If you can ride a bike from London to Brighton you can ride a bike from London to Pisa.
Without wishing to undersell my achievement, anyone with a certain degree of mental toughness and reasonable fitness could do what I did. All you really need is time. If you did 1/3 of what I covered every day, so rode 25 km instead of 75 km it would simply take you 3 times longer. Yes, you'd need to stay in a whole lot more places which would cost you more but as a builder who was renovating our kitchen once said..'' Anything is possible if you have time and money''.
There are of course much cheaper ways to do it than I did. A lot of people simply take a tent and camp en route. More luggage to carry for sure but it gives you a much cheaper ride.
Weather is going to be the key to your enjoyment. My suggestion, if doing it again, would be to set off perhaps 2 weeks later than I did. Perhaps mid-May. This way you are more likely to get decent conditions and by the time you get to the Alps the mountain passes should be open. There are three additional reasons to do it at this time.
One - is that it is beginning of ''the season''. Service people are returning from their winter breaks and gearing up for the summer. Their attitude and approach to business is full of vigor and certain degree of freshness.
Secondly - accommodation will be easier to come by and cheaper than the months of July-August.
Thirdly - you don't want to be cycling in the middle of the European summer. The interior of France and Italy are not user friendly during those months.
Other thoughts include
- It pays to do research. ''Plan the ride and ride the plan'' (with a certain degree of felxabiltiy)
- Choose your route based on previous people's experience and suggestions. There are a thousand and one blogs out there about long distance riding. Most, if not all of it, for free
- Start with low Km days and build into the ride. I made the mistake of front loading my ride with some heavy days at the beginning in order to get to Reims by a certain day. The body didn't like it and I paid an uncomfortable price.
- It's all very well thinking you only have to average X amount of km a day. However take into consideration that the weather Gods may conspire you and so too terrain. Or both combined.
- My technical advisor on this ride , Mark O. who has ridden a bike further than most of us go on holidays suggested 80 km was a comfortable daily distance. My experience would agree with him 100% . It gives you time to relax, absorb your surroundings , to stop and take photo's as you please, and to travel at a speed that's not going to dampen your enthusiasm.
- With a heavy bike your speed diminishes exponentially quickly as soon as you hit ANY sort of gradient. Change gears before you need to change them and don't be reluctant to use ALL your gears.
- The strongest muscle in your body is your heart. Avoid doing the Tour De France thingy and dancing on your pedals. Nothing burns your legs nor drains you of energy quicker than standing up on your pedals and grinding through a heavy gear. Stay seated and shift through the gears.
- English countryside is hilly. OK perhaps Kent and Surrey are not hilly relative yo say Yorkshire or Prembrokeshire but there are plenty of hills that will take it out of you.
- Likewise northern France. '' Oh, its flat up there..you'll be fine''. The only people who say that are people who haven't ridden there. Northern France has LOTS of very long and undulating roads whose hills can be demoralizing once you have done 6-12 of them in a day. 5-7 days in a row. Into a headwind. When it's raining.
- Arrive at Dover an hour before departure of the ferry. As it states on the ticket. You'd be wrong to think that they will classify you as a foot passenger and allow you on last minute. It's quite the opposite . They load the bikes first.
- Pay the extra 7 GBP and go Club Lounge on the ferry trip over. It is WORTH it.
- Aim to stay somewhere outside of Calais. The terrain surrounding the port is indeed flat so you can get 20-30 km away before hitting any hills.
- French drivers give cyclists the most respect and space. The Italians come second, the British and Swiss are tied for third
- The '' Give that cyclist the most space/room '' award goes to an elderly French gentleman driving a faded red colored 1982 Corolla who could barely see over the dash board. It was a dual lane each way piece of road outside of Reims. He not only moved into the outside lane, but as no other cars were coming our way he then moved to the outside of the outside lane . So in effect three and half lanes away from me. Sir - whoever you are - THANK YOU.
- The number of drivers who honked their horns in fustration or anger over the entire trip was...3. The knob head outside of Pontarlier wins the '' King of the knob heads'' award.
- The number of drivers who honked their horns to encourage was...1. A massive semi trailer coming in the opposite direction as I struggled up a very long hill in northern France. It was VERY uplifting and I pledged to myself to do the same every time I see a cyclist going up a hill of any sort.
- Speaking of semi-trailer drivers. Across all four countries they were generally the most polite and understanding. All the more impressive given the size of their vehicles. The least polite? SUV drivers and motorcyclists. Strangely motorcyclists tend to think that as they are roughly the same size as you they can pass relatively closely without having to move aside. There were numerous occasions of '' F**K that was close'' as a motorcyclist roared by.
- Generally speaking if a touring motorbike goes past you, there will be at least another nano-seconds behind. And another behind him.
- Don't assume there's going to be a cafe in every French village. On one day between Chalons-en-Champagne and Piney we rode over 40 km without a cafe crossed. It was at the point where we popped into a hairdressing salon to ask for a coffee and one of us got a haircut.
- You don't have to pre-book your accommodation. Yes it gives you peace of mind but there is usually at least one accommodation option in every town. 'Chambres D'Hotes' is a great website for accommodation in France.
- Don't be self conscience about wearing lycra into a restaurant or cafe in continental Europe. Your EUR or Swiss Franc is more than welcome regardless of what you are wearing.
- France and Italy countrysides are cheap. People are not earning a lot and every thing is priced accordingly. I got a very quaffable glass of house white wine in Italy for EUR 1.50. It was such good value for money it quickly became two then three and ended with the fourth. OK OK ..there were 6 of them. Then my memory collapsed.
- Switzerland is as expensive as you think it will be and then a little bit more.
- Italian drivers treat traffic signals and road signs merely as a suggestion
- Treat all Italian roundabouts as a roll of a roulette wheel.
- If you stop for someone about to cross a pedestrian crossing in Italy they will instantly know you are a foreigner.
- There are plenty of back roads relatively devoid of traffic in France. Less so in the UK, just a few on the route I took through Italy and even less in Switzerland.
- As mentioned on the blog on one of the days ride through Italy , the Italians don't enjoy paying road tolls. The result is that they use the B roads as much as possible. Those would be the B roads you are riding on. 90% of the roads I rode on in Italy from the Swiss border to Fosdinovo were pretty heavily used by all vehicles.
- France wins the '' Overall best road surface conditions for a cyclist''. Switzerland a close second and the UK and Italy tied for third a distant last. In fact I think Italy would pip the UK for last place. Most, if not all of the pot hole experiences I recall I can do so only because they were so bad and they occurred in Italy.
- When entering a bar or cafe in France a person will say 'Bonjour / Bonsoir'' to everyone in the establishment. Regardless of whether they have met you before.
- No one does a patisserie or boulangerie like the French.
- Every dog you pass WILL bark.
- Headwind is your public enemy no.1. Unlike hills which you can mentally prepare for, or traffic which you can be aware of, wind you cannot see and only feel when its already hit you.
- 90% of the time the wind you get will be a headwind. Regardless of direction you are riding.
- Coffee is best in Italy. France second, UK third and Switzerland last.
- The French have a liberal definition of ''cooked'' meat.
- If you take 200 EUR out from an ATM in France it will come in 50's and 20's.Likewise Italy. If you take 200 Swiss Franc out from an ATM it will come in the form of a solitary 200 Swiss Fanc note. As though it's normal to pay for something like a packet of Malteasers with a 200 something note. As I discovered, no one in Switzerland bats an eyelid when you do.
- The Swiss do the best pharmacies.
- The Swiss have the best countrywide wifi service. Hands down. By a country mile.
- Every single Italian village will have a public fountain that you can fill up your water bottles with
- Very few, next to no one, in rural France or Italy will speak English. In Switzerland you can choose from 4 different languages to converse with them and they are seemingly equally proficient in all 4 of them.
- The French win the ''Best looking villas in the countryside '' award. They also take home the ''Best rural farm barn '' award.
- The Swiss win the '' most orderly and beautifully stacked chopped wood pile '' award.
- The Italians win the ''I bet my car is older than you '' award.
- You may not see another living soul, human-animal or otherwise for over an hour. However the moment you decide to go to the toilet someone - something will appear around the corner.
- Favorite accommodation - ''Hotel Particular'' in Arras. Great central location. Ultra chic / modern. A garage 50 meters from the front door to lock your bikes in. A breakfast to die for. Stunning gardens. A welcoming host in Jean-Jacques.
Favorite meal on the road - ''A la Table de Claudine'' in Ville-sous-la-Ferte just south east of Bar-sur-Aube. I will DEFINITELY be back.
Favorite meal off road - Licques accommodation. Probably because it was so unexpected.
Least liked piece of biking terrain - The avalanche tunnels between Martigny and the Grand St Bernard Pass. If you ever want to experience what it's like to be on the edge of meeting your maker than ride through a couple of these.
Bike - 56'' frame Surly Disc Trucker ..stainless steel and bullet proof piece of equipment. The disc brakes are a godsend when wanting to stop a heavy laden bike in a hurry
Wheels - 26'' rims that were rock solid
Tyres - Schwable Marathon Plus ...like the bike frame..bulletproof. Best evidenced by not a single puncture.
Gears - Shimano . 3 front cogs. 10 gears rear cog. = 30 gears. My only comment is that I would go for the gear changer being next to the brake levers on the handlebars as opposed situated at the end of the U-bend.
Seat / saddle - Brooks B17. All leather. Once it was worn in (500km+) it was as comfortable as your favorite bar stool
Front handlebar bag - Ortleib and waterproof. With the ability to configure the internal compartments and complete with a lockable attachment to your handlebars this became the go-to piece of storage for all things valuable. Easily detachable, it came with me whenever I was away from the bike.
Pannier frames - TUBUS. Rock solid
Panniers - Ortleib and waterproof. Like everything else Ortleib produces they were bulletproof too.
Shoes - Shimano MTB with multi fit cleats that are inset into the sole of the shoe making it easy to walk in them. Almost like normal shoes.
Lycra - DHB shorts
Shirts - Altura
Gloves - TREK half fingers and Altura long finger winter gloves.
Helmet - Giro
Sunglasses - Oakley
Clear glasses - Altura
Jacket(s) . RAPHA rain/wind jacket. My favorite piece of equipment. The perfect jacket for the cold , wind , and wet. For the heavy duty rain I also had a Hi-Viz Mountain Gear jacket. Great for keeping you warm on the long downhill stretches in the mountains but had all the breathability of teflon so if you worked up a sweat at all you got drenched internally.
''Errr where's the toilet?'' - about an hour after settling into my accommodation in Canterbury and looking around the room to discover that although it had a shower unit there was no toilet. That would be across the corridor and down / up two sets of steps. Handy at midnight, 2.30 am , 4.50 am , and 6.30 am. Welcome to the world of 50+ - Myself
''Its first class in here (inside Club Lounge) and third class out there'' (the 'private' balcony that comes with Club Lounge and was littered with rubbish) - Gareth W.
''Nick, I think you are REALLY going to LOVE this next section..its called the Madame du Chemin''...what followed was 22 km of seriously hard riding into a head wind stronger than you'd think was humanely possible to ride into. - Gareth W.
'' Nick , whats that butterfly thing on your mudguard?'' - After riding with me for 5-6 days Gareth finally notices I have a Papua New Guinea flag sticker on my rear mudguard. That '' butterfly'' is actually the Bird of Paradise that adorns the flag. - Gareth W.
''When the sun is out the guns are out '' - upon witnessing the sight of Mark S. aka The Broken One breaking out his vest and ginga haired arms to the morning sunlight after leaving Arc-en-Barrios - Scott G.
''Pain is just weakness leaving the body'' . As we climbed up a series of VERY steep hairpins bends, in the rain, just after leaving Besancon with a stomach full of Vietnamese food - Mark S. aka The Broken One
''You have to be effing kidding me'' - Any of the 100+ hills where I thought I had summitted only to discover another summit behind the false one I had just conquered. - Myself
Here are some more snaps that didn't make the blog........
My final ''Thanks and Thoughts '' comes tomorrow
A bowl of Vietnamese noodles tastes great anytime. Cycle 4 hours in the wet and cold and suddenly ''great'' takes on a whole new meaning
The French have an unique approach to cooking meat. Don't. This is a steak done medium - rare.
Anyone who tells you that northern France is basically flat has never cycled it. Do 100+ of these 'undulating hills'' and suddenly they're not ''undulating''
You may not be an animal lover. You might be a cat lover. I challenge ANYONE to not find this seriously cute. Puppy at the Great St Bernard Centre
For some reason, not having to cycle the last 3 km to the summit of the Alps in a howling gale and rain/hail seemed like a good thing.
Spot ''The Broken One ''
If you want to test your climbing ability on a bike head to the switch backs outside of Besancon
There cannot be a better named town in France
Visit any Italian village and you'll get at least one of these.
Sure they were dull to ride past. But the rice fields surrounding Vercelli made for some great photo opportunities
A seriously good view from a drink stop just inside the Italian border
The bridge in Pavia was pretty special
few things taste better than a chocolate gelato after cycling 100km
The Italians do great public spaces
A hairpin downhill is great in the dry. Do it in the wet,misty and cold and you get to re-define ''concentration''
What cyclists tan?
A tribute to the Via Francigena Pilgrims on a bridge outside Fornovo di Taro
My favorite ''all brick'' building in Piacenza