Bikepacking Europe

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Thus far– less than a week, really– bikepacking the GR5 route has been a rich experience.  I use the term bikepacking loosely, for at times we are amidst city bicycle traffic, overdressed for the occasion.  At times, we encircle local forests along dirt doubletrack– roads to rural homes or geometrically organized forest service roads.  And sometimes, we are riding singletrack– walking, horseback riding, or sometime even mountainbiking trails.  The promise of the GR and official European walking routes is a diverse overland experience, easing from city to country several times daily, from pavement to dirt at will.  These are not wilderness trails, exclusively.  They are not exclusively singletrack.  They are always different.  For Europeans that dream of famed bikepacking routes across the globe, such as the Colorado Trail or the Great Divide Route, do not overlook the opportunities out your front door.  Coloradans and Californians should be jealous of the routes that exist here, for several reasons.

An expansive network of local and long distance routes: With the North Sea behind us, signage now points towards Nice, over 2000km away.  This location near Bergen op Zoom is the intersection of the GR5/E2, GR11, GR12, and GR17.

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Signage, guidebooks and maps are copious.  Lael and I are following red and white blazes marking trees, signposts, electrical boxes, buildings, and fences.  Most of the time this is all we need,  Occasionally, signage is faded or damaged and we are sent looking for the route.  With the right approach, even these wild goose chases are part of the fun.  We consider it like a treasure hunt for grown-ups.  Guidebooks are available.  Local maps and guides are always available at libraries and tourist offices.  Wandelnetwerk (walking trails) on the left, fietslus (bike trails) on the right.

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While we are simply following a red and white breadcrumb trail, major junctions also have public maps.  Most often, these maps show major cycling routes or local walking trails.  Even without the GR5 route listed, we can identify nearby towns and roads should we need to navigate locally.  This map actually shows the GR routes that pass through Bergen op Zoom.

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Wet weather has cordoned the camera to a dry corner of my framebag, but the riding is great!  Well-drained singletrack and doubletrack through lush forests is countered with visits to small towns with libraries, markets and bakeries.  We awoke this morning to sandy riding along these inland dunes; this afternoon, we go searching for the Westmalle Abbey, one of only seven genuine Trappist breweries in the world.  During the day, we visit two libraries to dry off and write home.

While backpacking Europe has become expensive, as the price of hostels, lodging and rail passes have increased, bicycling or bikepacking Europe presents an affordable way to travel.  Following rural routes, we find plentiful campsites in picturesque settings.  Our major daily costs are food and wine.  As we enter Belgium we add beer and chocolate to the list.  The variety of cheese, wine, and cured meats expands as we near France, and the prices decrease.  We eat better here than anywhere else, and it doesn’t cost any more.

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And unless you like the look of pit toilets, stock tanks, and barbed wire, European bikepacking offers more exciting architecture than the popular routes in the States.  We asked directions through this area and were told to turn left at the “great white house”.  Turn left here.

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There are 11 major walking trails in Europe, designated E#.  For example, we are following the E2 route, which coincides with the GR5.

Additional resources on European routes in this Wikipedia article.  France has the greatest network of trails, with over 64,000km of walking trails.  Major routes listed here.

We have also followed some of the North Sea Cycle Route, a mostly paved route which encircles the North Sea through the UK, Scandinavia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.  Finally, the EuroVelo association has developed some excellent long-distance cycle routes across Europe, mostly paved or graded surfaces.  Lael and I have ridden some of the popular EuroVelo6 in the past, and found it to be well-signed, selecting interesting routes with low-traffic volumes.  The opportunities are endless.

Dutch life

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Our life in Holland.  Other people’s lives.  Sometimes, the crossroads of our lives and theirs.

At or below sea level, water plays an important role in much of the country.  Shipping, agriculture, and land reclamation are essential to Dutch life.  So is rain.

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Dijks separate water,

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from land.

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What can’t be grown outside, is grown inside.  Naturally, a bike path bisects fields of greenhouses.

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In Amsterdam, a canal bisects the city and a sea of bicycles.  There are hundreds of bicycles parked within view.  There are hundreds of canals in the city.

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Rails run down the center, buses and small cars use the lanes, bicycles fill the brick-colored bike lanes, and parked cars separate pedestrians from it all.  This is prudent and humane city planning.  People and things are transported efficiently.

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Real people walk and rides bikes.  Most people walk and ride bikes.

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This small rural street is one lane wide, with two bicycle lanes, one on either side for each direction of travel.  More bicycles than cars use this route.

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A teenager riding with a euphonium is completely normal.  His mother congratulated his performance, kissed him on the cheek, and sent him cycling towards home.  Parents attended the outdoor concert by bike, despite 30kph headwinds/tailwinds.  Aerobars on upright bikes are not uncommon.

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Wind, weather and age are not excuses to stay home, or to drive.

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This food-truck festival was widely attended, mostly by cyclists and pedestrians.

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Other industries are present along the county’s waterways.

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A rich history is everpresent.

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Alongside modern life.

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Best of all, natural settings are not lost amidst centuries of civilization.  Open spaces exist in Europe, and we’re still clambering along the shores of the North Sea– hills and forests lie ahead.

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Hunting the GR5

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The GR5– locally called the LAW-5, Deltapad, or the E2– is an elusive dream.  Once on the trail, as a hunting dog on the scent of something good, we keep our eyes peeled and our noses to the ground.  If we can keep our tires and eyes pointed toward the next red and white blaze, the rewards are great.  When we lose the trail, which has happened thus far with some frequency, we simply follow the next logical signed cycling route, bike path or walking path.  Perhaps the best part about following the GR5 is that we never ride with traffic.  And when we lose the trail, we still aren’t really riding in traffic.  Some routes follow dedicated cycling lanes alongside a street, but even this is hardly ‘in’ or ‘with’ traffic in this country– drivers and cyclists are equally respectful of space and life and the dance between the two never raises an eyebrow.

But our focus is on the GR5, a long distance walking route from the North Sea in the Netherlands, to the Mediterranean at Nice, France.  Between these two points are Belgium and Luxembourg, and a whole lot of time in France; the route includes the Ardennes, the Jura, and the Alps; and the entire trail is signed with red and white blazes, as are other GR trails, while guidebooks and maps are also available.  It has only been a few days, but so far the diverse riding has done nothing but put smiles to our faces.

We left Hoek van Holland along this signed GR route, although it seemed to be going another direction.  We abandoned in favor of cycle paths and a place to stay in Rotterdam.  We would return to Maaslius to reconnect with the route.

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At Maasluis, a ferry crosses the Maas river.  As we disembark, we spot red and white blazes and spend the first km along neighborhood singletrack.  Much of the riding reminds me of riding as a kid.

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The GR5 follows paved and unpaved cyclepaths, as well as established walking routes (like unpaved walkways near the city), and sometimes very small lanes.

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Camping opportunities abound, especially along the waterfront.  This waterway was in use by many recreational canal boats.

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The trail is locally called the ‘Deltapad’, or delta path, named for the delta region of several rivers that drain continental Europe into the sea.  The trail follows a lot of grassy doubletrack along dikes and dams.

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No reason to buy a map in the Netherlands.  Signs, numbered routes and point-to-point routes makes navigation easy.  I have a basic map of the country for reference.  Mostly, we travel without a map, which is liberating.  Public map displays serve to keep us traveling in a uniform direction.  Still, while chasing red and white blazes we have made at least a few circles.

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Mountainbikeroute (aka VTT, BTT, or MTB) is an exciting word.  Some Dutch singletrack along the GR5, near the Voornes Duins.

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To a coastal overlook, like California or elsewhere we have been.

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Where to sleep?  This looks good.

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Butter, salt, shallots, tortellini, and herring in tomatensaus.

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The next morning, we wind through dunes and coastal forests, making a full loop back to this point.  Retracing our steps, we find exactly where we went wrong.  Retracing our steps was a little muddy.

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And sandy.

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Finally on our way, the trail leads to the beach, which was partly rideable in the intertidal zone.  Thinking of the Pugsley, or even those bold 29+ wheels I built for Cass’ Krampus.  Just a little more rubber would have helped.

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Within a few moments, we are back in town.  Historic canals and churches one minute, sandy forested singletrack the next– nothing to complain about.

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It has been a wet week along these coastal islands.  Still, more dry than wet is the realization that time is better spent outside, than staring at the weather channel.

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Our camp last night atop a sandy hill, tall pines breaking wind from the Nordzee.

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We’ve lost the GR5 for a moment, realizing that we had followed another walking trail.  We will rejoin the route in Bergen op Zoom, headed towards Maastricht, NL through Belgium.  Three and four dollar bottles of organic wine end every day.  Coffee and stroopwafels begin the day.

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Recent mods

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Since landing in Europe, I’ve tended to a few loose ends.  The bikes were fully operable upon landing (and reassembling).  With a few small improvements, they are even better.

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Lael has a new 36t Vuelta chainring to replace a 32t ring.  She hopes the bigger gear will allow her a little more speed along paved paths, without compromising her ability to ride in the larger ring most of the time with an 11-32t cassette.  The 22t inner ring is still perfect for mountainous exploits.  The bashguard is just barely undersized for a 36t ring.

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Looking for a suitable mounting point for my Supernova E3 Pro headlight, I finally revisited my first idea and drilled the fork crown.  The hole was perfectly sized so that the M6 bolt tapped the hole.  With so much thread engagement, the bolt did not require a nut on the backside.  I considered mounting from the brake bridge, but there is scarcely enough material there to feel confident about drilling a hole.  I also attempted to mount a top cap on the underside of the steerer tube (I drove a star nut inside), but the light arm would have been damaged by the brake bridge under full suspension compression.  I removed the air from the fork to test.  This was the best option, but limited space below the handlebars.  I switched to an XS 6L Sea-to-Summit compression drybag.

Also pictured, a buttery smooth Velo Orange Grand Cru sealed cartridge bearing headset— as a friend recently said, “because I like to know the history of my bearings”.  It is one less thing to think about.  I install cartridge bearings with as much grease as possible, to further resist contamination and corrosion.

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I inquired about USB charging from a dynamo hub in Amsterdam’s De Vakantiefietser bicycle shop.  The Busch and Muller USB-Werk AC seemed to be the best option for my needs, acting as a bridge directly to a USB out.  The system does not have a battery, and is only suitable for charging during active cycling.  So far, it seems to charge best with the lights turned off.  Without a battery, the system is very lightweight, excluding the existing hardware (hub, lights, wiring).  With a battery, I could capture all of the power coming out of the hub at all times as light, by directly charging a device, or by storing it in a battery for later.  I paid €99 for the device.

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Before leaving town I swapped the SRAM indexed trigger shifters, which performed crisply, for some top-mount thumb shifters.  I am accustomed to thumb shifters on my bikes, and index shifting in general.  Mostly, this decision was made for better cable routing with a drybag strapped to the handlebars.  I found a nice Shimano Deore LX rear derailleur in the parts bin at Two Wheel Drive, although it was missing two pulleys and a back cage plate.  I sourced these parts from a used Deore long cage derailleur missing a fixing bolt.  With some further modification and grease, I had a like new rear derailleur.

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Within a day of cycling, I noticed a broken barrel adjustor on my right shifter, most likely from spending time in a box on the airplane.  I have used these thumb shifter mounts on the Pugsley for nearly a year, without fail.  However, the aluminum adjusting bolt is a weak point.  A host in Rotterdam found a steel replacement in a parts bin.

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Repaired.  The replacement steel bolt should be no problem.

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Before leaving the country, I picked up a pair of GP1 BioKork Ergon grips at REI in Denver.

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A section of old inner tube and some zip ties make a durable chainstay protector.  The rubber also dampens the sound of a slapping chain.

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Finally, with the smell of cooking fuel permeating from my framebag, I couldn’t wait to attach some bottle cages to the fork.  In search of hose clamps, I encountered this solution.  John, our host in Rotterdam suggested I attach a standard bottle cage with a durable adhesive tape such as electrical or duct tape.  The solution is simple, lightweight, and presumably durable.  He claims to have done this on a Santa Cruz Nomad, eventually breaking the bottle before the tape ever failed.  The result is also more attractive than hose clamps.  Perhaps more aerodynamic as well?  Cleaning alcohol in high concentration is commonly available in the Netherlands as Spiritus for about €1 per liter..  Without the label and with the addition of a Porcelain Rocket decal, I now refer to it as ‘rocket fuel’.  Now, to tame those wires…

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A bit rainy and blustery along the Maas river near Rotterdam.  We might take some short days this week to wait out the rain.  Out looking for the GR5, and dodging rainshowers.

Two stops in Amsterdam

De Vakantiefietser

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De Vakantiefietser has an extensive supply of global cycletouring equipment and information, including: maps and guidebooks, camping gear, lighting, luggage, and complete bicycles from Santos, Idworx and VSF fahrradmanufaktur.

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The shop is located at: Westerstraat 2161015 MS, Amsterdam, NL

Reisboekhandel Pied à Terre

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Reisboekhandel Pied à Terre stocks an extensive collection of maps and travel guidebooks, for local and global adventures.  This is an especially good place to research European routes and adventures.

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The bookshop is located at: Overtoom 135-137, Amsterdam, NL

In and around Holland

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Just a day and a half away from New Mexico, and we are cycling in Holland.  A long way from home and a quick trip– both relative.  We took the El Paso-Los Angeles Limousines from ABQ to Denver.  Packed up the bikes at Denver B-Cycle, thanks to Andy and Phil.  Boarded an RTD commuter bus to DIA.  Flew IcelandAir to Reykjavik, then to Amsterdam and rebuilt the bikes in the airport.  Rode 15km towards the center of town, mouths agape at spectacular sea-level spring and cycling along infinite fietspad, the Dutch word for bike path, and canals.  At last–we are in Holland, in Europe, along well-signed fietspad, and soon, on dirt trails.  Our bikes are exciting and amazing to us.  Our opportunity, also exciting, in which we credit ourselves for hard work and planning and saving money.  While still late spring in the Netherlands, summer is here!

Thanks to Alle and Irena, our Warmshowers hosts in Amsterdam. We left town via the LF20 Flevoroute toward Haarlem, then connected with the LF1 Noordzeeroute towards the south along the coast.  Rolling along sand dunes at dusk, we took cover under a small shelter as coastal clouds rolled onshore.  Within a day, we will connect with the GR5 walking trail, which connects the North Sea with the Mediterranean.  Anyone in southern Holland or Belgium? Luxembourg or eastern France?  

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Enjoy our summer in Europe with us!  Lael has more great posts on her blog, Lael’s Globe of Adventure.

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