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Losing Weight

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Losing Weight

Did I mention Corsica is hilly? It’s only 200-300km to the southern tip by bicycle, but our most likely route includes over 5000 meters of vertical climbing. Some small parts are rather steep at 20% or more as well. With our heavy bikes, it’s not going to be easy. But as Isabelle keeps reminding me, we’re not in a hurry, so it doesn’t matter. She's right, but I still prefer to make the task a little easier.

A village in the mountains near Montemaggiore.

During our rest day on the beach we did another 'lightening the load' operation. We went through all our panniers to find items we could throw away or send home.

It was easy to lose a few minor things here and there. But the three main problems are:

  1. My photography gear is heavy. Including the computer everything adds up to about 7-9kg.
  2. The sheer length of the trip. I could bike a week or two without shaving, using contact lenses, cooking warm meals, using a computer, having extra clothes and warm layers, etc. But living on the road for five years kind of forces me to take everything with me.
  3. Solo detours. We don’t plan to stay together 24/7, so we still need to carry two tents, stoves, toothpastes and various other items that we could narrow down otherwise.
"Yeah it's not bad," he said modestly.

On the very next day, we got a surprise opportunity to temporarily eliminate the last two problems. We stayed at the house of a nice old couple from Paris. They had retired from being engineers in the water and energy industries. Presumably quite successful ones, considering the size of, and amazing view from, their Corsican summer villa. We had a chance to leave most of our belongings in their garage, and take only what was necessary, for a little 50km loop inland: From Algajole to Calvi, Montemaggiore, Sant’Antonino, then via Pigna and Corbara back to Algajole for our stuff.

Most people could ride that in a day despite a few hills. We’re clearly not most people, so as we left we said we’d return to fetch our bags in about five days.

I left behind three heavy panniers and Isabelle did about the same. The trailer was nearly empty except for the dog. It seemed crazy what a massive pile of stuff we could suddenly live without. And the difference while cycling was huge. Climbs that previously would’ve required pushing the bike for an hour or two, were suddenly relatively easy to pedal up with only a few rest breaks.

The view at breakfast.

It felt great to lose all that weight. Like we were going on a mini-adventure from our bigger journey. I'm beginning to understand people with bikepacking and lightweight setups more now. I doubt I'll ever get to that point for as long as I'm a photographer, but some changes to my setup might be in order anyway.

This detour will probably teach us a lot about about what's necessary and what isn't. Afterwards we'll be going through everything once again, with new eyes.

The less possessions you have, the more freedom you gain.

Somewhere behind all the mountains is Sardinia.
Corsica, high and low.
 

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Single Frames - France

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Single Frames - France

Sometimes the journey is so eventful that it’s impossible to recount even a fraction of it. Especially with my attempt to make each blog post about one specific subject. And due to skipping ahead in the last post, there are many untold tales from France. So to return back a little, here’s another edition of single frame stories.

On a side note, this update is probably the only one so far without any nature photos.

In the quaint little town of Cluny, we stayed several days at the home of a lovely madame called Elisabeth. She was in her sixties and enjoyed traveling, so was happy to host a couple of exotic nomads. After all, meeting people from faraway lands is the next best thing to being on the road. Her home was one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever seen, with very zen-like decor. She practiced Tai Chi and meditation with calm music in the background.

Outside was less relaxing, because we happened to be there during the Festival of Light:

Blessings be upon thee!

On our third day in France we were desperate about finding a place to sleep. We were stranded in the city of Metz after sunset, and cycling in the dark without bicycle paths wasn't an option. We even called some hotels, without any luck. By the Metz cathedral we discovered a Christmas market with a huge Ferris wheel, and forgot about our homelessness for an hour to drink mulled wine and take some photos.

As is sometimes the case, you find what you need only when you stop searching for it. Because soon we met Nora, a Moroccan girl with a constant smile on her face. She was working as security for the market, and didn't speak English, but used Google Translate to talk to us. Explaining that she liked to help travellers, she invited us to stay in her home nearby after her shift. We ended up having long conversations with the help of the app, and it really opened up a whole new world of communication. English isn't widely spoken in France, so this tip has saved us many times since then, and will be priceless in the future.

Metz.jpg

When Swedish people travel the world, they have an advantage that the rest of us don’t. It’s called Ikea. Apparently there’s a grocery store in every Ikea store selling genuine Swedish food. Isabelle nearly fainted from sheer joy when she saw one near Metz in France. Then spent what felt like three hours shopping for delicacies from back home while I guarded the bicycles.

Later we stopped so Isabelle could cook some of her new-found treasures for lunch. It’s nice to have some special food every now and then. But I do like traveling with someone who doesn’t require things like fancy restaurants and swimming pools. With bicycle touring the surroundings can get rather unluxurious. If you can be happy cooking Swedish meatballs with frozen fingers in an abandoned warehouse, life is pretty easy.

Kira is also happy wherever she is.

Then again, it's mostly not dirt floors and spray-painted walls when we stop. Along the Voie Verte bike path we had lunch with a nice view of the fortress of Berze. The sky was mostly overcast, but I noticed a sliver of light passing through the hill and got a picture just in time. In the second photo I took only ten seconds later the light on the castle was again flat and boring.

In hindsight, we should've asked if we could stay there for the night.

Earlier I wrote about Dutch hospitality, but I must say the French are no less generous. We've spent almost every night in warm beds after eating three-course dinners (with cheese and wine) with the family we just met. Even when I was cycling without two cute girls for a week people still opened their doors and welcomed me inside when I asked for help. And in the mornings they offer breakfast and even pack us lunch. If there's one thing the French consider important to share, it's food. Below we're eating lunch baguettes prepared for us by a cheerful old lady who hosted us in Chainens.

One of the challenges we’ve had while traveling together is our different speeds. I’ve been much faster with my lighter bike, which sometimes results in me being bored or cold while waiting. Or Isabelle can be stressed about feeling too slow. To balance out the weight and our speeds, we finally came up with a decent solution. All it took was a little rearranging:

The main reason I wanted the trailer is because now the colours match so much better.

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Uphills Are Hard

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Uphills Are Hard

After Mo i Rana in Krogen, there was a 7km tunnel unavailable to cyclists. The only alternative route was almost twice as long and went over the mountain instead. It was the toughest climb so far, though still only 580 meters from sea level. It took me three hours of mostly walking my bike up.

As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve had some trouble with uphills on this trip. This is only partly due to my laziness. Especially at the end of the day, I often prefer to walk just because it’s slower and easier. I don’t need to exert as much energy, so there’s also less sweating. But now that the mountains are getting higher, it’s not just preference. It’s genuinely too difficult to cycle uphill.

The views are eventually nice though.

I was hoping and expecting to be stronger by this point. Usually after a month of cycling my legs feel better and the daily distances begin to grow. Maybe I’m getting old at mid-thirties, but that hasn’t really happened yet on this tour. So I'll need to lighten the bike somehow.

Besides brake pads, another reason I visited the bike shop Mo i Rana was actually to lighten my gear ratios. If I could just pedal more easily in the steep parts, it should do the trick. The mechanic tried to fit a much lighter rear cassette, but it wasn’t compatible with my shifter. In the end they didn’t have a wide enough selection of parts for the job, so we switched back to my old gears. I can try again in Trondheim.

Mountain at sunset in Helgeland, Norway.

Another solution is, of course, to carry less stuff. I’m sure I can still find many items in my inventory that I could easily do without. And some that could be replaced by a lighter version.

With a small amount of planning, my food and water weight could be reduced drastically. Right now I carry up to three liters of water, but that could easily be two or one by just checking ahead for places to refill at. Or perhaps I could buy a filter system that weighs an additional couple hundred grams, but means I’d need to carry hardly any water up the mountains.

Honestly, my food system is kind of ridiculous. The principle of having extra calories so I can stay camped when I want is fine, but there’s been no consideration for weight anywhere. My go-to breakfast is müsli with a banana, an apple, raisins and a nice 3dl carton of Norwegian coffee cream (10% fat for the calories). Now that’s a tasty and good meal, but the portion itself weighs quite a bit. I’d be better off eating away the water heavy fruit right after visiting a store. And in any case I’m still left with up to 700 grams of extra raisins and müsli for future breakfasts in the bottom of the pannier.

Or if I want to eat a few sandwiches during the day, I may end up carrying a huge loaf of bread, at least 150g of cheese, a cucumber, and a 475g squeeze bottle of spread. Compared to what I’m actually eating, most of it is just dead weight.

Then there’s tea. I like tea. But I need sugar in it. And you can’t buy sugar in a small package. Usually it only comes in a one kilogram sack. I try to look for the half kilo box of sugar cubes, but even that is a lot of excess to carry just for a cup of tea.

So it looks like I need to introduce some actual sense into my packing, at least as long as I’m in a mountainous area like Norway. I’m not in a hurry as such, but if I walk up every single hill from here on, it’ll be snowing before I get to south Sweden.

Fishing boat by a pier at sunset in Norway.
Bike camping spot at beach during sunset in Helgeland, Norway.

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Lightening the Load

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Lightening the Load

My method of packing for a bicycle tour has always been a kind of “bring everything and see what happens” approach. For my first ever tour in 2013 I brought too much stuff, and I’ve only added more items and pannier capacity every year henceforth. Looks like I’ve finally reached the limit of what I can carry, though. Now it’s time to get lighter.

With my backpack susceptible to water leakage, I had to stop and think of an alternative. The backpack itself is extremely useful, even necessary, when I go hiking or even just buying groceries. I can take all the important stuff with me safely and easily. Carrying everything in a pannier would be possible, but very uncomfortable, and as always, comfort is something I don’t make unnecessary compromises with on very long tours.

I don’t think a plain rain cover will ever be 100% waterproof either, so the only choice was to put the backpack in the big red Ortlieb rack pack. Which meant I had to make room in it first.

Digging through every pannier, I looked for things I didn't need. The main culprit was my hammock. I don’t sleep in a hammock. The idea with bringing it was to see how it compares to touring with a tent, but I hadn’t used it once in the first month, and probably wouldn’t be needing it in the future either. I mailed it home.

I also tossed a tarp, an old extra spare tube that had been in my repair kit for years with no punctures (I still have three more), and various other small items that I deemed unnecessary.

All of that took up to 2kg of weight off the bike, and now the backpack could fit inside the rear pannier. With the lower weight distribution the bicycle feels steadier in addition to being lighter. Needless to say, I’m very happy with these little tweaks!

This should probably be a recurring ritual. Next time at the two month mark I’ll go through all my items, consider how many times I’ve needed them, and leave out anything I can live without. Letting go of unnecessary baggage is quite liberating.

In the first month I’ve cycled 1000km, which is quite a pleasant pace. The speed may increase after Norway, when I’m stronger and the land is flatter and less photogenic. But even at a lazy 33km per day average, I’d still be well ahead of schedule for 5 years and 50000 kilometers.

Looks like I’ll be able to take plenty of detours - or rest days - in the months and years to come.

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Never Thought I’d be Happy to See a Tunnel

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Never Thought I’d be Happy to See a Tunnel

What kind of circumstances does it require to make a 2.5 kilometer tunnel, all of it an uphill climb, look appealing to a cyclist? Cold, rain, and a laptop water damage emergency.

Let me paint a picture to those of you who have never cycled through a tunnel:

Imagine it’s summer. You’re on a bicycle tour. The sun is shining and birds are singing. You couldn’t be happier. Until you turn around a bend and your heart sinks. The road continues into blackness through a mountain.

So far I've also had to "imagine" summer.

All of a sudden, you’re banished from The Shire into the Mines of Moria. The temperature drops 20 degrees to near zero. Drops of icy water fall from the cracks in the rock onto your skin. The floor is wet and slippery. Strange echoes and creepy unidentifiable tunnel sounds, almost like whispers, slither into your ears.

You turn your head to try to light up every nook and crevice with your headlamp to look for monsters. Every two seconds your breath fogs up and hits the beam of light, essentially blinding you.

And then you hear the rumbling. They are coming.

One does not simply pedal into Mordor.

You start to cycle more frantically, trying to figure out if the sound is coming from the front or back. Then you see headlights behind you on the same lane. Shit. The rumbling builds into a deafening cascade of sound. The two bright dots in your rear view mirror fuse into one ball of pure light that burns your retinas. All the while you’re trying to cycle as straight as you can, which is not easy with a heavy bicycle in an uphill tunnel with an icy floor and severely compromised eyesight.

But there’s nowhere else to go. You can only hope the car passes safely.

And that's what tunnels are like.

This one's okay.

I try to avoid going through them whenever possible, but on Senja there usually aren’t alternative routes. So at the very least I make an effort to cycle through tunnels during very low traffic hours.

Hence, I never thought I’d be happy at the sight of the 2.5km Skaland tunnel. It had been raining for a while and I’d realized the rain cover of my backpack was leaking. That’s the one that contains the laptop and other important electronics, so water seeping into it was a huge problem. And there was no shelter anywhere. Until I spotted the tunnel. I could stay there by the side of the gate, safe from rain.

This looks like a fine place to camp!

I stayed there for a few hours until the weather cleared. There was little traffic, and it was split about evenly between drivers with a "best of luck with the weather!" kind of smile and wave, and the "what the hell is this guy doing?" stare.

Luckily no damage was done. But until I can find a more waterproof backpack, I need to figure out a whole new system of protecting my valuables.

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