For a while now I’ve wanted to include a series of interviews on the blog. The first subject of those interviews was never in doubt. Mick Dolan; retired army officer, bicycle touring expert (I think at this stage that’s a reasonable claim), published author, and my dad.
Dad’s been on a bike for as far back as I can remember; cycle commuting from Newbridge to the Curragh or Kildare barracks depending on where he was based at the time.
There was a few years when he wasn’t in the saddle quite as often, but evidently it was never too far from his mind as once he got back on the bike he stayed there. He’s been using his retirement well, getting as many miles in as he can.
His first serious tour was cycling the Camino de Santiago. This was in preparation for the big one – San Fransisco to Boston unsupported. Since then he’s cycled the Wild Atlantic Way from south to north, and he’s recently (relatively recently) returned from another American trip, the famous Route 66.
I sat down with him to chat about it and bike touring in general. I hope you enjoy.
Oakleaf Adventure: Regarding your recent Route 66 cycle, what kit did you bring? What did you change between the two US trips and the Camino and Wild Atlantic Way trips?
Mick: Packing lists are, by their very nature, works in progress. There had to be a balance drawn between comfort and survival and I was careful to pack properly. The flight limited me to a checked bag of 23 kg and hand luggage of 10 kg. I packed three panniers and their contents in a light, durable duffel bag and used the fourth as carry-on. Deciding on the layout and distribution of the kit was scientific – the heavier stuff in the front panniers and balanced left to right. This changed over the course of the trip as items migrated to more accessible locations.
Very little changed from the previous US trip or the Wild Atlantic Way. I used a dome tent rather than a tunnel tent. This was heavier but not significantly. I also brought a full-sized floor pump – I’d had problems getting sufficient pressure into the tyres before and this had led to punctures.
- Kitchen and medical in the Front Left
- Library (maps, journal, pens, etc) and tools in the Front right
- On-bike clothing and Sleeping bag in the Rear Left
- Off-bike clothing and sleeping mat in the Rear Right
- Spare shoes, bike bag, duffel bag, food, spare water, etc. in the Rack Pack
- Other important items – cash, passport, flight details, contact lists in the Camelbak
OA: Apart from the bike itself, what do you consider the most essential piece of kit?
M: I invested in Ortlieb fully waterproof panniers. This meant I didn’t need to keep my clothes in plastic bags. I consider these to be very important. They’re canary yellow so they allow me to be seen easily on the road, but this can be a disadvantage when wild-camping.
As the trip went on, I found that the Salewa sleeping mat tended to lose air. This resulted in interrupted sleep at night when I would wake to re-inflate it. These things take on a greater importance when there is nothing else to irritate, so I was very happy to bin it and replace it with a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite SV Sleeping Pad – an excellent piece of kit.
I also have a chair.
OA: What do you consider the least essential?
M: Waterproof leggings! Early on I realised that if it rained, I was going to get wet from the inside out or from the outside in. Waterproof leggings would only guide the water into my Goretex shoes.
OA: Is there anything you brought that you felt you didn’t need/over-packed?
M: I brought sandals to wear off the bike and really, I didn’t use them much. I had swapped my Shimano SPD pedals for MTB platform pedals so I rode with Columbia Goretex trainers. At the end of the day, I tended to remove the socks and just lounge in the trainers tied very loosely. The downside was that my expensive Goretex Trainers became rather smelly by the end of the trip.
OA: Anything you felt you needed but didn’t have? (and what did you do without it?)
M: Packing is about making decisions. I brought numerous spare tubes (too many, in fact) but I didn’t have a spare tyre. When I got a significant puncture that left a hole in the Schwalbe Ultra Marathon tyre, I had to nurse it for a few hundred miles. Then I only bought one tyre – a Specialized Nimbus – and kept the bad one as a spare. This was false economy as then new one failed and I sweated for forty miles with the bad tyre on the front with low pressure and the remaining Schwalbe on the back until I got to a good bike shop where I bought TWO folding Specialized Roubaix tyres. I still haven’t unpacked the spare, so I’m good for the next trip!
OA: How did you chose the specific gear you went with when there are so many options out there?
M: I have been assembling gear for a number of years, upgrading as I went along. I still have no problem buying from Lidl or Aldi and whatever I buy has to be able to withstand rugged treatment. As long as the Bike, Panniers, saddle, tyres, tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat are premium items, I can survive with basic stuff – well, except for my Swiss Army Knife.
OA: How did you plan your route?
M: The Adventure Cycling Association in the US have mapped a number of fine routes such as the Trans American Route, Route 66, The Pacific Coast Route and the Atlantic Coast Route among others. They produce maps which are ideally suited to the cyclist. The route is divided into sections and the sections are divided into “plates” of about thirty miles. When the map is folded, it can fit in the plastic case that normally sits on top of the bar bag. This map carries information vital to the cyclist – location of campsites, hotels, libraries, Post Offices etc, as well as emergency phone numbers. To plan my route, I simply decided what distance I was likely to cover in a day and then checked the map for likely stopping points round about there. I built in a rest day in my planning about every four hundred miles. This was in case of breakdown or injury.
OA: I know you brought paper maps and a Garmin GPS with you, which did you find yourself using more? Do you prefer paper to digital, vice versa, or are they equally important and useful?
M: Paper maps and GPS both have their uses. I like the feel of a paper map in my hands but the comfort of the GPS to bring me back on track in the event of a wrong turn can’t be overstated. The ACA maps are great for showing the route, but they show very little off-route. For this I carried a full road map of the US and I would open it up every few days and delight in marking an X on my location. It was great to see my progress. The Garmin eTrex 20 was sufficient for my needs and it allowed me record my daily mileages. I bought the mapping of the Lower forty-nine states on a Micro SD on Ebay for $30.00
OA: Why a Surly and did you/how did you customise it?
M: Initially, I had wanted to buy a Kona Sutra, a bike I’d been researching for some time. At the time I couldn’t get one so in 2010, I used the Bike-to-work scheme to finance the purchase of what I had regarded as the next best thing – a Surly Long Haul Trucker. This is a purpose-built touring bike with a steel frame and other bits like mountain bike gearing on a road bike frame. I put a Brooks Flyer saddle on it and this took about 800 miles to “break in”. Thereafter, it’s been very comfortable. The dynamo hub was a later addition. I was replacing the wheels because of significant wear on the rims so I got the hub built into the new wheel and got the lights fitted. Everything I’ve done has been about ensuring an absence of stress when touring.
OA: Who is Sarky and how did he come to be your traveling companion?
M: Most people who tour internationally seem to have a flag to highlight their nationality. In 2012, when I was heading off on my first solo tour – the Camino de Santiago de Compostela – I went looking for an Irish flag. I was in one of the Carroll’s shops in Dublin and saw the leprechauns so I figured he’d fit the bill. He’s been traveling with me since
OA: To someone who’s never done much cycling other than 15-20km on a sunny Saturday morning, what advice would you give them if they wanted to get into bicycle touring?
M: First, get a bike that will carry your kit for one overnight. It doesn’t need to be expensive. Then find a campsite about 50km away from home and decide that you’re going there. Then do it. You will learn so much about your kit from one overnight.
OA: What kind of training/cross training do you recommend?
M: Long-distance multiday touring is ALL in the head. Every turn of the pedals is progress and schedules should be designed to allow full appreciation of the scenery along the chosen route. I would encourage the touring cyclist to get accustomed to having the bike loaded. That way they will get to appreciate that, sometimes, 3mph is good!
OA: What would you consider a good tour for a first timer who has a weekend/week/couple of weeks off work and wants to get out on the bike?
M: Stay local. Ireland has a huge amount to offer the cycle tourist. Wild Camping isn’t illegal so a person can stop almost anywhere. A farmer will always give permission to set up a tent – on will suggest a better spot. Irish weather is no worse than anywhere else – you just have to get used to it. Plan your route working on a manageable daily distance. This varies from person to person. Pick something spectacular that can be visited. For example, if you’re living in Kildare, think about a tour to the Rock of Cashel. That becomes the focus. Check the distance and look at what facilities exist along the way. Then see if there are interesting intermediate stops. Finally, choose a different route home
OA: What are your favourite memories and defining moments of each of the trips?
M: The favourite memory from the first trip is standing above Cedar Breaks in Utah looking out over an incredible view. The view wasn’t the most important thing. What was most important was that I’d managed to cycle to an elevation of over 10,000 ft and I was still going!!
I’d been struggling with the heat, the distance and the hills – just about everything – and I was with a group that was going to disappear over the horizon if I couldn’t manage this climb.
My favourite memory from Route 66 isn’t even on Route 66. I got to the pier in Santa Monica at the end of Route 66 and then started north along the coast to San Francisco. The second day of cycling on the Pacific Coast Highway in very pleasant conditions brought me to Ventura Pier where I had a great reunion with Henry and Danielle, with whom I’d cycled in 2014 for a week. Since I’d left Chicago, about forty days previously, I’d had really no company. I would cycle with Henry and Danielle for four days and then I would stay with Henry in San Francisco when I got there.
OA: What was the hardest part of each of the trips and how did you combat that or prepare for it differently for the next one?
M: Emotionally, the hardest part of each trip was probably the fact that I traveled alone. Any company was random and fleeting and required compromise. On the other hand, the physically most difficult part of the first trip was getting to accept that the daily mileages I’d expected just weren’t achievable. This caused me to fear that I would fall well behind schedule. I worried about this for a time before ignoring it and realising that speed wasn’t important – what was important was distance and that meant long hours on the bike rather than stopping to take in the sights!
OA: Are there any tours in particular you’d like to do that you haven’t yet?
M: I’m very drawn to the idea of cycling Eurovelo 6 – the bicycle route from the Bay of Biscay on the western French Coast to Constanta on the Danube Delta of the Black Sea. Unfortunately, I’m likely to have to do this over two years as I know that heading off for two or three months at a time just isn’t fair.
If we decide to go to Australia to visit Nuala’s sister, I’m thinking about heading out a month earlier and cycling from Brisbane down to Adelaide – it’s about 2,000 miles. I haven’t researched it yet, though.
OA: What’s next for yourself, Surly, and Sarky?
M: In the event that I don’t get to do either of the above in the near future, I’m thinking about going from Land’s End to John O’Groats or going from Derry to Kinsale along the North and East Coasts. The real beauty about unsupported Cycle Touring is that there’s little planning involved. Just pack up the kit you’ve assembled over time, throw a leg over the crossbar and pedal off. The more often you tour, the less you’ll worry about where you end up. It’s not expensive once the kit is gathered over time.
You can read about Mick’s San Francisco to Boston trip in his book, Travels with Surly, available from Amazon.
Disclaimer: Neither I, nor Mick, has received any form of compensation for the inclusion of any gear in this article. Aside, obviously, from the book. That’s all Mick.