Monday, 30 January 2017

Getting to Bergen - Bike v Baggage Handlers

In the summer of 2015 I cycled around the North Sea. I started in Bergen on 25th May and finally reached the northern tip of Shetland on 28th September having stopped in London for a month or so in the middle of the trip.

I say it was summer, but it was snowing and raining in Bergen at the end of May, and it was so cold in Denmark at midsummer that I needed gloves and a wooly hat to walk on the beach.  Then, when it did get hot in Germany, there was no sea deep enough to swim in.  Nothing but mud and more mud.  But more of that another time.

The website dedicated to the North Sea Cycle Route has closed down, so I've placed links to the guidebooks I used at the bottom of this post.  The most useful general blog I've found about travelling by bike is Tom's Bike Trip.  I don't want to repeat what others have written, but there are a few things I discovered that might be helpful to you if you're thinking of making this journey, especially if you've not been on a long cycle trip before.  And if you're wondering whether you can do it, the answer is a definite YES!  The North Sea Cycle Route runs around the edge of Northern Europe.  You will never be terribly far from a shop, or a holiday home.  Much of the route is flat - too flat, some might say - and where it does get hilly the scenery more than repays the hard work.

I decided to start in Bergen because I wanted to finish in Shetland.  This meant I had to fly to Bergen with my bike.  At the end of the journey I travelled back to London by ferry and train from Shetland. I thought I had done a good job of packing my bike up for the flight.  I took off the front wheel, detached the handlebars and rear derailleur, removed the front rack and pedals, wrapped the vulnerable parts in cardboard and sealed up the whole thing in a CTC clear plastic bike bag bought from Wiggle.

I flew to Bergen with my partner by British Airways. They have a generous baggage allowance.  The bike counted as one piece of hold luggage and my partner checked another suitcase with my panniers and odd bits of bike. All seemed well when we arrived, and we spent a couple of days exploring Bergen before I put the bike together.  That was a mistake, because if I had put it together at the airport I might have realized there was something wrong. The bike steered very oddly and the brakes rubbed.  I adjusted them until they worked, but I couldn't figure out what was wrong.  It was only six weeks and 1200km later that Jon in the bike shop in Göteborg noticed that my forks were bent!

Luckily the bike was rideable and, looking back, I'm not sure it would have been a great start to the trip, making insurance claims and complaints at the airport.  I would also have felt obliged to try and get the forks fixed and I don't think that would have been easy.  The bike always feels a bit odd at first anyway, when it's heavily loaded, so I simply rode off along the coast of Norway.  However, in future I would always put the bike together at the airport.  You have no claim against the airline, or on most insurance policies, if you don't act at once.  And next time I pack the bike up, if there is a next time, I will remove the forks.

On the whole though I think if I did it again I'd avoid flying until the end of the trip. There was once a ferry between Lerwick and Bergen which meant there was no need to fly, but since 2014 there is not a single ferry between the UK and any Scandinavian country.  So I'd start in Shetland and do my journey in reverse, flying back from Bergen at the end knowing that the bike had done its job.

I set out from Bergen in the late afternoon in the rain and cycled a few kilometres to a friendly Bed and Breakfast south of the city.  It was close to the airport for Kate to fly home the following day, while I headed off around the North Sea.  My route for the day is here on Alltrails.

Tips:

  • If you fly with your bike, reassemble it at the airport to ensure that you can claim in the event of damage.  In my case the damage was not visible to a casual inspection.
  • Travelling with your bike by train or ferry is definitely less stressful than flying!
  • Always take gloves on a cycle tour.  Buffalo pile mitts are incredibly light and warm, even when wet.
Resources:
  • Norway:  NAF campsite guide. You can order online via the link, but it's free at any NAF campsite, and has a very good map in it!  I also took the comprehensive guide produced by Castor Forlag which comes in two packs of weatherproof maps full of information. It is very expensive and very good, and you can buy it direct from the maker, which is what I did.
  • Sweden:  It is hard to find a map of Sweden at a useful scale. They are either too vague or too detailed.  I relied on a vague map in combination with the Openfietsmap map of Northern Europe on my Garmin GPS.  I still got lost.  Openfietsmap provide free digital mapping of the whole of Europe.  If you have a Garmin you will need the Garmin image files, which I put on separate SD cards. When you download them don't forget to download Eastern Europe too.  I didn't, so my maps suddenly vanished in Northern Germany.
  • Denmark:  Now out of print in English (January 2018) there is a Bikeline guidebook for the route.  The German edition is here.  The English may be findable on Abebooks or Ebay.
  • Germany:  The German and Dutch sections are covered by three Bikeline guides - Nordseekustenradweg 1, 2, and 3.   These maps are also available from Stanfords in the UK.
  • Netherlands:  See above.
  • Belgium and France:  I didn't cycle this part of the route but I've seen this book recommended.
  • UK: The route follows National Cycle Route 1.  Maps available here.

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