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Planning Your Own European Bicycle Tour-Part 3
by Charles Hansen
edited and HTML converted by Sheldon Brown

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Tools and Maintenance

Every touring cyclist should have an adequate tool kit and know how to make essential adjustments and repairs. If you're not familiar with working on a bicycle, there is help available. Check with local adult-education centers and bicycle shops to find out about local classes.

When you go on a supported tour for multiple hundred dollars per day any required bike work will be done for you, but when you're touring on your own you should be self-sufficient. The best place to keep your tools is in a small bag hanging from the back of your seat; you should also keep a rag and small packages of hand cleaner in there. Tools that you will need include:

Many of these items can be found in pre-packaged tool kits, and these are generally a good place to start. The quality of the tools in these kits is not always the same as if you purchased the components separately, but they will do the job. You will have to add to what comes in the kit, but it's generally much less expensive than purchasing everything separately. It's essential that you know how to repair a flat tire, but you should carry extra tubes for when you get a flat in the rain or possibly after dark, or any other occasion when you don't want to find and patch the puncture.

It's good to give your bike a going-over every morning before riding to make sure everything works OK. It's especially important to check for loose fittings, such as those holding your racks, fenders and toeclips. If they work their way loose and come off completely, you could have a major problem on your hands; far better to tighten them up when needed. Your chain will probably need lubrication at least once per week, more frequently if it rains.

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Security

When I tour I carry both a U-lock (with an added barrel) and a heavy-duty cable. The U-lock is more resistant to the casual thief, but there won't always be a parking meter or other metal pole to secure your bike to where you stop, and the cable lets you secure the bike to a tree, fence or other object the U-lock won't fit around. In this case, put the U-lock around the down or seat tube and either the front or rear wheel respectively. If the cable lock is long enough, bring it around both wheels, or at least the one not protected by the U-lock. The other advantage of using both types of locks is that bike thieves may have tools to disable one type of lock, but they're less likely to attempt getting through two types of locks. I've been using this combination for my commuting bike the last few years, and haven't lost my bike yet (although it gets more grungy and perhaps less attractive to a thief each year).

I must admit that my security consciousness varies greatly based on where I am. Amsterdam, which is known as a center for bike thieves, and other large cities require your greatest vigilance. In smaller towns I often felt comfortable leaving my bike unlocked for extended periods while I went in; however, I always carried my handlebar bag with me. I've always felt that the sheer weight of a fully loaded touring bike (especially mine!) is a natural impediment to thieves. One technique some people use is to leave their bike in the 'highest' gear, so that anyone attempting to ride off with it will find the going extremely difficult and may well give up the effort. However, this assumes the thief doesn't know how or won't try to shift and also forces you to shift into a rideable gear when you're ready to go on.

Be suspicious of people who say they'll watch your bike for you, or suggest that you don't need to lock it in a given location. One difficult situation is what to do when you want to visit a museum or other attraction during your riding day. The best solution is to see if you can bring your fully loaded bike inside somewhere, or perhaps into a courtyard where a guard or other staff can keep an eye on it. If this isn't the case, you must decide whether you're willing to leave your panniers on the bike or prefer to unload and bring them inside to check at the reception desk. My experience has been that the staff member at such places are generally sympathetic to touring cyclists and will be as accomodating as they feel they can. However, bicycles are often perceived as 'dirty' - even if yours is brand new - and there is a reluctance (or even horror) at your request of bringing it inside their pristine establishment. As with airline personnel, don't try to argue or even reason with these people; just do the best you can in the circumstances.

Where you have to leave your bike loaded while you're inside, try to leave it in a public place where thieves will (hopefully) be hesitant to mess with it. Of course, there is little to prevent them from walking off with a full pannier. Some panniers have attachment mechanisms beyond the hooks that connect them to the bike rack, and you may want to engage these when you have to leave your bike loaded. I will say that in all my tours I've never had any problem with things being stolen off my bike. I have heard that there is a greater danger of thievery the closer you are to the Mediterranean, much of it (rightly or wrongly) blamed on gypsies. As stated before, I've never bothered with a money belt, but since I haven't toured in these areas, I don't know if I would have felt more compulsion to do so if I was there. I suggest using the same defenses you would apply against mugging anywhere: always walk purposefully, continually look around you - especially behind, keep a low center of balance, avoid dangerous areas of cities, be suspicious of strangers approaching you, and be cautious of someone trying to slip your handlebar bag off your shoulder or cutting the strap with a knife.

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Training and Preparing for the Trip

Especially if you aren't used to cycling, it is essential that you get used to your new bike and riding with a touring load before you go to Europe. Look into local recreational cycling clubs in your area. Going on a group ride can be helpful in getting advice on riding posture, style and tips of the road. If this will be your first tour, I recommend taking a two or three day mini-tour as a shakedown before you go to Europe.

As mentioned earlier, you should have your daily route highlighted on a copy of the detailed map. This can be folded and put in your handlebar bag for ready reference on the road. If it gets wet from rain or tears from repeated folding it's no big deal, since you'll only need each section for a day or so anyway. I prefer to bring the original map with me, but I keep them under wraps in my pannier. Sometimes I'll keep the current map in my handlebar bag. Most of the time the highlighted copy will be all you need to navigate, but it will never be as clear as the original and you may need to check the source map from time to time. Don't try putting the original in the map pocket of your handlebar bag. Since you will have to fold it against the folds it was manufactured with, it's bound to tear very quickly. You may or may not want to keep a journal, or at least track the number of miles you ride each day, and one easy way to do this is to record it on the back of the photocopied maps you use to navigate.

As your trip date draws near, check to insure that everything is in order: passport, airline tickets, hostel pass, travelers checks, etc. Make a checklist of everything you want to bring and go over it several times. NOTE: buy all the film you think you'll need in the US before you leave; remember that you may get inspired and take more pictures than you anticipated. Film prices are far more expensive in Europe, especially if you're shooting slides.

I shoot slides because they do a much better job of reproducing the true lighting and colors of the places I visit. They are more expensive and less convenient than prints (much harder to pass around the office!), but slides are superior for capturing the actual feeling of a location. However, they can"t be stored in albums with maps, tickets, menus and other momentos of your journey.

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Taking your bike on Planes & Trains

Planes

On international flights you can bring your bicycle for free as one of your pieces of checked luggage. Your panniers, snapped or bungied together, will be the second piece. Airlines seem to vary in how they enforce the two pieces of checked luggage rule, so you may be able to get away with checking more. If not, try to put the rest in your bike box. There may be exceptions to this, and you should always check with the airline in advance. In particular, different rules may apply in the case of charters.

There are different theories when it comes to shipping bikes by plane. Some people hold that if the bike is in a box (even a clearly labeled bike box), the baggage attendants will mistreat it and bury your bike under tons of other luggage. These people suggest you try to get your bike on ├Čau naturel├«, or at a minimum putting it in a large clear plastic bag. My experience is that most airlines require the bike to be in a box and any argument to the contrary is futile (and likely to get them mad at you and possibly intentionally mistreat your bike).

Since I usually cycle to the airport to start my tours, I buy a box there for $5-15, depending on the airline. There have been a few scares, but I've always managed to come up with a box. If the airline you're flying on claims they don't have any, you can probably buy one fom another airline. If you have the luxury of a ride to the airport, you may be able to bring your bike already boxed. I always use large Amtrak or airline boxes, not the type of small box that new bikes come in. With the large box all you have to do is remove the pedals (carry a pedal wrench in your toolkit and make sure you can get the pedals off before you go to the airport), and loosen and twist the stem and handlebars so they"re centered on the top tube (you need an allen wrench for this). Note: the left pedal is threaded backwards, which means you turn clockwise to loosen it for removal.

Some airlines suggest you remove air from the tires so they don't explode if pressure is lost in the cargo cabin, but I usually don't and haven't had any trouble. You can stuff your helmet and sometimes other gear inside the bike box. However, make certain the pedals, helmet etc. are firmly attached to the bike - I usually loop the strap on the toe-clip around the top tube - so you don't lose anything if the box should get ripped open. Many cyclists spend a lot of time taking the wheels out and putting dowels between the dropouts and wrapping padding around derailleurs and other semi-fragile parts. I never have and haven't had any problems, but perhaps I've just been lucky.

You'll want to get to the airport at least two hours before your flight if you need to pack your bike. Leave your bike to the side (where you can watch it) and get in the check-in line with your panniers that you're checking. Tell them you also want to check a bike. Sometimes you can pay for the box there and they'll bring it out to you, other times you'll have to take your ticket to the baggage room to purchase the box. The airline personnel generally perceive the bike as a hassle for them, so it's in your best interest to be as friendly, cooperative and helpful as possible. Ask the person at the check-in counter how they want you to handle the bike, and try to do things their way. If you"re not aware of it, airport security in Europe is exponentially greater than in the US, and you should allow extra time and be prepared for extra hassles with shipping your bike.

When checking your panniers, it is essential that you not have any needed tools for packing the bike in them! I once managed to check my allen wrench and had to ask them to bring my pannier back so I could get it out. Sometimes the airline (especially if you're in the baggage room) will provide wrapping tape, but it's best to have some of your own just in case. What you want is reinforced shipping tape, and a knife to cut it. Usually you can get this at the airport, but it's best to be prepared to be self-reliant.

Trains

Taking a bicycle on a train with you in Europe is usually extremely easy. When I was in England in 1988 the bicycle always traveled for free, and you simply loaded it in the baggage car when you boarded and removed it when you left the train. You have to be ready to move quickly when your train arrives, for they only stay in the station for a minute or two (unlike Amtrak). You also have to be self-reliant in locating the baggage car. Leaving the Lake District, we were taking a train to Glasgow. However, I noticed a sign on the baggage car indicating it was going to Edinburgh. The train was going to be split up near the Scottish border and half of it would go to each city. We had very little time to locate the Glascow baggage car and get aboard before the train left. Sometimes a trainman will open the baggage car doors at each stop, other times it's up to you to make sure you get aboard. I have heard that with the privatizion of much of BritRail, fewer trains now have baggage cars.

Most other countries will require you to purchase a separate ticket for your bicycle. Sometimes this can be done at the main ticket counter, but most often you must buy the ticket for yourself and then get the bike ticket at the baggage room. The bike ticket is usually wrapped around the handlebars. Most countries will allow you the option of loading the bike on the train yourself, or do it for you. In order to make sure the bike travels on the same train as I do, I prefer to load it myself when I can. A very important issue is knowing when your stop is coming so you can get to the baggage car and get your bike off. Sometimes you can get to it through the train, other times you must go outside on the platform to get in the baggage car. I've always had the horror of doing this and seeing the train leave with my bike. Obviously, you want to be in the coach next to the baggage car (unless it's smoking only!).

In my experience, the worst country for shipping a bike on a train is France. They insist on taking the bike from you, so I consider it vitally important to make sure the train you're on can and will also contain your bike. I've heard horror stories of tourists having to wait days for their bike to show up at the town they've gone to. The railway guarantees that the bike will arrive within 72 hours, but few people want to lose up to three days of precious vacation time waiting for their bike to arrive. In their books, the Whitehills seem content to simply accept this, but I"ve found that if you"re insistent and persistent you can travel on the same train as your bike.

After purchasing your ticket, go to the baggage counter and specify which train you'd like the bike to go on. If you get an unfriendly response, be persistent or try going higher. Finding a French person to intercede for you can often help. In larger train stations you may also throw yourself on the mercy of the person in the information booth; they will always be able and willing to speak English. You can buy optional insurance and a mini bike-carton. I don't know if it made any difference or not, but I did buy both when I"ve used French railways on the premise that they'd treat me and my bike better if I gave them more money. My bike did arrive on the same train as I did. Returning to Paris from Marseille seemed problematic because I wanted to take an early-morning TGV train (some of these do carry baggage), but the baggage room didn"t open early enough for me to deliver the bike an hour ahead of time, and I wanted to ride it up until my departure. A friendly baggage clerk told me he would be in early, and I could knock on the door and he"d take my bike and make sure it got on the train.

Depending on how often you plan to use a train for a connection between cycling segments of your trip, it probably is not economical to get a EurailPass. However, this could depend on your age, and might make more sense if you're not over 26 (or whatever the cutoff is). We investigated the diffence between individual fares and a EurailPass for the 1990 tour, and it was slightly more for the pass vs. individual fares. Even with the pass you still have to stand in line to buy tickets and get bike tickets, so it didn't seem to offer any advantage. I don't know all the possible combinations available, but if there was one that allowed something like 10 days of train travel over two months, it might provide some savings - especially if you're going a long distance when you do take the train.

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Life on the Road

Bicycle Touring is like no other way of traveling. You will find that your day is a never-ending sequence of ups and downs, highs and lows, as you encounter lovely winding country roads, steep hills, friendly native people, obnoxious truck drivers, driving rain or headwinds and exhiliarating downhills. As I said in the FootNotes article, I would be hard-pressed to go on any future vacation without a bicycle. Although, I will admit that there are some kinds of trips and destinations where it is not the best solution. For example, if you planned to spend a vacation hiking in some of the national parks in the southwest, it makes much more sense to rent a car. But when your goal is to explore diverse regions of a foreign country, I prefer to cycle. Unlike driving in a car or riding in a train, the very act of getting from place to place becomes a major part of your travel experience. Of course you can see the landscape from a car or a train, but on a bicycle you are part of the landscape, and as anyone who has ever cycled knows, there is a world of difference between the two.

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