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Amsterdam to Rome: Lessons Learned...

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Amsterdam to Rome: Lessons Learned...

Old 08-31-11, 07:45 AM
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Amsterdam to Rome: Lessons Learned...

My friend and I recently completed our ďcredit cardĒ tour from Amsterdam to Rome, and I thought I would post some lessons learned. I know that many or most of the people frequenting this forum tend to ride fully loaded, so perhaps this info will help someone else planning a credit card trip.

First of all, here are the unexpected issues and problems we encountered:

Navigation was more of an issue than I expected. I had plotted out the course online (ridewithgps.com) and downloaded the tracks into my Garmin 500. The advantage to doing this was to avoid carrying maps, but it came with some tradeoffs. The benefit was that we avoided the need for detailed maps of everywhere we went, but the Garmin 500 has very limited mapping capabilities - you literally only get a line on the screen telling you where to go. More problematic with the Garmin 500, however, is that it often wouldnít updated itself as we entered towns and we sometimes werenít sure what roads to use. After a while, our strategy was to pick a road and then let the Garmin tell us if we were off course. Not ideal, but it worked. So, if I had it to do again, I would use a different Garmin with better mapping capabilities.

I also misjudged our expected average speed for each day - even on days when we were really riding quite fast, the average was always slowed by the need to slow down through towns. That was never a problem for the trip and we made it to all of our destinations in a reasonable amount of time, but we did spend more time riding than expected. So, if someone was more ambitious about daily mileage, that would be my first concern. FWIW, I think our daily average was 68 miles and the longest day was about 93.

It was also harder to find well-stocked bike shops than I expected. But, that is in part because the only times we really needed one we just waited until we came across one. When we did find shops, the people were very friendly and helped us out right away (my friend needed to adjust his Brooks saddle and later I needed new brake pads). Language was always an issue, but with bikes itís generally pretty easy to point and such.

One unexpected headache in Italy was that hardly anything was open on Saturday afternoon, and the same thing happened on weekdays in the afternoon. What made it even more frustrating was that each place closed at different times, so you just never knew what you could count on. This was an issue for us because we were often in rural areas without many options. Fortunately, we always ended up getting what we needed and quickly learned to take additional supplies of water and food.

Equipment

Bags. We used Lone Peak panniers, which was a calculated tradeoff to save weight in lieu of having waterproof bags. We rode in a LOT of rain - much more than expected - and sometimes we had standing water in the bags at the end of the day. We both wrapped our clothes and other stuff that needed to remain dry in dry bags, so nothing ever got wet that couldnít get wet with the exception of my street shoes getting wet along with a paperback book. If I had it to do over again, Iíd probably still use the LP bags and carry an additional dry bag. The amount of riding in the rain really surprised us.

I used an Ortlieb medium sized handlebar bag and it was great. The only thing I didnít like about it was that the divider tended to move around and not do its job. But, the waterproofing was amazing. On one ride when we were riding very fast for a long time down a hill in pouring rain (over an hour), I later realized that I hadnít snapped the top shut at all and not a drop of water got in.

We both rode road bikes with compact cranks (50-34), medium sized rear derailleurs, and mountain bike cassettes (11-32). The gearing worked for us, but a lower gear would have been nice in some places because we encountered a LOT more long and steep grades than expected. Lots of stuff at 10% or higher for extended periods.

We also both used Mavic K10 Kysrium wheels, which are high quality road wheels and not made for touring. Since we were carrying less than 20 lbs of equipment and neither of us are large riders, we figured the wheels would do fine and they were great. No issues whatsoever.

Tires. We both used Continental Grand Prix 4 Season tires; mine were 27s and my friends were 25s. The worst extended road conditions were old cobblestones on a descent in the Alps and a 3 mile stretch of gravel road in Italy. We were prepared for the cobbles and took it real slow over them, but the gravel was more of a nail-biter, especially since we were in the boonies and carried no back-up tires. No problems, however. Between the two of us, only one flat on the trip and that was from a piece of metal on a regular road halfway through the trip.

So, all in all, I think the equipment worked out real well. As far as clothing, the only thing I didnít end up ever using was a 3rd pair of socks and a 2nd pair of nylon shorts. I would leave those home next time.

Unexpectedly Good

Other than the autobahn/autostrada, we rode on just about every type of road you can think of: true bike paths, bike paths that shared a sidewalk, highways with a shoulder, highways without a shoulder, urban areas with all the usual obstacles (trolley tracks, potholes, disappearing bike paths, etc.). And, we rode in and among all kinds of people and other vehicles (other cyclists, scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks, horses, horse-drawn carts) in a variety of congestion and/or freedom. Throughout the entire trip, we never received a hostile or rude glance, never got honked at, and never felt like we were out of place. In short, the ďshare the roadĒ mentality was completely adopted everywhere we went.

Bike paths and car traffic

It seems like all of the The Netherlands are covered in bike paths. In towns, they are everywhere and out in the middle of nowhere, they are still there and in great condition.

Germany was almost as good, at least in some places, and in bigger cities the path shared the sidewalk with clearly identified lanes that pedestrians stayed out of. It was also okay to ride on the street with traffic. Depending on the situation, we did one or the other.

In Switzerland, the appearance and quality of bike paths was much more random. When we crossed into Switzerland from Germany in a very rural and sleepy area, the road was brand new and there were bike paths on both sides of the two lane street - kind of overkill. That tended to come and go, but in general there was usually a good place to ride. The area around Lake Lucerne was incredible for the bike paths - sometimes they were literally cantilevered out over the lake, and other times bikes had their own tunnel - quite amazing and an incredible testament to the Swiss commitment to cycling.

Iím not sure if we ever saw a bike path in Italy. We kind of expected that and we were also concerned about getting routinely buzzed by fast-driving Italian motorists. Fortunately, even in those conditions, riding in Italy felt quite safe the entire time. Thatís actually saying a lot because we tended to ride on roads with more traffic than in other countries and we sometimes found ourselves on winding roads with blind spots, along with quite a bit of riding on highways and even what would pass for an American freeway on our last day as we approached Rome. No problems whatsoever.

Two general observations about riding in Europe.
The roundabouts are great because you donít have to stop, and you quickly get the sense that everyone is really paying attention - a nice change from many American intersections! Second, while the bike paths through urban areas were usually very good (Zurich was a very notable exception), we often chose to ride on the streets because that tended to be much quicker. This was especially the case in roundabouts that had their own bike lanes because the bike lanes cut across traffic instead of flowing with it. Consequently, we quickly learned to stay on the road when roundabouts approached.

Hotels, Booking, and Bike Storage
I booked all our rooms ahead of time mostly using online booking sites like Booking.com. I also used TripAdvisor.com for reviews of hotels. Except for one 4 star hotel, everything was a 3 star hotel, meaning they tended to be middle of the road in quality. In Europe, the star ratings refer to the amenities offered, and not the quality of the room or service. We never had a problem checking in and most places were waiting for us and had accommodations already prepared for our bikes.

July and August tend to be non-peak times, so we probably could have gotten away without booking ahead, but I didnít want to be hunting around for a hotel at the end of a ride. The tradeoff was less flexibility, so some people might like doing it the other way.

Also, most hotels include a free breakfast that tended to include bread, pastries, cold cuts, yogurt, juice, and coffee. The only downside to the free breakfast is that using it precluded getting an early start to the riding.

Our bikes stayed in a variety of places - storerooms behind the front desk, next to the kitchen, out back in a sheltered area, in parking garages, etc. The only time we locked them was when they were in parking garages and we would put the bikes astride a concrete column and then lock each wheel and frame together at the front and back. In one case, there were other bikes in the garage and they werenít locked. All the parking garages we used had controlled access and I never felt like theft was a big concern.

Between the two panniers, my handlebar bag, 2 water bottles, and helmet, it was sometimes difficult carrying everything to the room and back, especially if the bottles were full. My friend had slightly larger panniers and no handlebar bag and it was easier for him to manage everything off the bike, but I liked having the convenience of the handlebar bag.

Most unusual...
The most unusual thing about our trip is that no one ever seemed to think we were unusual. I think that really speaks to the difference in perception about cycling between Europeans and Americans. There were times when we were riding through heavy rain in small towns and whenever people saw us, no one ever acted surprised or shocked. Maybe Iím reading something into it that isnít there, but if I had seen us back in America, I would have at least done a double take and maybe watched for a bit. Just not the case in Europe. And, whenever we talked to locals about our trip, they tended to be much more interested in the places we were going than the fact that we were riding our bikes there. Again, I think this is different than in the US - if I told someone around here that I was going to ride to San Antonio, I can guarantee that they would first be surprised that I was going by bike before mentioning the merits of SA.

Final Pros and Cons

Like I said in the beginning, I recognize that credit card touring isnít the usual way most people on this forum travel. Our approach worked for us because we both come from a background of regular road riding and our emphasis was on the daily ride itself. I hope that makes some sense.

The primary drawback to credit card touring is the cost of lodging and dining out, along with the need to be somewhere for the night with a hotel. Our trip was only 3 weeks and if it had been 3 months, the expenses would have been a much bigger consideration. That being said, we looked at the expenses in the context of a regular vacation where we would be staying in hotels and dining out anyway, so they didnít seem out of line to us.

The main benefit of credit touring was twofold. One, it was nice to know that whatever happened during the ride that there was a hot shower and clean clothes waiting at the end of the day. Second, and more importantly, we travelled relatively light (our racks, bags, and belongings totaled about 18 lbs each) and that meant we could cover more ground and go up longer hills than fully loaded riders. For example, we were able to go up and over the Alps via St. Gotthard Pass in one day whereas all the online accounts of the same trip by fully loaded riders do it in two days. We also climbed lots of smaller mountains and hills in Switzerland and Italy and it would have been a lot harder to do with a fully loaded rig. Iím not trying to say one approach is better, just that there are tangible tradeoffs to consider and we did what worked best for our ambitions.
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Old 08-31-11, 09:23 AM
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Nice writeup. Sounds like a great trip. You've encapsulated credit card touring in Europe very well. CC-tournig has its plusses and minuses as you point out, including pre-arranged destinations and thus - gotta be there schedules. But it's a fair trade-off for lots of people. And the attitude of people I met while biking was almost uniformly exceptional in terms of being helpful and accepting.
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Old 08-31-11, 11:07 AM
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Thanks for the informative trip report! Did you use your own bikes or did your rent?
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Old 08-31-11, 11:07 AM
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Thanks for sharing!
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Old 08-31-11, 11:37 AM
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Interesting info.

"July and August tend to be non-peak times, so we probably could have gotten away without booking ahead, but I didn’t want to be hunting around for a hotel at the end of a ride. The tradeoff was less flexibility, so some people might like doing it the other way."

Not sure what you mean by this. July and August are quite the peak time, and can be a nightmare if you are at a popular vacation destination. That said, because it is peak time, some areas of the continent will be empty because everyone is on vacation.

What is credit card touring? You mean, non camping touring?
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Old 08-31-11, 12:37 PM
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Originally Posted by OldZephyr View Post
Thanks for the informative trip report! Did you use your own bikes or did your rent?
We took our own bikes. I used a cardboard carton from a bike shop and took it on the plane with me. My friend shipped his over using a plastic bike carrier and he paid quite a bit to do so (not sure how much, however), plus he had to ship the carrier to Rome from Amsterdam.

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Old 08-31-11, 12:40 PM
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Originally Posted by chas58 View Post
Interesting info.

"July and August tend to be non-peak times, so we probably could have gotten away without booking ahead, but I didn’t want to be hunting around for a hotel at the end of a ride. The tradeoff was less flexibility, so some people might like doing it the other way."

Not sure what you mean by this. July and August are quite the peak time, and can be a nightmare if you are at a popular vacation destination. That said, because it is peak time, some areas of the continent will be empty because everyone is on vacation.

What is credit card touring? You mean, non camping touring?
It was definitely off-peak in many of the places we went to. Lots of places in Italy were closed or about to close for their summer break. For example, I arrived in Rome on a Friday and had to hustle over to the bike shop to get a bike box for my return trip because the shop was closing that afternoon for their vacation. In Viterbo, lots of restaurants were closed for holiday. I'm sure there are other places that were much busier (wherever everyone went to!).

Yes, by credit card touring I mean using a credit card for hotels and dining instead of taking more gear and camping. That seems to be the term that most people around here use.
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Old 08-31-11, 01:37 PM
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Yep. Rome shuts down in August. But try to get a room on the Adriatic coast without a reservation and you will likely be SOL.

When I toured in Andalucia, the hardest thing I had to get used to (other than the steep hills) were the shop and restaurant hours. At the time, virtually everywhere observed the siesta religiously. When I was camping and cooking, I was often the first person in the local grocery store when it opened back up again at 6 p.m. if I had not been able to shop before 2 p.m. When I ate out, I was usually one of the first people at the restaurant for dinner, which sometimes was not served until 9 p.m.
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Old 08-31-11, 09:34 PM
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Excellent review.
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Old 09-01-11, 06:03 AM
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Originally Posted by SBRDude View Post
The most unusual thing about our trip is that no one ever seemed to think we were unusual. I think that really speaks to the difference in perception about cycling between Europeans and Americans.
has a lot to do with the short distances in Europe between villages, and the amount of luggage you're carrying imo
in general, the further away you get from cities and tourism and the more gear you carry the more attention you get, sort of
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Old 09-03-11, 09:46 AM
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good to hear of your trip, knew you were going, glad it went well. You two were really hauling keester, 120-190k per day, fast fast fast!
About your panniers, after getting waterproof panniers, I dont think I will ever go back, just so nice not to worry.
Gearing, I suspect that after overloading, this is the most common thing learned from touring with stuff on a bike. I know I certainly did.
Must have been neat though with so little weight, as you say, its not better than fully loaded with tent etc, but different, but it must be fun having a higher average speed and for climbing.

flight back with your bike was alright for your bike? I presume so as you didnt mention anything.
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Old 09-03-11, 10:36 AM
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Originally Posted by SBRDude View Post
Most unusual...
The most unusual thing about our trip is that no one ever seemed to think we were unusual. I think that really speaks to the difference in perception about cycling between Europeans and Americans.
I've only been to Europe a few times but the bike/car dynamic that told me this was a different place was in a rental car going from Austria into Germany. Driving down a windy mtn. road into a valley I was behind four other cars going about 50mph on a two lane country road when everyone slowed down to 20mph behind some old farts (which I am now) riding road bikes. Having ridden in California all my life and as a club racer I'm tuned to bike/car interactions. What amazed me was how polite the cars were, not tailgating, waiting until it was safe to pass just as they would if there was farm equipment on the road, then passing giving plenty of room. You could tell no one was itching to get past the bikes or crowd them. Once past everyone went back up to speed. It was like being on the autobahn, there are rules and cars aren't for communicating territorial issues. I'm afraid that will never happen in the US.
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Old 09-03-11, 12:06 PM
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Salutations, Godfather!

I absolutely loved this review.

You should do this kinda thing more often and write about all of the details afterwards. It's certain to make for good reading, and NOT necessarily just for us cycle folks!

Respectfully,
Slim
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Old 09-03-11, 11:06 PM
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Originally Posted by LeeG View Post
I've only been to Europe a few times but the bike/car dynamic that told me this was a different place was in a rental car going from Austria into Germany. Driving down a windy mtn. road into a valley I was behind four other cars going about 50mph on a two lane country road when everyone slowed down to 20mph behind some old farts (which I am now) riding road bikes. Having ridden in California all my life and as a club racer I'm tuned to bike/car interactions. What amazed me was how polite the cars were, not tailgating, waiting until it was safe to pass just as they would if there was farm equipment on the road, then passing giving plenty of room. You could tell no one was itching to get past the bikes or crowd them. Once past everyone went back up to speed. It was like being on the autobahn, there are rules and cars aren't for communicating territorial issues. I'm afraid that will never happen in the US.
In some parts of Canada it already has started to happen. We have just returned from three weeks there, with about half cycling, half driving. With both types of vehicles, I was almost astonished at the general behaviour when not on Trans-Canada 1. Even in Vancouver, we only experienced one aggressive incident while driving (and that might have been my fault). We spent much of our time east of Vancouver in a rural setting, and that was delightful in terms of road manners.

Part of it seems to be respect for the 50km/h speed limit when posted, as well as the two, three and four-way stop system at junctions (which we don't have in Australia). I found both cycling and driving quite the pleasure except for some sections of the aforementioned TC-1, especially on Vancouver Island. My previous visits to Alberta were similar.

In general, I found the experience to be very much the same as in France -- nice on anything but the motorways.
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Old 09-04-11, 12:58 AM
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Heck, fly into AMS, train station is there , in the basement.

US spent its money on weapons of mass destruction, instead,
aren't you proud?
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Old 09-04-11, 03:45 AM
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Originally Posted by Rowan View Post
In some parts of Canada it already has started to happen. We have just returned from three weeks there, with about half cycling, half driving. With both types of vehicles, I was almost astonished at the general behaviour when not on Trans-Canada 1. Even in Vancouver, we only experienced one aggressive incident while driving (and that might have been my fault). We spent much of our time east of Vancouver in a rural setting, and that was delightful in terms of road manners.

Part of it seems to be respect for the 50km/h speed limit when posted, as well as the two, three and four-way stop system at junctions (which we don't have in Australia). I found both cycling and driving quite the pleasure except for some sections of the aforementioned TC-1, especially on Vancouver Island. My previous visits to Alberta were similar.

In general, I found the experience to be very much the same as in France -- nice on anything but the motorways.
I broadly agree. In May and June I did a two-month loop starting and finishing in Toronto and going through Quebec (out to the Gaspe peninsula) New Brunswick, New England and upstate New York. I felt pretty comfortable everywhere in Canada, had very little problem with drivers. Of course, there are so few vehicles on the roads compared with the UK I am almost bound to find it relaxing. And the States wasn't bad either, as far as drivers were concerned. It's true that once I was in the States everyone began to react to me a little differently, though. Most people regarded it as inconceivable that I'd ride 2500 miles on a bicycle, I was obviously crazy.

SBRDude, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Mainland Europe is pretty wonderful for cyclists, and I've contemplated the Amsterdam/Rome route myself. There's an overnight ferry to Amsterdam from where I live. Next year I'm going to start there and do a circuit of France, down the Atlantic Coast to the Pyrenees then back up the East side taking in a few Alps along the way.
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Old 09-05-11, 02:41 AM
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Great write up. I live in Europe, but the UK, which is much poorer than continental Europe for road manners and general cycling provision, but have toured in Germany, and cycled in France, Spain and Austria. It certainly is different there, and the sheer number of cyclists, often cyclists doing long tours, is heartening.
As for August being non-peak or peak time, I think it depends on which country. France, and a lot of the hotter countries tend to shut down, but are also popular destination for foreign travellers, which can be the worst of both worlds, as nothing seems to be open, but most of the (resort, at least) hotels are fully booked. I've never cycled in Germany in August, but imagine it's pretty much business as usual, and away from the Baltic coast, which I believe to be very popular, many Germans go to Spain, so the country might well appear to be off-peak.
Interesting to read about Italy, as it's a place I'd like to tour one day.

As I said, really interesting read, thanks for the time and effort.
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Old 09-05-11, 07:51 AM
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Originally Posted by Rowan View Post
In some parts of Canada it already has started to happen.
last time I was in Vancouver on a bike was in '82. Same impression as the trip later in Austria. I almost felt bad being on the road because people were being so nice to us.
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Old 09-06-11, 07:49 AM
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Originally Posted by djb View Post
good to hear of your trip, knew you were going, glad it went well. You two were really hauling keester, 120-190k per day, fast fast fast!
About your panniers, after getting waterproof panniers, I dont think I will ever go back, just so nice not to worry.
Gearing, I suspect that after overloading, this is the most common thing learned from touring with stuff on a bike. I know I certainly did.
Must have been neat though with so little weight, as you say, its not better than fully loaded with tent etc, but different, but it must be fun having a higher average speed and for climbing.

flight back with your bike was alright for your bike? I presume so as you didnt mention anything.
Yep, I wouldn't have minded having waterproof bags. One concern I had was about mildew and stuff like that, but I think I based those concerns on my summer experiences here in Texas where it is very hot during the day anything left in a sealed compartment would get yucky real quick if it had any moisture whatsoever. Since it was never that hot on my trip, that probably wouldn't have been a problem. If I ever go fully loaded and need a 2nd set of bags, I'll probably get waterproof ones and have a nice balance that way.

Thanks for asking about the bike - it made it back just fine, even though I wasn't nearly as careful about packing it up for the return journey.
Originally Posted by LeeG View Post
I've only been to Europe a few times but the bike/car dynamic that told me this was a different place was in a rental car going from Austria into Germany. Driving down a windy mtn. road into a valley I was behind four other cars going about 50mph on a two lane country road when everyone slowed down to 20mph behind some old farts (which I am now) riding road bikes. Having ridden in California all my life and as a club racer I'm tuned to bike/car interactions. What amazed me was how polite the cars were, not tailgating, waiting until it was safe to pass just as they would if there was farm equipment on the road, then passing giving plenty of room. You could tell no one was itching to get past the bikes or crowd them. Once past everyone went back up to speed. It was like being on the autobahn, there are rules and cars aren't for communicating territorial issues. I'm afraid that will never happen in the US.
That was my experience as well. As an American used to our "rules," any time I had a car behind me I got a bit paranoid just out of instinct and prepared for some kind of reckless pass and/or a honk, but that never happened. On occasion, a car would give a friendly honk (i.e., a quick toot) to alert me of its presence, but they always waited until it was safe before passing.

Also, FWIW, the Italian road riders we saw tended to ride much more to the middle of the lane than we did, even in traffic, and the cars were fine with that.

Originally Posted by SlimRider View Post
Salutations, Godfather!

I absolutely loved this review.

You should do this kinda thing more often and write about all of the details afterwards. It's certain to make for good reading, and NOT necessarily just for us cycle folks!

Respectfully,
Slim
Thanks for the kind words. I'm not sure if you read the actual blog about the trip - I provided a link in the original post.

Anyway, blogging about the trip required a bit of patience, but on a daily basis it forced me to put some thoughts and memories down that I'm sure I would have either forgotten or at least mixed up. I think many people want to write a journal about their trip, but it's easy to get out of the habit and knowing that friends and family are expecting an update helps you to stay on track!

Originally Posted by Gotte View Post
Great write up. I live in Europe, but the UK, which is much poorer than continental Europe for road manners and general cycling provision, but have toured in Germany, and cycled in France, Spain and Austria. It certainly is different there, and the sheer number of cyclists, often cyclists doing long tours, is heartening.
As for August being non-peak or peak time, I think it depends on which country. France, and a lot of the hotter countries tend to shut down, but are also popular destination for foreign travellers, which can be the worst of both worlds, as nothing seems to be open, but most of the (resort, at least) hotels are fully booked. I've never cycled in Germany in August, but imagine it's pretty much business as usual, and away from the Baltic coast, which I believe to be very popular, many Germans go to Spain, so the country might well appear to be off-peak.
Interesting to read about Italy, as it's a place I'd like to tour one day.

As I said, really interesting read, thanks for the time and effort.
Germany did indeed seem to be business as usual. I don't recall seeing any businesses closed for the holiday until about half way through Switzerland on our stop before going over the Alps.

Also, we ended up getting a great deal on a 4 star hotel in Modena, Italy. Very nice place and it seemed like there were only a few people staying there. In fact, they might have said something about how the hotel was getting ready to close down for a couple weeks, but I'm not entirely sure.
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We both rode road bikes with compact cranks (50-34), medium sized rear derailleurs, and mountain bike cassettes (11-32). The gearing worked for us, but a lower gear would have been nice in some places because we encountered a LOT more long and steep grades than expected. Lots of stuff at 10% or higher for extended periods.
Steep grades are a problem in much of Europe. Next year I'll put on a long RD and add a 34 or 36 teeth cog.
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