Why go bikepacking?

Picture yourself taking in a lung-full of fresh air on an Alpine Pass. Imagine cruising along the North coast of Spain, stopping off at as many Basque beaches as you can handle. Think how astounding it would feel to discover a street festival in Portugal that you never knew existed until you cycled right into the heart of it.

Bikepacking in Europe is one of the single best adventures I have ever experienced. I place such a high value on those continental extravaganzas that I cannot go on without encouraging you to give it a try.

Don’t get me wrong, The British Isles are stunning in their own right. There are so many beautiful places to ride that I couldn’t possibly list them all. However, I don’t think our fair island can compete with Europe when it comes to the scale and diversity of the landscapes. On top of that, doesn’t the idea of cycling overseas seem more exotic and adventurous? Now put the brakes on…

Travelling from the UK to Europe.

Before you wander off too far into dreamland, we have to figure out how to make this dream, reality. Setting off from the UK presents one unavoidable problem; How do we get our 2-wheeled horse with all our luggage off this island?

If you are Richard Branson, a hot-air balloon ride over the English Channel would arguably be the most stylish way to start your European odyssey. However, if you are not the head of a gigantic corporation, you will have to settle for the 3 conventional transit methods – Aeroplane, Train, or Ferry.

Here is a brief overview of those options where you can find out which option I chose and why. You can take a deeper look at each one by clicking the links at the bottom of the page. And don’t leave without reading the entry from Day 3 of my 2015 bikepacking trip – The day I arrived in France!!!

Aeroplane

ProsCons
A broad choice of destinations.Price.
Lots of airports to depart from.Bike-care in transit.
Fast travel.
Pros and cons of travelling by aeroplane – Bikepacking in Europe

If you fly, it is possible that you could wake up in your bed on Monday morning and be pitching your tent under the stars in Aspromonte National Park, in Southern Italy, by nightfall.

This kind of convenience is unbeatable for someone who has limited time. You can travel further and quicker if you opt to fly. However, this kind of service can sting you in your wallet.

The price doesn’t stop at your ticket either. One major headache of flying when bikepacking is making sure your primary mode of transport survives the journey; your bike.

If you can picture the caricature of a baggage handler, mindlessly chucking bags onto a ramp without a care of the contents… I think you know where I am going with this.

The idea of someone treating your bike like a suitcase full of Hawian shirts, suncream and flip-flops is horrifying. Fortunately, there are ways to make sure your bike gets treated like a VIP.

There are bike bags that are designed for this very purpose. By breaking your bike down, you can stow them away safely and securely. Alternatively, you can ask any bike shop for a discarded bike box (the box your bike arrives in when you buy it). You will then have to fit your bike into the box and then try your best to protect all the components as much as you can. It all depends on how much you value your peace of mind.

Obviously, the bike bag will keep your bike better protected, but again, that comes with a price tag.

TRAIN

ProsCons
Fast and convenient (especially if you live in London).Additional luggage cost for bikes.
Easy transportation of your bike and luggage.Lack of departing choices
Great European connections by train.
Pros and cons of travelling by train – Bikepacking in Europe

From London to Paris in 2 hours 16 minutes!!! The Eurostar option provides a touch of luxury. It is a relatively straightforward way of travelling. Think of it as a cross between an airport and a train station.

The price is reasonable too. You might find a midweek ticket for less than £60, with weekend tickets going up in price by an extra 20-30 quid. However, you will have to pay an additional fee of £30 for taking your bike as luggage. There is also the added bonus of not having a weight limit on how much stuff you take.

Even if your destination isn’t Paris, you can use the rail network to travel around France and Europe to start your adventure. European trains are a joy, but make sure you book a space for your bike in advance to avoid problems.

BOAT

ProsCons
CheapLimited arrival choice
FastLimited departing ports
Easy to transport your bike
Pros and cons of travelling by boat – Bikepacking in Europe

Wave goodbye to England by watching the white cliffs of Dover fade into the horizon from the deck, then see how far you can gob off the back (recreating the scene from Titanic).

This option appeals to my romantic side, taking satisfaction in knowing that I cycled to where the land meets the sea.

No need to break your bike down, no extra fees for your luggage and no drama.

This option is for the romantics. Hang out around the ship and enjoy the building excitement of the beginning of your adventure.

A crossing from Dover to Calais takes approx 90 minutes and could cost you as little as £27.50 (one way).

There are other routes you can take across the Channel from Portsmouth, Newhaven and Harwich. Destinations are limited to the North coast of France or the Hook of Holland, but once you arrive, you can go as far as your legs can peddle you.

This is the most hassle-free way to travel to mainland Europe to begin your bikepacking adventure. It really is as simple as riding your bike onto a ferry at one end, then cycling off on the other.

If you aren’t restricted by time, and you plan on riding to where ever the wind takes you, this is the way you should travel.

The verdict.

Depending on your budget, the size of adventure and your personality, each option is a winner.

All 3 have benefits, but in my opinion, you just can’t beat that feeling of the pure romance of the ferry. Although you are using help from the boat, it still feels like it fits the self-sufficient nature of a bikepacking trip.


I am boarding the ferry with my bike and luggage to start my bikepacking trip.
Boarding the ferry with my bike – Bikepacking in Europe

The following passages are from my 2015 journal, written during my 1st bikepacking trip.

Day 3 – London to somewhere South of Calais (via Dunkirk).

So, setting off a bit blazed probably wasn’t a clever idea. I had done about 3 laps of Leightonstone before I managed to work out which direction was the right one. Figuring it out eventually, I took a trip past the Olympic stadium and velodrome. In my head, I thought that looking at a few buildings might somehow inspire me… it didn’t.

Leaving London on a bike is hell. It rained most of the way to Dover, and I was a bit worried the rain would frazzle all my electronics. It was the first real road test of my equipment, and I am happy to tell you that it was worry in vain.

I guess I am still anxious and waiting for something to go wrong.

Finding soulotions to unexpected problems.

The original plan was to get the ferry to Calais, but there was still super delays at their port thanks to a French lorry driver strike. The woman that worked at the ticket counter said it would probably be quicker for me to go to Dunkirk instead. That meant an additional 40km to my cycling plans and would add 3 hours of travelling time.

This was a slight problem. My plan was to get as far as Abbeville, so I could catch a stage of the Tour de France the next day. I wouldn’t make it tonight.

I was determined not to miss out, so my first experience of cycling overseas was a night ride across the coast. Cycling till 2 am before calling it a quits.

C’est typical of someone from the UK, I came straight off the boat far too excited to use my brain. Thoughtlessly, I continued to cycle on the left side of the road and went the wrong way around a roundabout. HONK-HONK!!!! From a few pissed of (and quite rightly) lorry drivers.


Useful links.

I hope to have shined a light on which option might suit you. I’d love to know what you think and if you have any valuable information you would like to share on this subject.

For more information on using the ferry, you can visit P&O Ferries, or click here for further reading on what you can expect when travelling by ferry. The Eurostar has stopped its transportation of bike that don’t fold away at the moment due to COVID, but you can check in on their website to see their current status here.

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