Julting over slick cobblestones away from the Gothic architecture of Vienna, I headed east under damp grey skies towards the Hungarian border. The flat road marked the beginning of the vast Hungarian plain which I would ultimately follow as far as the Zarand mountains in Romania where I had spent the majority of post university life. Along the way I would be hosted exquisitely by the family of Miklos, the Hungarian mechanic that I had worked with back in that bike shop in west London. A great mechanic, but more importantly a fantastic friend.
I traced a path further east along the Danube, swinging north to take in the magnificent Danube bend. That evening I camped river side, woken up the following morning as the rising sun warmed the tent from the far bank.
She had flown from London and we spent the weekend together in Budapest; followed by the most harrowing goodbye I have ever had to say as we parted again at the airport. The ride on the bus back to downtown was sweltering, tears rolled down my cheeks the entire journey as bemused strangers looked on. As I drifted back to the apartment I could think of only one way to overcome this melancholia. The following day, I said to myself, I would attempt to ride the 300km section to my home from home in Romania in a single day. The knowledge that I would be back amongst old friends that evening if I could pull it off was the only thing that would keep me going.
Morning came and I put on the zaniest pair of socks I could find, braced myself for a fresh round of tears as I hit the trunk road out of Budapest and set off into the already warm streets.
I have ridden a similar distance on several occasions in the past, but under the circumstances this would be a somewhat audacious attempt. Fully loaded on a bike weighing in at over 50kgs, some of the heaviest tyres known to man, the need to make the route up on the fly as well as knowing I would be sure to ride many hours in darkness if I was going to make it. But in my favour were this incredible pair of socks, and the stubborn single mindedness to keep going and hold to my plan.
Zipping along on smooth tarmac and appreciating the faintest nudge of a tail wind the day started well, and the roads became steadily quieter away from the capital. There is no real trick to riding so far, save for minimising the time you spend going nowhere, and maintaining a constant steady effort. Plus if you can detatch yourself from the notion of distance, at least until you are comfortably 2/3 of the way through, then you can save yourself from the mental anguish of thoughts like “…ahh, only 250kms to go.” Never a comforting thought.
Things were going well until the middle of the afternoon when I opted to go straight on at a crossroads. It was a smaller lane which would cut off two sides of a triangle and shave 30km from the full distance. An irresistible manoeuvre. Perhaps after half an hour of following this road the surface started to deteriorate but I pushed on and a short while later it had become little more than a farm track. Pot holed and rutted, necessitating a zig zagging pattern of riding to negotiate the largest craters. Progressing at such a fantastically modest pace I knew how damaging this could be to making the huge distance by the end of the day. In frustration I sat down to eat a little and consider the options.
Fighting off my desire to plough on regardless, I opted to turn back. I dislike back tracking with a passion, however on this occasion I am glad that head managed to over rule heart. Rejoining the main carriageway I began to make steady progress once more, late afternoon easing aside to give dusk its hour.
I pushed endlessly on as the light faded, pausing only to drape a hiviz jacket across the rear panniers and switch on my lights. I had never intended to put myself in the position of doing any significant amount of night riding, but as I was fixed on the goal of reaching the village of Siria that night I was willing to make the exception. I fired off a few texts messages, wheels still rolling, to see if the crossing I wanted would be open and where I could most easily lay my head – knowing it would not be the most social hour when I arrived.
Once darkness had fallen it became so much harder to gauge distances, and the time it took to haul the border closer dragged on imperceptibly slowly. As tiredness crept in my mind hand given in to the temptation of endlessly recalculating the remaining time and distance. Head, hands and backside numbing. Still the cranks turned beneath me. Willing myself not to stop.
I think it was just before midnight when I found myself in a slight stupor beneath the ghastly flood lights of the border control point. Pupils hastily contracting to deal with the intensity. I slipped through the Hungarian side, and proceeded to stun the dude on the Romanian side – an English guy, on a bicycle, speaking Romanian. It had been a while since I had spoken to anyone in Romanian but it was great to be fully understood. The immediate downside of this was that I understood in no uncertain terms that I was probably still three hours ride from my goal, and that on crossing the border the time would immediately jump forward by an hour.
Nevertheless I lingered a while on the far side, angling my headtorch to illuminate the ROMANIA sign for a photo, all the while relishing the fact that this was now the second time I had ridden as far as Romania and comparing the very different circumstances. Finally I turned and headed into the darkness towards Arad, city of dreams, suddenly aware of the barking dogs and the scampering of their feet not far off the road. My heart pounded in my chest. Yes, this was most certainly Romania.