europe bike trek questions
April 10, 2007 9:18 AM   Subscribe

We're planning on biking across Europe. We're planning on doing it a year from now. What are we forgetting? What did you encounter in a similar trip that we might be unprepared for? Any general advice?

The executive summary: We are two, living in the US. We currently bike to work (5-10 miles daily). We also make a longer trip (10+ miles) at least once a week, sometimes twice. Currently, this is a bit of a stretch. We are attempting to increase that upper limit gradually to where we can comfortably do 50 miles in a day by the time we leave. (We think we have time to do this without much strain.) We are experienced in hostel-travelling in Europe (moving inter-city by car, rail, and bus). (We have French, German and Russian.)

Our planned route goes from Amsterdam to Istanbul in a rough L-shape, the hinge being Warsaw. (Some details are fuzzy here - can you help?) Our bikes are these (should we ditch them?); we have no panniers yet, but we're looking at these (are there better?).

We are not bringing tents or camping gear. Should we worry about finding places to stay? We don't have maps of our route. Should we plan on getting these in-country? In Amsterdam?

We might take the plane. Have you turned your bike into a folding bike/have you gone for an extended ride with a foldie? We might take a boat. Have you taken a freighter cruise/are there other ocean alternatives?

Bonus question: We are planning to stay in Istanbul for an indeterminate time. Should we plan on being able to get around town by bike? Something tells me no. Can you tell me yes?
posted by pamccf to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm not too much help except to say that Amsterdam (or anywhere in NL) is definitely THE place for getting fabulous cycling maps. Peeps here LOVE to cycle and it's on a par with motoring as far as available information goes.
posted by different at 9:38 AM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: I biked across Spain when I was 15 years old, and it was an adventure. We were a travelling group of 10 14-16 year olds and two college aged guides. It was fun, but the Pyrinees were taxing. I suggest avoiding long, mountain-filled routes. I also suggest riding along back roads, as the times we were on highways sucked. It was also a bit of a bumpy ride, seeing as though some back roads are not paved. I was unable to see your bikes from the linked page (stupid flash) but I can suggest a hybrid touring bike (not a mountain bike, not a road bike). I have a Cannondale T series bike, and the larger diameter tires saved me from the woe of flats, and also the light frame made biking easier.
We found many places with actual cabins/hostels to rent for the evening, but it was sometimes difficult to find housing. We packed our own lightweight tents, spread out across the group. We also brought our own stoves.
I would suggest avoiding folding bikes, from my experience, they are unnecessarily heavy and awkward. You can walk into a bike shop in almost any city (trust me, I did) and ask for an extra shipping box. They will most likely give you one for free. Most bikes dissect enough to fit, but ask for their largest box. You need only remove the front tire, unscrew the handle bars, and remove the pedals and the seat. It's a pretty fast job. For trains, at least in Spain, we were allowed to bring our bikes on.
Those panniers look pretty decent. I like ones with more pockets, so you can have immediate access to your flat repair kit, a flashlight, and possibly your wallet. I also suggest an under-the-seat bag and an EXTREMELY STURDY bike rack. Your back-tire rack will take a hell of a lot of abuse, so make sure it's top quality.
I don't know how long you are planning on going for, but you might consider front panniers. My brother used them on a six week trip across the United States, and thought they were helpful. Unfortunately, they screw with your steering (especially if they're heavy-pack only light things in the front) so I advise going on a few 20+ mile trips while still at home with your bike fully loaded.
Unless you are horrifically out of shape, I don't think you'll have a problem getting ready for this trip. A year is waaay more time than my brother or I trained, although we were somewhat active in sports.
Oh yeah, buy a camel back too. They are essential. I suggest getting the largest bladder you can find, with the least amount of extra pockets and other storage stuff because you really don't want to be wearing a full sized backpack while biking.
Have fun!
posted by nursegracer at 10:30 AM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: Some thoughts on the cycling stuff (I don't know your destinations very well).

Bikes: I also couldn't see the bikes on Trek's site, but if they're new enough Treks to be on the website, I bet they're aluminum frames. This is fine, but "turning them into" folding bikes won't work. You can install S&S Couplings in a steel frame, but alum can't be cut & re-welded that way.

There are really good folding bikes out there. I see a number of people on Bike Friday bikes who love them, and say they're just like a "regular" bike. You should test ride anything you're considering, and get the bike shop pro's opinion. (This can be hard, while there are some truly great folks working in bike shops, there are some who are, well, not). Don't rule out a good used bike to save some money.

Fitness: If you're riding every day to and from work, I think you're in better shape than you think you are. You say your 10+ mile trips are a stretch, but bet a 30-mile loop would be no problem as long as it's not really hilly. Find a route you like and give a longer ride a shot - you;ll do fine!

Gear: Those panniers look good. The eariler poster's other advice is good as well. I've used water bottles instead of a Camelbak while touring (use it for mt biking, though) and found them fine. If you do go with the Camelbak, I agree that you won't want the full-backpack kind for touring. But make sure it has a little space for stuff you'll want on your person, not your bike, when you park for restaraunt, pub visits, etc.

There are tons of great info sources on the web, too. Do a little searching and you'll find not only more good advice, but some good reading as well.
posted by altcountryman at 11:12 AM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: you haven't mentioned learning basic bike repair. this is absolutely essential, and if you're leaving now, quite frankly, i recommend starting to learn NOW. otherwise, what happens when you get a flat? derail your chain? drop your bike and bend your derailleur? crash and bend your handlebars? get a loose headset? have a pedal fall off? you'll need basic tools, but more importantly, the knowledge of how to use them. this requires hands-on experience. is there a local bike coop with repair classes? a friend with know-how? a shop that's willing to teach you?
posted by entropone at 11:23 AM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: I would buy different handlebars for the bikes; ones that allow you more places to put your hands and thus more riding positions.

The main physical challenge for cycling vacations is not to get saddle sores, yet sitting on a bike is best trained by doing it regularly. You will know best if you need to train this kind of stamina after testing it on a long day trip.

Maps I always bought in the country itself, though I always started with at least one map for a helicopter view of the whole trip. Generally speaking: maps used by car drivers are fairly useless as they give not enough details.

I could never cycle long distances wearing a backpack or a the like; the bike was the packing mule.

On the route: I haven't cycled in Poland since 1991. Conditions were primitive then. Make sure you take enough spare tyres and other essential parts along.

It's always easier to get sleeping room somewhere than a place to set up a tent. Still, that doesn't mean there are beds everywhere. Do invest in a sleeping bag and a self inflating mattress.
posted by ijsbrand at 11:33 AM on April 10, 2007

Response by poster: This is all great stuff so far, thank you!

We have been keeping our weather eye on the web and slowly gathering information as well, but I was hoping for a little kick in the pants info from askme (which I'm getting) to help me get more serious about planning.
posted by pamccf at 11:43 AM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: Here is my general advice: make several shorter trips (of a few days' duration or so) in the U.S. before you go. You have an ambitious plan, and that's great, and it's certainly doable with carefull planning, but there is no substitute for the road as a teacher. I mean, the road has no substitute teacher. Whatever. Anyway, my point is---a few days of experiencing bike travel will go a long way toward teaching you what is or isn't important, what you need to focus on, skills you need to improve, etc. This way you'll be better able to answer your question for yourself, and figure out what works for you.

Also, you've probably already done this, but the AskMe archives have plenty of advice on bike touring, though maybe not about your specific route.
posted by chinston at 12:03 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: An article in the LA Times (registration probably required) would suggest that paying close attention to your bicycle seats could be important for your long-term sexual health. Especially going from one or two short rides a day to long days in the saddle, every day, this could be an important issue.
posted by Forktine at 12:06 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: Since two people have recommended Camelbak: I third getting a hydration system because it's much easier to use than water bottles and thus help you stay hydrated, but I recommend the Source hydration systems instead of Camelbak. Their Widepac is easier to clean and dry out, which might come in handy on a long trip. (My husband and I used 3 liter/100 oz ones on a four week long trip to the Souhwest USA.)
posted by amf at 12:14 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: Adventure Cycling is centered around touring the US on bicycle and sells maps for that purpose, but the magazine contains a wealth of information on how to bike tour in general. There is also a companions wanted listed if you decide you want company or want to accompany someone else on a shorter ride before then.
posted by hindmost at 12:21 PM on April 10, 2007

Response by poster: Couple responses, off the cuff:

Amsterdam (or anywhere in NL) is definitely THE place for getting fabulous cycling maps

exactly what I wanted to hear, thank you for putting my mind to rest on that point.

you might consider front panniers

we've been thinking about it, and we probably will need the extra space.

a 30-mile loop would be no problem as long as it's not really hilly.

that is very encouraging; maybe we'll do just that on saturday.

you haven't mentioned learning basic bike repair. this is absolutely essential

this is probably the number one duh thing we haven't done - thanks for the reminder. I 'm sure there are classes locally, we'll look into them.

different handlebars

good point, we should do that

invest in a sleeping bag and a self inflating mattress

I was afraid of that (don't want to add too much weight), but you're probably right, we should take that along, it's better to be ready.

make several shorter trips (of a few days' duration or so) in the U.S. before you go

we've already decided to do this, but we're pretty vague on the details, thanks for the reminder.

long-term sexual health

Igg, now I feel sick to my stomach. Seats, we'll have to check our seats.


neat! Hydration is something I absolutely had not considered.

Adventure Cycling

I have been over there a couple of times through google, but I've never explored in depth. I only now noticed their "archive", thanks!
posted by pamccf at 1:05 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: I would recommend Ortlieb panniers. Michelin maps are a good bet for western Europe. Stick to the smallest roads marked with green. These are the scenic routes. They also have a website. Another tip is to find a working canal that is going in the direction you want to go. Happy trails.
posted by Dr.Pill at 1:10 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: My wife and I did a bike tour (self-guided) in France last year.
Get a compass with a lanyard, though pretty soon you'll likely just know where north is from the sun after a couple days paying attention.

We had two bike computers on our rental bike, they both told us different distances and we had no way of changing the settings. Make sure you know how and that the values are close enough.

Good maps are key.

We found we planned our trip getting into a city around 5pm and leaving the next morning. We should have stayed a day in each place (e.g. travel day, tourist day, travel day, etc...). The journey was the destination, but it would have been nice to spend more time in town.

We rented a european cell phone, almost never used it but it was nice to know.

We had no problems with cars but we bumped into a couple over the course of our trip. In our last meeting the wife had a bandage on her arm. She got hit in a roundabout. Make sure your insurnace covers you over in Europe.

We thought we'd find more free wifi, we almost never did.

While I didn't bike in Istanbul, it didn't strike me as much worse thann biking around San Francisco. The roads were about as crappy, there are streetcar rails sometimes, fast drivers, etc...

It goes without saying, bring far more patches than you expect to use. Once in France we biked over a road that had prickers on it. In one fell swoop I ended up using every patch in a patch kit.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 1:39 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: Not to disagree with anything anyone else has written, if it works for them, but . . . consider not planning very carefully and seeing what adventures present themselves to you. Researching, investing in, and deploying a "hydration system" gets you to one set of experiences and memories; stopping in villages to ask about water in sign language and pidgin gets you to another. Some of the best memories I have of touring have to do with the people I met when I was thirsty or my bike broke down. It would be a pity to design out all the possibilities for improvisation during your lovely adventure.
posted by gum at 2:46 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: Triple check that you are insured in case of theft of one of those, sufficiently that you can buy an equivalent bike in Europe (it'll be more expensive), and that this replacement will then be insured.
posted by Martin E. at 2:48 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: For the next year, why not follow a real trans-Europe adventure en velo...this guy just started his trip last month
posted by jacobean at 3:26 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: My friend did this. The account is in inverse chronological order starting from April.
posted by jet_silver at 4:26 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: lots of great advice so far. I haven't used the panniers you linked to, but the "credit-card bike tourists and commuters" tag line doesn't sound encouraging. I 2nd the Ortlieb panniers. They are waterproof, big (40 liters volume) and indestructible.

I've taken my (non-folding) bike on the plane from NA to Europe. Most carriers allow for "sporting equipment" and don't charge extra for the bike. You will have to get an empty box from a bike store, and disassemble your bike somewhat. (pedals, seat, front wheel comes off, handle bars comes out of frame). It's not major surgery, but you will need some tools (hex set, wrench for the pedals.) Also, with the pedals, one loosens normally - one loosens opposite. That right there is the biggest hassle - i have to spend 30 minutes thinking about it and trying to work it out.

You should definitely get the the tools and know-how to change a tire. You might go for the entire trip without problems, but sometimes you'll get 3 flats in one day. (Also master the art of finding the sharp thing in the tube that punctured your tire, or you will just get another flat immediately.) btw, i never found the sticker-type tube patches to last long. better go old-school with the piece of sandpaper, the patch and the tube of glue.) spare tubes are of course better - but take up more space.

Something not mentioned yet is food. I find that restaurant food is usually too rich (oily, fatty) for cycling. I prefer to just raid a supermarket and then have a giant healthy picnic. It's always good to have peanut butter, cheese, bread, crackers, carrots, apples, raisins, chocolate, etc. – basically as much food as you can carry. Food is your fuel, so stuff yourself every chance you get. It's probably my favorite part about long distance bike trips. You probably don't want to put food in your panniers (not that you'll have extra space) so you might need a third bag to strap on to the rear rack. As for water, you'll need to always carry some, but I just buy a 1.5L water bottle and refill it. (Wearing a camelpack sounds sweaty.)

I've stayed at B&Bs and hostels. The hostels are actually sort of expensive with all the little extra charges (sheets, membership , etc.) Most towns have a tourist office (or at least a big map) where they show you the options. If there is nothing available, then just bike to the next town. (Obviously don't wait until it's dark and you are totally exhausted to look for a place.)

I also say don't worry about the exercise component. If you aren't hitting mountains, you'll be fine. Riding 8 hours is no more exhausting than riding 1 hour. As mentioned, your rear will have to get conditioned to sitting in the seat for so long, but you'll see so many interesting things that you hopefully won't be focused on your derrière.

And as also mentioned, it's good to be prepared but you don't need to plan this to death. Have fun! Sounds like an awesome trip.
posted by kamelhoecker at 6:58 PM on April 10, 2007

Response by poster: Awesome. It is great to have all this information and opinions (especially in one place). Thanks so much! (I marked all the answers as best because they're all good and each of them addresses something I asked, which is good, or something I didn't think to ask, which is just as good, if not better.)
posted by pamccf at 7:04 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: Check to see that equivalent size replacement tires will be available where you go (carry one with you). You can patch a tube a bunch of times, but not if the tire blows. Carry your own basic tools and know how to use them. I highly recommend front panniers, not only because of the more space they offer, but because I found it easier to move my bike around when it wasn't back-heavy. I liked having a very thin nylon or mesh duffel bag for carrying panniers once unloaded off the bike. I'd carry a very portable stove and one pot (but you can't fly with camping gas), good for tea, coffee, oatmeal, soup, boiled stuff- to keep your food budget down.
Wish I were going.
posted by kch at 8:43 PM on April 10, 2007

Best answer: Train riding fully loaded with all your kit. You will be shocked at how much harder it is when you have all the stuff you will take. Train somewhere with some hills even if you are planning on riding somewhere flat. It will make slight inclines a breeze.

Look into getting puncture resistant tires and tubes. Slight increase in weight but big increase in convenience. I don't own one yet but I am really looking forward to getting a Garmin cycling GPS. I love tracking the data I get from my cyclometer now and it will give you a better idea of what you are capable of.

Make sure you panniers are easy to remove and comfortable to carry since you won't want to leave then on your bike if you lock it up.
posted by srboisvert at 2:31 AM on April 11, 2007

Best answer: Since no one has said this in so many words: less weight (and by extension, less stuff) is better than more on a bicycle. This would be the biggest argument against front panniers -- the more cargo space you have, the more stuff you will carry. I would urge you to make it an exercise in minimalism, rather than one in which you bring everything you might need. If, after a week, you decide you need a hydration system or a tent, you can buy one there, and make the experience of shopping for gear in a foreign country part of the fun of the trip.

Also, I have seen a number of bicycle travelers using small single- or double-wheeled trailers instead of panniers. It would make the bike longer and maybe harder to maneuver, but probably with advantages as well. (Could the two of you take two bikes, but share one trailer? That way you can trade off the cargo hauling, and get to enjoy some unencumbered bicycling. This might make the most sense if one of you is a much stronger bicyclist than the other.)
posted by Forktine at 5:00 AM on April 11, 2007

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