Crossing Europe, Part 2: Dogs, bugs, and a rough ride

UPDATE: I’m pitched up in my tent by the side of the road on the high ‘plateau’ of the central region of Turkey. Over the last couple of days I have climbed from sea level to an altitude higher than the peak of Ben Nevis and my legs are aching more than they have for a good few weeks! Since leaving Istanbul, I have not had to buy one cup of tea (çay) or pay for one night’s accommodation, such is the generosity of the people I have met. Tonight’s camp spot is a small well-kept field beside the road – it was clearly owned by someone, with a picnic bench under a tree, but it was not clear who owned it or where they lived. As I cooked dinner before pitching my tent, a car pulled in and a man stepped out and approached. Thinking he would ask me to leave, I had my apologetic face on, but when he greeted me he assured me in broken English that it was “no problem”, that I should stay as long as I like, and asked if there was anything that he could do for me. I offered my sincere thanks and spent the evening shaking my head in astoundment of the hospitality of the country.

N.B. I started writing this blog 2 days ago so the above wasn’t written today…also, a warning, this post is long!

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I left Part 1 on something of a cliff-hanger but unintentionally, so I will have to start Part 2 with something of an anticlimax.

When I left Bratislava I cycled down through Slovakia and I stumbled upon a town street party with all the local delicacies I could eat from a dozen or so stalls. I decided to stay the night south of the river, across the border…

Hungary: Turned away from the first camp site, I was directed down the road where “my friend” just went. I assumed there was some miscommunication but maybe there was another cycle tourer who had done the same. I was right, and at the next campsite I met Paul and later Cedric who were both on their way to Budapest (coincidentally, we had all come from the same hostel in Bratislava and I had passed Paul on the road that day). We coordinated and headed to Budapest, still my favourite city that I have visited. The capital city stood in stark contrast to other parts of the country I cycled through for the quality of infrastructure – I spent my days in the countryside weaving over potholed roads and broken pavements, with the occasional oasis of smooth tarmac which my bike ate up at speed. I remarked to someone that this was the first country that I had seen stray dogs, to their surprise. The dogs were only a minor curiosity to me at this point, only taking a barking interest in me if I cycled through towns quicker than the local bikes (i.e. walking pace) – little did I know how much I would have to take notice of them in the future.

Croatia: Like Switzerland and Slovakia, I only spent a short amount of time here in the quiet city of Osijek. There was definitely a different ‘feel’ to the poeple and style of buildings but nothing I could put my finger on. I can say however, the border guards were the friendliest I’ve met!

Serbia: I’m sure for many in the UK, like me, thinking of Serbia will evoke a flicker of memories of news reports from the 90’s. I knew little about the country before I crossed the border and after cycling through it for a week and a half, I only wish I knew more now. The people were super-friendly, and very ‘to-the-point’ in a way that sometimes shocked my British sensibilities. Part of the pleasant small-talk with strangers involved the question “how much money do you make?”, something I had never heard spoken aloud before.
I was taken back ‘home’ when I reached a town and decided to stay at a local guesthouse rather than camp – I was greeted by the owner as if I were her own child returning after months away, with a hug at the door and then taken to sit down as she prepared food, before I had a chance to unpack. Walking around, I found myself scanning each room to see that *everything* was ‘English’ themed. A clock showed the time in the UK, there were pictures from London with red buses, telephone boxes and various landmarks, another picture of the Queen hung in the dining room, and the owner had a right-hand drive car (the wrong side for Serbia) imported. The only thing that was ‘off theme’…noone spoke a single word of English.
News had got around the dog community that I was on the way and some of them had moved out of the towns to occupy the country roads as well, barking and starting to give chase if my speed made for an interesting and achievable pursuit. Not yet used to the game, the rush of adrenaline would cause me to try and sprint away, forgetting the weight of the bike doesn’t lend itself particularly well to acceleration!
The scenery was either spectacular, or spectacularly dull, having days winding through incredible valleys, and others in featureless agriculture. One of the most impressive days unfortunately coinsided with what must have been ‘flying-ant day’ in Serbia. Coasting down through a smooth, winding valley road in bright sunshine and amazing autumnal coloured scenes, when suddenly I would crash through a moving black cloud on the road and emerge the other side with bugs in my mouth, hair, and covering my clothes. One of those days where the balance of positive and negative in the world, however small, is immediately apparent!

Romania: I spent half a day looping in to Romania to pick up what looked to be the best route – I feel like I will have to take another trip someday to balance my opinion of the country. Half of the very few hours I spent there were on the worst roads I have ever cycled on that held me at a power-walking pace.
The dogs! Romanian dogs must have had a taste of cyclists, and they like it. If you’re lucky, you hear them before you see them. When you see them, they’re sprinting the 100 yard dash from across the other side of a field, in packs up to 5 or 6. Luckily this was when I was on better roads and I never found out what happened if they got to the end of the field before I did – it certainly kept the heart-rate up though!

Bulgaria: My first day in Bulgaria was a rest day and I spent it exploring the nearby national park with some great people from the hostel. I thought it would be fine to go for a four-hour hike on my ‘rest’ day but not having used my legs much for walking the past couple of months, I woke up the next day aching! I left the capital heading east and, not able to cycle on the highway, I ended up on some lanes and dirt tracks. At one point a wide stream was flowing over the track and as I approached I made a quick judgement, that it was shallow enough to cycle through…I was wrong. Well, half wrong, I was able to cycle through, but I was quickly shin-deep in water and forced the pedals round quickly to emerge the other side, shoes and socks soaked through. Slow-going for the rest of the day with wet feet – this was the second time I considered catching a train to the next town, but I pitched my tent instead. The next day, with my shoes still wet, I decided to book a hostel in the next city so that I could dry them and take a shower after the dusty roads. I made better progress but towards the end of the day I was still 20 miles from the city and the hostel – I had heard that the Bulgarian train service was decent and so, I pulled in to the nearest station and hopped on the train with my bike. The one and only time I’ve travelled off the bike.

Greece: Was I even in Greece? All of a few hours – my enduring memory is of a ford through a fast flowing river. I hit the deck twice trying to cross it, again getting my shoes wet, and eventually crossed barefoot and very slowly.

Turkey: The gateway between Europe and Asia. Upon reaching Istanbul I had crossed the continent. For such a big country that I will spend so long in though, I feel like it needs a post of its own…coming soon.

And so, that was Europe in a nutshell. There are some countries and stories I haven’t done justice to but I need something to talk about when I see people when I’m back!

Happy Friday everyone!!

Rich

Crossing Europe, Part 1: Ups, downs, and flat roads

UPDATE: It’s official, I am now 1 CONTINENT down! Europe, done. Currently drinking tea (sugar, no milk) in Istanbul. Over the past week in Turkey, I have experienced more generosity than anywhere since the beginning of the journey, partly because I have grown more open to accepting it. With more than half of my time on the road now elapsed, but less than half of the distance, it has been clear for some time that I won’t make it to my final destination on this trip. As is written on countless café walls, notebook covers, and lunchboxes however, it is more about the journey than the destination! I continue East, happy that I have crossed Europe and curious of what I will see and experience over the next month or so. Plans for completing the journey in the future are already being formed so watch this space…

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A lot of my posts so far have talked around cycling without saying much about the day-to-day stuff: the different countries, the food, daily anecdotes etc. This has been entirely conscious but I realise that kind of thing is interesting too so, now that I’ve reached a bit of a milestone, here’s a bit of a recap (apologies in advance for the stereotypes…):

France – Ah France, our long-term neighbours whom we make pleasant conversation with over the fence but talk about behind each other’s backs when we are indoors.
I often forget how large France is. Only when I began to plan the route I realised I would be spending the first week or so crossing it, and only once I had crossed it did I realise it’s one of those countries that has it all, as far as landscapes go. Countryside not dissimilar to our own, just with fewer hedges, the sunny South, beautiful coastlines, and the Alps to cap it off! I stuck mainly to the countryside and kept the Alps at a comfortable distance on the horizon, but I certainly had the sun. The first week was still tough going and more than once in the evening I strapped my water bag over my legs as a makeshift ice pack to try and aid their recovery. Physical exhaustion often leads to mental fatigue and there was several moments I wondered if I had the strength to continue in both senses.
I was surprised by how few people spoke English and mildly guilty that I didn’t speak better French; a self-inflicted guilt as I didn’t feel I was being judged too harshly by the locals.
One thing I miss: biscuit and caramel Vienetta
What I don’t miss: a distinct lack of publicly funded toilet paper.

Switzerland – I criss-crossed the border for a couple of days, only staying long enough to cycle up one picturesque Swiss hill and eat as much Swiss chocolate as I could find. It would be unfair to judge a country by such a fleeting visit so I will reserve my opinion. Stay neutral, as it were.

Germany – a country with the efficiency that we think is a cliched stereotype but gets reinforced at seemingly every opportunity. The rivalry built up on our side of the channel certainly isn’t reciprocated by the Deutsche and they seem to view Brits, or at least the English, with a quaint fondness. There was certainly a different air of friendliness with everyone I spoke to.
I decided to take the short route in Germany, leaving the river and heading out in to the hills. I thought the newly gained strength in my legs could cope with anything but was quickly taken down a peg or two when on a tough day my legs ‘cracked’ after less than 50 miles (similar to hitting ‘the wall’ in running). I was due a rest day in Munich after one more day’s cycling but still had 70 miles and many more hills. It was the first time I seriously considered jumping on a train and skipping a day of cycling (but not the last). After a night’s sleep however, I hopped on my bike and had one of the best days on the bike in the whole trip! Coincidently, it was the first day I discovered the delight of a huge pasta salad for breakfast..
Stunning weather and decent roads meant the rest of my time in Germany was a breeze.

Austria – The hills may well have been alive with the sound of music but I didn’t hear any of it, sticking to the river and the flat, smooth paths and roads as I did. Austria is another country with some truly stunning scenery and it’s almost as pretty when you’re in the towns and cities. Cycling along the Danube in Austria is so leisurely I found myself pushing to cycle fast just to convince myself I was working hard..
Meeting up with my dad in Vienna, I realised, quite bizarrely, that the previous three weeks was probably the longest I had gone without seeing someone I know in my entire life! A record I have since beaten however. It was the most distinctive break from cycling I had taken to that point and I wondered how I would feel, stopping and seeing family. I went with my dad to the airport as he was about to fly out and it was the first time I considered the fact that, if I wanted to, I could just stop cycling. It was in that same moment however that I realised I didn’t want to stop, so that was a positive!

Slovakia – By Slovakia, I really mean Bratislava, and by Bratislava, I mean the small part of Bratislava that I stayed in. I vaguely followed the river in to the country though I didn’t often see the water, staying in the capital for one night before moving on. All I can say is, I got some good ‘vibes’ and ate some good food. I later found out I stayed in the same hostel as a couple of people I met up with the next day…

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That wasn’t meant to sound like a cliff-hanger but this is ‘Part 1’ so I’ll leave you there on the edge of your seats while I pen the next instalment!

Peace and love,
Rich x

The kindness of strangers..

UPDATE: I have reached the penultimate country in the Europe leg of my journey – Bulgaria. I’ve taken an unexpected day off in the city of Plovdiv having cycled some fairly rough ‘roads’ over the last couple of days, it sapped my energy more than I thought and I’m sure Stephanie (the bike) would be glad of a day off and some TLC! Yesterday while cutting between two roads across a once-used but now overgrown track, I saw my first bear print in some wet ground – having to push my bike over the pertruding rocks in the washed-out lane, it certainly made me more attentive to my surroundings and it was the first time my bell has been used as a bear precaution! Tomorrow I move on, two days to the border and then another few days to Istanbul!

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One of the joys of being on the road is the number of people that you come in to contact with every day – whether it’s shopkeepers, other travellers, or just people out and about in towns and on the roads, every conversation and encounter is different. Before I started the trip, this would have been one of the daunting prospects, partly for my own trepidations about unfamiliar social situations, and partly for fear of the unknown that I think most people share. With each day that passed however, it became more enjoyable and I was far more likely to follow up chance eye-contact with a friendly “hello” to break the initial social barrier.

In almost 2 months I have met nice people, good people, funny people, interesting people, and other than a small number of impatient drivers which I could count on my fingers, I can’t think of one negative experience. The memorable moments have been the times where people showed genuine kindness; unsolicited, unrewarded extentions of generosity, empathy and friendliness to someone they have never met.

One day, while cycling in Germany, I had spent a long day on the road trying to cover the miles to get to the next town. Cycling through small backroads to avoid the traffic on the main road, I was following signs to the town and thought I was making good time until I realised I had gone a few miles without seeing another sign. At the next signpost, the town wasn’t listed and I assumed I must have missed a turning; slightly annoyed at myself, tired, and worrying about the time, I was turning my bike around to retrace my steps when a middle-aged couple cycled up behind me. Asking something in German (presumably whether I was lost), I told them the name of the town that I was aiming for. After they interpreted my poor pronounciation, the husband spoke briefly to his wife, turned his bike around and waved to indicate I should follow. Slightly surprised, I was happy to comply and cycled to catch up – we managed a broken conversation as he guided me turn-by-turn for the next 5 or so miles. At one junction we stopped, he pointed down the road and gave me directions to the town – thankfully in German that I did recognise: “Geradeaus”. Straight Ahead. I expressed my gratitude as we shook hands and I cycled the last 10km high on positivity and my tired legs had renewed energy!

Most days on the bike the physical exertion isn’t too strenuous and I’ve realised that what determines how difficult a day in the saddle is, can often just be mental attitude. It sounds clichéd, and I’ve also learnt how much food and a decent night’s sleep can play a part, but when my spirits are high, cycling becomes a breeze even when the roads and conditions are against you.

It also strikes me that when spirits are low, this is often the time when the kindness of strangers is most prevalent. In Hungary, having left Budapest a couple of days before, a long day of cycling without finding a decent camping spot led me to a town that I had seen had a hostel that you could also camp beside. Before even pitching my tent, I took out the food I had bought earlier in the day to have for dinner – a tomato pasta salad so I thought. When I opened it however it was something quite different – a stodgy mess of processed meat and something to stick it together. I had picked up the wrong thing in the shop without noticing. Needing some sort of sustenance, I persevered but could only get a few mouthfuls in before setting it to rest beside me. Tired and still hungry, I began to put up my tent and just as I was finishing pegging the rain cover, I saw an older woman walking towards me. She began to speak in Hungarian, pointing across the grass. Obvious I wasn’t understanding she turned and began to walk, waving a hand, beckoning me to follow – a universal signal I was discovering. As I followed her, I saw she was walking towards a large table surrounded by a family 10 or 12 strong with gift bags covering the surface – I was joining a family party it seemed. The chair at the head of the table was free and she gestured for me to sit in it. Still in my cycling gear I sat down, smiling with a hand raised in greeting to the new faces looking at me as the woman that had brought me over spoke to them. She disappeared quickly and before long she brought out a large bowl of warm soup with chunks of bread – I couldn’t tell them how much this was exactly what I needed. As I ate, the glass of wine by my side was constantly topped and, after a round of cake for desert, we raised our glasses around the table before I took my leave for a much needed shower and some rest. This, I thought as I lay there in the evening, this was why I came cycling.

As I have moved further east, it has become more common for cars to give a friendly toot and a wave as they pass, for road workers to shout encouragement as I cycle slowly past up a hill. Just yesterday as I was standing my bike up outside a supermarket at lunchtime, a burly man with a bald head shouted to catch my attention and, again, waved a hand that I should follow and bring the bike. Walking in to a shell of a building being decorated he pointed up to a camera, that the bike would be safe there, and told me with individual words that downstairs was ‘fitness’, ‘toilet’ and ‘water’ – a gym as it turns out, he owned it and offered its services, for no reason other than he saw me outside.

I have just started reading a book with the same name as this post – stories from others that have travelled or just spent time with relative strangers. Tales to warm the heart and inspire a blog post. I hope that when finished my trip, I can pass on some of the kindness offered to me when I return home – goodwill to all, it will be Christmas by then after all!

Going solo

UPDATE: I’m in Serbia (country #8 after a short detour to Croatia)! 5 weeks of cycling and my facial hair is such that I could probably pass an old acquaintance on a busy street unnoticed. As well as languages changing, I’m now on my 4th or 5th currency, and my wallet is a colourful and confusing array of faces and denominations. Places are beginning to sound far away from home and I’m having to start making decisions about what I’ve been thinking about as the next ‘leg’ of the journey: Asia.

The saying goes that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. Well, I suppose this trip slightly goes against the grain of that proverb as I’m learning how to go far, alone. Whenever I spoke to people about the cycle, it was always one of three questions asked: where are you going, how long for, and who with? Telling people that I was going alone always seemed the most surprising aspect to them but in truth I had never really thought twice about it.

The whole time that I was thinking about the trip, the idea of going together with anyone had never occurred to me, though I can’t think why. I suppose if I ever tried to explain it to anyone, I couldn’t say exactly where I was going, why, or how long it would take. There is probably only a small sub-section of people that would agree to come along under those circumstances; I’m not sure I’ve met any of them and the rest are presumably under fairly close observation.

It was the same story when I cycled across the UK, though I was slightly more in my comfort zone, it never really occurred to me to go with anyone or in a group. I’m not sure what that says about my character and I might not want to dwell on it for too long but as I’ve been cycling along I’ve been considering the pros and cons of solo travel:
Pros:

  • Flexibility – I’m able to go wherever and do whatever I like without discussion or compromise. It’s also quicker to get ready, change plans etc.
  • Less stress – unless you are very compatible with someone, small differences or disagreements can lead to tensions. I also feel that other people are less comfortable with my level of preparedness (or lack thereof) than I am, so I think I would feel under pressure to plan further ahead than I usually would
  • Meeting people – I feel more open to meeting people when I’m on my own and, I think, more approachable, and less introverted

Cons:

  • Less conversation – despite being fairly comfortable in my own company, I can’t help but feel slightly envious of the cycling pairs chatting together as they ride side by side. Even more so of the pair I saw with walkie-talkie headsets!
  • Two heads are better than one – even though it is quicker and easier to make plans alone, with two people come two ideas, and often you pick the best one between you, so it can be better to have more input
  • Experiences – for all the people and places I visit and those yet to come, I often think of the book/film ‘Into the Wild’ and the idea that experiences are always enhanced when shared with someone else. You also never end up in your own pictures

This isn’t the list of the pros and cons of just having company however, for I think whether travelling together with someone or going solo, people seek out company. I’ve noticed that many people travelling alone will often gravitate towards each other, for a break from solitude. I have taken to staying in camp sites along the way and my route so far seems to be joining the dots between cities and the hostels in them. Not only is there the advantage of the *much* needed and coveted shower at the end of the day, but it is a chance to meet and talk to other travellers.

Now, I love hostels. Every time I stay in one I marvel at these melting-pots of society – a juncture of so many paths and stories and characters. It’s easy to meet people and you never fail to meet someone interesting or eccentric (but always fail to get a good night’s sleep). Whether it’s a ‘government official’ sitting in his underwear drinking wine from the bottle, or a young entrepreneur travelling around Europe on an electric unicycle, there’s always a story behind it! You only have to sit alone in a common area and, provided you don’t have your head buried in a book (or more likely your phone), you will soon be chatting with the person next to you or whomever wanders over. For such ephemeral meetings, names become unimportant and can often be the last thing you ask before parting ways, after swapping life stories.

More recently, I’ve been learning the difference between good hostels and bad for meeting people. Just before reaching Budapest, a series of coincidences led me to meet two other solo travellers at a campsite. They had met before and were also heading in to the city so we decided to coordinate and head to the same hostel. I realised that they were looking in more detail at each hostel than I generally had been (beyond the price and rating) to decide where to stay. Trusting their judgement, I booked the same place and we ended up in a great little hostel with such a chilled vibe and interesting people, that my first two-day rest quickly became three days!

After four weeks being constantly on the move, not stopping for more than one day, three days surrounded by people was quite a change. After that, I found it hard to get back on the bike and cycle away from a city I loved and people I would now call friends. It was a lonely half-day cycling to get over the ‘happiness hangover’ before being back in the swing of things, and by the end of the day I had found a beach on the Danube 60 miles south, pitching my tent just in time for a stunning sunset. It reminded me of the things I had been missing in the days before and reminded me of the positives of my self-imposed solitude. To be able to decide where I go and when, and find company when I stop has been great so far. Can’t wait to see who I meet next!

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Miscommunication

UPDATE: As I write this I am sat in my tent in Hungary…yesterday I traversed down the Slovakian border from Bratislava along the Danube river. Today I will come off the river and take the more direct route down to Budapest – a swift 60 miles with just a couple of big hills (I now consider this a relatively easy day!).

I have officially cycled the furthest I have ever cycled in one trip! Over 4 weeks I have travelled well over 1000 miles, across 6 countries and counting. Without wishing to tempt fate, the bike and the legs are holding up well and feeling ready for the next few weeks cycling down to Istanbul.

The last few days I have been crossing beautifully translucent borders so often I have barely been able to keep up with which country I am in, let alone which language I should be attempting to communicate with people in!

I was eased towards the communication barrier, starting as I did in France for a week and a half, then another week and a half in German-speaking nations. Contrary to what my aging GCSE results would have you believe, my French language skills, such as they are, are considerably better than my German. However, not having exercised those neural links for some time, my low confidence caused me to preface conversations in the first days with “Désolé, je ne parle pas francais, parlez-vous anglais?” [I don’t speak French, do you speak English?]. A sentence that I’ve always thought must sound odd when spoken in French and perhaps that’s why I was quickly encouraged by my conversation counterpart to admit I spoke “un peu francais”.

Most conversations involved a bizarre exchange of someone speaking the little English they knew to me, and me replying in my little French, plenty of smiling and nodding on both sides. After a week in France I had abandoned all introductory warnings to the condition of my French and just dived headfirst in to the sea of unfamiliar words and sentence structures. There was more and more understanding with less and less gesturing and it gave me a renewed ambition to improve my language skills.

The chat with other cyclists on the road was generally limited to a passing ‘bonjour’ but I was heartened to think of the number of times I must have been passing a fellow Brit and despite our shared language (albeit unknown), we exchanged pleasantries in the language of our temporary host nation. It did mean however that my only extended conversations during the week were the rare times I came across another English-speaking traveller in the evening or a phone call back to the UK.

Crossing in to Switzerland, the language change was dazingly sudden. My confidence of French on a high, I now found myself instantly having to interpret signs and conversations of German, a language I hadn’t ‘revised’ and perhaps naively thought would just come back to me. In truth, over the week it did come back but it was certainly slower than I had expected/hoped! One day early on I stopped for lunch in a small restaurant (a rare treat)…

ME: *looks blankly at menu in German*
WAITER: “Hallo, bist du bereit zu bestellen?”
ME: “Sorry, my German..uhh..mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut”
WAITER: “Do you know what you want to order?”
ME: “I might need some help, I want quite a big meal”
WAITER: “You want pig?”
ME: “Like pork?”
WAITER: “OK, I would say for this *points*, it is quite a traditional dish”
ME: *recognising the word ‘salat’* “Is it a salad?”
WAITER: “With salad? Yes, OK”
*Waiter takes menu and leaves*

A less successful conversation. Although it was delicious.

Since then I have learnt a couple of phrases in Slovak which were of limited use in the two days I was there, and now I am struggling with Hungarian but I’m taking a day off in Budapest tomorrow which should give me ample opportunity to take some ‘hello, please, and thankyous’ for a whirl!

More updates to follow. Peace and love.

Rich x

Learning to ride a bike

I said to someone, not long before I left: “Cycling is great because you can cycle all day and wake up the next morning without feeling it and do it all over again”. Well, I take it back. Around 170 miles down and I have felt most of them! Whether it’s that I wasn’t used to the weight on the bike, or the distance (or the 10 years since the last time I did something similar), the first couple of days on the bike were a struggle. The ‘training’ rides I did were with a lightly packed bike, seeing how many miles I could cover in a couple of hours – then multiply that out for the planned number of hours on the bike, and that was my daily mileage target. The first time I packed all the gear on to the bike was about 5 minutes before I had to pack it all in the car to go and catch the ferry. With my family there, we each took a turn to try to lift the bike which was now close to 40kg – I laughed to counter their concerned faces. The good thing about doing things last minute, as I have discovered throughout my life, is that there are no choices left to make; by that time, it is what it is and the only thing to do is make the best of it!

My first metaphorical steps on the fully laden bike then, were boarding the ferry. As I waited, I realised I might look ‘noteworthy’, enough at least to start a conversation between the family in the nearby car, and I wondered if I looked as clueless and inexperienced to them as I felt at that moment. Descending the ramp to the oily car deck, the back wheel took a side step at one point and almost went from under me; I caught it just in time as a road bike behind with thinner, slicker tyres hit the deck, sending the rider tumbling. He assured me that both he and the bike were fine, and we navigated our way to a small cupboard space where the bikes were to be tied up for the crossing. Having got through that part unscathed, all that was left was to settle down for an uncomfortable night’s sleep before starting out in France…

The night passed quickly enough, and I was soon encouraged off the ferry and on to the public roads. I was keen to play the part of the cycle tourer that I thought I might look like and set off in earnest, overtaking a cycling couple paused with maps out over handlebars. I might have hoped that the ferry to Caen would have dropped us a little closer to the city itself but as it was, I soon discovered I was about 10 miles from the start of my planned route – a small oversight of mine. I began to follow the signs to the city and quickly came upon a main road that ran all the way to the city with the ominous sign I’m certain meant ‘pas de vèlo’. No cycling. I darted up a lane that looked like it ran parallel to the main road and after a detour through a farmer’s field, a couple of dead ends and a lot of guess work, I ended up on a picturesque bike path that ran the length of the river to the city. The creeping thought that perhaps there was a much easier route than the one I took was confirmed when after 20 minutes I overtook the same couple along the path, again looking at the map.

My initial encouragement with the apparent ease of cycling with the weighty bike along the bike path was dispelled when I hit the first mild incline and I began searching for low gears that weren’t there. With this and the slow start, I began to worry that I wouldn’t get anywhere near the distance I had planned in my head for the first few days. Suddenly I began sprinting down hills and pushing up climbs, forgetting rule #1 of cycle touring, Pace Yourself! After only 30 miles, my legs were struggling, and I stopped in a small shop for supplies; bread, jam, and cheese, this would surely give me the strength to plough on at speed. I probably needn’t tell you, it didn’t. I managed another 20 miles slowly and saw on the route that there was a fair hill in the next 10 miles. “I’d rather not have that to do in the morning” I thought, and so I persevered. I hit the bottom of the slope at speed with a boy-like naivety, that I would conquer this hill, but after a mere 50 metres or so my legs waved the white flag and I had to climb down. For the first time in my life, I was pushing a bike up a hill. I learnt to swallow my pride by the third passing car and continued to push rather than pretend my chain had come off and start spinning my pedals. In honesty the pushing didn’t seem much easier than the cycling and at the first plateau I re-mounted and continued up the last bit of the slope. At the top, the joy was only slightly tainted as I dripped with glorious sweat. I thought to double check the map, as the climb seemed steeper than I imagined it should have been and it didn’t take long for me to realise, I’d climbed the wrong hill…

Never mind, just a few extra miles over the top of the hill to get back on track, I found a perfect ‘wild camping’ spot a short walk down a bridleway. Still quite light, I thought I would wait a short while to see if the area was used at all before pitching my tent; I sat down to rest my legs and had a bit more of the bread and jam…when I woke up, an hour had passed, and the light was fading. I’d fallen asleep out on the grass sat up against one of my pannier bags. I was exhausted. My knees felt strained and I had a sore backside. That evening I wondered whether this was the adventure I was seeking out, whether I was ready for it, whether I could do it…

Then I remembered rule #2 of cycle touring, Do Your Own Tour. I’d read about a dozen tours and I think I started out trying to achieve the same. I wasn’t ready for a 60-mile day on my fully-laden bike; I relaxed, took the pressure off and the next days have felt easier with still decent mileage. These were always supposed to be training days after all. Now the legs feel stronger and I’m used to the weight on the climbs. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be ready for another 60-mile day but let’s see what my body feels like and what the road has in store; let’s just enjoy cycle touring.

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Caen to Bhutan

Good morning!

24 hours until the pedals begin to turn in France! Nervous, excited, apprehensive, and every other emotion right now. First ever long-distance, international cycle tour and I have no idea what to expect, or how my body and mind will cope with it, but I’m keen to throw myself in and see what happens!

The route is now online – Caen to Bhutan (it rhymes) – there may be deviations and diversions along the way but that’s part and parcel to the journey. Anyone who knows me will look at the map and wonder how I’m even going to navigate off the ferry; I wish I could reassure you that everything has been planned diligently… I can tell you that I have a compass..

Now I just about have time to brush up on my French before le grand depart – to my family and friends, see and speak to you all soon, I’m going for a bike ride.

Au revoir!

Rich x

 

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