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Fahrt in den Frühling Crew

Low Carbon Adventure: Bike packing

The climate crisis has made me anxious about my carbon footprint. The pandemic has made me restless for exploration. Is bike packing part of the solution?

By Chris Cummins

The pandemic has not changed our travel habits. It has not caused a major rethink on the way we get around. That is in evidence as we embark on first holiday season of relative freedom after two long years of Covid-claustrophobia. We have a thirst for travel and we want to return to “the good old days” of quick, cheap aviation.

Despite the chaos at airports, the budget airline Ryan Air recorded a record month in June. Its boss Michael O’Leary projects next year the airline will fly more passengers than at any time in its history. Most of the airlines routes would be easily manageable by rail. Travel journalist Simon Calder explained on FM4 Reality Check, the chaos in the airports is partly caused by our unexpected large urge to get out there and fly.

We Can’t Ignore The Consequences

I understand that and I don’t want to be a hypocrite. My historic carbon footprint is huge and my international travel has shaped me. I love travel. Indeed, my dream as a teenager was to work for Lonely Planet.

But I know more about the climate than I did then. Personally, I can’t look any longer at the daily headlines and pretend they having nothing to do with my western polluting lifestyle. In recent weeks we’ve seen record floods in Australia and Bangladesh, a heatwave in India, a drought in Italy, Portugal and Spain, glaciers collapsing in the Alps, sweaty temperatures in the Arctic.

And yet, I have felt intensely claustrophobic during the pandemic. I’ve had an itch to explore again, to see new horizons, taste different food, smell different smells, meet different people.

Green Travel

So when my friend Horst, a man who I have always seen as the soulful uncle of the Austrian biking scene, asked me if I wanted to join his crew on a four-day, four country bike-packing trip. I jumped at the chance. I could go to places I’ve never seen before, without booking a plane or even getting into a car. For the first time since 2019 I packed my passport, and got on a train to Graz to start a trip through Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy. I’d see four countries and still be back for Sunny Side Up!

a hill in Styria

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Bike-packing is both a trend and the original roots of cycling. Bikes have always been about adventure and freedom. People have been strapping bags to their bikes and headed off on long tours ever since the 19th century; and many of the most remarkable trips have been made by women.

Bostonian mother of three Annie Londonderry cycled around the world by bike in 1894. Devla Murphy, who died this spring, turned her solo bike trip to India into one of the best travel books of the 20th century. Tourists have been bumbling down the path along the Danube for decades without ever considering their panniers made them trendy or adventurous.

Lighter, Quicker, Easier

What’s new is a new generation of light-weight bags that you can strap to swift road-bikes and gravel bikes and bike computers that can help you quickly devise new routes of your own.

a path

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„You Realize How Little You Need To Feel Happy“

“Cycling is such a simple way to explore the world,” said Daniel Ehrl, who had masterminded our trip. “You need so few things and you can set off really spontaneously. You just think up a route a few days before, pack a very few essential things and get on your bike.”

For Daniel, my big adventure probably felt like a little jaunt. He’s a veteran of several epic rides, including one that took him from Vienna, across Siberia to the Sea of Japan. But whether your journey is long or short, the sense of liberty is the same. “The beautiful thing about cycling,” he says, “is that you realize how little you need to feel happy.”

We set off early in the morning in Graz. The rain had been hammering on the roof of my hotel all night, but as we set off on tiny roads into the southern Styrian landscape the wispy clouds were lifting off the wooded hills. There were grazing sheep, muddy-carp ponds and apple orchards and then after a steep hill and 3 hours of riding, our first national border.


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“This is the first time I’ve been out of Austria since 2019,” I yelled in glee to Horst as we started the decent into Slovenia and the Drau river. “Me too!” he yelled back.

True, the wooded green landscape and the red-roofed houses looked almost exactly the same as southern Styria at this point, but the road-signs had foreign words on them and, after 30 months without foreign travel, this seemed exotic enough.

The Perfect Way To Explore

I’ve been in a car and a train through Slovenia, but it took this trip to understand its beauty and variety. We whizzed through flat stretches of bike paths past endless hop-fields, then sped through a moist, dark bike path through forest and tunnels, into steep-sided, mysterious side-valleys that seemed straight out of a Grimm brothers’ fairy tale – these were the back-roads. We were off the beaten-path.


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“The speed of cycling is perfect to explore a country,” said Daniel. “There’s time to take in the new impressions. You can stop wherever you want, whenever you want. You have time.”

Crossing Borders

After a night in the castle-topped city Celje, we followed glistening clear-watered rivers for much of the second day, stopping for mugs of strong-black coffee in the gardens of country inns and then skirting along the Kupa river which marks the heavily-fortified border with EU partner Croatia.

the border

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This gorgeous fast-running river, famous for its brown trout and saibling, is now lined with an incongruous 3-metre high razor-wire fence.

Feeling The Contours, Sensing The Changes

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, who knew a thing or two about travel. “Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motorcar only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”

That quote has never seemed so accurate to me as when on the 3rd day, we crossed over a mountain pass from the Croatian mountain resort of Delnice to the Adriatic coastal town of Rijeka. The hills above Delnice were verdantly green and central European, but after we crossed the gale-blown peak of the pass, panting against the headwind, the landscape changed dramatically. As we zipped down towards the sparkling ocean there was dry-brown scrub grass and boulders of limestone and the smell of Mediterranean herbs. I’ve rarely felt so alive.


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With leg power alone, and only 48 hours we had come from the luxurious juicy green of Styria to a sun-kissed land where we could fortify our legs at lunchtime with freshly caught fish. From the height of a coastal road, there were surprises too – a giant coal power plant at Plomin Luka, a sun-drenched floodplain near Most Rasa that was so green it looked like paddy-fields, the renaissance square in the tiny medieval town Svetvinčenat; all things that are best taken in by bike.


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The Simple Life

There’s something wonderfully uncomplicated about life on the bike. You ride, you eat and then you ride again. It will take me a while to master the technicalities of bike-packing, I stuffed and strapped (and purchased) my bags so poorly that I looked inelegant and lopsided. But, by the 4th day I’d almost got the hang of it, as we rode from the seaside town of Porec back into Slovenia and the sea-salt pans and oyster bays of Portoroz and the gelato mecca of Piran.

Fabulous Bike Paths

Slovenians take bike paths very seriously and the route to Koper was a dream ride on a traffic-free path past citrus-groves and cool shady tunnels. Koper itself is an Eden for segregated bike paths.

I felt a sense of triumph but also regret as we crossed into Italy, our fourth country in four days, for the last stretch of the ride. On the one hand my legs were already tired and I missing my little boy back home, but on the other hand part of me felt I could live like this for weeks, if not months; the sense of movement and every changing scenery had healed a wound in my soul.

a tunnel

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We arrived in Trieste in the early afternoon, with a long train ride back to Vienna ahead of us. As we stood on the edge of a Habsburg-era Piazza and looked down into the sea there was a strange sight; jelly-fish bunched tightly together for a 100 metres out to sea. It was both eerily beautiful and highly alarming; an invasion that indicated the sea was far too warm.

Jelly Fish

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It was a final reminder why I need to get used to adventure without air travel.

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