How to cycle a medium-sized European country

The Escape Artist is back broadcasting again from the UK, having spent a week and a bit in a foreign land to the south called “France”.  For those that haven’t been there on a school trip, France is a bit like the UK other than its mountains are bigger, the sun often shines and the people there pretend they don’t speak English.

Those readers who aren’t interested in cycling should keep reading because this post is not really about cycling, its about how to think about financial independence (or indeed any big challenge).

Goals

VentouxIn We All Need A Mountain to Climb, I set out my goals to cycle up Mont Ventoux in the South of France and then cycle all the way back up to the English Channel.  By putting my goals out there, I created public accountability.

Those were stretch targets. I was not 100% sure these goals were achievable for me.  Other cyclists told me that I might not be able to stay upright on the bike towards the summit.  Venteux means windy in French and the mistral means it can get seriously windy at the summit; wind speeds up to 200 mph have been recorded and the wind blows at 56+ mph 240 days a year.

Even assuming I got up Mont Ventoux, I was far from sure that I’d be able to cycle the 600 odd miles back to The English Channel.  How would my body hold up now that, lets face it, my boyband days are behind me?

The point of life is to find achievable goals and pursuits that are meaningful to you.  I’d wanted to cycle Mont Ventoux since 2009 but work always seemed to get in the way.  Life is what happens when we are making other plans. When I reached financial independence, I lost the excuse of being busy at work…so now was the time.

There is great simplicity to a trip like this because I had a clear goal: to get home. I realise cycling ~600 miles is not everyone’s idea of fun. I’m not sure its even my idea of fun. Fun implies something that is easy and immediately pleasurable.

I thought of the trip as a sort of stoicism boot camp. Life on the road provides a series of obstacles to overcome and I wanted a challenge that would be tough and slightly scary.

Fear management

In some ways, the initial decision to pursue the objective is the hardest part. Once you are on the path, you are on The Path.  And the hardest part about the decision to pursue the objective is often fear of the unknown.

pandoras boxLets be honest, cycling through France is not that scary.  Other than those roadside “crouch” loos, how bad can it be? But there were plenty of nagging fears along the way…what if I get mechanical problems in the middle of nowhere?, what I get lost or injured? what if I cant find anywhere to stay and have to sleep rough?

Actually, that last one had the most resonance for me.  I grew up with an irrational fear of poverty and being homeless.  This trip involved just enough risk of having to sleep rough to challenge me mentally as well as physically.  Of course, in the event it never came to this. If you have a credit card and a stash in the cloud there are usually people willing to provide you with accommodation.

A good way to deal with fear is to get closer to a mild form of it, rather than deny, conceal or run from it.  This is like innoculation – a vaccine works by exposing your body to a small, weakened form of a virus.  You are then better able to fight the real thing. So if you expose yourself to mild sources of fear you can build your mental resistance in the same way.

Living simply for a week with few possessions and no fixed abode is not a bad grounding for any of us.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Diet

restaurantThe trip reminded me how hard it is to lose weight (fat) by exercise alone.  I wasn’t trying to lose weight on this trip which is a good thing because I came back exactly the same weight, despite having burned more calories in a week than the average office worker probably burns in a month. But appetite ramps up in response to exercise so I just ate more.

I did alter my diet during the trip. Normally I avoid carbohydrates including sugar, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes.  But this would have been a bit impractical. For example, the average French breakfast is a sugar fest.  Breakfast is croissants, pain au chocolate, pastries and bread with jam washed down with orange juice.  This is not the diet our bodies evolved to live on.  But if you are cycling 6 hrs a day, you can load up on the croissants. I think of carbs as being like rocket fuel, not the best thing to run your car on long term but not bad for a short term performance boost.

If you are cycling all day then the challenge is to get enough healthy calories to keep yourself well fuelled. At lunch most French restaurants have a good value menu du jour – 3 or 4 courses of real food for 12 – 13€.

Understanding emotions

rollercoasterOne thing I’ve noticed on cycling trips is how emotions play tricks on us and how fleeting and insubstantial they can be.

For example, one minute the sun is out, you are cycling along smoothly and all is right with the world.  You then get a sense of foreboding and realise that there is no good reason for this other than the sun has gone in and it might rain. Disaster! In the modern world, this might necessitate putting on a rain jacket. The reason it feels bad is that back in our evolutionary environment, a storm meant risk of exposure so we needed a warning from our emotions to get back into our cave.

On a physical road trip you get used to emotional fluctuations based on nothing more substantive than getting hungry or tired.  Try to avoid making any important decisions when you are tired, hungry or de-hydrated as they will usually be bad ones.

One of the tricks of stoicism is distinguishing between observing (seeing the world how it actually is) and perceiving (how it feels as we experience the world). People tend not to write about this shit because who wants to admit they are a partially evolved emotional monkey?

Peak versus off peak

Bridge over LoireAlmost everything about my trip was off peak. I went outside of school holidays and the July / August French holiday season. I went to places that were beautiful but not particularly fashionable and usually stayed in places that were off the main tourist strips.

This meant I didnt get ripped off with tourist prices. One thing that I’ve noticed since FI is that the effective cost of everything has fallen.  This is something people usually overlook in the debate about what’s enough and safe withdrawal rates etc. The truth is that your spending tends to fall after FI because you have time to buy almost everything smarter and cheaper off peak.

Accommodation

B&BI booked no accommodation but rather found somewhere to stay each night by keeping an eye out after 4 or 5pm.  If you are in the sticks, look for chambre d’hotes, if you are in a town, head for the main square and price compare the hotels.

Accommodation is the largest cost for a trip like this. The coach and ferry were both pretty cheap and you can make your food bill as large or as small as you want.  My accommodation costs ranged between 14 and 66 Euros a night, with the low end of the range being a youth hostel and the high end a fancypants hotel in the centre of a scenic town.  For me there is not much correlation between accommodation cost and enjoyment: its dead money and I usually prefer the low cost, quirkier places.

Living with less shit

Here’s an easy way to cure everyone’s materialism. If everyone had to physically carry everything they owned themselves, then I promise you that we would all have way less shit, no matter how rich.

Because I had no motorised entourage behind me of butlers and footmen driving my Rolls Royces packed full of golf clubs, waffle makers and hostess trolleys, I learned to live with only the stuff that could fit into a small backpack.  If you know you are gonna be hauling it yourself up every hill for ~600 miles, believe me you learn to travel light.

You need a credit card, a passport and some cash. You can store everything else in the cloud.

How young / old do you need to be?

Age is no barrier.  Going up Ventoux I rode up and chatted to a guy who was 60 and was doing his second ascent of Ventoux of the day…he planned to make it three later that afternoon. So even if you are a late starter in life, there is always hope.

When I was a young idiot, I used to think that 60 years olds were good for nothing other than pushing a Zimmer frame or towing a caravan. But I’ve come to realise that we don’t stop exercising because we age, we age (partly) because we stop exercising.

Route planning

You can see a map of the route here (although its a bit shorter than my actual route as Google directions shows the optimal route with no getting lost).

I took the European Bike Express which picks up in the UK and drives south through France to the Mediterranean.  Unlike flying there’s no need to box up your bike, its just loaded onto a trailer with sturdy racks that keeps it safe.

The ferry crossing takes place in the afternoon and the coach drives down through France through the night while you sleep.  At about 7am on Saturday we got to Orange, my stop for Mont Ventoux.

Its about 30 miles east from Orange to Bedoin. Finding the way is not difficult as you can see Mont Ventoux and its distinctive moonscape summit and tower as soon as you get out. This ride gives you a couple of hours to gently warm up for the task ahead.

The ride up Ventoux is visually stunning. You start in the middle of Bedoin and follow a well signed route out of town, through farmland and vineyards until you get into the forest where the road kicks up. The forest section is beautiful, peaceful and sheltered from the wind and sun.  You then emerge from the forest into the moonscape to incredible views for the last 6 km to the summit.

Summit

Once you hit the summit and have the obligatory trophy photos, all you have to do is follow the road down the other side of the mountain to Malaucene.  You might want to check your brakes before you start down though as it is a white knuckle ride. Click here to see the descent (same road, different rider).

All you then need is for your automatic pilot to keep the compass pointing north / northwest until you hit the ferry at Caen (Ouistrahem).  I had no GPS gizmo nonsense, preferring to keep it real with a Silva compass and a map.

My route stages were:

Day 1: Bedoin to Montelimar

Day 2: Montelimar to St Etienne

Day 3: St Etienne to Marcigny

Day 4: Marcigny to Bourbon-L’Archambault

Day 5: Bourbon-L’Archambault to Vierzon

Day 6: Vierzon to Chateaudun

Day 7: Chateaudun to Mamers

Day 8: Mamers to Caen (Ouistreham)

As I look at each day, none of the “stages” were that long or difficult on their own. The hard part is to keep going and stay consistent in terms of pushing out the miles each day.  I loaded my ipod with a whole bunch of podcasts before I left and these were invaluable at distracting me from my aching legs and staying in the zone.

If you are a competitive person or a serious cyclist it would not be difficult to knock a couple of days off.  For example, my day 7 was not much more than a half day: I knocked off mid afternoon to get some beers in.  I found that I needed some variety and time off from the bike to “refresh” but someone more focussed than me could easily reach the objective quicker than I did.

Was it hard? 

RomansIt would be impossible for someone who emerged from a cubicle after 10 years doing no exercise.

But if you’ve done your preparation, the ascent of Ventoux is easy enough if the mistral is not blowing. Yes its steep, but its only 22km and the visual spectacle meant that I forgot it was supposed to be hard work.  It took me about 2 hours from downtown Bedoin to the summit. This compares to 57 minutes and 49 seconds for Lance Armstrong in the 2004 Tour de France. But, to be fair to me, I took a lot less drugs than him.

The harder bit was grinding out the miles day after day when you are tired and are facing a dead straight road (see photo above), rain and a headwind.  But again, this is more about mental side of things.

There were reminders at the end of the trip of how ridiculously easy modern life is.  The last bridge I crossed before reaching the ferry port was the Pegasus bridge where at midnight on 5 June 1944, gliders from the British 6th Airbourne Division crash-landed next to the German defences. The Brits that survived the landing started a fire-fight and overcame the Germans, holding the bridge so the D-Day landing forces could cross the river Orne. You have to go there and see it with your own eyes to realise how ballsy this was.

Was it worth it?

It was for me. Whilst it wasn’t always fun, I got a huge sense of achievement from the trip.

Confidence comes from demonstrated performance and not from short cuts, consumer crap or package holidays. Money and belongings can be lost but physical experiences like this trip stay with you forever. And no beer tastes better than the beer at the finish line.

beer

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28 comments

  1. SpeadsheetMan · · Reply

    Outstanding!

    Nice one T.E.A., that final beer was well-deserved.

  2. What a wonderful and inspiring experience. I am so glad you managed to finally achieve it.

    I have to admit, I have let my cycling slide in recent years. It saddens me somewhat but hopefully I will get back up with it eventually.

    The last trip I undertook which was anything approaching (which it scarcely does) yours was many years ago. At that time it was a cycling trip with my grandfather around Normandy. He was in his late-70s by then and I had not cycled with him for years (he had, as far as I knew, only been pottering around town up to then).

    I was expecting to do a lot of stopping during the trip letting him catch up. I was wrong. Very wrong! Although no Tour de France winner he just kept gently pounding the pedals and easily kept up. Very inspiring. And he had kept that fit by just doing regular everyday mostly non-exercise activity.

    That experience along with a later scientific expedition in the Arctic meant you get used to travelling with less stuff. As you say, when you have to lug everything around yourself you realise how little you need.

    I had also never heard of the Bike Express. Sounds brilliant. I will bookmark that. Currently I am still trying to convince Miss DD to do a little fiets journey around the Netherlands. Not succeeded yet!

    Thanks again for a superb post. Keep up the good work and I hope your legs have recovered by now!

    PS: Nice linking in of FI aspects. The similarities are quite striking and fascinating.

  3. Love the idea of the “Off Peak / Off Piste” way of travelling post FI something to hold out for. Well done on achieving one of your long time personal goals, What’s next ?

  4. Congrats!! Been wondering how you had got on! 80 miles down to Whitstable myself this saturday…. makes me feel lazy reading this post :-).

    Thanks for the heads up about the bike express – that’s a rather fine service they offer it must be said.

  5. Congratulations TEA! What a great achievement.

    I’m very intrigued by the reduction in spending after FI – I know that this happens when you are much older (e.g. late 60s when many people retire) but it’s good to hear that spending can decline if you retire in your early 40s as well.

    1. IA – thanks, its an important point that no one ever seems to mention. We all have control over our own spending, regardless of age. I think almost everyone eventually figures out that spending money does not equal happiness…but the earlier we can learn that lesson, the better off we are.

  6. Congratulations, a great effort and brave on the accomodation front, that would be the bit that makes me nervous. I happened to cycle up Ventoux last week and also really enjoyed it, liked the writing on the road such as Bon Courage!. Was below zero and windy enough to blow people across the road past the chateau!

    1. Ah…we must have only been a few days apart…you should have emailed me! Congratulations…sounds like you had it windier than I did.

  7. I am so incredibly jealous of this trip it is unreal. The idea of proper bicycle touring has appealed to me more and more over the last couple of year but alas I am too time poor currently to indulge myself. Never mind the hors category climbs…it’s the straight roads & headwinds that maketh the man!

    Huge congratulations but of course i need to ask…whats next?

    1. Thanks…perhaps the Col du Tormalet in the Pyrenees? No point in being jealous, instead you should just join me!

  8. Billybow · · Reply

    Well done and what a insightful review. I am two weeks in to a much less physically challenging road trip in the States but many of your observations resonate!

  9. Horace · · Reply

    Great effort! You should have a crack at the Raid Pyrenean next. Atlantic to the Med across the Pyrenees in 100 hours (09:00 Monday to 13:00 Friday, sleep allowed!). No need to bother with an organised trip, just load up the panniers, get your route card from the Pau cycling club and off you go. I did it 3 years ago with limited training (but pockets full of tang’fad tics) and loved it. The day crossing the Aubisque and Tourmalet was brutal however.

  10. Fantastic effort TEA – you should be rightly proud of this achievement – once I finally slip away from the cubicle for the final time, a great ride is high on my list of ‘jobs’. Keep up the good work!

  11. Steve · · Reply

    Congratulations! Sounds really cool and as I write this on my phone at the office (my boss probably thinks I’m on Facetweeter…) I am jealous. But only a few years left and then it will be my turn. 🙂

  12. TEA – looks like an incredible trip. Chapeau! 😀

    “Try to avoid making any important decisions when you are tired, hungry or de-hydrated as they will usually be bad ones.” – yep, this is tough. You did it solo? If so it must have made the motivational side pretty tough going some mornings. On the other hand, throw in a few dehydrated cycles and you argue about some stupid shit (how the hell did you get another puncture?)

    The 60 year old sounds like a legend, three times in a day is incredible!

    On the last day of our LEJOG trip we cycled passed this old guy with a bike loaded with stuff, said hello and carried on. A few miles later we stopped in a cafe and he rolled up so I started chirping to him. “Where’ve you come from, we’ve come from Lands End” I said proudly. “Good work” replied he “I’ve come from the Pyrenees”. Amazing, he must have been 70 odd (unless he was 35 and that’s just the head winds)

    Awesome work in not booking places and just seeing where you ended up 🙂

    Alpe D’huez next?

    Congrats again,

    Mr Z

    1. Thanks Mr Z….I’ve done Alpe d’huez before so I’m thinking maybe Col du Tormalet next?

  13. Austin Allegro · · Reply

    Sounds a good trip. I’m an advocate of the ‘Slow Bicycle Movement’ or what’s known as a utility cyclist, like the Dutch. For me the bike is just a means to get around quickly, cheaply and healthily, wearing normal clothes. I usually cycle around 10-50 miles a week, depending on my work schedule. The longest trip I’ve ever done is London to Reading.

    Also, my grandfather was shot down, aged 34, leading his company across just such a bridge over the Orne in June 1944. He managed to get up and keep on going, but was shot a second time and killed instantly. You are right in that we have it ridiculously easy today – worth remembering whenever self-pity strikes.

  14. Well done TEA. I am thoroughly jealous.

    I’ve never done a big trip through France but regularly go cycle camping through Holland & Germany. Camping means that you can live on 25-30 euro a day but of course you are carrying more stuff. I’ve also felt that on these trips you are a basically a Hobo with very little in the way of possessions.

    The big challenge for me is to cycle through every country in Europe on one trip. This will be a 6-7 month cycle tour. I’ve just handed in a year’s notice before retiring so possibly 2017 is the year to do this. In the meantime my wife and I are going on a 3 week tour this year cycling to the Weser, down the Fulda and going back along the Main, Rhine and Moselle rivers to ultimately end up in Zeebrugge. Germany has some great long distance cycle routes which are all signposted.

    Thank you for sharing your trip,

    Best wishes,

    Matt

    1. Congratulations on achieving FI & handing in your notice…the European tour sounds great.

  15. good work – is that your trek in the photo – which one is it – nearly bought a 2nd hand madone earlier this week but ebay got the better of it

    ideally, i am after one bike to rule them all – not sure what it needs to be yet, possibly a genesis equilibrium?

    1. Thanks. Yes, its a Trek 1.5 which cost me £799 new a few years ago. Its more than enough bike unless you are a professional racing cyclist (in which case, simple just use your team bike!). You can get a brand new Specialised Allez Sport road bike for less than £600 which is also a great bike.

      1. semi-professional, i.e. not professional but still requiring a pro-bike. my current steed is an £80 2nd hand giant OCR2 – its in a constant state of disrepair because it gets a hammering on my commute, breaks as fast as I can fix it. I’ve had to replace pretty much everything bar the frame. Its all good though as I’ve learnt a lot about how to fix things badly with a hammer and duct-tape

  16. Well done. I can just imagine the high when you got to the summit. I am more of the walking type and I am planning a ten day walk in France next year. Fingers crossed.

  17. Well done TEA!
    I have just caught up with your posts. I wondered how you were getting along. Looking at your route back – I stayed in Belleme – just outside Mamers on holiday one year – a lovely location to cycle through. I have wondered about cycling in France but my partner isn’t very interested in travelling abroad, Although he is looking at maybe doing a cycle trip along the North Sea cycle route – Belgium and Holland. The ferry prices seem a bit steep at the moment.

    The best cycle trip I did was cycling the West Coast of Scotland – doing the Islands around Islay. It was just as thought provoking while out on the bike each day. I like to know where I will be staying in the evening – its part of the ‘end goal’ for the day to keep me motivated. All the accommodation was booked up and the route known in advance. The food stops could be anywhere along the way. Carrying all my stuff for the trip – makes you realise what you can do without!

    I have walked the West Highland Way too, this also gives you that time to think and challenges you away from the desk job and the comforts of home. Walking in a group each day, you forgot the time and just went with the flow, your target for each day was reaching the end and the thoughts of a good meal and bed to rest those weary legs.

    A big congratulations! So now to plan your next trip – in the same way its making me think of getting on my bike for a travel adventure.

    1. Thanks Sparklebee…if you are looking for some reading material for inspiration, here are some good cycle adventure book suggestions:

      1. Cycling back to Happiness (about the North Sea route) Bernie Friend
      2. The Man that cycled round the World (Mark Beaumont)
      3. Thunder & Sunshine & Mood of Future Joys (Alistair Humphreys)
      Alistair Humphreys spent 4 years cycling round the world….in that time he spent some crazy low amount of money….about £4k for the 4 years if memory serves! That was one of the datapoints that hinted to me that it might be possible to live on less than I was spending in the City…

  18. meglinson · · Reply

    You could combine cycling & escaping in one book…Tyler Hamilton’s Secret race…couldn’t put it down

  19. Hello TEA, I read this blogpost of yours about a year ago, and duly inspired this May did something similar – Bike bus and Ventoux, except afterwards I meandered around Provence and took the Eurostar back from Lyons. For anyone planning something similar, recommend looking up the Veloroutes de France – long offroad cyclepaths stretching hundreds of kilometers.

    Thank you for putting the idea in my head and making it sound achievable. I am now taking a career break, probably not FI yet but it’s where I’m headed. Keep up the level headed proselytizing.

    1. Thanks for the update…did the Eurostar work well taking your bike back to London? Did you have a bike box and need to package it up?

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