Monday 22 June 2015

Camper Vans Rule - No Thanks

While we have been cycling over the past three years, a number of friends and acquaintances have suggested we would be better off buying a camper van for our travels.

We nod and smile and say nothing much and then out of earshot later we ask ourselves what is it that people don't get?

Perhaps because they can't see themselves cycle touring, they want to impose their own ideas about travel on us. Or is it that they are genuinely concerned for our well being?

Three in a row - camper vans pass through security at Plymouth, England, after returning from mainland Europe.

Sometimes they refer to the comfort of a camper van, or a motor home - the camper van's big brother. It's certainly true a camper van provides features no cycle tourist gets to enjoy - good protection from the weather, home comforts such as a shower, toilet and a permanent cooker, along with some of the benefits of a car including the ability to cover long distances relatively quickly. Some of the advice relates to our personal safety - the risk of an accident or a threat to our security. So far we have managed ok on the road and no one has sliced their way into our tent with a knife in the dead of night and tried to murder us in our sleeping bags. The latter is not something we even think about. Why would they bother? We are pretty low rent with not a lot worth flogging.

Comparing apples with oranges

To us, the very idea of a camper van instead of our tandem and a tent is ridiculous - it's like comparing apples and oranges. 

So let's run through some of the differences.

A camper van/motor home is a form of motorised transport. It requires no physical effort other than the turning of a steering wheel.

In contrast, our tandem doesn't move without us pedalling - burning calories every kilometre of the way and maintaining or improving our fitness as we go. This is particularly important for us. As we cycle into our mid 60s we are becoming increasingly aware that we need exercise to maintain health, and cycling with its low impact on joints is as good a way as any.

So - apples and oranges? Think physical exertion for four to six hours a day compared with sitting in upholstered seats letting an engine do the work.

There is also a comparison to be made about the "style" of travel, the difference between a bike and a camper van.

The toilet trundle - one task that we cyclists do not have to concern ourselves with.

The latter is capable of covering whole continents in weeks if not days - its occupants conveyed in a steel and glass box that insulates them from the very world they are travelling through.

Realities of cycling

In contrast, two cyclists on a tandem don't travel "through" that world - they are "part" of it. They feel every bump in the road, struggle up every hill and can claim the satisfaction that comes with cresting a long rise at the end of a long day. On the way, the sun or the rain beats down on them, and they cram themselves with food not simply to take a break from driving but out of necessity.

Here we are camped at Santiago de Compostela, Spain, alongside several camper vans. While they offer certain benefits, travel by camper van has very little in common with cycle touring.

There is another huge benefit to being "part" of the world, rather than travelling "through" it. Cyclists have lots of human contact. On a tandem, it's impossible to cycle through a village without receiving a few friendly waves, a greeting or two and maybe even a small round of applause. Builders on construction sites are often amongst the first to greet us, but friendly gestures come in all sorts of ways. 

Balancing act

Here's an example of what we mean. Recently in northern Spain we stopped at a quiet cafe in a nondescript village as rain threatened. As we drank our coffee, several men stopped by the tandem to examine it. When we rejoined our bike we went through our usual routine, showing off some of the tandem's features to the onlookers - its couplings which separate the frame so it can be boxed for air travel, its smart Rohloff hub with its 14 gears and Judy's seat post which is designed to absorb some of the impact from bumps.

As we fastened our helmets, I said to Judy, "show time," and we both knew what I meant. We needed to make a smooth getaway. "Can't let the team down." But muff it we did, with a low speed wobble brought on by performance anxiety.

To our delight, we suddenly felt a steadying hand on the back of the tandem. One of the onlookers was running alongside. We gathered speed, our assistant released his hold and a small cheer went up from the audience. I pinged our bell, we waved over our shoulders and were gone.

It was a small moment and we can't read much into it - this was not a deep and meaningful conversation that opened our eyes to life in a foreign land but it does reflect the goodwill a laden tandem and a couple can engender. 

How do you get that response shut up in a steel and glass box?

Riding a tandem means you can go places blocked to other traffic. This bridge in northern Spain is part of a cycle way.

Riding a bicycle also means we ride a different road from those apple-like camper vans. Motorways are no go - though we did try one by accident recently - and we seek out quiet back country roads. We seldom see a camper van on these roads and without clearly marked road signs we are thrown on our own resources navigating with map and GPS - doing what we can to avoid traffic and often adding kilometres to our ride. 

While that additional riding may seem a pain to others, for us it usually doesn't matter - unlike a motorist trying to get from point A to Point B as quickly as possible, we are in no hurry. It's all about the journey and less about the destination.

In the process we get to enjoy the sights and smells of the countryside - we talk to cows, tell dogs to keep their fur on, breath in lungfuls of rose scented air and put up with farmyard pongs.

Other advantages

There are other pluses about the tandem - for example, its low impact on the environment compared to a motor vehicle.

We do not have the running costs associated with a motor vehicle  - no petrol/diesel fuel and no regular workshop bills. Occasionally we buy new chains and tyres and I fit them myself, but that's about it.

Unlike a camper van, the tandem requires very little capital outlay. It leaves us with money in the bank.

And we can explore a new part of the world each year by flying to our destination with the tandem packed in a couple of recycled bike boxes. What on earth would we do with a camper van?

As for the future, we see no reason to change our mode of travel. There are plenty of cyclists out there in their 70s and beyond. It may be that we choose to ride shorter distances and look for less hilly terrain but cycling is something we wish to continue.

It comes back to apples and oranges. We are perfectly content with an orange and happy to leave others to munch on their apples.

On a good day it's hard to beat the joy of camping. In a downpour it can take resilience.

Quotable Quote

"You need your lumps felt," campground manager on learning we enjoy cycle touring. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mike and Judy
    So you've made it it Blighty. Were you planning on travelling up North? If so it would be great to catch up and you are so welcome to come and stay in Hartlepool.
    Heather xx


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