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Salzburg to Milan 2019. Prelude 3. On Bike Packing.

A short chapter to enlighten the reader on our own particular method of bike packing. I cannot say we are experts, any advice I offer here is wholly my own opinion and has no scientific backup or research. This is how we roll. You may choose to travel differently, take tents and cover less mileage each day, or have support vehicles and take a bit of the stress out of having to carry your own kit. Prior to this trip, I have undertaken two similar trips, 2015 Geneva to Nice and 2017 Venice to Geneva. On both occasions, I have used the same bike, the same pack, and pretty much brought the same items along too.

The Route:

First you need to plan your route. Use ours, or map out one of your own if you like. Just make sure you are familiar with your route prior to your departure and have at least 2 people on the trip have it programmed into their cycling computers.

A good idea when it comes to the planning would be to have your return flight departing from an airport which sells bike boxes. This cuts out a lot of the aggravation of having to find a bike box and then having to organise transport to get your bike to the airport. Ride into the airport, buy a box, disassemble the bike, pack it, and check it in. Then go and have a well-deserved beer.

If your return flight departs from an airport which doesn’t sell bike boxes, you will have to contact a local bike shop a day or two prior to your departure and ask them kindly to put the correct number of boxes aside for you. This is usually not a problem, as most bike shops are all too happy to help out fellow cyclists.

One of the main concerns we had prior to departing for Salzburg was that a few of the passes which we had included in the route were still closed. Even up until 2 days prior to our flights leaving the UK, pictures from the top of the Umbrail Pass showed the road closed to deep snow. Mid to late June is normally the time when the passes are opened and the roads are clear to cycle, though as you will see, in the mountains there are never any guarantees.  

When it comes to booking your return flight, it’s a good idea to give yourselves a rest day, or two, just in case you aren’t able to cover the days full mileage on one particular day, or if bad weather means you have to take one day off the road. If you arrive at your departure town with a day to spare, you could always do a bit of sight-seeing, or just take a light spin to explore the local area.

Clothing:

We tend to cover upwards of 70 miles a day, sometimes climbing over three mountain passes in a single day, so we try to keep baggage to a minimum. I have a 5-litre capacity Altura seat post mounted bag that has a quick release mechanism. I’m not going to say this bag is any better or any worse than others on the market, but it has certainly served me very well over the three trips I have used it on, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again on any future trips. What I will say is that you want something small and light, and waterproof.

Clothing wise, I travel with the absolute minimum. A pair of cycling bib shorts, a cycling jersey and a decent pair of cycling socks. The kit we use is of course manufactured by Shutt Velo Rapide. The shorts are great, the grippers and pads very comfortable. The jerseys are light and well fitting. I’d very much recommend their products. The kit has withstood all the hardships that an alpine trip can throw at it, and it is still in top condition. At the end of each day I would take the kit into the shower with me, wash it whilst washing myself, ring it out thoroughly and then either hang it up to dry on the balcony or somewhere in the room. Ensure that it is washed as early as possible so that it is dry by the time you are ready to leave the following morning.

You’ll need warm cycle clothing too, both for adverse weather conditions and for the descents, which can be very chilly. I like to layer up rather than take a single warm jacket. For me, it’s arm-warmers, a light rain jacket and a gilet. These can also be used to wear in the evening if required, not exactly high fashion, but up in the mountains this won’t be your number one priority. 

For post ride/evening wear I take a pair of light shorts and a t-shirt which could also double up as a base layer if required. Footwear is always a light pair of flip flops. They are easy to carry, it doesn’t matter if they get wet, and they fit quite nicely attached to the outside of my pack. One set of underwear, these will have to be in good condition, because by the end of the trip they will be falling apart! Washing is possible on the trip, though ensure whatever you wash is dry by the morning.

Don’t forget your cycling shoes, make sure these are well worn in. New cleats are a good idea. Do not buy new shoes especially for the trip. A cycling helmet is of course a must, choose something light and airy.

If you are using a cycling computer, or are taking any other electronic gadgets, for instance a mobile phone, make sure you have a USB charger and cables. A multiport charger is a good idea. 

Lastly, you’ll need to take some cosmetics. A small shower gel is a good idea so you won’t get caught short if the place where you staying doesn’t supply any. Lip balm with sun protection, some toothpaste and a toothbrush. Sun-tan lotion and moisturiser/chamois cream. I prefer moisturiser as it’s more versatile, I wouldn’t fancy covering my face in chamois cream, especially if others had been using it! All these items need to be small travel size.

Bike in box

Bike and Kit:

Of course, it’s entirely up to you what type of bike you want to take. Steel or carbon, lightweight or aerodynamic. Just make sure that you are comfortable on your machine as you will be spending long days in the saddle. Also ensure that your bike is in good condition, either get it serviced a few weeks prior to your trip, or service it yourself if you can. Ride it post service to ensure that everything is working as it should. Wheels and tyres should be in good condition, though ideally not brand new. Gearing is a matter of personal preference; consider the type of rider you are and the gradients which you will be facing. Most mountain passes have average gradients of around 7 or 8%, not too steep. I like to ride a compact 50/34 with a small cassette, 11-25. A bit of grinding on the steeper sections, but for most of the climbs spinning away quite happily.

You’ll need some Allen keys, either take a multitool, or as I do, 4, 5 and 8mm keys. Pack a couple of innertubes, a pump and a set of decent tyre levers. I like to have a brake cable and a gear cable with me too, I’ve never had to use them and I like to change my cables prior to a trip, but they aren’t that bulky and are a necessary part of the bike set up. Something I haven’t taken before, tough will do so in the future, is a spare set of brake pads. You do a lot of breaking on the mountain descents and the last thing you want is failing brakes! Remember to take drinks bottles, two large ones. Take a couple of tubes of electrolyte tabs as I can guarantee you, you’ll be losing a lot of salts in your sweat, avoid the cramps at all costs! Lastly a small front and rear light with USB charging are a good idea. You may not be planning to be cycling in the dark, but the dark may descend upon you with little warning. Also, many mountain passes have long, dimly lit tunnels.

Bike out of box

Food, Drink and Accommodation:

We basically travel with our debit/credit cards to hand. Anything we need to eat or drink we either stop at a café or restaurant, or occasionally a supermarket. We tend not to carry food or drink items with us, any drink that doesn’t fit in the bottles gets left behind, food doesn’t get left behind, we’re always hungry. Ice cool water is often freely available along the roadside via the fresh water fountains. When you are hot and thirsty, these are a real godsend.

Justin had a very handy app on his phone which listed many hotels and hostels. We would cycle till around 3 or 4pm, then figure out the best place to stop that evening. A quick look on the app and within 10 minutes the accommodation was booked. Never once did we struggle to find a place to stay. Although staying in a hotel or hostel each night is a more expensive option, it cuts out the need to carry blankets or a sleeping bag and towels around with you.

Ready to go

Setting Off:

A day or two before your flight departs, pack your bike away. We use disposable cardboard bike boxes. You can either buy these online, or ask your local bike shop to put one aside for you. Leave the rear wheel in, if the box is big enough, turn the bars to the side and hook them under the top tube. Pack your front wheel in tightly and make sure it is not rubbing against the frame. Then take all your other kit and pack it around the bike so that it doesn’t move about within the box. Who knows what goes on when your valuable pride and joy goes down that travellator and into the hold? All that I take with me into the departure lounge is my phone, debit card, boarding pass and passport.

The flight touches down at the airport, your trip is about to begin! You get your bag from the oversize baggage reclaim area, the box isn’t too smashed up, no rattling sounds coming from inside, fingers crossed everything is fine. You’re feeling fired up and ready to get the adventure started!

Find a quiet area somewhere close to the terminal, assemble your machines, pack your boxes away as small as possible, either find a friendly member of the airport staff to dispose of the boxes for you, or place them in a recycle bin yourselves.

Then away you go! As free as the wind. The life of a bike packing cyclist and all the joys of the road are yours for the taking. How many miles you cover from day to day is all down to you and what sort of trip you have planned. We usually plan to get close to the foot of a mountain on one day, so we start off on a bit of a flat, then hit a climb early on the next. Up at 7.15, breakfast at 8, depart by 9. Coffee stops, lunch, find a hotel, drink a beer or two and eat some crisps... Enjoy!

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