The Art of the Possible.
“I wonder if I can just ride there?”
Putting the ‘eh?’ in audacious.
I’m hooked. I’ve consumed the Kool-Aid, and I want another sip. Make that another chug.
Chug-a-lug: Europe 2019.
The thing is, from my perspective – the only one I’ve got – life is for the living. It has taken me years to manifest conscious thoughts about gratitude on a regular basis, and for me, gratitude is always associated with the recognition that I am fortunate to have a healthy, strong body (or rather, to be in this moment, a healthy strong person). And this recognition carries an obligation of sorts to not waste my life on pursuits that don’t matter. The sort of life goals I set for myself are not about attaining things or social status, but creating the conditions where I can spend a lot of time outdoors doing the things I love – riding bikes being the primary undertaking – sitting in cafes reading, spending quality time with my family, and one way or another, solving problems. I am fortunate to have such opportunities, and I’m grateful for them.
I returned from the five weeks my family and I spent in Europe during the summer of 2018 with an immediate desire to work with Danielle to plan another trip for 2019. I wrote about a couple aspects (here, here) of my experience during the trip that really made me feel connected to the regions I spent time riding in, particularly Nice, France.
Danielle is completely of the same mind as me when it comes to prioritizing our family spending: experiences are our focus. Much of the time I’m off experiencing riding and racing without the rest of the family, but we’ve certainly taken many road trips together, catalyzed by cycling events, that have been straight-up awesome. D2R2, for example, remains a favourite trip for my daughter, who tells me the Candle Factory there is literally her favourite place on Planet Earth. Wow.
So we’re about to take another trip to France and Italy for July, and like last year, I’ve left it to Danielle to set our itinerary based on where she’d most like to spend time, with a little input from me in terms of areas I think would be awesome to ride. A lot of folks have asked me about incorporating cycling into family trips, so I’ve always tried to share how we roll to help however I can in terms of advice. The reality is that every family dynamic is different, and some spouses might say, “Yeah, sure, bring your bike, that’s cool,” then actually resent the riding time. As with all matters marital, this is the sort of thing that really requires honesty on both sides of the equation.
In addition, I find it is best to not set riding expectations too high, but to feel out the scene once settled, and work out what sort of rhythm works for everyone. Every rider will have their own sweet spot when it comes to ride time; for some it might be 1.5 hours, and for others 5. For those who like to roll longer, being able to get up before daybreak and roll out at first light is an incredibly useful capability, and one that might actually take some planning and process to build up to. It did for me, but I now LOVE being up early and rolling at daybreak. I’ve realized I’m a ‘morning creative’ type, and I find the beauty of the early morning really stimulates me and sets me up in a positive frame of mind for the rest of my day. Since I don’t like sitting around on beaches, while my family members do, getting an early morning ride in is the perfect way to soften me up and put me in a mood where I can much more naturally go with the flow and enjoy being sedentary. This is how I tend to be in general, and why I like to get rides in early through every season, rather than having my riding plans colour my time with my family in the morning.
After spending a few days in Paris, we’ll take the train to Strasbourg, which is located in the Alsace region of France. Strasbourg virtually borders Germany, and is the capital of the region, which is, as I understand, complicated ethnically. Borders are rather artificial constructs, after all. We’ll focus some time in the enchanting village of Colmar, a fantastical locale that really has to be seen to be believed. You can’t make these places up, they are literally the inspiration for fairy tale settings.
There’s some rather significant climbing to be done just outside Colmar, including the Grand Alps, the peak of which delineates the Alps Maritimes and the Alps proper. There’s also some great riding just over the border in Germany. I’m not really ‘stressing’ about great riding opportunities in this region, as preliminary research suggests I’ll pretty much be able to roll in any direction and have a wonderful time. For me, vacation riding is all about exploration and adventure, not KOMs or anything dumb like that!
Speaking of exploration and adventure: I have hatched a plan, and man, does it feel audacious.
After spending a week or so in Alsace, we’ll transfer by train to Nice. We all had a spectacular time in Nice last year, so it felt like a good idea to go back. We only discovered Old Nice near the end of our stay, and barely got to explore that part of the city. We loved it, so we’re targeting staying there instead of in the west part of town, hitting up the market daily and taking some day trips up the coast to other beaches, like Villefranche.
While in 2018 our only real time spent in Italy was a few days in Venice – which really was pretty fantastic, and also long enough – this time we’re carving out a longer stay, in a region that is also rather magical: Cinque Terre. North and east along the coast of the Mediterranean from Nice, Cinque Terre is a National Park region that is home to a swath of spectacular villages built into cliff walls along the sea. It is colourful, exuberant, and well, since Instagram, busy. But we don’t care, we’re going!
A transfer from Nice to Genoa is thus required, which is an easy train ride. If you’ve not been to Europe, and it feels like a black box, know this: once you’re there (I’m speaking of Western Europe here), getting around is easy. Flights within Europe are crazy cheap (like 19 Euros), and the trains and busses are cheap. I’m told renting cars is cheap too. So there’s a tonne of flexibility on offer when it comes to moving around, including doing rides that involve jumping on trains, just like in the old days of the Tour de France!
I’m not gonna jump on the train.
“Danielle, what if I ride there? What do you think, it’s something like 300k along the coast.”
“Yeah, why not, that’d be cool. But break it into two days; I’d feel better about that, because it’d be safer that way.”
My hamster wheel spun up to high-velocity immediately.
“If I’m gonna ride there over two days, maybe I can make things a bit more…interesting. Maybe I can go up into the mountains a bit, ride some gravel.”
Oh hell yeah I can!
It took less than an hour of internet hunting to find a route that got my imagination firing on all cylinders. Yep, there’s a route. There’s an awesome route. And most of the first day will be on gravel roads over a thousand years old.
Excited much? Yeah, I’m more excited about this adventure I’m planning than any race I’ve ever done. Is it stressful? Well, yeah, a bit, as I’ve just built a new bike, which has posed some ‘quirky’ challenges in terms of procuring obscure parts. Coincidental stress aside, this tells me I should probably do adventures more and care about caring about racing less. Cool, I’m on that track, the only racing I care about for 2019 is cyclocross. A month of family vacation with a bunch of spectacular riding might not be the optimal way to prepare for cyclocross, but I truly don’t care; it’s worth it!
This ride will be audacious. Scott Emery, my club-mate, and Nico Joly (of 2-11 Cycles in France) will join me; three’s company. We’ll begin in Borghidera (I’ll ride there from Nice on July 14th) and cover about 150km on day-one, relentlessly ascending inland from the Med, hitting about 5,000 metres total gain over the day. Most of it will be on gravel. Scott and I have plotted an additional section of astounding gravel road dropping from the French/Italian border south into Tende; up and down the Col de Tende. 46 switchbacks, this thing is EPIC, how could we not add it in?!? This is what the route looks like, as of now.
Day-two will be much easier, mostly dropping in elevation to Genoa, with only about 2,000 metres climbing over another 170km. We’ll stay overnight somewhere in Limone Piedmonte, on the Italian side of the border, a small ski town. I’ll probably ride most of this leg solo, while Scott returns to Borghidera and Nico ride home (which is FAR!)
I’m particularly excited because I’ve never taken on a ride like this. In the scheme of things within the bikepacking domain, this isn’t an unusual affair. But for me, given I don’t live in the region and am going in with no local knowledge, it feels like an expedition. I’m not taking anything for granted, so I’m spending time planning the gear I’ll need to pull off the ride safely and enjoyably. I’m going to take the opportunity to put some products to the test, following some initial vetting, that is!
My main thing is I don’t want to do this ride heavily loaded. Instead, I’m taking the minimalist approach, which will entail using as little as a handlebar bag and a small seat-bag. I don’t want my bike to handle like a dump-truck, or take all sorts of gear over the ocean that I’ll only need for two days. So I’m scheming up the gear selection that’ll fit the bill.
For starters, I’m taking my brand new pre-production Brodie Romax Carbon (check out images in my IG account). The frame is essentially a do-anything platform with very similar geometry to the aluminum Romax. I’ve built the bike with two chainrings, and they’re OVAL! I didn’t get to ride my preferred Absolute Black rings in Europe last year, and man, did I miss them. I’m happy to have their 32/48 sub-compact combo up front, mated to an 11-34 cassette.
I’ll ride 650b Woven carbon wheels and Rene Herse’s 48mm Switchback Hill tires with tubes (for simplicity). I’ve written about this format in a few spots, and continue to love the set-up for all-conditions riding, especially while exporing. Reducing suspension losses matters on all road surfaces, and is going to be really vital when it comes to conserving energy as I climb on gravel for many hours. The randonneurs know what they’re doing!
I will be on Easton’s EC70 AX flared carbon handlebars, which will also help conserve some energy. I’ve steered clear of carbon bars all these years because I didn’t trust them. However, freezing my hands during winter rides got me thinking about re-evaluating my position on the material in this form. Of all the companies, Easton is the one I trust most with my life, so I’m very thankful they provided me a set of bars to test. Actually, they also sent me a EC70 post, EA90 SL stem, Pinline bar tape, and their EC90 SL cranks for my new builds. My initial rides have gone well on the bars, and I quite like their shape. The EC70 post uses one of the best clamps I’ve encountered. Set-up was a breeze with the provided extra carbon rail clamps. It remains to be seen whether I use the carbon Fizik Arione or a softer one; I’ll likely take it alone either way. The cranks are destined for another exciting build in the works; stay tuned!
Check out my album of the new bike here. Sorry I can’t post images here, WordPress is giving me grief!
Drivetrain and braking will be handled by SRAM, my strong preference for all manner of off-road dropbar riding. Those who are connected to me via social media will know I’ve had to jump through a couple hoops to get and keep one of these brakes rolling on the new bike. Let’s just say I know the SRAM HRD brakes pretty much inside and out after having worked on them quite a bit over the last couple years. I love them, but have to say I wish SRAM would support them with replacement parts better….
I think you want to know about cargo kit, don’t you!? My early experiences riding with the Roadrunner Burrito Supreme handlebar bag confirmed my suspicion: it’s is perfect for day rides, and probably some credit card tours, but by itself too small for what I will need to carry. I might need to take a water filter to make sure we’re covered for safe water, and I’ll almost certainly need to take enough food to cover long stretches of road far from any form of stores or cafes. Thankfully I am well fat-adapted, which means I can ride while burning a low proportion of stored glycogen – as long as the intensity is properly modulated – so I won’t need to take epic amounts of food. I’ll rely on YoFiit’s excellent bars, including their new keto-friendly ones, which are low sugar, meaning they’ll help keep my insulin levels steady and avoid the gross feelings that accompany consuming lots of sugar over long rides. We’re also lining up locations for rifugia accessible from the route.
MY Burrito Supreme will carry food, water filter, sun screen, tooth brush and paste, light shorts for off the bike, a merino t-shirt (in case I need it as a layer, not just for apres ride), a little Mad Alchemy chamois cream, and some chocolate. I am such a fan of chocolate. I’ll either carry my Silca Pocket Impero pump in the bag, or mount it to my bike, and I’ll probably strap spare tubes to my frame near the bottom bracket. Other tools and bits will go in a seat-bag, along with some bars; I’ll keep it light back there.
I’ve decided I don’t need to take shoes with me for off the bike, but perhaps will bring flip-flops.
Navigation is a big one. For this Hammerhead have been kind enough to support my trek with their Karoo, the best nav system I’ve used to date. I borrowed Scott’s Karoo last year for the trip, and it was absolutely key to my accessing great rides. It had a few glitches at that point, however, which I hope Hammerhead have since addressed, so I’m amped to have the opportunity to use the updated unit they’ve provided to help me get where I’m trying to go. I still have some testing to do with it before the trek to make sure I know how to get the most out of it, and how long I can push the battery.
I’ve been testing Garmin’s Edge 520 Plus GPS head unit and Varia radar tail-light since February, and I’ll be happily taking them along too. I’ve been really happy with the domain awareness the Varia provides when it comes to alerting me to car traffic behind me, with the complementary benefit of being a really powerful daytime light. I’ve learned that its battery life is lower than the 520 Plus, so I’ll just have to make sure I don’t leave it on while on gravel, where there won’t be any cars anyhow. Best to use the juice for the roads on the way to the gravel, and the last part to town at the end of the day. Maybe it’ll be night… I’ll have the 520 Plus loaded with the route as well as my backup, and I’ll even have the route on my phone, just in case. Speaking of ‘just-in-case’, I’ll have the ViaMichelin GPS and Map.me offline apps loaded onto my phone, both of which can be loaded for off-line use. Scott and I might even create an offline google map with points of interest like water, rifugia, etc. It depends on how much time we have while over there.
What else? Merino wool socks from Mad Alchemy, most likely, and my club kit with Castelli’s Pro Mesh base layer. But I’ll certainly need a jacket, arm and knee warmers for bad weather and/or if it’s cold in the morning on day-two as I set out, descending.
If the weather is going to be rainy part of or most of the time, it shouldn’t be too hard to dress for, as I’ll be climbing consistently on day-one, verus rolling up and down all day. Warm-when-wet will be the approach for that, with my Castelli Perfetto long-sleeve. The same will apply on day-two, with the addition of a membrane outer for the descending. July is typically pretty darned warm in the region, so I won’t be challenged as much from a planning perspective as I would be in May or September, for example.
Thanks to all the folks who’ve helped me set up the new bike, not least Phat Moose Cycles and Euro-Sports! I really appreciate everyone’s help, from locals to far-flung folks behind all the brands that support me!