DECEMBER 19, 2023
TRAVELling ON TWO WHEELS
From weekend wandering to continent-crossing by bike
An interview with Rose Gentle.
At Kostüme we love adventure. Not because it’s edgy or extreme, but because it’s so purely personal. Adventure to some might mean tackling a multi-day race like GBDURO, whereas to others it might mean they simply managed to get dressed and outside the house today.
Bicycles are an incredible tool for travel and exploration, and it’s no surprise to see the increasing popularity of mixed-surface riding, bike packing and multi-day rides (as well as the kit to cope with such demands.)
Perhaps the purest expression of adventure on two wheels comes in the form of long-distance touring. What cyclist hasn’t daydreamed about crossing continents on two wheels, free from the shackles of responsibility?
But where do you even start when it comes to planning and preparing for life on two wheels? Route planning, fitness, hygiene, personal safety, language barriers - these are just a few of the myriad considerations.
None of these things would stop Bristol-based cyclist Rose Gentle from following her dream, taking the unexpected opportunity of redundancy to cycle nearly 9,000km across 14 countries, including Turkey, India, Thailand and Malaysia. And all with zero previous bike packing experience.
We sat down and spoke to Rose about her travels.
"Avoiding hills means missing out on beautiful vistas." Although perhaps not in this instance.
Kostüme: Please give us a quick introduction to yourself and a few headline statistics from your trip.
Rose Gentle: Hello - I’m Rose Gentle (yes, my real name). I got made redundant in January 2022 and decided it was the perfect time to take on a bike packing adventure of a life-time with my cycling partner/best pal Adam, leaving the UK in June 2022 and returning in August 2023.
Total distance: 8,713km
Total elevation: 72,988m
Number of countries covered by bicycle: 14 (3 others covered off the saddle) - France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, and India.
Total number of punctures: 2(!)
Total number of accidents: 0
Total number of times my rack broke: Too many to count. It's currently held together with pannier straps.
Country spent the most time in: India
Kostüme: What was your general level of cycling experience before starting the trip?
RG: Before the trip, I had no real experience of bike packing. I had a road bike, cycled to work and spent the odd weekend exploring local routes to Cheddar Gorge, Chipping Sodbury, Chepstow and Clevedon. I was by no means a hardened cyclist.
Like many others, my real passion for cycling began during Covid lockdown, but the idea of travelling for a prolonged period of time on a bicycle was something that had never really crossed my mind. My real dream had actually been to buy a van to travel in. However, when the time was finally right to do so, fuel prices had gotten silly, and the idea of going by bicycle seemed a little more mad, and a lot more adventurous.
Kostüme: What gave you the initial inspiration to take on a trip like this?
RG: I had always wanted to travel, but didn’t manage the traditional gap year thing. Life got in the way, and then along came Covid. Like many others during lockdown, I gained a renewed appreciation for being outdoors. I also discovered Wheels to Wander on YouTube - a delightful Dutch couple, BIG into bike packing. I liked cycling, I liked camping, I liked the outdoors, I liked idea of experiencing the raw, authentic and un-edited versions of countries that many people only get to see one side of, and so it made absolute sense to think about combining those things together in the shape of a big trip.
Kostüme: How did you decide the key trip parameters like route, duration etc.
RG: The first goal was to make it to Istanbul before the European winter set in. Most of the route planning in Europe was done the night before the next day of riding, with decisions based on where looked good to wild camp the next night. Other parameters such as visiting friends and family also influenced our route. My best friend Annie was planning on walking the Camino that summer, so we linked up in Spain. And Adam’s best friend Harry was spending some time in Portugal, so we linked up there. Absolute freedom.
The laissez-faire approach to route planning did make things a little spicy as, thanks to Brexit (and possibly our naivety regarding visas) our time in Europe was limited to 90 days (non-EU citizens cannot spend more than a total of 90 days in every 180 days in the Schengen area without a visa) and unfortunately I hadn’t been organised enough to sort my Irish passport prior to leaving. After a detour to Morocco (via ferry) a little more time and planning was then invested in the onward journey, given our time constraints.
On reaching Turkey - and after a little time off the bikes to celebrate my 30th birthday, spend time with friends, and explore the country - we knew it was time to find some sunshine again. For the second leg of the journey, we rolled a dice to decide where to go next. Thailand was the chosen destination. Similar to the European leg, routes were planned the night before for the following day, however with an improved level of fitness, the number of saddle hours naturally began to increase. Unlike Europe, given the humidity, the likelihood of snakes and spiders, and the beneficial exchange rate, the routes were predominantly based on finding a roof over our heads and avoiding potentially dangerous main roads (there were a few long and nasty ones out of Bangkok).
And then for the third part of the trip, I was invited to the wedding of my friend from university in Kochi, so upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur from Bangkok we boxed the bikes up again and flew them over to India.
Onward air travel with bikes can usually be facilitated by free empty bike boxes from any local cycling retailer - they are usally more than happy to get rid of them!
Kostüme: How much time was there between committing to the trip and actually starting it, and what preparation and training did you do in that time?
RG: The first mention of traveling on bikes was during an October weekend cycle ride to Wells. However, despite the fact that this was a fair few months prior to departure, very little training occured. Looking back I guess there was a huge element of not actually believing it would happen. I wasn’t totally unfit – I went to the gym, liked running, and went out for an occasional weekend cycle ride. However, I was by no means an athlete. The great thing about bike packing is that you don’t necessarily have to be an athlete, you can do as many or as few kms a day, and the same goes for elevation (although obviously avoiding hills means missing out on beautiful vistas). Most of the actual training was done on the job. This is no more evident than looking at the average number of kms we cycled per day – roughly 40kms per day in France when we started, stepping up to approx. 90kms per day in India. In any case, it wasn't supposed to be a race.
In terms of preparation, I purchased a new bike and bought racks, panniers, lights, inner tubes etc. But since I wanted to save as much as possible for the actual trip, I tried to keep my initial outlay to the bare minimum.
Kostüme: Any major unexpected obstacles e.g. bridge closures, road closures etc. and how did you deal with them?
RG: Have you ever heard of being Komooted? There is a whole TikTok hashtag devoted to the cause. Bridges that don’t exist, tunnels not suitable for cyclists, fenced-off private land, river crossings – you name it, I’d say we’ve experienced it.
One particularly difficult route sticks in the mind, taking us up out of Bilbao into the hills and through some factory land, which - after emerging through to the other side via a hole in a chain link fence - we discovered was private land, and trespassers would be prosecuted. We decided to stick to the road cycling option in the app after that! I would note that this, too, was not without its flaws, so be cautious about relying entirely on automated route planning. However, as infuriating as dead-ends are, it meant a great excuse to speak to locals to find a creative way around problems, and an extra sense of achievement at the end of the day.
Ever been 'Komooted?' This is just one example of what it looks like.
After taking a more freeform approach in Europe, things were a little more stringent in South East Asia and India, with limited places to stay.
My most difficult day stands out by a mile. The destination had been decided as Surat, Gujurat, India. Accommodation had been booked roughly 70kms ahead of the previous night’s stay. Surat is renowned as a commercial centre for textiles. It is also famous for cutting and polishing 90% of the world’s diamonds. In reality what this meant was that the city was hugely polluted, with a thick smog lingering, waste piling up on the riverbanks, huge numbers of HGVs (not to mention the cows, buffalo, pigs, dogs and the omnipresent tuk-tuks) and not a place many foreigners visit.
Throw into the mix monsoon season and you have yourself quite possibly the worst bike packing conditions imaginable. On arrival at the first hotel, we were informed that they did not actually allow foreign guests (due to additional paperwork). We quickly jumped on booking.com to find an alternative, which was on the other side of the city (a mere 30kms away). Again, the same situation – no foreigners. After this happened for a third time, we found a local who kindly escorted us to a hotel which he was sure allowed foreign guests. They didn’t. Eventually after attempting 5 hotels, an extra 40kms on the saddle and being drenched to the bone we managed to find somewhere to stay. Even with the best route planning, you can’t avoid situations like this, so I think having a more laissez-faire approach actually made knock-backs like these a little easier to deal with. My top tip for dealing with such setbacks? Always ensure you have plenty of snacks. Everything is always easier with snacks.
Tested for military use, the Jetboil is an amazing bit of kit if you have space.
Kostüme: Did you have a deadline to stick to? How many miles per day were you typically riding?
RG: No real deadline apart from visiting family and friends. Mileage varied depending on if we found a beautiful place to camp, where was available to stay, weather conditions, how many contact days in the saddle etc.
Kostüme: Where were you sleeping?
RG: France – campsites
Spain – albergues (along the Camino de Santiago) and campsites
Portugal to Turkey – where the wild camping really came into its own. Generally two/three nights wild camping followed by a stay on a campsite. Or, if we needed to do some washing, a hostel/Airbnb/hotel.
Thailand/Malaysia/India – guesthouses/hotels
Kostüme: Was it challenging keeping on top of nutrition and hydration? Any issues with food poisoning and what was the strangest thing you ate?
RG: In Europe we had a Jetboil and the availability of fresh and healthy food is next to none. A baguette was a permanent feature on my bicycle for quite some time. Porridge was cooked most mornings with fresh fruit, and evening meals were normally some form of pasta with a vegetable sauce and tinned tuna for protein. There were also many stops for coffee and pastries throughout the day.
Moving into South East Asia and India things got a lot harder, especially moving through the more remote parts. It became a case of when you find a food vendor, you eat what you’re given. And, when you’ve been cycling all day, you’ll eat it, or at least try to. I think I was mainly fuelled by sweet iced coffees and sugary chai’s for a while. Hardly healthy or nutritious!
The strangest thing I ate was in Thailand - what I believed to be some tofu in a noodle soup. With limited English spoken by the noodle vendor and limited Thai spoken by myself, I went ahead and ordered it. The texture was not like tofu, but with not much else available and the naïve hope it was vegetarian, I ate it. A few days later, at another noodle vendor’s stand I noticed they had the same thing, so naturally, I enquired as to what it was. Blood. Congealed blood in some sort of block. I’m sure it did great things for my iron levels; however, the thought still makes my stomach turn.
We also had a lot of electrolyte/rehydration salts to keep us topped up, since, with the tap water not always safe to drink, and more often than not the bottled water stripped of minerals, combine it with such high levels of humidity and ridiculous amounts of sweat, it meant that electrolytes were lost rapidly.
On the whole trip I got sick twice – once in Thailand and once in India. Two bouts of food poisoning, of which both lasted 3-4 days. Considering some of the stories we had heard from fellow travellers, including hospital visits etc. I think we were pretty damn lucky.
Kostüme: Any extreme weather events?
RG: As we cycled out of Cappadocia for the last day on the bicycle in Turkey, it started snowing. Luckily we had thermals, gloves, hats, waterproofs and down jackets.
There were many, many frosty mornings in the tent. Let me tell you, getting out of your sleeping bag, complete with freshly filled hot water bottle, without the aid of a warm shower to ease you into the day, straight into your cold padded cycling shorts, is always a mental battle. The only way to do it, is to do it quickly and start pedalling as soon as you can to warm up. Or dance around like a loon for 20 mins. Or both.
The heat was also pretty extreme, and you probably think I’m talking about Thailand/Malaysia/India. I think the hottest temperatures on the trip were actually, more worryingly, in Europe. Summer 2022 experienced some of the highest temperatures on record, and were regularly reaching 40 degrees in Spain when we were traversing through the country.
One particular memory which stands out is stopping off around 12:30 for some AC, an espresso and a McFlurry (Tip of the day: combine the two and you have a delicious budget affogato) in order to avoid the midday heat. However, I think we reached about 4pm in the afternoon and the temperature was still around 38 degrees. A few days later, we got stopped by someone in a car (at the bottom of a 10km hill averaging 8%) who insisted he gave us bottles of water and was repeatedly telling us we were mad. In all honesty, I think he could have possibly saved our lives! The most important thing when it is so hot is to keep hydrated and listen to your body. Oh, and also top up your sun cream every single time you stop.
South East Asia was more of a struggle due to the humidity and India because of the rain. All four seasons - and extremes of all seasons - experienced on the trip!
Despite travelling through India, Morocco and South East Asia, the most extreme temperatures were actually in Europe.
Kostüme: I think a lot of people are generally fearful of their safety undertaking a trip such as this. Was that a concern for you? Did you do anything to try to mitigate risk and did you have any worrying encounters on your route?
RG: One thing which the trip really hammered home is that people are inherently good. There were too many random acts of kindness, offers of help, people buying us lunch/coffee etc. to list. There are no doubt some bad people in the world, but I like to think these people are in the minority, and encountering them is simply bad luck. Don’t get me wrong, I did have a few nights falling asleep thinking that we were in the middle of bumblef*ck nowhere, and if something was to happen our probability of survival would be quite low. But nothing ever did.
The main concern in relation to safety was actually animal related. We had read stories about the dogs in Turkey (YES they are as big as everyone says). My cousin had been bitten by a feral/rabid dog in Thailand. People we had met along the way had told us of wild boars charging them, wolves in Portugal etc. We bought some bear spray (which we figured would also be good for other animals) but thankfully never had to use it. There were a few heart-racing moments as we had to pedal away at speed from chasing dogs.
I think the scariest moment of the trip was one night in Bulgaria – we were wild camping next to woods. We both awoke at 2am to the sound of something large charging out of said woods. This was quickly followed by the deepest grunting I have ever heard. As you can imagine, my brain was in overdrive, with no idea what was out there. Not long after, the beast thankfully charged off into the night. However, with so much adrenaline pumping through my veins, I unfortunately didn’t charge off back to dreamland. The next morning we were racking our brains as to what it could have been and came to the conclusion - after lots of research on YouTube - it must have been a rutting deer!
Dogs can present a real problem for adventurous cyclists. Thankfully this was a very good girl.
Kostüme: Where was the friendliest place you visited?
RG: We didn’t experience any animosity on the whole trip. One thing we did frequently notice, however, was that people tended to be friendlier the further away we got from the tourist hotspots. The more remote the location, the more generous the locals seemed to be, and the more fascinated they were by us. I think we were both blown away by the generosity and friendliness of people we met, and it's hard to narrow the best example to a single choice. From things as small as being wished ‘Bon Appetit’ by strangers as we sat and enjoyed our lunch along the EuroVelo 1 in France, to being bought hot drinks on cold and frosty mornings in Bulgaria, to offers of a place to sleep for the night. Rather amusingly, we had many impromptu FaceTime's with the friends and family of people we had just met. I like to hope that one day I can repay the favour for all the generosity we experienced on the trip.
The beauty of open-ended cycle touring is being able to sample the local culture whilst sitting out the worst of the weather.
Kostüme: How did you handle communication in places where you didn't speak the same language?
RG: I always made sure to learn the basics of each language – hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, thank you. I think this is so important and even if you don’t know how to say a lot, to be able to say please and thank you is just polite.
As a native English speaker, we are so incredibly fortunate that most of the world speak and learn our language (although, I am a firm believer this also makes us incredibly lazy). I don’t think there were many places we weren’t able to communicate – whether this was by speaking in English, the language of the country we were in, a more charades-style approach, or pointing at pictures and using Google translate.
Kostüme: Obviously travelling like this on a bike is reliant on the right kit choice and packing to make things manageable. What things did you take that ended not being used, and what did you end up realising you needed later, if anything?
RG: We took SO MUCH stuff and were prepared for all eventualities. I think because we were planning on being away for such a long time with no real idea of when we’d be back, and because we also knew there would be some downtime off the bicycle (3 months on Koh Tao, Thailand) I definitely packed way more than I needed, and way more than would be necessary for a pure bike packing trip. All our camping gear got sent home when we left Europe. I don’t think there was anything I needed that I didn’t have, and to be honest even if there was, we were able to pick most things up en-route.
One unnecessary item that was packed but never used was a portable shower-cum-water purification system. Now, I would just take some of the tablets you can put in the water instead (although they do make it taste a bit chemically).
Whilst it's tempting to want to pack the kitchen sink, the most common tip from seasoned long-distance travellers is 'you need a lot less than you might think'.
Kostüme: What was your general approach to bike maintenance? Did you have any major issues?
RG: I left the UK with no real knowledge of bike maintenance other than how to change a tyre. Luckily, there were no major issues, and thanks to platforms such as YouTube, it is pretty easy these days to find the answer online. My one recurring problem was my rack. My panniers were too heavy, and as such the screws holding my rack in place snapped many times, with the screw getting stuck in the frame each time. With no screws holding the rack up, it would grind against my tyre, making it practically impossible to cycle anywhere.
Since coming back to the UK I have signed up to do a City and Guilds Level 1 Bike Maintenance course, as I can’t quite believe I managed to do so much cycling with so few issues. It’s going to bite me eventually!
Kostüme: A question most cyclists interested in touring will want to know, is which tyres you used and were they tubed or tubeless? And how many punctures in total?
RG: I didn’t buy specific tyres for the trip – I used the ones that came with my bicycle, and they were fantastic. I think I had two punctures and one other problem with my tyres on the whole trip, and that was once we had made it to India, and easily solved by popping in an inner tube.
Giant CrossCut AT 2, 700x38c, tubeless, for those that do want to know.
Adam had a few more problems with his tyres, and ended up buying some new (and rather expensive) Specialised Pathfinder Pro’s, which he didn’t rate and actually punctured more times than some cheap ones he bought in Bangkok.
I think tubeless tyres are great, and would recommend for bike packing. But always ensure you carry spare inners.
Kostume: What would you say you have learnt by undertaking this trip? Has it changed you at all?
RG: Without wanting to sound too much like a gap year w&$ker – YES – the trip has had a huge impact on my life. The main thing being a much more positive self-belief in what I am capable of doing, and my personal resilience. I have also realised that even with the best-made plans, sometimes the universe has an alternative plan for you, and you just have to go with the flow.
Kostüme: If you could go back and start the trip all over again, what would you do differently?
RG: I don’t think I would do anything differently apart from pack less and never book that return flight?!
Kostüme: What one piece of advice would you give to someone considering a trip like this?
RG: If you have the slightest inkling that an adventure of this kind is for you – DO IT! Here goes for all the cliches…you won’t remember the days in the office on your death bed, and you won’t be regaling stories of work to your grandchildren. Money comes and goes, but memories last forever (hopefully). It was one of the best decisions I have made and has only given me the thirst for more (just don’t tell my work).
Kostüme: Do you have any future trip plans?
RG: I would love to cycle the Pacific Crest Trail, and then continue through South America. Two of my friends will be in South America next year so my plan is to go and visit them there, although this will only be for a few weeks.