Europe in Bicicletta

I Made It!

It’s been a couple of weeks since I finished the bicycle leg of my trip to Europe. I had a bike and a backpack, and rode across three countries in a week by myself. I have a few thoughts and pictures I wanted to share with anyone that is interested in what I did or is thinking of doing something similar themselves. But first, let’s take a look at the data.

The Data

  • Metric: Estimate (Actual)
  • Distance (miles): 569 (582)
  • Speed (mph): 15.0 (15.7)
  • Time (h:m): 37:56 (36:53)
  • Elevation (feet): 35,735 (31,545)
  • Heart Rate (bpm): 140 (141)
  • Cadence(rpm): 80(78)
  • Power(watts): 150 (138)
  • Calories: 25,000 (18,310)
  • Espresso (shots): 21 (~5)

Some of the implications of this data are pretty cool. For example, while riding my bike that week my heart beat a total of 311,200 times. Assuming a stroke volume of 185 ml1, that means my heart pumped 57,600 liters of blood, which is all the blood in my body roughly 10,500 times. Meanwhile, my legs each made 159,500 pedal strokes, generating enough energy in the process to power the average Californian home for 7 hours and 30 minutes.

Updated Priors

So where did reality diverge from expectation?

First, the total distance was 13 miles more than Strava’s Route Builder estimated. This is largely due to me making wrong turns and backtracking as well as the fact that I had to make two detours on day 7 to fix a broken spoke and then to replace a snapped chain :/ However, I still finished with a total time that was over an hour faster than I expected, yielding an average speed of 15.7 mph versus an estimate of 15 mph :D

Second, there wasn’t as much elevation as Strava predicted. I can’t say I’m too upset because it was still a physically challenging week in the saddle. But I think that their elevation algorithms might need tweaking or the input data is imprecise (or some combination thereof). Still, I climbed higher than Mt. Everest in one week while covering three countries so it wasn’t exactly a flat ride.

Then there’s heart rate; this one was spot on. While I didn’t include this estimate in my original post, my goal was to keep my heart in the upper end of Zone 2, which for me is 117–155 beats per minute. Looks like I did OK there. The same goes for cadence. Based on prior rides I was expecting to end up somewhere around 80 and was within a reasonable margin of error at 78.

Power is where things get weird. I recently upgraded the power meter on my bike from a SRAM Red Quarq (which was built into the crank) to the Garmin Vector 2 pedal system. I think the new power meter(s) needed breaking in because they were consistently reading low, even during the two weeks before my trip. Based on other rides I cross-checked with, I estimate it is off by 20–25%. This would mean that my average power for the week was actually around 170 watts, not 138 watts, as the data indicate.

This would also mean, conservatively assuming a linear relationship between average power output and calories spent, that I burned closer to 22,500 calories, not 18,310, which would make my initial guess of 25,000 not too far off. Additionally, I was eating so much (see my instagram feed for proof) that I can’t believe I was burning so little energy. Fortunately, the new power system seems to be better calibrated because I’m setting wattage PRs again.

Lastly, and most troublingly, we come to the estimate for the number of espressos (and espresso-based beverages) consumed during the week. I realized after the first day that staying hydrated was going to remain eminently challenging and that the diuretic effects of sustained caffeine consumption were only going to make things worse. Therefore, I cut coffee out of my diet until I got to Italy, where I more than made up for lost time.

Lessons Learned

I took away a few key pieces of wisdom from this experience that I think will be of value to anyone who is interested in bicycle touring.

1. Bring a patch kit
I was fortunate that I didn’t get a single flat the entire trip (thanks to handmade German rubber!) However, punctures often come in groups and had I flatted three times I would have run out of spare tubes. And if that would have occurred away from civilization (where I spent a lot of my time) I would have been walking barefoot to the nearest main road.

2. Scrutinize your planned route
I used Strava’s Route Builder to map my way through Europe. Because Strava has data on all the rides its users upload it can optimize routes for “popularity”. This meant that my route took me through quaint little villages and down farm roads that I probably would not have otherwise discovered. Awesome! However, Route Builder doesn’t distinguish between rides done on mountain bikes versus those ridden on road bikes. This means that the most popular route from point A to point B isn’t necessarily all on asphalt. Not so awesome. For my trip this meant about 30–40 miles of dirt paths and a stretch though rocky roads that lead to the broken spoke I mentioned earlier.

3. Curate your playlist 
I listened to my Euro Velo playlist on Spotify most of the time. It was epic. Even though I ended up listening through it many times over, much of the music in there has taken on a more profound meaning to me after having it as the backdrop to some truly breathtaking visual scenery and physical achievements. Music makes life better, and I think this is especially true when we are living life as fully as we can.

4. Eat everything 
When you are burning that many calories you can eat with impunity. My diet consisted largely of Nutella crepes, croissants, baguettes, orange juice, pizza, gelato, pastries, prosciutto, eclairs and crème brûlée. And the only time I was actually full was after Bouillabaisse at Chez Fonfon in Marseilles (if you ever find yourself there I highly recommend it). However, this piece of advice does come with a disclaimer: it is very hard to switch back to normal dietary habits after this routine. That said, it is absolutely worth it.

5. Be self-sufficient 
This one is specific to Europe. Nothing will ever be open when you need it to be. You won’t be able to access certain products or services because person x is “on holiday”, or because it is Tuesday or between the hours of noon and 3 pm. While individual people will be extremely kind and help you if they can, there will always be some reason that things can’t be done. Throwing money at the problem won’t help either.

6. Find a concierge 
When you fly into your starting destination you want to stay at a big chain hotel that has a concierge. You may end up spending more money for the stay that night but you want to be somewhere that you can deal with any logistical problems before the start of your journey. For example, I checked my bike on the plane over and needed to ship the bike bag from the hotel to my final destination in order to bring my bike on the return flight home. And because nothing is ever open when you need it to be (see point 5) it was logistically impossible to make this happen (despite calling my hotel twice to let them know this would be happening and confirm they would arrange it). Having someone whose job it is to help you will make it much easier to start the trip off smoothly.

7. Things will go wrong 
Even knowing all of this, things never go exactly as planned. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be happy. Whether your flight is delayed a full day or you are stuck three hours on day one trying to ship a bike bag or you have to ride through a canyon on carbon wheels and break a spoke or you snap a chain 20 minutes after fixing said spoke, life is still pretty good. Up the road there will be another epic climb to ascend with an awe-inspiring view at the top followed by an exhilarating descent down a supple ribbon of asphalt to the bottom where you’ll find another boulangerie serving crunchy baguettes. If you deal with challenges and setbacks with a perspective on the bigger picture, most of the things that seem shitty turn out to be pretty inconsequential.

everyone should try to descend this stretch of road on a bicycle before they die

The Rides

The routes and data for all my rides are publicly available on my Strava profile. The routes themselves are here:

Day 1 — Barcelona to Girona 
Day 2 — Girona to Perpignan 
Day 3 — Perpignan to Montpellier 
Day 4 — Montpellier to Marseilles 
Day 5 — Marseilles to Saint-tropez 
Day 6 — Saint-Tropez to Cannes 
Day 7 — Cannes to Sanremo

What’s Next?

The journey was just epic. The scenery, the time alone, the music and the challenge all made for a meditative experience. I’m even happier for having done it than I imagined I would be and I’m planning to do it again soon. I’m aiming to step things up from 580 miles in 7 days to 1,000 miles in 10 days, i.e., a century a day for 10 days. I’ll probably up the climbing as well. Because why not? I’m not sure where in the world it will be but expect somewhere warm again.

I’m also considering the idea of using the effort to raise awareness and money for a charitable cause I care about. If this is something that you think you could get behind please let me know :) Or if you think you are perhaps crazy enough to join me, do the same!


Originally published at www.danielmcauley.com on September 7, 2015.

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