Bikes Navigation and Computing

The whole route

The Downloads:

Downloads for this route in Garmin Google Earth and .GPX formats

The files are in .zip format. They need to be unzipped and saved to a directory of your choice. You can then load them into the appropriate application and GPS.

The Blog

The bikes - Ken's

Just as on last year's tour I was a little concerned that I would not be able to keep up with John. He is still several years my junior and by the time I joined him he had already been on the road for a month. So I was again expecting him to be fitter than me.

Last year I used my Airnimal, the Chameleon. It is a fast road bike which could be quickly dismantled to take on Eurostar and other trains. http://www.airnimal.com/

On this tour I had anticipated that the road surfaces, particularly in Albania, would be very bad. This proved to be largely untrue with surfaces often better than the cobbled ones of Germany and Poland. However, a lightweight bike with 700C wheels seemed to fit the bill.

Coincidentally my friend Johnny Read had given me a 1980's Claud Butler bike. Claudie is a nice little time trial bike with the much sought after track ends. He is immensely strong and while not ultra light he certainly does not have a middle aged spread.

Claudie with Ken

Claudie was upgraded for the tour with Rohloff gears. This gives me 14 evenly spaced gears of between 20 and 100 gear inches which for me is essential for touring in mountainous areas. The track end drop outs enabled adjustment of the chain tension without the need for a tensioner making for a very neat arrangement.

I was able to squeeze in 28mm tyres and just had room to fit the excellent Crud Catcher road mudguards which are quickly removable. Claudie's brakes had already been upgraded to modern dual pivots and, surprisingly, he has fittings on the rear drop outs for an aluminium carrier.

I had wrongly considered that there may be problems with theft of cycles and equipment on this tour. I therefore made Claudie look as undesirable as possible. His paint work is tatty and all I needed to do was to stick some tape over the Rohloff hub to disguise it. The disguise may well come in handy in the UK and other less honest parts of Europe.

A road bike, particularly with straight handlebars like Claudie, and most mountain bikes can be quickly taken apart and will fit into a bag that can easily be taken on trains and coaches. They can also be put back together in about ten minutes which enabled me to ride across Paris.

The main problem I had was carrying 18 kilograms of non wheeled luggage between trains. I solved this in a novel way. I fitted little wheels from a child's bike stabiliser kit from Wilkie's to Claudie's handlebar extensions. With the removed wheels strapped to the handlebars to keep them straight I could easily wheel everything I needed for a month like a suitcase.

The only problem I had on the tour was of my own making and I should have known better. I did not adjust my brilliant Ortlieb panniers for the small diameter of the bars on my equally good Blackburn carrier. On a steep descent a pannier jumped off and in the process buckled the rear wheel. I removed the buckle with my spoke key but eventually on the last day of the tour, suffered from a broken spoke.

Broken spoke

On a future trip of this length, particularly to more remote countries, I would take a folding spare tyre. This may not be strictly necessary but it would have helped my frame of mind in countries like Albania, where bike shops keeping the kind of tyres I needed were rare. Like everyone else these days I use Schwalbe tyres.

The bikes - John's

In many ways John's choice of bike, a mid range Dawes Horizon is just as unusual as mine for expedition touring. Perceived wisdom within the cycling community would be that he should take a bike with mountain bike sized wheels and equipped with a Rohloff 14 gear rear hub. Typically this would be a Thorn Nomad or similar costing in the region of �3000 ready to go rather than around �750 for John's bike.

John also went for the opposite end of the weight carrying options from me, taking camping gear. My guess is that his bike and equipment weighed in at around 30 kilograms. It was hard to lift the back wheel off the ground.

Choosing a largely untested bike for expedition touring is a risk. It all depends on how good the factory designer was, the strength of the frame and forks, and the quality of the equipment specified. The problem with all these types of bikes is that the only way to find out how good they are is to take one on tour. All of the variables are impossible to determine in advance even between examples of the same model. Frame and fork strength is impossible to assess and much of the basic equipment is from little known suppliers. For example, John had to replace the bottom bracket cassette before his tour started. This is a component which in my experience seldom fails.

As it turned out John's bike again stood up to the tour very well. All the main components performed very well and much better than I would have expected. Surprisingly he had no spoke breakages and the wheels are still true. This may well be because he does not have the very low gears which put a real strain on the bike in the mountains. Walking up the steeper bits may have saved breakages though did nothing for John's well being.

Tyres and carriers are areas where cycle tourists cannot afford to compromise. Again this year John had a problem with his front carrier. We easily fixed it but it almost certainly would not have happened if he had used a Tubus carrier.

His luggage choice was interesting. He very sensibly used Ortlieb waterproof roll top classic panniers for everything he needed to keep dry. He carried these on the front carrier and as you would expect they performed faultlessly. His rear panniers were of the throw over kind connected in the middle. They are not waterproof and have long been out of fashion. They have the interesting and very useful feature of a small rucksack which is attached, I think by zips, to the top of the panniers. This can be quickly removed and used as a back pack for shopping and carrying valuables. I would guess his rear luggage will be in the bin years before the Ortlieb's give up. On the other hand the rear luggage was not expensive and did the job John wanted them to do well.

Having travelled with John I do feel that the best option for expedition touring is the perceived wisdom of the cycling community. At least if you start with good quality reliable equipment there is less chance of things going wrong. The cost of the bike and equipment is not the major cost of an expedition of this type. Compromising on bike and equipment or even taking a risk on it being alright is just not worth it. Breakdowns are always very inconvenient and often expensive. The cost of replacing things like tyres and carriers to bring a bike up to a higher standard is also high. And that comes from somebody stupid enough to take a thirty year old time trialling bike on tour.

John asked me to plan our route from Belgrade to Lefkada. It was restricted by Foreign Office warnings on safety which unlike many travellers I took notice of. The original route via Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia was ruled out. Kosovo was having another fall out with Serbia. The other problem was that there were armed gangs in the remote Macedonian mountains and areas where landmines had still not been cleared. Motorists can go this way but it involves motorways and the only good cycle routes went straight through the danger areas.

I updated my Garmin map of Europe at a cost to which I object. The mapping for Serbia, Montenegro and Greece was accurate for most of the roads we used but only covered the main road network in Albania. I doubt if there are any current maps of all roads in Albania because new roads and changes to old roads are happening so quickly.

The route I chose proved to be great for us and talking to other cyclists we did well to avoid the coast in Montenegro which is extremely busy. The high points were the mountains in Serbia, Montenegro and Albania with Albania being the most spectacular.

I was forced to use Garmin's very unpleasant BaseCamp program to draw my track of the route onto the map. This is because Garmin are so restrictive about loading their maps onto a computer. The web alternatives are getting better everyday and are well worth exploring.

I then had a complete route as tracks in Garmin MapSource format. I split these tracks into reasonable length day rides. I then downloaded them onto my Garmin Montana and backed them up onto my Acer 10 inch netbook, see below under communications.

The Montana GPS

Route Planning


Navigation on the rides could not have been more simple. I had the Garmin Montana on my handlebars and followed the track on the map screen. I had the destination marked as a waypoint just to be on the safe side. We only got into real map navigation when we varied the route or failed to trust the instrument.

It is true that using the GPS this way deskills navigation. Once there is any deviation between the track on the GPS and the position arrow we had gone wrong. We seldom went more than 50 metres in the wrong direction unless we went a different way on purpose. We also had the saving grace that John, unlike many cyclists, likes to know where he is. He always had his 200,000 scale map on his handlebars so we did have an overview.

Communications, computers and GPS

Mobile phone companies still rip you off at 30p a minute for calls made abroad. It can cost �300 a week to use a Google Android or an iPhone outside the UK mainland. I turned 3G off, only using 2G. I also used an App to ensure that everything else was off. We used texts where this was appropriate and kept calls to a minimum. John used internet cafes to update his blog and it is also possible to make Skype calls from most internet cafes.

New for this year I treated myself to a Garmin Montana GPS. It is extremely powerful and enables a cyclist to view the local area while riding almost as well as with a conventional map. Unfortunately Garmin do not think it will be used on bicycles and so do not make a suitable handlebar mount. I improvised my own as can be seen from the picture.

I used my Acer 10 inch netbook for almost everything. It runs under Windows XP which if you have to use Microsoft still works better than Windows 7. Where wifi, often called wiffy in non English speaking countries, is available it is possible to surf the net, listen to BBC radio live, send and receive emails and make Skype calls. I also use a Kindle as a book reader and to get a web connection free on 3G when wifi is not available.

The Acer

Unfortunately this arrangement means carrying more equipment than I would like but we found it worth the extra weight. It was especially useful for planning changes to the route. It order to avoid damage in the pannier I carried it and the Kindle in a neoprene case inside a plastic box inside a waterproof bag.

Before my next tour I will be experimenting with a tablet computer to try to reduce the size and weight of the electronics. I have ditched the psixpd used on my previous tour. It was far from ideal but the best I could find at the time. It is very quirky to use and fragile. The processor was slow and became stressed when I tried to do too much at the same time.

My pet hate is hotels that either don't provide wifi at all or charge for it. On this tour wifi was limited in hotels in Serbia and Montenegro and almost non existent in Albania. In many places broadband is probably just not available. Where it was we had no trouble getting connected.