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Six Days, Four Countries, Four Bikes and a Toddler

Posted May 11th, 2014

Caution: this post is being written to the soundtrack of the Teletubbies. As parents of a two-year old, free time is a precious commodity. Bribery is frequently required.

Since an episode of the Teletubbies only lasts 24 minutes, we’ll keep this short and sweet. It’s the story of our Easter tour: six days through Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, including most of the Vennbahn rail trail.

We were cycling with two good friends, Shane and Stijn. As a group, we looked a bit like a bicycle circus with touring setups in all shapes and sizes.

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We started with the Vennbahn because it was easy to reach by train from our home and was supposed to be flat. We aren’t scared of mountains but flat terrain is unquestionably a great advantage when you’re adding a toddler, a bike seat, a trailer and various child-related goodies to the standard bike touring setup.

What’s that? Flat you said? Ha ha. Try again. As it turned out, the trip involved a fair amount of climbing. Our workout began in Luxembourg City — not technically part of the Vennbahn (the trail begins about 70km further north) but a popular kicking-off point for many people.

Climbing a steep hill in Luxembourg - not technically part of the Vennbahn, but a taste of what was to come.

For us, the steep climb between the campground and the train station signalled the start of a weekend which was great fun but also harder work than we expected. The Vennbahn is largely flat but it also threw a few curve balls our way: unexpected hills, detours where parts of the trail were closed (this led to more climbing) and strong headwinds.

We look cheery in this photo, taken on one of the Vennbahn’s easy and paved sections, but the truth is that we’ve never been so exhausted from cycling 40-50km a day.

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Normally we’d manage this distance easily but now we were carrying the extra weight of a toddler and all the associated luggage (toys, clothes, diapers). At the end of the day we weren’t resting, we were chasing a toddler around the campsite. This photo is a rarity: it shows one the few moments when Andrew got to sit down.

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Luke could occasionally be bribed into relative quiet with a pastry. As on so many bike tours in the past, bakeries quickly became a mandatory, twice-daily stop.

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On most nights, we didn’t make it much past Luke’s bedtime.

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When we weren’t chasing Luke around, we were marvelling at our different touring setups. We each had a different strategy, to meet different needs. Here’s Shane, with his Brompton folding bike and Cyclone trailer from Radical Design — the perfect combination if you need to take trains and buses as part of your bike tour.

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Stijn was riding a titanium tourer of his own design with fat tires and a minimum of luggage. He’s preparing for a trip to Iceland later this year and wants a bike that is lightweight and handles well on dirt roads. In 2011, we interviewed Stijn about lightweight bike touring in this podcast.

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As for us, Friedel was on a classic steel touring bicycle, built in 2005 by Robin Mather. This is the bike she rode around the world. The bike is great but we had to accommodate Luke’s Yepp bike seat on the back, and this made it complicated to carry any other luggage. To be honest, we didn’t do a very good job of loading up this bike. We’re still working out the best way to pack and carry gear, while also having room for Luke on the back. More on that later.

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Andrew rode a Santos Travelmaster 2.6 Alu and piled it high with all the junk that Friedel couldn’t fit on her bike, including an 89L Ortlieb Rackpack. Yes, we said 89 litres. That’s not a typo. We should have put a front rack on this bike to better balance the load but ran out of time before we left. Behind the bike is a Chariot trailer — Luke’s place to nap and hide out from bad weather.

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A picky person could probably find fault in our packing styles and choices but at the end of the day we all made it and we all had fun. Isn’t that what counts? The most important thing you can pack for a successful tour is enthusiasm and we had that in spades.

Over the next few days, we crossed borders.

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We experimented with wild cookery. We picked some stinging nettles and threw them into a pot with red peppers and onions. When cooked, they taste like spinach. What a great base for a pasta sauce or soup!

cooking with nettles

We encouraged Luke to walk up the steepest hills, when pedalling became impossible.

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And after 6 days and 250km we returned home. We learned a lot from this first cycle-toddling adventure, for example:

  • 40-50km a day is the maximum distance we should plan on cycling. If the terrain is hilly, we need to cut this distance further.
  • Bike touring with a toddler requires a different packing setup. We’re considering a trailer for our next tour.
  • A small bag with toys is a must-have. Luke has a little backpack which he’s allowed to fill with books, dinky cars and other favourite items.
  • Falling asleep in a tent can be difficult for little ones. Be patient and be prepared to extend bedtime.

Now it’s time to prepare for our next tour: Switzerland! Yes, that’s right, after complaining about hills on the Vennbahn we’re going to one of the hilliest countries in Europe. What’s life without a good challenge? We’ll fill you in on that trip when we return in June.

 

Tips For Cycling The Vennbahn Rail Trail

Posted March 30th, 2014

Cycling the Vennbahn, an easy ride on one of Europe's longest rail trails.

Cycling the Vennbahn, an easy ride on one of Europe’s longest rail trails.

The Vennbahn is a 125km rail trail that runs through Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany. It’s one of Europe’s longest rail trails and is quickly becoming known as one of the nicest bike paths in the region.

We’re going to see what all the hype is about. Our plan is to take the train from our home to Luxembourg City and then to use the Vennbahn plus other local bike trails to ride back home.

Below we’ve listed some helpful information, in case you’re planning a similar trip. You can also check the official Vennbahn website.

1. Get A Free Map – Download a free map of the Vennbahn rail trail (complete with accommodation and sightseeing information) in English / German or in French / Dutch. You can also order a free paper copy in English by emailing [email protected] or online from the “Tourist Shop” of the regional tourism office (in German, Dutch or French only).

Vennbahn Map

Order a free copy of the Vennbahn Map from the East Belgium tourism office.

2. Use Bike Paths To Connect Luxembourg City With The Vennbahn - Luxembourg City is 60-90km from the start of the Vennbahn (depending on which route you take). You can take local bike trails much of the way there. We found two main options:

  • Option A:  Take PC2 (a rail trail) east out of Luxembourg City to Echternacht, then PC3 (the Trois Rivières bike path) and PC22 (the cycle path Des Ardennes) north, along the border with Germany.  This leaves you with roughly 30km to cycle on local roads before you hook up with the Vennbahn. PC22 is listed as “difficulty: Exigent” on the Luxembourg tourism site.
  • Option B: Take PC15 (the Alzette rail trail) straight north out of Luxembourg City and then connect with PC16 (the Moyenne Sûre bike path). Again, there’s a gap between the end of the bike paths and the start of the Vennbahn. You’ll have to improvise on local roads.

You can use the Waymarked Trails site to get a good overview of the various options.

3. Make Life Easy. Take The Train. If you don’t want to ride between Luxembourg City and the Vennbahn trail, you can easily take the train. This will save you some route planning, some hill climbing and 1-2 days of riding. Tickets cost just €2 and your bike rides for free. Trains leave once an hour (look up schedules on the Luxembourg Railway site). We picked up this tip from the European Cycling website.

4. Bring Your Tent. There are plenty of great campgrounds in the area. We’ve plotted a few on this map.


View our VennBahn map in a larger size.

We also found this list on the website of the Wereldfietsers (a Dutch bike touring club). For those who don’t speak Dutch, we’ve translated it.

Aachen
Aachen Camping (1.5km from the start of the Vennbahn, can be busy in the summer)
Branderhofer Weg 11
Aachen
Tel. 0049-(0)0241-60880 57
[email protected]

Hauset/Hergenrath
Camping Hammerbrücke*
Hammerweg
B – 4710 Lontzen
Tel. 0032-(0)87-78 31 26
*To reach this one, you have to leave the Vennbahn when you get to Raeren. It’s just before Hergenrath, near the big train bridge over the Geul river. It could be a bit difficult to find.

Monschau
Camping Perlenau (nice tenting field but can be very full in high season or soaked with water after a hard rain)
D-52156 Monschau
Tel. 0049-(0)52156 Monschau
Tel. 0049-(0)2472-41 36

Küchelscheid
Camping La Belle Vallée (just over the border, by the former station of Kalterherberg)
Küchelscheid, Rickshelderweg, 6
B-4750 Bütgenbach
Tel 0032-(0)80 44 60 57

Robertville
Camping La Plage*
Route des Bains 33
B-4950 Robertville
Tel 0032- (0)80-44 66 58
*To reach this one, you have to leave the Vennbahn at Sourbrodt.

Amel
Camping Oos Heem (on the Vennbahn itself, near the former Montenau station)
Deidenberg 124A
B-4770 Amel
Tel 0032-(0)80-34 97 41

Sankt Vith
Camping Wiesenbach (on the Vennbahn, near a swimming pool)
Wiesenbachstrass 65
B-4780 Sankt Vith
Tel. 0032-(0)80-22 61 37
Email: [email protected]

Ouren
Camping International*
Ouren 14,
B-4790 Ouren,
Tel. 0032 (0)80-329 291
*You have to cycle about 8km off the Vennbahn to reach this one but it’s an easy ride along the Our.

Troisvierges
Camping Walensbongert
Rue de Binsfeld
L-9912 Troisvierges
Tel 00352-(0)99-71-41

5. Cafes & Supermarkets Are Few And Far Between - According to the same thread on the Wereldfietser website, cafes and supermarkets aren’t very common along the Vennbahn. Therefore it’s good to know where they are so that you can plan for a tea break!

There are food shops in: Kornelimünster, Roetgen (just over the Belgian border), Monschau, Waimes, Sankt Vith and Troisvierges.

There are cafes in: Kornelimünster (former train station with patio terrace), Roetgen, Monschau, Küchelscheid (just over the border near Karterherberg in an old railway carriage), Waimes (Konditorei Heinrichs), Montenau, Sankt Vith, Burg-Reuland (just off the route and down into the town, follow the main road and to the right you’ll see a bakery).

We hope you find this helpful. We’ll update this page when we’re back from our trip!

Europe’s Best Bike Routes In 2014

Posted January 23rd, 2014

It’s almost that time again, when the annual Fietsenwandelbeurs takes place in Amsterdam.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of going, let us explain. This is a huge two-day exposition, dedicated to everything for cyclists and hikers. We go every year to check out new gear, the latest bikes and of course to get inspiration for future bike tours.

Ahead of the fair, the Fietsenwandelbeurs nominates bike routes for the “Route of the Year” award. This year there are four nominees:

#1. The Pirinexus (through Spain and France)

The Pirinexus is a 350km loop, of which 280km are in Spain and 80km are on the French side of the Pyrenees.

Pirinexus Route

At the moment, it’s southern Europe’s longest marked bicycle route. The route is mostly flat, taking in a part of the Costa Brava and former railway lines. That said, you will have to climb a couple mountains with peaks of 1,000-1,500 meters. The roads leading up these mountains aren’t too steep, however. Part of the Pirinexus also tracks EuroVelo 8 from Athens to Cádiz. Read more…

#2. The Tour de Manche (France and England)

The Tour de Manche is a bike route around the English Channel. Ferry services help you make the connection between England and France. In total it’s a route of 1,200km but there’s also a smaller version of 440km, which takes in the Channel Islands.

Tour de Manche

The Tour de Manche doesn’t always follow the coast. Sometimes it uses old railway lines and small tracks to cut across Normandy. The English section involves a few steep climbs. On the return leg, you get a wonderful view over the cliffs. You can also use the Tour de Manche route to hook up with the Vélodyssée, which runs down the coast of France towards Spain. Read more…

#3. Valsugana (Trentino, Italy)

The Valsugana route follows the Brenta river valley between Pergine Valsugana and Bassano del Grappa. It’s fairly short at just 80km. You bike nearly entirely on dedicated bike paths. The route climbs very gently (you’ll barely notice it). It the Western part you can take on some extra loops around local lakes.

The Valsugana Route

The Valsugana connects to the Adige (Etsch) cycle path from Austria to Verona and the Via Claudia Augusta, going towards the Adriatic coastline. Read more…

#4. Vennbahn (Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg)

The Vennbahn is a dedicated bike path that follows old railway lines from Troisvierges (Luxembourg) to Aachen (Germany). It’s 125 km long.

The Vennbahn

Leaving Aachen, the route climbs to 500 meters but the grade is never more than 2% so it’s a gentle climb. Save your energy! There’s a 10% climb just before the Luxembourg border. As far as the landscape goes, the bike path mostly goes through green areas and there are many signs of the area’s railway history. We’ll be cycling this route over Easter, so there’s more information to come! Read more…

Mavic XM719 Rims: Probably Not Suitable For Loaded Touring

Posted December 8th, 2013

When choosing a rim for the next wheel on your touring bike, you may want to avoid Mavic’s XM719 model.

We’ve recommended this rim in the past (based on our own experience and the recommendations of others) but it seems something has changed. In the past month, several bike tourists have contacted us to report broken XM719 rims.

Bert and Gillian were the first to get in touch. They’ve broken five of these rims in just 9,000km of cycling around North America. In an email, they wrote:

It started happening after only 1,000km on the back wheel of the bike with the heaviest load. By the time we completed 3,000km a further two back-wheel rims broke on the same bike. At that stage we replaced the back rim on the heavier bike with a SunRingle Rhyno Lite rim, which solved the problem. During the last week, the same issue developed on the front wheel on the bike with the heaviest load (after 9,000km) as well as the back wheel of the bike with the lesser load (after 6,000km).

Bert & Gillian’s touring bikes.

Francesco Alaimo also told us that a crack developed in his XM719 rim after just 1,000km. He was able to ride the bike a further 3,000km before the rim gave out entirely.

In Bishkek I met a guy who had to substitute his XM719 for exactly the same problem after less than 5,000km and a couple on a tandem had exactly the same problem previously.

Cracked XM719 rimFrancesco’s cracked XM719 rim.

When we asked for opinions about rims on Facebook, Charles Coderre also reported failures of the XM719 rim (although his rims did last quite a bit longer than for the other cyclists we heard from).

We are riding fully loaded (bike and gear = 80 to 100 pounds). The Mavic XM719 we had on our rear wheels did not last. After 8,000 kilometers, my rim cracked on the entire circumference and was starting to open. I changed for Sun Rhyno Lite. After 13,000 kilometers my wife’s rear MavicXM719 rim was also starting to crack and open.

To double-check these reports, we asked two bike experts for their opinion. Both Marten Gerritsen and the wheel builders at Bike4Travel recommend Ryde Sputnik rims as a durable choice, and both had concerns about the suitability of Mavic rims for loaded touring.

We put these concerns to Mavic and they said the XM719 was a reliable rim with a return rate of less than 0.5%.

We’ve been selling those kind of rims to globe trotters for decades now (so thousands of them) and with very few issues. That said, this type of use (heavy load on the bike and rider) makes the rim more prone to this kind of fatigue. We have no influence on the wheel assembly and very often those kinds of cracks happen if the spoke tension is too high.

Mavic will replace a rim under warranty (if it’s found to be defective) but that’s of little use to most bike tourists. When your rim breaks during a tour, you just need to get it repaired and keep moving. The last thing you want is to be stuck in one place for days (or possibly weeks) negotiating a replacement with a company — especially when that company makes contact so difficult!

On the Mavic website, there are no obvious contact details (only lists of shops selling their products). It took us several days to get any reply via their social media channels. Compare that to our experience, when a Bontrager rim failed on us after just 3,000km of loaded touring. We were able to contact them easily and had a no-questions-asked refund within days (our previous rims from Alex and Alessa lasted for nearly 30,000km before we opted to replace them).

Given all of this, we can’t recommend the XM719 rim for touring anymore. It’s true that any one of these failures could have been caused by something other than the rim (eg. over-inflation of the tire or a poorly-built wheel) but when we hear so many reports about a single rim, it naturally makes us cautious. To be on the safe side, go for an option such as the Ryde Sputnik. Hopefully that will save you the trouble caused by a rim failure on the road!

Tips For Cycling Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway

Posted November 29th, 2013

Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway is the world’s second highest international highway and one of the most challenging bike touring routes out there.

Grace Johnson cycled the route in the summer of 2013 with her husband Paul Jeurissen. Along the way they picked up a few tips and updates for this route, which Grace has kindly shared in the article below.

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Paul and Grace on the Pamir Highway. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

Her notes build on the advice given in 10 questions: Cycling The Pamir Highway (an earlier guest post written by Christine McDonald) so please read that post before reading Grace’s observations.

Grace’s Tips For Cycling The Pamir Highway

There have been many changes since Christine travelled the Pamir Highway:

Visas - There is now a next day visa service (which includes a GBAO permit) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. A letter of invitation is no longer necessary. On the visa form we didn’t have to present a complete route itinerary. We just wrote down that we were planning on cycling the Pamir Highway. That turned out to be enough information for the embassy. The embassy operates on regular opening hours and was easy to find since we looked up the GPS coordinates beforehand via internet.

Telephone and Internet - Internet is still pretty much non-existent. The only connection we came across was a very slow one via a single laptop in Murgab’s Pamir hotel. Telephones are more accessible. The main Pamir towns such as Lake Karakoal and Murgab have telephone send masts powered by solar panels and the villagers own mobile phones. At Lake Karakoal the Swiss cyclists at our homestay decided to take a day jeep tour to a scenic outlook. The homestay owner got on her mobile phone and within a half hour a had jeep arrived.

Transport - There are no buses on the Pamir highway. You could hitchhike (as Christine noted), however it might not be very easy. We saw 5-10 vehicles per day between Sarey Tash (Kirgizistan) and Murgab but most of them were fully-loaded and didn’t have room for cyclists. Between Murgab and Dushanbe there is more traffic – Chinese trucks (with Tajik and Chinese drivers) heading to Dushanbe – so it might be possible to get a lift with them.

Water - Of course in the summer months there was less water and some of the rivers were murky. Since we only had a steripen and water sterilizing drops we often had to fill our Orlieb folding bowl with river water and wait for the sediment to sink to the bottom before sterilizing it with the steripen.

Grace Johnson
Grace Johnson cycling across the Pamir landscape. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

Winter versus summer cycling - If you cycle in the winter as Christine did, you will miss one of the biggest attractions of cycling the Pamir highway: the colourful landscape. It will be covered in snow. We didn’t find the strong summer sun too much of a problem. We just carried a couple bottles of strong sun block. There was always a strong wind to cool us off. Make sure you carry cold weather gear, even in the summer, since storms and sharp drops in temperature can happen at any time.

Route finding via GPS  -  You don’t need a GPS for the Pamir highway and the Wakhan valley. There is only one road and even though there isn’t a sign marking the turnoff to the Wakhan valley – it’s still quite obvious. If you want to try some off-road cycling to the more remote villages, you definitely should consider using a GPS. The routes to outlaying villages are via jeep tracks and as soon as the main track becomes too rutted the locals create new ones. When we rode from Bulun Lake to Alichor, we regularly checked our GPS to find out if we were still on the “correct” jeep track.

HomestaysA sign for a homestay on the Pamir Highway. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

Homestays - The homestays are now marked by English signs in front and for 100 Somoni you sleep on a blanket mattress on the floor plus you receive three meals of tea, bread plus eggs or soup. The toilet is an outhouse. Most of the homestays can provide a hot shower. Sometimes the hot bucket shower isn’t included in the price so ask beforehand. In most homestays, electricity is only available after dark. Don’t count on it working. Note: the homestays are often poorly ventilated so if you are sleeping in a room with a number of other cyclists you may find yourself breathing hard due to the lack of oxygen in the room.

Pamir hotel in Murgab  - In 2013 the Pamir hotel in Murgab opened. It has hot showers, clean sit toilets and serves “substantial” food such as omelettes, meat, salad, potatoes and pancakes in the hotel restaurant. It also has 24-hour electricity (via the hotel generator) so we were able to recharge all of our camera batteries plus laptop there. The Pamir Kids on the Pamir Highwayhotel manager speaks English and completed the required Tajikistan registration for us. The registration was a hassle (the forms aren’t in English and the police complained that the first photocopies of our passport weren’t “dark enough”). It took the manager 7 hours before we (and the other hotel guests) finally received our registration papers. We offered to pay the manager afterwards for the service but he refused our money. Our registration papers were checked at the police checkpoint just south of Murgab.

The People - Christine is right when she says that the Pamir people are great. We especially enjoyed the kids. They love having their picture taken and will even run up to you smiling and yelling, “photo! photo!”

Towns - The villages and surrounding area are very desolate. Everything is built using whatever material is available. Car doors are used for gates, and sea containers as market shops.


An improvised shop on the Pamir Highway. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

During the months of July and August you will come across other cyclists every day. They are a colourful bunch (we met a Hungarian carrying mountain climbing gear on his bike, Italians on Decathlon bicycles) and are another good reason to cycle there in the summer instead of winter months.

Additional Resources:

  • Pamirs.org - contains a number of links to Pamir cycling sites
  • Carry On Cycling – a report from a cyclist who rode the Pamir Highway in May 2013

For more on Grace and Paul’s trip around the world, please see their website Bicycling Around The World.