One thing that will be noticeably different to the American cyclist is the respect that European drivers have for cyclists. Cyclists get much more respect in Europe then they do in America.
Also, allow 2-3 hours for making your international connections. Most airports have separate terminals for international and continental flights. There may be some distance to be covered to make plane changes which may result in either you or your baggage not making the flight if you cut the connection time too closely.
I have had both good luck and bad luck with just about every major airline, so I think all carriers are basically OK. One thing to note is that Delta Airlines and United Airlines are smoke-free on every international flight. Also, Alitalia offers good fares to Italy but be forewarned that the workers for this airline like to go on strike at very short notice.
Most airlines have beefed up their security on International flights, they now verify that all passengers who checked luggage are on the flight. This means that every time you change planes you have security checks and potential delays. Suffice it to say, the fewer plane changes the better.
Air fares differ between high and low seasons, arrival and departure locations, date of purchase(I am a terrible procrastinator), etc.. In 1986 I flew Denver -> Frankfurt -> Denver during low season for $620. In 1988 I flew Denver -> Geneva -> Denver during high season for $1050. In 1990 I flew San Francisco -> Barcelona then Geneva -> San Francisco on the return during high season for $1200. High season runs from about June 1 to September 30.
An interesting note, one year I was flying to a town near Pisa, Italy. The fare from San Francisco to Rome was $1000. If I added the Rome to Pisa connection the fair only increased to $1007. The extra $7 charge was well worth getting closer to my final destination as the alternative was to take a 4 hour train ride. So, check when booking fares to see if you can get closer to your final destination for just a little extra money.
Chris Wiscavage advised against flying by charter. He said that charters are notorious for being overcrowded and if they run out of baggage space on the plane, then the bikes are one of the first items to be left behind. On one of his trips flying charter, he had to wait 5 days for his bike to arrive. Obviously, the conditions vary between charter companies, if you have one that you trust and the price is right, go for it!
On most international flights, if you check your bike as one of your 2 pieces of luggage you will save the $50 (or whatever) charge(each way). Current international baggage requirements (as of 6/94) are: 1st bag - may not exceed 62 linear inches and 70lbs.; 2nd bag - may not exceed 55 linear inches and 70lbs. I have checked two bikes as my two pieces of luggage and not been charged for an overage.
Flight delays seem more and more common. I have found that if your flight is delayed going to Europe, unless there is some catastrophic problem that cannot be fixed, it is best to stay with your original flight and wait out the delay. If you try routing yourself through another airline or reaching your destination by hopping through many cities, you may have a much bigger problem, especially with your luggage catching up to you. Be patient, sitting out delays seems to be the best alternative. This is a good reason to avoid booking hotels in advance. You can almost always get a room somewhere, but trying to stick to a regimented schedule may cause for major stress.
First off, if you are planning an ambitious trip with lots of miles and/or lots of climbing, you will definitely feel better riding your own bike rather than renting. Add to that the fact that, these days, most rental bikes are are mountain bikes. This may be an advantage if you are planning lots of climbing since the gearing tends to be lower, but a mountain bike is not as nimble as a road bike and can be significantly heavier than a road bike. Of course, if your primary bike at home is a mountain bike, these differences may be less noticeable than if your primary bike is a road bike.
Secondly, if you are combining your cycling vacation with large portions of non-cycling segments at the beginning or end of the trip, it may be better to not worry about lugging a bike halfway across Europe, especially if you are going to use trains as your primary mode of travel (see Taking Your Bike on the Train in a later section). Another option in this case, is to ship your bikes, by train, to the destination where you will need them if your cycling comes at the end of the trip or to your departure destination if your cycling comes at the beginning of the trip.
Personally, I prefer to bring my own bike. I know the condition of all the components and since everything should be in good working order, I can be assured that barring any catastrophe, my bike will not let me down. Also, it just feels a lot better and hence more enjoyable to be astride my trusty steed.
Get a cardboard bike box from your local friendly bike shop. Mountain bike boxes are best because they are a bit wider and easier to pack, but as mountain bike frames get smaller, road bike sized mountain bike boxes are getting harder and harder to find.
Here is how I do it:
Bring a small amount of grease (35mm film cannisters work great for this) to aid in re-assembly and throw in some rags or paper towels for wiping off the excess grease.
Also, note that if your bike has Campagnolo Ergo levers, it is much easier to remove your stem and handlebars if you leave a little extra cable during installation. Another alternative is to loosen the brake and shifter cables, but this is a last resort as it requires that you re-adjust the shifter cable tension when you re-assemble the bike, which is a bit of a hassle if you have index shifting.
One nice thing about bike boxes is that you can pack a lot of your extra gear (and presents) inside the box. I have traveled to Europe using just the bike box as my only piece of luggage!
I also bring a roll of the 2" wide clear packing tape. This stuff can be used to reinforce or repair any damage to the bike box that might have occurred in transit.
One note of caution here. I would try and obtain a bike box that closely fits the size of you bike(i.e. if you have a 58cm frame get a box for a 58cm frame bike). You want to minimize movement in the box and the box should be packed tight enough so that you can stand it on end or even possibly upside down. I would not recommend getting a box that is too big and trying to cut it down to size. I tried this one year and suffered minor damage to the bicycle because when I cut down the top of the box, I could not get it to fold over very well and lost some of the structural integrity of the sides of the box. A heavy item was placed on top of my box and the sides of the box could not support it. Different bike manufacturers use different strengths of cardboard with their boxes. And the same manufacturer can change the strengths of their boxes from year to year. Suffice it to say, the stiffer the better.
I have had poor results using the soft sided bags (both padded and unpadded versions) and I would not recommend them. I think the foam padding gives a false sense of security to the consumer, but more distressingly to the baggage personnel who may attempt to place heavy items on top of the bag.
Another method is to use minimal packing and minimal padding to force the airlines to handle your bike with care. This method entails removing the wheels, crankarms and rear derailleur. Turn the handlebars and lash the wheels to the sides of the bike frame. Enclose the whole package in a sturdy plastic bag. I have never used this method, it works for some but necessitates some tools like a crank extractor and crank bolt wrench.
Hard plastic cases are becoming popular. However, I am not particularly fond of them. Besides being expensive, their weight empty(i.e. no bike) is between 25 and 30 lbs. Ouch! In comparison, an empty cardboard bike box weighs only about 5 lbs. The extra 20-25 lbs. can be a real factor if you have to carry your baggage any substantial distance.
In any event, if you would like to begin and end your trip from the same airport, you can leave the bike box in "checked" or "left" luggage and pay a small daily fee for storage. One nifty trick if you have multiple bike boxes is to tape them together and check them as a single box. Hotels near an airport may also allow you to store your bike box, usually for a small fee.
Here is my pre-tour bike preparation:
1) new chain 2) new tires and tubes 3) 4 new cables(2 - brake, 2 - derailleur, esp. if STI) 4) repack or replace bottom bracket 5) repack or replace headset 6) repack hubs 7) clean derailleurs 8) check brake pads for wear 9) true wheels 10) oil/grease freewheel/freehub 11) wash bike thoroughly(check frame for any cracks!)I would recommend soldering the ends of your brake and derailleur cables. This keeps the cables from fraying and you can take them in and out of their fittings and housing when packing and unpacking the bike or doing maintenance and you don't have to worry about losing those silly little aluminum end caps!
Also, since the riding clothes that you will be wearing during the day will most likely get washed every night, an important consideration is that they be made of a quick drying material.
I would not recommend Look cleats for touring. I do a lot of walking which is unavoidable. It has been my experience that even a little bit of wear on the Look cleat can make it behave differently in the pedal. While Look cleat covers are available to protect the cleat during walking, during a normal day on the road you do so much on and off the bike activity that it seemed like too much bother to take the covers on and off and on and off, etc.
The first method of carrying gear uses the Quix brand Max Contour Trunk rack and bag in one. A small clamp slips onto the seatpost and the bag clicks into the clamp. One restriction is that the seatpost must be round (i.e. non-aero) to hold the clamp. Another restriction is that the bag must ride high enough to clear the rear wheel by 2-3" as the bag may bounce a bit up and down. The Quix bag is incredibly stable, it is easy to attach and detach and it does not require a rack(just a small seat post clamp). It is a very nice system for ultra-light touring.
The Quix system is ideal for carrying about 550 cu. in. of gear, however several easy modifications to the bag should be made. First, I removed all the foam insulation from the bag and replaced the two side pieces with .8mm ABS plastic pieces cut to the same dimensions as the foam pieces they replaced(round off the edges to prevent abnormal wear). Adding the side stays gives the bag some integrity and allows it to stand up making it easier to pack. I purchased a small tool bag shaped like a pack of cigarettes and added some velcro tabs which allowed it to be attached in front of the Quix bag, giving about an additional 50 cu. in. and bringing the total carrying capacity up to about 550 cu. in. This is enough space for a multi-week tour, see my equipment list below for details.
One nice advantage of the Quix bag over the standard rear rack mounting systems is that for rain protection you can slide a waterproof sack completely over the bag.
For occasions where I needed to carry over 550 cu. in. of gear, I have used a Blackburn SX-1 rack and rear trunk bag. I have a racing frame, so I had to use the "eyelet mounts" which worked fine. I replaced the outer washer(black neoprene) with a wider one, (get them at a plumbing supply store) and used a piece of bicycle innertube as padding between the frame and the aluminum piece, which worked well. I had to file off the protruding tongs on the bottom of the rack so it would not contact my seatstays; I left enough of the tong so that a bungee cord could still be hooked onto it.
The bag I use with the Blackburn rack is a Cannondale rear trunk bag. This is one of the multitude of shoe box shaped bags that sits on top of the rack. Unfortunately, most of these bags are foam lined(for 6-packs) and they do not have the 800 cu in. minimum capacity that was necessary for my gear. I removed the plastic liner and sewed nylon sleeves into the two sides(not front or back side)of the bag. I made two 5"x12"rectangular pieces of 1/32" plexiglass (or .8mm ABS plastic) that fit into the sleeves to hold the bag up and give it some shape. I also sewed some lash points on top of the bag in case of overflow.
The Cannondale bag listed at 800 cu in., it had one big compartment, two side pockets, a rear pocket(with reflector) and a top pocket. All my medical stuff fit inside the rear pocket, eliminating the need for a toilet kit/stuff sack. I put my long sleeve shirt, hat, gloves, leg warmers and jacket in the side pockets so they were easily accessible. The camera, map(s) of the day, money, road food go in the top pocket. I hit upon a great way to pack the tennis shoes which takes up minimal space. Rather than crunch them together and lose the dead air in between, pack them to each side and stuff clothes in between.
A friend has used a rack top bag made by Lone Peak of Salt Lake City. It was a 1200 cu in. top loading bag and worked well.
I bought a plastic "rack top" that snaps onto the top of the Blackburn rack to provide a flat surface for the pack and also, some rain protection. I made a rain cover which fit over the entire bag, since panniers are notorious for leaking.
Another option for holding a rack top bag is the new rigid, aluminum racks which attach to the seatpost. Headlands is one popular brand. These racks weigh in at about 1 lb. and offer an interesting alternative to a full rack. They require an aforementioned rack top bag and a non-aero seatpost and may provide a good alternative to the Quix system if more than 550 cu in. of gear is required.
My normal equipment list(7-8lbs. total weight) is the following (assume you are starting with a completely naked cyclist). The current miracle fabrics are Thermax, Coolmax and Capilene. Polypropylene is no longer recommended.
1 pr. cycling shorts(with quick drying synthetic chamois) 1 short sleeve cycling jerseys (quick drying synthetic) 2 pr cycling socks 1 pr cycling shoes(SPD type) 1 helmet and/or cotton cycling cap(washable) 1 pr leg warmers(Pearl Izumi are the best!) 1 medium weight Thermax long sleeve top(converts SS jersey to long sleeve) 1 waterproof jacket (Gore-Tex, etc.) 2 pr gloves 1-cycling, 1-warm(Patagonia Capilene) 1 pr sunglasses 1 pr lightweight pants(North Face North Shore) 1 polo shirt or t-shirt (Patagonia Capilene) 1 pr walking shorts(Patagonia Baggie Lites are light and not bulky) 1 pr undershorts(or Speedo swimsuit, doubles for jacuzzis and swimming) 1 handkerchief/bandana(for cleaning glasses and neck protection from the sun) 1 rain cover for pack(panniers are notorious for leaking) 2 spare tubes(new) 1 patch kit with 8 patches and new glue + several tire "boots" 1 tool kit(spoke wrench, tire irons, chain lube, screw driver, chain tool, 3-4-5-6mm allen wrenches, Swiss Army "Classic" knife) 2 water bottles(20 oz. or 27oz. depending on your preference) Maps(see below for brand recommendations) Toilet kit(aspirin, cortisone cream(saddle sores), neosporin, toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, razor, soap, sunblock, comb, fingernail clippers) Camera + film(see below for recommendations on type to purchase) Small "hotel" type sewing kit for emergency repairs 1 extra derailleur cable (a must for those with STI) 1 extra brake cable rain cover for cyclocomputer Notepad and pen Passport Cash(Traveler's Checks) Credit cards(Visa or Mastercard, not Amex) ATM Card Driver's License (and extension if expired) Health Insurance Card Earplugs(for sleeping at night) Watch with alarm Wallet (leave the stuff you don't need at home)Some optional items may include (if you have the space!):
second pair of cycling shorts second short sleeve cycling jersey 1 foldable clincher(can be shared with another rider) 1 pr Tennis Shoes(get something with good support for days off) Bike cable and lock(5/16" X 5' coated Flexweave(TM) cable) 1 pr pajamas 1 Freewheel puller + spokes - if you have a habit of breaking spokes 10-15' of thin cord to use as a clothesline Electronic language translator (see below) Extra cyclocomputer batteries
The synthetic material used in Federal Express envelopes, called Tyvek, makes great thin, lightweight tire boots. Cut them to fit the size of your patch kit.
"Fiber Fix" makes an inexpensive kit for use in an emergency to replace a broken spoke.
If you are going to begin and end your trip from the same destination, you can bring extra clothes for the flight over and the flight back which can be stored in your bike box while you are on your tour.
The "going light" method does not leave much room in your bike bag for momentos or gifts. However, if you find something you really like, it is quite easy and not expensive to mail the item back home. Most post offices sell an assortment of boxes so finding the correct size is easy. Also, if the item is valuable, I would suggest sending it air mail. For smaller, more valuable items like film I put everything in one or two well-sealed plastic bags before placing it in the box. That way, if the box somehow springs a small leak, you won't lose that one roll of film wth the killer photos.
What this means is that, for me, I normally use a 39x24 on the terrain in the Northern California Bay Area. Given the factors mentioned above, I take a 39x26 if I am going to be doing day trips or a 39x28 low if I am going to be doing loaded touring in the Alps.
The standard Shimano Ultegra and Dura-Ace derailleurs will handle a 28 rear cog. Once trick for adding that extra gear is to start with a normal 8-speed 13x26 cassette. Get an extra cog spacer and drill 3 counter-sink holes in the spacer to accommodate the nubs of the rivets holding the cassette together. Get a 28 tooth cog as well. Slide off your cassette and place the 28 tooth cog on your freehub. Slide on the spacer, then the riveted cassette making sure that the nubs of the rivets are lined up with the counter-sunk holes on the spacer. You now have seven cogs on your freehub, the single 28 tooth cog plus the 6 cogs riveted together. Toss out the 2nd to smallest diameter cog (usually a 14) and slide on the small metal spacer and the final cog. Tighten down and away you go, armed with a 28 tooth low for when it gets really steep!
Some people prefer triple front chainrings. Your mileage may vary.
Michelin is now making green regional maps that are 1cm:1km (1/100000) scale and are much more detailed than the standard yellow maps. They are also more expensive and larger which makes them great for pre-planning a route before you leave home but maybe a bit too bulky for taking with you on your trip. These maps are also date labeled and have numbers in the 100-200 range.
For Italy, I would recommend the Touring Club Italiano (TCI) maps, they are almost as good as the Michelins and come in 1cm:2km (1/200000) scale.
Also recommended are the Institut Geographique National (IGN) maps, which are marked with contour lines. There are three flavors green is 1cm:1km, red is 1cm:2.5km, and blue is somewhat finer than the green (blue is usually used by hikers).
The colors for road signs may differ from country to country. Note that in France, freeway signs are in blue and primary road signs are in green.
One important sign to note is that in Europe, a red circle with a bike in the center means that the road is closed to bicycles. In the US we are more familiar with a red circle with a red slash through it meaning the activity in the sign is prohibited, but in Europe, just the red circle means the activity in the center is prohibited.
Many tunnels in Europe do not have lighting, and some are very long. For the most part the road surfaces inside are OK, but it's best to play it safe and slow way down, don't forget to pop up the sunglasses.
The mountain roads are generally good, but deteriorate as you go higher. Also, the width of the roads can change dramatically from 2 lanes to 1 lane, etc., tunnels spring up out of nowhere, and the turns are not marked. However you can avoid just about anything by being careful.
The roads in Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein are the best. France, Italy and Spain are very good as well.
The four guides are(denoted by the subtitle "ALTIGRAPH Edition"):
Au Vieux Campeur 14 Rue des Ecoles 75005 Paris France Telephone # +33-188.8.131.52.32 (magasins/shops, librairie/book shop) Fax : +33-184.108.40.206.66 & +33-220.127.116.11.38
If you have a time constraint, you may want to try and get as close as possible to your starting point. Another option is to get a one-way rental car so that you can drive directly from the airport to your starting point. Be warned that with gasoline prices in Europe between $4 and $5/gallon and with freeways in France and Italy charging tolls to use their roads, the overall cost of renting a car can be much greater than the actual car rental charge.
Below is a list of points of entry to the various mountainous regions of Europe:
ATM cards are also becoming popular. They offer similar savings as credit cards as long as you are not charged a high fee by your bank for using it. I have heard that sometimes the transaction fee can be as high as $5. Interestingly, most banks charge about $5 for exchanging money!
If you are in the Alps, you should keep a good supply of the local currency as banks are not always easy to find(except resort towns). Hotels will change money, use this as a last resort as the exchange rate is not always good.
I have found that most banks have the same exchange rate, so shopping around is seems to be a waste of time. Remember, you can change your current currency as well as your US stuff when you change countries. However, if you are in France and want to change US currency into Italian lire, you will most likely be charged two transaction fees, one for changing from US to French francs and one for changing the French francs to Italian lire.
As a general rule, you cannot change small denomination coins. If you are anticipating leaving a country be sure to use up all your small change or be prepared to just give it away at the border.
In Spain, everything shuts down from 1pm-4pm and dinner is not usually served until 8:30 or so. In Italy and France, everything shuts down from about 12:30 pm to 4pm and dinner is not usually served till 7pm.
The average price of 2-3 star hotels for 2 twin beds and a toilet with shower was $40-$70. I have found that in France and Italy, 3 star hotels are quite nice and 2 star hotels are adequate. In Switzerland 2 star hotels are very nice.
It should also be mentioned that since most hotels do not have air conditioning, you need to do everything possible to get a cool room. If you need to keep the windows open, try and get a room away from the street side of the hotel or the noise will keep you up(believe me, this is important). Earplugs help somewhat. Having said that, air conditioning is becoming more and more prevelent in resort towns.
A couple of tricks to stiffen up soft beds are to put the mattress on the floor or you can take a door off of a closet and put it between the springs and the mattress.
Many European hotels use down comforters instead of blankets on their beds. If you sleep hot, like me, you can remove the comforter cover and use it as a blanket.
It can be hot at the lower elevations in the summer, if you sleep at higher altitudes ( > 1000 meters) you may be able to beat the heat.
Some regions have predictable weather conditions such as the 15-20mph wind that seems to always blow up the Sion valley from Maritgny towards Brig.
The best month to tour in the Alps is July. The weather is reasonably settled and the days are warm. September is a good second choice, though the weather is a bit more unsettled and it can turn cold and actually snow. Also, in September, it is possible that the hotels at major ski resorts, like Sestriere and Isola 2000, may be closed as they prepare for the upcoming season. Check before heading up that next climb.
I would not recommend going to the Pyrenees Mountains during the month of July (possibly even August). Even though there are a lot of 4000' climbs, the passes are for the most part low altitude compared to the Alps(1500-2000 meters versus 2000-2700 meters) and because of this it is quite hot. A better time for the Pyrenees is May, June or September. Also, I found the Pyrenees to be quite beautiful but, I really like the ruggedness of the Alps and the roads in the Pyrenees did not pass by much of this type of scenery(though it does exist via hiking trails).
August seems to be a bad time for a tour. All of Europe goes on vacation. This means that the roads and accommodations are crowded and the air pollution is also bad.
I have been told that there are some trains in Italy that include a special baggage car the will hold bikes. You may want to check into this if your proposed itinerary includes travel by train. The key here is that you want to make sure that both you and your bike are on the same train.
On Swiss and German trains there is space at the end of most cars where you can leave baggage, which is where I put my bike. In France and Italy, I suspended the bike above the seats in the two opposing luggage racks(great trick!). There is a chance that a conductor may be displeased by the bike and start making all sorts of gyrations about the bike having to be sent as baggage. Just play dumb and as long as you are not taking up too much space they will usually let you slide.
Unfortunately, in 1992, I came under the wrath of every train conductor in Europe. I never got separated from my bike, but I had to pay an extra charge for having my bike with me on the train($30 US). However, I would rather be verbally abused than be separated from my bike!
On interesting thing about bikes on passenger trains, in 1992 I took the TGV from Paris to Pau and was not hassled about my bike because it was still in the box and in the back of the car. You may be able to cut down on your hassle quotient by keeping you bike in your box until you really need it. Just a thought.
Train service is not available in all towns (especially in the mountains). However, bus service usually is available and you can use the bus to connect to a train station. Your bike has to travel in the baggage compartment, it is a bit risky since the bike may move around a bit with all the luggage so take care in helping the driver put it in a good location.
The first thing you should know is that it is much cheaper to make arrangements for renting the car in the United States, before you leave for your trip. The more popular agencies like Hertz, Avis and National rent cars in Europe, you can make arrangements in the US.
As with rental cars in the US, you can get unlimited mileage with only a daily charge. The daily charges accrue on a 24 hour clock; if you rent the car at 9am on day 1, the charge for the next day starts at 9am on the following day (not midnight).
Small cars are the norm in Europe and are significantly less expensive than the big cars most Americans are accustomed to. For example, the Fiat Punto and the Opel Kadet are the smallest cars most companies rent. Luckily, they both have hatchbacks which allows you to get two bikes and related gear in the back, something which looks highly unlikely on first glance.
Gas is very expensive in Europe and runs about $5/gallon. Italy seems to be a bit more expensive than either Switzerland or France, but the difference is not major.
Also, the freeways in France, Italy and Switzerland are toll roads. Switzerland is the best deal, for a once-a-year charge of around $40 you get a sticker good for all its freeways. Both Italy and France use a pay-as-you-use system which can cost as much as $0.15 - $0.20 a mile (ouch!).
Also, the toll charges for using the major tunnels between the Italian and French Alps can be quite expensive. Both the Mont Blanc and Frejus tunnels charge about $25 for a one-way trip.
My second choice would be Andermatt, Switzerland gateway to the Susten, Furka, Gothard and Oberalp passes and close to Wilhem Tell's birthplace(he didn't really exist but, there's a monument anyway). The day rides here are longer and more strenuous but, you won't be disappointed.
Another great basecamp is Barcelonnette, France. There are 5 major cols easily accessible(Allos, Cayole, Bonnette, Larche and Vars) as well as a number of great loops to connect the passes.
Also recommended is the northern Italian town of Bormio. The Stelvio, Gavia, Bernina, Foscagno and Mortirolo are all within a day's ride.