October 15, 2010

Touring Ideas: With Retrospection

These were mostly written after my Cévennes trip, when I camped most of the nights. Some I added after the Pyrenees trip, when I stayed in chambres d'hôtes and small hotels. They are easily generalized for different kinds of tours.

1: For traveling on a plane or train, pack your bike well, and know how to put it back together without agony and angst, with onlookers kibbutzing. My local bike shop, the Arcadian Shop in Lenox, is always terrific about saving me a cardboard shipping carton and taught me to disassemble and pack it. We took photos as we worked, that served as a memory aid for putting it back together, and then later disassembling it for the return trip. The handlebars came off (but not the cables for brakes or gearing,) and also the front and back wheels, pedals and seat post. I taped things to the sides of the carton so they wouldn’t rattle about, and added everything large that I could fit (to help keep to the size limitations for carry-on luggage.)In went my helmet, shoes, tent poles, bike lock (I worried that it would be designated a weapon and not allowed as carry-on) I used my sleeping bag as packing (protected by plastic from chain oil.) Trickier was the knife I would need to open the box; security regulations required that it be checked luggage inside the box, so in it went. We wrapped the carton tightly with packing tape, in a way easily opened in case it was inspected, which it was.

2: Put important numbers on a flash drive and carry it in a pocket. Numbers like credit cards, phones, passport, passwords, bank accounts, etc. If it was something I was going to need access to if it was lost or stolen, I put the info on the flash drive. Don't lose the flash drive!  I carry it with my passport in a money belt.

3: Go to the tourist bureau first thing. I have found getting in and out of French cities (any cities, really) to be the most confusing and so stressful part of route-finding, and add to that the heavier traffic. Often routes into French cities will have a sign pointing to the tourist bureau, and these locations are often listed in guide books. Go there. They have a wealth of helpful information, are usually quick and to the point, provide good city maps and updated lodging information. Everyone was infallibly polite and helpful to me. 
4: Have a good list of lodging whatever kind you're staying in ... campsites, hotels or chambres d'hotes,  with specific locations and phone numbers. The prices were all more than affordable, always costing me less than 10Euros a night. It would have been really helpful to know if their restaurants were open, and how close they were to towns with open stores or restaurants before arriving. Next time I’ll build my own list, using the web, town information (many French villages and towns have public campsites,) guides, other cyclists experiences. NOTE, a year later: this has changed with the availability of lightweight tablets and wifi. But Wifi does need to be available, check first. In the Pyrenees my tablet provided daily information. All I carried on paper was a backup list of reservations and phone numbers.

5: Stop before fatigue sets in. When I am tired, my language skills diminish, sometimes dramatically, and even in English. Especially if I am tired and hungry. And related to language, learn at least a few words in the language of the country you are in. Admittedly, I am carried away by my fascination with learning French; I continue to study it daily and to work with George. That isn’t necessary for traveling, though. However, do not assume that everyone will speak English. In Paris, it may be true that the people visitors encounter will speak some English. But in the south many people do not speak English.Startlingly, some visitors complain that informative signage was only in French in France. What language did they think it would be in …. They were in France, after all! 

6: Always practice preventive eating, and/or eat good meals at every chance. Also, pack food along with you. In my case, good means nutritious and tasty, as well as large. I now think there is no such thing as too much food. Well, that’s an overstatement, but I don’t eat a whole lot here, and don’t weigh a lot. But I did get sluggish and came to recognize that phenomenon as a lack of calories. A bistro that is close by in a car (just a village or two away) is not close by at the end of the day on a bike, so guidebooks can be misleading. If I had always carried peanut butter, or Nutella, crackers, apples, etc. in my panniers it would have helped. 
7: If you’re buying a bike, buy the bike you believe you need. I was urged to buy a lighter bike, or a bike with traditional road gearing, or to avoid aluminium frames, or get a soft seat, all sorts of things. Repeatedly people told me I didn’t need mountain bike gearing. They were right for them, but wrong for me. Listen to yourself. What I really knew was that I wanted the lowest gearing available, to make climbs as easy as possible and I wanted dropped handlebars. Then I wanted a sturdy lightweight bike, with tires that could take dirt surfaces, and I did not have unlimited funds. Work with a bike shop that will listen to you and help.

8: Take clothing that you will feel comfortable and appropriately dressed in. I take a skirt and blouse in addition to cycling clothes (non-Spandex.) Everything I carried was lightweight, could be stuffed in a pannier and come out unwrinkled, dried overnight on a string line in my tent. Shoes were harder, so I took the lightest pair of sandals I owned for off-bike wear. Since I didn’t have extra clothes, I took stain remover to help keep clothing presentable. It was priceless, in the end it kept me presentable also by getting chain oil off skin.

9: Take extras of the small bolts, screws, other parts that may wiggle loose and fall off your bike after riding on rough roads. I lost one of the screws that attaches a rear pannier, and was lucky to be able to easily replace it.

10: If I am anywhere there might possibly be rain, I carry raingear. Hypothermia is not interesting to me. But now I will also carry a pair of wool cycle socks, to keep my feet warm if they get soaked in the rain. I won't carry my cycle booties unless I'm expecting lots of cold wet weather; they're heavy.

11: I carry and use front and rear lights. The rear one can be set to blink red and white, and several times  people compared me to a firetruck ... That was fun, but more seriously, I turn them on in dim light, in the rain, and when going quickly in and out of shade on winding roads. My rule of thumb is that if cars have their lights on, I have my lights on. In tunnels they provide lighting for me, but usually they make me more visible to motorists.


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