Often, especially on beautiful spring days when conference calls are piling and the window is slightly open, I get envious of people who find a way to turn their life into something that is completely supported and centered around riding bikes. People like John Prolly, the nice couple of The Path Less Pedaled and the lovely Bicycle blog come to mind. It seems like the best life style one can have – wake up, ride, eat, write, develop photos, eat, sleep, repeat. Being immersed in not just the Internet side of biking, but also in actually riding bikes, touring, exploring, seems like an ideal way to spend life.
When I’m riding the perspective is different. A weekday ride is always a quick breath of fresh air and time to think about work and life. Weekend rides are like meditation. They allow me to clear my head and to increase the endorphins. A mountain-bike ride on single trails is a great way to forget about everything, to listen to your brain scream “focus! don’t flinch!”. A tour is the best way to get to know any part of the planet – it’s an adventure in slow motion if you consider bungee jumping or white water rafting. In essence these cycling activities are a way to balance every day life. They counter the hustle of ever day life: they mostly involve a small and dedicated group all focused on the same goal; they happen outside and not in an office or on a computer; they are physical; and often, the best adventures, are those that are unplanned, the “look at this path, where is it heading” kinds, the “what can possibly go wrong” decisions and the “from here to there are so many kilometers, lets see when we get there.”
The bike needs the office and the office needs the bike. They balance each other and make life round and complete.
Life, just like a bike, requires a rider who can balance.
Cycleexis has a beautiful collection of pictures of a titanium Randonneur made by another fine New England builder: Firefly. I love everything about this ride: the modernism meets old-school aesthetics, the integrated cable routing, the color scheme, the choice of Campagnolo Athena components, the chunky downtune and thin seat tube, and the big fat tires. This must be one comfy ride.
We cheer with whiskey glasses at a cafe next to the famous church. We somehow picked up an Australian pilgrim along the way and are all smiles, pats on the back, and high fives. The Camino Del Norte is completed. Sadness creeps in and a succession of thoughts fires through my brain “we should have taken more random path.” “we should have taken it slower.” “What can we ride tomorrow”. After 688 km of full-loaded touring in one of Europe’s most beautiful regions and I’m obsessing over the next ride. What’s wrong with this boy?
But this is really when it hits me – this was an amazing experience, exceeding 10-fold any expectation I had of my first tour and I’d very much like to do another tour, as soon as possible, post-haste.
In September 2013 I came across a Salsa blog post from Kelly Mac about “Bikepacking the Camino Santiago.” The blog entry started a chain reaction that culminated in the most fan adventure I have yet to experience on two wheels. The Camino Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is a pilgrim path that starts in various places around Europe and ends in the capital of Galicia – Santiago de Compostela. Initially when reading about the history of the camino, and considering the possible religious implications, I was turned off by the idea to join the pilgrims. But after some consultations I realized that:
These are pretty compelling arguments. They spell out comfort and ease which were important aspects in being able to materialize the tour. The tour was going to happen between one project and the next, so keeping preparations to minimal was essential.
I identified one friend who was keen on doing the ride and needed to get away as badly as I did. We did one planning session in which we decided to ride the Camino Del Norte simply because it went along the ocean, seemed more challenging, and, based on all written material, had significantly less travelers. We also decided to fly on a certain date, and due to another commitment, I had a very definitive date on which I needed to be back home. How did we decide on when the trip will start? Based on airline ticket price of course. How did we decide on where we will stay each night and how many kilometers we had to ride every day? We did not. We knew where we land, where is Santiago, and where the path was. We found a GPS map of the path from Bilbao to Santiago which showed 666.66 km of riding. We figure that we can do that in a week without stressing too much, we added a few buffer days for good measure and booked airline tickets.
The weeks leading up to the tour were exciting. The bike (my Hunter) had to be rebuilt, racks had to be found, mudguards, panniers, packing list had to be created, tires procured. At no time did we actually concern ourselves with planning the tour itself. Instead, we invested all our energy in making sure that the bikes were ready for the task. We continued with our usual long distance riding every weekend and in the last weekend before heading to Spain, while riding east of Berlin on the way to Poland, we even found the first sign of the path.
The yellow shell with the blue background was going to be our tour guide through the whole adventure.
The feeling of rolling out of an airport on a bike instead of in a taxi or a rental was the real indication that this is something entirely new. It was a rush of freedom and power that even to this seasoned traveler was a first. As soon as I left the terminal, panniers hanging on the rack, water bottles filled in the terminal’s bathroom, I ran into two German Pilgrims that were on their way back. They were excited to meet a fellow German and had nothing but amazing stories about the tour. That was encouraging. I departed the airport and rode into Bilbao.
We ended up using a simply guideline while riding: wake up between 7 and 8. Wait for the sun to come out (which was around 8:45), hit he road around 9. We would then ride until lunch time which in Spain is a very distinct time: 12:00-14:00. We painfully learned that if we miss this window of opportunity, we can not expect to have food prepared for us until dinner time, which often, even in the smallest village in Spain, starts at 21:00. So we always looked for a place to feed for lunch and then continued riding until it was around 18:00. At that point we typically looked for a place to stay for the night. We stayed at youth hostels (9 Euro a night with breakfast!), we stayed at hotels (the most expensive one being 40 Euro for the whole room), we stayed at Albergues which are pilgrim hostels. All stays were great, comfortable and easy to organize. Once we found a place to stay for the night we would explore the village or town, often on our bikes (with the panniers waiting at the hotel/hostel). We would then find a place to eat dinner, have a drink, and pass out.
The eat-ride-eat-ride-eat/drink-sleep-repeat routine brought us to Santiago 6 days after we left Bilbao. Without any planning, we ended up riding the following etape (stages):
We met people along the way, but not too many. All folks we met had great stories, were often older than us and were happy to educate us on the history, location and geography. We climbed every day around 1,400 cumulative meters and were relieved that we only had rain on two days. When it did rain, it was great to have disk brakes that really worked to depend on. Using liberal amounts of Chamois Creme we did not suffer any seat sores and being off-season meant that prices were more than affordable. The food was fantastic and the wine and cider plenty. What more could one ask for for the first tour?
It’s been a long time. I’ve been traveling non-stop since early October and before we get to the tour report, here are some tips about flying with bikes.
My first bike distribution system was on the first trip in October – to Tel Aviv, Israel. I flew with Swiss Airlines from Berlin to Zurich and then further to Tel Aviv. I took a fixie with me to leave behind in Tel Aviv, since, well, that city is near, is warm, is flat and is fun to ride around. I packed the bike well, taking off the wheels, flattening the handlebars and managing to squeeze it into the original box it came with. It was a 2009 Aluminum Charge Plug Racer. I did not have a lot of love to it and did not mind it living away and getting used and abused a few times a year when winter gets too much and I feel like getting some nice weather.
Swiss charged me absolutely nothing for the bike nor did they complain. They simply took it, transferred it and delivered it in its final destination. The Israeli customs did not seem to mind me walking in with an obvious bike box as well. The biggest problem was probably the taxi drives that really could not be bothered to shift their stuff around to accommodate for the box. Still, after some convincing I managed to pack the bike into the back of a taxi, ride to Tel Aviv, build it in 10 minutes, and have a blast riding around for 4 days. It’s now living in Tel Aviv, waiting on the next visit.
The next flying with a bike adventure was the beginning of the Camino De Santiago tour. This happened a mere 5 days after returning from Tel Aviv and, as opposed to the previous report, was slightly more rocky.
Both Mr S. and myself were under a lot of stress before the tour. Between actually building the bikes, having a demanding work schedule and not actually having access to a car, procuring boxes became a big challenge. I asked at my local bike shop, but the boys said that since they are really not moving a lot of stock, they did not have anything. At some point, as we were two days away from departure, Mr S. picked up the company van and procured two massive bike boxes.
Now these things were massive with a capital M. They measured 2 meters long and 1.5 meters high and were clearly designed to pack a whole bike. And this is what we did! Other than removing the peddles and setting the drop bar on its side I did nothing to the bike. I just lifted Hunter, put it inside the box, setup some carton support, and taped the top. It looked massive in the living room and I was loosing sleep the night before the flight just thinking about getting a taxi to the airport not to mention considering the possibility that the airline will just say NO.
Since the first leg of the flight was departing the airport at 06:40, and I was too nervous to sleep, I called a taxi already at 5AM. I explained on the phone that I have something big to transport, but for some reason the operator sent a “combi” as opposed to a large taxi as I asked. Well, that did not work. Both the poor taxi driver and the nervous passenger stood in front of the car, scratching their heads in agreement that it will not work.
So I called the next taxi, made sure that they are sending a big one, and waited downstairs, fretting, until the VW arrived and packed the massive carton and nervous rider with it and took me to the airport. On the way the driver asked me how I was planning on moving it inside the terminal, a question that I really did not consider. Even on the carts in the airport the box was simply too big to maneuver. I somehow managed, positioned myself in front of the lady at the checkin counter and was promptly asked if I told the airline that I was bringing a huge box. When I said no, she said that I am in luck since the plane was BIG ENOUGH for the box, but sadly she must charge me.
Brussels Airlines accepted my 70 Euro bike transport fee with a smile and explained that they really do have planes that are simply too small to cary such massive boxes which is why it is prudent on customers of my specific disposition to inform the airline of the arrival of such box so they can send the right plane. I did not really buy it, but nice try. Of course the next challenge was getting the monster box to the special luggage X-ray machine (picture above). The box, in all its 1.5 meters, barely fit the machine, but after some shifting we managed. I waved goodbye to the boxed up Hunter and hoped for the best.
It was pouring outside the terminal and creepy, unsavory ideas ignited themselves in my head. It was pretty clear from my position by the window that the luggage carriers did not really care to protect the luggage from the pouring rain and that a huge carton box was just a good place to collect rain. I tried to fall asleep and hope for better weather in Brussels.
Indeed the weather in Brussels answered to my promises and after 4 hours of waiting, I got on the next flight, this time to Bilbao. When I saw the plane that was taking us to Bilbao it became painfully obvious that the lady at the gate in Berlin was not lying. The machine was tiny with one sit to the right and two seats to the left. Standing inside the airplane was not possible for me without risking the loss of my head.
I did not have high hopes for the arrival of my box in Bilbao. I stood there at the luggage carousel and waited and was shocked to see that the box was merging out of the wall, like the wall was giving birth to a very wet and mostly torn massive box. At this point I was mostly oblivious to the state of the box and was just interested in the health of the content. 30 minutes later I rode out of the small Bilbao airport and into the city on a very cold yet healthy and perfectly functioning bicycle.
The return from Santiago De Compostela was a completely different story. I rode my bike in Santiago to an excellent bike shop that took it upon itself to pack the bike into a small size box which I pre-registered with the airline (Vueling) and pre-payed for (90 Euro! 45 Euro per leg of the return trip). The shop, Velocipedo, did such an amazing job that I took notes on how to pack my bike next time like they did. They even used old tubes to protect the frame from the components they tied to it and put all the screws in a nice bag. That box is still in my basement and will be used in the future. The whole service cost 20 Euros and I could not recommend them enough.
The last trip, was the return home from California with my new Seven Mudxium. The airlines was Lufthansa and the service did not cost a cent. They simply took the frame box, which also included the Edge fork and a few other bits and bobs, slapped a tag on it, and sent it to Berlin. It was one of these moments where all the stars aligned and things just worked out and I wish every one of you road warriors such relaxed and uninterested gate agent. My you fly in peace and your bikes arrive.