Europe Self-contained

June 2004, by Lamar Martin

This report describes a very successful approach to carrying a bicycle and all the gear needed for a 3-1/2 week vacation in Europe that included many destinations, a lot of travel by train, and over 535 miles of bicycle travel, as shown on map below. Were my methods unique? Probably not, but the combination of choices made when planning this adventure culminated in an experience both unconventional and definitely worth sharing and recommending. The thing so uncommon about my trip is the large number of  transfers (by plane, train and automobile) that it involved.  I flew round trip from Atlanta to Paris, took the EuroRail to London, then Brussels, then biked 440 miles from Brussels to Sens, then a train trip from Sens to Paris to Bordeaux, then I biked 85 miles from Bordeaux to the Atlantic coast and back, then took a train to Lyon, then a rental car to le Bourg d'Oisans, a village at the base of the famous l' Alpe d' Huez. Then it was one last train trip, back to Paris for the flight home.

 

 

 

My first and perhaps best decision was to special order a Bilenky Travel Tourlite with Shimano 105t STI group but with Deore LX in the rear. With a 52/42/30T crank and 11-34T cassette I have a great road bike with mega-range gearing for loaded touring. It shifts and handles almost perfectly, while the steel frame and carbon fork takes most of the pain out of rough pavement, a very comfortable ride. All this in a bike with the S&S Machine Couplings, and still only weighs 21  pounds. SWEET! Mine is similar but not identical to the Eco/Travel Tourlite currently available at Bilenky Dream Bikes. I have thoroughly enjoyed the bicycle, having ridden it 1-1/2 years, mostly on club rides and supported tours, but it certainly proved it's mettle as a loaded touring bicycle on it's maiden voyage described in this report. As cautioned by other reviews I read before deciding on buying from Bilenky, the bike was about 2-3 weeks late in shipping. I only got to ride it for a week or two before taking it across the big pond.

 

The only complaint I had about the bike was not the bike's fault at all.  I had some trouble with the rear drive train, with the chain hunting and trying to change gears when on the 3 largest cogs. I could remedy that while riding by making a fine adjustment on the shifter cable, but once I shifted to the  smaller cogs, it had to be adjusted again. I only mention this because the problem was ridiculously easy to fix, IF I had only known. I have since observed this and helped someone else with the same problem on a club ride. Okay, have you guessed it? If not, here it is, the rear wheel had slipped slightly in the drop outs. I loosened the skewer, centered the wheel properly and tightened the skewer a little tighter to stop the wheel from getting cock-sided again. If the wheel isn't aligned then the cassette isn't aligned, and if the cassette is cocked a little, the chain will try to change gears.

 

Having a full sized road bike equipped with S&S Machine Couplings allows it to be easily broken down and  packed inside a 26 x 26 x 10 inch case that meets airline and train restrictions for luggage. Okay, "easily" is a relative term and I must warn that if you are not comfortable removing & reinstalling the crank, rear derailleur, seat and handlebar on you bike, you will not say it is easy. It is doable, but it takes the right tools and know-how. Some people claim 30 minutes to pack or reassemble the bike, but I haven't done it enough to get my time under 45. The travel kit includes some nifty splitters in the cables that makes it unnecessary to adjust the brakes or shifters when the bike is reassembled.

 

I chose the soft-sided case as opposed to the standard hard case. Both are the same size, but the soft-sided case has back-packing straps that allow you to carry it with both hands free for other stuff. The soft-sided case  also folds up when not in use and can be strapped to your bicycle trailer so you can carry it with you. Folded it is about 10" x 5" x 30" and weighs about 11 pounds including all the protective stiffeners, tube padding, etc...

 

Here is my Bilenky all packed up in the soft-sided backpacking travel case. You can't see it, but the case also contains my water bottle cages, bottles, rear rack, spare parts and tools, even some clothing to help keep things from shifting around too much. On a trip to Nova Scotia I observed an airline baggage attendant pick up the loaded case and throw it several feet into the  plane. I shuddered at the possibility of the bike being damaged and my trip ruined but all was fine. The travel kit has protective covers for the frame tubing , plastic stiffeners for the sides of the bag, etc.

 

 

This is my Bilenky (in the case) and loaded trailer with my rack bag sitting on top. What you see here is everything I needed for a 3-1/2 week tour of Europe, mostly camping, mostly traveling by bicycle, but with several legs on high speed trains.  The bike pack and trailer each counted as one piece of checked baggage with no extra fees for any of the plane or train trips. The Trek brand rack bag was used as a carry-on bag when not biking. On the bike the rack bag has zip-out mini-panniers on each side and an expandable main compartment. It accommodated an amazing amount of tools, rain gear, maps, snacks and other items I needed easy access to while biking.

 

All in all, I'd say this was an excellent set-up, and the only thing I would change for my next self-contained trip is the trailer itself. While the KoolStop Wilderbeast carried the load with no problem, it was a BEAST to handle, both when towing it with the bike or maneuvering it like a wheel barrel (without handles) through airports, train stations, etc... Throw a bag of concrete in a wheel barrel with no handles and try going up or down stairs at a train station. NOT fun! 

 

When biking, the soft sided bike pack was strapped on top of the loaded trailer. My homemade rain cover fit over the trailer and bike bag and kept everything dry while biking in the rain. This meant that I was towing 65-70 unruly pounds, more or less, for 440 miles from Brussels, Belgium to Sens, France.  Having all  that weight attached to the left chain/seat stays of the bike and balanced on a single wheel 4-5 feet behind the saddle took many miles to get used to. The real challenge, though, was trying to maneuver the bike and trailer combo while pushing it and I lost it more than once. Trying to get it upright again, shhhhhz!

 

A true testament of the strength of the Bilenky bike frame, I once started making a left turn with the trailer in tow but saw that it was a one way street and quickly aborted the turn at the last moment. The inertia snatched the trailer mount clean off the bike, but the Bilenky suffered no ill effect whatsoever. I quickly stopped the bike and drug the trailer to the side of the road to reinstall the mounting hardware, a little tighter than before. The Bilenky is as straight and true, and as sweet to ride, as any bike I have ever ridden.

 

I hope my comments about the single wheel trailer experience hasn't given a bad name to self-contained bicycling with a trailer. Even with all the negatives I mentioned, I compared my situation to that of my companion (for part of the ride) who rode a T800 Cannondale with front & rear panniers. When we took the train from Bordeaux to Lyon, I had a 45 lb back pack, my one wheeled trailer (55 lbs. loaded) and my rack bag with shoulder strap.

 

Poor Bob had to carry his 30+ pound bike (with racks and cages) two large duffle bags (I'm guessing at least 75 pounds combined) and a smaller bag. None of his bags had wheels and even the bicycle had to be carried because it was in a plastic bag. Try carrying that up and down stairs and down runways to your train car!

 

My new trailer is a Burley Nomad, with two wheels in lieu of the single. I have not used it for a similar self-contained trip yet but I am sure it will be much easier to handle when loaded than the KoolStop Wilderbeast was. Having two wheels and shorter wheelbase means the trailer  does the work, instead of the cyclist.

 

Other good ideas that worked out great was renting a cell phone for a month. It came with everything needed for use in Europe including pre-paid minutes. It had a postage paid return package to send it back after the trip. Since I ended up spending 3 weeks alone, with no companions, the phone was a life-line to people who love me. Sorry, I forgot the name of the company I rented it from, but many pages about travel in Europe recommend this type service.

 

My Sierra Designs Lightning tent was perfect for the trip. Typical for a 2-man tent, it has room enough for one man with gear and a vestibule area for keeping dirty shoes, etc., out of the rain. It is very easy to set-up or stow away, only weighs 4 lbs. and it's optional ground cloth stays on the tent when putting it away. No complaints whatsoever.  Something I have always hated about ultra-light camping is not having a decent pillow. I resolved that problem with a pair of scissors and a Contour Cloud memory foam pillow. I trimmed the standard size pillow down to what one truly needs for sleeping and then compressed all the air out by rolling it up in a space saver travel bag. The thing practically disappears but when removed from the bag it returns to the awesome little pillow it is. I have used the standard size on my bed at home for years and love it. A regular size Therm-A-Rest ultra-light camping pad and a JetBoil stove (the greatest invention since coffee cans that don't require a can opener) completed my home away from home.

 

This trip involved: Packed the bike at home, assembled it at airport in Brussels, packed it up at train station in Sens, assembled it at hotel in Bordeaux, repacked at same hotel, assembled it at le Bourg d'Oisans and repacked it at same, then assembled it at home. If that sounds daunting, compare it to the hassle and expense of carrying a full sized bike that doesn't fold, on that many planes, trains and car trips. Most airlines and trains charge $80-90 for each oversize bag (or bike box), each way. Also important to note is that trains don't have "checked" baggage like airlines do, i.e., you have to carry your bags with you to your train car, stow them yourself, and get them off by yourself as well. It often means carrying your stuff down the stairs, under the tracks, up the stairs on the other side, then walking a long way to your train car. The backpack bike case and trailer made this relatively easy. I definitely would NOT want to attempt a redo of my trip using a regular bike.

 

That pretty much covers the logistics and product evaluations.

 

Following are pictures and snippets of the fun and challenges I had during my 3-1/2 week bicycling vacation in France, England and Belgium in June 2004.

 

By Lamar Martin


 

I spent 3 days sightseeing in Paris before moving on. This is Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as seen for the River Seine.


A great view from the Eiffel Tower


I bought tickets to see The Lion King at London's Lyceum Theatre and booked a trip on the EuroStar for a 1 night/1 day jaunt to London. It was a great experience getting to cross from Paris to London under the English Channel on the "Chunnel" train.

The Lion King musical is  excellent, no matter where you see it.


For the first two days out of Brussels I traveled with Bev from Alaska and Bob from Canada. This gorgeous lawn was our first campsite in Belgium.


This thunderstorm popped up while I was having lunch somewhere in France. While not uncommon in the US Southeast, it made big news in France. Bev and Bob had left me on my own by this time, so it was easy for me to change my plans and make this a very short riding day. I hung out at the restaurant until the storm passed and found a perfect campground along the river near where this picture was taken. The rain dried as quickly as it had come and all was well!


While enjoying this view a nice man in a tall white chef's hat leaned out of an upstairs restaurant window and invited me in for coffee, no charge. It was around 10 a.m. The chef turned out to be the owner of the restaurant and an avid cyclist. He was very interested in my journey. We talked for a while, until he had to go back to work but I decided to stay for lunch. It was delicious. I thought about Bev and Bob cranking out the miles as I relished another 3 hours in this serene setting, with just a little guilt. I finally got back on the steel horse and headed down the road a few more towns before calling it quits for the day.


This picture of The Cathedral Notre-Dame of Reims, built between 1211 and 1475, was taken at about 10 p.m., glowing in the rays of the setting sun. Even a novice photographer with a novice's camera gets lucky sometimes.


Resting in peace, probably after many years of tending grapevines by hand in the Champagne region.


View from the top of the l' Alpe d' Huez. It took me 93 minutes of non-stop pedaling in my 30 x 30 or 30 x 34T gears to get here from camp at le Bourg d'Oisans, 9 miles down the mountain. I can't even imagine pedaling a 39 x 23T or higher inch-gear like Lance and the racers do when they finish this climb in 42-50 minutes. My hat is off to Bob who did it in 90 minutes on his 30 lb touring bike with pannier racks.


If I'm not mistaken, the tiny white speck in the picture below (taken from camp at le Bourg d'Oisons),  is the same tower shown in the picture above. This is one of the steepest sections of the climb.

And here it is again from another view:


 

Leaving all my gear at camp in le Bourg d'Oisans, and carrying only water, an emergency tool kit and a light jacket, I successfully rode the 8-1/2 mile continuous climb up the 21 switchbacks and 8.4% average grade to the top of l' Alpe d' Huez, one of the Tour de France's HC (beyond category) climbs, without stopping. I had planned to stop often and take pictures (and rest) on the way up but my friend Bob, who joined me in Bordeaux to do this part of the trip, said I would regret if I didn't at least try going non-stop. Granted, it took me more than twice as long as Lance Armstrong, but I was no less proud of my accomplishment. We stopped often on the way down to take photos.

Thanks for reading about my European Bicycle Vacation.


This Page Uploaded 1/28/06, the trip was in June 2004.