No Preparation, Some Improvisation - 10 Touring Tips for Beginners

Inspired by a man who bicycled across France to attend a wedding, Simon Alfassa decided to organize his own solo bike tour from Berlin (where he resides) to Copenhagen. There’s just one problem: He has no idea what he’s doing. From using his “super weird” secondhand city bike to carrying many kilos of dead weight to stashing his smartphone in a soaked rain jacket pocket, Simon makes all sorts of mistakes along the way. However, with a healthy dose of optimism, perseverance, and improvisation, Simon overcomes the obstacles caused by his lack of experience and preparation. In this episode, we use Simon’s journey as a case study to present 10 fun bicycle touring tips for beginners and hopefully entertain travelers of all experience levels.

Episode Transcript

Simon: It was this total freedom feeling, given that I had everything with me. I was on the road by myself and the fact that I could decide every day where I would go, where I would sleep, what I would eat, it’s so nice. I think this is something that I never had in my life.

Gabriel: You just heard Simon Alfassa describing the acceleration he felt during his first, and so far longest, solo bicycle journey. In this candid episode, Simon shares some of the mistakes he made and how it might pay off to be a little more prepared next time. From Simon’s adventures, we will identify 10 bicycle touring tips for beginners and hopefully entertain travelers of all experience levels.

Sandra: You’re listening to the Accidental Bicycle Tourist. In this podcast, you’ll meet people from all walks of life and learn about their most memorable bike touring experiences. This is your host, Gabriel Aldaz.

Gabriel: Hello, cycle touring enthusiasts! Welcome to another episode of the Accidental Bicycle Tourist. In the previous episode, my guest Poh Yu Seung and I, were under the impression that the long blue line along the Shimanami Cycling Route in Japan was unique. Listener Frédéric Dith alerted me that long blue lines are commonly used on national cycle routes in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Stay tuned for a future episode where I interview Fred about his experiences touring in these countries, particularly South Korea. For today’s episode, we return to Europe to hear about Simon Alfassa’s trip. Simon, thank you for being a guest on the Accidental Bicycle Tourist.

Simon: Yeah, I’m so glad to be here. I already listened to your previous episodes and I’m very thankful for you having me here.

Gabriel: Oh, well, thank you for listening. That’s great. You’ve listened to the episodes and you have your own story to tell. I guess the name Accidental Bicycle Tourist resonated with you.

Simon: Yeah, absolutely. I have a story where I did a bike trip six years ago and I guess it’s not as impressive as many of the stories that I heard on your podcast, but I think the term Accidental suits pretty well because I was not super prepared and I did a lot of mistakes that a lot of experienced bicycle tourists would kind of laugh at. But I think it’s also part of the pleasure, like, going a bit unprepared and discovering on the road why there are such good practices and why it’s sometimes good to be a bit more prepared.

Gabriel: Well, I appreciate that you are willing to use your journey as a case study today. You learned as you went and today we’re going to turn your learnings into bicycle touring tips.

Simon: Absolutely.

Gabriel: Let’s get started then. You said you went six years ago. What made you get on the road?

Simon: So it was a combination of several things. I had like a job change where I had basically one month, one month and a half between two jobs and I had basically quite some time to do something a bit more unique because it was not like, oh, I’m booking two weeks of vacation and I have to like condense everything I can do. So this time, I had a bit more time, and I wanted to make a bit of a longer trip. And I was considering options. One thing is, like, I had a very good friend of mine from back in France that lives now in Copenhagen, Denmark. And I wanted to visit him. I never visited him before. I was never in Denmark before and I’m like, “Huh, that’s a perfect opportunity.” So that’s one thing. I decided to, like, try to go to Denmark in that time.

Gabriel: Where were you living at the time?

Simon: Sorry, I was living in Berlin, where I’m still right now, but I’m originally from France. So I was already in Berlin for, like, two to three years, and my friend had moved to Copenhagen like a year before, but I still had no opportunity to visit him.

Gabriel: Okay.

Simon: Then, I decided to go by bike. And that’s the question is like, “Why did I decide to go by bike?” It’s not like I wanted to do a bicycle tour and then decided to pick Copenhagen. It’s more like, the summer before that I was at a wedding from friends of mine from back in France again, that happened in Corsica, so, this French island in the Mediterranean. And at some point the groom took the mic and said, thank you for everybody that came. Thank you for people who came from far away, and thank you for my cousin who came all the way from Lille – so, Northern France – by bike. And I was like, so impressed. I was like, “Oh, that’s so cool.” First, because this guy crossed France by bike, and also, he was basically invited to a wedding and decided to go by bike. So it was a bit like, “Yeah, I’m actually going. I would go anyway. I just chose this as my transportation system.” And I think it resonated super well with me. It is not just, I’m organizing a tour for pure entertainment, It is like, I’m going there and bike is actually a vehicle, so I will just take that opportunity.

Gabriel: Did you notice, this guest at the wedding, like was his suit completely wrinkled because it had been in his panniers for three weeks?

Simon: So I think, to be fair, I think he had someone from the family also bringing a suit and bringing some more stuff. Probably, was more like on a proper bike gear when he was traveling, which is why I was even more surprised because a bit before I was talking to him and I didn’t notice that he was in bike outfit.

Gabriel: So tip number one: If your bike tour destination is a wedding, have a family member bring your suit or dress.

Simon: Nice. So this story resonated in me a lot. And then, since I decided to visit my friend in Copenhagen, and since I had more time, I’m like, “Huh, why wouldn’t I go with bike?” And that I think is how it started. Like, I’m going to Copenhagen to visit a friend and I’m taking my bike to go there. That’s basically what I did.

Gabriel: Great. And what bike did you happen to have?

Simon: So that’s the thing, also something quite interesting. I didn’t buy a bike specifically for that and I didn’t have a bike that was super suited. I just had a bike that I was using regularly in Berlin to commute from my home to my workplace, which I bought secondhand on a secondhand market one year before. It was definitely not a touring bike. It was a bit heavy. It has some suspensions on the frame. That was super weird, like, with a lot of moving parts and this thing was actually broken. So I kind of disabled the spring of the suspension and I kind of made everything hold together still with some rope, which I guess would be fine when you’re just commuting in Berlin. But when people saw me on, like, long cycle path with that, they were really like, “Are you seriously going from Berlin to Copenhagen with that thing?”

Gabriel: Okay. So you had front suspension with zero millimeters of travel.

Simon: Yeah. No, sorry. The front suspension was still working.

Gabriel: Oh. Simon: Super squishy though. However, there was a frame suspension for the back.

Gabriel: You had a full suspension… in theory, full suspension bicycle?

Simon: In theory, yes. Absolutely.

Gabriel: Okay.

Simon: It was funny. I think I bought it because I was on this kind of secondhand market in Berlin, like one year before, and when I tried it, it felt like super nice, like a bit on a cloud and I kind of decided to buy it. It was not so expensive. But after a few months, I kind of regretted it because it’s still like super heavy, lots of moving parts. I don’t know if it was not super high quality or maybe a bit old, but it didn’t work that well.

Gabriel: Sounds like your cloud came crashing down.

Simon: Exactly. Anyway, that was my bike that I was using on a regular basis. It didn’t really cross my mind to like make a purchase or like investigate what is the best bike for that. I just took the bike that I was using on a daily basis and I tried to prepare it a bit more for a longer trip.

Gabriel: So one quick question, did you pay any attention to the gearing on this bicycle?

Simon: To the gearing, do you mean like to like change gears?

Gabriel: Yeah, like, you know, sometimes those full suspension bikes, their gearing is sort of low because you can go up some very steep hills, but if you’re in the flat, you can’t go that fast because the chainring in front isn’t that big.

Simon: That is true. Basically, the chainring in the front, I was pretty much not changing. So I left it in the middle setting.

Gabriel: Did you have one or two chainrings?

Simon: I had two.

Gabriel: OK. And you just left it in the smaller one the whole time.

Simon: Yeah, exactly.

Gabriel: OK.

Simon: And then I had some gears that were, I think, roughly, enough. Like I could not go super fast, neither having super high power when it was super steep. But in general, it was fine. That was not the biggest issue.

Gabriel: No, no, no. Of course. I was just curious because it seems like you’re using kind of a mountain bike with full suspension.

Simon: Maybe more of a mountain bike frame, but a bit weirder, like with more moving parts than necessary.

Gabriel: Yeah, for sure. Tip number two: You can tour on any bike, but you’re going to be more comfortable and efficient on a touring bike.

Simon: Yeah. Get a bike that is roughly meant to do some bicycle tour.

Gabriel: Yeah. Yeah. OK. I picture your bike. And then the next stage is you need to somehow get packs onto it.

Simon: Yes.

Gabriel: How did you go about that?

Simon: So, basically, I was trying to check on the internet, how do you carry a bit more luggage on a bike? And I figured out, like, basically most people use, actually, bike panniers that attach on the back rack. Some people use trailers and I quickly checked it, but I figured out it was probably not a good idea. So I was looking into bags to attach on the bike rack and actually a friend of mine, also a co-worker, happened to have those that he also bought secondhand a few months before. He just decided to lend it to me. So he just gave me his pouches, which were a bit, like a bit old, like pretty good quality. Like they were attaching on the rack and they did the job. So that was good. They were made of like, you know, it’s a bit like those Freitag bags where they are made of the cover of trucks. So they are very waterproof.

Gabriel: Right. These are the bags made of fabric with a thermoplastic coating, so they are extremely waterproof. Tip number three: It’s absolutely worthwhile to invest in high-quality, waterproof panniers. They are lifesavers. Sounds like you were lucky enough to borrow some of these good quality panniers.

Simon: Yeah, exactly. And then I figured that I would probably need a bit more. I also tried to check what I would need at all. So I decided to take some camping gear so I could actually go camping on the way, which would be more flexible than having to find accommodations all the time. It turned out that it was not that useful. I ended up sleeping only, I think twice or maybe three times in the entire trip, in my tent. So it was a lot of camping gear that ended up being a lot of dead weight.

Gabriel: Oh, no. Tip number four: Bring a tent only if you’re going to use it.

Simon: But that I also didn’t know, like I didn’t plan enough. I think in retrospect, I should have either decided to do a full camping cycle trip and plan accordingly or decided to not camp at all and then also plan accordingly.

Gabriel: Right. The key being, plan accordingly.

Simon: Plan accordingly, exactly. Basically, I had those two bike panniers from my friend. I had a tent that was, like, a kind of very small tent for, like, one person that would also go in the middle on my bike rack and attach with some bungee cords. And then I bought a kind of rack for the front. It’s basically something that is attached at the height, or like slightly above your front wheel, with some two attaches for the handlebars. The weight is mostly relying on the hub of the front wheel. And then I had a backpack. So, to avoid carrying it on my back while cycling, I just decided to put it on this front rack and like stabilize it with some bungee cords. That was also a bad idea. That, I discovered.

Gabriel: So the weight was quite high.

Simon: That’s why a lot of people, when they want to pack stuff on the front, they have panniers that are actually at the center of gravity of their front wheels, in front of the hub. So it adds weight, but I think it doesn’t fundamentally change the dynamic of your cycle.

Gabriel: OK, well, I guess that’s tip number five: Keep the center of gravity of your front panniers as low as possible. There is actually a very popular kind of rack that does this and it’s called the lowrider.

Simon: Absolutely. When you have a lot of weight so high, it really changes the way you steer. It’s a bit funny because I just realized that on the first day, because I never made any trial before.

Gabriel: Who would need to test it out in advance, right?

Simon: At some point, I think like a few days before when I was packing up, I brought my bike in my living room, put it on the bike stand and then pack everything so it looks nice. I made sure that I had, like, weight on the right and on the left, that I had all the equipment. So on top of that, I also had this little pouch attached to the frame that contained my tooling. So like every equipment I would need to fix the bike, so like some screwdrivers, some wrenches, some tubes, plus some little holder for a phone on the handlebars. This rack in the front with the backpack and the two panniers in the back, plus the tent on top. That was my setup. And then I was happy with making that setup in my living room. I didn’t really think of making a first trial. The first day where I left in the morning from Berlin, I just started to cycle a few hundred meters and I realized, oh my God, I’m cycling on a tank.

Gabriel: So you had done a static test and it had passed that with flying colors, but then when it came to the dynamic test, then there were some issues. This one might be obvious, but I’ll say tip number six is: Test your touring setup before day one.

Simon: Absolutely.

Gabriel: What did you do? Did you turn back and regroup?

Simon: At some point I was seriously considering, I’m like, “Oh my God, I need to stabilize this. I’m not sure I can cycle all the way to Copenhagen with that gear.” But after a few kilometers, I kind of got used to it. It was obviously heavier, but I still got the gist of it and I was able to cycle still. So I decided to keep going. The one thing is like this weight that was not well placed on the bike. The second thing is the weight overall. I didn’t pay so much attention to it. So I’m like, “Huh, I have nothing on my bike. I have nothing to carry myself, So I don’t care.” But it turned out, like, weight matters, especially when you go on a slope. That’s something yet to fill. Even in the thing that I carried with me, like I could have been a bit smarter. For example, I wanted to have some tea, because I’m like, “Huh, it’s always convenient to have some tea bags,” and I just put it in all jam glass containers. That adds completely extra weight for nothing. Like I just put them in bulk or something. I had like a lot of camping gear. So I had my sleeping bags, some mattress, all very thin, but still it’s a lot of gear that you carry all the time. So if you don’t use it a lot, it’s all, again, dead weight. I had some cooking stuff as well. But still, it went fine, and I started cycling and I was super happy. Like I was actually happy as soon as I managed to leave Berlin. It takes quite a long time because Berlin is super wide, but as soon as I was a bit on the bicycle path in the forest, it was super pleasant. It was super beautiful weather. It was end of September, but that year was still very warm, end of September. Also something to note. I didn’t really think that long ahead that it would soon be colder, but in the beginning it was super nice. And I basically camped at the first camping place that I had booked. That was the only thing I booked. So I booked basically the first night because I didn’t know yet exactly how much I could cycle per day, et cetera. And then I reached that. I was pretty happy with myself, although quite exhausted. I think I did, like, 90 kilometers the first day. And then I also realized that camping is nice, but wild camping was not so much an option. So first it’s technically not allowed in Germany. Gabriel: Correct. Simon: Although completely allowed in Denmark. In Denmark, you’re allowed to camp everywhere if not explicitly forbidden. In Germany, this is the opposite. But another thing is, like, I still need to fill up some water, I need to charge my phone, I need to ideally take a shower. So it’s still a lot of things that are way more convenient in a camping place. So that’s why I ended up booking another camping place the next day. And it’s a lot of work. I was trying to arrive between like 4 p.m., 5 p.m., sometimes 6 p.m. And then you have to set up your camping place, you have to eat, shower, and then repack everything the next day. So it’s nonstop.

Gabriel: Right. Sometimes you need to wash your clothes or something like that. Hopefully they dry. Yeah. There’s a lot to take care of. As far as your direction, obviously you’re heading north, but you were planning on taking a ferry then, right? The shortest way to Copenhagen is with the ferry.

Simon: Absolutely. So my plan was to reach Rostock, which is a city at the northern tip of Germany, and then take a ferry there who would go to Gedser. So it’s a town of the southern tip of Denmark. If there’s some Danish people in the audience, they would not be happy. I think you’d pronounce it a bit differently. “Gedser” is what I say when I try to read it with English pronunciation. I forgot exactly how. 

Gabriel: I think it’s pronounced Gedser.

Simon: Gedser. Yeay, exactly. Something like this.

Gabriel: So the name of this town is spelled G-E-D-S-E-R. In Danish, sometimes the D makes a hard sound, like “ddd,” and other times it makes a soft sound, which is unique to Danish, I think. And basically, it’s the kind of sound you make if you’re drunk and you’re trying to throw up. It sounds like, “uhh,” and to make matters worse, in this case, it’s neither a hard D nor a soft D. The D is completely silent. I don’t know why. And that’s how you end up at Gedser.

Simon: Yeah, I think that’s the thing. I realized a bit later when I was told in Denmark that that makes no sense, what I was saying.

Gabriel: Danish is completely non-phonetic.

Simon: Absolutely. So yeah, trying to read the word by looking at the letters is usually…

Gabriel: Very difficult in Danish, yeah.

Simon: That is true.

Gabriel: Good. Well, from Berlin to Rostock, it’s pretty much just a straight shot north, so I guess that’s the way you went.

Simon: Yes. And basically, most of the way is going through the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which is a very nice German land with actually pretty good bike lane coverage and also, like, super nice bike lanes because it’s used a lot for like actually bike tour for like entertainment, family trips and stuff. So it’s going through the forest, not exactly alongside the road. Super nice paths there. I was super happy. Quite glad I did that. There was one stretch of road though that was very unpleasant. A bit before arriving towards the suburbs of Rostock, where I was basically on a straight road, one lane on each direction. A lot of traffic, including a lot of truck traffic. And that was the only part of my trip, that was overall, like, about two weeks, where I felt a bit unsafe because it was super hilly. You go up and down the hill. Anytime you go down, you’re like, “Huh, everybody going up behind me doesn’t see me.” And there was no bike lane at all and a lot of trucks.

Gabriel: Right. And as we’ve discussed, in Germany there is such a great network of bicycle paths.

Simon: Yep.

Gabriel: Unfortunately, this time you just got stuck on a road with no bike path. And the problem is, although there are so many good bike paths in Germany, when you are on a road with no bike path, there’s usually almost no shoulder either. And so I can imagine you cycling on this busy road. It’s hilly, there’s no space.

Simon: No one can pass you except for going on the opposite lane. But people who are not in the mood of waiting, they just try to squeeze anyways, and that’s when it gets very dangerous.

Gabriel: Yeah. There’s so many people who simply can’t wait for five seconds.

Simon: That’s crazy. Yes.

Gabriel: It’s totally crazy. So that was a little bit unsafe, but you made it.

Simon: I made it. It was not so long of a stretch. It was maybe like a ten-kilometer stretch. That was the only little stretch that I felt a bit unsafe on. Overall, it’s quite nice, I would say.

Gabriel: Yeah.

Simon: And then when I reached Rostock, it’s when also the weather started to change. I think it was maybe the first of October, so it was really end of September, beginning of October, and I was always going north. So there was like a massive storm and after that it kept being a bit cooler. So that’s when like kind of the full weather setup. I realized I was actually mostly planning for a kind of summer trip. I was wearing shorts for cycling. I had one pair of long pants, but more like for the evening. And I actually had a jacket that was more thought of a rain jacket, but with a little bit of coating inside still. So it would keep me warm, but I had, like, basically nothing to keep me warm. So that’s when I realized like, “Oh, maybe the winter is going to come.” Nonetheless, I took this ferry, I reached Denmark. That was super nice. Like, basically, the ferry docked at the harbor. The cyclists were the first to be allowed to exit the ferry. This town is super nice because you have a main street with a lot of Danish flags. In Denmark, they love Danish flags.

Gabriel: Oh yes, for everything.

Simon: Yeah, for everything. So it’s more like you made it to Denmark.

Gabriel: Congratulations, you made it.

Simon: Exactly. I had, like, still one or two hundred kilometers to reach Copenhagen, so not that much. In Denmark, the bicycle lane network is much better. So you have almost the guarantee that any place you want to go, you can actually go a hundred percent on the bike lane.

Gabriel: Yeah, Denmark is really, really good for bike lanes.

Simon: Absolutely. Sometimes like it was very good, but sometimes a bit less pleasant than in northern Germany because bike is not thought as an entertainment. So sometimes it was not like super nice going through the forest and everything. It was more like, okay, there’s a road and there’s a bike lane on the side. But it’s super pleasant to have this guarantee and not having to wonder which direction you need to take so you have a better bike lane coverage. You just go where you want to go and there’s going to be a bike lane. I slept twice in a kind of motel on the road between Gedser and Copenhagen, and then I made it to Copenhagen. And then I spent, like, three or four days there, during which I also, like, commuted with my bike without all my stuff, but it was also super nice to have a bike there.

Gabriel: And of course, Copenhagen is legendary for its bicycle infrastructure.

Simon: Exactly. It’s not even bike lanes. It’s bike freeways, where you have, like, four or five cyclists side by side that can actually pass along.

Gabriel: Amsterdam is another famous bicycle city, but I found it to be much more chaotic. In Copenhagen, people use hand signals to say they’re stopping or they’re turning left or right. They generally follow bicycle laws, which is nice.

Simon: This is super nice. There’s even, like, some places where you have a traffic light and like a little metal thingy on the right so you can put your foot so you can actually hold while you’re waiting without having to like go down and step on the ground. Everything is so well thought of.

Gabriel: At the same time, the cars are looking out for bicyclists. For example, when they turn right and generally try not to cut you off. It’s all very civilized. A quick detour. In the past, Paris had not been mentioned in the same context as Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but…

Simon: It’s changing.

Gabriel: It’s changing, right?

Simon: That is true. That is very interesting. I’ve been in Berlin since 2016 and at the time even Berlin was, from my experience, much better for cyclists, even though the infrastructure is not super great, but compared to Paris, people are actually cycling. And in the meantime, each time I was back in Paris, it was almost like double the cyclists, and now it’s crazy. There’s bike lanes everywhere and everybody’s cycling. I think it has been doing like times three or four over the last three or four years with a massive boom during the pandemic and also due to big political power from the mayor of Paris. So it’s very interesting to see that now it’s clearly becoming, or is already, a big bicycle city in Europe, which was unthinkable a few years before.

Gabriel: I bicycled in Paris many years ago. It wasn’t as terrifying as some other cities, like Rome or Athens.

Simon: You would never flag it as a bicycle city.

Gabriel: No, no. Bike paths were non-existent, the drivers were grumpy. So it’s been great to observe the transformation that’s been taking place.

Simon: Yeah, that’s crazy. By the way, another detour on the detour, Copenhagen, which was for a long time thought as a bicycle-friendly city, was also turned into a bicycle city by political power, just that it happened a bit before. Like, I think it was in the ’90s, but it was also like a car-centric city until someone decided that it makes more sense to make sure people cycle more, because otherwise you have to keep accommodating for cars, which never ends because you need more and more and more place. And it was also a political wheel that turned it into a city that everybody thinks of as a bicycle city.

Gabriel: Yeah. So, it’s interesting because basically something very similar happened in the Netherlands.

Simon: Exactly, yes.

Gabriel: There was even one specific event that happened, I believe, which was that a girl on a bicycle was killed while trying to cross a road.

Simon: Oh, it’s really a tipping event.

Gabriel: I had to refresh my memory on the exact details of how the Netherlands became a cycling mecca. The Netherlands, perhaps due to being a flat and densely populated country, always embraced the bicycle. However, in the 1960s, cars became much more affordable and the Dutch began driving more and cycling less. Road fatalities rose steadily through the early 1970s. One of the 450 children killed by motorists in the Netherlands in 1971 was Simone Langenhoff, the six-year-old daughter of journalist Vic Langenhoff. The following year, he wrote a front-page article headlined “Stop de Kindermoord” or “Stop the Murder of Children.” The article inspired activists to establish the Stop de Kindermoord advocacy group, which organized effective demonstrations with children that eventually persuaded the authorities to extend and improve the Dutch cycling infrastructure. Road fatalities in the Netherlands peaked in 1972 and have trended downward ever since.

Simon: Yeah, that’s very nice to know because even though it’s a political decision, it comes to a point where now everybody is super happy with this situation.

Gabriel: It makes sense because as you say, the cars, it’s just a perpetual cycle. You see it in the United States, unfortunately. They build a fifth lane on some highway and suddenly…

Simon: You have 12 lanes, it’s congested and the obvious thing to do is like, oh, let’s make another two lanes. Yeah, like it’s gonna solve the problem.

Gabriel: It just attracts more cars. In fact, some people might be listening to this episode while stuck in traffic.

Simon: Absolutely.

Gabriel: Anyway, great to see the bicycle-friendly urban planning changes in Paris and elsewhere. But let’s get back to your story. So you got to Copenhagen and you visited your friend.

Simon: Yeah.

Gabriel: How did he react both when you said you were going by bicycle and then when you actually showed up?

Simon: He said it was super cool. He was a bit jealous. He was at some point even considering, like, taking a train south of Denmark to do the last bit with me, just because he found it super nice. Didn’t happen because he was busy with work and everything, but he was super happy that I did that. He was impressed that I achieved that and he was also like, giving me some tips. When I decided to keep going, he’s the one basically who told me that the north of Denmark would be super nice along the coast. He was super happy that I did that way more than, okay, I’m taking a train or I’m flying over and I’m coming.

Gabriel: And now you’ve kind of hinted at the fact that you didn’t stop there.

Simon: I didn’t stop. So the thing is, I still have some time on my vacation, so to speak, and I had no goal. So basically, I was ready to, like, maybe take a train back from Copenhagen to come back home. But I was also ready to maybe cycle a bit more, cycle back to home. And it turned out I was so happy like with this kind of freedom on the road that I was like, “Huh, let me just keep cycling.” What I realized is that I could actually go to Sweden by going slightly north, like maybe like a hundred kilometers north of Copenhagen, and then take a ferry at the tip where the two countries are the closest, which was like a twenty-minutes ferry. And then I cycled south in Sweden until I reached Trelleborg, which is also, like, a kind of southern tip. I was like a bit more free on that part. So basically from Berlin to Copenhagen, it was quite clear, I had a goal going to Copenhagen. It was more like about cycling, sleeping, and cycling again. But then it was more chill because I had no exact goal. So I was ready to just visit the cities, take a bit more break, make some shorter days, but sometimes a bit longer days. It was this total freedom feeling given that I had everything with me. I was on the road by myself. And the fact that I could decide every day where I would go, where I would sleep, what I would eat is so nice. I think this is something that I never had in my life, this kind of being on the road with this bike, which is a super nice vehicle because you’re still faster than when you walk, but you have way less constraint than with a car or everything. It’s so nice because you can still think, “Oh, I moved there with my own body, with my own muscles.” And you look at the map, you’re like, “Oh, wow, I traveled that by myself.” That’s super cool.

Gabriel: Yeah. And also the stretch between Copenhagen and Helsingør. That’s the town from which you took the ferry.

Simon: Yeah, exactly.

Gabriel: It’s called Strandvejen and it’s just, on a sunny day, it’s just gorgeous.

Simon: That’s beautiful.

Gabriel: You have the ocean on your right and you have the suburbs of Copenhagen with these villas and green areas on your left a and nice bike path the whole way. So it’s, it’s really wonderful.

Simon: That was perfect, yes. The weather started to get cold at this point, but in Copenhagen, I took the opportunity to actually buy myself first some gloves, because then I could handle like a bit more cold weather on the hands and also some tights for the legs because I still had only my shorts with that. And this jacket that I had, I was completely fine. It was autumn weather, sometimes a bit rainy for like half an hour and then sunny again. So completely fine. I was now equipped again for an autumn trip and I was super happy about it.

Gabriel: Nice. And in Helsingør, did you visit Kronborg, the so-called Hamlet’s Castle?

Simon: I actually didn’t. Yeah, I checked the ferry schedule and the one that I wanted to take was very close from leaving, so I just jumped on the ferry the same day. So I missed that. Yeah, unfortunately.

Gabriel: OK.

Simon: Have you been in that area?

Gabriel: Yeah, I have visited. Now, when you took the ferry between Helsingør and Helsingborg in Sweden, do you happen to know about a special ticket called the Tura ticket?

Simon: I don’t think so. I think I just went to the harbor and got myself a ticket to cross this sea leg.

Gabriel: And that’s exactly what most people would do. But unbelievably, there is something called the Tura ticket, which allows people unlimited trips back and forth during one day.

Simon: Oh, wow.

Gabriel: There’s a number of people who, say they are Swedish and they live in Helsingborg, they’ll get on the ferry and they will cross to Denmark and they will stay on the ferry and they will cross back to Sweden, and…

Simon: Oh, wow.

Gabriel: At lunch, they’ll have lunch in the restaurant. They might shop. They might drink all the while. They’re going back and forth, back and forth. They have a view of the water and really a one way trip only lasts…

Simon: I forgot, maybe a half an hour or something.

Gabriel: Maybe a half hour and then they go back.

Simon: Oh, super nice.

Gabriel: Although if you’re biking, you are probably going to get the regular one-way ticket. So, okay, then you crossed the Øresund Strait, you got to Helsingborg in Sweden, and then you headed south down the other side.

Simon: Exactly. So I visited Lund, which is a super cute town, a bit medieval. Then I visited Malmö as well. I didn’t even stay there overnight. I just arrived roughly in the morning and left a bit later. And then I headed south to Trelleborg, which is like this harbor city at the tip, where I could take a ferry. I’m not sure at which point I took this decision. I guess it was somewhere when I was in Sweden. I decided that I would like to visit Hamburg.

Gabriel: Okay.

Simon: Which is, like, northwest of Germany, but there was a ferry that would go from Trelleborg to Lübeck. And Lübeck was at the northwest coast of Germany. That would be a bit less than 200 kilometers away, from Hamburg. And this ferry would go overnight. So I would basically take it on the evening in Trelleborg, Sweden. And then in the very early morning, it would dock in Lübeck, which is what I did. Fun fact, actually: There was like two options for this ticket. There was option where you book the ferry ticket and then the option with the cabin where you can actually sleep. And it was a massive price difference. And I was like, “Hmm, I don’t need the cabin. I can just, I don’t know, sleep on a couch somewhere.” So I just didn’t take it. And then, we started in the evening. And, like, everybody was having dinner in the restaurant, going around in the in the ferry, going on the bridge to see the sea. And then little by little, everybody went to sleep. And then I realized that I was kind of the only one not having a cabin. And at some point, like very quickly, I realized that I was the only one still on the boat, wandering around in the corridors aimlessly. And I kind of had in mind the ferry that I took in Denmark and Sweden. The little ferries, they had a lot of couches and seats. I was expecting to be able to sleep there, but there was no such thing. There was just corridors, windows, and then the cabins, to which I didn’t have access. So then I ended up finding a little table and chair. And I slept sitting the entire night until people started to wake up again and came for breakfast. That was quite interesting.

Gabriel: Touring tip seven: When booking an overnight ferry, consider purchasing a cabin.

Simon: So I was a bit exhausted, but I still cycled a lot because then at six a.m. or something, we docked in Lübeck. I directly started cycling all day long until I reached Hamburg. And I was exhausted that day, but it still went well. I cycled 90 kilometers with a very poor night of sleep before. And I reached Hamburg, which I also had never seen before. So I took the opportunity to visit a bit the city for like two or three days by myself. It was still quite nice. And then I kept going. I ended up seeing on the map that Hanover was actually not that far. From Hamburg, I did the first leg via Zoltau and the second leg from Zoltau to Hanover. Oh, yeah, that’s also a nice adventure that day, because I had a flat tire a bit before reaching Zoltau. And I kind of unpacked everything. I flipped my bike around. I like took my tools and I extracted my bike, put my tube on the side, and like I had kind of a mess around me. And then there started to be a massive storm exactly when I was fixing my bike. So I start to like protect my stuff, wait for the storm to finish fixing my bike. And then I managed to do it. I went back on the road and then there was another storm. I tried to put my phone in my jacket’s pocket to protect it a bit from the rain. And then the sun came back and then I saw my phone’s battery being super low. I’m like, “That’s strange, because I didn’t use it that much today.” I had a power bank with me, so I tried to charge it with my power bank. And it turns out it was not charging at all, and I found it strange. My power bank itself, I bought it also second-hand before the trip quickly. So I’m like, maybe that’s just a poor quality thing. Now it’s a bit annoying. So I basically checked the map because I had my map, everything, on my phone. I had booked a little hotel in Zoltau, so I checked the main road to go there. And I decided to turn my phone off to save battery. And then I would turn it back on when I approached the town so I can find the exact location. I did approach the town and then I turned my phone back on and I just saw a massive error. Like the thing was just not working. It was not booting. And I think I basically damaged it because of the water. Turns out my jacket was not very waterproof. My pocket was still completely soaked. I’m like, oh, shit.

Gabriel: OK, so you tried to protect your phone from the rain by putting it in a soaked pocket. Simon, I’m not sure we can even make a tip out of that move.

Simon: Now I had to find my hotel, which I forgot how it was called, forgot where it is. And I’m in roughly the right town, but I have no idea where to go. And my phone is not working and everything wasn’t there. So it was a bit annoying. I ended up in the center of the village or like, I think it’s more of a town. And I found a map nicely sliced into squares. And then on the side, there was like this list of streets. And then what I did is I browsed all the street names to see if one would come pop up in my head as something that I saw before, at the time I made this reservation. And I think I found this street. I’m like, oh, that that rings a bell. I think my hotel is there.

Gabriel: That sounds familiar. So basically what you were doing was you were doing 1990s-style bike touring because that’s how things worked prior to smartphones. You know, I would write things on a piece of paper and then it would rain and I would look at the paper and all the ink would have run together and I tried to make out the letters.

Simon: Absolutely. That is true. And that’s crazy.

Gabriel: You experienced what it was like to tour before the age of smartphones.

Simon: Absolutely. But accidentally.

Gabriel: Accidentally, yes.

Simon: I didn’t even have this piece of paper.

Gabriel: No, but you had your good memory.

Simon: Exactly. So then I managed to find the street name because it kind of rang the bell in my head. And then I checked the map to see where the street was, went there, and I found this hotel. Arriving there, I kind of unmounted my phone, put the battery aside. I tried to dry it overnight and the morning after it was turning back on and charging again.

Gabriel: Yeah, it must have just been some moisture and over time it dried out.

Simon: I guess so, yes. I also went to Hanover, stayed two days there. Like I was kind of at this stage mostly, like, doing a bit city tour, visiting a bit, and it was super nice. And then it was a bit more than two weeks already. And I still enjoyed cycling, but I realized that it was about time to come back home. And between Hanover and Berlin, I checked and it would have probably meant four days or five days straight doing only cycling like I would have done in the beginning between Berlin and Copenhagen. So I just decided to take a train because I think it was not worth it just doing four-day cycling with no other opportunity to do something else, because I don’t think there was much more to visit on the road, and I had not enough time anyway. So I basically took a train with my bike between Hanover and Berlin and I was back home. In total, so basically about a bit more than two weeks and about a thousand kilometers ride, with, I would say two thirds of the trip being after Copenhagen and deciding every day what I would be doing the next day without having a precise end date in mind or a precise destination in mind. Super pleasant.

Gabriel: It seems like you only decided to go to Hanover once you were in Hamburg.

Simon: Yes, totally.

Gabriel: Yeah, so that’s great. Were there any memorable encounters with people during your trip?

Simon: Yeah, absolutely. So first of all, I think in Rostock, I saw some other cyclists that were also, like, going on tours, like a couple of people who just started retirement and wanted to start exploring with their cycles. That was super nice. We chatted for like half an hour. They were also commenting a bit on my poor equipment and lack of preparation, but they were super friendly.

Gabriel: Yeah.

Simon: And then in most of the places I stayed afterwards, so basically after Copenhagen, I stayed in hostels and there I basically was meeting with many people who a lot of them were traveling, sometimes solo, sometimes a couple, sometimes a few friends. But basically, a lot of them were also traveling with their own stories. Some of them were bicycle tourists as well. Super nice to exchange tips to see where they’re heading, what is their plan. Some of them had a precise goal. Some of them were backpacking and I think like these hostels, like when you’re doing solo traveling is a super nice place to go because you can always see, like, very different people with different stories.

Gabriel: Touring tip eight: As a solo traveler. It’s definitely nice at the end of the day to go to a place where you can meet others and exchange experiences and advice. Denmark, for example, has an excellent network of youth hostels that attract all kinds of travelers, both local and foreign.

Simon: Totally. That is for sure. And it was super pleasant also to like tell a bit about the recent thing you did on the very day, give some tips, get some tips from the local place where you’re staying at.

Gabriel: But did you change your bicycling setup at all once you had started? Because it seemed like you just accepted, for example, carrying the tent without using it that much. Sometimes people ship things.

Simon: Yeah, that’s the thing. I even heard that in some episodes of your podcast.

Gabriel: Absolutely. Yes. Attentive listener. That was the episode “Bike Against the Wind” with Mark Vashro.

Simon: I considered it at some point, but I guess when I was in Copenhagen, I was like, I should find a post office and organize a shipping. I would need to ship it to someone and it just didn’t fit in my schedule. I was busy doing something else. At the end, each time I was like, “Huh, I don’t need that thing.” But once it’s on my bike, I guess it was not that much of a problem. The biggest problem was when unpacking and repacking, it was always a lot of things to carry.

Gabriel: That must be touring tip number nine: If you find that you have completely overpacked, you can always ship stuff home.

Simon: Another thing in retrospect that I have been better at is figuring out how to carry all my stuff because as a solo traveler, you know, it’s sometimes a bit impractical. Let’s say you arrive at a station or at a harbor and you want to buy some tickets. If you’re two people, you can have one watching the bikes, the other one getting tickets. Solo travelers, it’s a bit tougher. So you have to lock your bike and take everything with you. So I had my two bike panniers, my backpack, my tool pouch and this tent, plus my helmet and my water bottle. So like I was always kind of carrying a lot of bulky stuff all around for sometimes not a very long time.

Gabriel: That’s interesting that you bring that up because Germany, Denmark and Sweden are among the safest countries in the world. So I must admit that when I’m touring, either solo or with somebody else, I will lock the bike, but I do not bother to take everything with me.

Simon: Yeah, I mean, that’s like I was not taking everything with me all the time. But I guess, like, when I was in city centers, I would not leave everything attached to the bike.

Gabriel: Sure, an urban environment is different. In a big city, of course, you always have to be more watchful. I pictured you doing this like at the harbor to get a ticket or maybe at a grocery store in some small town. I guess tip number ten would be: If you’re a solo traveler, then lock your bike and consolidate all your valuables in a single bag. Sometimes people use a handlebar bag, but any bag, and take that bag with you.

Simon: Yeah, exactly.

Gabriel: Not having a partner watching over the bikes is a downside of traveling alone.

Simon: That’s a downside of traveling solo, I guess. And that’s when also the extra bulky stuff that I had was a bit more annoying. Way more than carrying them. It was more like having to handle them all the time.

Gabriel: Yeah, yeah. And then every time, you’re like, “No, there’s that stupid tent that I never use.”

Simon: Absolutely.

Gabriel: Having dead weight is not much fun on a bike tour.

Simon: And when it comes to traveling solo, I think it definitely has some pros and cons. One thing that I found great is like I was totally free. I was on the road and I could decide whenever I stop. And I think when you’re traveling with several people, you always stop a bit more because someone wants to take a break, someone needs to pee, someone needs to eat something. Or even you want to just think, you want to discuss, but it’s not super convenient when you’re just following each other. So just to be able to think up on what you’re doing next, you basically stop. But by myself, I was able to like ride for hours long. I just had a bottle on my frame so I could just drink while riding and hours long uninterrupted, that’s so pleasant as a feeling. So that’s definitely something that I enjoyed as a solo traveler. It’s just you, the nature and like on the road with everything with you. That’s quite pleasant.

Gabriel: It sounds like the only mechanical problem you had was the one flat tire. Other than that, the bicycle held up?

Simon: It held up and funny thing, few days after I was back in Berlin, I took my bike to go to a bar and the chain broke.

Gabriel: Ha!

Simon: So I think it was just the right time to come back. It was just waiting for my trip to be over before giving up.

Gabriel: Exactly. Yeah, that’s a sign. The bicycle, though you bought it secondhand, valiantly held out until the end of the tour and then it said, “I’m done.”

Simon: Exactly.

Gabriel: And then the string that you had holding the suspension together suddenly disintegrated.

Simon: Very good timing.

Gabriel: Is the bicycle still in service or did you retire it?

Simon: I left it in my basement for some time and then last year I actually donated it to a nice association in Berlin who actually takes bikes and repairs them and give them to refugees. So it’s quite cool.

Gabriel: Oh, okay. So there might be a refugee riding that bike around Berlin.

Simon: Having that, having a modified version of it, yes.

Gabriel: Not knowing the rich history of the bicycle.

Simon: That is true.

Gabriel: Did you give the bike a name?

Simon: No, my bike had no name, it was just my bike. Is that a thing that people give a name to their bike?

Gabriel: Yeah, sometimes.

Simon: Oh, nice.

Gabriel: People get very attached to their bicycles and they sometimes even talk to their bicycles.

Simon: Oh yeah, so you kind of have a kind of a counterpart and someone to talk to.

Gabriel: I think when the bicycle starts to talk back, that’s when you need to worry. So you got back to Berlin, you got back to everyday life and looking back on the trip, how do you feel about it?

Simon: I think I felt great. I was super happy because this freedom made it that I could do exactly what I wanted and I could basically go back home when I had enough, but enough in the sense that I was satisfied, not in the sense that I had enough, I want to go home because I’m tired of that thing. I could have ridden a bit more, a bit less, but I was super satisfied and I was, there was like basically no regrets. And I did something that I would have a lot of trouble doing outside of this special moment where I had a bit more free time because if I’m employed and I would need to take vacation and then of course we have limited time and then you have to actually plan very carefully because you don’t want to lose three days unintentionally, but this special moment is like a unique opportunity. And I was super happy that I basically did the right thing at the right time. I also learned a lot on bicycle touring. I mean, I did some more tours later. I didn’t cycle that long again. That’s something that I’m still planning, but now I learned a lot on what’s important, what’s less important, what to pay attention to. Super pleasant to talk about it as well. So yeah, absolutely no regrets. I’m super happy I did that.

Gabriel: I love Simon’s account of this trip. The freedom he felt was so powerful that he spontaneously extended his journey several times. Simon was also determined to overcome the obstacle he faced from his lack of experience. It reminded me that at the beginning, we are all beginners. If you enjoyed the ten touring tips, you might want to look at the podcast website accidental-bicycle-tourist.com. Under the section titled “Touring Basics,” you will find lots more information. There’s even a section on naming your bicycle.

Gabriel: The transcript for this episode is available on the Accidental Bicycle Tourist website. I welcome feedback and suggestions for this and other episodes. You’ll find a link to all contact information in the show notes. If you would like to rate or review the show, you can do that on your favorite podcast platform. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram. Thank you to Anna Lindenmeier for the cover artwork and to Timothy Shortell for the original music. This podcast would not be possible without continuous support from my wife Sandra. And thank you so much for listening. I hope the episode will inspire you to get out and see where the road leads you.

Simon: I slept twice in a kind of motel on the road between Gedser and Copenhagen.

Gabriel: Remember, it’s Gedser.

Simon: Gedser.

Gabriel: Close enough.