An observation on Bicycle development

The excellent German cycling infrastructure is encouraging more and more people to become cyclists. Many older Germans are taking up cycle touring in their retirement.
The combination of new and established cyclists can be seen in the choice of bicycles.
We often see older cyclists, well past their retirement, at supermarkets with bicycles that may be as old as their children. Some of these older cyclists seem to have trouble walking but have no trouble making a smooth exit on their bicycles.

Some newbie tour cyclists buy expensive bicycles. For example, an elderly pair was touring on mountain bicycles with double suspension systems that are battery powered and have custom made batteries. Their bicycles required specially made attachments to mount luggage.

German electric cycles are well designed for short term usage, but not for long term maintenance. Most German electric bicycles have the motor and battery integrated with the pedal system. The propulsion is all on the chain, so this causes more wear on the drive chain and rear cassette. In my opinion the best electric bicycle design have the electric motor on the front wheel. This separates the maintenance of the mechanical drive system to the rear wheel and the maintenance of the electric drive to the front wheel (making the bicycle simpler to maintain and also causing less wear). It also provides a bicycle with drive traction on both wheels.

We are traveling on very cheap Decathlon Hoprider 300 cycles that are cheap to maintain.
Sometimes people ask us – Are those good bicycles? The correct answer is “Yes, top of the range”. They are top of the range at Decathlon.

And all this diversity can only be good for the evolution of the next generation of bicycles.

Heading for the Alps

We spent some time in Eastern Europe (Poland etc) on our previous cycle tour and I wonder if Eastern Europe has a Russian sub-culture. This time we went through Croatia. The cost for accommodation is normally cheap in East European countries, and a lot of Croatians do not value life very highly as we experienced by driving on the roads, particularly in relation to cyclists. Some Croatians seem less friendly than Western Europeans. All in all this makes Eastern European countries a cheaper, but unpleasant tourist experience. As per usual I was dreaming a lot as cycle touring provides intense days. After a while in Croatia I was battling a lot of demons in my dreams.

Instead of following the Croatian coast into Italy, we decided to head through Slovenia towards the Alps. We found a marked difference when we crossed over into Slovenia. Slovenians generally tend to give cyclists room and do not take chances with the lives of cyclists.

We are not going past the Declathons that we planned as we are now planning to bypass some big centers. I’m hoping we can nurse our cheap bicycles over the Alps without doing a maintenance stop. (it is no use doing maintenance checks if you can’t buy spare parts).
Our crossing route over the Alps is not that much different, as we approach our target entry point (Bovec, Slovenia) from Slovenia instead of Italy.

Italian and Croatian cycle roads

Italian and Croatian roads have been constructed without thought about cyclists (similar to New Zealand and the UK).
There are differences between Italy and Croatia though – generally Croatian roads are maintained and Italian roads are not maintained. Both Italy and Croatia control traffic speeds in designated urban areas. Croatia have ribs across the road that are noisy when you drive across them or alternatively chatter the teeth of cyclists. Italy uses the cost efficient method of potholes to slow traffic. The cost-effective Italian method would, of course, gain top marks under the New Zealand number eight wire methodology. The other difference is that Italian drivers are more used to cyclists than the drivers in Croatia. So there are normalised behavior patterns around cyclists in Italy. In Croatia drivers would either give you a very wide berth, or they would hoot at you and try to nick you with their side mirrors.

So it is no surprise that everybody in Croatia tells you how wonderful the road ahead will be for cyclists. Of course the Croatian roads have good views and the road surfaces are well maintained. The trouble is the roads are designed for at most two trucks traveling in opposing directions. Always when there are two cars on the road with us, the car behind us pushes between us and the oncoming driver, forcing the oncoming driver to the edge of his side of the road. So if there is one or more trucks involved it becomes Russian roulette on who is doing what.
Cyclists are forced on these roads for large sections along the Croatian coast road.
So don’t take any cycling tips from the Croatian public.

So we have decided to do some island hopping to avoid these roads. It will slow our progress a bit, some days will have less cycling, but it may be more interesting.

We have decided to enter Pag via Zadar, ferrying off Pag onto the road of death for a couple of hours, then using the ferryman for passage onto Rab, from where we obtain passage to Krk.

The above paragraph is a short extraction from the the Star Wars prequel.

28 April – Rome to Tivoli

Our sleep patterns are still disrupted – Kris and I were up at 3am drinking tea and making notes for the day’s ride. Our plans have changed, we are no longer going South to Bari, but rather cutting across the country to catch the ferry at Ancona (to Split).

We did go back to sleep again for an hour or so, waking up again at 8.30am to a rainy morning. We set off in the light rain to the dire warnings of our hostess about slippery Roman roads after rain. Luckily it didn’t last long and our rain coats were off long before we reached central Rome.

We criss crossed a bit to find the right path, cutting across roads and a ran-shackled park at one point. It was very exciting when we found an off road cycle way alongside Via Christoforo Columbo – this lasted for about 5km and ended when we entered central Rome through an old wall.

I actually enjoyed the ride through central Rome. The traffic is so slow that we were probably traveling just as fast as the cars, if not faster. We didn’t even try to navigate to the big ticket tourist sights, just passed through.

Once we found the Via Prenestina we were able to follow it for about 30km right out of the center. At one point we were overtaken by a young male runner going up a hill. He was training on the road alongside the traffic (probably not enough room on the pavement). It was entertaining when he just ran through every red traffic light without a pause. We only got past him again after a few traffic lights.

Before we knew it, we were riding through green fields, dotted with the odd rundown satellite settlement. The further from the center, the faster the traffic (not so pleasant). The condition of the roads also deteriorated the further we got from the center.

The last stretches of road before Tivoli were really busy, until we got onto our final uphill stretch to the town, which is on a hill. It got so steep we had to get off and push for the last few hundred meters. The entry is through a narrow entrance in a wall that is only really single file for cars. Then it is all cobbled streets and old higgledy piggledy buildings. Very charming. Total travel distance to get here was 53km.

Pushing bike up the hill into the town

We found a supermarket and bought some supplies for the night. It was difficult finding our accommodation as the streets are like a rabbit warren – we probably saw most of the town on the way there. Most of the people out and about were mothers walking their children home from school. Cars can get down the streets, but single file and very slowly – so most people get around by walking.

When we got to the apartment we tried ringing the bell and sending a text message to the proprietor, but it was all quiet and shut up. Eventually another occupant of the building came along and called the owner by phone for us. He appeared two minutes later. The apartment is up three flights of stairs, quite spacious and well equiped. It has a kitchen and washing machine (yay, no hand washing!).

Waiting to get into apartment

Our host locked our bicycles up in a lock up storage room on another street. We are the first cycle tourist he has accommodated! Actually, we have not seen any other cycle tourists on route at all – clearly we are ground breakers for this part of Italy!

We went for a bit of a walk around to admire the town, then back to the apartment to drink wine and eat.

We fell asleep early at around 7pm and woke up again at 5am the next morning!

More thoughts on traffic and Italian drivers

It is fascinating to watch the traffic flow – the drivers don’t seem to follow fixed road rules, but rather take any gaps available on the road. Drivers are expected to take these gaps, so there is no rancor when one driver cuts in front of another. Occasionally there is a snarl up, which they manage to untangle, signaling to each other with honks on the horn

The Roman drivers are used to looking out for all kinds of irregularities at the side of the road – oddly parked cars, pot holes, joggers – ironically it is probably this chaotic state of affairs that keeps us safe, as we were just another obstacle to deftly avoid.

Italian drivers get top marks from us for courtesy to cyclists. They accept that cyclists have a right to be on the road and give them enough room (unlike drivers in NZ and UK). On every occasion where I have been trying to do something tricky, such as cross lanes in traffic, a driver has stopped to let me do so.

Wednesday April 26 – Endurance Test

Well we are in Rome, with two bicycles and in the accommodation we booked from New Zealand.
Getting here can only be described as an endurance test.

Firstly, we took four flights with a combined flying time of 26 hours, with waiting times of 2-3 hours in Auckland, Hong Kong and Frankfurt. Long distance travel really is a unique form of torture, that we undertake for the privilege of living in New Zealand and visiting the rest of the world.

The low point was when we were assigned separate seats (one behind the other) on the 12 hour Hong Kong-Frankfurt stretch. Luckily they had done the same thing to another couple and we were able to swop seats around on the plane to everyone’s satisfaction. Then a large group of Chinese tourists got lost in Frankfurt airport (airport shopping?) and delayed our plane by another three quarters of an hour.  Our tolerance was wearing very thin when they looked so relaxed and unhurried getting on the plane.

At Rome airport we found that it costs almost as much to take the metro to the Decathlon sports store as to take a taxi.  Especially after I negotiated the taxi price down. I was amazed that it worked really – down from 25E to 20E – train was 17E plus a half hour walk on other side.
They had the bicycles we had ordered at Decathlon – so far so good. We spent a couple of hours putting everything together and were on our way by about 3pm. Everything looks ok, I am not too happy with the quality of the pannier bags, but we will make them work (or replace if we cannot).


The reality of Roman roads soon set in. Far worse than expected. Kris says these are the most confusing roads he has  navigated (from a cycling perspective). As a cyclist, it is difficult to cross highways – and getting to our destination, an expected 20km away, we were forced to cross the same highway about 5 times. We zig-zagged and back tracked the whole time to stay on roads where cycling is permissible (if not wise). The journey that is 15km by car took us 35km. We also had to stop frequently to consult the map on the phone and consider our alternatives (alternatives we tried did not pan out). The whole journey took us about 3 hours.

I was just amazed at the poor condition of the roads. Many pot holes and wash outs, particularly on the side of the road, which is where bicycles ride. They also like putting drainage grids directly in the cyclist’s path. There is not really much space on the side of the road for cyclists, and naturally the traffic was heavy as we rode through the rush hour.
Typical road hazards for cyclists – not the worst we saw by far

We got out unscathed but the mobile phone took a fall out of Kris’s front basket. He went over a particularly large pothole instead of veering out in front of a car and it flew from the basket with the maps and tools. Bounced off the tarmac breaking the case and cracking the glass. I am impressed that it still works, but we wonder for how long.

Exhaustion was really setting in when we finally got to our accommodation and attracted the owners attention to let us in after a while (I had a scary moment thinking we were at the wrong place!). The accommodation is really nice. We have a private room and bathroom, and shared kitchen and living room. She is also washing our clothes for $3 laundry fee!

After unpacking and showering, we went and had some pasta, gnocci and red wine at the local cafe. It was very good.

Happy to be Alive

Date: Monday 11 March 2013
Route: Murchison to Motueka
Distance: 134km
Weather: mist in morning, very hot in afternoon
Accommodation: Vineyard Tourist Units – recommended for friendliness and value for money

We totally overdid it today, and also almost got killed by a stupid driver.
We knew the Murchison – Nelson road was bad for bicycles due to lots of traffic from our previous experience on it coming down from St Arnaud. We left early to try to avoid some of the traffic and the first hour or so was not so bad. We had a bit of fog again but it lifted more quickly today (or maybe we just rode out of it sooner) – we could still see it lying in the valleys.

The road follows the Buller river and has many small climbs and downhill runs. There is a long climb after the St Arnaud turn-off.

It was around here that we had a terrifying experience with an oncoming car that decided to overtake a truck as the truck was approaching us. I thought it will hit us as it came towards us at speed and was very shaken afterwards. I would advise all cyclists to avoid NZ roads like these. In this case there is no alternative route. There is too much traffic for cyclists, too little space and drivers are in such a rush, they are willing to risk lives.

We pushed to get to the Motueka turnoff (onto quieter road) in record time – it was around 70km and we were there around midday. There is a cafe there and we stopped for a coffee and scone and to refill our water bottles.

Our original plan was to stop at Tapawere, as we knew there are cabins and meals available in the town. However Kris persuaded me that it was too early to stop and we should go on a little further.

This ride, which follows the Motueka river valley is one of the most beautiful we have done and I recommend it highly. In some places the trees and grasses beside the river look like a landscaped garden. Some of the trees are already getting their autumn colours. It was a relief to be on a quiet road again. However it began to get hot and we were worn out for the last 20km or so.

The land along the river is fertile and many fruits are grown . We bought delicious strawberries from a roadside stall with honesty box. They tasted fragrant, as though they had just been picked – we polished the whole punnet off while standing on the stall.

A little further on we stopped to buy some blueberries, and had our water bottles refilled by the stall holder. And yet further on we bought some plums and peaches (spray free!) from another stall with honesty box. These are the most delicious plums I have ever tasted – they were as sweet and soft and juicy. Kris even stopped and picked some pears from a tree that was growing wild at the roadside.

We saw hops being grown and harvested for the first time. The hops are vines that grow upwards on long strings. When they harvest them the remove the whole vine. Then they let the sheep graze where they have just harvested.

We arrived hot and tired in Motueka . We were lucky to find the vineyard camping ground – and obtain a very reasonably priced fully equipped two room motel unit. The best thing about it was that it had air conditioning – which helped us to cool down. The owner was very kind and gave us some free range eggs from her chickens for our breakfast. I was so exhausted Kris had to go out and get take aways (roasts) while I dozed on the bed. Later on we revived enough to go into town for a beer – it was very quite (may because it was Monday night?)

Otago Central Rail Trail

Date: Saturday 2 March 2013
Route: Ranfurly to Alexandra
Distance: 88km to Alexandra, another 6 around town
Weather: overcast and cool in morning, clearing and warm in afternoon
Accommodation: Alexandra Tourist Park Cabin

It was good riding totally away from the traffic for the whole day today on the Otago Central Rail Trail. The trail is unsealed, but a better surface than yesterday’s ride. We started around 20km from the highest point, and the rest was a very gradual downhill – the inclines are very gentle, as expected on a railway line.

The arid scenery, browns and greens of the countryside and interesting rock formations add to the beauty of the trail. The most scenic part was between Auripo and Lauder where we passed through the Poolburn Gorge, which includes a viaduct and two tunnels. The viaduct could be scary for someone afraid of heights. All the bridges on the trail are wood and feel rickety under bicycle wheels. The two tunnels were about 200 metres long. About midway, when it gets too dark to see, the light from the other end of the tunnel start to cast shadowy glimpses of the tunnel walls, allowing riders to find their way (we saw riders with torches)

We passed many dozens of other cyclists on the trail. Most seemed to be out for the day or had someone else carrying their luggage (no other cycle tourists like us). All other cyclists were on mountain bikes which are more suited to the rocky terrain than our touring bikes (due to thick tyres). There were many older people and people who looked as if they don’t usually cycle. The rail trail is geared towards day outings and organised groups..

Kris got a puncture on his back tyre around 5km from our destination. We probably got off lightly after punishing our bikes for the last two days.

A downside of the trail was the fine dust that coated everything. I spent ages brushing it off panniers and Kris had to wash the bikes again.

The holiday park at Alexander is very empty. It has all the facilities we need but feels a bit melancholy, in need of care and additional tourists.. We made a huge meal in the communal kitchen and consumed it on an outside picnic table.

Kiwi bicycle tourism

We have toured the South Island by car many years ago but after recent NZ marketing we decided to tour the South Island by bicycle.
Basically, touring cyclists require an environment where you can cycle anywhere safely and where accommodation is readily available. NZ fails dismally as a cycle destination.

In Europe a lot of the routes have separate roads for cyclists.
In NZ none of this exists (of course). The next option would be to have shoulders on the roads. Most roads in NZ do not have road shoulder. The situation in NZ is much more dangerous than no shoulders. Perversely the dangerous roads with little visibility have no shoulders and the straight roads have shoulders.
This sets a dangerous precedence as motorists may be conditioned into thinking that their behaviour to cyclists can assume shoulders, exactly in scenarios where it should not.

The majority of drivers are well behaved towards cyclists. Unfortunately, some trucks think they own the roads (might is right), and demonstrate this by driving past you as close as possible.

Cycle road planning in NZ is hilarious. There are some goat tracks that have been created, or have been rebranded as cycle tracks. So the local tourist office may typically advertise paid pickups and transfer of luggage. This may be good for the occasional family outing on mountain bikes, but if you attempt this on a typical haul of 80 km between accommodation possibilities, you will be midway, repairing your bicycle when it gets dark.
It seems like the NZ bicycling strategy has been planned by a 10 year old. Sorry, I have to apologise. A 10 year old would do much better.

I would advise cycle tourists to avoid New Zealand.