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What I learnt planning a year on the bike

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Spending more than a day at a time in the saddle demands some level of planning, and with every ride you finesse the kit you need and how to set up your bike. We’re getting ready to set off on our bikes for an entire year. This is what I learnt.

About us

Both in our mid-twenties and with a shared love of cycling and food, we’ve been together for almost two years. Cycling has always been a central part of my life, I’ve ridden and organised a host of shorter bike trips and charity rides, mostly weekenders, across the continent, but these always come to an end far too quickly. Joey, my girlfriend, is a chef and is fiercely passionate about being outside and exploring by bike. She has a little less experience cycling, but commutes through central London and is an accomplished runner.

We’ve been living in London for a few years and having always focused on work, it was time to escape the city in favour of an adventure.

The idea

We agreed to pack up our panniers, quit our jobs and take a year out to explore Italy by bike. The country is the perfect combination of lifestyle and topography: Islands, mountains and rolling hills are peppered with beaches, vineyards and groves of olives and lemons. Once in the country we’d head south down the east coast, before looping back up via Rome to catch the grape and oil harvests in the north (riding with a chef, there’s no question over these being missed). After, we’d head south again to Sicily. The island is a paradise for gravel riding, quiet dusty tracks cross the island like cobwebs, with endless climbs and descents all eventually leading to the Mediterranean. From Sicily, a ferry to Naples and a short ride up to Rome to escape winter.

The bikes

We both went for gravel bikes; the variety of roads and convenient mounting points made the decision for us easy. Our road bikes sadly wouldn’t have held up to the strain, while full trail bikes would’ve been too slow.

close up of yellow and pink bike

I settled on a Brother Kepler; steel, discs and painted in a garish yellow / pink fade. It has more mounting points than I know what to do with and is great fun. Joey is riding a Genesis Croix de Fer, similarly equipped and already sporting Pelago racks in anticipation of our trip.

We’ve decided to hang panniers and give ourselves room for luxuries (try parting a chef from her knives) and enough kit to last the year.

What I learnt

Paper maps are fantastic for the bigger picture. We have an A2 print of Italy on our bedroom wall covered in pins, mostly locations of vineyards, and have a stack of roadmaps for France and Germany scattered about. However, the real revelation has come from Strava Labs. The heatmap has proved invaluable for finding hidden gems and popular routes between our stops. If you’ve not used it, you’re bound to find somewhere new.

Talking pays off. Mentioning the ride to friends and colleagues, we were told of places to visit and that families would be expecting us. These points are often the most memorable. Obviously don’t mention it to your boss if they’re expecting you to be at your desk rather than on your bike…

Different surfaces call for different setups. We’re anticipating riding a lot of gravel so will need bikes to cope with it. Depending on the route, a road bike coupled with lightweight bags that strap to the frame might suffice, while backcountry expeditions might require fat tyres or suspension to keep you upright. A muddy, wet training ride in winter pre-empted the sale of my road bike and demonstrated the importance of nailing your setup.

Contact points are everything. There’s nothing worse than setting off for another day’s riding knowing that you’re going to end up desperate to be off your bike at the end of the day. Find what works for you – your saddle, shorts, shoes and bars make a huge difference to your comfort.

Straying from the tarmac and lycra territory I was used to with my race bike, I’ve enjoyed dropping the pace. Over a multi-day ride, the likelihood is that you’re there to enjoy the places you’re riding through. Unless you’re competing in the Transcontinental, or a multi-day stage race there’s time to take it easy and explore. Knowing the distance you’ll realistically cover in a day is also essential for route planning (I work on 15-20kmph for a full day on a loaded bike).

The litres you’ll need to stash clothes, spares and luxuries is obviously dependant on the length of your trip. Ultimately it comes down to experience – on a weekend trip to the New Forest we suffered not having enough dry clothes when the heavens broke. Similarly, however, it’s all too easy to overpack and leave yourself cursing when the gradient increases.

Lastly, PRACTISE MAKES PERFECT. I’ve learnt that there is no real alternative to getting out on your bike to understanding what you need. Test kit out, find new routes and get comfortable with whomever you’re riding.

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