Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Humiliation of Heavyweight Cycling

by Alain Lenain

Alain is a somewhat fanatical cycling friend of mine. Like me he is a fan of long-distance cycling and like me he doesn’t like to see people carrying too much luggage. Unlike me he is a Frenchman. As we are both members of the touring cyclist hosting organisation , we both regularly have people come to stay at our houses, on their way cycling through Europe. Many are the times that our guests stop off at a courier shop after leaving one of our houses, in order to post some unnecessary luggage home. Discussing the subject again recently, Alain told me about one particularly memorable case. I laughed a lot and so asked him to write a guest blog on the subject. Below is the result:

Alain Lenain will stop in a downpour - I don't know the French word for 'furtive'

You call it minimalism if you like, Mark, but I say it's just common sense!
I still think about David, a rather bulky cyclist, born in London living down-under, who came for his annual cycle trip to Europe. I was living in a French farmhouse at the time. David was aiming for Denmark where his daughter lived and worked.
David’s arrival in Paris had already been delayed by two whole weeks, courtesy of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, but he had made it. He had got in touch asking me to put him up on his way up the coast of northern France. He was coming via another Warmshowers host in Dieppe, so I knew he had over 130 Km to cover to get to my place. As I often do, I arranged to meet him along the way. It was agreed that Le Crotoy would be about right. Not only a beautiful fishing village on the bay of the Somme, but also a great spot for lunch. You can get a moules-frites there for 8 Euro you know!
Having eaten my breakfast and allowed myself plenty of time to get to our rendez-vous, I contacted his previous evening's host to check that he had taken to the road. He told me that David was still having breakfast.
“Ah well,” I said, “we arranged to meet in Le Crotoy, we're sure to meet up somewhere along the way.”

Alain demonstrating baguette eating technique to an English cyclist

It's an easy ride to the Baie de Somme. Leaving behind me the rolling hills of the Boulonnais, I followed totally flat roads into Rue, a restful little town, and then through the marshy area around the Baie de Somme to Le Crotoy on the northern edge of the bay. This area is a haven for tourists, especially cyclists, both of the hardened and weekender type – there are cycle tracks everywhere. Le Crotoy is very small, so it isn't hard to find someone you're meeting, and yet there was no sign of David. My eyes turned in the direction of Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme as luckily there is only one way in from Le Tréport, which is the first town after Dieppe. I saw no touring cyclist.
Rather than just wait there (I find inactivity very tiring), I set off thinking to meet David further along the route.
Now this ‘Baie de Somme’ is large, and although Saint-Valéry is only 3 Km from Le Crotoy as the crow flies, it’s 15 by road. Still, it was pleasant enough weather and the cycling was far from difficult. And it was here, as I entered Saint Valéry, that I spotted, coming towards me, a rather massive apparition on the horizon. As it came nearer it became obvious that it was a touring cyclist. You can't miss them; they seem to be on a mission. The road was flat, long and straight so it took a while for him to fill my field of vision. And boy, did it fill quickly! To start with, he was large. He turned out to weigh just over 100 Kg. I looked at his bike. To me it had the allure of a donkey, with more bags, panniers and rolled packs than I've seen in a Decathlon!
We stopped and exchanged greetings. I was mindful that here was a guy who weighs 100 Kg, whose bike weighs a good 45 Kg with all that luggage, so I offered to take a couple of his bags; to which he responded that it would be cheating. “Fair enough, it's his decision,” I thought. In any case the weight to power ratio would be in his favour on the flat once he got going. Yet I knew hills awaited us not too far away. I tend to call them flat hills but they're not really! I reminded myself that we had 85 Km to cover and it was already lunch-time.
Side by side we cycled straight through Le Crotoy with no time to stop for lunch. We chatted as we meandered along the cycle track. David told me how he'd recently done the Melbourne 300 Km challenge in record time, yet in the same breath told me how much his right knee had been playing up. Again I offered to take some of his load from him but he refused, saying that the knee was alright now.
It wasn't long before those flat hills appear and, very quickly, the power to weight ratio tilted over. David was almost cycling backwards.
“Are there more of these?” He asked.
“No! It's all downhill from here,” I told him. It was a big joke to me; less so for David, I was soon to discover.

Now something had begun to puzzle me. How David had managed to get to Saint-Valéry all the way from Dieppe in record time I could not understand. Enquiring about his breakfast I discovered that he had left long after I had called his host. He had in fact been given a lift by his host, since he worked in Le Tréport, en route. A lift of around 30 Km!
“And that is not cheating then?” I said, engaging mouth before brain.

France is full of 'flat hills' - The Boulonnais Region

Prior to him arriving David had told me about his wish to go via Le Touquet and I had managed during our pre-tour e-mails to change his mind, because of the detour it presented between Dieppe and my home. In any case it was agreed that he would stay with us for a couple of nights so that on his second day we could visit Le Touqet without luggage. What was attracting him to Le Touquet I did not know. He just wanted to see it, because it's there, I can only suppose.
The last hill did more than make David cycle backwards. He walked it. For those of you out there who do cycle, and who take it reasonably seriously, you just don't want to do that, do you? Fortunately that last hill lead to my house. It is located in the heart of the Boulonnais which is all up and down. At last, David could take a shower, change and have a couple of drinks with us before getting acquainted with the rest of the household. Only, he didn't seem to be very happy. In fact this trip, which he had been planning for so long, was coming across to us as a chore. He was sticking to his original itinerary but his daughter had now moved on from Denmark, so he would not be seeing her on this trip at all. We talked about the Countries he would go through, but for his part it was all with a lack of any enthusiasm. He was missing his wife back in Melbourne, we discovered. This was his second marriage and the novelty had not yet worn off. She could have accompanied him, he said, but she just could not have kept up with his pace.
“Really?” I muttered to myself.
Discovering more, I think it would be fair to say that David’s trip had not got off to a great start. Firstly, he had been held up for two weeks by volcanic ash in the heavens. He had finally flown into London, and had gone on to Luton to stay with family before continuing to Salisbury, where he keeps his European touring bike. Really, I'm serious. His cousin keeps it for him so that he can ride it whenever he comes cycling in Europe. So, after an overnight stay, he had loaded it up and set off towards Portsmouth and a ferry to Le Havre. Well, he had hardly covered 5 Kms before his luggage rack came loose. One of his tyres then went completely flat and his derailleur refused to provide smooth changes. He had felt embarrassed at not having checked his steed before departing on a tour of Europe, so did not relish the thought of going back to his cousin's place. Consequently he spent a long time resolving the problems with the bike. This had made him late for the boat, forcing him to jump on a train. Oh dear me, not more cheating!

Not David, but another visitor AFTER he had already shed a substantial amount of luggage - this is not ULT!

David and I enjoyed our chat together. I discovered that Melbourne is totally flat. I also learned that his knee was no longer hurting and that he felt determined to see his trip through, despite missing his wife and home comforts. We agreed to cycle over to Le Touquet the next day for a leisurely ride – it's only just over 30 Km away with several routes to get there. As it was we took the more scenic (hillier) one.
There is a streak in me, I just can't help it! But he had broken the 300km Melbourne Challenge record, so without luggage he would surely be fine?
After few kilometres of gentle slopes towards Samer, we headed up the Blanche Jument climb, dreaded by even the most audacious cyclists in the area. For some reason David just did not like it. It was another walk up for him. The other seven climbs to Le Touquet were less daunting but they took their toll. More than I could ever have expected. We arrived in Le Touquet and pootled along the sea-front before visiting the town hall. I had resolved to take a flatter route back to the house, albeit a very scenic one through sleepy little villages and the forest of Boulogne.
The first sign of trouble on our way home came with David’s, "This is not my sort of cycling. I like to stop and look at things."
We stopped. A few kilometres farther on, I heard the classic, "How far to your place?" When someone asks that I know they are on their way out!
"Oh, about 30 Kms, I'd say,"  I replied.
"W H A T !"
David’s voice reverberated throughout the forest. Squirrels ran for cover and pheasants took off in all directions. I promptly reassured David, that I had been joking and we only had 10 Km left to cover.
Now, the previous evening, I had spent time chatting with David about ULT (Ultra-Light-Travel). It's something I believe I’ve managed to perfect over the years. People have a tendency to take more luggage than necessary – in case of what? Being invited to a dance? Going to a wedding? Going to a concert? A funeral? I've done all of these without extra clothes. So why did David carry six pairs of trousers and six pairs of shoes, plus eight shirts, three cycling outfits, a portable computer, charger, reflex camera, fourteen maps, water-purification tablets, a sleeping-bag, deodorant spray, towels? As they say in England "the kitchen sink an' all!"
As David would be travelling back to Australia via England, I had convinced him to lighten his load. So that first evening, he had filled a large black plastic bin-bag and it was agreed we would leave it for him at our son's house in Kent, from where he could collect it at the end of his trip.
The ride back from Le Touquet did not end well, by the way. He arrived back at my house a complete wreck and collapsed into a shower. Concerned, my wife soon had a hot meal on the table to revive him. David looked down at it, saying how appetising it all looked, then with a veil appearing over his eyes he apologised. He just could not find the strength to eat. Could he just go straight to bed? He asked. And with that, off he went. My wife and I looked at one another, feeling most concerned about the state of our Australian guest. We have had guests from many countries of the world and have yet to lose one, or even to disappoint one.

The next morning, we had to leave early. We were off to Kent. This David knew and it was agreed to make an early start. David did not look recovered when he arrived at breakfast.
“No, no, I’m fine,” said he, but his tone betrayed him.
Stay here, rest and just lock up when you leave, we proposed. No, his decision was final. He would make it. I did not dare tell him there were flat hills on the way to Dunkerque. Ah well, as we say in French "Il est adulte et vaccine." in other words he is a grown-up and has been vaccinated.

We spent our whole journey thinking about David. He had looked lifeless. We were convinced that he would be cycling into the afterlife, if there is one. Some time went by before we got news. But yes, he had collected his bin bag from our son's place. Yes, it had been him in person, not a family member. We remained unsure, however, for some weeks until we received an email thanking us for our hospitality. He had, it turned out, abandoned his plans to travel the Continent. He had gone straight back to the UK instead. David reassured us that he was fine. He was happily at home with his wife. Rather worryingly, however, he had put his name down for the next Melbourne bike run.

If you want to cycle in Nord Pas de Calais area, contact alain via his greeter site. If you meet him, remember, he's very hospitable but be careful not to let him take you via 'the scenic route' or across 'flat hills'.

Monday, 9 December 2013

On Minimalism

Long-distance Cyclists Learn The Hard Way

Once you have made a few long-distance cycle trips, minimalist living comes naturally. Most of us found out the hard way. The pain involved in struggling up hills, knowing that so much of your effort is given over to hauling a load of crap one does not need, is agonising. Worse still is being told by a cycle mechanic that overloading is the reason for your broken luggage rack, spokes or wheel rim.

I well remember some of my first trips – cursing as I delved around in panniers bursting with extra clothing that I might have needed if it had turned icy cold or if I had been invited to dinner, searching for a tiny item like a compass or a head-torch that was buried in all that junk. Returning home at the end I would unpack all of it and stare with irritation at how much of it had remained unused. Gradually after a couple of mini-expeditions I got more strict with myself for the next time, asking hard questions of myself about every item I packed, and finally the cause for irritation diminished. In fact it was replaced by a real sense of satisfaction at having learned good lessons – painful as some of them were.

"Painful? Painful in what way?" I hear you ask.

Well not physically. Or rather there was the physical pain, as I have mentioned, of hauling up long steep climbs with heavy panniers and of lugging those panniers up stairs into hostels and guest houses. But the mental pain was far worse. That pain of struggling to find important things in amongst the pannier-chaos of the unimportant, and even of having to post things home at significant cost or giving things away. The hours of suffocating dilemmas and pain of feeling such an idiot – such an amateur.

I am pleased to say that all of this is behind me and that the pain has become a distant memory. Now I bask in the sense of freedom that I have when setting off with a third of what I once carried. Knowing that it is not only me who enjoys that sense of freedom and ultra-efficiency, but my bike as well. Experience has taught me to carry things that serve multiple purposes and not to take heavy or cumbersome items that can be purchased easily and cheaply along the way IF they are needed. If the weather turns unexpectedly cold, there will nearly always be somewhere to buy a sweater or warm hat locally. If one gets into the 'what if' scenarios and thinks that any possible circumstance must be catered for, then one ends up a moving mountain of luggage with a half crippled rider and a bike somewhere beneath it all, or needing a support vehicle. Of course I must point out that if one is heading out into the wilds where no supplies can be obtained, more needs to be carried.

In any situation other than the 'empty quarter' or the wilds of Mongolia I'd say this is OTT

To add some detail to this lesson, let me say that during my 10,000mile ride from Ireland to Japan, my son and I took the following each, plus a tiny 1.2Kg tent (a TerraNova Laser Large). This was contained in a pair of Ortleib Roller Classic rear panniers and an Ortleib bar bag each. Plus a small daypack across the top of the rack / panniers that contained our overnight stuff and valuables (under a stretch cargo net):

Light, small sleeping bag - (We were not going anywhere really cold)
Silk sleeping bag liner - Maybe the best thing we took. Useful alone camping on hot nights, in hostels, dirty beds or as extra warmth inside the sleepingbag.
Camp sleeping mat - Sam had a self-inflating thermarest, me a square honeycomb type (better).
Cycle clothing - 2 pairs padded cycle shorts, long sleeved cycle shirt (more useful to avoid sunburn), short sleeved cycle shirt, cycle shoes you can walk in comfortably, helmet, fingerless gloves, waterproof (breathable) light jacket with hood, cycle sunglasses.
Evening stuff - (kept in daypack) Long NorthFace trousers (easily washed & dried), 2 t-shirts, 1 long shirt, 4p underpants, 4p socks, microfleece, sunhat, book, small washbag, phone & camera charger, diary/sketchbook.
Equipment & valuables - Passport, money &, maps, mobile phone, bike tools (mainly a park tools 19 multi-tool), mini-1st aid kit, mini-mending kit, compass, headtorch, knife, fork & spoon, tupperware box (used as storage + eating bowl & lid as chopping board), microfibre cloth, stretch washing-line. Spare tubes, cables, nuts & bolts, cable-ties, duct-tape, puncture kit + lubricant, greasy cloth, gear cleaning brush and wetwipes.

2 people's luggage for a 9 month trip. The Crocks were a luxury - I dumped mine 1/2 way

Having ascertained we were away for 9 months and 10,000miles, most people asked us where our luggage was! However on another trip like this I would probably take less. You tend to get into a routine of washing clothes the moment you arrive at your destination. That way they are more or less dry by morning, so you need very little.

All this has taught me how to be a better long-distance cyclist and a better traveller. It has taught me something far more valuable than that in life, however. After 9 months on the road with only the contents of 2 panniers and a bar-bag, I realised that all I needed in life was what I had with me - perhaps even less. It taught me that I was far happier, with a greater sense of freedom, when I wasn't physically and mentally weighed down with the clutter we all tend to fill our lives with, and tell ourselves we need. Most of that crap we don't need. We tell ourselves we need these things because we like consuming – a reward for hard work perhaps – but these things become an encumbrance in our lives. Pretty quickly it can get to the stage where they begin to suffocate us. I constantly remind myself of this when I'm about to buy another fleece or a high performance jacket, or a great new pair of boots. I tear myself away from motorbikes on e-bay, surfboards, wetsuits, boats and other clutter that I'm sure at the time I need, but know I will regret buying within a year. I focus more on shedding the clutter I already have and on the sense of liberation I feel when I do. The sense that I can breathe again.

I've seen worse. I've gone for something most people recognise.

My advice to you is this:
always ask yourself before you buy something, pack something or even accept something free from a friend, "Could I do without this? How much of a problem will it be to me not having it? Is it really going to help me in my life, or will it just become one more bit of clutter?"

A full kit list from our Japan cycle adventure and a performance evaluation, is printed at the end of our book Long Road Hard Lessons. Please click the link below or in the right-hand margin of this blog to find it on Amazon etc.