MEET MIKE WELLS
Having just returned from a cycle trip in Eastern Europe, there’s a gentle sigh of relief in Mike Wells’ voice. It comes not from not enjoying the trip or disappointment at returning home; its origins lie in having just completed the copy which is the result of his research. Volume Two of his guide to cycling along the banks of the Danube was to be off to Cicerone in the morning. (It is now published.) This isn’t a new feeling for Mike, because he is a Serial Guidebook Author. Stephen Dyster had a chat with him about his tales of the riverbank …
"I’m sixty-six and I am no great fan of big hills; I like things that generally go downhill."
I asked Mike what he feels a guidebook brings in this digital age.
Cicerone has already published his guides to cycling the Moselle, the Rhine and the Danube from its source to Budapest, and we have more to look forward to. With the volume on the Lower Danube now published, his attention is turning to the Loire and the Rhone The Rhone Cycle Route is also now in print. Mike has wide experience of travel in Europe having worked for a number of years organising and running tours by train. A keen long distance walker, a subject on which he is also a published author, he has built up a lot of helpful contacts across the Continent. “My experience of cycling has grown along with the number of trips. I started writing these guides with very limited knowledge of European cycling.”
Mike cut his cycling teeth on long distance routes such as the Lon Las Cymru. Mike sounds a little disappointed that those routes seem to have become less wild than when he first rode them; “No, I am not, but I am a little unclear as to Sustrans’ remit; is it to get people to work or to provide a touring network? It seems to me that the Lon Las Cymru fell a little bit between two stools. In the first place it was quite daunting in places, but making it less so has made things better for families and people who like gentler things … though mid-Wales is rarely easy.”
Cuba, the Camino and the North Cape, amongst others, lead him, eventually, to cycling the Rhine and his first Cicerone publication. “Since then,” says Mike, “I have been doing a guide a year, cycling the great rivers of Europe.”
Does Mike have an obsession with rivers? No, but they hold many attractions for the touring cyclist, not least that the source is more or less clear and the ride takes you to the sea or a bigger river. “It is relatively easy cycling. There are hills, but they tend not to be too big. I’m sixty-six and I am no great fan of big hills; I like things that generally go downhill; they also offer a sense of achievement and satisfaction.” says Mike. He then points to the excellent tourist infrastructure that tends to be found along the major rivers; all sorts of accommodation at all sorts of prices, every kind of restaurant you can think of; all this make it easy to decide where to spend a night, which is not true of the Lower Danube or Cuba or the North Cape, for example.”
So, what makes for good cycling infrastructure? “Well, there are several factors. The Swiss model where everything is perfectly signposted and beautifully organised, then there’s the Romanian where I have just come back from, where there barely seems to be a cycle track in the country … well a few, but not much. The Danube is a good example; in Germany parts of the route is on gravel, a good surface but not asphalt. Then you cross into Austria and almost all is off-road on dedicated cycle track with an asphalt surface.”
A great deal of money has been put into developing dedicated cycle tracks along most of the rivers, especially in Western Europe. “Of course, things continue to develop, so we rely on satisfied readers contacting Cicerone to say that this or that has changed.” Each Cicerone guide has a web page. Much information in a guide remains constant, but it is easy for some detail to become dated … minor route changes, improved or deteriorating surfaces, hotels closing or opening, new rail services.
I asked Mike what he feels a guidebook brings in this digital age. He laughs as he says, “My guidebooks …. Incorporate things to see and do as well as the bare bones of route, eating and sleeping. Some long-distance cyclists want to get their heads down and don’t really want to look at things anyway. Guide books add to this.”
Again Mike laughs when I suggest that for even the smallest town he seems able to find something of interest to include. “Going through Romania most of the little villages have absolutely nothing to write about, then I found one which was the birthplace of a little known poet who got quite a mention,” he explains. Generally though, Mike feels that places to see do not always need to be spectacular. We discuss that type of cyclist who is happy to explore the curious if unspectacular. “In Luxembourg, I was exploring a link to the Moselle from Luxembourg City and I suddenly came across this mass of satellite dishes in a field. Turned out to be the biggest satellite station in Europe, belonging to the largest company in the country in the grounds of a formal Grand-Ducal palace.”
Mike goes on to point out that he is not a camper. He looks for hotels and hostels. “I know that some people who buy the guides will camp, but I want to show that you can do these long routes without having to carry all that gear,” he says. “All the previous guides to the Lower Danube used to say that you had to wild camp as there were long sections with no accommodation, now, having tried out different routes, I’ve proved to myself that camping is not a necessity
The Danube is, Mike suggests, the best developed EuroVélo route. “Oddly,” he says, “some of the best signposting is in Serbia. They have really grabbed hold of it; signposting is immaculate from one end of the country to another. Each signpost, at regular intervals, has a little saying on it, which, I think, is a lovely touch. In English, too.” Mike digresses, “I stayed in a little guest house which has just opened up – largely for cyclists – in the middle of nowhere to the west of Belgrade. Well, the owner told me about the man who was responsible for signposting and that he has now been approached by the Romanians to signpost routes there.”
He also has high praise for Hungary, where huge improvements have been made in the last ten years.
Eighty kilometres, maybe a hundred, is a typical day’s distance for Mike. Plenty of time to stop and look, eat and drink and no need for too early a start; “In the guide I aim to create sections of about fifty miles a day, with opportunities for lunch after about twenty-five. Of course, you can split things how you like. A family group might want to do half of one of these sections in a day. ”
If you were to write a guide, Mike emphasises the need to plan before you ride the route. He explains,” I get the whole route mapped out on the computer, then work out where the breaks ought to be. Hopefully there’s a town or large village with accommodation of different sorts. The whole thing then follows from that, because they are critical to a tour.”
I put it to him that the guidebook author’s worst nightmare must be an incorrect direction, a left where it should be right. Fortunately, Mike has a plan to avoid this. He does his research at home. He rides the route on his own and adds detail of directions. This is all written up for his better half to check as they ride the route together. “I ride behind and she uses the draft as a guidebook to test it. I generally get about three or four things wrong in a forty thousand word draft, but Christine spots these.”
Mike finds a hybrid bike ideal for these sorts of routes. He bought his first Marin to ride the Camino to Compostella and is now on number three.” I became a convert to hybrid bikes. I knew very little about them, but have traded up.” His favourite bike was his Rocky Ridge, which took him off-road touring in Iceland and along the old navvy road that runs parallel to the railway between Oslo and Bergen.” Then someone stole it!”
“A good quality, solid hybrid is the thing for the kind of cycle routes I do; mixed surfaces and a bit of off-road at times. Racing bikes are no good and I am not a great fan of the traditional drop-handlebar touring bike either. I prefer slightly wider tyres and disk brakes. I have never found that I can’t get these things fixed and serviced if necessary, even in remote parts of Eastern Europe. I like the riding positions on a hybrid, but a traditional tourer would cope with the routes OK.” Mike’s biggest recommendation? He gets a lot of cyclists from outside Europe planning to follow his route guides. Can they hire bikes? Of course, he replies, but don’t. Bring your own, if you can. If you can’t, bring your saddle!”
So, as Mike prepares to head for the Loire, his current guides are available from all good booksellers and the publisher. See www.cicerone.co.uk As well as offering a variety of ways to purchase guides, each books webpage has an updates section, for example, for Mike’s Moselle guide http://www.cicerone.co.uk/product/detail.cfm/book/721/title/the-moselle-cycle-route#.VWxetrnbLIU Mike says, “We rely on, hopefully, satisfied customers keeping updates coming in.” The latest update on the Moselle Cycle Route page covers how to reach the start, by train, from London.
EuroVélo route 6 (EV6) includes the whole Danube. Mike recommends his soon-to-be-published guide (well, as he says, he would) along with the Huber set of six maps (see http://cartography-huber.com/p10/p5/shop/products/eurovelo-6-danube-cycletrail-map-set if you intend to cycle the Danube below Budapest. Of course, EuroVélo routes are often signed by their local names and numbers; EV6 also takes in parts of the Loire cycle route, the Rhine cycleway as well as other local and national routes. For the whole of any of the EuroVélo routes take a look at http://www.eurovelo.com/en/eurovelos
INTERVIEW FIRST PUBLISHED IN SDC8, 2015, UPDATED FEBRUARY 2017