Archive for the ‘Bicycle Touring’ Category

Istanbul to Ankara — 5 days, 270 miles

Monday, May 12th, 2014

After a week in Istanbul, we got up early Saturday morning and biked through Sultanamhet to the ferry terminal. We boarded a boat bound for Yalova, and an hour and a half later we were in Asia. Once we got our bearings, we rode south towards Lake Iznik on a main road with a wide shoulder. After biking over a small pass (our first climbing of the trip!), things started to change. We stopped in a park in a small town just before turning east to follow the shore of the lake, and I noticed that most of the women had their heads covered; in my jersey and bike shorts, I felt quite exposed. Nobody seemed to mind, though, and a man appeared out of nowhere with 2 cups of tea; he motioned that it was on him, and promptly disappeared. After consulting the maps and gratefully downing our tea, we continued on our way. We were still on a main road, but instead of the gas stations that lined our earlier route, we saw olive groves and orchards, and in between them women wearing baggy pants and headscarves tilled the soil with hoes. Every once in awhile a couple would pass us on their tractor, going between their homes and fields. This sort of landscape wasn’t too surprising, but it came as a bit of a shock after Istanbul, a slick, modern city that suddenly felt like another country entirely. One family gave us a handful of cherries and a fruit called erik – it looks and tastes a bit like unripe plums, but we haven’t confirmed what it actually is.
Istanbul to Ankara

Fruit

We found a wonderful campsite just past the lake in one of these groves, away from the main road and looking rather untended. We woke up to a light drizzle, but it cleared up as we finished what we now think is the only flat road in Turkey and started to climb. This was the first real test: we are out of shape, we’re using new setups (breaking a cardinal rule of bike touring), and we are carrying way too much stuff. Nonetheless, we gained about 4,000 feet and wanted to go further, but when we stopped to try to buy food for dinner, we couldn’t find a market; instead we were convinced to eat, and then camp, at a roadside restaurant run by a man called Tarzan Ali. Part of what sealed the deal was the English-speaking man who suddenly emerged: Mehmet, Tarzan’s brother, who had just gotten back from visiting his son in Palo Alto. He was excited to meet people from the Bay Area, and he called up his son who had a short conversation with David. Suddenly the world was feeling a lot smaller. In the middle of dinner (which they refused to let us pay for), the call to prayer rang out and Mehmet excused himself to go to the mosque. His sister Fatima stayed at the table with us, and we had a relatively substantive conversation in Turkish (and charades), thanks to our phrasebook.

Istanbul to Ankara

Our plans to leave early to make up for the short day before were foiled when we woke to heavy rain. We slept in until it slowed down, had another cup of tea from Tarzan, and continued up the road. This was a rough day; we had trouble finding food at one point, and it seemed as if the old men at the entrance to one village were shooing us away. It turned out that they were just telling us there was no market there, but their lack of smiles – and our inability to communicate – made us feel a bit off. We eventually found a little market down the road, run by a friendly old man and his adorable grandchildren. The kids got their bikes out to show us and they also let us use their wifi, which was helpful for setting up places to stay in Ankara. Part of the reason we hadn’t ridden far the first couple of days was because we had to take long breaks to do general housekeeping – setting up hosts, looking into visas, attending to business back home.

Istanbul to Ankara

We got extremely muddy that night, as it had just rained and the only place we could find to camp required a trek down a mucky side road. The next day, however, was awesome. We started with a long, gradual descent through the town of Nallihan, then climbed over a small pass. When we descended the other side, the landscape changed completely.

Istanbul to Ankara

Gone were the damp green mountains, replaced by red and white sedimentary rock folded over itself every which way. In between these rocky outcrops were bright green wheat fields. Later in the ride we saw sprinklers, but initially it appeared to be rain-fed. We knew there was a reservoir on the route, so we were excited when we saw water and large transmission lines stretching in several directions. We never actually saw the dam, though. Instead, we came upon a wetland teeming with birds – the dam has created an artificial wetland that is now a protected ‘bird paradise.’ There was a walking trail and educational exhibits, including spotting scopes and placards explaining bird anatomy. It was lovely – despite our knee-jerk reaction to dams and what they do to habitat – and we wished we could have camped there.

Istanbul to Ankara

Istanbul to Ankara

It was too early to stop, though, and we continued on and soon passed through a construction zone – neither the first nor the last. Turkey is building like crazy, both in the cities and the countryside. We turned a corner and saw smokestacks in the distance, and suddenly it became clear where the transmission lines were coming from. A coal-fired power plant was on the side of the road, with operations barely concealed behind a chain-link fence stretching on for a kilometer or two. It was fascinating to see coal transported along conveyer belts, dropping through chutes, and ultimately making its way to the plant. At the entrance David was told not to take photos, but the rest of the operation was clearly visible from the road. After several more hours of climbing, we passed through the town of Beypazar and found a place to camp for the night. It was there that we discovered that we were missing a tent pole, left behind by accident at the muddy campsite the night before. Fortunately David was able to rig something with a tripod and it didn’t rain, so we were fine. However, the next morning the stove stopped working. It had been hissing and not very hot the night before, and it gave up the ghost that morning. I think the fuel line is clogged and hope to sort it out in Ankara. It’s psychologically tough to have equipment problems this early in the trip, but they are fixable.

Istanbul to Ankara

Istanbul to Ankara

Our final day was equally long, but not as eventful – instead of wetlands and power plants, we had lots of climbing and then 20km or so getting into Ankara. We followed a brand new 4-lane highway with a wide shoulder and surprisingly few cars, but they were moving quickly. Eventually we were able to turn off and wind through almost equally unpleasant city streets to the house of our Warm Showers host, Deniz. We met his 3 cats, looked at a map to learn where the camping and bike stores are, had a shower and dinner, and collapsed.

Istanbul to Ankara

From Istanbul to Ankara was 430 km (270 miles) with 5,000 m (17,000 feet) of climbing. Not a crazy ride, but doing it in five days on heavy bikes, with basically no training, was a challenge. We have learned a thing or two about pacing ourselves and look forward to getting rid of some extra weight. We also have a lot of errands in Ankara – getting visas for the Central Asian countries, fixing the stove and tent, finding hosts along the route ahead, writing blog posts, and editing photos and video. It was a good introduction to Turkey. Riding from modern and touristy Istanbul through the countryside was like stepping back in time. People have been helpful and friendly, and our (extremely limited) Turkish is improving, but communication is a major challenge, especially in such a different culture. We are getting used to the call to prayer 5 times a day, but we are still adjusting to the range of conservativeness – particularly in how women dress – and I’m still figuring out what I feel most comfortable wearing when in small towns. We’re breaking for a week in Ankara to get our visas and meet with people working in the environmental sector, and then we’ll ride towards Cappadocia and the southeast. We’re looking forward to seeing more of Turkey!

Advice on Bike Touring

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

The following is from an Appendix in my book, The Bicycle Diaries: My 21,000-Mile Ride for the Climate. For the next week, you can pre-order a copy on Kickstarter here.

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APPENDIX II: General Recommendations on Bike Touring

I can’t tell you how you should bike tour, because there is no right way—there are advantages to each approach. Some people tow trailers, some have panniers. Some people travel so light they saw off their toothbrushes; others would strap a guitar to their rear pannier and carry a dog in a trailer. Some like to stay at hotels, some like to camp. Some trips are planned to the day; others ride as it comes. But gear and planning count less than attitude. As one cycle tourist I met said, “all that matters is if you have a smile on your face.” (Incidentally, he rose at sunrise, biked until 3 PM, then spent a few hours at the neighborhood bar.) In short, take any bike-tour advice you receive with a grain of salt. The only way to figure out what works for you is to try it out.

Since my first bike tour in 1999, I’ve logged just shy of 30,000 miles of “loaded” bike touring—touring where I’ve carried my camping gear. That includes the 21,000 miles of this trip plus a week-long trip in Alaska, a trip down the Pacific Coast, a month-long ride in Eastern Europe, and a trip across the U.S. with my dad after graduating from my master’s program—not to mention numerous weekend excursions. With all this pedaling, I’ve learned what details make for the perfect bike trip—for me.

THE BIKE
On longer, international trips, durability is more important than speed, since the bike breaking down in a remote area could set your journey back a week or more. On longer trips I prefer a steel touring bike. Though steel is heavy, it is less prone to damage and can be fixed via welding. I like twenty-six-inch mountain bike wheels, as they are more commonly found throughout the world than the slightly larger road bike wheels—which is important when you need a spare tire. For the same reason I make sure the bike’s rims can take the more common Shrader valves. (If your bike is set up for Presta valves, you can have a bike shop enlarge the hole.)

On shorter trips closer to home, you can get away with a lighter bike. But on any touring bike it is very important to have a strong rear wheel, preferably with thirty-six spokes. If you have panniers, this is where most of your weight will be. Note that replacing a broken spoke on the rear wheel is an enormous pain. (Always carry extra spokes!)

It is extremely important that the bike have low-enough gearing—you’ll want all the help you can get when climbing up a steep hill with weight. My smallest chain ring in the front has twenty-two teeth, and the largest in the rear has thirty-four, which is about the lowest gearing you can get.

I also recommend a high-quality pannier rack, preferably made of steel. I’ve seen many cheap aluminum racks break.

The most important feature of a bike, though, is comfort—nothing matters more. Nearly every cyclist I know has a different preference for a saddle, although the most popular among long-distance cyclists are expensive leather saddles, such as those made by Brooks. I used a nose-less saddle (a Hobson Easyseat), which was easier on my rear but put more weight on my hands. To compensate, I prefer to ride as upright as possible, as such is easier on the neck and hands.

PANNIERS VERSUS TRAILER
When traveling light, the best system is one or two panniers—or, better yet, a SINGLE stuff sack on a rear rack, which is lighter and more aerodynamic. When carrying larger loads, you can use either four panniers or a trailer. At first consideration one might think the trailer would add more weight, but sometimes it’s only slightly heavier—given the weight of the racks and panniers, and the fact that the bike needs to be stronger to carry more weight. And while a trailer does add some rolling resistance, air resistance is usually more important, and one-wheeled trailers are generally more aerodynamic than four panniers. On my trip, though, I chose to use four panniers because it made the bike easier to carry upstairs and bring into hotel rooms or stores. Also, it fit more easily into pickup trucks, boats, and planes.

GEAR IN GENERAL
The heavier the gear you carry, the heavier your bike has to be. If you want to carry fifty pounds of gear, you will need a bike with extra-strong wheels and a strong rear rack—which means that the bike will have to be stronger and thus heavier to support this weight. Also, the heavier your bike is, the beefier your tires have to be, and the more rolling resistance you will have. Less is more.

STOVE
I usually use an alcohol-burning stove, which I made from two aluminum soda cans. (An Internet search for “alcohol can stove” will generate plenty of guidelines.) It weighs almost nothing. Also, having alcohol on hand is great for killing germs and disinfecting cuts. The only challenge is finding the right alcohol: make sure it is more than 90 percent pure, preferably more than 95 percent. I had the most luck at hardware stores and pharmacies, especially in Latin America—less so in Eastern Europe. Note that these stoves don’t always work in cold weather or at higher altitudes, so they wouldn’t be the best choice for some trips.

SLEEPING BAG & PAD
A high-quality down sleeping bag can compress to almost nothing. Do take care to not get the bag wet, though this is usually only a challenge in exceptionally wet climates. I like using a thin three-quarter length inflatable pad underneath. Be sure to bring a patch kit if you opt for something inflatable.

TENT
Choosing your tent wisely can save a lot of weight. I strongly recommend Tarptents (www.tarptent.com), as they are single-walled and well-ventilated. My two-pound Tarptent Rainbow had enough room for me and all of my gear, was sufficiently ventilated for hot nights in the tropics, and kept out heavy rainstorms. I did have to reseal the seams halfway through my journey, but I probably would have had to do that with any tent.

WATER BLADDER
I carry a six- to ten-liter water bladder (I prefer MSR Dromedary bags). I like the independence of not needing to rely on a faucet or stream near my campsite, so a ten-liter bladder is one of my most useful camping items, as it can provide water for dinner and breakfast. I generally fill it around 20 to 30 minutes before looking for a campsite.

EXPANDABLE STUFF SACK
I like to carry an extra waterproof stuff sack; this comes in very handy if I need to ride for a few days without resupplying. I reserve the space atop my rear rack for those occasional extra items.

TOOLS
I generally carry the basic set of tools: Allen wrenches, small crescent wrench, chain tool, extra chain links, patch kit, spoke wrench, and three extra spokes. I also always carry zip ties, duct tape, and extra bolts, just in case. But note: the tools are less important than the mechanic. The best advice is to get lots of experience fixing bikes. Inevitably, though, something will break that you won’t be able to fix; at those times you’ll have to either rig up something or hitchhike. Be prepared for either scenario.

CLOTHES
In addition to one or two sets of street clothes, I usually carry two pairs of biking shorts and two jerseys. My arm and leg warmers are incredibly useful, and take up little space. I often travel with rain jackets and rain pants that are merely water-resistant rather than waterproof, mostly because these pack down smaller than their GORE-TEX equivalents do. But also, when it rains my goal is not to stay dry, but to stay warm. In that vein, synthetics are much better than cotton—they dry more quickly and keep you warmer when wet.

SHOES
If you use clip-in pedals, make sure you can walk comfortably in them. I prefer to use bike sandals (Shimano makes sandals that can take cleats), so I don’t have to wash socks as frequently. (I wear socks and rain covers over my feet in colder or rainier climates.) For much of Latin America I traveled with Chaco sandals and flat pedals; it was great having a single pair of shoes.

PANNIERS
I much prefer waterproof panniers over non-waterproof, as I dislike having to put on a rain cover every time clouds threaten rain. On my trip, though, I had two waterproof panniers and two non-waterproof ones. One advantage to the non-waterproof pannier is it has better air circulation; this was great for storing wet items like my still-damp cooking pot. In addition to the panniers, I also like a handlebar bag, which is a handy stash for a camera and snacks.

FOOD
One of the hardest things to learn is how to eat enough food. Many people don’t eat enough on their first tours and spend hours grumpy and frustrated, unaware they’re suffering from low blood sugar. So, my advice: eat early and often. Essentially, eat before you’re hungry, and don’t go for more than two hours without eating something. Each person, of course, is different, and you’ll have to find your own eating strategy. Just be sure to consider it a strategy—you burn a lot of calories while riding.

CAMPING
Obviously, learn what the rules are about “free” camping in the places you travel (although, to be honest, I’ve often not done this). I try to make sure no one sees me when I leave the road to camp, and then I pitch the tent where it is unlikely to be found. Also, be smart. While you might be less safe camping as an individual than with group, you’re also less likely to be found.

If you’re traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language, at least learn how to say “tent, one night” in that region’s tongue. That phrase, plus some sign language, are usually all I need to easily find an overnight spot. And, when asking to camp behind someone’s house, be sure you have all the food and water you need—it’s best not to ask for anything more than a spot for the night.

Of course, many people will invite you into their homes.

STAYING AT PEOPLE’S HOMES
People are often extremely generous in opening their home to a stranger, perhaps because they’re both envious of your adventure and sympathetic to your exhaustion. For the most part don’t be shy about accepting what you’re offered—few hosts grant their hospitality reluctantly, and in some situations or cultures a refusal might be seen as rude. So, be ready to share stories of your travels in return. And be a good houseguest. This means always being self-sufficient, supplying your own food and water. Also, don’t overstay your welcome. I always try to leave on a high note—while my host is still enjoying the visit. I am especially careful if I have to stay anywhere longer than two nights. And be sure to get the person’s address to send a thank-you note at trip’s end.

FIRE STATIONS
Throughout Latin America, many fire stations MAY offer an empty bunk for the night. I imagine that someday liability concerns will put an end to this generosity—the reason this plan doesn’t often work in the U.S. Of course, offer your hosting fire station the same courtesy you would when staying at someone’s home.

***

When Bill Bradlee was deciding whether or not to join me biking across the U.S., someone told him: “If you want to hate this country, read the newspaper every day. If you want to love this country, ride a bicycle across it.” Nothing could be truer. The news depicts the world as a scary place—filled with crime, disasters, and other perils. The world you experience from a bike, though, the “real world,” is very different, and it is absolutely amazing—full of smiling, generous people who care about the place they call home.

So, take the time to travel. Get on a bike, get out there, and explore the world at ten miles an hour. You will love it more, and it will give you hope.

Kickstarter Campaign is Live!

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

After years of work, you will finally be able to get a copy of The Bicycle Diaries early next year.

You can get an early copy of the book through the kickstarter campaign!

Ride for Climate Asia

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Starting in April of this year, Lindsey and I will begin a trip that I’ve been thinking about ever since I finished my journey through Latin America: crossing Asia. We will start in Istanbul, and ride east, ending somewhere in Southeast Asia six to nine months later. Our route is not yet set, but below are some possibilities. Note that we don’t yet know how we are getting from northwest China to Nepal.

The goals of this trip are two-fold. First, we look forward to exploring a part of the world that we know relatively little about. Secondly, we plan to use our backgrounds in climate and water issues to better understand the environmental challenges facing these regions–and how these challenges compare to the other challenges faced by people in the region. We will, of course, share what we learn on this blog. Stay tuned!

Thoughts from a First Bike Tour

Saturday, March 30th, 2013

As soon as we escaped the Krakow city limits, I found myself marveling at the fact that I’d ever traveled any other way. Pedaling deeper into the Polish countryside, I could hear snippets of unintelligible conversation mixed with cows mooing, smell grain ripening in the fields that lined the roads, and literally feel the terrain change as we headed towards the border with Slovakia. It was almost alarming how natural it all felt.

David had been easing me into bicycle touring (gently or not so gently – you be the judge) for the past year. One of our first dates was a 40-mile ride through wine country in Sonoma. That went well enough – even on the suboptimal bike I was riding at the time – and we took several overnight trips around the Bay Area over the subsequent months, with the longest being a 2-day, 140-mile trip from Davis to Berkeley.

With those journeys together under our belt, we began “planning” a 3-week bike tour through Eastern Europe. I use quotes because in retrospect, the planning was pretty loose: We would arrive in Krakow on July 5 and fly out of Dubrovnik on July 29, and we had a place to stay in Budapest around the 15th. That was pretty much it. We thought it would be about 800 miles of pedaling, and in addition to Budapest, we intended to visit the Tatras mountains, Sarajevo, and the beaches of Croatia (well, I intended to spend some time on the beach; David, as I discovered later, didn’t share that goal). We had ordered some maps and had conversations along the lines of “We could go this way around the mountains,” “Well, this road looks amazing,” and “There are land mines in Bosnia, so we’ll have to be careful about camping.” I don’t know if it was my faith in David’s experience with bike touring, or the fact that much of my travel has involved looking at a map or a guidebook, showing up at a bus station, andand heading into the unknown, but this all felt pretty normal. Later David revealed that he’d been nervous about our minimal level of planning, but he didn’t let it show.

As I discovered, bike touring is in a class of its own, with a unique mix of independence and reliance on strangers different from anything I’d experienced before. Our independence stemmed from our self-propelled mode of travel and the fact that we carried a tent and small stove. This meant that we could, in theory, spend the night anywhere. However, this degree of flexibility also meant we could end up just before sunset in a small town where we’d need help finding water, or, with no obvious public land, we’d need permission to camp in somebody’s yard. Sometimes we just needed help in the form of information about safety, especially in Bosnia where we worried about landmines.

This was hard for me at first. I’ve stayed in plenty of homestays – both formal and informal – and done research projects where I wandered around Mexican towns and the Jamaican countryside interviewing anybody who would take the time to talk to me. But without speaking the language, and being in these countries simply for our own enjoyment, I felt shy about approaching people. The first night, I stayed up on the road while David walked down to speak to a man outside of his house. He pointed at our water bladder and said “voda?” to which the man nodded and gestured towards a spigot outside his house. David then looked around and innocently said “tent, one night?” (our just-learned, and sole, Polish phrase), as if he was asking if there were any place nearby where we could camp. It had the desired effect: within seconds the man and his neighbor were competing with each other to have us camp in their yards. I was impressed with how well this worked and was emboldened to try myself.

The next time we needed water before setting up camp (it was a rare night when we actually had a destination, in a park several miles down the road), we found ourselves in a town where the only grocery store was closed. I approached a woman in the street and said “voda?” while holding up the water bladder, then pointing sadly at the closed shop. She gestured for me to follow her and led me down the street to her house where I filled the bladder at the sink. From then on, I was much less shy about asking for help, although David was still much better at initiating conversations and accepting help (and food!) from people we met along the way.

This style of travel also differed from my previous experiences in how all-consuming it was. Normally, I travel by myself and I’m either working on a project or taking a break from it. I always carry a journal and end up with a lot of quiet time to reflect and write. This time, not only did I have a travel companion (and had left my journal alone to cut precious ounces), but there was never a moment when I had (a) time to myself and (b) energy to write. About half of the time, we stayed with hosts we found through warm showers or couch surfing, and we spent our evenings with them, eating, drinking, and sharing stories of bike touring or learning about growing up under communism. On nights when we camped, despite a fairly efficient routine, as soon as sunset approached we were busy: finding a store to buy dinner and breakfast food, obtaining water, locating a site where we wouldn’t be seen or asking to camp in somebody’s yard, setting up the tent, and fixing and eating dinner. Sometimes we’d read for an hour or two, but given our usual aspirational departure time of 5 or 6, and what I later identified as fairly constant exhaustion, we usually turned in early.

Perhaps the main “down time” was on the bike itself. We’d pedal for hours, often side by side on the quiet roads that David found or that our hosts pointed out, and try to make sense of what we’d seen or read or heard from people we met. On the plane, we started reading Bloodlands, an excellent book about the land between Stalin and Hitler and what its people suffered at their hands, and at the beginning of our trip we visited Auschwitz. As we rode through modern Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, we tried to wrap our minds around a continent so rich with histories that were still playing out – how the Polish people managed to exist as a unique culture while their territory was torn apart and absorbed into Germany, the USSR, and other neighboring countries. How Poland was “relatively tolerant” of Jews, but how that ultimately meant the mass destruction of a large and thriving Jewish community when Germany invaded during WWII.

We entered Slovakia in the mountains, and as we descended from them the landscape around us looked like any generic, bucolic European countryside. Then we went through a series of downtrodden industrial towns, with crumbling factories and grim, Soviet-style block apartments. In the rural areas in between, we were puzzled to see darker-skinned children walking down the street or popping in and out of rundown houses. Later, we learned that Slovakia has one of the largest gypsy populations in Europe ; the Slovaks we met weren’t too happy about this, and it was interesting to see our otherwise kind and open-minded Slovak hosts squirm as they explained their distaste for gypsies. David was fascinated and sought out a group of gypsy children in the town we stayed in – they were very friendly and taught me how to count to 10, which turned out to be quite useful later on. Our socializing was cut short, though, when some neighbors arrived home and yelled at the kids, scattering them. Perhaps the most interesting and unsettling part of our trip was Bosnia and Herzegovina. David has some interesting posts on that here and here. As we rode through new landscapes and cultures, trying to absorb the past and reconcile it with the present, we bounced reactions and ideas off of each other, and I found myself not really needing to write in order to process (of course now, months removed from the trip, I wish I’d brought my journal, forced myself to stay up a little later, and written it all down).

When we weren’t talking, I found myself slipping into an almost zen-like state. Sometimes when I’m traveling, I’ll daydream, especially on long, uncomfortable bus rides. I do this most when I’m homesick (I remember reconstructing in my mind my favorite meal at my parents’ house in painstaking detail and imagining eating each dish). When I’m engaged in a tough physical activity like running or riding, I often find myself doing calculations – how many miles have I gone, how many are left, what is my pace, how will I reward myself when I hit mile X. On this trip, David had the GPS and I didn’t wear a watch, and the miles just slipped by, largely without any real marking or observation. There were a few long days when, at the end, I’d start counting down the miles left to go (if we even had a destination) in terms of my daily commute to work (“Just ride to work and back 3 times and we’re done!”), but mostly I just spaced out – or, if I want to be generous with myself, I meditated. I fell into the rhythm of my legs rising and falling, of the added effort when we were climbing, the ease of a descent, the colors flying by, the temperature of the air.

I might say this is my favorite part of bike touring – turning myself into a physical entity, a machine with no purpose other than pedaling, pushing my wheels across miles of pavement (or dirt, or gravel, as the case may be), covering ground, being in the world, on the move, eyes open, taking it all in. But saying that is my favorite part would ignore all of the other elements I loved: the simultaneous ease and challenge of building our trip as we went along – selecting destinations and figuring out routes, finding hosts and making new friends, seeking out hidden corners of countryside to pitch our tent, spending the night in a town (Fil’okovo) where a man we encountered in the street, upon discovering we werere from the US, asked, incredulous, “Fil’okovo? Fil’okovo? But – why?!” It would fail to acknowledge the awesomeness of our descent into the Bay of Kotor down abandoned, car-free switchbacks, the spooky emptiness of the road through destroyed villages in Bosnia, the unexpected connection with the family roasting a goat on the side of the road who pushed shots of brandy on us in the middle of the day, the joy of getting to know your partner better by discovering something new together. Fortunately, though, I don’t have to pick a favorite part – instead, I’m picking a destination for our next trip.

Ten Tips for Biking Eastern Europe

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Drawing on about two hours of footage from our bike trip in Eastern Europe, we made this six minute video offering “Ten Tips” for biking in Eastern Europe. We made it to submit to the Filmed by Bike film festival.

This is the first bike trip where I took video footage throughout with the intent of making such a movie. Once I accumulated all the footage, I wasn’t sure what type of movie to put together. It wasn’t very easy to talk about climate with the videos we had, so I decided to do a non-climate movie. I tried an earlier version of the film where I shared more about the history of Bosnia, which Lindsey and I spent a long time trying to understand. Ultimately, though, we just decided to just go with a more general film about bike touring in the region.

A special thanks to Peter Mulvey and Sean Staples for letting us use their music!

Krakow, Poland to Dubrovnik Croatia

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

I recently combined all of the GPS files from our ~1000-mile 26-day bike trip this past summer and uploaded them into Google Earth. The result is a path that you can “fly over” and follow. Google Earth also allowed me to plot an elevation profile of the trip.

Unsurprisingly, our favorite parts are almost exactly correlated with the hilliest sections–the Tatras mountains of Slovakia at the beginning of our journey, and the many mountains of Bosnia at the end.

You can download the KML file from our trip here and plot it yourself on Google Earth. I took a screen capture video of the route, which you can see below.

The Agony and Ecstasy: Flying with Bicycles on Croatian Airlines, Lufthansa, and United

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

It feels somewhat just that flying with bikes is such a major headache. It is as if the universe is trying to tell us that flying and bicycling are two forms of transportation that are not supposed to go together. Maybe the God of Flight and the God of Bikes never talk to each other. Or maybe it is because my website and cause is about climate change, and it is obvious that flying is one of the worst things you can do with regards to climate change (here’s a blog I wrote about buying offsets for this trip).

We bought our tickets through Kayak, and the flights were operated by German Lufthansa. We called the airline and asked how we should package our bikes for the flight. They said, don’t! — don’t package them, as the cargo bay in Lufthansa planes has a bike rack. OK, great. How about Croatian Airlines and United, our connecting flights on the way home? The woman told us that they would also take the bikes. We were skeptical, but we also wanted to avoid boxing our steeds. We called a second time, and got the same answers. In retrospect, we should have called United.

On the flights to Eastern Europe–SFO to Munich, and Munich to Krakow–the bikes traveled without problem. They charged us the bike fee, $150 per bike, as expected. We arrived at the Krakow Airport at 11:00pm with the bikes already assembled, and a new friend from warm showers met us and we biked to his house.

Three and a half weeks later, we pedaled to the Dubrovnik Airport, ending our trip. The Croatian Airlines baggage handlers grabbed the bikes without question, and even forgot to charge us the $150 per bike. We flew to Dusseldorf, and then boarded a Lufthansa flight to Chicago, where we would transfer to United.

At the Dubrovnik Airport

We retrieved our luggage, went through customs, and then re-checked our bikes and panniers. The attendant on duty took our bikes, which had the baggage claims attached to the top tube, and rolled them away without question. I was somewhat amazed that we didn’t have to box the bikes. I even took a picture of the attendant taking our bikes.

Baggage attendant takes our bikes in Chicago

Lindsey and I went through security again, ate some chinese food at the food court, and then made it to our gate 20 minutes before boarding. We then heard our names called to the desk. We walked over, and the woman looked up at us.

“Kroodsma and Fransen?” She asked.
“Yes,” we said.
“You left your bicycles at the baggage claim.”

The woman told us that we had to go back to Terminal 5 and box the bikes. “They will sell you a box. But you will have to go standby on a later flight, because you won’t be able to make this one.”

We tried to explain that we didn’t “leave” the bikes–they were re-checked and taken by the baggage handlers. We told her that we had called the airline (Lufthansa) twice to check, and that were told we didn’t have to box the bikes. We got nowhere. We were told that was not their problem.

We rushed to Terminal 5, but couldn’t figure out how to find the bikes. We walked in circles furiously. How would we catch a flight that night? We finally had to tell a security guard our problems, and they let us walk in through security to the customs area, where we found the two bikes.

The head luggage attendant had no sympathy. We explained that we were told repeatedly that the bikes did not have to be boxed. That is an issue we need to take up with Lufthansa, not United, he said. We told him the bikes had been taken from us without question, thus losing us two hours we could have spent boxing the bikes. He said that the people who had originally wheeled the bikes away from us were Bulgarians and Romanians who didn’t understand English or know the rules. I wanted to yell at him and say “we were just in Eastern Europe this morning, and they had no f’n problem with bicycles there.” (Not to mention the fact that the guy who took our bikes did not look Eastern European–or that they should have the people who work there know the luggage rules).

We took the bikes back to Terminal 1, where the man at the baggage desk looked at them disapprovingly and said “you need a box.” We told him our story and asked to buy boxes. He said “We haven’t sold bike boxes in years.” He explained that there was no way, due to liability, that he could take the bikes without boxes. “The best thing I can recommend is to go to the other airline desks and ask if they have boxes.”

We considered taking our case to Lufthansa, but Lufthansa had the longest line in the terminal. Also, even if we found a box, we’d need allen wrenches, and my bike tools were in the other luggage that had already been checked.

I figured we had only one option. We found a van taxi, told the driver our dilemma, and asked to go to Walmart, where I guessed we’d be able to both get cardboard boxes and allen wrenches. The taxi driver, who turned out to be Serbian (we could count to eight in his language and say “tent, one night”), convinced us that he could help us get boxes and tools for our bikes without going to Walmart (where, coincidentally, he was not allowed to pick up new passengers). He found a car mechanic who lent us the tools, and then we drove to a Walgreens Drugstore where we assembled boxes out of cardboard that had been used to ship toilet paper. These are probably the worst bike boxes ever made.

Our driver, who had helped us tape the boxes, drove us back the terminal where, miraculously, the disapproving luggage attendant accepted the boxes. We were put on standby for an 8:30 flight (by then, it was already 8:00). We ran to the gate, begging our way to the front of the security line, and were the last two people to get on the flight. Not too bad, we told ourselves, given that our original flight was just three hours earlier.

When we arrived in San Francisco, we looked at the screen to find the baggage carousel where our bags would arrive and saw that our original flight, which was supposed to leave at 5:15, was four hours delayed. That’s right — we got home earlier than we would have if we had followed airline polices. (Of course, it might have been more pleasant to sit in the gate and sleep than drive around suburban Chicago stressed out about whether we would make it home.)

Somehow, we came out ahead this time. Next time, though, we are going to call each airline individually.

Arrival in San Francisco

Sarajevo to Dubrovnik

Monday, July 30th, 2012

It is hard to end a bicycle journey well. The goal is to travel, and the destination is just an excuse to see everything that is in between. Nonetheless, Croatia’s Dubrovnik and Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor made perhaps the perfect ending to our three and a half week bike trip across Eastern Europe.

Much of this ride has been a haunting history lesson. We didn’t choose this route because we wanted to learn about massacres; we choose it because the biking looked good (it was). Yet we started near Auschwitz, where the Nazis committed genocide on an enormous scale, and we ended near Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Serbs and Croats engaged in ethnic cleansing less than two decades ago. We read history of places as we traveled, and spoke to local people about how this history has played out. It was a valuable lesson in the evil that humans are capable of.

After these stories, it was good to finish the trip on a beach, and be reminded how peaceful and fun life can be.

Below are the day by day accounts of the last few days our trip, as well as maps of our route, as recorded by Strava and my Garmin 500. Photos from this stretch are in the next post.

We spent a full day in Sarajevo, where I spoke with local bicycle advocates, and where Lindsey and I stayed in the apartment of a cyclist who will be biking across California next month. We also spent a lot of time with Mahir, a local who lived through the siege of Sarajevo (although he was only three years old when it began). He told us about how his family would hide in their basement for a few days at a time whenever the city was being shelled, and about how their house was so close to the line between the Serb army and the Bosnian forces that he could hear the soldiers taunt each other. He also explained how they tried to just keep on living.

The cyclist who put us up in Sarajevo, Saed, recommended us a route to Dubrovnik. As we wanted to have at least one day to relax on the beach, we hitchhiked about 40km (~25 miles) on one of the larger roads to save time. (This road, though, had far less traffic than the road we hitchhiked earlier, and it would be okay to bike.) Two different trucks gave us rides. As with my previous bike hitchhiking, we found it extremely easy to find trucks willing to give us a ride.

We then turned off the main road and followed a lonely paved road into a deep canyon, and then climbed a dirt road up the far side to a 1,200 meter (4,000 ft) pass. We camped that night hidden off the road in a large pasture after a local shepherd showed us a spring where we could fill our water bottles.

Below are three segments. The first is leaving Sarajevo, the second is between the first and second truck ride, and the third is after the second truck ride.



The next day was another long one–we biked 135 kilometers, crossing into Montenegro and arriving at Risan on the Bay of Kotor. Most of this day the roads were fantastic. Construction in Montenegro, though, had torn up 10 km of paved road, leaving a very challenging dirt road that may be paved in the near future. The next road, which lead to Risan, wasn’t busy, but it wasn’t wide, had tunnels, the traffic drove at 60 to 70 mph, and cars weren’t used to seeing bicycles on the road. We luckily found a secondary road into Risan for the last few kilometers, which, as the map shows below, involved more than a half dozen switchbacks and dropped about 2,000 feet. This road was amazing–zero cars, and views of the cliffs surrounding the turquoise bay of Kotor. We jumped in the water and got our third hotel room of the trip.

We moved slowly the next day, stopping to swim four times. The main road along the bay is busy. For about 15km we followed a one lane road along the beachfront occupied mostly by slow moving pedestrians in swimsuits. If we had been in a hurry, we would have take the main road. Instead, we rested on the beach and bought Magnum ice cream.

We then entered Croatia, followed another very low traffic road, and arrived at the home of Marko, a Croatian who fled Croatia (then Yugoslavia) in 1956 when he was 17, lived in Canada for a few decades, and has now moved back. He told us about rowing a boat with five others cross the Adriatic, and then stowing away on trains. Now he hosts backpackers and cyclists and grows delicious tomatoes.

Our last day we biked 20 km to Cavtat, went for a swim, got a hotel room, and took a boat to Dubrovnik. The photos show Dubrovnik’s old town and city walls.

Our last ride started at 4:30am the following day, when we biked 6km to the Dubrovnik airport.

Photos from Biking Bosnia

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

We spent a full week in Bosnia and Herzegovena. We were lucky to find local cyclists who showed us good, car-free routes across the small nation. This riding was amazing, though difficult. With due respect to the other six countries we biked in, Bosnia was our favorite of this trip.

The photos below show these mountain roads, as well as some of the destroyed villages from the war, images from Sarajevo, and many of the Bosnians who helped us on our journey (Thank you!). Cick “next” to see the rest:

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