Great Britain Bike Tour: Part 8 (Recap and Final Thoughts)

February 02, 2024

A month on our bicycles, unsupported, spanning the entire isle of Great Britain. Three countries. Five major cities. Tens of thousands of feet of incline. 800ish miles. Literally millions of sheep.

If you missed the previous post, you can find Part 7 here.

In this post, I reflect on what went well -- and what went not so well -- in our first big international bike tour. And to finish things off, I'll float some ideas about what might come next.

something that went well: carrying food on mandarb
something that went well: carrying food on mandarb

What went well?

We survived! That's a great place to start.

We spent a month on our bikes and walked away still wanting to ride the bikes and spend time with each other.

We never got bored; the pressure of riding your bike to a new place was an excellent motivator to get up every morning, successfully holding ennui at bay.

We developed great tans and not-so-great sandal tan lines.

We tried a ton of great food, beer, cider, and coffee.

My dynamo charger provided unlimited light when we needed it and enough power to keep my phone and our navigation unit fully charged, every day. If Meg equips Sully with a dynamo, we wouldn't ever need a charger.

We successfully packed up our bikes, bags, and supplies into boxes, brought them to another country, reassembled everything, rode for hundreds of miles into two other countries, then put everything back into boxes and brought it home. The only thing we damaged? My front fender, which kinda sucked anyway.

We routed (and repeatedly rerouted) successfully for hundreds of miles. We did plenty of advance planning, scoping out likely pubs, grocery stores, camping areas, coffee shops, and sights to see. But in the end we settled on a just-in-time strategy where we mapped out a major destination (usually a city) and routed our way there one day at a time to keep things manageable.

Our Garmin Edge 840 bike computer worked magnificently in tandem with maps Meg created with RidewithGPS on her phone. The display is always on, it doesn't consume much power, it shows you elevation profiles (for better or for worse), and generally keeps you off of your phone by always showing your next turn. But for the love of all that is holy you should turn the beeps off (or at least down!).

Flying into one airport and out of another is really expensive. We'd strongly prefer to do some kind of loop in the future when possible. One-way flights are an absolute ripoff and often end up more expensive than a two-way flight that includes the same one-way flight!

We worried a lot about time and stressed a lot about hitting milestones. In the future, we'll just go at a comfortable pace and take public transit to our end goal if we truly run out of time. But there's no sense rushing through cool areas because you know you have a lot of riding in the future!

We're glad we didn't bring cooking supplies for a touristy trip. It was nice to save the space in our bags, and we honestly enjoyed spending money at pubs and coffee shops since it was often the only money we spent each day.

We saw three foreign countries in a way I have never before experienced. When you're on a bike, you slow down and actually see the place you're visiting instead of teleporting around in a car.

I proved that Bristol is indeed a very cool city, and not just the product of rose-tinted college glasses. And we discovered that Glasgow and Hackney are also excellent urban areas. I'll refrain from ranting about how much better a medium-sized walkable city in the UK is than literally any car-dependent city in the USA.

And we did it all for a pretty affordable sticker price -- turns out accomodation is 90% of the cost of most vacations, and even when you pay for campsites, it comes out a lot cheaper than hotel rooms. We splurged on campsites, hotel rooms, beer, coffee, and food, but for a longer length tour we could cut 90% of that and travel internationally for... less than our average winter heating bill per month.

something that went not-so-well: carrying food on mandarb
something that went not-so-well: carrying food on mandarb

What went not-so-well?

We should have spent more time in Scotland, which was the prettiest, wildest, and most fun of the entire trip. This would have given us a lot more opportunities to wild camp, too. If I did this trip again, I'd probably bike up into the highlands at the beginning of the trip and trim some days from London.

We deviated a lot from our original route plan. I'm sure plenty of you could have expected this, but the definition of a "bikepacking route" varies a lot between countries. We've stitched together plenty of combined bikepacking and cycle touring routes in the USA, so we figured we could handle most portions of the GB Divide route, rerouting around the nastiest bits. Unfortunately, the route cuts through an awful lot of right-of-ways and bridle paths that just aren't rideable, even on a mountain bike. Too mushy, too overgrown, not fun. We wound up following the broad strokes of the GB Divide, but personally I think the people who designed it are kind of crazy. In the USA, we're "bikepacking people" because we enjoy dirt roads, abandoned roads, manageable singletrack, and anything else that keeps us off of main roads (and the giant scary cars that haunt them). In Europe, cars are less big, people are better at driving, and on-road bicycle paths are better, so we're much more in line with the average European bicycle tourer. Even the road-based bike routes around the UK often used railway paths, gravel roads, and forest roads -- exactly the kind of stuff folks in the USA tend to call bikepacking.

Wild camping is hard. In Scotland, it's legal, but takes some getting used to. In England, it's illegal and uncomfortable. Most bike tourers and bikepackers walk a fine legal grey area; they prefer camping in deserted places and leave no trace, but sometimes ask local residents or authorities for camping suggestions when in a pinch. We tried wild camping, but because it's nice to have peace of mind that someone isn't going to show up and kick you out, we wound up paying for campsites most of the time.

Booking a vehicle to transport you from a city to the airport is expensive and kind of shitty. I'd just rely on public transit next time, especially with a rail line to the airport. But that isn't an option everywhere, so it was good practice to try this out.

what's next: carrying food on mandarb
what's next: carrying food on mandarb

Where next?

For the next little while, we'll focus on shorter bike trips. Overnighters, day trips to explore national parks or particular pretty stretches of dirt roads, and long rides on our local trail systems. All of this keeps us in shape and scratches the "itch" of biking without the necessity of a monthlong vacation from work. We only managed a full month because I changed jobs and Meg earned a monthlong sabbatical after 3 years at her job (a program that has been discontinued since). But within the next couple of years I'm sure we'll start to feel the need for a longer trip. Here are a few of the ideas we're currently incubating:

Unsupported bikepacking in the USA -- off the grid, singletrack, just camping, cooking for ourselves, swimming in rivers, and appreciating nature. The Great Divide and the New York section of the Eastern Divide are high on our list.

Japan & South Korea have excellent bike infrastructure, well designed cities, polite drivers, a great climate, and are easily linked by ferry.

Real Europe™ is the OG of bicycle touring. We'd be happy doing a trip just about anywhere in Europe, though France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway are at the top of my list since there's not as much of a language barrier as there can be in other places. There are some excellent multi-country routes along the Mediterranean that look beautiful and pretty affordable to boot.

The Scottish Highlands and the Hebridean Way, because we missed them on this trip. I travel to work in the UK semi-regularly now, so we could conceivably try this at some point after a work trip.

Thanks for reading along! We had a great time, and I hope this series of posts has helped you understand a tiny piece of why we love riding our bicycles so much. Maybe it's inspired you to try a longer bike ride yourself, or just to dig your old, neglected bicycle out of the garage and take it for a spin. You might be surprised at just how much fun you have on it.