“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike” – John F Kennedy
One day, we learned about electric bikes and it made all the difference. In Santiago, Chile we rented our first electric bike and toured the city — loved it, and with the assistance of that electric motor you could conquer hills that would normally make your legs burn.
An e-bike is a bike with a battery powered motor that will provide extra power when you’re pedaling. Ours has three levels of additional support: 100% ECO; 190% STD; or 280% HIGH; with a range of up to 80 miles. Of course, the more assistance you use, the quicker the battery depletes. This is the key to bicycle touring! We read e-bikes are common in Europe, so that was the beginning of the plan. We pre-purchased a Eurail ticket, before we left USA, which provided 11 days of First Class unlimited train travel in France and Spain for 2 people, for $1,000.
David has always wanted to do an overseas bike tour. In the USA he has completed several tours, mostly in Colorado — but they were durability and stamina events, not sightseeing events. Karen has always wanted to do an overseas bike tour, however, the specter of being the last person to arrive every day seemed to take the fun away.
We went to Eurobike, International Bike Show, in Friedrichstafen Germany to speak with manufacturers about warranties and maintenance consistency on both sides of the Atlantic. The majority of e-bikes use either the Bosch or Yamaha system. We met with the Bosch folks, the leading motor manufacturer, who told us that European version of their system would not be authorized to be exported to the US due to regulations and hardware differences. We met with other manufactures that indicated the same issues as Bosch. We were getting frustrated, ready to give in that our dream of purchasing an e-bikes in Europe was quickly fading. Karen went to listen to music while David continued the mission. As he was wandering, the vast halls of manufactures, he came across Haibike. David knew in advance that this German manufacturer exports bikes to the US. He spent over an hour meeting with them and was assured that their SDURO trekking bike offered the best in service, warranty, quality and price. They even called a local bicycle store in Friedrichshafen and made an appointment for us. This was Saturday, we had to wait to Monday to meet with the store owner. David was getting anxious. We kept busy that weekend and visited the bicycle store first thing Monday morning. When we arrived, there were no trekking bikes in stock. We spoke to the owner and asked if he could locate the bikes in another store. He called around and found the exact bikes at a distributor about 150 miles from his store. He was able to make arrangements to get the bikes to his store, we extended our stay in Friedrichshafen, and on Wednesday we were owners of 2016 Haibike SDURO Trekking RC bicycles.
We wanted to bike in the wine country of France. Which wine country . . . . Well, all of them. Our process was to study the bike routes in an area (e.g. Burgundy) and recommendations of a small to midsize town with good train connections. Then find an AirBnB house or apartment in that town for 1 week.
First, the trains. On long distance trains, you need to make a reservation for your bike, and a seat reservation for yourself. We would try and map out the options ourselves on Captain Train, a French online travel agency which provides a platform for booking train tickets in Europe. However, we always purchased the seat and bicycle reservation at the train station. (The cost of the ticket was pre-paid) Buying tickets from an agent at the station ensured we were always on a train that allowed bicycles and that we had a ticket for our bikes. Most trains have a car designated for bicycles but some trains carry only 4 bikes so this is critical. Traveling with bicycles in Europe typically require traveling by regional trains. These trains a little slower but still reach a speed of over 100mph. The high speed trains travel at 180mph and the bicycles are strapped to a row of seats. In our journeys, we had the luxury of three high speed trains.
Buy a bike ticket and load your cycle onto the train yourself. Well load, 2 people, 2 bikes and 2 suitcases and a pannier. Up 3 narrow train stairs, and through an electric door, in less than 90 seconds. I never took any pictures of this part because we were always scrambling. The only down side is the heaviness of the bicycles (velos or bici) (50 lbs) and that comes into play loading and unloading them on trains and “hanging” them on bike racks. It took two of us to lift the bike on the hangar. Train stations are in the center of cities, and we picked small cities. You can roll down to the station, board your train, and enjoy the ride and the view as you read, nap, listen to a podcast, or catch up on blogs.
The AirBnB portion of the planning was pretty straight-forward. We always wrote our hosts to confirm they were comfortable with bikes and had secure storage. Everyone was, with a balcony or a garage where we could leave them in a covered safety. From our experience, our hosts got a kick out of the fact that we were traveling in such a unique and healthy way.
One week per region seemed the right amount. It would equate to 3-4 days of riding, a day of touring with an outfitter, a day for the local sites and the market (always amazing) and another day or 2 for rest or inclement weather. We were traveling and living, not a bike tour which must keep a schedule rain or shine. Then a travel day . . . . This trip we traveled thru Burgundy, Provence, Rivera, Bordeaux, Loire and Toulouse before heading to Barcelona.
Despite challenges, planning our own bike tour gave us flexibility, got us off the beaten path, and made us self-reliant. And although there was no SAG wagon, we were not completely unsupported: our hosts were great sources of information, lots of friendly bike shops, accurate maps and bike apps, and delicious food in every town. The local Tourist Information office would give you a plethora of maps and brochures on the tours that could not be completed on two wheels.
We relied on France’s railways to visit a wider range of places than we could have by bicycle alone. In France, we never had a problem showing up at a train station and buying a ticket for the same day. The regional trains (TER in France) stop at each small town along the way, and bikes do not need a reservation, because they travel free! We traveled to someplace interesting, cycled and toured all day, or started at one station, ended at another catching the train back “home”. The pattern was always the same: spot the designated bike car as the train arrives, make a dash for it, and get the bikes on board and stowed, possibly removing the panniers in the process. Having a bungy cord or a piece of nylon webbing with a buckle to help stabilize the bikes, and lock them together, it gave us peace of mind if we couldn’t sit near them.
I should mention that getting from the street level to the train was often the most adventurous. To and from the street level into the platform tunnel we would find escalators or elevators. One bike, then the luggage, then the second bike. Only once did the unaccompanied luggage fall over — the victim had a wonderful sense of humor! Lots of times, it was a two person carry from the bottom of the train tunnel to the top of the platform.
The only thing left to do is get these bikes home. Lithium batteries are not allowed on airplanes, so we depart by cruise ship on the Norwegian Jade from Barcelona and will arrive in Tampa 14 days later. Our departure date is 89 days after we entered the European Union (they have a 90 day max). On the last EU port, (Maderia, Portugal) we will get a customs stamp and a 20% refund of the price we paid – the VAT refund, that is not applicable to goods purchased by travelers and taken out of the EU. We are lucky to have family in Florida to hold the bikes till we retrieve them. Then bike trails of the USA, here we come!
Being our own tour planners was more effort but it was also well worth it. Researching the trip ahead of time added to the anticipation and helped us learn more about the places we considered going. On the road, we knew we had the essentials with us and that the rest would be available along the way. Each day, we’d wake up, pick a spot on the map, and pedal towards it. In the end, it was an adventure that we were proud to have arranged ourselves.
The last photo in this blog post shows where we have been in France and Germany. We begin our journey to the US from Barcelona, Spain, by cruise ship, at the end of October.