Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

9 Dec 2013

Solo Girl Cycling: An Interview with Birgit Altmann

Posted by Will

I first met Birgit in March 2012, Stockholm, less than a month after starting my own trip. Two friends of hers, the great Andrew Edmonston-Low and Jan Seitz, had plucked me out of a snowstorm the previous evening and after they had plied me with unhealthy but welcome quantities of cheese and red wine, Birgit and I became immersed in the unlimited possibilities of bike travel. She was studying economics and development at the time but told me she would seriously consider a trip of her own.

drinkingIn July-August 2012, Birgit toured through France for 2905km, cycling alone for the majority of her journey. Starting in Strasbourg, she headed west across the north of the country passing through a whole host of tiny towns and villages, stopping often to talk to locals or taste the food on offer. On travelling by bike she writes: ‘[it] gives you the chance to experience not only the touristy places of a country but its true culture, which is lived between the tourist attractions.’ I couldn’t agree more. Discover further pearls of wisdom in her prose, check where she went and catch the photos too: all on her blog.

- Tell me the story of how you chose and bought your bike?
In fact, my bike and I didn’t have the best relationship in the past. It’s a mountain bike and I got it when I was around 12 years old (yes it’s much too small for me now and although my back wasn’t hugely excited after 3000km I did manage to ignore it quite well). Its purpose back then was to bring me up and down all the huge mountains we tackled with our competitive skiing team as preparation for the winter. I have to admit I absolutely HATED cycling back then – as one can guess things have changed – but my skiing mates who know me from back in the day still cannot believe I voluntarily (!) did a cycling trip.

Why I chose this bike? Because it is the only decent one I have :)

- What were the most important preparations you made before starting? (Fitness regime? Advice? Planning?)
Fitness regime?!? Definitely not! I did less sport than ever the weeks preceding the trip as I figured I will do lots of it once I am on my bike! (though due to this I did make sure that I started on a flat part…). Yes, I highly recommend asking experienced cycling travellers, especially concerning equipment. Getting the equipment took me quite a while as I needed almost everything from scratch regarding camping. But somehow it was also hugely enjoyable to read reviews of tents, sleeping mats etc… during my intensive study period.

mtstmichel- What were you most worried about before leaving?
Nothing really, I was hugely excited!

- What made you set off in the first place?
I’m a traveller by heart, but it was not until I lived in a cosy attic apartment in Stockholm with two “crazy” cyclist neighbours (Andrew and Jan). Too many evenings with too many glasses of wine and the idea was slowly born. I became further inspired by continuously great Warmshowers guests – one of whom was Will! Besides, I didn’t get the internship I had applied for, so I had a free summer and thought I had better make good use of it!

- Why did you choose to cycle alone?
Well, I didn’t really know of anyone interested who had time to do the trip with me. On the other hand I wasn’t really searching for someone. I had traveled alone before and therefore knew how much more open you are when you explore a country by yourself. In addition, one of the main objectives, along with discovering wonderful France by drinking lots of wine, was to learn French. I knew this would be most efficient if I was by myself.

- What did your friends and family say when you told them about your adventure?
I think most quite liked the idea. Some thought I was crazy and my parents were a bit worried at the beginning.

- What was the highlight of your trip?
The fantastic hospitality I received which many times included absolutely delicious French food.

- What problems did you encounter?
Given my small bike and my thus forced, forward-bending position, I had a lot of weight resting on my hands. Because of this my fingers fell asleep quite severely. I ignored it during the first couple of days – which I shouldn’t have done. They never really recovered during my trip but two months after returning home from cycling everything was completely normal again! I had experienced a similar thing with my toes when they once got severely frozen during a skiing trip so I knew it was just a matter of time and I wasn’t worried. Apart from this really minor thing, everything went super smooth!

withfrenchman- Where did you sleep at night?
I did a good mixture, I believe. I spent some nights with Warmshowers hosts (a great way to immerse yourself in the culture), some nights on camping sites (good way to relax a bit if you had too many nights of being super social), some nights in hostels in the city (showers & internet were highly appreciated) and, I would say the most fun part, some nights in rural areas where I just asked people if I could put up my tent next to their farm. This lead to the most exciting encounters and great spontaneous hospitality. I also would have done completely wild camping but had promised my worried parents not to do so.

- Did you ever feel like cycling alone was dangerous?
No, not at all. The first night alone in my tent was a bit strange (you start to hear weird sounds…), but I managed to convince myself that there is really nothing to worry about – which of course there wasn’t.

- Mean people say girls have a bad sense of direction. How many times did you get lost?
I didn’t count!

- What did you miss most about home while cycling?
Nothing really. But my trip also wasn’t that long.

- What were the three most precious things in your panniers?
Uuuh, difficult to chose only three. Definitely my maps – I had very good detailed maps of France, though not of the big cities – cycling in and out of big cities was the worst! This is where I continuously got lost. But here a handy second item came in: my compass. I only reluctantly took it along (somebody told me before I MUST take it). Whenever I was completely clueless about where I was, my tiny little compass told me the general direction I should head to. As a third item I would probably say my Swiss army knife (including its corkscrew :)).

cyclingfield- Looking back, how would you have done things differently, if at all?
Hmm, I wouldn’t have done things much more differently. I would definitely not bring books a second time (no time to read). But I cannot think of anything else right now.

- So what now: career move or the next big trip?
Whatever the future will bring!

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