Phil and I have recently returned from a four week cycling tour that started in Nice and ended in Milan. We cycled 1,377kms and climbed 26,900 vertical metres over 21 ride days carrying all of our luggage in panniers on touring bikes.
I’ve had a few people ask me if I could explain the logistics of the tour E.g, how we planned the route, what we packed, what we ate along the way etc. It was a lot easier than you may think, so don't be daunted if you are thinking about planning your first tour.
Phil and I were both riding Cell Brunswick 1.0 cross bikes (named Barry and Larry).
Gearing: 46/36T front and 11-36T rear
Approximate total bike weight (including panniers, clothing and spares) : 25kg
Panniers: 2 x Ortlieb rear panniers, plus I also had a 7L Ortlieb handlebar bag.
The handlebar bag was a last minute edition as my saddlebag wouldn’t fit under my seat due to the mud guard that we’d attached to the seat post. I was reluctant to purchase one at first because I thought it would be too bulky and might get in the way of my hands when in the drops. I am so glad I bought it, it was handy to put your food, wallet, phone and jacket in as access was much easier than opening up the panniers. It didn’t get in the way at all of your hands and felt quite natural.
Tyres: Schwable Supreme Marathon 35cm
Planning the route:
This is the fun part! I love planning cycling holidays as it means I get to spend hours reading travel guides and dreaming about visiting incredible parts of the world. In all honesty I should probably become a holiday planner as I seriously love doing it. I’m not a fly by the seat of your pants type person, I plan every single detail down to the best gelato shop to try along the way. Phil says i’m always trying to achieve ultimate perfection...and he’s probably right....
Maybe this isn’t your style, that’s totally fine. However for a cycling holiday I suggest you do a bit of planning as you need to know if the day ahead of you is physically possible. I mean, you might look at a map and think I can ride from here to here as it’s only 50km, but in reality there are two HC climbs and a motorway in the middle which throw a spanner in the works.
Phil and I worked together planning the route. Basically I mapped out a vague idea of what I thought would be a good route based on places we wanted to visit and things we wanted to do eg, eat cheese in Provence, ride a few of the famous climbs, do some walking in Switzerland, chill out by Lake Como. Sounds awful right? From there Phil built the rides in Strava Route Builder (article coming on that soon).
This was the longest cycle touring holiday we’d attempted, so we were in the dark on how hard we’d find it. We planned it so we had 3 or 4 consecutive ride days, then a rest day before we’d ride again. See full itinerary.
This worked quite well. The only time we had a hiccup was in the first week of our trip. Along with some jet-lag we’d become very dehydrated from the extreme Summer temperatures in Provence and hadn’t actively sought out substantial ride food and in the end we achieved a decent calorie deficit.
At home before a long ride we would generally eat some porridge with banana but France does breakfast a little different. We got a bit excited by the amazing croissants and cheap espresso along with a distinct lack of low GI food at the breakfast buffet.
We had five consecutive ride days ahead of us, which included three HC climbs in the Alps - The Izoard, Galibier and Madeleine. On day two before we hit the Alps we woke up exhausted, so decided to catch the train from Sisteron to Guillestre. The planned ride was 100km, climbing the entire day, then we had to back it up with the 3 big climbs the following days. The train ride freshened our legs for the next 3 epic days, which we most certainly didn’t want to miss out on. I was disappointed that we caught the train as I was keen to ride every single kilometre from Nice to Milan, but them’s the breaks.
Here is a map of our route:
What I packed
As we were carrying all of our luggage in panniers I was quite paranoid about packing as little as possible. However now that we are home I think I probably had a few unnecessary items.
The weight of my two panniers fully packed was about 10kg. This is what I took:
3 cycling kits (3 jersey’s + 3 knicks). I think I could have cut this down to 2.
2 sets of summer gloves, one pair of winter gloves. Again, I think I could have cut down my summer gloves to 1 pair and just washed them every night.
1 base layer
2 sports bras
3 pairs of cycling socks
1 rain jacket
1 pair of arm warmers
1 pair of leg warmers
1 pair of waterproof pants
1 set of velotoze
Cycling shoes (which doubled as walking shoes)
Spares (multi tool, spare tube, patch kit etc)
Garmin (which died on day 2)
Front and rear light
1 pair of jeans
2 “nice” shirts (probably could have cut this down to 1)
1 pair of shorts
1 pair of leggings
1 pair of thongs
1 pair of sandals
3 pairs of ankle socks
Toiletries (small shampoo/conditioner, moisturiser, mascara - so didn’t need that!)
Swiss army knife
Umbrella (this was a on-trip purchase which we used twice - once when we bought it and again when we flew to the UK at the end of the trip. It cost 13 euro so I refused to throw it out. Phil carried it haha).
The most weight probably came from our food. My ride food generally consisted of bananas, cashews and chocolate bars (plus packets of pain au chocolates that I found in the supermarche while in France. They were goooooood.)
We chose to pre-book accommodation for the entire trip. Personally I prefer to know I’ve got a bed ahead of me, but this does make the trip less flexible. Most of the accommodation I booked was through sites like booking.com and was fully refundable 24 hours out, so we did have the option of changing the itinerary around if we really wanted to.
Pre-booking accommodation is good and bad. It was great to roll into the village you were staying in and not have to hunt around for accommodation after a long ride day, or spend your evenings looking for accommodation for the next night online. However it did mean you had to get to that village no matter what the ride conditions were that day. There were a couple of days I under-estimated how long the ride would take us and started to wish we’d booked somewhere closer to our starting point. Our first ride day we left at 9am and didn’t arrive until 6pm. I was cursing my choice of accommodation that day. Luckily European Summers are light until 10pm, so it didn’t really matter if you arrived late in the afternoon.
Accommodation score! This was Mas De La Tour in Provence, France. It is about 3km from Rousillion. A 36 deg day calls for a swim.
Washing your clothes
You don’t know how much you appreciate a washing machine until you don’t have access to one. We carried a small tube of washing detergent with us and washed our cycling kit out each night in the shower.
The key to drying success is to wring out your clothes in a dry towel after washing, then hang them up across an open window. If you are really desperate to dry your clothes try using a hair dryer if you have one in your hotel room.
As we had more than one set of kit with us we never had to wear damp kit, and generally it was dry by morning anyway. We didn’t take a portable clothes line, but I think I will next time as we had to get quite creative in some of the hotel rooms that didn’t have much space to hang things. A friend told us that he used the curtain tie as a washing line when he was on tour. Genius.
What we ate
What didn’t we eat??? We actually put on weight on this trip! How that is humanly possible with the amount of cycling we were doing is beyond me and rather depressing.
In terms of ride food we kept it fairly consistent across the entire trip. My stomach is quite sensitive to food so I need to be careful what I eat on the bike. I became obsessed with finding bananas in every town we arrived in. I always had about 3 bananas with me as I knew they would get me through a sugar low without upsetting my stomach. I also found nuts to be quite good as they were high in fat and gave you a good burst of energy. We mainly ate cashews as they were easy to find in most supermarkets, but a couple of times we found macadamias which was exciting. I had a few chocolate bars with me too for emergencies, and took 6 gels, but didn’t end up using any of them.
Breakfast was a bit frustrating as we wanted to get away early most days to beat the heat, but Europeans seem to have a different idea of what early is to Australians (or at least me). Hotel breakfasts started at 7.30am at the earliest, often 8am. We did find that if we ate a big breakfast we rode better during the day, so we often just stayed around for the hotel breakfast and headed off a little later than we would have liked.
We were staying in hotels rather than apartments most of the time, and unlike Australia many of them didn’t have a fridge or even a jug for boiling water. So making your own porridge or cereal was not an option. A few times we simply rolled out early and found a place to grab an espresso and pastry on the way, but that wasn’t much to fuel us for a big day ahead.
We normally stopped for lunch en route somewhere. This was generally either at a restaurant or often a supermarket where we grabbed a baguette and some cheese and had a picnic. We were caught out a few times when the supermarkets shut between 12 - 3pm.
We were always at our hotel by dinner time, so that was never a problem and we would gorge ourselves to our heart’s content.
The weather is the one thing you can’t control and this drives me nuts! We were expecting that we would have a few wet days as you can’t be away for 4 weeks and not get a bit of bad luck. However what really hurt me was the heat.
The south of France in particular was scorching. The temperature was regularly in the high 30’s. We even hit 40 deg when we were riding through Switzerland.
So hot. Not at my finest here.
At least with the rain and cold you can rug up and put a rain jacket on, but it’s really hard to battle the heat. I got through it by drinking a LOT, filling up our water bottles at every fountain we saw (which luckily are very regular in Europe), pouring water all over myself, undoing my jersey and even riding with my helmet off on one climb when it was unbearable. I found if I rode with my gloves off that also helped, but it was a catch 22 as my palms would get very sweaty and slip on the handlebars which was a bit disconcerting at times.
I think part of the issue was that my shoes didn’t have air vents so my feet got warm very quickly, then the rest of my body followed.
We only got drenched twice (unless you include sweat...gross). Once was just after a 38degC stretch and the storm (even hail) was very welcome. The other time was climbing the 25km Grimsel Pass and that was awful! I spent 20 minutes drying my jersey and base layer using the hand dryer in the bathroom at the cafe at the top.
Probably the most extreme weather was on top of the Col du Galibier. We’d had good weather until 3km from the top when the clouds moved in and it started snowing.
My top touring tip is to pack good winter gloves. We both ended up buying a new pair as ours just didn’t keep the hands warm enough on the long descents when we were in the mountains.
I took a pair of waterproof pants with me - Ground Effect Helter Skelters. I only had to use these once, but i’m glad I took them. They were really quite comfortable.
Other issues we weren’t expecting
We originally planned quite a few 100km+ days - all of which included a lot of climbing. We soon learned that we were very very slow on the hills packed up with our panniers, so we had to readjust the routes a few times.
Our rides were all loaded up into Strava, and we were following a map on Phil’s Garmin. Our longest ride was 150km and Phil’s battery couldn’t last the distance (it was a 9 hr ride day). We were carrying an external battery charger with us that had enough juice to charge two phones. Phil ended up connecting his Garmin to the external charger to recharge while we were riding along so he didn’t lose the map - who knew that a Garmin would still work while it was plugged into the charger? We didn’t. It was quite snazzy actually, I was impressed.
We downloaded maps.me which you can use offline for those times when we had no wifi. We couldn’t upload our rides to maps.me, we needed to rely on strava for the correct route (google maps or maps.me would often take you on busier roads than we’d planned and we couldn’t tell the gradient or condition of the roads).
We only got lost and ended up on the motorway once, so that’s a pretty good effort if you ask me. Kudos to Phil for directing.
Let’s talk about chamois
I took 3 different sets of knicks with 3 different bike chamois (padding) on this trip. Bad idea. I should have known better. We were spending a lot of time in the saddle each day, so a bit of chafing is inevitable. However the different shape of each chamois accentuated this as they all sat in a slightly different place. I’d suggest picking one brand of knicks you are comfortable in and sticking with it. Remember you are spending a lot of time riding. You most definitely don't want a saddle sore to develop. Use chamois cream to help avoid chafing and I also recommend a cream called amolin which is actually made for babies to help with nappy rash. If you do start to get a saddle sore you need to do something about it ASAP. Take along a medical ointment like Bepanthen which is an antiseptic cream or even better is Medi Quattro first aid cream which also contains an anti inflammatory, aesthetic and moisturising cream.
We made the assumption that we would have access to bike shops regularly as we were riding through France/Switzerland/Italy. However in reality we were avoiding even medium sized towns on our cycling routes, so we never really came across any. If you really needed one you could ride into the bigger towns, but that’s a bit of a hassle. So do make sure you take ample spares and know a bit of ‘bush craft’ to fix those unexpected issues that may flare up. Here is a list of the tools we carried.
Luckily we didn’t have one mechanical issue on the trip. Not even a flat!
All in all, everything went pretty smoothly. We’ve learnt a lot from the experience (for example I might change my derailleur and put a 42 gearing on the back!!), so hopefully next trip will be even smoother.
If you have any questions about our holiday I’d be happy to help out. Send me a message via my Facebook page, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org