As I write this It is almost exactly ten years since I first went on a bike trip with little more than a tent and a sleeping bag. Since then, cycle camping has become better known as bike-packing but between you and me what’s the difference? This article is about progressive cycling trips over the last decade with two different friends and the preparation involved. The experiences I’ll tell you about were all waypoint markers for me, and through them, I’ve come to determine a kind of philosophy: my ‘best approach’ towards cycle touring. I’ve always been interested in manifestos and If I’d remembered one thing from the Scouts it was their motto: Be Prepared. I was actually never a scout myself however and on my first two-wheeled camping excursion, I was anything but prepared.
It was August 2011 and my friend Matt Downing had already found his balance at cycle touring both on and off of his unicycle. Yes, he was riding a unicycle! He had already made it across almost all of France when I met him in Perpignan.
Matt had been living out of his backpack for over a month and I’d planned to do the same for a brief summer excursion. We believed it would take us roughly two weeks to reach Barcelona. I’d bought a cheap tent and had a couple changes of clothes thrown into a backpack. As for my bike, I was borrowing one from my friend Albert, who’d driven it up from Barcelona. The bike was a ‘Peugeot – Tim Gauld – Mountain Bike’. As we took it out the car, I noticed both tyres were flat. Albert and I pumped them up and he was careful to show me how the pump attached to the frame and ensured I took his puncture repair kit. These were sensible precautions that I’d overlooked, I thought innocently. With the abandon of youth, I hadn’t considered my kit much at all. If I had, I might have realized I was excessively under prepared to cross a large part of Spain in the August heat.
It turned out that Albert’s loan of the bike was a type of cadeau empoisonné that was to set our trip spiraling out of control from the beginning. The bicycle kept getting punctures and although we repaired them, nothing lasted long. We found ourselves pushing our bikes through the night for miles and miles and sleeping on the ground only to be woken, panicked, by the spray of cold water from garden sprinklers. We thought we had fixed the problem for good after realising it was the wheel itself puncturing the tubes. The rim of the valve hole was the jagged culprit and we managed to file it down with the help of a local bicycle enthusiast. So, we managed to cycle a bit and even cross the mountainous border between France and Spain in a storm.
After crossing into Spain we cycled down through Figueres and out to Bàscara. We were finally covering some real distance, navigating the country by paper map, and really enjoying cycle touring for the first time. I even managed to get a reasonable night’s sleep in my poorly constructed excuse for a tent, despite the hundreds of snails crawling all over it. We rolled into Girona in the mid-day heat and searched for hours to find somewhere to get a cold drink and something to eat. In a Catholic siesta country on a Sunday that’s no mean feat. Finally, after a long day in the saddle, we reached Malgrat-de-Mar. It was 3am. Not being able to see the road ahead at cycling speed, we’d pushed our bikes in the dark for hours. Neither of us were equipped with lights, yet we were hell bent on reaching the beach before sunrise.
Just slightly further down the coast the punctures started again. At this point we gave up, drunk a bottle of dubious anise-flavoured spirits, fell asleep on a Pétanque pitch, and finally got the train the rest of the way to Barcelona. When questioned about the cursed bike he had leant me Albert replied “Buaaaa, buaaaa… don’t cry… suffering is jamming” – a phrase which would go on to encapsulate this kind of mini adventure for me in the years to come.
- Preparation 0 / 5
- Fun 4 / 5
- Second degree fun 5 / 5
Despite the constant mishaps, that trip had given me a taste for the unknown of hitting the road. The next trip I took was with Tyze Whorton, a different friend but a similar set-up. Since the previous catastrophe I’d upgraded my tent to one that wouldn’t fall down every few hours. Regardless of this my bike selection was still poor and left very much to chance. We’d decided to meet in Bordeaux and head down the coast towards Spain, a similar route to my first trip but on the Atlantic coast rather than the Mediterranean. Tyze flew in with his recently purchased road bike whereas I had a day to find a bike to buy upon arriving in Bordeaux.
At the Saint Michel flea market I bought the cheapest bike I could find and we headed out later that day. Our plan was to reach the beach before nightfall but it was taking us longer than expected. After a pizza stop in Saint-Helene we decided to leave the bike path and take the more direct road route as darkness began to descend. My saddle was one of those with springs in it and was horrifically uncomfortable. It was if I was sitting on the two springs themselves and neither was very springy. I cycled the flat road standing. As we passed the sign for Lacanau we immediately searched for a place to pitch our tents and found a roundabout with a few trees on it. We had only one torch between us (which Tyze had brought) and after putting up our tents we realised were covered up to the knees in ants!
The morning after a rough night’s sleep (same roundabout, different spot) I bought a spongey saddle cover and the trip started going a bit better. We mostly slept in campsites and enjoyed surfing and swimming alongside the cycling. We ended up going the wrong way a few times as we didn’t have any maps and were completely reliant on signposts. When we set off, we hadn’t known there was a cycle path running mostly straight down the direction we were heading. If it hadn’t been for this, navigation may have been a bit trickier.
When we got to Biarritz we looked at the hills ahead of us. Having come to know our bicycles a bit better, we realised they weren’t built for the task. We sold them street-vendor style on the Biarritz beach front and I crossed the France-Spain border this time on a train.
- Preparation 1 / 5
- Fun 5 / 5
- Second-degree fun 4 / 5
It was after this trip that I realized that the moments I remembered the most, the ones that made me laugh, were those that at the time had been the worst. I recently learned of a concept known as second-degree fun and this is more or less exactly that: something that in the moment, when it is happening, you do not enjoy but afterwards when reflecting upon it you come to appreciate it. Another way of saying Albert’s notorious phrase: suffering is jamming. I noticed also that when telling other people about my trip I wouldn’t tell them about the good times. Nobody wants to hear about you sunbathing on white gold beaches and diving through crisp blue waves, but tell them about being covered in ants in the dark exhausted with a numb bum and they will likely smile and relate to you a story when something similarly awful happened to them.
The next trip I took with Tyze we weren’t cycling but rafting. I still want to include it in this blog post because I feel it is relevant to the theme of preparation. We were to ‘pack-rafting’ as poorly prepared and ill equipped as we had been a few years ago to ‘bike-packing’.
We set out in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port aiming to paddle our way down to Les Fetes de Bayonne. Minutes after setting off we reached a damn and had to off load our carefully packed luggage, drag our kayak around and delicately load it again before spinning off in circles. The water soon became too shallow and he had to walk along to give our craft enough buoyancy to float over the pebbly river bottom. Then we sped into choppy rapids strewn with dumped construction waste; plastic pipes, concrete blocks and metal rods. Our luggage fell overboard and even though we’d wrapped it in gardening grade binbags water got in. At one point a metal rod pierced our inflated-craft, missing Tyze’s leg by centimeters. When we got through, we felt elated and relieved but the day wasn’t over and we had to use a lot of energy traversing boulders and passing through prison like ravines. We didn’t have mobile phones with us and we were far from civilization or help. Everything was wet, even our sandwiches as we camped on the riverside.
The next day we hitch-hiked downriver, patched up our boat and camped in a field full of huge horses. Then we continued and actually made some progress and were feeling good as we stopped at a riverside ranch-restaurant for lunch. Little did we know the river had gotten tidal and brown water was surging inland. Our kayak and all our belongings had been swept from the riverbank. If it hadn’t been caught on a tree branch it would have been a long walk to Bayonne! After waiting for the tide to turn on a jetty watching the rubbish wash upstream from the festivities, we eventually rowed into the city saluted by women waving and men peeing off the bridges we sailed under.
Our trip had been a catastrophe from the start, in that respect more like my initial cycle with Matt than the previous cycle down the Atlantic coast with Tyze. The difference being that this time, although I have a lot of very funny memories, there were points where when looking back I realise the danger we were in and don’t really enjoy the memory knowing how closely we had come to disaster: a serious injury or worse.
- Preparation 0 / 5
- Fun 3 / 5
- Second-degree fun 3 / 5
The next cycling trip I took with Tyze was much more successful and went almost entirely according to plan. By this point I’d started Musette bicycles and coffee, had lots of experience with bike mechanics, and the bike I owned was far better than the one I’d used on our last trip. It was still an urban bike though (a Genesis Brixton) and not 100% suited to touring.
This time we were using GPS maps on our phones meaning it was a lot harder to get lost and we were able to find smaller roads and paths to connect our route. We even had a GoPro with us! The only problem came when we were on some gravel track on a high plain far from shops or houses and I had an energy crash and couldn’t go on until I’d got some sugar inside me. I suddenly felt faint, shaky and extremely hungry. Luckily, I had some cherries with me and after sitting and eating all of them we were able to continue long enough to find something resembling dinner and a camp spot for the night. Since then, I always take an emergency bag of Haribo with me on bike tours. Like a long distance truck driver having a spare jerry can full of petrol!
I had learnt my lesson. I think this is such a positive point about cycle camping as a hobby: you learn what suits you, and by learning from previous mistakes you get better at it each time you go, eventually feeling more confident going further.
- Preparation 3 / 5
- Fun 4 / 5
- Second-degree fun 3 / 5
Around this time, I began doing some work for bike touring companies that offer organised cycling vacations. These tours are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum to what I’d known. Top of the range bikes, bookings in 5-star hotels, luggage transfers from hotel to hotel each day, pre-planned GPS tracks following well used routes and support services available 24/7. I couldn’t help but laugh at the company described these holidays as adventures. I suppose everybody has a different idea of what an adventure is!
The next cycling trip I took with Matt saw another upgrade of the bicycle I was using. I’d built myself a customised Brother Cycles Kepler. Finally, after so many years I had a real touring bike! I’d also built a bike for Matt using a 90’s steel framed Specialized mountain bike and modifying it with drop bars, friction shifters, a luggage rack and puncture resistant tyres. We wanted to cross the Pyrenees again and this time we were set to do it right. We both had fully waterproof Ortlieb panier bags. We both had good quality lightweight tents. We had smartphones with modifiable GPS tracks. We had knives, supplies, inner tubes, torches and raincoats. We were ready.
As we passed through the Basque Country the cycling was tough but nothing went wrong. The mist descended but we managed to knock on the door of a farm and ask if we could camp in their field. We were loosely following the Saint Jaques de Compostelle pilgrim trail. After a night in Valcarlos we climbed the Col of Ibañeta and crossed from France to Spain through the Roncevaux Pass. The sun was blazing on the other side of the mountain range but the scenery was stunning and the scenic off-road paths felt a long way from the N11 road of our first trip with its heavy trucks and roadside brothels. This time we cycled hundreds of kilometers and didn’t get a single flat tyre!
We spent the final night of the trip in Leitza: an idyllic rural village surrounded by forests. We camped in a meadow encouraged to do so by some friendly locals and an inquisitive pony. It was hard to believe there had not been a single incident. It felt odd. We had even arrived at our destinations earlier than expected. Had we finally gotten good at cycle camping? Matt went on to get a ferry back to England and then cycle all the way up Scotland, his bike not giving him any trouble.
- Preparation 4 / 5
- Fun 5 / 5
- Second-degree fun 2 / 5
When I got home to my appartement a day earlier than expected I couldn’t help but feel a little bit disappointed that it had gone so well. There wasn’t anything foolish to tell people about. It had been great, but at what cost? Had some of the magic been lost? Had I suddenly grown old? Would the next step be for me to start paying for luxury organized ‘adventures’ with luggage transfers included? At the same time, you can’t actually want something to go wrong. It was a strange feeling. I contemplated comfort and discomfort. There is a different line between the two for every person. When you go cycle camping, part of the challenge is to find the right equilibrium between the two that suits you. When you get too comfortable doing something you know and have mastered, you have to push yourself to do something a little harder, a little tougher each time.
Spring 2021 and travelling by bike feels more like freedom than ever before. Tyze and I have decided to ditch the paddles for good, get back on the saddles and pedal once again. We pick a location equidistant from where we both live, between Barcelona and Bordeaux: the Catalan Pyrenees, back to where I began 10 years earlier. The cycling is set to be more demanding than ever before but the equipment has once again been upgraded. I’m riding a custom-built Brother Cycles Big Bro and now I even have a fancy Jet-Boil cooking stove with French Press adapter to ensure a great morning coffee! Talk about luxury. Am I now cycle glamping?
Cycling from Saint Cyprien I see the mountains looming wild and blue in the near distance beyond the poppy fields. I hope there won’t be too much trouble ahead. After nearly 30km of flat cycling the rest of the way will be nearly all uphill. I set off up a little road that crosses the border just after Las Illas. I see a car crash into a removal van on one of the steep corners. I continue on as a small traffic jam starts to form. I doubt any of those involved expected that to happen when they set out this morning! The road turns into gravel track near the peak and instead of a border checkpoint there are boulders laid on the path. No cars can cross, but a bicycle can. With Covid-19 still making international travel difficult I’d chosen this particular mountain pass for a reason, foreseeing an absence of controls. I arrive at the campsite in Maçanet de Cabrenys just before the rain starts.
Tyze is set to join me in an hour or so and is obviously getting drenched. He has borrowed a carbon fiber gravel bike from a friend and is rolling ‘ultra-light’. (I seem to remember on one of the past trips when one of us didn’t have a toothbrush and asked to borrow one only to receive an outright “no way!”). He is rolling ultra-light but he does at least have a toothbrush.
When he arrives he is soaked through. One thing you can never pre-determine too well is the weather, but he has a few cold cans of beer and a hot campsite shower waiting for him. In fact, we have organised this trip a bit differently, after having had to change plans last minute. Due to time and location limitations, we plan to use this campsite as a basecamp, offload the majority of our luggage and do loops around the mountain bike trails nearby. I’ve planned various choices of routes on Komoot (a map planning app).
We head out early the next morning after a very nice French press coffee, our phones securely attached to the handlebars (with Quad Locks). The Spanish sun starts blazing and the inclines get steeper and steeper. Our leg muscles and shoulders burn but we surmount a peak that no cars can ever hope to reach. The way down is really sketchy: steep rocky switchbacks. The views and vistas are enthralling throughout the day however and we only have one minor mechanical problem, which I am easily able to fix back at basecamp. Within the camp site’s bike fix hut, I see a map of the nearby MTB tracks and realise the route we were on was a black-run! The weather remains unpredictable but we both have good waterproof clothes with us. We enjoy the mountainside forest trails and don’t see any other people for hours at a time. Eventually Tyze leaves to catch a train back to Barcelona and I stay another night.
Heading back, I am once again fully loaded with my gear. The climb back up to La Vajol is incredibly tough, even on the road in places. After La Vajol I go off-road once again. The path is much harder than the road would have been, but I am glad for it. Yellow flowers bloom high on each side and the steepness only adds to the definite solitude. When the path forks, I see one way that remains in Spain and the other that enters France in about 200m. The border crossing is a gate to stop goats in their tracks and a sign commemorating the use of this pass in not so ancient history (by leaders of the Catalan and Basque governments during the Spanish Civil War). I rejoin Las Illas, from here I’d thought it would all be downhill but I was mistaken and as I head in the direction of Céret the elevation keeps rising. The mountain sides are nothing but trees yet with no cars bothering me on this small gravel road, all is blissful except for the rising wind.
I attempt a descent but the way is blocked and I am forced to continue climbing. I have my emergency snacks with me but want to arrive in a town before the restaurants close after lunch service. 13:00 passes and I am still on my way up. In the heat. No water left. The final top is the Col de la Brousse where absolute silence reigns and all is still. I begin my descent to the red roofed civilization thousands of feet below. However, after 500m I slow my bike to a steady roll because in front of me I see what I take to be a large dog carrying a stick or a big bone. When it hears me, it drops its haul and lumbers into the forest on the downhill drop to the right. As I come to the thing it had dropped I gradually realise this dog is, in fact, a wolf! It takes a while to process something like this because we are so used to seeing dogs, but I had neither seen a house nor a car for a long time and the thing it had dropped it was neither a stick nor a bone but a baby deer! I look into the eyes of the dying fawn as this realisation sweeps over me and although I feel pity I don’t hesitate for long. I take a quick photo, as any good tourist would, but leave before empathy gets the better of me because I know how aggressive canines can be when you mess with their food.
I get off that mountain quick, with adrenaline in my veins and beautiful views in my eyes. The mistral wind picks up quick after lunch until I can almost no longer see from the dust blowing through the Boulou valley. In my head I begin to question what I had witnessed, yet the image is burnt in strong like a fairytale. Those deep, dug in eyes, the powerful shoulders, the floppy messy hair and the bushy tail. The picture was unquestionable but the moment had definitely been changeable. I’d stopped for maybe thirty seconds, had I delayed any longer who knows how this story could have ended? When I showered that evening I was counting myself lucky to be alive. For however well prepared you are, nature can always throw something at you that you have no idea how to deal with other than to rely on your instincts, your nerves and any other tools you might have at your disposal and to just keep on cycling.
- Preparation 5 / 5
- Fun 5 / 5
- Second-degree fun 4 / 5