European Bike Vacation (2001)

Let's just say I was very prepared for this trip. I had a Cannondale R900 (a race bike) and a plethora of camping supplies. This trip pre-dates smart phones and digital cameras so photography was done with an old school 35mm Pentax Honeywell camera.

The plan was straight forward, do this in 3 months:

  1. Arrive at Heathrow airport in England
  2. Head for France, ga to Paris, etc. riding south
  3. Ride the west coast of Italy around the bootleg
  4. Ride east to Greece
  5. Ride back to England

Here's a short version of what actually happened:

  1. Arrive at Heathrow airport in England
  2. Get lost leaving London
  3. Realize the map was crap
  4. Spend 3 weeks in England and have a the trip of a lifetime
  5. Have the trip cut short because your race bike disintegrates and no longer operational

Here I am before leaving and then all suited up on the streets of Europe. Yep, that's a University of Santa Barbara racing kit and the bike I raced with!

Packing my gear

Suited up and ready to tour

The part about escaping London was a bit of a bummer as most people don't have the slightest idea how to "ride" out of the city let alone find the nearest place to camp within 100 miles. I don't blame them when their streets look like this:

...and the map you have looks like this...

Since it was getting late, I needed to find a place to stay. I wound up in a youth hostel. Here's what it looks like from the outside. Everything is very old.

After a good nights sleep, it was time to find my way out of London. Good thing I had a compass with me, and despite the ridiculous map I had, I was able to get to the outskirts of town and actually find a camp ground! At this point, the plan was definitely changing, but it would soon take an amazing turn.

Here is my first night of camping setup. I had some pretty cool stuff: Burley bike trailer with impervious bag, one man tent which weighed about 1oz., down sleeping bag, cooking wear, etc. I was set until I tried changing my clothes in the sausage. NEVER USE A ONE MAN TENT UNLESS YOU ARE IN SURVIVAL MODE! Notice the circle on the tent next to me, Eurohike, it's Europe's Coleman equivalent. Luckily for me, the couple using the tent told me where to get one (that's right, I ditched the sausage in favor of a two man tent with more room). I then set my sites Stonehenge, and a little tip, use Roman roads. When Romans conquered England they setup the best infrastructure including straight roads with very little ups and downs, perfect for riding! You can tell even on my silly map which were Roman roads, they were all "A" roads, like a highway in the US.

Now that I had a better sense of direction, the trip was getting better. Leaving London suburbs was becoming much easier and was able to enjoy the scenery. Each day I rode about 70-100 miles. I stopped at what appeared to be the Queen's house in the suburbs. It didn't cost anything to get in then again no one was kicking me out.

One of the best things after a long day of ride was showering and heading to a local pub. They were usually walking distance from the campground. People say English food is not so great, but I found it to be the contrary. The beer is also really good. There they don't always have refrigeration so they store the beer underground and hand pump it into the pint...SO DELICIOUS.

Such a cute shop

Queen's country hangout?

Queen's proverbial crown

A country club

Once I was able to get out on the open road, the English countryside was so beautiful and quite, no cars! Despite England being a small "island", it sure does have a lot of open space. The history blows you away. When you are traveling by modern transportation, car, train, bus, etc. you miss a lot of what there is to see. No exaggerating, within 50 miles, you could easily go through 30 historic towns that are 1000s of years old. It's crazy cool!

Roman road : On the way to Stonehenge

English rural farmland

Prime real estate

On the way to grandma's house

English rural farmland

On of the camp grounds during the trip


I finally reached the town of Salisbury. Since it was pretty early in the day I was able to see a lot. First thing I did was head to Stonehenge. They are just a bunch of rocks but breathtaking when considering humans put these here around 3000-2000BC!!!

The Salisbury Cathedral is just as impressive. Unfortunately, I didn't have a flash or tripod otherwise I would have taken pictures inside the cathedral. One of the most interesting artifacts they had there was one of the original Magna Carta. There are also catacombs and dead people laid in tombs right in the floor or next to the path way!

One thing to note is that I would regularly find things off the beaten path. A lot of those "things" turned out to be ancient Roman structures from ~400AD (WOW!). From lighthouses to outposts, these structures were mad from a lot of the native stone which is very durable. Sometimes being conquered by a technologically advanced society has some benefits, in this case Romans imparted a lot of commerce infrastructure and technology.

Riding into the town of Salisbury

Me at Stonehenge (notice the arms - lobster claws!)

Stonehenge silhouette


How big a small cathedral is (me at the front door, pic is 1/2 total height)

Top of Salisbury Cathedral

Inside Salisbury Cathedral

Ancient religious site near Salisbury

It's hard to believe it had only been a few days and I was able to see so much history, it felt longer. I still planned on going back to France, when something most unexpected happened. I was going to stay at the Salisbury campground one more night, when I met James from east England. He was about my age and an all around really great guy. We hung out a bit and exchanged what we were doing. It didn't take long for James to convince me to stay a few more days. Little did I know, summer solstice at Stonehenge was a serious thing. Stonehenge turns into this Woodstock like pagan ritual all night party!

This was the best decision of my trip! Later that day Kai, another really cool guy, from east Germany showed up. Kai had ridden his Harley in less than a day from his place in Germany to Salisbury, dang. Kai was all decked out in festive garb. The three of us had the best time hanging out. It rained on us the day before solstice ("English summer") so using my tarp, we made a little shelter where we setup our cooking supplies. We bought fish and other delicious items and had a summer night feast .

Solstice at Stonehenge was a blast. As you can see, people really get into this stuff. The best part was that they take down all the roping allowing people to mingle at Stonehenge. Apparently, Stonehenge is a big calendar and on the solstice the sun will rise to hit certain rocks in a way to indicate the time of year. Well in England, sun is hard to come by so that was a bust. What was spectacular was the druids with their pagan torches and the little chants. It was epic...not to mention I had two really great friends I just met to share it with and of course drink a lot of beer.

Kai and his Harley

James and Kai prepping the burner in rainy weather

James and Kai walking to Stonehenge

James, Kai, and myself at Stonehenge solstice

Stonehenge summer solstice pagan group chant

When the sun goes down the pagans do their thing

It's hard to top an event like that. The unexpected becomes the highlight of your trip. Unfortunately, James, Kai, and I had to say goodbye. For me, I was headed to Dover, the port city to get to France. On the way I stopped at Portchester Castle near Portsmouth. With my English Heritage pass , which I bought while I was at Stonehenge, I was able to get a good deal on every historic site. This castle had some really fascinating information on King Henry VIII. There was a little church with a graveyard within the walls of the castle, very convenient.

Portchester Castle

Castle church and graveyard

Entrance to castle

As I got closer Dover, there were two stops I had to see: Canterbury Cathedral and Dover Castle. Luckily there was a campground right in Canterbury were I stayed. I met some really nice people to mingle with, especially considering it rained like crazy that night. Canterbury is a bustling city which felt like Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. Everywhere you turn a building is old, really old.

Canterbury Cathedral is fascinating because houses the shrine of Thomas Becket. This is another one of those surreal experiences. Short version, Thomas as murdered by King Henry II, canonized with a statue in the church, people came and prayed to the statue for 100s of years which literally worn down the marble from their knees. Its insanely mind boggling, not to mention they have catacombs too, creepy.

In addition to Canterbury Cathedral, there is an old abbey dating back to ~500AD that was once buried for a long time and later excavated. It's called St. Augustine's Abbey. Other buildings were built on top of this site for 100s of years, amazing how foundations like this last for so long.

After Canterbury, I made it to Dover. Dover is somewhat unique not just for its white cliffs, but the Dover Castle has secret tunnels, some made during the Napoleonic era, watch this. Other tunnels were used during WWII to plan strategic operations, see here. The tour of the castle and its tunnels are a must.

Canterbury alley way with a pedestrian pass over

Canterbury Cathedral seen from street view

Canterbury Cathedral seen from St. Augustine's Abbey

St. Augustine's Abbey ruins

Dover Castle as seen from afar

Inside Dover Castle

Amazing it has only been about a week since I had arrived! Now it was time to head to France to visit Paris and the Palace of Versailles. In order to get there you can either take a fairy from Dover or use the chunnel. I chose to take the fairy and see the white cliffs of Dover, which are actually in France as well. The odd part about boarding was that I had to ride my bike in car parking areas with the cars.

In order to save some money and take trains, I bought a Eurorail pass. This gave me passage on the fairy as well as any train usage in France. I should also note that I still had my crappy map which sucked so getting to this point was still a challenge.

The fairy takes you to the port of Calais where I camped overnight. The fairy ride was beautiful and very scenic.

Camping in England was like staying in a 5 star hotel, figuratively. I had found a chain of sites, run by Camping Caravanning Club, which made it not only easy to find the next campsite, but each campsite usually had a laundry room and super clean toilets with toilet paper.

Because of this, I offloaded a few things to save space, like toilet paper that I never used. That ended up being a STUPID choice. The campground in Calais not only did not have toilet paper, the shower was the toilet...I guess it could be worse. The ground had two pedal stools and a hole in the ground...great. The best part about Calais was French baguettes, cheeses, and pastries.

Port leaving Dover to Calais

White cliffs of Dover seen from fairy

After Calais, I headed to the train station for a direct route to Paris, awesome! Super pumped because I found a campground right on the Seine river, Camping Paris Maisons-Laffitte! It was close to everything I wanted to do. I wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral, and Louvre Paris, and eventually the Palace of Versailles.

In the pictures below notice I circled a fascinating statue at the Notre-Dame Cathedral. I don't think many people notice this but that is Saint Thomas Becket, the one from Canterbury Cathedral! Funny how stories like this span countries and territories. Angels are like "dude, we can sew your head back on so you don't have to hold it all the time"

One of the more unfortunate thing happened, and it didn't involve throwing useful things away. The camera has a little button on the bottom which is for rewinding the film. For some reason, that button got pushed, probably from being in my handle bar bag. Every picture after the alley street butcher below was overlapped making all my pictures going forward trashed. I was really disappointed after developing the film as I missed the last week of my trip.

Either way it didn't stop me from enjoying the amazing wonders of Paris. The only tough part is I got trapped there for a while due so some crazy rain. A day in a half in a tent not able to go outside was boring. I'd rather racing around Paris like a Tour de France rider, it was a blast riding on all the cobblestone.

  1. YES, that is my bike next to the Arc de Triomphe
  2. YES I did ride around that insane round-about which is 4-5 lanes thick of speedy traffic dodging, BEAST!

Me at the Eiffel Tower

Cool park in France

Laps around the Arc de Triomphe

Notre-Dame Cathedral (circled head of Thomas Beckett)

Alley street butcher (note Palace of Versailles overlapped on photo :()

By now I realized that it wasn't practical to attempt riding to Italy let alone leave Paris without better maps. To make the best of it, I headed back to England with a new plan: Ireland, Scotland, etc. The first thing I did when I got back to Dover was find a map store and bought a Michelin Road Atlas for England. Best purchase ever, it had details of nearly every city or town in England down to the exact streets. This made mapping out the next day or two's route easy.

At this point I had not more pictures but here is a short list of things I saw:

I was about 25 miles out of Bath, the town where you take the fairy to Ireland, when my bike literally exploded. In no more than 10 miles I broke 8 rear wheel spokes. Hobbling to a local bike shop, I tried getting spokes for my 700mm rim. You'd think with all the bike racing in Europe this would be something easy to find, it wasn't! I was blown away, then again I wasn't near a big city or town, so that could have played a factor. By now, I was about 3 weeks into my tour and had seen enough to cover months of excitement. So, missing my soon to be wife, I headed back to Heathrow and headed home.

One thing is for sure, I would easily do this again solo or with someone. There are definitely a few things I'd do differently which I outline below. Overall, this was a trip to motivated me to continue touring.

What I Would Do Next Time

Below is a list of things I would ensure I had and/or do differently next time.