Ride Without Permission: A Dawdle to the Dolomites
For their first bike trip, Hannah Barkan and Anna Jackson spent two weeks riding across Europe—from Sweden to Italy—right in the middle of a heatwave. Read on for their story of not letting a lack of a plan or prior experience hold them back from hitting the road…
Riding across Europe during a heatwave sounds miserable, but it was the most liberating two weeks of my life. For 14 days I wore nothing but bike shorts and a vest; with a constant stream of electrolytes, I managed to fend off heat stroke, and indulged in ice cream, cold beers, and fresh water swimming whenever possible. Anna—a friend living in London whom I’d met a few months before—and I chose Europe for our first bikepacking adventure mostly because of logistics. We were doing a running race in Stockholm at the beginning of June, and I had been training for an ultramarathon at the end of the month in Cortina, Italy. We decided to bike from one city to the other in the two weeks between events, with a couple of train rides to carry us faster and further than we could get on two wheels.
Neither of us had ever been on a bike tour before. I had long dreamed of cycling across South America, or from Cairo to Cape Town, and the idea of a big trip was stopping me from taking hold of smaller opportunities to get out on my bike. I realised we didn’t need to quit our jobs, or buy all the kit, and Europe would work just fine as a cycling destination.
Planning the route for our trip consisted of downloading Komoot the morning we set off and taking it from there. I had made some rough calculations in a notebook about where we wanted to take trains from, and what distances we might be able to cover each day, but we didn’t spend a lot of time agonising over the logistics. The countries we cycled through—Denmark, Germany, Austria, and Italy—had a lot of infrastructure, so we were never far from a place to camp or eat, making it the perfect route for amateur bikepackers.
Having never done a trip like this before, going bikepacking was a scary prospect for us. I’ve had anxiety for several years, and the two weeks while we were riding was the longest time I’d gone with a clear head space. Before the trip, Anna and I both felt we needed a break from living in London; a break from the feeling of constantly being in a rush; of always needing to be somewhere or do something. Bikepacking felt like absolute freedom. We made decisions based on immediate need, eating when we were hungry and stopping when we needed a rest.
We had planned on wild camping every night except when we were in big cities, where we’d with hosts through WarmShowers. The first night we got cold feet when it came to finding a wild camping spot, so whilst eating peanut butter on the side of the road, we looked up places to camp. The campsite we found turned out to be incredible; we had the place all to ourselves and it was perfect for easing us into the idea of wild camping. We never felt scared wild camping, but I know it can be daunting, especially as a woman. If you aren’t used to it, simply pitching your tent on the side of the road can be a big step. I have since wild camped close to 30 times, and I’ll admit that I still get a little creeped out before finding the perfect spot and sleeping peacefully throughout the night.
Copenhagen and Cortina D’Ampezzo are 1,307 miles apart, and we knew we weren’t going to be able to pedal that distance in two weeks. Instead, we relied on trains to take us across large parts of northern Germany, biking between larger towns. There was a notable absence of interesting features in the middle of Germany, but every village had a bakery and they all served beer, no matter what time of day it was. That suited us just fine. The riding throughout Germany was difficult, with long stretches alongside main roads full of trucks transporting goods to rural German towns. The trains here were reliable, and fairly cheap, and most were accommodating to cyclists. We did have a few instances where we were unable to take fast trains because of our bikes, and once had to take a diversion through Berlin. Taking trains enabled us to link up parts of the route we were really excited about riding, and zooming past those places that were less forgiving to novice cyclists.
Half-way through the trip, just outside of Innsbruck, Austria, we met two boys from Kansas, USA. With a thick drawl, Elliot turned to us and said, “Y’all look like y’all doin’ somethin’ fun.” We couldn’t believe it. We love country music, and we’d found country boys who also happened to be biking across Europe. We were now a foursome pedaling towards Cortina.
The riding between Munich and Cortina was the most dramatic of the trip. I think we went through some of the most beautiful places in Europe. As you leave Munich, you almost immediately begin riding towards the mountains; you are surrounded by the Alps and then not long after, the Dolomites. Our first major climb came the day after leaving Innsbruck; until now the terrain had been relatively flat, but leaving Innsbruck we went straight up Brenner Pass and kept climbing for a couple of hours. At 33 km, the historic Brenner pass was our first taste of the tough cycling we would come to enjoy in the Dolomites. The climbs were long, especially with the heat, so we took breaks regularly, eating lots of Landjager and drinking electrolyte water.
There were countless little things that went wrong on this trip: losing master links, leaving passports behind, and rushing around airports in feeble attempts to tape cardboard bike boxes together, but that’s what made the adventure so incredible. Lots of people told me not to go on this trip, that I would be too weak to run and bike, that we shouldn’t camp, and that it wasn’t enough time for a ‘proper’ bike trip. Luckily, we also had lots of supporters cheering us on, helping with logistics and packing, and loaning us tents and bikepacking bags. After coming back from the trip, at least one person told me they were inspired to go and spend more time outside.
I’m great at planning routes and talking about trips that I never end up going on, always managing to convince myself that it’s because I don’t have enough money or time or both. Except I do. I have weekends, and time off from my nine-to-five job, and a bike and sleeping bag waiting for me downstairs. This was my grand adventure: just two weeks through central Europe, with relatively easy terrain, access to shops and restaurants and hotels, but it was a catalyst that led to me spending more time on a bike and in a tent.
As the saying goes, all good things come to an end, and back in London, I’m beginning to feel like I need another break. Commuting to work by bike will never satisfy my craving for a cycle trip characterised by excessive amounts of peanut butter and wild swimming. So instead, I spend much of the time at my desk thinking about quitting my job to ride across America, Africa, or Canada—anywhere really that isn’t here. But I’ve come to realise that you don’t need to wait for the right time, the right people, the right place, or to put everything on hold to find the kind of happiness that comes from a long bikepacking adventure. Instead, revel in exploring the places closer to home, find joy in a new backyard trail, and grab an opportunity for a weekend adventure with both hands. Ride without permission, and ride whenever and wherever you can.
About Hannah Barkan
Hannah Barkan grew up in Switzerland, surrounded by mountains, but didn’t really appreciate them until she moved to the Middle East. Now, living in London and working in impact investing, Hannah loves to travel to mountainous places, and whenever possible takes trip by bike. She’s just started writing about her adventures, and you can follow along on Instagram @hammerbaxter.