Up to Scandinavia: stage 2

Bourges, France -> Brussels, Belgium
610 km dep: 07:55 arr: 19:50
Date: 21/07/2012
Weather: cloudy with localized rain

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Woke-up rested from a good but short night of sleep, packed everything in record time, had a coffee and then left my camping spot. The road almost all the way up to Belgium had a lot in common with what we usually find in Canada: straight and bordered with fields and forests; and I tought I would be passing through a lot of population … Quite boring but on the other hand faster; I rode more than 600 kilometers that day but it did not felt like it.

Near Reims, I encountered a few spots of heavy rain. I had rode through light rain before, but never in that scenario and believe me, it is as shitty as it is dangerous. My helmet was fogging up all the time and even if I had rain gear, I could feel the wind forcing water through every zipper and exposed area in my equipment. On to top of that I had to double up on attention because a wet road, as we all know, is more slippery and balanced on two wheels, aquaplaning is a serious threat.

In Picardie (Montcornet), I ran out of gas because I overestimated my tank’s reserve. The yellow light had been on for a while – I tought there was a good 100 k left in the tank – but while going downhill to the village, the engine stopped. Luckily, that was the village with a gas station in. Unlike North-America, France does not have gas station everywhere and in some cases, they can be as most as 50 kilometers apart (which was the case here).

Not looking forward to pushing my motorcycle to the gas bar, I managed to restart the engine at the bottom of the slope. It turns out there was a bit of gas left, but because of the incline, it could not get to the injectors. Lesson learned!

Since there are no border controls in Europe, it is always a surprise when you cross from one country to the other. I hit Belgium all of a sudden and was pleased to discover they had no tolls on highways, which because of an already long day of riding, I decided to take.

In Brussels, I quickly found myself stuck in heavy traffic and having absolutely no idea of how the city was layed out nor where my hostel was, I decided to leave my motorcycle in a covered parking, packed my bag and continued on foot. I knew the hostel was at the Grand place (its not named Grand place hostel for no reason) but after walking around like an headless chicken for an hour, I set my pride aside and asked a few locals. One even let me surf on her iphone (that earned her a beer later), but it was the pub-crawl guide that finally pointed me to the right spot and even gave a map of the city (called USE-IT, very good and resourceful map/tourist-guide).

Tomorrow, I will be giving my ass a break and putting my legs to work visiting Brussels.

Up to Scandinavia: stage 1

Toulouse, France -> Bourges, France
525 km dep:10:26 arr: 21:34
Date: 20/07/2012
Weather: overcast with localized rain

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Caught a cold two days before leaving. Since I got very little sleep yesterday night, I ended up leaving an hour an half late to get a bit more time in bed. Everything was packed the night before so all that was left to was to attach the luggage to the motorcycle. After clearing Toulouse, the pace was good but a few kilometers before Cahors, the road was blocked because of the “Tour de France”. I managed to find way to downtown though backcountry roads, parkes the motorcycle and ate some sandwiches while watching the cyclists and a huge procession of press and support vehicles sprint by me. Leaving Cahors took a lot of time because it appears that I was following the exact same route as the Tour de France; I got stuck in kilometers long traffic jams on a few occasions along with what appeared to be all the camping cars in which the cyclists and supporting staff spend the night in plus a lot of spectators going back home.

Once I cleared Brives-la-Gaillarde, it was somewhat late so I decided to take the highway all the way up to Chateauroux. Most highways in France have tool but luckily for me, this one did not. However, the terrain was very hilly which meant that my speed would sometimes go down to 80kmh while going uphill. Even if that kind of practice is normally risky, I found out that drafting behind trucks makes the ride a lot more comfortable overall by helping me stabilize my speed, cuts a huge amount of head wind and leaves me less vulnerable to speeding cars. The air was surprisingly cold, so much that I had to pull over a few times to put some more clothes on. There appears to be something about the weather in this part of France, I had passed though this area (the Limousin) a few times before and on every occasion, the weather was bad.

I set up camp outside of bourges in a rest area along N151. With a few minutes of sun left, I deployed my tent and then went on with the evening routine and a meal of pasta and tomato sauce.

525 km is the most distance I have done in a day so far. Last record was Toulouse to Aix-en-Provence which was about 450 km. I have as much distance to cover tomorrow as today but while I should not encounter unforseen sporting events, I will be passing through densely populated areas.

Up to Scandinavia: Intro

A few months ago, even before owning my motorcycle, I started comtemplating going to scandinavia. It is probably because I listen to too much death-metal but there is something about this region of Europe that is very appealing to me.

So I decided to ride my motorcycle (alone) with all the equipment I need to camp along the way to discover those lands. Since it is also pretty far from Toulouse, France, the city I currently live in, I thought it would be an opportunity to challenge myself and hopefully gather experience and good memories that could come in handy and motivate me into undertaking something even harder. It should total around 5000 kms so I guess it falls into the category of serious road-tripping, especially since it will be done entirely on a motorcycle.

The bike on which I will ride that journey is an Honda Varadero XL125V, as its name implies, a 125cc. For comparison, common motorcyle average around 600cc and 125cc is right on par with the larger scooters. To put it simply, 125cc is not a lot of power; the Varadero’s top speed is just below 120 km/h but with the wind in your favor, you can go a bit faster. The main characteristic of this bike and actually what motivated me to purchase is its impressive size and comfort, truly a small bike in a big package. In fact, it is larger or at least as big as most other bikes. So much that more often that not I get the biker’s salute, an “honor” that scooters or other commuter bikes seldom receive. It can site two comfortably for very long journeys (The most I have done with my girlfriend behind is about 325 kms) and provided you have supporting racks, can also carry a fair amount of equipment.

As long as you are in no hurry, this bike will get you wherever you want to go. It can certainly do highways but being a 125cc, you will have to share the right lane with trucks. Which is why I try as much as possible to avoid them: it can get a bit scary and it totally takes away the enjoyment of driving, which is what motorcycles are for in the first place.

I will not say I am contempt with this bike, not at all, I has only made me want a larger one but since I can only drive 125cc for now, this is the best of the best. And very economical too for its size, I can go for more than 400 kms on a single (14L without the 3L reserve) tank and since gas so so expensive in Europe, this is a big plus.

Enough with the motorcycle, there really is no special point to this trip but to enjoy the road and see northern Europe. I will be going to pretty much every country I cross’ capital and spend a day or so visinting them. On the way, I will keep a log of every day or motocycling as a souvenir but also so friends and family can follow me along. However, I will concentrate on the travelling rather that the visiting; there are plenty of guides for the cities I will be going through and frankly this is not the point of a roadtrip.

Coffee tables with reclaimed wood and wine bottles

The finished product
Ten green coffee table
The original design

My friend’s apartment in Toulouse, France, was really lacking furniture so I challenged myself to find a design I could build with whatever materials I could reclaim from the garbage, a budget of 10€  and nothing for tools but a saw, some sanding paper, a drill (or the kind of stuff not-so-manual people keep in their toolboxes).

While browsing instructables, I came upon what I felt was the most promising design, the Ten Green coffee table by  Zero-Waste. It is built with easy to come by materials (wine bottles and wood), but what I found problematic was the hardware used for the tensioning system, which for the three levels of tables would have costed me at least 50€. While it certainly looks great, it was totally over my budget so upon realization of that fact at the hardware store, I got my brain to work and stated walking up and down the alleys for inspiration and quickly came to figure out a more economical solution with nothing but screw eyes and strings.

The wood: a pallet

The pallet

Finding wine bottles is trivial (especially in France), but cheap wood is another story. There were plenty of discarded pallets in the streets, but it took me a while to find a suitable one. It had to be large enough, clean (ie: mostly free of dirt, cement and/or paint) and built with decent quality wood which for pallets is very uncommon. I forgot to take a picture of the whole pallet so this one does not quite do it justice. It was a pain to carry across the city, back-breaking work cutting it and immensely tedious to sand the pieces manually but I managed to build my two tables out of it.

The two surfaces of the first table

Apart from the physical hardships of working without power tools processing the pallet into decent looking surfaces was a piece of cake. I cut up the pallet in even size planks (which numbered 30) and then sanded them down to remove some coarseness (they use very low grade timber). I then assembled them into levels and drilled the four corners of the bottom levels with a hole large enough for the neck of a bottle to fit in.

The wine bottles: Cabernet-Sauvigon, Shiraz, etc.

The part most will enjoyed the most. Be careful though, wine bottles vary in shape between brands so you should buy bottles in four. If you want bottles very quickly ask a nearby restaurant if he can put them away for you and come pick them up after a service.


Half of the tensioning system in place
A detailed view of how the rope is kept under tension

With two levels done, I screwed eyes at the eight inside corners of the table, inserted the wine bottles and layed the table upside down to build the tensioning system.  Starting from a bottom eye, I routed the string in the upper eye and then to the opposite corner and down again; Tied both ends and repeated for the other side. To prevent the ends of the strings from fraying, I dipped them in melted candle wax. Then, all there there was left to do was to put a long enough (to give torque) wood screw with an unthreaded shank between the two strings where they met in the middle of the table and turn to tighten the rope. Once I felt there was enough tension I simply drove the screw in the surface above to lock the whole system in place. Make sure the string is able to withstand a fair amount of tension because you need some if the bottles are to be kept tightly sandwiched between the two levels.

Assembling a two (or more) level table was a matter of simply repeating the process. The two level table ended up being more stable because the wood was just thick enough for the neck of the upper level bottles to lock itself inside the dip of the bottle below. The necks will make nice feet but If you want more adherence on the floor or want to protect it, you can put back corks into you bottles. Also, you are by no means limited to wine bottles, it could be beer bottles (on a good night with a few friends, you can get enough for a full shelving unit), or hard liquor bottles (but they take more time to accumulate in quantity).

Maglite Joule thief

Joule thief circuit

The Joule thief is a really fascinating circuit, simple yet very intricate. Basically, it’s a step-up converted in its most elementary expression. I will spare you the theory since there is plenty of information on it on the web; rustybolt.info is a good place to start.

Joule thieves in all sorts of forms have been featured countless time on DIY websites and I felt it was time I build one. However, I did not want to leave the circuit at the breadboard stage because as it stands, the joule thief has characteristics that make it very attractive for all sorts of low power applications and I figured a flash light would be a very good home for a joule thief, where having the option of using dead batteries is certainly a big plus not to mention using less cells because the circuit steps the voltage up. Why dead batteries? Because a battery is never really dead, its voltage just falls down logarithmically until it hits a point where the device it was powering up stops functioning, which does not mean the battery is totally drained but rather that its voltage has fallen below a usable level. Since joule thieves are step-up converters, they can take that “dead” battery, and give it a new life by stepping up its output voltage to usable levels again.

The build

A 2 AA batteries Maglite

For my flashlight, I opted for a maglite body for its sturdiness and simplicity. I have been using those for years and they have served me well, but with traditional incandescent lamp bulbs (I do know they make LED versions now), they eat through batteries like crazy. So the challenge was to convert a 2 AA battery maglite so it could run off a joule thief circuit and a single AA but could easily get converted back to using a lamps(As I will tell later, the joule thief’s light output is not so strong … sufficient in most cases but not strong).

As I would be using one less battery, the trick was to use that space to hold the circuitry. I proceeded to cut a perfboard the size of an AA and soldered all the components on it with the heads from two nails as connectors. Inductors being already pretty hard to come around, one tailored to this application would be next to impossible to find so I had to hand wind one using 20 or so turns of 40 awg enameled wire (almost hair thin (also hard to find, look for it on ebay)) around a ferrite core to build the joule thief’s coil. Once everything was in place, I soldered the circuit ground wire, which when making contact with the flashlight’s body, would turn it on or off. That wire had to be routed inside the plastic insert that normally holds the lamp and its metal pad in place so that when you turn the head of the maglite, it screws up and presses the pad against the body, thus closing the circuit. In order to allow the maglite to be converted back to using a lamp, I just cut a notch under that pad so that pressure on it would contact the wire and ground it.

For protection and isolation, the circuit was wrapped it with acrylic tubing (some leftovers from the time my computer was watercooled) and inserted in the body. Finally, I installed the LED at the top, with its two pins bent to fit in the holes normally meant for the incandescent bulb. The lens fits perfectly on it; the only way to tell it’s a modified maglite is to look at the bulb.

The circuit being constructed.
The circuit being constructed.
Testing the circuit.
Testing the circuit.
Oscilloscope trace of a correctly working joule thief.
A correctly working joule thief.
The finished circuit in its protectective acrylic tubing.
The finished circuit in its protectective acrylic tubing.
The finished product.
It works!


I will right away admit that I am a bit dissapointed with the light output of the circuit. Though I did expect it to be a whole lot less than the incandescent bulb, it is barely usable. The culprit is certainly the LED. At only 3mm, it can only do so much with that waveform going through it ; it’s rated for 20mA and its getting 12 so the circuit is doing a correct job keeping in mind that joule thieves are quite inefficient ( in the order of 30-40% judging by the duty cycle). Using a larger inductance is out of question because it reduces the frequency without modifying the waveform but using a larger wire gauge (thus lowering the resistance of the coil, see below) would probably help. What also does appear to make a difference is the type of transistor used, I noticed that the current draw of the LED was only 9mA with a 2N3904 while it jumped to 12 with a PN2222A. Both are general purpose NPN so maybe another type of transitor would do better. As a side note, the circuit will not work with FETs, I have found plans to build a joule thief with those but its much more complicated.

With a single battery at 1.435V, I got two days of continuous lighting, not bad. At that voltage, the current draw is about 65mA. I was not able to measure the pull of the standard incadescent bulb for comparison because the inline resistance of my multimeter was too consequent, but one interesting thing I noticed was that below a certain voltage, the light would start to flicker at hertz or so. Its hard to see in the picture, but I added an electrolytic capacitor for bypass; it could have something to do with that.

Even though I said that the light output was nothing to brag about, I did take the flashlights to many trips in the woods,  with some lasting a few days and it has held up perfectly. With your eyesight accustomed to the dark a bit, you can see at a few meters  and whatever task your hands are doing is lit well enough for comfort. With all this serious usage, I have not yet ran out that dead battery. Too bad, I wish I could have gone out asking my hiking buddies for dead batteries.

With LED flashlights being quite effective, I can’t vouch for the potential of this circuit for such applications. Certainly, using dead batteries is a plus as they are relatively easy to come by, but the low light output would certainly be a killer for most of us because when it comes to photons during a moonless night in the woods, more is just better.

Still a very fun build…

On rustybolt.info’s post about my joule thief

According to rustybolt (thanks), my coil is mainly to blame for my poor performing Joule thief. The wire used is too thin and has a consequence opposes too great of a resistance ( I should have tought about that) to the current, thereby limiting the LED’s brightness. There is a very clear article on Joule Thief coil selection on his site.   He also points to the transistor being responsible for the loss of efficiency. Next time I get my hand on that maglite (I’m travelling right now so it’s an ocean apart from me), I’ll revisit the circuit.