Cycling through Europe
I interview Hans-Jörg, cyclist adventurer
I've known Hans-Jörg for a few years: science teacher, university educationalist and European adventurer. He recently travelled across Europe by bicycle. When I discovered that he's done this a few times, I was intrigued enough to want to know more. Listen to what he had to say.
Transcript of the interview
Bobby Graham: Hello Planepackers and welcome to another episode of Planepack where I am sitting in the very, very nice Fellows Bar at the Australian National University and I am joined by Hans-Jörg. Hans-Jörg welcome.
Hans-Jörg: Hello, thank you.
Bobby Graham: Lovely to have you here. So, you recently travelled across Europe on a bicycle, tell us why? That’s a big question.
Hans-Jörg: Why do I go to traveling on my bike?
Bobby Graham: Yes.
Hans-Jörg: Because I enjoy it, okay its covering distance with your own muscle power, the flexibility of being able to stop and go as I wish, the flexibility of being able to reach places which I wouldn’t be able to reach unless I had some sort of transport of my own. In holidays, I don’t believe in cars really because number one it’s too expensive and you end up traveling past things, you can reach destinations which I can’t easily reach - on the bike, of course that’s held back but the control I have over my destination and about how much ground I cover, I like that. Walking is too slow for me, lot of people like walking but it’s too slow.
Bobby Graham: Yes. So where did you go on this last trip that you did?
Hans-Jörg: Well the last trip I did was actually from, I have a friend in Florence who I wanted to visit for a long time, so this last trip was really just a thousand kilometres.
Bobby Graham: Just a thousand kilometres.
Hans-Jörg: From somewhere in the South of Germany across the Alps, across The Apennine Mountains into Florence.
Bobby Graham: Across the mountains, so what are the challenges for you for such a trip particularly considering you went over mountains on those long distances?
Hans-Jörg: Oh yeah, look you always of course you carry gear with you. For this one I tried to go as light as I could. I didn’t carry any sleeping gear, I didn’t care a tent, I didn’t carry any cooking gear. I just carried my clothes. I only had panniers on the front, on the back wheel so I wasn’t too heavy and of course I chose the easiest route across the Alps which was up a river called Inn which is the one that runs through Innsbruck and you keep going and very conveniently it just rises and rises and rises up into the mountains. You barely notice that you are climbing and then you are at near the source of the river and then all you need to do from then on is ride down into Italy.
Bobby Graham: As easy as that.
Hans-Jörg: It was.
Bobby Graham: You just free-wheeled down the hill.
Hans-Jörg: Yeah, very steep.
Bobby Graham: So no dangers?
Hans-Jörg: No, not really.
Bobby Graham: Not really.
Hans-Jörg: Along the river there are always cycle paths.
Bobby Graham: Right.
Hans-Jörg: And going down on the other side in to Italy. Italy don’t seem to have, well they have a few cycle paths but you know, I also found the Italian drivers, motorists have a worse reputation then they actually are they.
Bobby Graham: So, they were more considerate?
Hans-Jörg: Quite, well I found them always good.
Bobby Graham: Fairly considerate, oh that’s good.
Hans-Jörg: Yeah. My brother said it must be crazy riding in Italy but.
Bobby Graham: But you proved him wrong.
Bobby Graham: What sort of goals or travel distances did you set yourself for each day?
Hans-Jörg: Usually I go about 70 km a day unless I feel particularly good and I want to cover more distance, I might stop at 60, usually try and not do less than 60 km a day and then after that it could be anything up to 150 km, just how I feel you know, where the accommodation is in this case because I needed to book ahead. I never book of course in advance. I just book on the day.
Bobby Graham: On the day.
Hans-Jörg: And of course, I am deviating a bit from your question now.
Bobby Graham: No, that’s fine, yes.
Hans-Jörg: In the digital age.
Bobby Graham: Yes.
Hans-Jörg: Carrying a smartphone you always have access to various websites where you can on the spur of the moment just find out what’s nearby, what you can book and you can book at there and then as you are there, usually stop about 4 or 5 pm in the afternoon and see you know, what’s nearby, where could I stay.
Bobby Graham: Find a beer and something to eat.
Hans-Jörg: Yeah, and sit down and leisurely go through the pages to find where there is some nice not too expensive accommodation nearby.
Bobby Graham: Lovely.
Hans-Jörg: Works so well, in Europe.
Bobby Graham: In Europe, easy, in terms of covering those distances and traveling quite far how did you sustain yourself in terms of your diet? What kind of food would you have eaten?
Hans-Jörg: Well usually what I do again doesn’t really matter where I travel. You try and have a good breakfast. I don’t usually stop for lunch. I certainly will have a few stops, snacking and drinking all the time, and then I go till dinner time and I then usually if available I will then go to a restaurant. I will always have energy food available in my bag that sits on the handlebars, snack foods you know like that.
Bobby Graham: Quick snacks when you stop and admire the view then you have that.
Hans-Jörg: Or even there is no ride you know, just reach in there.
Bobby Graham: Alright, yes. For the bike enthusiasts did you use any kind of gadgets or devices to log your journey, measure your speed and your distances and things like that or isn’t that part of your trip?
Hans-Jörg: Oh, look I can’t even imagine going without a GPS and there are of course a number of GPS devices available for the cyclists and what I do always, sometimes the night before, sometimes weeks before, I will plan my route download it to the GPS and I carry a laptop computer as well and then follow that, especially where you want to follow complicated routes and avoid major traffic. To do that with the map it’s really not practical.
Bobby Graham: Right.
Hans-Jörg: No, you need to know exactly where you are going and you need some device that tells you now next turn off to left.
Bobby Graham: Right.
Hans-Jörg: And then go down that dirt road for 1 km and then turn right onto the footpath and then you know things like that, you cannot do that.
Bobby Graham: So, you have the confidence that it’s leading you in the right direction.
Hans-Jörg: Yeah, absolutely, I found that I mean I remember cutting across the country once couple of years ago in Northern Italy where of course there is the river plain and so many, so many roads available and to navigate that with a map is time consuming and error prone okay but to have a GPS sitting there, it is just fantastic.
Bobby Graham: Perfect.
Bobby Graham: Now this trip you did mostly on your own but I remember an earlier conversation we had where you mentioned that you did some cycling together with your son. What was that like? What it’s like to travel with other people?
Hans-Jörg: Well with my son I have done shorter trips but the big trip we did in 2013 was with my brother and that was in a 10-week trip through Scandinavia and the Baltic countries and Poland. Yeah look it’s a fantastic way to travel I think again because you know, you are not sitting in a car next to each other all day. You of course stay in the same accommodation if you sleep in a tent, ideally everyone would have their own tent and then you have breakfast or meals together, breaks together but then you are on the road and sometimes one is a kilometre ahead of the other one.
Bobby Graham: Alright, so you don’t stick as together.
Hans-Jörg: You can, sometimes you do but it’s very flexible. So however, you feel if you feel like you want to have a conversation you do that, if not, if you have had enough, you don’t want to talk to you brother for a week which also occurs.
Bobby Graham: Happens, that’s good.
Hans-Jörg: You can do that.
Bobby Graham: So, I imagine if you are traveling on a bicycle that you need to be a light traveller that’s my thinking but you also have to take certain things with you. So how does it work? What did you take?
Hans-Jörg: Well of course you need to provide for a range of different conditions okay, so that starts with the kind of footwear you take you know because you want to have a footwear that’s suitable for bike riding even in wet weather, so you know and then you want to have some shoes that you can use when you are walking, maybe you are in a hotel occasionally so what you wear then? So you might already even think that you might want to take two or three pairs of shoes you know for instance.
Bobby Graham: Right, for those different requirements.
Hans-Jörg: Oh absolutely, and regarding other clothes of course you need to - well the layering is really the thing isn’t it great, people take many different layers, possible layers, and then just put them on as you need them. Of course, you need to consider packing enough warm clothes for when it gets cold and it does like we have seen in Europe just recently I mean at times we have winter here, at times my brother who is currently cycling you know, told me that he was cycling in 13 degrees and we have summer which was the same climate you have winter and so you need to provide for that gloves, you may even need a number of pairs of gloves because it might be raining.
Bobby Graham: Right you don’t want to be traveling in wet gear.
Hans-Jörg: As you develop your experience you then realize the kind of things you need to provide all sorts of different scenarios like I remember in Scandinavia when we were cycling I had bought myself dishwashing. The largest size of dish washing glove I could find so that I could fit inside that with a normal pair of gloves and then the dish washing gloves are over the top so because if it rains it does rain and no matter which gloves you have they will get dirty. So you carry that.
Bobby Graham: And you mentioned earlier that you might go camping so you would be carrying a tent? And all the other things you need?
Hans-Jörg: Depending on where you are going all that.
Bobby Graham: And how do you fit all of that onto bike?
Hans-Jörg: Bike panniers.
Bobby Graham: What is a pannier for someone who might not know?
Hans-Jörg: It’s a bag that clips onto your rack.
Bobby Graham: Like a saddle bag in a way?
Hans-Jörg: Yeah, yeah, so you have got two of those in the bag and two of those in the front and then you have got another bag that sits across your handlebar. So you know you can really easily fit in a lot of stuff you know, we are talking about traveling lightly I think that is primarily not so much a concern for a long trip. What’s of concern is to travel as lightly as possible while still taking everything you need for this kind of a trip that involves of course your camping gear, sleeping bags and everything. It may be pyjamas or something like that, sleeping bag, sleeping mat which in itself all of that can already you know weigh 15 kilos.
Bobby Graham: Did you take your bicycle with you from Australia to Europe, you travel with it?
Hans-Jörg: Yes, I do at times.
Bobby Graham: You put it on the plane?
Hans-Jörg: I put it on the plane I have got a bike suitcase, so I put my bike in that and that’s of course my bike is quite heavy, because its rated to carry up to I think 160 kilos you know, most bikes are only rated to carry 115 kilos. So, you can see already you know, I am, with a bike I have I could easily already carry 60, 70 kilos of gear in addition to myself.
Bobby Graham: Astonishing.
Hans-Jörg: You know, and which in some circumstances you need and people they go ride expeditions. I mean at one stage I saw a video of some people who with exactly the bike I have rode cross-country in Tibet cross country to reach some remote mountain which they then climbed.
Bobby Graham: That is an adventure.
Hans-Jörg: You need 60, 70 kilos of gear, you know, you just do it because you have got the climbing gear.
Bobby Graham: So in remote areas like that it would be hard to buy or find something that you need if you ran out of equipment?
Bobby Graham: When you were traveling to Europe I would imagine every night was a different over stopover and you would be able to purchase goods?
Hans-Jörg: That’s right.
Bobby Graham: So, what advice do you have for someone who is considering taking a trip like this, going in a bicycle trip?
Hans-Jörg: Nothing much really, I mean you need of course your panniers, you need to buy all of that. Then really fitness, I mean people say you need to train and be fit but I don’t believe in that I think you just take it easy as you then progress from day to day your fitness level increases and you are fine. Be careful, saddle of course is a big deal, people think I need a soft saddle and there is nothing wronger than that. You you need a saddle that can mould it yourself to your backside and mine is really not part of that all and that is fantastic. I feel like when I climb on my bike and I sit on my saddle I feel like I have arrived home, it feels like comfortable on chair.
Bobby Graham: It’s marvellous.
Hans-Jörg: And when you look at it it’s just looks like a torture instrument but it’s nothing like that.
Bobby Graham: For you it’s so comfortable.
Hans-Jörg: So really that’s important, to buy yourself a good not pack saddle, leather, plain leather is best there is a firm in England that makes them they are called Brooks. They are not cheap but they are the best.
Bobby Graham: Absolutely.
Hans-Jörg: Because the worst that can happen is you have creases between yourself and the saddle and then of course, you know, just form and that’s it, avoid blisters. Okay, some people buy pants which are padded, yeah, I have got a pair of those as well that might be possibility but other than that you know, I mean people need to be comfortable and safe riding a bike I mean you know, not a beginner this bike riding.
Bobby Graham: Feel confident.
Hans-Jörg: Comfortable, controlling it, I mean people really even ride e-bikes for long distances.
Bobby Graham: Amazing.
Hans-Jörg: Because you can easily get 60 kilometres cover on a e-bike every day you know, loading stations in Europe as well.
Bobby Graham: What as a kind of final closing point, what for you was the standout memory or experience of this last trip that you did?
Hans-Jörg: Standout memory of that, oh look of every trip, standout memory is the enjoyment of riding on my own, I do really, I could say I even prefer that because it’s an incredibly meditative experience. I remember I always used to think initially that you ride and you have thoughts going on all day but nothing like it, it’s just there is no thoughts are there, totally immersed in the moment and just enjoying every bit of it, occasionally a thought comes but not much.
Bobby Graham: Wonderful.
Hans-Jörg: So I have that every time and that’s why I love it.
Bobby Graham: Lovely, thank you, thank you very much, it has really been very delightful to talk to you and to hear your insights about cycling through Europe by yourself and enjoying every minute of it, thank you.
Hans-Jörg: Thank you.