Biking in Europe

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I really have come to love biking as I’ve gotten older. Prior to leaving on this trip, I had huge plans of taking on some epic rides while in Europe. While I didn’t bring a bike, I did lug shoes, pedals, and a kit in my travel bag. These were my luxury items for 9 months. I assumed renting a bike would be super easy and I would be getting in a least one ride a week based on my preliminary web search prior to leaving for Europe. Friends had suggested just buying a decent road bike when we arrived so that we could carry it on the camper and I could ride while we traveled, but I assumed (erroneously) that it would be just as easy (and less costly) to rent as we traveled. The prospect of trying to sell it at the end or ship it back to the U.S. didn’t seem like much fun either. What I eventually learned was that many of the bike rental shops had closed for the season, were only open for limited periods of time, or were not that easy to get to…especially with a camper van. In hindsight, I should have purchased a bike (ideally used) upon arrival in Europe as I would have been able to ride much more than I was actually able to while traveling for 3 months.

I ended up only riding three days over the three months.

  1. Max and I rented “Dutch” style bikes in Amsterdam to kick about the city for half of a day. These 500 lb steel frame beasts are what the majority of commuters use in the city. We had a great time and saw much more of the city than if we tried walking or taking the train/boats around town. I’m guessing we put in a good 30 miles or so that day. It was early in the trip and the miles felt easy/good as we were just kicking about town.
  1. I rented a mountain bike in Northern Spain and rode 40-45 miles of gravel and single-track trails for the day. It was a ton of fun and made bringing the pedals and shoes worth the hassle for that ride alone. At one point when I realized I was way off path, I ended up having to throw the bike on my shoulder and hike it over a mountain pass to meet up with another trail. This was 2 months into our trip and my summer bike legs had long left me. I definitely felt discomfort in my arse, back and neck. My arms were also pretty spent by the end of the ride.
  1. Lastly and unexpectedly rented a nice BMC Road Bike in Tenerife, Canary Islands for a few days while we were there. This was a spontaneous trip away from the cold/rain and only learned of its biking reputation two days before arriving. Picked up the bike from a store about 15 miles away and rode it back to our apartment the first evening.

The second day I set off at daybreak to climb to the volcano some 2,000 meters above sea level. After close to 30 miles and over three hours climbing at 8-12 mph, I had only made it about 1,600 meters up the mountain. I was spent, winded by the elevation, had “bonked”, and still had a 30 mile decent to go before getting home. I decided to abandon my over-zealous ascent before someone found me in a with a gash on my head in a lava field. I made it back to the apartment in less than an hour averaging just over 30 mph. There was very little room for error doing down the mountain with numerous hairpins, many vehicles, and some pretty spooky drop offs. That downhill experience really gave me a greater appreciation of the nerves of steel possessed by those pro riders!

I was more responsible the next day and found another ride that gave me about 1,000 meters of climb and a more comfortable decent. This place would be an ideal bike travel location for a week or more – especially if one had good bike legs under them at the time!

As I shared above that while I didn’t ride as much as I had hoped, I do feel I was pretty tuned-in to bikes and the biking “scenes” throughout the entire Europe trip that included 20 countries. Some of those observations include:

Amsterdam

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Amsterdam has great biking infrastructure and an amazing biking culture. Additionally, everyone we met there was great. That stated, I got the sense that people there were a wee bit pretentious about their biking while riding. As shared in the previous running post, I really felt like people on bikes not only felt they had right-of-way over vehicles, but also of walking pedestrians. There were many instances while there when I observed bicyclists berating someone who was walking, often when I thought the biker was in the wrong.

Here’s my thoughts on this. In Minneapolis (like many other U.S. cities), we have the constant battle going on between bikers and drivers – in most cases (in my opinion) – both sides should take a bit of the blame/responsibility when issues between the two arise. I’m of the firm belief that bikers need to drive every once in a while and drivers need to ride every once in a while to better understand what the other is doing/thinking (in “their shoes” mentality).

The problem I observed in Amsterdam is while I gotta believe most of the riders in Amsterdam have walked a little bit in their lives, I didn’t get the sense that they could easily think like a walking pedestrian and had a rough time anticipating what a walking pedestrian would/could do, therefore setting up a perilous situation. I also got the sense that many of the Amsterdam riders thought they were much better riders than they really were (isn’t that the case of a lot of us with many things in life) – often giving someone a dirty look or yelling at someone while they themselves couldn’t hold a constant biking line or weren’t indicating a turn for themselves. Lastly, and I must believe a law in Amsterdam is forthcoming on this one, it felt like close to 50% of the riders in Amsterdam ride while talking or texting on their phones. Granted….I’d much rather be hit by a distracted rider than driver, but this coupled with the over-confidence of many riders left me questioning the bike utopia there. Clearly the health and environmental benefits outweigh the negatives, but learned some things about “greener grass” illusions while there.

Lastly – then I’ll let this Amsterdam thing go – I would NEVER want to try to ride a road bike with any sense of purpose in Amsterdam proper. I saw a few road-bikers all kitted up out there getting frustrated by the slower, dominant pace of the commuter rider. I’m sure there are some phenomenal rides outside of Amsterdam, but think it’s important to note that Amsterdam is a very strong “commuter-bike” city, but not necessarily a good “all-around bike” city.

Appreciation for what we have in the U.S.

I am more appreciative of what great riding we have in the upper-Midwest after traveling Europe. There are little to no shoulders on most of the European roads and the roads are already typically much more narrow than the upper-Midwest. And while we pay a pretty penny in taxes in MN and WI, we have good, quality road surfaces. The vast majority of the roads bikers utilize in Europe were in average to poor condition and while I got the sense drivers were far more sensitive to bikers in Europe, the margin for catastrophic error is far greater there.

Spain

I had anticipated a lot of cycling in France and Italy, but was blown away and impressed by how many cyclists (road, mountain, commuter) there were in Spain. Spain really felt like it had much more of a biking culture as a whole than any other place we traveled.

Other observations/bike-type stereotyping

  • “Dutch”-style commuter biking – mostly The Netherlands, but also in Germany, Sweden, and Belgium
  • Road biking – Spain, France, Italy + saw a few in Slovakia and Greece
  • Mountain biking – Poland, Spain, Slovakia, Croatia
  • Fatty-tire biking – only saw a few and they were all in Spain, but assuming more begin to appear in Northern European countries as winter sets in
  • Electric-assisted biking – I struggle with this one. I was and continue to be blown away by the large number bikes in all the countries we visited that had some type of electric-motor assistance incorporated into the rig. Perhaps I’ll “get it” in 30 years when my legs no longer can push my tail around, but until then I’ll continue to wonder if people were trying to fool themselves or others. I guess I’m of the mindset that says, “just buy a scooter” if you’re not really going to pedal. It feels like lip synching or air guitaring…why go through all the effort of a pedal stroke if it’s really not producing much of anything? Of course, this wasn’t the case for people who were biking for exercise…at least I hope not. Doesn’t this take away some of the positive environmental and health impact arguments? I suppose if it gets people out of their vehicles and outdoors, it’s a step in the right direction….

All-in-all, I would love the opportunity for another 1-2 week trip to either Tenerife (Canary Islands) or Slovakia. That stated, I’d want to have biking friends join and have a good set of biking legs under me so that I could really appreciate the challenges and experiences.

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6 thoughts on “Biking in Europe

  1. Jeff,

    For me, the bike with electric assist would make more sense if a person were using the bike as their dominant form of commuting. If they had to travel fairly lengthy distances and were not overly concerned about using biking for the exercise/health benefits – then it would make sense. It’s actually remains a very green form of transportation.

    As for myself, I have a Torker T-120 kitted out with a Brooks saddle(B190)/tool bag and Banjo Bros paniers. I tossed out the stock torker rims, and had nice, heavy-duty rims built with Schwalbe Big Apple rubber on them, and topped it off with a set of fenders and a computer. I use it mostly for the exercise, but in decent weather, it’s my grocery-getter. A grocery bag fits wonderfully in each panier. I would classify it as a commuter bike perhaps, as it’s set up for comfort. For me, it covers all the bases and does so at a reasonable price. Biking is one area that I’m making a larger commitment to as I get older …so it’s great to hear your reflections on your biking experience in europe and how that translates to the US.

    Keep on writing!!

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    1. I’m with you, Ethan! I’m Jeff’s wife and I sure would like a bike with a little push! I can go for a few miles without getting tired, but if I was a commuter, an little motor would be a relief!

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      1. Right on, Sarah! Jeff is just hardcore like that! lol I actually WISH I were a bike commuter! But I live in Plymouth and have always had a lengthy commute, so at my current fitness level it’s just never been practical. As an alternative, putting the bike on the car and driving it to a midway access point to the greenway might be a good compromise. It’s something to build up to!

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  2. Hi Jeff,

    I’ve admired your athleticism for years and I appreciate your photos and these words of reflection. My editorial suggestion is to change the headline to something like “Deep thoughts and Reflections on International Bike Culture”. It was enjoyable reading and I’ll probably read it again. I’d meant to respond earlier to the photos of you in the Canaries. Your physique alone is great testimony to your athletic commitments. Tells me that you’re doing great with your entire sabbatic experiences.

    And your biking enthusiasm is contagious. I know it would be enjoyable and healthful for me to get back on a bike. Your nudge is probably unbeknownst to you, but I appreciate it. I also appreciate an opportunity to use the word unbeknownst. Weird, eh?

    Thanks for your blog posts. Happy travels. David

    >

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  3. Interesting summary, Jeff! It is so interesting how different the biking culture is from country to country, and even neighboring countries. I couldn’t agree more that everyone who rides a bike should drive once in a while, and everyone who drives should bike once in a while. And I also think it would be incredibly helpful if drivers would walk once in a while and see the challenges that we walkers face. While trying to walk to visit my friend at Fairview-Southdale Hospital a couple days ago, I was forced into several unsafe situations where there were no sidewalks.

    And finally, a word of support for people riding motorized bikes. I assume people riding them just use them for help getting up hills or for longer rides than they’re capable of. Hopefully they’re getting a little exercise on most of the flat stretches. (And they’re probably cheaper than scooters too.)

    Happy travels! I’m looking forward to reading your posts about Asia next!

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  4. Sarah here – Hi Jo! So true about pedestrians – and THAT particular suburb is notorious for NOT having sidewalks and drivers who are….well, live in Edina! Jeff is the king of DIY, but I get the need for a motor – and four wheels and air conditioning and heated seats – ha!

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