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.

Stepping Out.

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Whipping out my thumb and a big cardboard sign and heading to Berlin this morning. Seeking a bit of rest and some perspective after a crazy year. Have only felt love and support from my family in Romania and in the UK taking this decision. See you on the road.

A.

P.S. I’ll be holding on to the journal bloody tight this time.

The way back…

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The little village of Siria that we’re heading to.

 

It feels like an age since I was last in Romania, leaving the house on the hill with tears in my eyes, and tramping down through the vines to jump in a minibus to the airport. The summer here has been kind; there’s been little rain, I’ve caught up with friends, worked to save up some money and got some good training in; and now my mind is finally turning back to the reality of arriving back in the little village of Siria in just a few short weeks.

Of course for the last little while I’ve been doing my best to shout about riding back to Romania. All the while assuming that people even know where it is… at least to the point of placing it somewhere east of Paris. So let’s have a closer look at where Rob and I are headed, and what we might see along the way. Most people can picture northern Italy on a map, now track east in your minds eye past Slovenia and through Hungary. And there you will find the western border of Romania, a beautiful country nestled gently atop the Balkan region. If you hit the Black Sea you’re too far east, and probably a bit wet. So that’s where we are headed, not all the way across Europe but taking on a sizeable chunk.

In a bid  to cross as many borders as possible, and to take on the Alps through Switzerland and Italy, we won’t be taking the most direct of routes. After we hit Calais in northern France, we’ll head east and hope to cross the border into Belgium before campign on the first evening. Day two brings the first major landmark as we plan to tackle the cobbled climb of the Koppenburg, made infamous by the one day classic of bike racing the Tour of Flanders. During the tour of Flanders you’ll often see even the pros having to push up this short steep climb, it’s sure to be a rude awakening on the second day, but hopefully there will be less traffic when we face the wall.

In the days that follow we’ll head south east through Luxembourg, duck back into France again, before crossing into Germany near to Strasbourg. The Black Forest in Germany promises to be stunning. We’ve both lived and studied in Sheffield for three years now, and having trained in the Peak District as well as riding in Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands we’d say we know a thing or two about hills… but this theory will be tested after we leave Germany. As we slip into Switzerland, and then into Liechtenstein (Europe’s fourth smallest country) the formidable land barrier of the Alps will be looming large. Day seven will be highly anticipated, both for beauty and difficulty, as we traverse the Alps into Italy at a smidge over 2000m of elevation, all the while being motivated by the thought of camping on the shore of Lake Como as we toil ever higher.

Lake Garda in May.

Lake Garda in May.

Some respite the next day as we swap Lake Como for Lake Garda, hopefully I’ll get to swim there for the second time this year after a hitchhiking adventure chasing the Giro d’Italia earlier in the year. We’ll swing north again the next day to tackle the brutal climb of the Mont Grappa, a regular inclusion in the Italian grand tour. I think once we’ve hoisted ourselves over the summit of Grappa, it will feel like downhill all they home, even If that’s not quite true.

A brief hop into Austria will make for ten border crossings up to that point, and then we’ll be opting to trace a route along the River Drava through Slovenia, into Croatia and finally Hungary. The river representing one of the more sensible topographic features we will choose to follow, gifting us the flattest days of the entire ride. It’s then just a short skip across the Hungarian plains, before we reach Romania in time for a shower and a well-deserved beer on September 10.  I think one of the keys to success in any endurance sport is to be able to compartmentalise each section of the route or race. It can’t be helpful to be mindful of every climb and every potential difficulty at all times, by simply focusing on a day to day, hour by hour basis, the task becomes manageable. A series of epic days rides in quick succession. We can’t wait.

Head  back tomorrow to find out how you can follow our progress, and if you’ve been thinking about donating towards my volunteering fund so I can spend another year working in Romania check out the Support Me page above!

A.