The best of times, the worst of times

I’m sure I have mentioned before that life on the bike, cycling most days, has it’s ups and downs. Well, last week I had the whole rollercoaster in the space of 24 hours – arguably the worst day on the bike, and I could make a decent argument for it being one of the best days. Let me explain…

After taking a few days rest in Istanbul, to avoid the crazy traffic cycling out the other side, I took a local’s advice and caught the ferry south to begin the next part of the journey on quieter roads. The advice paid off and I spent my time on peaceful roads through small towns. I was cycling towards the central part of Turkey, around the capital, a high plateau compared to the rest of the country. Over a few days I cycled from sea level over steadily rising, rolling hills to an altitude higher than the highest peak in the UK.

Each day my GPS told me I’d broken my previous record for the most elevation climbed in a single day, and soon my legs were starting to tell me the same, aching more than they had since my first weeks on the bike. Starting to think I was due a rest day, and my clothes were overdue a clean, I decided to divert to the capital, Ankara, and booked to stay at a hostel. Two days to cycle 100 miles or so, should be plenty of time I thought.

The next day, I woke up still feeling tired, my legs still aching. I was camped part-way up a hill (always a mistake) so I began the day climbing, and it was a painfully slow crawl. It was all I could do that day to creep up the hills, and let gravity do the work on the other side. I limped along to the next town, after covering around 40 miles I called it a day. I checked in to a hotel for only the second time on the trip and collapsed on a moderately comfortable bed.

As I lay there, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to cycle the rest of the way the following day – more than 60 miles with a lot of climbing. On top of that, I knew the weather was supposed to turn overnight; a temperature drop of more than 10 degrees leaving the mercury at low single figures, and a forecast of rain all day. I walked down to the desk and tried to ask if there was a bus from the town to Ankara. With the help of Google translate, I got my point across and the man on the desk said he would check for me.

I then set about aiding my body’s recovery. I walked out in to the streets and found the nearest restaurant. When I sat down, I saw that the menu had pictures – always a bonus! I saw a stew served with rice which looked like it would be perfectly filling. When the waiter came over I fumbled with the pronunciation but he interpreted my pointing. He seemed hesitant and I eventually understood that he was explaining to me that was a meal for two people. “Perfect!” I exclaimed. He gave me a look that told me he was sure I still hadn’t understood him but took my order nonetheless. When it came, it was served in the large pot it had been cooked in with a wooden spoon to take one ‘portion’ at a time. It also came with a large salad and, like every other meal in Turkey, a whole loaf of bread, and when I had finished I ambled back to the hotel at a slow pace, completely sated.

As I walked in, the man on the desk handed me a piece of paper with all the information about the bus – the departure time, which number, and where to catch it from. I took the information and thanked him, although as I held the piece of paper I wasn’t sure I was going to need it. I went back up to my room and planned the route on the bike – if I add some miles on here, I can remove some of the climbing there… Eventually I had a route I was happy with and I fell asleep.

I woke with renewed vigour. My legs still ached but they felt strong, I felt positive and keen to get on the bike. Some days it takes more motivation to get on the bike than others and I can’t always say where it comes from but it needs to be a choice. The day before, I felt like I didn’t have any options; I had to be in Ankara the next day and had to cycle without knowing if I could do it. Now, with a potential bus trip, I had options.

I duly packed the information about the bus in my handlebar bag and attached it to the bike, like the person that has given up smoking but keeps a pack of cigarettes in their pocket to reduce the craving. Wheeling out of the hotel, a local sat on a step waved me over for a broken conversation.
I was cycling to Ankara, I said.
It’s cold, he said.
I know, I said.
And with that I hopped on my bike and cycled off. As if to complete the metaphor, and not just for the purposes of an anecdote, I cycled past the bus station on my way out of town. About 30 minutes until the bus left.

It was cold. I had three layers on, my Buff bandana around my neck, and trousers rather than shorts but the cold air was biting. My fingerless gloves were the first weak point to be exploited and I tucked my hands in to fists on the handlebars to protect my fingers from the wind.

I was pleasantly surprised on the first hill however, to find my legs felt good and they carried me up at a steady pace. On the downhill I was flying! What a machine my bike was, I thought, to feel this good to ride after more than 4000km. Surely the cars and trucks were noticing how fast this little bike sharing their road was going, I wondered. Wanting to make hay while the sun shined (strictly metaphorically, as a light rain had started to fall), I cycled for nearly two hours before I stopped in a town. 25 miles down, nearly halfway.

Wet through and cold, I had enough food with me but the warm lights of a nearby café drew me in, and I wandered in to take shelter from the rain, heavier now. I sat under the heater and hung my jacket and gloves over the nearby chairs as I drank tea and ate warm soup. A temporary nirvana.

Eventually I had to bite the bullet and go back out to battle the elements again. My attempts to dry my clothes had been in vain and I hesitantly pulled on my damp gloves. Walking out the door, the rain was now heavy and the temperature felt like it had dropped a degree or two with my muscles having cooled slightly. My first turns of the pedals were slow but purposeful, as I was about to hit the main hill, the crux of the route. I was peering through the small gap between my hood and my bandana, cycling against what was becoming a small river at the side of the road. My trousers, shoes, and socks were soaked through, and the cold air sapped my body heat. As the hill ramped up, I wasn’t sure if it was sweat or rain covering my face, yet I could barely feel my toes anymore. I saw the peak of the hill and I pushed on, knowing there was a downhill and flat riding the other side.

As I crested the hill I slowed, exhausted, to take a quick, celebratory swig of chilled water before slipping the bottle away and gripping the handlebars for the descent. I could barely push the levers to work the gears up, my fingers now with as little feeling as my toes but the joy of the effortless speed meant I didn’t care much. I was checking off the miles in my head and as the road flattened out, I realised I could already see the start of the city! 20 miles to go. I push the pedals over to keep the momentum up. 15 miles. I confidently move through the traffic, high on positivity. 10 miles. Feeling my legs start to tire, but I can rest when I get there. 5. Close now, navigating turn by turn, I’m on the right road, I roll to a stop. I’m there.

I don’t go in to the hostel right away, but drink my bottle dry. I lean forward on the handlebars and wonder at how I was able to cycle so far, so fast, after struggling so much before. I smile. If I write a blog about this, I thought, at some point I will have to say, what a difference a day makes.

Found this guy at the side of the road on a cold, wet day

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!


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!!