UK Heatwave! Bikeways, Bunnies, and Bristol

When traveling long term, you strangely become both more tolerant of discomfort (especially when out of your control), and obsessed with small comforts. And sometime the smallest things can give you a feeling of satisfaction in an often disorienting lifestyle.

Trying to cool off in a top floor hotel room in Clifton/Bristol, UK

For example, our little down travel pillows always provide a modicum of comfort, even over the hardest “pillow” found in some lodging. Carrying our own salt, pepper, picnicware, and hot sauce brightens otherwise dull meals or take out on the road.

Wait, we’ve seen this cat pub before!

Another way to ease the stress of constant travel is to return to a place…maybe a few times. It’s always easier once you know the lay of the land, favorite neighborhoods, and how to get out of the train station in the right direction. In the past year we’ve been lucky enough to visit London and Paris multiple times, in completely different neighborhoods. Plus, you can venture deeper into new places, see obscure sights, and generally settle in with the more relaxed lens of a quasi-local.

Arriving at Liverpool Station by train from Harwich…our arrival port from The Netherlands

As we left the Netherlands for the UK, the warnings of an impending heat wave across Northern Europe were growing, so we thought about where we could ride it out as we approached the next leg across of our planned 4 month summer European cycling, train, and boat tour.

Along the Thames; Cheryl looking much more London than me in my high viz helmet cover!

Our primary goals in the UK were to see our friends in Wales, and connect to a ferry to Ireland, so we did not plan on too much cycling. The heat wave clinched the decision to settle in somewhere for a longer stay. So we looked back on places that we could (somewhat) easily get to with our bikes on trains…our train from the ferry landing in Harwich went to London, but London would be too hot(100+) and is $$$ in August, plus we wanted to get further west where it would be a bit cooler, and closer to a house sit we had scheduled in Gloucester.

Love the Thames Cycle Superhighway!
This area near Bank was the only part of our 10km ride sharing the streets with cars and buses
And Big Ben will be on your right!
Is that the Queen over there?!

So we decided on Bristol for a third visit, via a single train transfer in London. The only catch was one train came into Liverpool Station and the other departed from Paddington. But no problem on bikes, as the 10km ride across London on a Saturday morning was a pleasure due to all the new cycling infrastructure. London’s wide new paths, protected lanes and bike signals have made cycling a much more viable alternative in the Capital.

10 relaxing kilometers later at Paddington, ready to catch (Brunel’s!) Great Western Railway to Bristol. Quiet here, but the station was packed inside.

Bristol was also a good base for some day cycling trips and we could go back to our favorite falafel stand, noodle restaurant, and cat pub!

Heatwave exploration along the Avon River towards Bath …shady and you can swim in the river!
A very welcome cold and drippy tunnel along the Bath Bristol Cycle way

And yes, we could go back to the S.S. Brittanica and Brunel Museum…and for free! Ha, even the staff was impressed (and a bit surprised) when Cheryl pulled out our printed tickets from last year, which they sell at the relatively high price of £20 each, with the caveat that the tickets are good for a year.

On deck at the SS Great Britain

Of course, most non-locals never make it back within the year…but these frugal Americans did! (Thanks to Cheryl -:) We enjoyed seeing more of the museum that we missed on the first visit due to school groups and also took another walk through the ship. This was a small satisfaction for these frequent travelers!

A rather scruffy Isambard Brunel
Still love this bridge and this woman!

We spent one warm night in the top floor of a old school hotel in leafy Clifton (nicely near the Suspension bridge), but then strategically moved to an air conditioned room downtown for the peak days of the heat wave.

Bristol Harbour….so familiar on a third visit, and hey, our favorite brew pub is right there!

It WAS hot and the Hilton Garden Inn’s British AC system could barely keep up, especially when the sun bore down on our windows in the afternoon. Luckily we like this hotel due to its adjacency to a small park with nice mature trees that cooled it down a bit.

Tracking down Banksy’s street art in Bristol was a goal of our third visit
Banksy’s take on improving the planning process
Our Banksy hunt led to more great street art in Stokescroft
It certainly is!

This heat wave set all-time records throughout the UK…43c/104f in a land not adapted in culture, architecture, or A/C systems to such heat. Southern England is now experiencing a drought along with about 50% of the rest of Western Europe. The adaptation to the climate change that seems to be happening is going to be difficult, expensive, and disruptive to life as we know it….and of course, we are the lucky ones that can afford to move and adapt, while other poorer and more impacted nations suffer unduly for greenhouse gases they contribute little to generating.

The Cornubia Pub…a nice old pub in the heart of redeveloped Bristol
Cheryl’s heatwave adaption? Outdoor pomegranate cider at the Cornubia

But let’s move on to happier topics, like house bunnies. We had a nice 70km cycle from Bristol to Stroud, a pleasant historic canal town on the edge of the Cotswolds. It was a little hectic getting out of Bristol as the cycle infrastructure is spotty and confusing to the first time user.

Heading to Stroud

But the ride was generally pleasant, and Stroud made a good overnight stop, with the convenince of pub lodging….drinks, dinner, sleep, breakfast…check. We then rode back to the Gloucester Canal via the Stroud water, where we house sat for a nice young couple for the weekend, with primary duties looking after their two bunnies. The bunnies were super cute and lots of fun. Who knew rabbits had such personalities!? And Gloucester has an interesting revitalized docklands area and a spectacular cathedral.

Bunny dinner time in Gloucester

So one of the surprises of our first cycle touring days in the UK was the fact that it wasn’t that bad! After spending the better part of last winter in the UK, we had not deemed the roads, drivers, or train system too hospitable to bikes and basically decided that we’d use our precious cycling time elsewhere where the cycling seems safer and offered more freedom to discover. However, a critical law enacted in February mandates passing clearances of 1.5-2m for cars, as well as improved cyclist and pedestrian rights at intersections and crossings. Way to go UK!

You need a Canal and River Trust Key to work the locks….hmmm?

There is a also nascent national cycling network (with gaps), as well as local tourism loops and other marked routes in many cities and towns. But it’s hard to find online cycling maps and data, despite downloading and paying for the Ordiance Survey (OS Maps) App at the premium level. We had to piece together routing from Komoot, Google, and some of the National and local signage to find a good route. It should be easier.

On the Gloucester Canal

And many of the A or B roads are still absolutely no go in my view. For example we crossed a few primary roads (A roads) that Google had routed us on, and spent a km or two on some, but quickly bailed or found an alternate route as they were just too high speed with no shoulders. Some have bike lanes that disappear or are just way too narrow for traffic speeds.

Better signage along the recently restored Stroudwater Canal

As we alway say, England is a pretty crowded place and car use has run rampant since the 1970s, without the concurrent development of connective cycling infrastructure. It’s a similar pattern to the USA; the cities have led the way, while the suburban and rural areas have been neglected or fallen through the planning/funding cracks. In the UK, the physical challenges of the narrow roads are also harder to overcome, whereas in the US it is often more a lack of political will.

Cycle touring allows you savor all the small sights along the way

On the quieter backroads though, the cycling can be very rewarding as the small scale and undulations of the historic road system is perfect for cycle touring. And millions of British cycle frequently and we saw many out there….but they are mostly in high vis vests and it feels like a bit of a road warrior mentality that is not going to get the other 98% of the population out on bikes.

Gloucester Cathedral…part of the original Abbey dating back over 800 years
The magnificent modern stained glass tribute to Gerald Finzi done by Thomas Denny in 2016. The cathedral has some of the best stained glass in the world

The other huge positive was that almost all the drivers are respecting the new laws, so this did make it feel safer and more pleasant on many roads. However, heading up a steep narrow road with 5 cars stuck behind you waiting to pass safely is still not exactly the relaxing experience of a 5m wide Dutch cycleway. So we decided that we will try out a bit more of the National cycling network next time through the UK in September.

On the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, ultimately opened in 1827 after 30 difficult years. It provide boats a safe navigation past the dangerous tidal reach of the Severn River

So we headed out of Gloucester by train to Carmarthen, Wales, where our kind friends picked us up in their van for the final leg to Tenby. It was great (as always) to see our friends and we still are so thankful for their kindness in providing us some grounding for our European travels. Cheryl has known them for almost 40 years, and we feel especially close as generations age and kids turn into young adults. But somehow, we stay the same age, right?

Everybody smiling…except the dog!
We definitely get by with a little help from our friends…the drop at Fishguard
Beautiful Tenby Harbour at sunset

The swimming in Tenby was particularly pleasant in August and we enjoyed recuperating a bit before moving onto our next adventure; cycling and exploring Ireland, so we packed up our bikes and gear and our kind hosts shuttled us again to the Stena Line ferry in Fishguard, Wales for the 4 hour trip to Ireland. I’ve heard the Irish are pretty friendly too, but more on that next time.

My favorite traveling companion enjoying the views leaving Wales

Happy travels!

Le Tour de Denmark (and beyond!)

So it’s hard to beat Sweden in summer for cycle touring, but despite our somewhat haphazard rambles, we had one date on the calendar for more than a year; the July 1st opening stage of the Tour de France in Copenhagen. Le Grand Départ!

Cheryl on the time trial course in Copenhagen…a little bit ahead of the first rider.

But wait, isn’t the Tour de France in France? Yes, the majority is in France; however, more recently, they start in a nearby country for the first 3 stages (of 21) to help share in the experience and spread the Tour love across borders.

Tour fever was everywhere in Copenhagen

In recent years, the tour has started in Belgium, Spain, Italy, Netherlands and the UK. But this was the first time it had visited cycle-crazy Denmark.

Yup, the tour was coming!

And since we had been moving a lot in the previous month of cycle touring (a few 2 night stops but mostly single touring nights), we decided to head to Copenhagen early and get an apartment for a week in advance of our long-standing 2-night hotel reservation just a 100 meters from the course.

Most of downtown Copenhagen was completely car free for two days. Sweet!

So we crossed from Helsingborg, Sweden to Helsingør, Denmark by ferry across the Kattegat Strait. This short 20 minute crossing was the primary crossing point until the completion of the Oresund bridge/tunnel in 2000, so has robust infrastructure on both sides of the crossings and multiple automated dock structures to load and unload trucks, cars, passengers and the occasional bikes. Very cool.

Waiting to load up in Helsingborg. Wait, another cycle tourist!

It’s still busy, and the Swedish side has a shiny new intermodal station, with great connections for rail, bus, and ferry passengers. As with most European vehicle ferries, bikes load with the cars and trucks, so we made our way around the maze of approach lanes and signs to find our way to a toll booth station where you ride up to window and buy your tickets for the next ferry out.

Crossing to Denmark with a friendly Swede heading out for a 3 month bike packing trip to the tip of Portugal!

As always, it’s a bit of a rush to ride on and off in between big rigs and loading cars, and in this case, no stopping for any immigration as this is an internal EU crossing.

Calling all cycle tourists to Lane 2

We highly recommend taking ferries where you can if bike touring, even if there is another option, as you get the continuous experience of the landscape, get to see some of the seascape, meet other cycle tourists, and can tune into the subtleties of the cultural infrastructure differences in every country. And yes, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands all are unique cycling experiences. More on that later.

The meeting hall in the Danish Workers Museum, an excellent history of the labor movement in Denmark and insight into the modern Danish Social Democracy

Our friend Jason met us about half way along the way on the 50km ride into Copenhagen, and it was great to have an escort and some engaging conversation with a familiar face. Jason is a professor from San Francisco, and was spending the month in Copenhagen, continuing his field studies and collaboration on the politics and implementation of transport policies in Copenhagen and San Francisco.

Good to see Jason! He led us on one of the many nice cycling options into Copenhagen from Helsingor

Jason has literally written a book on the topic, and has great insight on how Copenhagen has become one of the worlds leading bicycle cities; however, noting the challenges facing a lax continued investment in car free space and the troubling growth of auto mobility throughout Denmark.

A beach is never far away cycling along the Danish coast

His insights would align with some of our experiences in Copenhagen and beyond as we toured across Denmark. The country has fantastic cycling infrastructure, but we did find traffic a bit heavy and passing often surprisingly a bit close compared to Sweden and Germany. And some interior towns and cities had very few bikes and large drive through bakeries?!

Denmark and Cheryl were ready for Le Tour!

Our apartment was in Norrebrø, a trendy and leafy neighborhood just outside the more touristed core of Copenhagen. The neighborhood is great, so we took a chance on an Airbnb with only a few sparse reviews. It was fine, but had a few issues.

So many bikes in Nørrebro that parking was often a challenge in front of our favorite bakery

First, although it looked out over the beautiful trees of the adjacent cemetery/park, it was fronted by a fairly busy two-lane road. And since we were there during a rare heat wave, we were faced with the choice of open windows for ventilation or traffic noise. Secondly, we discovered that under the bed was full of clutter with years of thick dust. Cheryl, being the amazing travel companion she is, spent the better part of an hour cleaning under the bed to spare me from the misery of my dust allergies for a week.

Cycling through Assistens Cemetery, a hybrid park and cemetery in the heart of Nørrebro

We don’t use Airbnb very often, but this apartment highlighted some of the challenges of the platform. It had a few sparse 5 star reviews that we feel in retrospect were probably left by friends, and the lack of a specific location when choosing a rental is unprecedented in the lodging industry….and very annoying to me. You should know what you are buying when spending $1000++ for a weekly apartment.

One of the pleasant shared streets of Nørrebro

Our week in Copenhagen was great, but let’s just say, there is now one very detailed review of this apartment, letting prospective guests know exactly the trade offs of what they are getting. I wrote the review that I wish I had read before renting. And to be clear, the apartment was a fine base , but we are particularly sensitive to traffic noise after spending months on the peaceful saddles of our bikes, so would not have chosen the place if fully informed.

The roll through Copenhagen of the teams for the team introduction ceremonies two days before the race starts.
So close to the riders!

Copenhagen was in full embrace of the Grand Depart, and the run up to the opening stage was a blast. Tour signs, decorations, stages, and buzz everywhere. Watching the time trial was fantastic as riders came by every minute, so there was hours of fun with the spirited Danish everywhere along the course. Seriously, every meter of the time trial course had at least a few people at the rails, and 10 or more thick at the popular spots. And yes, it helps to be 6’-5” to have a clear view almost anywhere.

Here comes the promo caravan!

The other interesting aspect of visiting at the end of June was the Midsommer celebrations and the somewhat bizarre 2-week tradition of “studenterkørsel”. This consists of students who are graduating from “gymnasiet” schools (upper secondary school) hiring old military/farm trucks to drive around and pick up other grads, visit each family, and generally rolling around Copenhagen (or anywhere in Denmark) blasting music, drinking, and dancing into the wee hours.

One of the studenterkørsel making a stop right outside our apartment. The party was just getting started!

You can hear them coming blocks away and it’s all very charming at first, but after the third day or fourth day, the charm starts to wear a bit thin. Oh, and did I mention they all wear little sailor hats, unique to each school. This is just one of the quirky and unique traditions in the Scandinavian countries, as they express incredible individuality despite their low populations. (Denmark is smaller than the SF Bay Area!)

My view of the time trial on an exciting corner about 5km from the finish
Heading towards Frederik’s Church with 50,000 Copenhageners on the Saturday all city ride.

After riding the time trial course with 50,000 other crazed cyclists the morning after the first stage, we headed off to Copenhagen central for our intercity train to Nyborg, with the goal of catching the finish of Stage 2.

One of the Danish National Cycle routes…just follow the signs…but we did miss the bicycle directional/distance signs at every bike route Junction typical elsewhere in Europe.

Despite a slightly frightening overcrowded situation with our loaded bikes on the woefully inadequate train platforms of the main station, we managed to beat the peleoton across the Great Belt Bridge to Nyborg. It was one of the busiest travel days of the year combining a summer Saturday, the TdF, and the massive Rosskilde music festival! Whoaa, we were missing our more usual shoulder season travel times.

Even the birdhouses had Tour fever

The Danish train system is ok, but is not as extensive or user friendly for tourists or bicycles as other Northern European countries. You have to reserve bike space on intercity (IC or ICL) trains and they are all high boarding trains, so it’s necessary to hoist your bikes up after scrambling to load your bags. Some of the less common regional trains are first-come first served for bike space, as well as the S-trains around Copenhagen. Secondly, the DSB App and website will not accept US credit cards, and has only one bespoke mobile payment system, which you can only sign up for with a Danish phone number!

Some nice stretches through the woods

So we had to go CPH central and wait in the queue to buy our paper tickets and paid 3x as much as the discounted tickets still available on the App the day before….There are a lot of somewhat protectionist schemes in the Scandinavian countries, such as most shops in the Netherlands not taking visa and Mastercard, only “Maestro”. But I get that you want to keep the money and jobs local, and not pay Visa or Mastercard 2% of every transaction in your country with no benefit of employment or trickle down from the company profits.

This shiny new stretch of path on Funen filled in some busier gaps on backroads

I should note that once you are on the trains, the staff and seating is all very comfortable.

Sizing up a beautiful Danish Smørrebrød sampler in Julesmimde

It was cool to take the train across the 18km Great Belt Bridge in advance of the peloton as you got an appreciation what they were going though. The bridge was closed for the Tour crossing, but you unfortunately can’t cycle across the bridge. (or maybe fortunately given the ever present winds.).

Cheryl with the Little Belt Bridge

Once at Nyborg station, we scoped out a good spot about 1.5 km from the finish line and enjoyed the local crowd, some of whom had been there all day (and perhaps drinking!?) Since we were on fully loaded on our bikes, there was no chance of fighting the thousands who had jockeyed into the finishing sprint stretch. And although they went by fast, there were a lot of stragglers due to a crash that split up the peloton about 2km from our viewing spot.

Chilling in the shade waiting for Stage 2 finish…and loving the 0% beers….cold and free.
Denmark is a leader in wind energy, and for good reason…the winds can be constant off the ever present surrounding bodies of water.

After the stage ended, we rode to the accommodation we had booked about 25km north of Nyborg as the town itself was booked solid. It all worked out great, as we were able to escape the race area quickly, hit a supermarket, and have a lovely early evening ride to our modest row holiday apartment.

Perfect backroads across Funen

The next few days we had some great cycling across Funen, a vast island in the center of Denmark that is linked to Sjæland by the Great Belt and then onto Jutland by the Little Belt Bridge. It’s a nice rolling area of forest and farmland and really fun riding, especially when you get a bit lucky with the winds, which magically turned from the east to the west as we turned in the same direction! Nice.

A very late sunset at our little apartment outside Nyborg.
Lunchtime stopover in Vejie, the starting city for Stage 3

We had a great visit connecting with some of my step family on the lovely coast for a few days, which gave us more opportunity to ask questions about the idiosyncrasies of life in Denmark. But as much as we would have loved to linger a bit longer enjoying the Danish summer scene, we had another deadline of getting to the Hoek of Holland to catch a night ferry to the UK on the 15th. So we spent the next few days riding south towards the German border and then made our way across to northern Holland by a few strategic train hops.

We trailed the 3rd stage of the Tour by only a day or two, which was already a signed national cycling route; very cool!
The Danes really loved the tour

It was a bit hectic as the trains and station transfers in were a bit crazy, and one of our well planned regional trains from Flensburg to Hamburg stopped midway and let everyone off in the middle of nowhere due to a sudden line closure. So instead of waiting for buses that might take hours to get there and pick up the hundreds of stranded passengers, we loaded up our bikes and headed to the next station, hoping to bypass the issue.

The Hanseatic City of Flemsburg Germany

Well, that still didn’t work as the next 3 stations were closed, so we came up with a Plan B, head 40km East to Kiel, a former Hanseatic League city and enjoy a night there, as we had heard the line to Hamburg would reopen the next day.

The somewhat choreographed chaos of the DB intercity bike car… everyone helps each other and spaces are reserved
Bremen, an overlooked gem and former Hanseatic city in northern Germany
Cheryl proud that we finally made it to Bremen, summer travel was a bit crazy.

Although sometimes traveling with bikes on trains is (very) stressful, it also gives you a unique freedom to pivot when an issue arises! This flexibility helped us again as the line from Hamburg to Groningen, Netherlands has been closed for years near the border, due to a failed rail bridge. But we were able to bridge gap easily by riding from the last Deutsche Bahn station in Germany to the first town on the Dutch rail system 20 km away!

Closing the rail gap with our bikes from Leer to Weener, Germany
Success! Ready to board our final train-bike-train leg to Groningen in Weener, Germany

So we breathed a big sigh of relief as our local and mellow Dutch train rolled towards the famous cycling city of Groningen. We decided to spend two nights there to enjoy it sufficiently, but then realized as we headed out two days later that we left ourselves a bit of cycling challenge to make our ferry to the UK on time, especially with the “hills of the Netherlands” (aka wind!)….more on our next leg soon.

Happy August to all -:)

Tschüss Switzerland!

Rich enjoying a sun break on a shaded decent down the Rhine Valley

This morning we’re waiting for a train to Austria, then we ride into Germany along the Bodensee, also known as Lake Constance.

We really enjoyed our time in Switzerland. We even got our vaccine QR codes (Rich will write more on this.).

Cowbells! Not just for tracking cows and delighting tourists.
These Valais sheep!
The start of the Rhine River.
Many trips to the Coop market to get picnic lunch supplies. we have a one sit down meal a day rule. It’s easier and faster for us to picnic for lunch and then relaxing to go out for dinner.
All the beautiful Swiss Brown cows. And the yummy cheese they help produce.
Met some other cycle tourists. These 2 great guys were headed up a pass we were riding down.
So for now, farewell Switzerland ❤️
Fun bike graffiti in Chur.
But before getting on the train I spent some of our change in the vending machine. Masks and chocolate, what else in these times?

Three things that make travel more fun.

For years we’ve been thankful that we live a city life that makes travel less frightening than it is for some travelers. Three things we do on a regular basis here in SF make our trips easier, less daunting, and help us have a wider variety of experiences.

Buses. Being transit friendly makes getting around a joy. My favorite transit app is Citymapper. Citymapper has opened up a world of transit that used to be quite challenging to figure out. In London, like most tourists, we would be tied to the underground, with the confusing but understandable and always available map, but now, with Citymapper we use buses a lot. You can plug in your destination and be directed to the best bus routes, shown where the stop is, and the app will ping you before it’s time for you to get off the bus. No worries about missing your stop. The best part about riding a bus is being above ground and getting to appreciate the city – especially from the top of a double decker.

Riding the bus in Honolulu.
BorisBike on a London bicycle super highway. Now that’s bike infrastructure.

Bikes (of course!). Ever since I first used the Washington DC bikeshare while there for a conference years ago, and had my eyes opened about what a game changer bikeshare is, I believe that bikeshare, especially electric assist bike share, is the ultimate urban transportation. Fast, convenient, clean, space efficient. We’ve ridden bikeshares in SF, Glasgow, London, Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Honolulu, Aspen and are looking forward to many more rides in many more cities. Similar to being comfortable on public transit, being a confident and safe urban cyclist opens up a lot of experiences you might otherwise miss. If you aren’t a comfortable urban cyclist I highly recommend taking an urban skills bike course.

We were not expecting bikeshare in Aspen Colorado, it was a welcome surprise, as were the inspirational bike quotes on the back wheel skirt guards/fenders.
On the Camino Ingles with an old friend and a new friend who joined us for a few miles.

Walking. Here in San Francisco we think nothing of walking a mile or two to dinner and home again. Yesterday we walked 1.2 miles to our dentist (Thank you Nikki! You rock!) had a Raman lunch, and walked home again. While traveling we cover a lot of miles sightseeing. Our base level of walking fitness serves us well. Before traveling it’s a great plan to walk a lot so you’re ready to do 6 or 7 miles exploring a new city, and to make sure that your walking shoes are up to the task of helping you explore. And have your Citymapper app ready to help you get home if you need a boost!

A hike in Kep, Cambodia.

Being flexible with your transportation will help you have so many more experiences than when you are limited to driving or taking taxis. And, having those options will give you the confidence you need to get out and explore. Some of our best times have come not from a planned destination, but from a serendipitous find while out on bikes, buses or foot.

A Camino marker in Porto, Portugal.

Happy Travels!