Bikepacking: The Epic Bike Tour
Ever thought about a bikepacking holiday across Europe? We caught up with Veronika and Ben to learn a little bit from their experiences.
Itinerary: 1,100km riding, 12.5km altitude gain and 7 countries to arrive in Greece from Austria
Source: Google Maps
Q: What made you want to take this trip and how did you pick the overall route?
A: When we were at University we did a lot of touring around the UK such as Coast to Coast and Coast and Castles up to Scotland. Since starting work in London we have no longer had time for these trips so it has long been on our bucket list to do a proper bike packing tour again. With regards to the route, we have relatives in Austria which provided a natural starting point. Both of us have travelled quite a bit around western Europe but less so around the South East and Balkans and we were keen to explore this part of Europe more. Our original plan was to stick a bit more inland, heading via Sarajevo, but we were tempted by the Croatian Islands and given the limited time we had we decided to head pretty much straight for the coast which turned out to be a good choice. We didn’t plan our exact route in advance, but put it together as we went to leave us with more flexibility for rest days and to enjoy the places we found particularly stunning.
Q: Any particular highlights and/or lowlights? Any local delicacies that stick in the mind?
A: It was really amazing seeing the landscape change as we rode. Slovenia and Austria are very green and mountainous and obviously the further south you get it becomes more Mediterranean and much drier. And then of course Albania is a majority Muslim country while Macedonia is Christian Orthodox which also reflects in the architecture.
It is quite hard to narrow down our favourite bits. We loved the island hopping along the coast of Croatia, however that is arguably a quite well trodden path. Probably the most scenic day we did was climbing the 1000m out of Kotor Bay in Montenegro and cycling along Lake Skadar, the largest Southern European lake into Albania. That was a hard and hot day but very worth the effort. We started at 5am to get the 1000m climb out of the way before the main heat and got rewarded by some homemade doughnuts for breakfast at the top.
The most idyllic place we stopped in was Ohrid in Macedonia. Despite being a Unesco World Heritage site it has somehow still gone mostly unnoticed by foreign tourism (for Macedonians its very popular though!). We actually had a rest day there which was very relaxing, with a trip out onto the lake and some incredible local fish to feast on.
Some of the grittiest places we came through were in rural Albania and the outskirts of Tirana. The roads are not the best and there are a lot of stray dogs that can be rather scary when you are trying fix a puncture in the middle of nowhere - we had a couple of hairy moments. Looking back now it feels like it added to the adventure of the trip but we probably wouldn’t recommend the stretch between Skhoder to the Albanian capital.
Q: How did you plan the roads to take?
A: At the start we really only knew which countries we wanted to cycle through and we also knew we were most likely going to have to take one train or bus to make the whole distance in the time we had available. Given the train network gets worse the further South you get, taking the train in Croatia was really the best choice if we also wanted to see Slovenia. So we booked the train to Split ahead of the trip to make sure we could take our bikes on it. Other than that we planned our routes every evening on the basis of how far we had come that day, how tired we were and where a good spot for the next day’s stay would be.
We did bring camping gear but tried to avoid wild camping as we weren’t able to carry enough water, plus its not actually legal…. To plan our route we used Komoot, which is very handy as you don’t need a laptop for it. It allows to create routes based on popular segments and also tells you about road surfaces which was crucial for us as we were on road bikes. From Komoot you can export GPX files to Wahoo directly. For the day out of Kotor Bay and along lake Skadar we used the EuroVelo route which is a European initiative to create safe and scenic cycle routes – highly recommended.
Q: Any tips on what to pack, what not to and how to carry it?
A: We used saddle, frame and handlebar bags and would recommend trying to go this way rather than having anything on your back. We also didn’t want the weight of actual paniers as there was a lot of climbing on our route so we aimed to stay as light as possible. This worked well for us as we had some easy access pockets on the top tube for the kit/food we needed during the and the heavier kit in the handlebar and saddle bags.
We only had one set of cycling gear each which we thought was a risky move, but turned out well. We washed the kit every evening. Since it was very hot it dried pretty quickly most nights (except for one unlucky and rainy day in Slovenia…). We had a big medical kit which we fortunately didn’t use and a lot of tools and spare tubes which we did! Other than that we had one set of casual clothes and flip flops each, as well as a mini down jacket and rain gear. We only had to use the rain stuff once on the whole trip so it felt a bit unnecessary, but had it actually rained we would have been in trouble without it so we have no regrets for taking it.
The one thing that was unnecessary was the tent. While we camped for a few nights at the start, hotels/bnbs became very cheap the further south we got and it being as hot as it was we were craving an air-conditioned room. Sleeping inside a tent at 30 degrees is not very pleasant! So in hindsight we would have probably left the camping gear behind.
Q: How did you get your bikes to the start and from the finish?
A: We flew to the starting point in Austria with the bikes and were able to leave bike boxes with relatives there. The only place we booked ahead on the trip was the hotel for the final night close to the airport in Thessaloniki. We arranged for a DHL pick up of the bike boxes from our relatives in Austria and shipment to the Hotel in Greece. We specifically chose a big chain hotel which would be able to store the boxes for a few days and told them in advance that they were coming. The shipment cost about Euro 80 per bike box.