Helen Moat discovers that the key to successful cycle touring is the company you keep
Iris and Brian’s Ortlieb panniers were like Mary Poppins’ carpetbag. It was hard to imagine that two touring bikes with front and back panniers, along with small handlebar bags, could contain so much stuff. The retired couple had accumulated the best cycling and camping equipment over decades of touring. They had had their high-spec bicycles built to fit their height and shape, while Iris had covered all eventualities with everything from duct tape and toothpicks to a sewing kit. They had a massive two-section tent, top-quality mattresses, the warmest sleeping bags with silk liners and the latest cooking equipment.
“Everything but the kitchen sink,” Brian said cheerfully.
We met them on our second night of camping. Jamie and I were, in stark contrast, minimalists with our ‘coffin’ tents, light cotton sheet-bags and spit-thin self-inflating mattresses (that didn’t self-inflate). Even the hard-core solo long-distance cyclists had large two-man tents that allowed them the luxury of sitting up. Getting into our tents needed the skills of a contortionist. Iris tried my tent out of curiosity and declared with a shake of her head that a bivvy bag would be better.
Jamie had to chain his Ortlieb panniers to his bicycle at night as he was the exact length of the tent. I could just about fit my panniers in if I squeezed my feet in the gap between the two bags. Everyone in the campsite made coffin jokes about our tiny tents – and the international camaraderie among the cyclists in the campsite almost made up for the bitterly cold nights in the tents, when I’d wake up at 4am with the birdsong and plummeting temperatures.
As for Iris and Brian, we first met them at Grein, on a beautiful section of the Austrian Danube, where thick deciduous woodland swept down to the ever-widening river and villages clung to sloping meadows. We ended up cycling with the English retirees for three days and found them a constant source of inspiration and admiration. Each day, I pedalled furiously to keep up with the pony-like Iris on her light-weight ‘child-sized’ bicycle, while I towered over her on my high, solid Dutch bike. Brian, in turn, seemed to pedal and glide effortlessly.
Iris politely asked if I had bought my bike before I’d planned the trip. I could tell she thought I was mad for choosing a big old sit-up-and-beg bike for a long distance tour, and she was right. On the flat Rhine and Danube, my heavy-weight Dutch girl was doing fine by me – but we hadn’t left the river valley yet. However, I’d long given up on worrying how the bike would perform on the hills further east and was determined to take each day as it came – to just focus on the next turn of the pedal – or curve of the Danube. After all, I’d made it to Grein, all the way from Rotterdam, and Vienna was just downstream.
As we headed towards the Austrian capital the landscape seemed to grow more beautiful with every turn of the river. We spun past hilltop monasteries, castle ruins, churches with elaborate onion-topped steeples, vineyards and peach orchards. Ferrymen waited patiently in their old-fashioned squared-off wooden boats for trade.
Brian and Iris chatted to everyone they encountered along the way. They assumed everyone spoke English, and when they didn’t, the couple effortlessly resorted to fluent sign-language. Brian and Iris opened up a whole world of international cyclists to us with their outgoing banter: Dutch, Germans, Slovakians, a family of Canadians and a couple from Alabama with the sweetest lilting accents.
At Vienna, we parted ways with the irrepressible Brian and Iris. As Jamie and I headed out of the green corridor towards Slovakia, it felt strangely quiet. We were on our own again and heading into the ‘wild unknown’ of Eastern Europe, but we were ready to take on whatever came our way ... or so we hoped.
Main image: Heavily loaded cycle (Shutterstock)