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Lessons Learned: Sean Conway on the Good and the Bad of Unsupported Bikepacking

After hitting upon the idea of embarking on an unsupported bikepacking adventure, the sort of enterprise normally conjured up from the soft comfort of your living room, or ready utility of the water closet, the idea of midnight dangers, saddle sores and service station food is abstract at best. “What could go wrong, really?” you foolishly wonder. “Why, surely it’s just a matter of proper planning!” you announce to the room, shutting your Big Maps for Big Boys book with a flourish of good intentions and leaping up to pace (no, stride) in front of the fire.

Somewhere on a lonely road, out of sight, out of mind and entirely out of loo roll, future you slaps his head at such earnest folly.

But before reality has the unmitigated audacity to intrude, and with the idea still alive with possibility, sit down as sage Sean Conway, he of the Guinness Book of World Records Fastest Crossing of Europe by Bicycle, imparts some words of advice from his unsupported hove across the continent.

Sean camping

1. Keep your cool

“I’m glad I did it in April, April/May,” says Sean, calling in from the comfort of his living room a few weeks after completing his Europe-trouncing trip. “It wasn't freezing cold, and it wasn't boiling hot either, but I still couldn't get away with one lightweight sleeping bag; I still had to have a slightly warmer one. But if I had to do it again, I would still probably do it in April."

 

2. Find your freedom machine

“The steel bike was amazing,” he says. Sean had the pleasure of riding Stanforth’s Conway touring bicycle, inspired and named after the man himself. For fast-paced touring (no second helpings of dessert here), the Conway is hard to beat. Constructed in the UK from Reynolds 853 steel tubing, this wide tyre-accommodating machine sports a winning blend of comfort, strength and stiffness, plentiful rack and mudguard bosses, and sensible TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes (hydraulic models being essentially unrepairable outside of a bike shop).

 

3. Laces win races

Formerly a fan of making minute mid-ride adjustments to his shoes, Sean was a little wary of ditching the dials. “I used to change the tightness of my shoes quite a lot depending on the weather, and I worried that laces would be restrictive,” he says. “But I love the Quoc Night lace-up shoes. It's the second time I've done something with lace-ups, and I'm a big fan. I feel they flex more, stretch and seem to give a little bit more when your foot's in them.”

 

4. Save grams, change plans

“Most of my camping set up was good,” says Sean, “with one exception. I didn't take a tent because I wanted to save 380 grammes. And I wish I had taken a tent. I probably lost at least two or three hours in the ride due to times where I was struggling to find a place to sleep, or had to camp early because there was no shelter further in the route. For the sake of 380 grammes I probably should have taken a tent, because then it could've been a case of, ‘Right, I'm tired now. I'm going to sleep.’ Whereas without a tent you spend a lot of time trying to find places to sleep. And I got bitten by two ticks, and one of them I had to take antibiotics for - not cool.”

 

5. Know before you go

It’s reassuring to know that even experienced adventurers make last minute changes. “Two days before depart, I decided to go with a slightly thinner Brooks saddle,” says Sean. “I didn't like it as much, although it was a couple of hundred grammes lighter. But I should have stuck with my wider, less racy Brooks saddle because for the final 1000 miles I had terrible saddle sores, you know?” Ouch, we know.

 

6. Have a sleep strategy

“My day one strategy didn't go very well,” he notes. “I planned to start at 5:00 in the evening and go through the night on day one, all the way through day two, and finally sleep on the night of day two. Which would have worked, had I slept all the way until 3:00 in the afternoon on day one. But as it always is, I got up at 6:00 in the morning and then just spent the whole day building the bike. So actually I wasn't rested, and I ended up getting quite knackered on that first day. If I did it again, I'd do a normal, early start thing.”

Preparing the bike 

7. Give crisps a chance

Perhaps the biggest downside of riding unsupported is navigating the haphazard nutritional opportunities afforded by whatever roadside eatery you happen to roll by on the day. As Sean says, “With nutrition, there are three important elements: energy, recovery and health. And you kind of need a balance of all three - you can't just eat energy food. And that's the problem; in service stations, you very rarely get healthy food.”

Despite his best efforts, all he could find en route to Russia “were dodgy microwave meals, crisps, croissants and muffins - processed rubbish.”

Prepare for the worst then, and hope for a banana; that’s a lesson for us all.

 

8. Don’t upset the locals

It’s unlikely that your unsupported ride will be subject to the same extreme time pressure as Sean’s, but if speed is your thing, be prepared to upset the locals. “German drivers do not appreciate cyclists that don’t ride on bike paths,” he notes. “I mean, I get it, they’ve spent millions on an incredible network of paths; but they're quite aggressive toward cyclists, zooming past and cutting quite close.” And when every minute counts, bike paths are by no means the quickest route, as Sean explains, “At every junction, there's a pedestrian crossing, and you have to wait. And when they meet a side road, the bike path does this little U-bend, and you have to stop and wait, slow down, cross over it, build your speed back up; 100 metres later, you do it again. Whereas if you're on the main road, you would just bomb down the main road. So you end up losing minutes on every single one. And considering I only broke the record by 21 minutes…On a bad day, that's a traffic light!”

 

9. Slow is safer

“In Russia, I found the worst cycling conditions I've probably ever been in. However, that's not Russia's fault - I chose to cycle on motorways in Russia, which is legal,” says Sean. “But the big main roads are often just a single road with no hard shoulder. So at times, it was safer for me to cycle into oncoming traffic, because then I could see the cars coming towards me, and I'd pull over and wait for them to pass. I was often just cycling in the dirt next to the road, going about five miles an hour, because when there were loads of trucks, at least I'd make a couple of hundred metres, rather than just be sat there waiting for a gap for a minute, and then off again.”

 

10. Know yourself

With so many hours in the saddle, how did Sean handle the banality of the endless repetition? “I have two very distinct sides of my brain,” he explains. “One side of my brain deals with things very practically. I think about the five elements to making good progress each day: food, water, sleep, muscle management and motivation; if you can look after those five things, you'll do well. Often if you look after the first four: food, water, sleep, muscle management, your motivation will be high anyway. So I try and keep all of those five systems firing on all cylinders,” he adds. “In 25 days, I probably had three days where all five were working well. It's impossible to get everything right every day, you know? One day you just may have slept badly. One day you won't find enough water. The next day you might not eat enough. The following day, your muscles are sore, and you just haven't stretched, because stretching takes 20 minutes, and that's what you need to break the record, each day.”

And the other side? “That’s the weird part that decides to pick up a bit of roadkill in Spain, strap it to the handlebars and carry it all the way across Europe, having, you know, lengthy conversations about world peace and those things,” he says. “Pedro and I cycled all the way to Russia together. I even brought him home, and he made it through all the airports. I couldn't believe that - I didn't even get the rubber glove treatment or anything!”

 

11. See and be seen

Getting home in one piece is, of course, the top priority. “I've been run over very seriously once before, in America, so I'm a very safe cyclist now,” he says. “I have two mirrors on my bike plugged into the drop bar end plugs, and I always check them when I hear traffic coming up behind me. I have five lights on the back, I put reflective tape down my stays, on my cranks, the back of my shoes, and on my seat post if I'm not carrying a pannier. On the back of my pannier, I cut up and stuck a high-vis jacket. I stick reflective tape on the back of my helmet. But yeah, mirrors, man. I honestly don't know how all the big guys do these rides without mirrors.”