Categories
Budgeting & Finance Planning & Logistics

How To Fly With A Bike For Free, In Business Class, For The Price Of An Economy Ticket

Yes, you read that correctly. It is possible to upgrade an economy flight ticket for free to business class, and get free bicycle carriage into the bargain. Pretty good, right?

This lunacy is a classic example of travel hacking. I’ve been experimenting with its various techniques for the last year or so, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned — specifically, I’d like to share how best to put these techniques to use in the context of cycle touring.

What Is Travel Hacking?

Put simply, travel hacking is the art & science of getting for free (or cheap) what would normally be a significant travel expense — flights and hotel rooms being the most common.

It’s usually done by carefully exploiting promotional offers made by credit card companies in partnership with major airlines and hotel chains.

These offers are designed, of course, to sucker the spender into the shackles of debt. Played correctly, however, travel hacking is a particularly satisfying form of consumer revenge, and a money-saving one at that.

Let me give you an example.

A Basic Example Of Travel Hacking

Last year I signed up for a British Airways credit card. I have no debts (other than a student loan) and thus a good credit record, so acceptance was a breeze.

The sign-up bonus at the time required that I spend a fairly meagre £750 on the card within 3 months — about the cost of a new low-end touring bike.

Having done so by moving all of my spending to the card until the target was reached, then paying it off in full, I received 15,000 ‘Avios’ points with British Airways’ frequent flyer network, the Executive Club. (I didn’t actually get on a plane at all.)

Then I cut the card it in half and closed the account, 15,000 airmiles richer at no cost whatsoever.

15,000 such airmiles, it turns out, can be redeemed for two flights on pretty much any Western European route flown by BA — for example, Munich, from where Tenny and I returned after our last cycling adventure on the continent this summer. Not just that, but it covered two business class flights.

Why waste the points on business class? There’s a very good reason. There’s the extra legroom, edible meals, queue-jumping at all points in the boarding process, and access to swanky business lounges (full of free booze & food) at the airports, where you may loaf for hours while grinning smugly at people in smart suits who’re wondering who let you in.

But the real bonus for the cycle tourist is the doubled hold luggage allowance. Since British Airways don’t charge extra for bicycle as part of your luggage allowance, that meant both our bikes and all our touring gear flew home from Munich with us for free as well.

So that few minutes time spent signing up for and administrating the credit card is saving us a couple of hundred pounds on return flights for our tour, and getting us upgraded into the bargain.

I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a pretty good trade-off. Particularly if, like me, you glean a disproportionate amount of pleasure from circumventing the ‘system’.

Getting Started With Travel Hacking

Relatively speaking, ours was a very puny beginners’ attempt at travel hacking.

But it’s a hobby for a surprising number of people, who sign up for several cards a year, claim the bonuses, and employ various other hacks to receive hundreds of thousands of airmiles while not actually flying anywhere.

US residents in particular have it made. The signup incentives are so ludicrous that there are even professional guides* available to help folk make sense of it all.

But the possibilities are growing for those of us based in the UK to game the system in the same way. This is particularly true if you’re a couple and you’ve both got significant purchases coming up (touring bikes and gear, for example), as it doubles your ability to meet these signup bonus criteria.

Deals change frequently, but the best such hack currently available in the UK is on the American Express Preferred Rewards Gold card, whose signup bonus alone (20,000 points) is enough for a free return flight to Istanbul.

Simply use the card to buy your touring gear (by spending £2,000 within three months), pay it off in full (it’s a charge card, so you have to anyway), cancel the card (to avoid the £125 annual fee from the second year onwards), and enjoy your free flights. Job’s a good ‘un!

Here’s the signup link. Play it sensibly and you’ll be well rewarded.

Further Reading

So there’s my quick intro to travel hacking — a.k.a. getting free flights thrown in with your new touring gear.

There’s a whole subculture of travel hackers out there, and if you’ve got the time and resources to make it a regular hobby, it won’t take long to rack up the requisite points for free or heavily discounted flights much further afield.

If you’re in the UK, the best and most up-to-date ‘travel hacking’ resource I’ve found is HeadForPoints.com. In the USA, CardsForTravel.com is a good place to start.

Of course, with multiple cards on the go, this quickly becomes game of shifting money around, which can get a bit complex if you’re not on the ball. So if you’re financially illiterate, it’s probably best to steer clear. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Categories
Budgeting & Finance Guest Posts

How To Budget & Save For A Cycle Tour: A Foolproof Financial Plan

Today’s guest post has been put together by the very clever Ramona Marks, who is far more financially literate than I and thus far more qualified to write this, the ultimate guide to financial planning for big adventures. She’s living proof that it works, too. Take it away, Ramona…

You want to go on a big adventure? Great! You’ve already done the hardest work. Making the decision to challenge yourself is a really big accomplishment, and you haven’t even gone out the door.

My husband and I knew that we needed to get out of the city we were living in. We wanted to live somewhere green and rural, but hadn’t found the magic spot. But instead of waiting for somewhere to appear, we decided to get our finances in order so we could move when we were ready. And at the same time, we started saving for a bicycle trip around Europe.

Three years later, we haven’t settled in one place and we’ve never looked back. We’re living in Europe by house sitting and working remotely. Each summer we go on a one to three month bicycle tour. We could never have imagined that we could re-engineer our lives in this way. Once we decided to go, our momentum carried us to where we are now.

The next step after making the decision to go is to figure out how you’re going to do it.

No matter what you decide to do, you’re probably afraid of the financial side of things. And that’s perfectly normal. It’s not easy to change the way you relate to money. But it is possible. We were both in credit card debt, had (and still have) huge student loan debt, and had no financial safety net to fall back on. Neither one of us comes from a family that could do more than let us move in for a couple of months. It’s nice to know there’s a warm room somewhere that we can always return to, but even that prospect — of moving back in with our parents — helped us to get out and succeed at living our adventurous dreams.

Anyone can change their spending and saving habits. Anyone.

Most people assume that financial planning is an innate skill and either they’ve got it or they don’t. There may be some people who find it easier to control their finances, but if you want to learn, you can learn. Do you know basic addition and subtraction? You’re ready to go.

Right. Here are the 7 simple steps you’ll complete in order to get on the road.

Of these seven, there are three steps to start checking off immediately:

  1. Write up a budget of your current income and expenses
  2. Set a daily budget for your trip
  3. Create separate bank accounts

And four steps that will take some time:

  1. Figure out what’s happening to the rest of your money
  2. Pay off any credit card debt
  3. Set aside money for long-term debt payments
  4. Save the rest!

Yes, it’s ridiculously simple to whittle down financial goals into 7 steps. You don’t have to make it more complicated. There are no secrets that you won’t understand. If this sounds new to you, it’s just that nobody has bothered to tell you before. If it’s familiar, congratulate yourself on having a leg up. These are not complicated tools, just logical ways of approaching the way money comes in and goes out of your life.

Now let’s take each of these steps in turn and look at them in a little more detail.

1. The ‘B’ Word

Let’s start out with something scary: budgeting. Your personal monthly budget is nothing more than a tool you use to get a picture of your finances. At its simplest, it’s a list of every regular expense and all income, so you can see what your life actually costs. A budget is a list.

Creating a budget is not an instantaneous process. In fact, give yourself a couple of months to really get a handle on your budget. Most importantly, start paying attention now so you can figure it out within the next couple of months.

Today, perhaps right now, sit down with a piece of paper and your favorite writing implement and start listing the bills you pay on a monthly basis. Do it on paper. This list will include things like:

  • Rent
  • Utilities (electric, water, gas, waste disposal, phone bills)
  • Cell phone & data
  • Internet & cable
  • Loan payments (student loans, car loans, mortgage, medical or personal debt)
  • Insurance (car, health, liability, renter’s, home owner’s)

There will be others, probably. Anything you pay regularly. If an expense is not the same every month, estimate or calculate an average. Always lean toward higher amounts, round up. Any annual expenses should be included, but divide the annual expense into 12 and use that as the monthly amount for the monthly budget.

You won’t think of everything all at once. That’s okay. If you have credit card debt and you pay monthly, include that. But also look up and write down the total amount of all your debts somewhere on this piece of paper, so you know just how much money you’ll need in order to get out of credit card debt.

Move on to income when you stop thinking of expenses (others will come to mind eventually). Income is usually pretty easy. What is your take-home pay each month? Not your listed salary, but the amount that you put in your bank account and can spend.

You’re probably getting the picture. So let’s say you make €2000 per month and your bills add up to €1000. (This example is not meant to be realistic). The other €1000 is being spent where?

Well, obviously you’ve got to eat. This gets more complicated since you don’t get a bill for your monthly groceries. Try keeping receipts for a month and adding up your total expenses on groceries. This can be fun, really. How badly do you want to make this adventure happen? Is it too much to ask yourself to keep track of how often you eat out vs. eat at home? You’re doing detective work now.

2. A Daily Budget, Too?

An effective way to encourage yourself to be more thrifty is to calculate a daily budget for your trip and use the trip as the incentive to stop spending.

We set our daily spending budget at $100 per day for both of us, on average. That is a lot. Most people spend much less on bicycle tours, but we knew that to be comfortable we’d need to be able to stop and get a hotel from time to time. We also knew we’d be touring in Europe, which is notoriously expensive compared to places like, say, Thailand. For more information about budgeting for your trip, check out Travelling Two’s article on the cost of bicycle touring.

Once we had a daily budget, we convinced ourselves to eat at home all the time with a simple trick. Each time we were tempted to order delivery or go out for a meal, we would ask each other: “Would you rather have one more day out on the road, or would you prefer to go out drinking tonight?” Once you know how much money a day might cost on your trip, you’ll know just how many days you’re sacrificing each time you spend. Pose these kinds of questions to yourself each time you try to pull out your wallet.

3. Divide and Conquer

One way to impose controls on your spending is to actually separate your money along the lines of your budgetary hopes and dreams. You want to save £200 each month? Put it into a separate account. Want to cut down your spending? Give yourself a spending limit and transfer only that amount into your cash account. Make it harder to get the money out of various accounts so that you have to really think about each purchase.

And stop using your credit card. If you have to buy it with credit, you don’t need it. Cutting up credit cards is a nice idea, but most people are afraid to do that. Instead, try putting them in a jar of water and storing them in the freezer*. They’re still there, if you really, really need them.

* Credit to Katrina for this idea.

4. The Rest of Your Hard-Earned Cash

Now that you have an idea of what your monthly household budget is, you know how much you make and spend. Isn’t it fun? Do you feel ashamed and afraid now that you know? Nope, you feel in control and a bit baffled because you spend all your money every month. Most people do. It’s way easier to spend than to save. Now you’re finding out how you end up with an empty bank account just before each pay day.

The next step is two-fold. First, you have to look at your expenses and decide what you don’t need or how you can reduce the outpouring of cash. The biggest expense for many people is a car. If you have one and can find another way to commute, get rid of it. You’re probably spending way more money on it than you realize. Ditch your phone and only use Skype. Cancel all your subscriptions. If you live alone, move in with a friend and lower your rent. Whatever it takes.

Next, and this is going to be the hardest part, you have to stop spending money. Just stop. Consider every penny. Cheap things still cost money. It doesn’t matter how great a deal you get, you’re still spending.

You’re probably going to buy things for the trip. But ask yourself whether you’ll be bringing it along each time you think of buying something. You want that cute pair of shorts? Are they going to be one of the three pairs you take on your bicycle tour?

5. Getting Rid of Debt

How can you pay off credit cards? How can you start to save without constantly dipping into your savings account? It’s very likely that you’ve created bad habits around money. Most people have. Now you have to reverse past decisions (pay off your credit cards) and build new, good habits (save regularly).

Paying off debt should be your first priority. Not long term debts, of course, because then you’ll never leave. But credit card bills have to be payed in big lump sums if you want them to go away. Paying the minimum amount can actually allow your debt to get bigger.

You have to pay off credit card debt before you put money aside in savings, for the most part. The interest rate on credit card debt is so outrageous that you’ll never benefit from saving money while you’ve got credit card debt. You are losing money over time. If you already have savings that could pay off the debt, consider paying it off with your savings. Sounds scary, right? But then, after it’s paid, you can put the same amount of money that you were paying each month to the credit card company straight into a savings account. You’ll save more each month and it will add up again more quickly.

6. Dealing with Long Term Debt While You’re Away

It may seem like saving for the trip is hard enough, but if you’ve got debts like student loans, you’ll need to pay those, too. There’s always the option of a deferral or forbearance, but consider those options carefully. In the long run they make your debt grow bigger than it would have otherwise. Maybe that’s an okay trade-off for you. Just think about it carefully and make a considered decision.

The alternative is to have yet another account where you put savings for those long-term debts. Set up automatic payments from the debtor and have the monthly payment amount deducted from the account. Add up the total you’ll need to pay over the length of your trip. You’re going away for three months and your monthly bill is $100. That’s $300 you’ll need to put in the account. And for good measure, put in an extra $200, so that for the first couple of months after the trip you don’t have to stress about the loan payment.

7. Save, Save, Save

And if you can start saving, start saving. Start small at first. The first step to changing your habits is to do things differently. If you can save €10 per month at first, do it. The only benefit of starting to save before you pay off credit card debt is that you’ll be getting into the habit of putting aside the money. It won’t take long until putting aside money will start to feel really good. People get addicted to saving. Think about that.

Create a piggy bank. A jar will do. Every time you come home with cash, put all the cash in the bank. Don’t leave home with cash (unless you need it for public transport). Cash is too easy to spend. Will you go get a coffee? Sure, you’ve got a fiver, right? Oh, you’ve got to make a €3 charge with your debit card? Never mind.

And if you can sell anything, sell. You’ll be able to put all the money you make towards paying off credit card debt or put it directly into savings for the trip. It will feel good to lighten your load of possessions, too.

We started selling furniture on Craigslist four months before we left. We also had two garage sales. At the first one, about a month before we left, we were naming high prices because we felt like the stuff we had was kind of valuable. At the second one we were practically giving things away because we were leaving in a week and we didn’t want to deal with stuff anymore. We made about the same amount, $500, at each garage sale.

A Financial Plan and a Calendar

Everyone’s financial situation looks a bit different. You may need to save for a longer or shorter amount of time, depending on the amount of money you need to save for your trip and the amount of money you can save every month.

Let’s do a bit of math. Let’s say your goal is to save for a three month trip and it’ll cost you about $35 per day. That’s 90 days at $35 per day: 90 x 35 = $3150. That’s your savings goal. You’re also going to need money for gear and the plane ticket, but let’s start with your basic needs for the trip.

Now let’s say that you need to pay off your credit card debt first, at it’s a whopping $2000. Crap.

How much money can you spare per month? Let’s say you can start out by reducing some expenses and putting $300 towards credit card debt per month. (Sounds like a lot? Start making your own lunches). 2000 / 300 = 6.66.

It’ll take about seven months to pay off that $2000, probably a bit longer because of the interest. After that, you can put that $300 into savings each month. How long will it take to get to $3150? 3150 / 300 =10.5 months. All-in-all that’s less than a year and a half.

You haven’t even figured out how much money you’ll make from selling your belongings or doing a bit of overtime when you can. Taking a few spare shifts from a co-worker. Picking up odd jobs on weekends.

We started the process of paying off credit card debt about two years before we left. At first, we just decided we needed to change our habits because we needed to save so we could leave. But we had no set date. We pooled our finances and used some savings I had to pay off much of my husband’s credit card debt. A few months later the money he had been putting towards that debt started going back into savings.

Once we really started saving, we set a date for about 9 months in the future. Four months before we left, we started selling everything we owned. For the last week in our place, we slept on the floor on our camping mattresses. But we were as happy as can be, because we were about to embark on the trip of a lifetime and we had the savings in the bank to make it happen.

New Solutions

Every financial problem has a solution. But unless you know what’s going on with your finances, you’re flying blind. Address each problem at it’s root and a solution will appear.

The really scary thing is that you’re going to be leaving your life behind and you may not know what you’re coming back to. Will you have a job? Will you have to move in with your parents? Should you save three months’ worth of rent and expenses so that you can start fresh even without an income?

If you own your home, you may decide to rent it out to pay the mortgage while you’re gone. What’s that going to involve? If it sounds overwhelming, break it into pieces. Problem solving 101: turn a big problem into a bunch of smaller problems that are much easier to tackle.

If you’re feeling anxious about taking this big leap, save for after the trip. Yes, there is one more savings account you might need. If what you need to do is set aside some savings for when you return, do it. All too often, people are afraid to do what they’ve been dreaming of doing because they feel they’re being irresponsible. Fine, be responsible and save so you’re not destitute when you return. You’re a pro at saving now, so just go for it. Extend the time before you leave so that when you leave you’re comfortable.

We have an account that has money saved for when we ‘settle down’. We said that if we had to use that money, it was time to stop and settle down. Guess what? The money is still there. We even try to add to it when we can.

This trip you’re dreaming about is going to change everything for you. You’re going to think about the world in a different way. You’ll think about life in a different way. And everything is going to be just fine.

Phew! Crash-course in financial literacy or what? Thanks, Ramona! Be sure to check out her own cycle touring blog. And don’t forget that plenty more on the subject of planning bike tours can be found on the mega resources page.

Categories
Guest Posts Inspiration

Why Casting Bicycle Touring As A Sporting Achievement Is Completely Missing The Point

Today’s guest post is from Victoria Cadman, who has completed several solo, long-distance bike journeys across Europe as part of an extremely ill-defined idea to explore the history of the continent.

I asked her to write about the perception of cycling as a sporting endeavour, why transferring the goal-oriented mentality to travel is missing the point, and why cycle touring need have nothing to do with sport whatsoever. Take it away, Victoria…

Me3 copyA couple of years ago, I was cycling across France, en route to Italy. I was about to begin a second long tour in Europe, but was not in particularly good shape.

As a consequence I was ‘late’ – well, taking longer than I wanted to get there. I was bad-tempered and frustrated. My legs hurt. A lot. And as I whirred up the last hairpin, a man emerged from a huge black 4x4 by the roadside. Looking at my laboured breathing, he nodded sagely, tapped his temple and said,

‘C’est tous dans la tête.’

It’s all in the head.

Now, this man was pretty hefty — one of the few fat Frenchmen I’ve ever encountered — and he’d clearly done nothing more energetic than drive up that hill in a very long time. Meeting his eye, my over-riding feeling was that it was pretty easy for him to say. I grimaced in acknowledgement, and carried on upwards, muttering unprintable retorts under my breath.

Three days later, I recalled the encounter as I approached the Col du Grand St Bernard, 8,000 odd feet up in the Alps. And, grinding out the last truly hideous 4 km of hairpins (with panniers), it still felt pretty much like it was all in the legs. But once I was coasting down the other side, and my thighs were no longer screaming, I thought back to my fat French friend, and of course, concurred.

It is all in the head. But marshalling my stubborn pride and determination to climb the hill wasn’t the issue. The issue was the fact that I’d become so obsessed with meeting my daily ‘target’ that I’d forgotten to enjoy the journey.

Maybe it’s me, or my group of friends, but the ‘Rise to the Challenge!’ mentality suddenly seems to be everywhere. Charity bike rides, triathlons, marathons. I regularly see people with heart-rate monitors on, sprinting as they push their kid’s prams through London streets. People in their own world in the gym, grimacing on the treadmill, not kicking a football about with friends in the park, or messing about on bikes.

Of course, I don’t want to knock setting goals or taking up personal challenges – far be it from me to judge what motivates or inspires others to get on their real or metaphorical bike. But I can’t help wondering if, with all this competitive pressure to do the Trans-America Cycle Race or the Marathon des Sables, we haven’t lost at least part of the plot. Alumni, staff and students from my old college recently embarked on a cycle ride from the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Although it’s great they raised £300,000 to support students, they seem to have got so focused on racing 750 miles in 11 days that they forgot to actually ride from Oxford to Venice, let alone having time to see what there was on the route.

Such endeavours are frequently sold as ‘inspiring’, part of the mission to make us more active, lose weight and tackle the obesity crisis; to get children cycling and develop grassroots sport. But I wonder how successful they really are, or whether they can actually be counter-productive? Do they make having adventures or exploration seem like the province of über-athletic ‘other folk’? Quite apart from the time and expense required, not to mention the back-up team, a person like Maria Leijerstam, physically and mentally tough enough to cycle across Antarctica to the South Pole, is pretty remote from your average Joe or Josephine. Does something like that really allay the fears of the woman down my road who’s not cycled in ten years, and is concerned she’ll crash or have a heart attack if she gets on her bike? Does it reassure someone worried about joining a cycle group, imagining that everyone else will look like Laura Trott in their frighteningly professional — and tight — lycra cycling kit, whilst she’ll be labouring, out-of-breath and on her own at the back?

High-octane adventures are impressive, even awe-inspiring in some cases, but I can’t help wondering if the ‘delusions of hardship’ or adrenalin-fuelled ‘duels against one’s own psyche’ don’t end up demoralizing the very people they are supposed to inspire. Mano a mano confrontations on a Pyrenean col or ‘leaving it all on the road’ in the Étape du Tour can make smaller scale, less ‘glamorous’ achievements diminish by comparison. Cycling even very long distances – unless you’re seriously racing — isn’t that difficult. It isn’t necessarily helpful to make it sound like it is.

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Truth be told, despite my desire to see more women cycling and embracing adventure, I was much more inspired by the three blokes who climbed Mont Ventoux on a Boris bike. That kind of marvellously arbitrary ‘pub-challenge’ inspires me simply because it is so daft. It doesn’t take itself too seriously; no one is investing vast amounts of time and money to make it happen. It is as likely to be enjoyed whether the chaps actually reached the top or didn’t. No doubt it also made everyone who saw them up there smile at the sheer stupidity of the whole exercise. Who wouldn’t be tempted, if their friends suggested doing it? The stakes aren’t high. It would probably be even funnier if you all turned out to be crap.

But then, I like leisure, doing things because I enjoy them, without the need for a faster, higher, stronger (or worthier) goal. Personally, I have had enough setting so-called ‘SMART’ objectives in my work life. I really do not need to strain to achieve any more. At forty-four, the time has long gone for me to ‘optimize my performance’. Even having a ‘PB’ – personal best – at my age seems, frankly, absurd. There’s no need for a power meter to tell me I never was nor ever will be a Victoria Pendleton manqué. Fact is, I like stopping, staring at the landscape and having coffee and café liégeois far too much.

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In fact, getting away from this ‘achievement’ mentality is exactly why I got on my bike in the first place. When I set out for France the first time, eight years ago, it was probably the only time in my life I had no clear idea what I was doing. My goal was simply to set off with no plan and enjoy the journey. I had the vague idea of exploring the history of Europe by bicycle, but the only commitment I made to doing so was that if I wasn’t enjoying it, I’d stop and do something else.

It was immensely liberating to acknowledge that nobody else would notice, let alone care, whether or not I cycled one hundred miles in one day or eleven. That it really didn’t matter if I climbed the Alps with the power and grace of Alberto Contador or if I hitched a lift, got on a bus, or got off and pushed all the way up. My work-focused, goal-orientated drive had been vanquished. This wasn’t a race. ‘Achieving’ wasn’t the point.

And, of course, because I wasn’t staring at my stem and trying to achieve anything, it all became so much easier; there was no strain at all. I revelled in the freedom and enjoyed the possibilities. Questions that in other circumstances might have made me anxious – What if something happens? – suddenly became exciting — What might be around the next corner? Who might I meet on the road?  I became much more confident, not only in myself, but in the world around me. I began to notice things – the changing geography as I cycled southward; the change in the architecture from half-timbering to stone; the different dialects and place-names in different regions; the shift in the seasons and the change in the stars. And in spite of the fears I initially harboured – which is the question women most frequently ask me about my cycle trips – it turned out people are almost universally nicer, more interesting and more generous than I even hoped. I lost count of the dinner invitations, the Bonne Routes!, the people stopping to ask me what I was doing. Loneliness was the least of my problems travelling alone across Europe on my bike.

But if I learnt one thing — and it is the thing I wish I could really communicate — it is that taking your time, and taking risks – not adrenalin-junkie craziness, but day-to-day chances on the unplanned and spontaneous – bring far fewer dangers or disappointments than rewards. There’s no need to strain if you don’t want to; it’s great to potter, to respond to the environment, to ride the road, not the map.

‘Going for gold’ is all very well, but when it comes down to it, it isn’t the miles, or even where you’re going that matters.

It is about what happens, and who you meet, on the way.

Thanks, Victoria! At some point, no doubt, she’ll probably self-publish a book, but until then a couple of blogs from her trips in Germany and Italy are available on the BySpoke blogspot and Omnes Via Romam Perducunt.

Categories
Inspiration Philosophy Of Travel Planning & Logistics

15 Unorthodox Ways To Train For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking (Bicycle Optional)

So you’re dreaming of life on the open road on that epic long-distance cycle tour. Yet you’re doing nothing proactive about it, because (among other reasons) you think you’re not fit enough. The odd commute or day-ride isn’t enough; it’s waaaaay too big a leap from your current lifestyle to the kind of physical fitness required for that big bicycle-mounted adventure.

Right?

Well, no, actually.

The truth about training for long-distance cycle touring is this:

Training yourself mentally will serve you far better than attempting to train yourself physically.

The best physical training for a big cycle tour is to ride a really heavy bike a really long way. Obviously. Guess what? You can do that by going on a big cycle tour. Start off gently. In less than a fortnight you’ll be as fit as you’ll ever need to be.

It’s the lifestyle that’ll prove the real departure from the norm. This is probably worrying you more than you realise. But you can train for it too.

Here, then, is an alternative kind of training programme for you; one that’ll take you on a gradual psychological adjustment towards the daily routine of the long-distance bicycle traveller.

This training programme will also allow you to keep your home and your job until the very last minute — and won’t involve pedalling pointlessly around in circles in an attempt to ‘train’ for a Big Trip.

Some of my suggestions may surprise you. Many of them are rather tongue-in-cheek. But do try implementing a few of them; perhaps one new exercise per week. In just a few short months, you’ll be ready to roll right out the door. Promise.

(Now’s a good time to go and put the kettle on. You’re going to need at least two cups of tea for this.)

POV on the road in Devon

1. Start hanging out with other bicycle travellers

Go to Warmshowers.org, sign up for a free account and fill out your profile as an enthusiastic host. (Here’s mine.)

Assuming that you don’t live in the back of beyond, you’ll start to receive emails from wandering cyclists looking for a place to stay and some company for the evening.

Invite them to stay. Encourage them to stay longer. Spend as much time as possible with these people. They are your best friends now. Hear their stories; learn from their experiences.

You’ll soon realise that they are, on the whole, just like you, except that they’re doing what you’re still dreaming about. You’ll get inspired, certainly — and you’ll get jealous, inevitably. And that’ll soon motivate you to start taking your own plans seriously. It’s a cruel hack, but it works.

As a side benefit, you’ll build up a list of testimonials from people you’ve hosted, which will come in very useful when you’re sitting in a smoky internet cafe full of small boys playing astonishingly violent video games, trying to find the right key on the keyboard to produce an ‘i’ with a dot on top of it in order to email other hosts with requests to stay the night yourself.

Chilling with some friends in Esfahan

Nobody biting with Warmshowers? Try Couchsurfing, Hospitality Club or Global Freeloaders. Or all of the above. It’s a game of numbers. However you achieve it, start hanging out with other bicycle travellers.

2. Reduce your intake of social media

Just sign out, that’s all. I’m not going to tell you to delete your Facebook account. Just sign out. And uncheck the ‘Remember me’ box next time you do feel compelled to sign in.

Most bicycle travellers are happy to stay in touch with friends and family back home occasionally — in proportion to being connected with the ground beneath their feet the other 99% of the time. And when they do hit up social media, they’ll be perfectly happy to make it a one-time effort, negotiating dodgy keyboard layouts and virus-infested computers before getting back outdoors and back to reality.

Signing out of social media prevents one thing: the compulsive ‘checking’ behaviour so many of us now exhibit to check our social media accounts every few minutes, meaning our brains are in two places at once, causing us to walk out in front of moving vehicles and into each other while ‘checking’ what’s happening in the world.

Bullshit. You don’t need that. Your friends and family are getting on just fine, and if they aren’t, they’ll call you or come and see you. Instead, start using that spare headspace to think more seriously about your upcoming trip. Read books, stare at maps, or just sit and daydream. The possibilities of cycle touring are endless — if you’ve got the presence of mind to give it some real consideration.

Photo of storm breaking over Cairo

As an additional step, uninstall the smartphone apps for these networks and use the mobile browser versions instead. This’ll get rid of all those little ‘alerts’ you get every few seconds; further instant-hit distractions from reality. Better still, put your smartphone on airplane mode. Or on eBay.

3. Disconnect from the twisted world of mainstream media

Throw out your TV today. Better still, eBay the damn thing. And transfer the proceeds immediately into a limited-access savings account marked ‘Adventure Vault’. (I use Triodos.)

And the money you’ll reclaim on your TV license — put that in too. The earlier you chuck out the telly, the bigger the rebate. Do likewise with the money you’re about to save each month on the satellite/cable subscription. If you buy a daily or weekly newspaper, stop that right now. It’s doing nothing but making you anxious about a world that’s as safe as it’s ever been to travel in.

Aside from the logistical hurdles associated with taking a television on a bike tour, bicycle travellers don’t need to be permanently connected to whatever the international news media is spewing out about ‘the world’.

Why? Because we bicycle travellers are far too busy actually experiencing ‘the world’ for ourselves to bother with what the media want to tell us what’s happening in ‘the world’ that we’re supposed to care about, think about, and more importantly be afraid of.

And guess what? The world consists mainly of tea and charades. If you want to know how human society really works, read a good history book, make peace with the fact that every bad thing happening today is a repeat of a bad thing that happened yesterday, that you have no influence over anyone else’s fate so you might as well take hold of your own, and then go and cycle a lap of the planet to get a measure of the rest of it.

Tea break in Palmyra / Tadmur

While you’re using the time freed up by your new low-information diet to set up the monthly standing order into the Adventure Vault that’ll eventually fund your journey, add in the accumulated cost of your daily latté and start brewing your own coffee in a camp-stove-friendly espresso pot.

4. Re-wallpaper your home

If there’s one thing we adventure cyclists spend almost as much time staring at as all the stunning landscapes this planet has to offer, it’s maps.

Maps, before a journey begins, infest every aspect of our lives. Usually this is less for practical route-planning and more to remind us just how much road there is to explore. Whether a blow-up globe or a 10K topo, maps are fail-proof fuel for wanderlust.

You too can tap into this unlimited font of motivation simply by visiting the Stanford’s website (or their stores in London or Bristol) and ordering a selection of maps of places you fancy cycling in* — whether that’s regions, countries or continents — and putting them up on your walls. (Can’t decide? Simply get a world map* or two.)

Yerevan 2008-03-02. Photo by Hovik Malians

Find yourself gazing longingly at them for several hours a day, mentally planning routes, realising how much damn choice there is, that you’ll never actually be able to claim to have ‘seen the world’, and that it therefore really won’t matter too much where you go as long as it’s somewhere new.

5. Cook one-pot meals

No truly self-sufficient cycle tourist rides without the means to cook a hearty and delicious hot meal at the end of the day. Far from being bushcraft maniacs capable of lighting, using and extinguishing a cooking fire in 10 minutes flat (though such people do exist), we have instead mastered the art of getting breakfast, lunch and tea (and coffee) ready over a single burner.

You can imitate this easily. If your stovetop is a gas-burning model, simply remove three of the four flame spreaders, thus rendering all but one of them inoperable. If, on the other hand, you have an electric hob, you’ll find that the temperature knobs will come off with an enthusiastic tug (they’re designed to be replaceable; I take no responsibility for broken hob-knobs). For the ultimate in authenticity, ensure that the one remaining hob is the smallest available.

You’ll find that — while your recipe range is somewhat reduced — you’ll nevertheless be able to create all manner of delicious meals with creative use of that single hob, along with a few unorthodox cooking methods and some clever tricks involving two or more cooking pots and careful timing.

Breakfast

Once you have mastered this, feel free to abandon the stovetop altogether and switch to the more purist approach of a using an actual camping stove and cookware to prepare your meals, preferably on the living room floor.

6. Sell your fridge

Fridges have been the default in homes for less than a century. The food in your fridge, however, is unlikely to actually need refrigeration; society has just developed a supermarket-assisted obsession with hoarding food for longer. (My mother-in-law even refrigerates flour.)

As adventure cyclists without fridges, we’re all-too aware of this, happily carrying butter, cheese, yoghurt, cured meat, pastries, fresh fruit and vegetables, jars of jam and chutney, and mayonnaise inside our non-refrigerated panniers for a few days at a time and suffering no ill effects whatsoever.

Road kill

So sell your fridge. Raid all those mystery jars. Quit hoarding food for weeks, stop generating leftovers, and only buy what you can eat before it perishes — which includes more types of food than you might think.

7. Turn out your wardrobe

Your average common or garden bicycle traveller will possess a maximum of two sets of clothes: one set for riding in, and one set for not riding in. This makes a lot of sense, since time spent travelling by bicycle is generally divided between — you’ve guessed it — riding, and not riding. You can replicate this today with incredible ease.

To figure out what clothes to wear for riding, imagine you’re going hiking on a sunny day, then add a pair of padded cycling shorts and a set of waterproofs. To figure out what clothes to wear for not riding, imagine that you’re choosing a single outfit that you’d just about get away with wearing for a night in on your own, a night out with friends, a dinner invitation with your in-laws, and the wedding reception of a distant relative.

Drying off after paddling the Zayanderud

You may now sell the remainder of your clothes on eBay, or perhaps take them to a nearby charity shop.

8. Move out of most of your house

We bicycle travellers have the luxury of almost unlimited space in which to play, restricted only by the planet’s landmass and a handful of slightly inconvenient border crossings. When it comes to a temporary dwelling, however, the best we can usually hope for is a two-berth tent, a spare room, or a diplomatically-judged amount of space immediately surrounding a sofa.

Imitate this in your own home by moving your entire domestic life into a single room — for example, the living room, or a ‘living kitchen’ if you have one. Yes, you may visit the bathroom when you need to. No, the remaining rooms are not to be used for anything except temporary storage of all the furniture and belongings you never knew you didn’t need and which are now earmarked for immediate eBaying, Freecycling or the next community jumble sale.

Soon enough, you’ll wonder what the point of all of those extra rooms was in the first place — at which point you can start to think more seriously about selling your house and using the proceeds to pay off the rest of the mortgage and hit the road once and for all. Alternatively, consider enlisting the services of a letting agent and paying a property management company 10% of your monthly rental income to look after everything on your behalf, allowing someone else to pay off your mortgage while you cycle round the world.

Ger guesthouse in Moron

And in the meantime, you can host random travelling cyclists in all of those spare rooms you’ve freed up. You could even go all the way and operate an open-door policy, turning your private home into a much more useful travellers’ commune.

9. Quit electricity

Homes were originally electrified in order to provide lighting after dark, which — let’s face it — has achieved little more than disconnecting your modern lifestyle from the natural cycle of day and night. But the daily schedule of us touring cyclists is set around just these cycles; one of the many things about the lifestyle that imparts a deeply satisfying feeling of connectedness with nature.

Yes, we do use electricity now and again — specifically for charging the batteries that power the headtorches we use exclusively for reading books at night, and perhaps the occasional phone or laptop charge if we’re feeling particularly futuristic.

You too may take up this routine by restricting yourself to these applications alone. Removing all other electricity use is actually very simple, by the way. You’ve already graduated to using a camping stove on the living room floor for your culinary needs, so taking the fuse out of the oven and stovetop won’t be an issue; nor will whacking the ol’ kettle on eBay.

Unscrew and sell all of your lightbulbs on eBay too. Carry a headtorch in your pocket at all times. Wash clothes by hand inside a drybag from this point forth (surprisingly effective; they don’t make ’em waterproof for nothing) and take only cold showers (seriously invigorating; proven health benefits). Dishwasher? HTFU!

Diary writing

Now divert the money you’re saving on your electricity bill into that ever-growing Adventure Vault. Magic, innit?

10. Camp

On the whole, adventure bicycle travellers tend to spend a heck of a lot of time sleeping outside. Oftentimes this’ll be in a tent, the closest thing we have to a home; on particularly sumptuous nights it might well be beneath the stars in just a sleeping bag.

We’ve learned through experience to do this comfortably: warm, dry and undisturbed. And most of us love it. There’s little you really need to do to follow suit, of course: simply swap your traditional bed and bedding for a camping mat and a sleeping bag, and begin a brand new routine of sleeping on your living room floor with the doors and windows wide open. Not enough space? Sell your three-piece suite and turn your Therm-a-Rests into armchairs*.

If you’re lucky enough to possess a garden, balcony or terrace; even better! You truly can sleep al fresco on a nightly basis without leaving home, starting tonight. Just add a tent, bivvy bag or tarpaulin when the rain comes in.

It's going to be a long night...

Once sleeping outside has become the norm, simply take this practice out of town on a regular basis. Woods, hilltops and riversides are all good bets for wild camping. Closer to home, sleeping in parks and other green spaces is often easier and more fun than you might think — yes, even if you live in central London.

11. Become an observer

Bicycle travel not being a remotely destination-centred way of doing things, we adventure cyclists develop the ability to engage constantly with our surroundings in an intimate and observant way in order to make our experience ‘interesting’.

While it can be difficult to see what’s worth staring at in a big town or city, especially one you’re familiar with, it’s usually just a case of making space in your head and time in your routine to actually, actually look at what’s going on around you. Not just to glance about sometimes while you’re thinking about something else, going somewhere else, but to pay attention to the details and the seeming insignificances, for these all add up to something just as interesting in reality as any of the stuff we’re told is interesting to look at, like architecture and billboards.

One easy way to train yourself to do this is to take up street photography (or, if you live in the countryside, nature photography). Take a camera everywhere — not your phone; an actual camera — and start seeing those old familiar sights with new eyes.

Resting in Deira souk

It’s much easier when you’ve got a purpose, so hack yourself one by committing to a Photo 365 project, training your eye and your brain to see the world as we long-term bicycle travellers do. Soon enough you’ll wonder why the majority of people seem to be wandering around staring at the ground or at smartphone screens when there’s just so much else to see!

12. Do nothing more

Once the initial trauma of jacking it all in and leaving the status quo has worn off, we bicycle travellers tend to find ourselves with a lot of thinking time. It’s often said that we have too much thinking time, what with all those miles we pedal every day.

The best remedy for this, of course, is to stop treating free time as ‘thinking time’ and instead practice the doing one thing that we in the West have all but forgotten how to do: not think.

There is this underlying cultural trait — so deeply buried that it is near-invisible — that the present passes us by while we’re using the past to inform future plans. The problem is that — as becomes obvious when you stop and think about it (ironically) — the past and the future don’t actually exist. At least, not while ‘exist’ is being used in the present tense, which it is right now, and now, and now, and now.

Repetitive actions, such as pedalling or walking for long periods of time, allow the conscious mind to wake up to this collective insanity, in turn allowing you to retrain your brain to exist in the present. But hanging around in parks doing nothing is another great way to do this.

Laid-back bicycle touring

Don’t think. Don’t think. Just hang around, listening to all the past and future crap flying around in your head. Then tell those voices to stop. Peace. Happiness.

13. Talk to strangers

One of the defining features of life on the road is the sheer number and variety of people you’ll meet. To begin with, it feels a bit strange — we’re used to opening up with people in our trusted social circles, but restricting our interactions with strangers to financial transactions and customer support calls.

Soon enough, though, it becomes normal, and when you return home to find everyone milling around in the street totally oblivious to each other, that’s what feels a bit strange.

You can begin to recreate this frankly enlightened relationship with humankind today. Simply start talking to strangers. One easy way to do this is to offer to help someone who could use a hand with something, whether that’s carrying a suitcase up a flight of stairs, picking up something they’ve dropped, weeding the allotment, or something else altogether.

If this perfectly natural mode of behaviour is still new and uncomfortable and you’d prefer it to happen in a vaguely socially acceptable setting, check out the local Couchsurfing events and meetups and attend them. Use networks like HelpX to meet new people and work together on something constructive. Join a club. Volunteer with a local charity.

Once you’re more comfortable, consider talking to your neighbour on your next long bus or train journey, sitting on park benches chatting away to whoever comes along (commenting on the state of their dogs is a great ice-breaker). The pinnacle of achievement in this field, perhaps, is to go out alone to your local pub, bar or nightclub and ingratiate yourself with the local revellers.

Chilling with the broken-down bus drivers

Again, it’s a game of numbers, so if the first few people glare at you for violating their warped sense of normality because you, a stranger, spoke to them without invitation, simply consider it ‘their loss’ and move on.

14. Repack your life into four panniers and a bar-bag

Now you’re living in a single room, hanging out almost exclusively with total strangers and other cycle travellers, wearing just two sets of clothes, cooking your meals over a camping stove, and are sleeping on a Therm-a-rest, you might as well take the obvious next step of packing what few belongings you have remaining into four panniers and a bar-bag.

For the sake of practicality, you might as well use that space left by the TV cabinet to store a touring bike, which will act as a place to hang these five aforementioned bags. No need to move or ride it; just use those handy horizontal rails as natural locations for your luggage to live.

This, of course, is also a good excuse to actually get yourself a touring bike. No need to ride it, but then again, if you do feel like selling your car and starting cycling everywhere instead, feel free to go right ahead.

Two nomads on a cycling adventure (Explored)

Put everything else that you can’t fit in your panniers on eBay. Seriously. People will buy everything else. Just check out eBay’s Everything Else category. See?

15. Practice the art of non-verbal communication

Once we bicycle travellers leave the English speaking world, we develop the ability to communicate through more or less purely non-linguistic means. Our miming skills become razor sharp, as do our abilities to scribble incomprehensibly on bits of paper while making ourselves understood, all the while flicking through pocket-sized dictionaries and gesticulating in wild and unimaginably creative ways which people really do understand.

It’s possible to leapfrog this learning process as part of your normal daily life. Simply give up speaking English. Restrict your interactions with members of the public entirely to the aforementioned techniques, plus as many words from other languages as you can muster. Shop exclusively in Oriental and Middle Eastern grocery stores, where this technique may work particularly well.

Egyptian tourist attraction

If you commit wholeheartedly to this principle, you will undoubtedly also find that — as a byproduct of being unable to speak — you get fired from your job.

* * *

At this point, all of your previous preparations will slot neatly into place. For it is now surely a simple case of transferring the contents of your Adventure Vault into your current account, wheeling your touring bike and its ready-packed bags out of your empty house, giving the key to the estate agent, and riding away from your home.

You’ll find that every element of your now-current lifestyle remains the same — save, of course, for physical training to get fit enough for long-distance cycle touring.

And physical training for cycle touring is what you’re going to do right now.

By riding your goddamn bike.

Categories
Product Launches

Eurobike 2014: The Best Of The Rest, Plus More Fatbikes Than You Ever Thought Possible

Over the last week I’ve gone off on an unusually long tangent in the field of cycle touring equipment, mainly because I happened to be passing by the world’s biggest bicycle industry expo in Friedrichshafen, Germany, and thought it’d be rude not to drop in.

We’ve so far seen awards won by world tourers from KTM, an internal gearing system that hopes to rival Rohloff, a new range of extremely swanky panniers and luggage from Brooks, and new folding tourers from Tern.

Now, for those of you who’re bored of gear or were never interested in it anyway, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief to know that today’s post is the last in this little series.

I’ll run down, in no particular order, the remaining oddities and innovations that might be of interest to the adventure cycle traveller that I saw while Tenny was looking at clothes.

Clothes shopping at Eurobike 2014

Finally, to end on a light note, I’ll list every fatbike I managed to find on show at this year’s expo, in case anyone was under the impression that fatbiking was still a remotely leftfield niche of cycling. (When Scott are demonstrating a fatbike, you know it’s gone mainstream.)

Next week we’ll be back to something with a little more substance — namely, training for cycle touring. And it absolutely won’t be the kind of training you’re thinking of. Watch this space.

* * *

On with the show…

Surly’s Troll is now well-established as a top-notch all-terrain adventure bike with space for luggage. (Just ask Cass.)

This year they’re launching the World Troller, which is the same frame but with S&S couplings for ease of transport to far-flung wildernesses. Fun times.

Eurobike 2014: Surly World Troller

Eurobike 2014: Surly World Troller detail

Eurobike 2014: Surly World Troller detail

Burley were demonstrating their Eurobike-award-winning Travoy trailer, which could be a neat option for converting a road-bike into a light tourer.

Eurobike 2014: Burley Travoy light trailer

Eurobike 2014: Burley Travoy light trailer

Their well-known Nomad cargo trailer has been tweaked and is now as user-friendly as it’s ever been, with a very useful top rack, a fully waterproof cover, and lots of pockets in the interior. They’re distributed in the UK through Raleigh.

Eurobike 2014: Burley Nomad

Eurobike 2014: Burley Nomad

Poison, a small German outfit, had two Rohloff-equipped tourers on display, with chain drive and belt-drive options…

Eurobike 2014: Poison Zyankali 26 Rohloff

Eurobike 2014: Poison Atropin Randonneur IGH

Eurobike 2014: Poison Zyankali 26 Rohloff

Schauff, another small German company, make ‘heavyweight’ touring bikes (and tandems), designed for up to 200kg total weight…

Eurobike 2014: Schauff heavyweight touring bikes

Eurobike 2014: Schauff touring tandem

There were plenty of touring trailers on show with kids in mind…

Eurobike 2014: Kids Tourer

Eurobike 2014: More kids trailers

…and dogs…

Eurobike 2014: Doggy Trailer

…and if one trailer isn’t enough, why not take three?

Eurobike 2014: Hinterher trailer train

Ever thought of earning your crust on tour by working as an occasional taxi service?

Eurobike 2014: pedal rickshaw

Or parcel delivery service?

Eurobike 2014: e-cargo-trike

Eurobike 2014: e-cargo-trike

Eurobike 2014: front cargo nets

Eurobike 2014: Front-loading cargo bike

If you’ve ever thought it’d be interesting to cut open the entire Schwalbe Marathon range of touring tyres to see what’s inside, this’ll save you some money:

Eurobike 2014: Inside Schwalbe tyres (cross-section)

Vaude, being based just down the road from the show, were showing off their Ortlieb-equivalent luggage offerings:

Eurobike 2014: Vaude bike luggage

HP Velotechnik’s Scorpion electric-assisted trikes (with cargo racks) proved fun to ride…

Eurobike 2014: e-trike test ride

Folding semi-recumbent tandem, anyone?

Eurobike 2014: Hase semi-recumbent tandem

* * *

OK.

Fatbikes.

(The world’s gone mad.)

Here’s Scott’s take on the idea…

Eurobike 2014: Scott fatbike

Felt have gone for the road cruiser slant…

Eurobike 2014: Felt fatbike

SE Bikes’ offering is fairly traditional…

Eurobike 2014: SE Bikes fatbike

As are KHS’s, if a little curvier…

Eurobike 2014: KHS fatbikes

And Silverback’s…

Eurobike 2014: Silverback fatbike

And Author’s…

Eurobike 2014: Author Su-Mo fatbike

And Konstruktive’s…

Eurobike 2014: Konstructive fatbike

Belt-drive is really coming of age, and so of course there had to be a belt-driven fatbike on the way…

Eurobike 2014: Belt-drive fatbike

Long-haul touring on a fatbike is entirely within the realms of possibility, as Ortlieb (in conjunction with Velotraum) demonstrate…

Eurobike 2014: Ortlieb-equipped Velotraum touring fatbike

With the surge in demand, front suspension for fatbikes seems suddenly feasible…

Eurobike 2014: Yaroka fatbike

Norco also jumping on this particular bandwagon…

Eurobike 2014: Norco fatbike

But Salsa have outdone everyone in this department by launching the Bucksaw, the only full-suspension fatbike I saw at the show…

Eurobike 2014: Salsa Bucksaw full suspension fatbike

Salsa also do a range of more traditional fatbikes, such as the Blackborow

Eurobike 2014: Salsa Blackborow fatbike

Kids aren’t left out of the fatbike scene…

Eurobike 2014: Kids' fatbikes

E‑bikes being the theme of the show this year, where would we be without e‑fatbikes? (Or should that be fat-e-bikes?)

Eurobike 2014: Haibike electric fatbike

Eurobike 2014: KTM electric fatbike

Eurobike 2014: Another e-fat-bike

Eurobike 2014: Bulls fatbikes

Eurobike 2014: BionX fat-e-bike

Yes, fatbiking is such a ‘thing’ now that the 1st International Fatbike Festival is due to take place this winter.

Eurobike 2014: 1st international fatbike festival

But it’s probably Surly’s original Pugsley that’s done more for fatbiking than any other bike…

Eurobike 2014: Surly Pugsley

They’ve gone and launched a new one for good measure, though, named the Ice Cream Truck.

Eurobike 2014: Surly Ice Cream Truck

* * *

Sitting in the corner of the Surly stand — unnoticed by anyone, it seemed — was a Long Haul Trucker.

Eurobike 2014: Surly Long Haul Trucker

And you know what?

Innovation is all well and good, and that’s what Eurobike is all about.

But that timeless bike was still — for me — the best in show.

Because when it comes to do-it-all touring bicycles for tours of anywhere from a weekend to a decade in length, tried-and-tested wins every time.