Some snaps from the bikepacking trip Carl and I took this weekend. Route was over Sharp Haw to Hetton and back via Barden Moor. Tested out the tent I’ve been lent for my tour and it did the job, although it’s very blue! I definitely slept better than in a bivy bag but it felt odd not being able to see what the noises that wake you up in the night actually are. No rain so couldn’t see how waterproof it is.
Earlier this year as part of the Say it right writers circle project I’m involved in I wrote a piece about biting my tongue and self-censorship. I vowed not to do it essentially. The below is probably the first time I had to make a concerted effort to stick to that vow. I might lose a few of you with this I realise but I hope it also makes a few people think.
In the past few weeks I have had a lot of people telling me they were jealous of my forthcoming trip and how they would love to do something similar. This was usually followed by a number of excuses as to why they couldn’t or what was holding them back. In some instances I think the sentiment stems from the same dissatisfaction with the world and the current system that I feel. They realise that although I can never escape completely I can spend some time living outside the hamster wheel of work, buy, consume.
At the time people telling me they were jealous made me feel odd. I didn’t have a good response, I didn’t know what to say. I felt embarrassed like I was doing something I should be ashamed of because they felt they couldn’t. Of course this made me go away and think and I started to realise that actually those people could do it and they were putting up barriers to stop themselves. I can easily split the people I’ve spoken to into two camps, those with no commitments and those who do have responsibilities usually in the form of children.
If you sit in the former group and have no commitments, then stop making excuses and just do it. I’m taking a more radical approach and selling or giving away everything that is unnecessary. We are so ingrained in our culture of consumption that this seems insanity to some people. However most things we hoard and buy are essentially unnecessary, we don’t need them to survive or live. We spend our limited monetary resources on them and have to work more to afford those things we find ourselves desiring. I think the phrase is that your possessions posses you. So if that possession has a second hand value convert it into cash and you can then use that to meet the most important need you have, food.
Unfortunately happily handing over our limited monetary resources isn’t restricted to material items though, so whilst selling your possessions read Tom’s blog I’ve mentioned previously on mental preparation which outlines other ways to save cash by living the simpler touring lifestyle at home. I’m not currently doing all of those things, it is quite hard in a shared house where other people have access to the heating and lighting. Also consider other things such as your alcohol consumption, wasteful habits when it comes to preparing food at home or the premium of buying take away food instead of cooking etc. As an example of this I stopped drinking at the end of June this year, I didn’t really have much money behind me for our trip to the Alps in September at that point. Within two months of not drinking I had enough to survive on the trip without budgeting and feeling like I had to count every penny.
The less radical method of course is to save up money over a defined period of time to pay for equipment and your living expenses on the trip. A good example of this is Alastair Humphrey’s Adventure 1000 initiative that he’s been encouraging people to do this year. Putting a little bit away every month can lead to big gains. It’s also good because you can piece together your touring gear whilst in this saving phase and have some fun testing it out. The only drawback is you’re not committing to actually using the money you save to go cycle touring. Circumstances do change and it’s very easy to suddenly find yourself sucked back into the system before realising your dreams.
The people I’ve spoken to who have commitments in their life are pretty exclusively part of family units with children and mortgages. Essentially having children is a big thing because you have to provide shelter and food for more than just yourself. However having children does not preclude you from cycle touring. Clearly the most radical approach would to be to do all of the above but take the kids with you. Most people freak out a little bit at this point and say you can’t take children cycle touring, except that there are plenty of people who have done just that. The usual argument against going on an extended cycle tour with children is education, however if you are dissatisfied with the system why are you letting it educate/indoctrinate your kids? I mean essentially do we only let someone else educate our children because we don’t have the time to do it ourselves? The ‘Pedouin’ family highlight that there are an endless number of things you can learn on the road which we normally associate with formal schooling.
Ok so maybe you’re not comfortable taking the kids with you, so why not plan a cycle tour for a shorter period of time? Perhaps we need to see contact time with children in terms of quality over quantity. Would you rather be more satisfied and happier which would translate well to your children or dissatisfied and depressed which children do pick up on. The infuriating thing is that our society sees it as perfectly acceptable to work long hours or to go away for a long trip ‘on business’ but if that trip were to be more cerebral and not generating income then it’s clearly abandoning your responsibilities even if you are time bound and plan on returning to them.
The other clear commitment people have is that of providing shelter for their family and that usually revolves around mortgages. Essentially you are then limited in the length of your trip based on how much you can save to cover the mortgage in your absence. However if you are touring as a family then renting out your property is an option. The most radical solution of course is just to sell up and use the proceeds to fund your tour, you might need a longer term plan though unless you intend cycle touring forever.
There are also arguments given about partners views if you did any of the above. This sounds very blunt but in my opinion you have to do one of two things. You can either persuade your partner that this is the path for you and your family and show them how much it means to you. The alternative is that you need to find a new partner who is supportive or go it alone as a lone parent. If this is important enough to you that your dissatisfaction causes you some mental anguish then it’s important enough to discuss with life partners and be a possible deal breaker. As someone who is currently single that is very easy for me to write, but essentially I know that my previous relationships have broken down in part because myself and my partner didn’t see eye to eye in terms of world view and how we should be conducting our lives.
So stop telling me you’re jealous of my cycle tour and start planning to do it yourself. It doesn’t even have to be a cycle tour, any action that moves you towards future happiness is valid. It’s ok to dream, it’s even better to realise those dreams and push aside the excuses you let win everyday.
You know that point in the day just before you go to bed when you’re supposed to relax and settle into sleep. Sometimes that is inevitably when my brain is most alive and comes up with ideas. This then usually ends up with me staring at the ceiling exploring those ideas. Well last night I had such a flash of inspiration and so decided upon the first part of a route for my touring adventure.
I’m going to ride to Land’s End. That’s it. No real reason, just because it’s somewhere to go. I was thinking of heading towards the south west of the UK so it’s a logical destination.
So something like the map below. I’ll probably take about 2-3 weeks to do the whole journey to Land’s End and then across to Dorset. The aim is to leave towards the end of November (Going to do a mini-tour to test stuff before then). That will then give me a couple of weeks in Dorset before embarking on part two of my tour.
So if you live in the parts of the country that I will be passing through then either expect me to be in touch later in the year or shout now if you want to me to stop by!
I woke up today to the noise of rain on the window. It’s the first real rain we’ve had for a week or so and it set my brain cartwheeling away with thoughts of the future. The future is that I am going cycle touring. I don’t really know where or for how long. I no longer have a job, I’m selling or giving away most of my possessions and at some point in November I will hand over the keys to the house I live in.
The rain had me thinking though, it’s easy to make these loose plans when the sun is shining. Suddenly my mind was asked to question what life will be like in just over a months time when that rain is beating down on canvas rather than a window pane. Tom Allen has a great blog about ‘training’ for a cycle tour that highlights the fact that mental preparation is more important than the physical side of loading up your bike and riding somewhere. I can ride, I know I can. A tough 50 mile day cycling into a headwind on Thursday was enjoyable and easily manageable. However sometimes I doubt my mental preparation.
I know I’ve been preparing mentally though without consciously thinking about it. Cooking meals on one or maximum two burners and finding myself breaking it down as to how I would cook the same meal with a meths burner and my pot set. Buying instant coffee and food I know I can easily pack and carry on a bike. Even this morning lying in bed listening to the rain my brain almost instinctively walked through the process of packing up a tent or bivy in the wet. Once out of bed I made sure I got on my bike whilst it was still raining to go and run errands, training myself not to shy away from bad weather.
I have experience, I’ve toured before, I know generally what to expect. I know I can survive outside in any season and weather. Yet I’m still scared and wondering if I’ll cope. I think back to riding the Trans Cambrian in April and the times on that trip I was cursing the weather. I’ve made my bed though I’m going cycle touring in winter and I need to remember the great things about doing just that. I love wrapping up warm and cycling when the weather is crisp and cold. Or the fact it’s easy to wild camp even in quite densely populated areas because everyone else is hiding away inside.
So the future is daunting and scary but also exciting. I’ll be trying to update this blog from the road a fair bit if I can so check in occasionally to see what’s new. However like this particular post I’m not planning on a travelogue style account like those I’ve written in the past. You can probably find an account of that type for most parts of the world and although I enjoy reading them for the most part what really intrigues me is what makes the people who write them tick. The best parts of books such as Cycling home from Siberia, Thunder and sunshine or Every inch of the way in my opinion are the parts where the authors start to talk about how their tours affect them mentally. I don’t mean send them crazy (although that is also interesting) but change their perceptions of the world, their politics and philosophy.
If you want to help fund my trip then I am selling pretty much all non-essential bike parts I own and pretty much moving from owning five bikes to just the one I am riding. Leave a comment below for a list of the parts I’m selling.
If you enjoy reading this blog and just fancy donating some cash to help me along the way then feel free to do so, again drop a comment below with contact details and I’ll let you know my paypal address. I feel odd putting that as I really don’t want to appear like I’m asking for you to pay for my holiday. However the feedback I get on my writing is generally positive so if you appreciate it then consider donating something. At least then I might be able to sit inside a cafe and enjoy a coffee whilst using the free wireless to update the blog.
For the first part of our tour of Mont Blanc click here.
It was another early start, well except for Joe who managed to sleep for twenty minutes more than everyone else. Naturally the morning feast was bread, cheese and coffee. We lubed our chains and then set off on a road climb up the valley. After reaching the head of the valley in Switzerland we turned off up a fire road for the climb to ‘La Peule’. La Peule was also the name of the current cheese I was eating at that time and we were passed on the climb by an old Renault van with multiple layers of large wheels of cheese in the back. The natural assumption is that this was the farm/area it was made in. It’s good cheese too very light, yet with a strong undertone to the flavour somehow.
Joe was having a good morning, the twenty minutes of extra sleep must have worked wonders and he rode most of the initial fire road climb of the day . However all three of us would have to employ the technique of walking a bit, riding a bit for the whole ascent to the Grand Col Ferret. Having long legs must come in handy for this as I reached the top first. I quickly had to put my jacket on as it was pretty windy and much colder than in the valley or on the climb. The others quickly arrived though and we crossed into Italy. Country number three in as many days. The descent to the refuge Elena was sadly too steep to ride although the views were fantastic. I think this was the descent where we met a large group of American tourists who kept telling us we were incredible and taking our photos!
I’d never been to Italy before so we had a coffee at the refuge and I have to admit it was the best coffee of the trip. Fully caffeinated we raced down the fire road from the refuge and into the valley. Sadly we were going so fast and having so much fun when we hit a paved road surface that we missed the turning for our planned off road route. We tried to come up with a new off road route but after getting pretty lost and having to back track more than once we gave up and just descended by road to Courmayeur. It was really fast and fun though with those classic alpine road switchbacks. It was baking hot in Courmayeur a rapid change from the cold wind at the top of the mountain. We stopped literally across the road from a pizza shop completely through luck and then amazed the owner by ordering three or four slices each! I think it was a husband and wife team but they were really friendly despite the fact none of us spoke any Italian. The pizza was also fantastic.
We spent a long time studying the map in Courmayeur and looking at the slopes around us. The town is in a very steep part of the mountain valley and it was clear that our intended route would take us up some very steep climbs. I also consulted the GPS tracks I had and these showed an easier way north out of the town and into the Val veny. It was still a tough road climb to end the day with and again Joe seemed to be full of energy and left us in the dust. We regrouped at the top of the climb and dropped into the valley looking for somewhere to camp. Leaving the road and following the footpath along beside the river we stumbled across a wooded park/picnic area. It had benches, fire pits, water points and public toilets. It looked like a perfect free campsite. After hanging around for half an hour or so just to see how busy the area was we set up the tarps and settled in for the night. We made good use of the table that night and played poker for sweets.
It was cold in the morning, the valley sides sheltered us from the sun until it was quite high in the sky so we packed up quickly and got going. Today was the day we had been dreading as in our planning it had looked like pretty much all climbing for most of the day. However that was on our original route so it was now a bit of an unknown. After continuing up the Val veny on the road it turned into a fire road leading us upwards towards the top of the valley. We were cycling on the flat floor of the U-shaped valley and although the general trend was upwards there were some respite as the road flattened sometimes and even the occasional downhill. At the head of the valley there was a final steep push to the Col de la Seigne. It however hadn’t taken us as long to reach this point as we had anticipated.
As we crossed back into France we were greeted with the best descent of the trip. Sweet flowing singletrack with ace switchbacks. It raised our spirits immensely and we were all grinning when we reached the bottom. We were soon realising that in the mountains you can spend hours climbing 1000 metres in height and then if you have a good piece of trail descend the same amount in 10 minutes. We celebrated being back in France with crepes at the refuge de Mottets, trying to ignore the amorous donkey in the field next to us. Stomachs full we blasted down the valley on a wide fire road to Les Chapieux. After watching a woman leading goats through the village with a Fiat Panda (they love that car in this area) we again had a discussion regarding the route. We had already decided that the original route we had planned which was most direct was probably not passable by bike but as we were well ahead of schedule wanted to press on.
So we set off to climb the Col de Bonhomme. Our dreaded day hadn’t been that bad up until this point, this climb would change that. The initial parts were steep but manageable the top section was incredibly hard. From about a third of the way up it was too steep to ride and so tiring that we started to split it into sections. We would push for 100 metres of altitude gain by my GPS and then rest before starting the next section. At one point Nathan picked up his bike and took the shortest steepest path up the rocky trail. I just didn’t have the strength to do that so had to wind back and forth across the mountain to reach the same point. You knew paths were going to get steep when you met walkers coming down who wished you good luck!
Eventually as clouds rolled in and with the wind having picked up we reached the refuge at the top. We went inside to get out of the wind and ordered omelettes and cokes, everyone was quiet for a little while absolutely exhausted. We were hoping that the other side of the mountain was going to be another good descent but we were sadly disappointed. The climb had taken us over three hours so a quick descent would have been good. However it was very rocky, if you had a bike with full suspension and a fair amount of balls you could probably have picked a line down. With a hardtail loaded with luggage it was walking time again. Lower down it became more rideable and then we hit slate/gravel fire road which led us down into the valley. We found some flat ground to camp on whilst trying to stay out of the Contamines-Montjoie park area where camping and fires were definitely prohibited. We seemed to get the tarps set up in record time and after a quick cuppa headed for bed. It felt really good to be well ahead of schedule but we were so tired from the day it was only 8:30pm when we turned in.
Another cold morning so packed up quickly and were in the town of Les Contamines-Montjoie before 9am. We warmed up in a bar that was open with a cup of coffee and again discussed the route and day ahead. Breakfast was proving elusive though so I just had some cereal bars whilst Nathan and Joe bought a whole rotisserie chicken to share. After this park bench feast we didn’t actually set off again until 11am. The road out of town was a nice gentle climb weaving back and forth through houses. However once off the road onto fire road the route literally went straight up the slope. It was a hard push to start the day but our spirits were still high and after a bit of up and down we reached the Chalets de Miage. I was the only person to order food but needed something more substantial for the day ahead. It was actually a really good potato omelette and it was only afterwards that I realised I had managed to conduct my entire conversation at the refuge in French.
The descent from Miage to Le Champel was frustrating with nice sections we could ride and then steep rocks and roots which required pushing. The village of Le Champel also turned out to be much smaller than we anticipated consisting of about five houses. We headed out of the village on fire road again climbing back up towards an area we had identified as a potential campsite on the map. The area didn’t look great though with lots of nettles, mosquitos and a farm close by. So as we were still making good time despite starting late that day and although a short day would have been nice we decide to push on.
The other two seemed to be fairing better than me and pushed on ahead. It was quite a shock to round a bend and find Nathan washing his hair in one of the water troughs that you find all over the mountain. When the mood takes you and all that. Eventually it became apparent that we would have to continue all the way over the Col de Voza which was the final climb of the trip. It felt good to have completed it when we reached the top but it was incredibly hot now and I was really suffering. The descent the other side towards Les Houches should have been a fast ride down some steep but manageable fire road. I was so tired though I couldn’t concentrate and so ended up walking large sections as I didn’t trust myself to ride downwards on the loose surface safely.
Once back on the road we investigated a picnic spot on the map as another potential campsite but it turned out to literally be a picnic table by the side of the road. So let the score stand at Italy 1 France 0 when it comes to quality of picnic areas. It seemed logical to just keep going towards Chamonix at this point and there were a couple of other spots on the map that looked promising for campsites. We also discussed paying for an actual campsite as a fall back if we couldn’t find anything for free. At another picnic spot just outside of Bossons we pushed our bikes up into the woods on the north side of the valley. It was far from ideal being very lumpy and littered with roots but I think by now we were all tired. It was also the last night out in the open and so thoughts of a bed the night after would tide us through. I tried to make some food but was so tired I managed to knock my stove and pot over twice before finally cobbling together something vaguely edible. I think we all had a bit of sunstroke and two hard days were starting to take their toll.
So the final morning was upon us. Packing up our stuff had become a pretty slick routine by this point. Naturally Joe was the last one up and there was a discussion as to whether it would have been cruel or amusing to leave him to wake up on his own in the woods. We set off and rode the 2 remaining miles to Chamonix. It was tough, draining and…who am I kidding! We pulled into the square where we had started roughly 110 hours previously and high fived. Job done!
The whole trip was amazing and we spent four more days in Chamonix after completing the tour of Mont Blanc. I did some running/walking up the hills and it was just incredible getting so high up so easily and looking back from where you had come. Looking back the tour of Mont Blanc was hard, perhaps one of the toughest rides/journeys I have completed. The terrain really isn’t suited to loaded bikes but I am glad that we attempted and completed it. I’m not sure that even on a full suspension mountain bike carrying limited gear I could have ridden much more of the route, I’m just not that skilled. The tour of Mont Blanc is a very popular walking trip and I possibly would like to go back one day and see if I could run/walk around the route in a shorter time!
Finally a few thanks and a personal recommendation:
Thanks to Joe and Nathan for being great travelling companions.
Thanks to Restrap for the prototype bikepacking luggage we used/tested. It worked and I didn’t break anything, success.
Thanks to Will at Schwalbe UK for the Nobby Nic rear tyre. No punctures, good grip and even on the road it rolled well.
Finally a personal recommendation for Alpkit whose drybags, Hunka XL bivy and Rig 3.5 tarp I bought earlier in the year and used on the trip. Their kit is good value for money but also does the job, just what you need.