Tour Europe by bike: Risk injury, eat chocolate and lose weight

  • By Tim Hintze Herald Writer
  • Thursday, May 29, 2014 4:45pm
  • Life

Looking for a diet?

Well, I’ve got one you might like. I call it The Chocolate Diet. Basically it’s this: Eat all the chocolate you want in a 30-day period.

And lose weight. A lot of weight.

In my case I ate about 7.5 pounds (3,400 grams) of chocolate— mostly 100-gram bars of milk chocolate along with a few 100-gram chocolate-almond bars. At approximately 535 calories per 100 grams of milk chocolate, that’s 18,190 calories.

But wait, there’s more. A lot more. On this diet you’re not on a diet. You simply eat. Anytime, anything, anywhere. All day. Everyday. Which in my case included about 15 pounds of cheese, mostly Brie, along with some Swiss and Edam, about 22,500 calories.

And of course you need bread with your cheese. I ate about 24 loaves of bread (various types), which at approximately 1,300 calories per loaf, is another 31,200 calories.

Let’s see, what else did I eat? About 15 rotisserie chickens, at 1,000 calories per chicken, there’s another 15,000 calories.

Throw in a few cans of tuna (220 calories per can), a few cartons of yogurt, a couple of boxes of muesli, a few boxes of granola, packages of cookies, some Danish pastries, an ice cream cone, 15 protein bars (about 4,000 calories), bananas, apples, banana chips, fruit snacks and probably a few other things I don’t remember eating.

And let’s not forget what I drank. I had at least one one-liter of lemon-lime soda a day. At about 400 calories per bottle, that’s another 12,000 calories. And then there was that bottle of riesling wine. Another 600 calories.

According to the USDA, an “active” man of my age (I was 60 in June-July of 2013 when I was on this diet) needs about 2,800 calories a day, or 84,000 in a 30-day period. I was consuming, at a minimum, 4,000 calories per day, or at least 120,000 calories during those 30 days.

And I lost 15 pounds.

Now there is one small caveat to this 30-day diet.

You have to ride a bicycle.

More than 1,500 miles.

With Aunt Betsey sitting on the back.

Ready to roll?

What I do is called bicycle touring. And what I call Aunt Betsey is the gear I carry on the bike. My clothes, camping gear and everything else (including food) I need to survive when I’m on the road are packed into my panniers, handlebar bag, bike duffle and backpack. It’s a loaded bike.

Last year I was in Sweden (checking out the Gota Canal and Gotland Island among other things) and Denmark (exploring the Danish Riviera, north of Copenhagen).

It was the seventh time, including six solo trips, that I’ve taken my bike to Europe. I’ve spent 14 months of my life rolling along the roads of 14 European countries.

As this story goes to press and is published online, I’m in the air flying to Europe for my eighth bicycle tour. I plan on exploring Jutland in northern Denmark and possibly southern Norway.

A couple of years ago, after I returned from one of my bicycle trips, a co-worker asked me, “How was your bike ride?”

Bike ride? Touring is many things, but it is not a bike ride.

A bike ride is a leisure activity, such as riding around Copenhagen, Stockholm or Helsinki, exploring the various sections and neighborhoods of the city.

Touring is different. If you want to know a little about what it is, hop on and we’ll go for a spin.

It’s going to be a long and winding road, and I will do my best to entertain and enlighten you along the way.

But be forewarned, where we’re going is not where you probably expect to go.

One thing you need to know before we proceed.

In the cycling world there are cyclists and those who cyclists consider riders.

Me? I’m a Marxist — that would be Groucho, not Karl — and I adhere to one particular point of Marxist philosophy.

“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

As such, I am neither a cyclist nor a rider.

Not that either group would have me.

Frigging cows!

One dark, gray afternoon last July in Sweden I was climbing another in a never-ending series of hills. As I was plodding along, checking the sky to see if it was going to rain again, I heard what was unmistakably a challenge.

And I thought to myself, “All right, cows, let’s do this.”

Along the road, in a pasture to my left, a stampeding herd of cows were in full gallop. Evidently it was milking time and the cows were racing for the gate that led to the barn. I decided to not only join the race, but also cast myself in the role of track announcer.

The play-by-play went something like this:

“In the lead it’s Black-and-White Cow, followed by Brown Cow, Brown-and-White Cow and about 20 other cows of various colors. And coming up on the outside it’s Idiot on a Bicycle. Idiot on a Bicycle is 12th, he’s 10th … Look at that fool ride!

“Idiot on a Bicycle is fifth, he’s fourth, he’s passing Brown Cow, Brown-and-White Cow and now Idiot on a Bicycle is neck-and-wheel with Black Cow racing to the finish line!

“It’s Black Cow and Idiot on a Bicycle … Black Cow and Idiot on a Bicycle! And the winner is … Black Cow, followed by Brown Cow and a fast-closing Black-and-White Cow takes third.

“Idiot on a Bicycle?

“The old fool blew a hamstring sprinting to the finish, faltered badly and finished 14th and out of the money.”

What? I couldn’t believe I lost to a bunch of cows.

I stopped the bike, pulled out a chocolate bar to console myself in defeat and glanced over at my competitors.

Frigging cows! They’re all standing by the gate, and one-by-one, they’re flipping me the hoof before they head to the barn. What a herd of sore winners.

“This isn’t over cows,” I yell. “There will be another day and another race. Count on it!”

Wait a minute. I’m sensing some disbelief from the one or two people who are actually taking the time to read this story. You doubt the veracity of the narrative? You think I altered the facts? Did Idiot on a Bicycle actually win the race?

All I have to say is this.

None of those cows are talking.

And neither am I.

“I’m pedaling as fast as I can, Captain”

The point of the cow story is simple. It helps to have a sense of humor if you’re going to travel cross-country by bicycle.

The cows were a diversion. For one, they took my mind off the work load, which at times can be staggering. But the work load is just part of the experience.

Here’s another.


Those bugs that go splat on your car’s windshield in the summer? Now they smash into you — as do stones, pebbles and rocks kicked up by passing vehicles. At the end of the day you’re more than likely going to be wearing some bug parts. There are probably going to be some up your nose as well.

And you’re going to get bug bites. When you’re outside riding and camping 24/7, it’s part of the drill.

Whether you call them skeeters, mossies or mosquitoes, prepare to donate blood.

But mosquitoes aren’t the only bugs that bite.

In 2011 I was in another part of Sweden, climbing a road in the woods. It was a bright, hot sunny morning, and my skin was gleaming from the rivulets of sweat rolling down my face, neck, arms and legs.

The climb was steep and I was going slow. I was easy pickings for the horde of biting flies that attacked and were turning me into brunch. It was a double-whammy. The climb was kicking my butt and the flies were swarming, seeking out and biting every pore of my exposed skin.

I needed a diversion.

I went “Star Trek.” The original.

In my mind I created a narrative that went something like this:

Captain Kirk: “Scotty, I need more power.”

Mr. Scott: “I’m pedaling as fast as I can, Captain.”

Kirk: “You’ve got to pedal faster! I need more power now! I don’t know how much longer I can hang on!”

Scott: “I’m giving it all I’ve got, Captain.”

Mr. Spock: “I fail to see the problem, Captain. The flies appear to be quite harmless.”

Kirk: “Damn you, Spock and your Vulcan blood! The flies aren’t biting you. They’re eating me alive!”

Spock: “Hmm. It would seem so, Captain.”

I carried on like this for a while and it helped me take my mind off the flies and get me through the climb. When I crested the top of the hill I started a descent into a valley, and as I broke into clean air I yelled, “See ya flies!”

But my celebration was short-lived. It was a small valley and I had a steep climb waiting on the other side.

As I started my ascent towards the treeline, I could see in my mind’s eye a black horde forming in the forest air and I heard a voice in my head say:

“We heard you we’re coming. We’ve been waiting for you.”


Method to the madness

I have a friend, Jenny, who is a triathlete. When I told her the cow and fly stories, she intuitively knew what I was talking about.

She knew (at least I think she knew) these weren’t the ravings of a lunatic mind. There was a method to my madness.

Jenny told me I was talking about pain. She knew my mental diversions not only helped with the workload but were also pain-coping mechanisms.

I recently read about a study by researchers in Israel that dealt with triathletes and their ability to manage pain, and how that might help people who suffer from chronic pain.

All endurance athletes have to cope with pain and how to manage it.

And if you’re going to climb on a bike and ride on a cross-country tour for long hours day after day, week after week and in some cases, month after month, you will too.

Pain is always along for the ride. You are going to struggle, you are going to suffer.

Learn to deal with it.

Or stay home.

“It’s not safe”

In 2008 my son Carey, who was 23 at the time, rode with me on a tour that included Ireland, France and England.

The Irish were very concerned with our safety. I lost track of the number of times an Irishman or Irishwoman told us, “It’s not safe.”

We’d already figured it out. It took us about 10 minutes after we rode out of the Dublin airport.

I was 23 in 1976 when I first rode in Ireland, the first country in a five-month, 13-country tour. Back then the biggest hazard I encountered on the roads in Ireland were herds of sheep. It was fun slowly weaving through all that wool to open space.

But the roads in Ireland, like the roads everywhere, have changed. Drivers of vehicles are more angry, they’re more distracted. Anyone who climbs on a bicycle and sets out on the road — I call it playing in traffic — in today’s world puts themselves at risk.

You can get hurt. You can die.

“Oh, %&#@!”

When you’re touring, you seek out idyllic, scenic roads. You are in constant search of solitude.

But to get there you sometimes find yourself riding with the big boys — semis, tractor-trailer rigs and log trucks traveling 50 to 65 miles an hour — on a narrow two-lane road with no shoulder and crumbling asphalt.

The turbulence these trucks create can be off the charts. The bike shakes so violently it feels as if it is about to fall apart.

There are moments of pure terror. You are trying to hold your line while a steel behemoth is trying to blow you off the road.

When I have found myself in this situation, one thought consistently pops into my head.

“Oh, %&#@!”

Somehow I’ve almost always managed to escape unscathed.

In Denmark in 2010 I wasn’t so lucky. A bus blew me off the road. And if you were on the bus that day entering Nykøbing, you probably found it quite entertaining as you watched me sail off the road and careen down that grassy slope.

Me? Not so much.

As crashes go it was one of my softer landings. Usually, that’s not the case.

Blood on the road

In Ireland in 2008 I was lying in a heap on a street in the center of Dublin, near the River Liffey, watching a red tide spread across the road.

The source of that sea of red was me. My son and his loaded bike were lying on top of me, and I remember thinking: “This isn’t good.”

It was probably my worst crash — and I’ve left blood on the road in five European countries.

My son and I had gotten off the plane a few hours before the crash after flying to Ireland from the west coast of the U.S. After clearing passport control and retrieving our luggage, we found a niche in the Dublin airport, put the bikes back together, loaded our gear and set out.

I had about three hours sleep in the previous 36 hours. I was jet-lagged. I was riding on empty in heavy city traffic when I made a mistake.

I was being squeezed by a line of cars as we approached a lift bridge over the Liffey. I had been hit by a car in a similar situation once before in Ireland. My eyes were up, scanning to my right, watching the bumper-to-bumper traffic. I was trying to avoid being hit by one of the cars when I noticed out of the corner of my left eye the color of the pavement on my left (the Irish drive on the left) change to sandstone — the bike lane in Dublin.

I instinctively moved left and glanced down a split second before my front tire hit a one-inch lip that separated the bike lane from the road.

I knew I was going down. But that split second gave me a chance to go into my turtle-tuck maneuver — where I tuck my head, arm and hand as far inside as I can while I twist my upper body so I land on the back of my shoulder when I crash. My legs? There was nothing I could do to protect them.

I went down hard and fast. My son, who was riding behind me, had no where to go. His bike hit mine and he fell on top of me, injuring his right wrist (breaking the scaphoid bone and tearing the ligament between the scaphoid and lunate bone).

After we both extradited ourselves from the pile of bodies and bikes, a street worker asked if I was OK. I did what I always do when someone asks how I’m feeling after I’ve kissed the pavement.

I lied.

“I’m fine,” I said.

I wasn’t. My left leg was shredded. The jagged ridges in the surface of the sandstone had torn my leg apart. Among my many injuries were several holes punched in my left knee. The worst was one so deep it cut through the infrapatellar fat pad, exposed the patellar tendon, and according to my son, he could almost see my tibial plateau (bone).

In other words, it was bad.

My son, who is now a doctor (physical therapy), tended to my injuries, cleaning my wounds as the drivers of the cars, stacked up waiting for the lift bridge to come down, stared at the carnage. It was street theater and we were the stars.

My son told me I needed medical attention, but I told him I was fine. He lied to me as well, telling me he was OK.

And so we got up and continued on our way.

Murphy’s Law

Look, things go wrong out on the road. It’s Murphy’s Law. If anything can go wrong, it will.

My record for flat tires in one week is eight. I know a Swede, his name is James, his record for flat tires traveling with his “camping bike’ is 12. (I’ve switched to Schwalbe tires — Marathon Supremes — and I haven’t had a flat tire in my last three tours.)

Tires can blow up, becoming damaged and unrideable. Once, back in 1976 after a tire failure, I had to push the bike 21 miles to Newtown in Wales. The small Welsh city didn’t have any shops that had a tire that fit my rim. So I hopped a train to London, where I went where tourists never go in search of a tire. (I make it a point now to always pack a spare tire in my panniers).

And then there’s weather.

It’s not always sunny and 75. Last year in Sweden it rained 20 days in a 24-day period. In Ireland, I had snow in the Wicklow Mountains. In France in 2008, it was so hot on some days parts of the pavement were melting. That same year in southern England, along the English Channel, the gales were so fierce my son and I couldn’t ride into the wind. We had to push the bikes. And when I attempted to ride downhill, the wind blew me over.

Ah, the wind.

The Irish have a saying: “May the wind always be at your back.”

Alas, it isn’t.

It seems as if it’s always in your face.

The truth about miles

The wind is one reason to never be impressed when someone tells you how many miles he/she rode.

Tailwinds, crosswinds and headwinds affect everyone who rides a bike. The rider is also affected by the type and quality of the bike, the bicycle’s gear ratios, road surface and the rolling resistance of the tires.

And then there is terrain. A wise Norwegian once told me Denmark isn’t flat. It’s not. It rolls. Denmark is filled with undulating up and down roads.

If you want to ride on flat roads, go to the Netherlands. But be prepared for the wind blowing in from the North Sea.

Hills? Wherever you go, get ready to climb.

And don’t forget Aunt Betsey.

Load a bike with gear, you are not only adding extra weight, you are changing the aerodynamics of the machine. Now the wind is more of a factor.

This can be good and bad.

One day last year in Sweden I was riding uphill with a tailwind. I was sitting on my pedals (I wasn’t pedaling) when I glanced at my bike computer. I was going 17 mph, letting the wind take me for a ride.

Another day in Sweden. I had been climbing steep hills into a headwind, for a couple of hours. I’m on a road next to a lake, the wind is coming off the water and whistling in my face. I’m working my tail off when I glance at the bike computer.

I’m going 2.8 miles per hour.

I can walk — on flat ground — faster than that.

The point is all miles are different. It’s the degree of difficulty that’s important, not the number of miles.

Escape from Västervik

You’re going to get lost. Count on it.

Road signs can point you in the wrong direction. Many times there are no signs. Maps show roads that don’t exist. GPS? Good luck with that, because often it only gives you routes available to vehicles.

Here’s an example: In 2010 I crossed the bridge that leads into the city of Svendborg in Denmark. Beautiful place. After you cross the bridge, you will see a sign on the main road. No bikes allowed. You have to turn, right, into a residential area.

Welcome to the neighborhood.

Now try to find your way out.

Here’s another example:

I was in Västervik in Sweden last year. And I couldn’t get out. Neither the map I carried nor the map I picked up, along with directions, from the tourist office were any help as I tried to ride south. My only option was the E-road. Think interstate highway. Not much of an option.

My bike computer is a marvelous piece of equipment, but it’s GPS couldn’t help me find a route I could ride my bike out of the city.

I needed a Swede to do that.

The Swede sent me out into the woods outside the city, into a maze of dirt roads. I had to search those roads looking for a cattle gate. Within that gate was a spring-loaded door, which led to another dirt road and another cattle gate with another spring-loaded door. And it was through that door that I finally — you don’t want to know how many hours it took me — escaped from Västervik.

I ran into a pair of Germans traveling by bike a few hours later.

They were coming from where I was going. They were lost.

I had been lost, was no longer lost, but after talking with the Germans, I knew it was only a matter of time before I was lost again.

I brought a bike to a gun fight

My son said in a moment of frustration on a blistering hot day in France, “It’s survival out here.”

It is tough on the road. And if you’re going to survive, here’s one thing you need to know.

You have to be aware of where you are. On the road, your head is on a swivel, constantly doing threat assessments.

Off the bike, you can find yourself in trouble as well. You have to know what is going on around you. Not everyone has your best interest at heart.

I’ve had my share of incidents.

The most dramatic were in Northern Ireland — specifically in south Armagh County — in 1979 during the period history refers to as The Troubles.

It was a war zone.

And I brought a bike to a gunfight.

I’ve never written about my experiences in what the Unionists call Ulster. Someday I will, but not today. It is a long story, which I’ve told a few times, and I’ve always managed to keep my audience on the edge of their seats.

In a span of days in Northern Ireland I experienced what most people never will in their lifetime.

Most people will live their whole life without hearing a voice in the night tell them to “Come out with your hands up.”

Most people will never find themselves flanked and confronted by masked men.

Most will never know what it feels like to be in a confrontation so intense, where you are pushed so hard and so far, that when you decide to push back, you don’t care if you live or die.

Most will never step into an ambush, where armed men are waiting specifically for you.

And most will never receive a tap on the shoulder, look back, and have an impeccably dressed Irishman in a suit and tie say: “The British are looking for you.”

I glanced back around the Irishman, through a large glass window and out to a street in the city of Armagh. A patrol of British soldiers had once again taken positions around my loaded bike, which was leaned up against a storefront.

A definite no-no in a place that dealt with the threat of car bombs.

In this instance I made the Brits — and their street-side interrogation — wait for the idiot on a bicycle.

For I was consumed with more important matters.

I was shopping for chocolate.

Why I do this

So why do I do this? Why do I put myself through these trials and tribulations?

Why do I keep going back to Europe for what seems to be hell on wheels?

Because the price I pay is a mere pittance for the rewards I reap. The people I’ve met, the places and sights I’ve see, none of them would have happened if I wasn’t traveling by bike.

Every few days when I’m traveling on the road I stop. It’s just me and the wind.

I look around and marvel at where I am and what I see. I always tell myself it doesn’t get any better than this.

I remind myself how fortunate I am to be able to do this when so many others will never have the opportunity.

And I think about what I had to go through to get to that moment.

No one else knows.

No one else will ever know.

But I know. And that’s why I do it.

Well that, and the chocolate.

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