to bike shop to get chain cleaner and a derailleur cable. Chain was full of dust and rear derailleur cable was tearing apart. There were probably several DIY bike workshops within 10 kms, but I ended up doing the repairs in hostel’s garden.
During Transcontinental I had recieved email with details and schedule of my ride share to Premnitz so I booked a bus ticket from Berlin to Tallinn for saturday afternoon after PBP.
GERAARDSBERGEN TO PARIS
After a few days eating and recovering from Transcontinental it was time to continue to Paris. I had initially considered taking a train for some part of the route, but it was easier to just ride. I left Geraardsbergen wednesday afternoon and rode 100 km to Lens. I wasn’t thinking of stopping there, but Booking.com recommended me hotel Le Paris Brest and I couldn’t imagine riding past.
I also made another France fail. When I arrived in town 8 pm it was lively and nice. After I had checked in, taken shower and washed my clothes, the town was dead as a rock. Clock was about 9:30 pm. Even the hotel’s restaurant had closed it’s curtains. I walked around the city centre for a while and found a bar that still had desserts available. My dinner was a big Hooegarden and 2 chocolate mousses. Living in Helsinki 200 meters from 24 h grocery store and pizzerias open from 7 am to 5 am I just don’t get used to this.
I slept late and spent the day in Lens. Mainly I wanted to find prepaid for data in France. In hindsight I should’ve bought one for Belgium too. All together I used 3 sim cards that are now junk. I’m really looking forward to abolishing of roaming charges within EU, and why stop there? There was a heavy thunderstorm when I finally left Lens around 5 pm and started my final approach to Paris. Or to Coignieres 30 km west of Paris to be exact. I rode over night and arrived to hotel just in time for breakfast.
Luckily my room was free so I could do an early check in. Most of the day was spent sleeping, eating and getting the bike ready for PBP.
Saturday I rode to bike check in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines and spent the evening in Versailles with other Finnish PBP participants. On sunday I left my luggage to hotel for storage during PBP. I had booked a room from wednesday to friday in the same hotel.
Paris-Brest-Paris is a unique retreat for “crazy cyclists” who once every 4 years can feel that they are not so crazy after all. I did my personal best, 67 hours 47 minutes, for 1200 kms.
I checked back in to my hotel wednesday afternoon as planned. Thursday flew by at PBP finish celebrations and next morning it was time to head home.
Paris to HELSINKI
My ride was going to leave from Plaisir. I rode about 10 km to hotel where my ride share was supposed to leave. I arrived 10:30 am and he was already waiting at the parking lot. I had to remove my saddle bag to fit the bike in the car rack. He had found another 2 passengers from a local ride share website. Road, gas station stop, more road. Some napping, some chatting with others, some Tweeting and some more napping. 14 hours sitting was just the start, soon there would be another 26 hours in a bus.
We arrived to Premnitz 1 am. He offered me to stay at his place until morning and take a train to Berlin, but I decided to just continue to Berlin. Night is the time to ride this kind of segments near big cities. I managed to ride without stopping through Brandenburg and Potsdam simply following street signs. I was hoping to find a place in Berlin where I could take a shower, but eventually I had to check in to hostel just for shower. I ate a breakfast there and worked hard to stay awake until 2:30 pm when my bus to Tallinn left. I stockpiled on food at local grocery and packed my bicycle ready for bus. I slept most of the time on the way to Vilnius. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the bus ticket’s details so I jumped off 1 stop early at Vilnius only to notice that it was almost 3 hours before the bus to Tallinn left. I put together my bicycle and rode around Vilnius for an hour. There was a bicycle sportive starting in the downtown. One more packing of bicycle and a bus to Tallinn. While in bus I booked my ferry ticket back home. I took the last ferry so I could spend a few hours in Tallinn with friends. I was back at home 0:30 am monday morning. 5 weeks, 2 days and ”2 Tour de Frances” journey on land, sea and air was finally over.
If you ask a cyclist what is wrong with cycling the answer is likely to be very stupid. If there was something wrong with cycling they wouldn’t be doing in the 1st place. You should however try to figure out why others are not cycling.
Cycling around Europe is easy, but there are lots of what ifs. For example locking a bicycle needs 4 walls and a door. Piece of metal as bicycle lock is just failed concept in so many ways. Finding a place for bicycle is needed in order to spend any time in a city. You are likely to eventually find one, for example a hotel’s garage, but it should be more straight forward. Solo traveller can’t really park his bicycle anywhere. In every occasion I’ve wanted to use a ”bicycle box” it has required some local subscription.
Another thing is that very few cycling trips are single modal. Figuring out how to transport bicycle by train, bus or plane is very stressful. For example the bus line from Tallinn to Berlin can’t guarantee that they will carry a bicycle. If it is full it is full, no way to buy a ticket for bike, if it is full you and bike are out. However that lottery is better than most of the train and bus lines that simply say “no bicycles”. About 100% of Europe is within 50 km from nearest bus or train stop.
Finally the basic needs. Cyclists need food for fuel. In a typical car ride you don’t need to think beforehands if there is gas available. Cyclist can of course stockpile on food, but that is more touring than travelling.
There are more entry level problems too. What if my bicycle breaks up? You fix it by yourself or at a workshop. What if I get tired? Then you move slower. Am I fit enough to do this? No you are not, but you will be when you’re done. How do I find shelter? Mobile phones have revolutionized many things including cycle travel. You can search nearby hotels in real time and sort them by criteria (wifi, 24 h reception, price and walls) of your choice. If you need camping gear you are touring, not travelling. I can’t stress this enough. This type of cycling is possible because of mobile phones. After day of riding you can be 50 km here or there depending on weather, mechanicals or just because you saw something interesting. Seamless booking of accommodation and navigation to location is crucial.
Cycling obviously is slower than many of the alternatives, but I’ve found it fast enough for my needs. Especially when combined with public transportation. I’m always learning something new of how to travel by bicycle and I know there is a lot more to know. I hope reading this has helped you understand what travelling by bicycle is like. Remember. There are no rights or wrongs in cycling as long you safely reach your destination.