Friends of Musette Ashley and Quentin kindly wrote this blog post for us about beginning a bike-packing adventure…
Damp winter mist hung in the air as we fully loaded up our bikes for the second time. Still a little hungover from our departure celebrations, we got on our wobbly bikes and rolled out the driveway. Since then we’ve cycled through Provence, Corsica, Sardina, Sicily, Calabria, Puglia and northern Albania. The first 2500km were full of hard-won lessons; we’re going to share a few of the most important ones with the Musette blog.
Know Before You Go
It will help to reflect on what you want to see, do, and share on your journey before you leave. If your goal is to test yourself physically you might choose a different route than if your goal is to meet locals. This reflection will determine not only the route, but also the time of year, the items you bring, and the mind-set you have while riding. It doesn’t have to be set in stone, you can always change your mind but having an idea of where you’re going, why and how is one of the most important parts of a successful tour.
Our planned ride will encompass over 20,000km to be completed on bicycle and horseback. We chose our bikes based on their ruggedness, easiness to repair, and style. Quentin is cycling on a 2018 Trek 520, and Ashley a Sunn Symp (rebuilt by Musette bicycles & coffee). We chose Ortlieb touring bags because of their reputation and durability. We stuck gravel tires on our bikes so that we can go off-road when we want; one of our objectives is to spend time with locals, and to do so you often have to take crappy roads.
Mechanical Know How
You should probably learn the basic mechanics of your bike before departure. Learn to change a tube, repair a tube, change your brake pads or discs, and replace cables. You should also have a cycling expert fit you to your bicycle. The few centimetres between a well placed saddle and a poorly adjusted one make all the difference! This fitting will save your hips, knees, and back.
For our trip, we spent a week following a bike mechanic around his shop, taking photos of all the tools and manipulations, learning how to fix and adjust all kinds to things. Unfortunately almost none of the things he taught us to fix were the things that have broken on tour (so far). This in mind, you should be prepared to wing it and temporarily fix things with zip ties until you can find a mechanic or replacement part.
Backroads Over Easy Riding
It turns out many of the time-tested routes cyclists take east, especially once out of France, are departmental roads with heavy traffic and an abundance of litter on the shoulder of the road. By the time we got to Sicily, our brains were ringing from the constant humming of traffic in our ears. We left the coast and began riding the back roads. The routes far from the highway turned out to be the cleanest and most fun to ride.
These back roads are more work because they tend to be the smaller mountain roads. This can work in your favor – in both Sicily and Calabria these roads wound through beautiful national parks. In the off-season they were almost completely deserted; when we did meet people they were almost always locals. Going through the mountains is certainly not the fastest route, and will wear on your legs quickly, but spots to wild camp are much more abundant and calmer than the developed coastlines.
Minimalist is Good
One of the mantras of bikepacking is to pack light. Even still, the list of essentials you need can only be whittled so thin. If you’re touring in summer you can probably get away with just a tarp, but counting to sleep under the stars every night is risking a wet night. Same goes for heading out without a small cooking stove – you risk eating raw pasta if you count on building a fire every night.
When you’re in full-touring mode your day is going to be full from the moment you wake up. From breaking camp in the morning to cleaning the dishes after dinner at night, there will always be a little list of things you need to organize, fix, clean, or prepare. Keeping your belongings to a minimum will help keep this list in check, but don’t worry – you’ll never be lost for things to do!
A Word About Wild Camping
When we’re cycling, we are always wild camping, except on the occasion that someone invites us home or we stay with a Warmshowers host. In the beginning, we were a little freaked out when pitching our tent anywhere. You might be too. Here is a quick list of how lay people feel about you wild camping, based on our experience. They either:
- Don’t care.
- Are a little bit afraid of people camping, so they prefer to just ignore you
- Are curious and will come chat with you, bring you food, give you gifts
- Don’t want you to camp there but will suggest somewhere else that they think is probably a better option
When we find a great spot to pitch our tent, we assess if it is on someone’s land. If yes, we try to find someone to ask if it is ok for us to pitch the tent there for the night. The best way to do this is to make friends: explain your trip, who you are, where you’re from, where you’re going. If they say you can’t camp there, you can either play the “it’s getting dark, we’re just here for one night,” card or you can ask if they know somewhere else close by – often they do. Over all we have had zero negative experiences camping wild and several amazing ones. Also remember to always be discrete and leave no trace.
Traveling by bicycle is a way of travel that puts you directly in contact with locals and the landscape around you. Being open to the experience, flexible to unexpected developments and friendly to those you meet will be more rewarding than stubbornly pedalling as many kilometers as possible each day. Since we left we’ve had tough and fun times, and we wouldn’t change any of it.
Our journey “En Selle” is two-fold – part cycling, part horseback riding. We’ve finished our first horse trek, across Albania. We’ll be cycling through Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan autumn/winter 2019. If you find yourself pedalling to Asia, don’t hesitate to shoot us a message, we’re happy to share our experience (or the road!) with you. You can find us online at www.enselle.voyage or on instagram @enselle.voyage
All photo credits: En Selle