Europe phase one: Pt 2.

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In theory it only takes one short pedal revolution to set off on a ride of this magnitude. Just the same as a four hour training ride or a five minute spin to the shops. But I think somewhere in the build up to that moment, nervous potential energy abounding, that simple action becomes far tougher. So you need to somehow break the behemoth down into steps.

Now, whilst I was volunteering in Romania I was taught to weld by a great Dutch man named Hans. I knew he was living somewhere back in Holland and in the days before I set off I managed to make contact with him. He and his family would be waiting for me in a small village outside of Zwolle, my first beacon to head towards on this long solitary road. It was a beautiful moment when I first glimpsed his well used yellow VW van cruising down the road towards me; kitted out exactly the same inside as when we had sheltered from the harsh Romanian winter over coffee. A brief moment of calm after the first four days, and all the madness in the build up.

I stayed two nights with Hans and his beautiful, tight knot family. Reminiscing about the time we worked together, and talking about what might lie on the road ahead. The Jaspers all love to be on the road so I couldn’t resist the big sell of a road trip down to France and then up across the UK next summer before I hit the road again, bound for northern Germany.

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After spending a night camped out of site on the edge of a village football field it was just a short ride to a non descript border town and over to Germany. I had read about the R1 euro velo route which runs from Amsterdam as far as St Petersburg. It runs east west across Germany and then swings northward to Berlin. Perfection; I thought, as that was my next major target. In hindsight I can see that such an ambitiously long cycle route might succomb to the odd missing signpost or want for clarity. At the outset though I was convinced it would be plain sailing.

I should add- at the very first tourist information office I visited, in the first town I entered in Germany I was offered the chance to buy the custom map for the bike route. For reasons which now escape me, I declined. I mean, how hard could it be ?

Initially the signage for the route was plentiful and I was happily diverted left and right to enjoy the best possible view of every stream, meadow and castle. It was so enjoyable that even when muddy track – doubtless dry as a bone come summer- became better suited for a mountain bike race than a fully loaded touring bike it was no problem. But all of a sudden the route began to intersect with other bike routes, seemingly going to the same town by different means. In the name of efficiency I opted to try and follow the shortest option, and rejoin the main R1 route in the given town. Brilliant plan.

Naturally such a simple and ingenious plan was bound to come unstuck. Not long after I found myself committed to following what was becoming an increasingly “agricultural” track. Sticky mud, slowly forward, squelching, slipping, sliding. Not one for making U-turns I ventured on and sure enough found myself in the middle of a freshly ploughed field; finally admitting that I may have taken a wrong turn. I got out map and compass, and after some more walking, dragging the bike behind, and a short traverse through the back garden of a farmer I rejoined a road. Sadly I couldn’t say “the road” implying that I knew which road it was, or indeed where I was. It was one of those days.

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And yet,despite this clear failure I was not discouraged from developing a further navigational “techniques”. To catch up the time lost I would use road signs in conjunction with the cycle route signage to finally make some headway. Sadly after two hours of trying this I had only succeeded in developing a very nice but ultimately circular route around the towns just west of Munster. My spirits were not terribly high now, and then it began to rain. Again.

I remember making one final effort to rejoin the elusive R1 route, but found myself trapped in the same village I had been in hours ago. Unbelievable. As the light drained from the sky and my patience even faster I decided it was time to find somewhere to camp. I scoped out the hill above the village, and walked through a small wooded area but nothing was screaming ” campsite ” at me. So I headed back to the village with vague hopes of finding a garden to camp in.

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Armed with a translated note roughly explaining my endeavors and my hopeless command of the German language there was nothing else for it. The first two attempts came to nothing but then I found a man outside his house splitting logs for the fire. He briefly pondered the note, and then, with barely a moments hesitation began to explain in very good English the different options I would have in his garden. Amazing. And when the offer developed into using his warm kitchen to cook out of the rain and a cup of coffee, what a had been a frustrating day was redeemed for a most memorable one.

Europe: Phase one.

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It was in no way an act of running away. Other than the job things were good, I was in love, good friends, family, security. It felt more like wrenching away from those things, to pursue a long held idea or dream for which the stage had finally been set. A window of opportunity that had been crafted, laboured over and fought for but that could not remain open for ever. A jump into the unknown, away from all those safe and good things. I cried as I rolled away from the house where I had grown up, and again for an hour after saying goodbye to her outside that shiny Holborn office block. I felt that I had to go, to at least enter the arena, to ask those questions; but will all this in the back of my mind and the cynical words of a cocky Essex tree surgeon ringing in my ears on the second day it was little wonder that I was already asking myself what on earth I was doing as I got within 20 miles of the ferry at Harwich. Damn the bike felt heavy in those days.

Of course one is bound to make some planning over sights on such a trip, but I surprised even myself at not taking a map of Holland. It was only the first foreign country I arrived in after all. It was about 5° when I rolled off the ferry, some 10° less than it had been the day before when I left England. And so the theme for the first two weeks of riding was set, cold and damp. Two pairs of gloves, winter tights, too cold to stand around and freezing for camping. Down jacket on inside down sleeping bag was the vibe. It didn’t take too long finding a map on that first morning and shortly thereafter I discovered the joys of the Dutch cycle path system. Which I would now say is unsurpassed in all Europe.

I remember it being grey, bleak and windy and not being able to find a garden to camp in for mile after mile. Eventually, after a phone call from London and more road side tears, well after darkness had fallen I found a patch of land that finally didn’t seem to be owned by someone and snuck off the road. More layers went on and then I stood in silence, straining to hear if someone might be coming. Still nothing, so I cooked a simple meal of pasta as quietly as I could,locked the bike to a nearby tree and jumped into the tent; all the while holding my breath and expecting someone to appear. Clearly this was going to take some getting used to.

TBC.

Three weeks down the road.

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I recently learnt a new phrase “pell mell” whilst reading a Dervla Murphy book; it means “confused, rushed or disorderly in manner”. Even I would agree that none of these words sounds like the best descriptor for the preparation of a bicycle tour that will span months, seasons and continents. However, it seems the perfect way to surmise my final few weeks in the UK before I hit the road on an overcast Wednesday in March.

The mix I had to contend with were the thrill of leaving my first full time job, the bitter sweet goodbyes, the ever evolving to do lists and trying to reach at least a vague understanding of distance, direction and the bureaucracy surrounding different visa applications. It made for some stressed and distracted days, and I even had to delay my planned departure by 24 hmrs; which was a grim decision to make at the sickening anticipation of leaving grew within.

I can scarcely believe that it is now almost four weeks on. I feel as though I have already come so far and learnt so much but am equally aware that challenges bigger than I can imagine still lie ahead of me – if I am to make it all the way from London to India.

The pace relents a bit this week whilst I enjoy Hungary so I should have some time for the first chapter of the journey to settle a bit from the relentless torrent it has often resembled. And hopefully bring you a flavour of how it has looked.

Peace.

Craving the unexpected.

It has poured down with rain at the exact time we leave work with alarming frequency in the last few weeks, adding yet another layer of routine to my days. But last Saturday, although the rain may have seemed routine the ensuing double puncture that I suffered on the way home was far from it. “Ah but you’re an experienced cyclist!” I hear you cry, “…surely punctures are as routine as they come?”

I suppose it would have been had my second spare inner tube not already been faulty, leaving me around 8 miles from home with a handful of useless rubber tubing and a tyre as flat as the proverbial pancake. For a moment I was frustrated, but then the beauty of the opportunity dawned on me… once again presented with the chance to burst off the pages of my own story and go tramping off onto someone else’s narrative. Even if it was only for a few short lines. This is the kind of detour that becomes common place for the whimsical traveller or hitchhiker, but somewhat of a rarity for me in recent months.

So off I went in search of a solution, first up was the man stood outside his corner shop. No joy. Then a short walk to the nearest Co-Op, with the hope that someone there would cycle to work. What followed was the most non-human human interaction, as the security guard in the shop sought to send me packing as I had the bike with me- I eventually convinced him to let me ask the question I needed to ask. Still no luck. However in the time it took to overcome his staunch anti bike policy I had at least succeeded in drawing the attention of every other shopper in the place.

As a result I was chased out of the shop by a Spanish woman and her gaggle of kids, as she sought to find out what was wrong and if she could help, Muchas gracias! She was unable to help but did attract the attention of an unassuming man walking down the street, who just happened to be a one time keen cyclist. After a brief explanation of my plight, he agreed to try to dig out an inner tube for me in his flat, so he bought some beer in the corner shop and off we went, not before the corner shop man had given me a free can of coke. Success.

The mans name was Ed. Ed lived in block of flats just up the street, and his flat was about four flights of stairs up. Soaking wet at this point I left a trail of sorts up the stairs. He popped inside, leaving me in the hallway, and emerged a while later with a box of spares of the kind I imagine almost all cyclists posses. At least half full of broken, discarded and otherwise useless parts, fixings and brackets… but thankfully also containing an inner tube of the correct dimensions. He was such a gent that he even pumped up the tyre for me once I had squeezed the tube inside. An awkward goodbye followed where I eventually got him to accept a crumpled up fiver in exchange for his inner tube, and then i was rolling off down the road again as if it had never happened.

It is this kind of chance encounter that I miss from being on the road last summer. Leaving things to chance, stepping out into complete uncertainty with hardly a euro in your pocket… sleeping behind a gas station wondering if those truckers will find you in the night, where the next ride will come from and if you will ever get there.

Dare to dream.

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I’ve been wondering lately if it’s unique to this generation to hang on to and posterise inspirational one liners, or if it has been a trend for a while? Either way, this one has been rattling around in my head since I read it earlier in the week.