The Advantages of Commuting to Work

On August 8, 2011, in Helen Lloyd, by Helen Lloyd

Living only six miles from work, I have swapped my car for the bike to get me to the office. It’s over a month now of cycle-commuting and the benefits are numerous. I can’t think of any bad points in fact.

With the cost of fuel ever-increasing, the financial benefits are one obvious advantage. Although with such a short journey, it’s a modest fuel saving, it would add up to an annual saving of over £500 and that doesn’t factor in the reduced cost of maintaining a bike. It is of course the environmentally friendly way to travel too.

Commuting to Work

Surprisingly it doesn’t take any longer to get from home to office when you take into account, when driving, the time it takes to find a parking space and walk from the car. Thankfully there are facilities so I can shower at work, as I wouldn’t particularly wish upon my colleagues a faint odour of my sweat permeating through the air-conditioned office!

There are then, of course, the health benefits of regular exercise. So if you’re looking to lose weight, the 45minutes a day of exercise it takes for the round-trip is a great help. And if you’re not, you can indulge in that chocolate bar without feeling guilty – that’s what I usually do! Either way, it keeps you fit.

Because I am now regularly cycling to work, I don’t need to spend my evenings exercising. No runs and no gym. And that, in my opinion, is the greatest reason of all. I hate the gym and now I have more time to plan the next big trip – biking the Great Divide.

My touring bike is all fixed now ready for the US tour, so I’ve been using this bike to commute. It has the racks on already, so I just stuff a pannier with a change of work clothes and my lunch and I’m off (shower kit stays at work).


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Cycle Touring Travel Insurance

On July 25, 2011, in Helen Lloyd, by Helen Lloyd

It’s now only 3 weeks until I fly out to Canada for the start of the Great Divide ride and once again I’ve still got plenty to organise.

I have my flight booked, somewhere to stay when I arrive, my bike is repaired and ready to ride and I know the route I’ll be cycling.

But there’s plenty more to sort out…

Like any holiday, I’ll be needing to get travel insurance. Negotiating the myriad of insurance companies and trawling their terms and conditions to find one company that will cover a long cycle-touring trip is always a chore. Generally, travel insurers aren’t keen on cycle tourers and often won’t provide cover, or only on an incidental basis, or they add on a massive charge as they consider cycle touring a high risk sport. Forget trying to get your bike insured (it’s easier to add it to your home insurance). Just stick to the essential accident and medical cover.

There are plenty of long-term cycle tourers who don’t bother with insurance – Of 25 asked by the Travelling Two, a third don’t.

I used American Express for my 2-year Africa tour. It was the only company that would provide cover for 2-years cycling in Africa. I checked out at least 20 other companies. Fortunately I never had to make a claim. Was it a waste of money? Chances are, in many of the regions I was travelling through, if I had got seriously ill or had an accident, there would have been no fast rescue service. Had I needed to go to hospital, treatment would have been relatively cheap and probably I could have covered the costs myself. I probably would have tried to avoid hospital anyway. I carried a comprehensive first-aid kit and may well have been better equipped than some of the local hospitals. Having the insurance did give me peace of mind however. It was there if I needed it. But if I was doing the same trip again, I probably wouldn’t bother.

But that was Africa. And this next trip is to the States. Medical care in the US is excellent. But excellence comes at a price. This is one country where I would definitely get travel insurance for. And just to prove my point… the last time I went to the US, I spent a couple of days mountain-biking and fell off. Fell off, over the handlebars, face-planting onto the trail with bike flying off into a nearby bush. I hurt my leg and my friends had to call the emergency services. Six hours later, having been stretchered off the trail and I arrived at the hospital, high on strong painkillers. The bill, which came to a few thousand dollars, was paid for by my insurers (STA Travel).

So the search for insurance continues… at the moment I’m heading towards World Wide Insure, but I need to read the small print first.

A Bike of Many Parts

On May 22, 2011, in Adventure Stories, Helen Lloyd, by Helen Lloyd

It’s a few weeks since I arrived back in the UK. The short cycle from the airport was the least smooth of the whole journey. Nothing to do with the roads this time though. When it came to re-assembling the bike, having been packed in a big box for the flight, the pieces just didn’t seem to fit together. The gear cables wouldn’t connect to the hub so I couldn’t change gear, the brakes barely worked (although that had been an increasing problem over the final weeks) and the forks didn’t fit in quite right into the frame so I had to leave a few of the spacers out. And then there was the wobbly back wheel which nine months after I first noticed it, was now, well, very wobbly. Never mind, I could still cycle. And it wasn’t far.

So for the last few weeks I’ve been without the use of the bike (although fortunately I have a moutain bike too, which is getting well-used instead). Time to get it fixed. First I took the back wheel over to SJS Cycles, where Dave had a quick look at it and said he could have the hubb all fixed up in half an hour. And sure enough, after half an hour, I walked out of the shop with a replacement hubb, and new sprocket fitted too. Very impressed. I also stocked up on three Schwalbe Marathon XR tyres.

Yes I know a bike only has two wheels! In any case the tyres that took me through Africa still have some life in them. But Schwalbe no longer manufacture these tyres and there’s just no other tyre that will stand the test of touring time. These should keep me on the road for a while longer. My legs are bound to give up before the tyres give out.

But the rest wasn’t going to be quite so simple. Simply because I’ve decided to fix the rest of the bike myself.

I thought I had the spare parts I needed. And so on Sunday morning, with multi-tool, pliers and a good supply of WD40, I set about taking off the old parts that needed replacing. On closer inspection, this turned out to be most of the bike bar the frame, wheels and new hubb.

My touring bike - mid-repair

Having removed several layers of bike oil and grease from my hands and body, the afternoon was mostly spent on the internet searching out the replacement parts I need… brake cable set, gear cables, headset bearings, chain, chainring, a new twistshifter assembly and the only part that sounded remotely interesting which was the ‘noodles and boots’ (and they’re nothing but small bent metal tubes that the brake cables fit through).

So until I get the new parts through, the rack is on my mountain bike so I can head off to the hills at the weekends. In the meantime, my trusty tourer is scattered about my room in several rusty or dirty pieces.

I think I forgot to mention – the next tour I’ll be cycling the Great Divide from Canada, through the USA, to Mexico. You can read more about it on my new website, Helen’s Take On…

And over the coming weeks I’ll be posting more on the Togblog about how the preparations for the trip are going.

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The Last Leg

On March 18, 2011, in Helen Lloyd, by Helen Lloyd

Entering Zambia from the DR Congo was like entering another world. Not only were there beautiful tarmac roads which I had to cycle on the left side of the road for the first time in a year, but there was suddenly also plenty of wildlife. Congo seemed devoid of animals. Unless of course they were being served up for dinner. Zambia on the other hand was alive with the sounds of birds.

Namibian desert - just rocks, sand and sky

The only shade - looking at the Brandberg mountains, Namibia

The advantages of wild camping - Damaraland sunset, Namibia

I have been amazed by the wildlife I have seen throughout Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. And I didn’t even have to go on safari to see it either. Elephants, lion, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, crocodiles, hippos, impala, kudu, oryx, springbok, bat-eared foxes, ostriches. My camp has been visited by hyena and jackal too, but in the first case I didn’t get out my tent to see them and the second time I was out when the jackal stole my food.

Me and my bike in Damaraland, Namibia

Wildebeest on the salt pans, Botswana

My main concerns were from elephants on the roads as they don’t seem to like bikes. If I failed to see them (for big animals, they hide very well) I would be so close when they finally smelt me that they would get upset and flap their ears and raise their trunk and turn to face me. I’d pedal furiously before they thought about charging. And then there was a lioness on the road, which I thought it prudent to get a lift past!

Zebra at the Makgadikadi Pans, Botswana

Elephants on the Chobe River, Botswana

Victoria Falls, Zambia

Victoria Falls on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border is fantastic and the scenery of Botswana – the salt pans and Okavango delta – and Namibia – plenty of desert – during the rainy season with all the plant life in bloom is simply stunning. So southern Africa has been like a holiday from the challenges of travelling through central Africa. Although the last couple of weeks were tougher with the corrugated gravel roads, strong headwinds and incessant flies.

Dunes at Sossusvlei - unusually with water too

The Kuiseb Pass, Namibia - in full bloom

But now I’m just a few days away from the border of South Africa and only about 1,000km to Cape Town, my final destination.

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Through Central Africa

On March 8, 2011, in Helen Lloyd, by Helen Lloyd

Finally I got the bike in tip top shape. But having spent 10 days in Yaounde living on a diet of chicken rotisserie and beer, I was less so. Oh well. Time to hit the road again.

A close relative - the bonobo

Wild camping in Gabon

Sandy tracks through the border area from Gabon to Republic of Congo

I enjoyed some pleasant days cycling through Gabon. Good tarmac following the Lalara river through equatorial forest and then taking the dusty backroads to Booue. It didn’t take long for me to be covered head to toe in the fine orange dust which obscured all views when the logging trucks came trundling past. Unfortunately I was ill in Booue (from drinking contaminated pump water) and decided to take a train to Franceville to recover.

The dusty dirt roads of Gabon

Camping in the forest of Gabon

Then I cycled on towards the Republic of Congo border. I came to a sign directing me to this next country and immediately the tarmac ended in a pit of sand. Now it was time to start pushing and dragging. Very slowly I made my way through this remote area until eventually I came across more tarmac a few days later. Thanks to Chinese business interests and the President’s self-interests in lavishing funds on his family village. So from there it was a smooth ride right through to Brazzaville on the banks of the Congo River.

Me in a dugout canoe on Lac Fwa on the border of the Kasai provinces

A boat ride across the mighty Congo river to Kinshasa and I was in the other Congo – the Democratic(-by-name) Republic of Congo. With a reputation of endemic corruption and history of bloody war, some still ongoing I was more than a little concerned. But I needn’t have been. I avoided the insecure regions and met along my travels some of the friendliest people yet. Sure, travel could be hard and frustrating, and some of my toughest, most challenging days were in the DR Congo. But I found myself loving the country all the more for it.

Road block - pay the bike tax to pass

But it wasn’t just all pedalling in the Congo. I took some time off and went further into the forests by 4×4 and along the Sankuru river in a dugout. One experience was a four-day triain journey. I could almost have cycled quicker. And that didn’t include the time waiting for the train. Indeed, if you ever decide to travel to the Congo, expect to spend most of your time waiting. Patience is a requirement.

Waiting by the Sankuru River

I spent three months in this country. I could have stayed much longer. But my visa was about to expire and I set out on this trip to cycle to Cape Town. I knew I could always come back some day. So off I went, towards Zambia.

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The West End

On March 2, 2011, in Helen Lloyd, The Outdoor Archive, by Helen Lloyd

Silence since Ghana. I apologise.

So here comes a short series of where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to in the last 9 months…

Well, the simple answer is, I’ve been cycling. A lot.

11,000km in fact.

So first up is the end to the journey through West Africa

Ghana seems such a long time ago. Indeed, I watched England fall out of the World Cup from a little bar in Cape Coast. But then I hit the road and started pedalling. Through Togo and Benin with their brutal history of slave trading, Dahomey warriors and voodoo religion. Fascinating.

Bridge to cross in Nigeria

Always plenty of people about in Nigeria

Endless Nigeria - one of the less busy roads

Then for Nigeria with it’s reputation of crime and kidnappings. But what I found was a fantastically friendly people who were as kind and generous as they were funny. A good thing really in such a populous country. Did you know that 1 in 5 Africans is Nigerian? The only danger was from the heavy traffic and reckless driving with a couple of narrow escapes where I was run off the road. I lost count of the number of wrecked lorries by the roadside.

Cameroons Highlands are beautiful if a little hilly

Slowly slowly round the hills in Cameroon

And then into Cameroon where I got my first taste of really rough roads. At the time, I would have hardly called them roads. But since then I’ve travelled through Central Africa and discovered what bad roads really look like! At least I could still pedal in Cameroon. Except up the exceptionally steep hills that is. It took quite some determination to turn down a lift when it was offered! But the scenery of the Cameroon highlands was superb and at least distracted from the tired legs a little. So tired one day I even ended the night sleeping in a hospital bed…

But perhaps the best thing about Cameroon was the beer. Didn’t matter what time of day it was or where in the country you were, you were sure to find an open bar. I left the breakfast drinking to the locals though and stuck to the 600ml bottles of coca-cola which gave plenty of energy and less of a headache!

In the city of Yaounde I took some time out and got stuck into some serious bike maintenance. I wanted a bike ready to take on what Central Africa had to offer (coming up in the next update…)

Voodoo religion remains strong in Togo and Benin

Memorial to those slaves shipped from Ouidah, Benin

Beach at Lome, Togo

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