Can Anyone Take Up Cycle Touring?
Two first timers attempt the 700-mile cycle from London to Denmark
Words by Adam Woodward/Pictures by Liz Seabrook
Like every great adventure, ours didn’t go entirely according to plan. It began, as these things do, with a speculative wager - a spontaneous challenge we set ourselves in a moment of misguided overconfidence. The question we were seeking to answer was: can anyone tour? More specifically, could two idiots with no experience and no training simply get on their bikes and go? Quick disclaimer: we’re both keen cyclists, both in relatively good shape if not peak physical condition. But as anyone who lives and cycles in a major city like London will tell you, opportunities to properly stretch your legs are limited when you spend the majority of your time on two wheels dodging buses, taxis and invariably pedestrians just getting from A to B.
The thought of committing to a long-distance cycling trip appealed to our shared sense of adventure, so despite a few niggling doubts and some fundamental logistical issues that needed to be addressed sooner rather than later, we said to hell with it.
Snap decision made. We were off.
From the outset we knew touring was a different beast to urban cycling, and as such we felt it was important to pick a destination that was realistically reachable within the eight-day timeframe we’d allotted.
I’d fallen in love with Copenhagen the previous summer, where over the course of a week’s holiday I’d gained a pretty good understanding of what makes cycling the preferred means of transport for 36 per cent of the city’s population.
As well as knowing we’d be in good company, we were further swayed by the notion of getting to grips with an urban cycling infrastructure markedly different from the one we were used to. Destination set, all that was left was the small matter of working out how to get there.
Route mapped (Cyclemeter was our app of choice), panniers packed and helmets fastened, we clipped in and set off on a seasonably mild September afternoon, 630 mile-ride from our goal. Both of us were carrying around 15kg of weight across our rear pannier racks: clothes, spares, emergency rations, sleeping bags and an inflatable two-person tent.
Having disregarded someone’s advice about splitting the weight across the front and rear of the bikes, we learned our first valuable lesson navigating the network of A-roads around Chelmsford, Essex.
We’d switched our regular single-speeds for a pair of steel-frame ’70s tourers, which were refurbished by the good folk at the Bristol Bike Project — a community scheme that repairs and rehome bikes. This made for a sturdier, more comfortable ride, but with all that weight on our back-ends, keeping our balance proved the biggest challenge during that initial stage.
Just as the sun started to slip below the horizon, we reached the end of the first leg of our journey. An overnight ferry crossing between Harwich and the Hook of Holland allowed time for some much needed rest and a spot of reflection on what had been a reassuringly uneventful first day.
What really sticks in the mind about that first day is the feeling of entering the unknown. Having never cycled for more than a couple of hours at a time around central London, the prospect of covering 75 miles of English countryside in a single day was both exciting and somewhat unnerving, and yet in practice day one was a breeze.
Put it down to lack of experience or — perhaps more accurately — ignorance, but a significant factor in determining how we made it through that day with relatively little fuss was the fact that our bodies didn’t know any better. We just got on with it.
While the air-punching triumph of that first day gave us the boost we needed to push on, it soon dawned on us that things were about to get a lot tougher. Physically speaking, aside from a few aches and pains, we fared pretty well over the coming days. It would be a stretch to say we built up any kind of stamina, but the hunger was there, the bodies still willing.
What we hadn’t accounted for, however, was just how mentally draining touring can be. The good weather helped in that respect — we only needed to break out our Otto Ponchos once the entire trip, while our Plume mudguards remained neatly coiled underneath our saddles — but if you’ve never toured before, there will be times when even the warm sun on your skin isn’t enough to offset the sense of ennui that sets in.
The Netherlands is one of the flattest, most navigable countries you could wish to cycle through, but try covering between 70 and 80 miles over consecutive days and you’ll be forgiven for not stopping to ’gram every windmill or field of tulips you pass by. It’s not that the landscape is particularly plain or uninspiring, more that after a while the background scenery starts to seem recycled, like something stripped from an old cartoon.
Add to that the fact that we were setting up camp every night — typically at cheap sites in the middle of nowhere — and generally on the road again early the next morning, and we soon realised why touring is regarded as a uniquely fatiguing discipline.
Even if you’re pitching a simple tent like the Heimplanet Wedge we were using, and even if you’re getting a full night’s sleep, this nomadic routine will eventually take its toll.
If all this is starting to put you off the idea of getting on your bike, now is the time to stress the immense feeling of accomplishment that comes with touring.
No matter what your reasons for going touring — be it for charity or, in our case, purely leisure — the thrill of carving through hundreds of miles of rural cycle paths, dense woodland trails and leafy suburban avenues with the wind at your back somehow makes the lows seem trivial.
It would be misleading to present our trip as anything less than a test of both mental and physical endurance, but even with little preparation and following a route only partially mapped (if like us you can’t afford a snazzy GPS system and end up having to use your phone to navigate, a front bar-mount is strongly recommended), at no point did we feel like we’d bitten off more than we could chew. There were a few tears and tantrums along the way, sure, but was it worth it? Absolutely.
It’s only when you leave England’s Draconian cycleways behind that you begin to realise how much more progressive mainland Europe is in its collective attitude towards cycling.
By day four we’d crossed the border into Germany after a quick pit stop at the idyllic star fort village of Bourtange (Google it). The next two days offered more dramatic, invigorating scenery, as well as the opportunity to stop overnight in Germany’s second largest city, Hamburg.
By this stage of our trip, having passed the halfway point, we began to appreciate the extent to which cycling is an essential part of daily life on the continent. If the Netherlands is the gold standard in this respect, Germany isn’t far behind.
Its Autobahns and smaller Bundesstrasses are almost always fringed with designated cycle paths. This is great for keeping your average speed up, but there is a downside — having HGVs and other motorists thunder past you for 30 straight miles is not much fun. Another key takeaway: plan your route wisely.
By the end of day seven we had reached the southern tip of Denmark, exhausted but on schedule. It was at this juncture that the weather — and our trip — took a slight turn for the worse.
No sooner had we settled at a picturesque lakeside campsite just outside of Maribo than the heavens opened. And stayed open. All night.
Thunder and lightning clapped and crashed relentlessly around us, sending the local bird life into a frenzied clamour and leaving us both bleary eyed. The next day’s forecast was decidedly bleak, and with the bumps and scrapes finally catching up with us, neither of us could muster enough energy to carry on.
So — with a little over 60 miles still to go — we packed up, swallowed our pride and jumped on a train bound for Copenhagen. Our bikes had taken us this far, so it felt a shame to ditch them now.
But we already had an answer to our original question. We hadn’t quite gone the full distance, but we’d proven to ourselves that we could tour. And besides, this was supposed to be a holiday — if we’d have wanted to be wet and miserable we’d have stayed in London.
Here’s the thing about touring: it can can be a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience, but only for as long as you keep sight of why you decided to do it in the first place.
So make a plan, stick to it, then ditch it and start again. Be wary of short cuts, pack extra socks, give yourself plenty of rest time and above all, go for it. You’ll never know what you can achieve if you don’t try. Liz and Adam were helped on their way by @JehuBikeWear, Plume Mudguards, Otto Clothing and SeeSense Lights