My nephew, Justin, will be joining me on my upcoming French cycling adventure, meeting me at about the halfway mark. While Justin is a strong cyclist and a bit of a world traveler, this is his first foreign bike trip.
And so, what with me being an outstanding uncle and an expert on how to pack for a long, do-it-yourself bike trip, I thought I’d fill Justin in on what to pack. And yes Justin, this is your birthday present, the best and most useful present of all: Free, unsolicited advice! As for everyone else out there: Feel free to utilize some of this info for your next long, DIY bike trip. As for the female cyclists reading this, some of this will help, but probably not the section on toiletries. Adjust accordingly.
OK Justin, here’s the overall key to bike-packing success: Find the sweet spot between an incredibly light pack, yet somehow bring everything you’ll need. It’s not easy and takes years of practice and a thorough knowledge of what you’ll wear often, not very often, never wear and what you really and truly need in your toiletry kit. And then, after you’ve done a practice pack, get rid of a bunch of stuff, do one more practice pack and get rid of a few more things. If you’re having problems getting rid of stuff, just remind yourself: Everything I bring with me I have to carry on my bike for hundreds of miles and up every damn hill and mountain.
Two Is Better Than One
Let’s start with bike stuff because this is a bike trip.
I bring two complete sets of bike stuff: jersey, shorts, gloves and sweat cap (optional, depending on whether or not you use one). Every night, I wash the set I just wore in the sink of the hotel. Every week or so, I give them a more thorough wash at the laverie.
So, Justin, please bring two complete sets. Not like the upstate New York bike trip we (you, me and your brother Josh) did several years ago. You know, the one where each of you brought one complete set of bike stuff, tossed them in the corner every night and put them back on in the morning … and were pretty darn stinky by the time we hit Lake Placid. Buzzards were circling us!
I’ll get a bottle of liquid, laundry soap when I get to France. They sell it at pretty much every store and it makes sink washing easy.
And don’t forget your bike helmet and clip-in bike shoes. And don’t forget to tell the bike rental place in Bordeax which kind of clips you wear. You can’t jam Shimano 105s into Looks.
Sunglasses? I wear prescription glasses, so bringing a pair of prescription sunglasses is a must for me. Bring cheap pair.
Better Bring Bungees
Please bring three bungee cords. Why three?
Panniers are designed to attach firmly to the rack on the back of the bike. And they do. Most of the time. I learned the hard way that every now and again, when you hit a bump in the road, the panniers seem to leap up and off the rails and attack the rear wheel. A bungee cord wrapped around each keeps them firmly in place and on the rack. The third one is to lock my small knapsack and super-light tire pump in place atop the two panniers.
And, when we do sink laundry in the hotel room, we’ll stretch the bungee cords across the room or window and hang our bike stuff on them to dry. Wow, with six we can have a laundry line that will stretch from one side of the room to the other. Justin, don’t forget, if you have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, duck! I still have marks on my neck from the great St-Emillion bungee-cord massacre. Wow, that hurt.
Clothes Make the Cyclists
I learned a few secrets on my 2018 trip to Bordeaux and Provence about underwear and T-shirts that saved a lot of weight.
Underwear: All the top underwear makers now make super-lightweight and breathable boxer briefs out of a shiny, space-age material. Seven or eight pairs weigh less than three pairs of traditional cotton undies and take up way less space in the panniers. By the way, why is one piece of underwear called a pair?
T-Shirts: They now make these special Merino wool Tees that they claim you can wear for three or four days in a row, without washing, and won’t stink. I did a test run in Bordeaux and Provence last year and they were true to their word. They didn’t stink. And, for the price I paid, $150 for the three, they better work. They’re a little heavier and less comfortable than a cotton Tee, but only having to bring three makes up for it. It’s up to you to go with two or three Merino wool Tees, or five or six “regular” Tees.
Pants: I’ll bring one pair of hiking pants. They’re light, have lots of pockets, and you can unzip the lower half and they become … shorts.
Socks:I don’t wear bike socks. Way too expensive. Instead I found a 20-pack of these really thin, ankle socks that work perfectly. They’re so small and light I can bring seven or eight pairs; I stuff ‘em inside my bike shoes when I pack up. Here’s my sock routine during the trip: After the day’s ride and shower, I put on a new pair of my super socks when I go out, wear them the rest of the evening and then again on my ride the next day. It’s called sock conservation.
Outer layers:We’re riding in October, so it will be a bit chilly in the mornings and at night. I have a yellow Nike windbreaker that I’ve brought on my past several bike trips. Can’t leave home without it. I also have a thicker bike jacket and may bring it as well. Maybe. Won’t decide until the final practice pack. I’ll bring one long sleeve Tee, my one-and-only Under Armour high-tech shirt. Am still debating whether or not to bring bike pants.
Here’s the link to my new Biking Bordeaux book, from the 2018 trip. Check it out…
Shoes:My super-light sneakers.
Bag It All Up
Over the years, I’ve learned to put each category of clothes into a separate plastic supermarket bag (bring them with you, as they’re much more ecologically advanced in France and it’s hard to get plastic bags at the grocery). I learned this the hard way on my first DIY trip in 1990 when my waterproof panniers turned out not be as waterproof as advertised. Got caught in the rain and had to dry everything out the next morning in the laverie.
The Great Weight of Technology
Justin, I’m bringing my laptop. Have to, to take notes and write/post my Biking France blogs and to Skype with Susan. It’s up to you to decide if you need your laptop, or whether you can get by with just your iPhone. And remember, when you bring a laptop, you have to bring the charging cords. Don’t worry, I’ll bring the adapter so we can plug it into the outlets in our hotel rooms. One adapter should be enough, and, since it’s mine; I get first priority with it!
And don’t forget to bring the charger for your iPhone.
This is one of the more personal areas of packing, and up to each individual trekker to decide what they truly need. I tend to be a minimalist in this area, although, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to bring more and more stuff. I’m now trapped in the “too much” phase. Here’s my list…
Toothbrush and small tube of paste. You can always buy more paste over there.
One razor and one small, travel-size can of cream.
Deodorant: I bring a brand-new stick. While they sell it over there, they don’t seem to have Old Spice Pure Sport. Justin, do not forget deodorant, as you’re not borrowing mine.
Wine opener. While this technically isn’t a toiletry item, it’s as essential as any of the items listed above.
Sunscreen and butt balm. And don’t mix them up! I get a couple of small bottles at the travel section at Target and fill one with sunscreen and the other with butt balm. And then draw the appropriate label on each.
Soap, shampoo and body lotion. No, we’re staying at hotels and they’ll have all of these. I hope.
Nose-hair clipper: This small tool does double duty, clipping nose hairs and also serving as a pair of scissors. You’ll be surprised how many times a pair of scissors comes in handy. I also bring a nail clipper because happy hands make for better cycling.
Older-Man Stuff: As I’ve aged, I’ve had to add the following to my kit: lactose intolerant pills, which are mandatory before a big dish of ice cream, yoghurt or hunk of cheese; Liquid Advil to relieve my growing number of aches and pains; Melatonin and Ativan to help me sleep, as sleep is an elusive mistress who is harder and harder to find with each passing year (I’m wide awake and writing the first draft of this at 1:30 in the morning); a few bandages; fish oil pills for my brain; and a small bottle of lavender essential oil, which I rub on my head every night to help me sleep. And a couple of four-year-old Ambiens, just in case all else fails. And a little quartz stone Susan gave me, for good luck and safe cycling. Oh, and a little thing of dental floss because, at least two or three times every trip, some gristly piece of meat gets stuck in my molars.
Here’s the link to my updated Biking Provence book.
Maps and More Maps
I love my Michelin maps and these huge paper maps, filled with so much dam information, will get use everywhere we need to go. I guard them with my life and store them in large zip-lock plastic bags. I try to minimize the brochures and pamphlets from all the places we visit, but always collect way too much … and keep them safe in the big zip-lock bag with my maps. So, bring a zip-lock bag or two, and make sure to have one big enough for your laptop if you bring your laptop.
Justin, we’ll need some bike tools, but don’t worry, I’ll bring ‘em all. And yes, I am the greatest uncle ever. Here’s my list: three extra tubes, tire levers, a multi-tool, a few zip ties, a bottle of lube and a rag, and a floor pump. I know, a floor pump is a bit of an extravagance, but those mini pumps just don’t do the job when it comes to pumping up a tire to 100 to 110 PSI. And when you’re riding for as long as we’re riding, you have to add 10 0r 15 pounds every other day. I found a really lightweight and very efficient floor pump last year at a bike shop in Langon and it’s easy to bungee it onto the top of my stuff on the rack. Having it reduces my anxiety level by 25 percent. Mock me if you will, but our tires will be pumped up and ready to roll.
Bike bag: Our rental bikes come with a small saddle bag. I returned it when I picked up my bike, as I’ll be loading on my panniers and knapsack and pump beneath and behind my saddle. I put all my bike tools and the map of the day in a small front, handlebar-bag I’ll bring with me. Since I’ll be carrying all the tools and map, you don’t need to bring a front bag, but can. It’s up to you. You can put snacks and an extra bottle of water in it.
One more thing for your bike bag: toilet paper. In a little plastic bag. Just in case.
Don’t forget your passport, or all of the above will be pointless since they won’ let you into France. And bring a credit card or two, especially one you can use to get cash at an ATM (I think the acronym is different in France, but they work the same). Even better, bring your father’s credit card! Bob won’t mind.