Cracking Berlin – Pt 2

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By the time the alarm sounded at 6am I felt as though I had only just fought off the cold, damp conditions and achieved sleep. Weak willed as ever I snoozed it until 6.30am. Erecting the tent in a far from expert manner as the rain fell the night before meant that I was sharing the tent with some rain for the night. Seemingly not content with the amount of water inside it continued to rain heavily outside, eventually saturating the fly sheet. I was forced to cover the sleeping bag with my waterproof to shield it and me from the worst of the rain. It had been a great tent a few years back. Summer. Summer will come, I thought.

Finally I forced myself to emerge from the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag, fully aware I had no food for breakfast and that forward motion was the only option. As I had come to expect, by the time I had rolled up the last part of he tent my fingers were searing with pain from the cold. I was only too glad to roll away and generate some body heat.

Only two weeks in I was still proudly hanging onto my coffee addiction, so I was extremely happy to find an open bakery in the second village I arrived in. Clutching the little cup with both hands to thaw my stinging digits my eyes poured over the map. I calculated the distance would be well over 160kms to reach Berlin; that’s a solid days ride without 30 odd kilos of luggage for company. No matter, I thought if I could reach Potsdam by evening then I could crawl into Berlin. Most likely anyway.

Shortly after leaving the call of nature inevitably sounded, leading to meet possibly the most upbeat petrol station attendant I have ever met. It’s well known that petrol stations provide an unlikely yet vital refuge for many a long distance cyclist. So I can say I have made the acquaintance of my share of attendants at all times of day and night, and in varying states of physical and mental well being. Often one finds a surly, expressionless character; unwilling or unable to offer much by way of communication. Perhaps they simply mirror the condition of the rider? By compare this woman was alarmingly cheery and communicative. I will admit to deliberately eschewing her route advice, but nevertheless this was surely a positive start.

A combined sense of great optimism and a light tail wind meant that the first 80kms flew by. Even the portly gentleman I spoke to whilst waiting at a small river crossing thought that Berlin was a reasonable target. Surely he should know. As far as 140kms into the day the legs were feeling strong, and around this time I saw a sign for Berlin saying just 27kms. “…crushing it.” I reported to Jack in a text message. And yet an hour and a half later the signs for Berlin Mitte were reading 30kms. Time for me to be crushed.

Late in the afternoon the ominously dark clouds which had shadowed me all day finally unleashed their payload. Twice I was hit by tremendous downpours of hail stones, but somehow I arrive in Potsdam to bright sunshine.

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At this point I was teetering on the edge of bonking, having run out of food, but at least I was lucky enough to find a man riding a mountain bike to navigate Potsdam for me and put me on the road to Berlin. Thank you that man. I can only think he was late for an appointment though as he set the most furious pace. Sprinting away from the lights, then darting and diving through groups of pedestrians on the bike path. I just about clung on to his rear wheel, struggling to see straight, body demanding calories and sugar. That awful light headed feeling washing over me.

After creeping my way up two small hills on the road to Berlin and suffering a further deluge of hail stones I collapsed through the doors of a McDonald’s. Having inhaled a meal and recovered a little I consulted Google maps to see what the damage would be. Shit. Still far more kilometres remained than I’d have liked.

An unfortunate wrong turn saw me take the hilly scenic rout around Lake Havel, but by the time I had realised I had gone too far for turning around to be an option. At last I hit the road dead straight road for the centre. It was dark by this point and my concentration was all but gone, not the best part of the day to hit a bustling city centre. Bike paths meeting and leaving the main road at random, with the occasional appearance of wet cobbles -slick and shiny- to keep me on my toes. I didn’t quite fit in with the tourist crowd at Brandenburger Tor, but eventually bagged a few snaps.

I wove my way through the final kilometres of Berlin traffic with one brake and only partly aware of my surroundings. I knew it was almost done. Up the small ramp on Petersburger Strasse and hit the buzzer for the flat. 184kms, I was done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cracking Berlin – Pt 1.

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The learning curve of those first two weeks spent riding across northern Europe was far steeper than I could have anticipated. I continued to wrestle with the wind, rain and constant need to make decisions. Settling in to life on the road was taking some time, and the prospect of finding somewhere safe to camp at the end of each day was an increasingly stressful propostion. Tiredness was creeping in but I felt the need to endure this bedding in period, hoping – though not certain – that a more sustainable rhythm would develop.

I persevered for several days longer with the R1 route, learning to keep a keen eye for the small signs which mark the way. The route was truely interesting and I had managed to find gardens and trailer beds to sleep in along the way thanks to kind hearted German families. Still I was growing increasingly frustrated by getting routinely lost, at least twice a day, and making very slow progress as a result. Both of these things I knew would easily be remedied by switching back to following the road network.
Three days out from my 25th birthday I could feel my grip slowly loosening on the prize of a few days off in Berlin to celebrate. A thorough look at the map suggested that if I dispensed with following the R1 that morning then I might just give myself a chance. I had already lost the trail the previous evening before camping so the seperation was made. Setting off down hill on the Easter Monday felt good, a new start almost. Yet somehow, within just 5km of setting off, the road had intersected once more with the R1. Astonishing. After days of trying to follow it and losing it so often, now that I had tried to purposefully leave it – I had found it again with ease. Tragically like a moth to a flame I was drawn into giving it one last chance. I confidently powered up an offroad ascent, eventually leaving the forest and taking lunch up on a ridge overlooking the road I had negected to follow. This was the life. I set off once more. Hopeful.
Shortly afterwards the path hit a cross roads, and to my dismay (but not surprise) there was no indication of which way the R1 continued. An “educated” guess with the compass only resulted in losing an hours progress and gaining an extra 3km climb. The time had come to leave the R1 for good. Buoyed by finally taking this decision I blasted along tarmac roads for several hours further, at times benefitting from a considerable tail wind – comfortably surpassing 100km for the day. Finding a spot to tuck the tent in to that evening was more of a challenge; inevitably the list of criteria for what counted as suitable dwindled as my tiredness increased. Eventually I took my chance as the road went quiet; taking a sharp 90 degree turn and careering up the track to the base of a wind turbine. I quickly stashed the bike behind it, then crouched down in the grass, breathing hard, my heart pounding in my chest from the sudden effort – I watched for any sign that I had been seen. A few minutes passed with no movement from the surrounding houses, my breathing slowed. Safe. I began to cook, leaning back against the immense steel collumn, completely hidden from view and sheltered from the heavy rain that was falling. The stage was set; around 180km north east of me was a warm bed and good friends in Berlin. Would I make it the next day…
TBC.

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.