Reaching new heights.

Image

One of the most daunting challenges and greatest unknowns that we had to face during the ride were the climbs on route. The thought of riding uphill for over two hours was already close to incomprehensible, added to that the extra weight and the cumulative fatigue were enough for me to push the thoughts to the back of my mind. Each time the question of how or why would float back up, I would just will it away. This proved to be a successful strategy, continuing in blissful ignorance until coming face to face with the monstrous climbs.

The first stand out climb was a mere 250 ft high, but it’s very name is sufficient to strike fear into the heart of road cyclists everywhere. The Koppenberg.

Image

Image

For years it has been a prominent feature in the classic cycling race the Ronde Van Vlandeeren, the combination of cobbles and 22% grade make it key as the final shake down of the race kicks off. Fortunately we weren’t going to have to race up it with 100 other riders, but its name certainly punctuated conversation as we rolled through the dull grey industrial estates in Belgium that morning; incredulous whisperings and murmuring about the sense of the plan. Finally we took a series of innocuous right turns and finding ourselves on bone shaking cobbles approaching the foot of the climb. No warning, and there it was, a wall of cobble stones. As the road pitches up it becomes a battle between keeping your front wheel from heading skyward, and fighting for traction as the rear wheel skips over the cobbles and all the while keeping forward momentum. As Rob powered ahead to get a couple of photos I was more concerned with not coming to a standstill, as I wobbled around him stood in the middle of the road. I managed to return the favour slightly further on, getting going again on cobbles uphill was no mean feat. We were to face sterner tests later that day though as we hit a dead straight road that made up for it’s lack of corners with  a series of endless undulations. We rode on watching the sun sinking lower and lower in the sky, determined creep beyond the arbitrary finish line after 180 odd kilometres of route instructions, finally tucking our tent out of sight behind a billboard on the edge of a small Belgian village.

A few days later we took on the climb up to Triberg in the Black Forest, a gentle introduction to the mountains as the road rose to just over 1000m. A preview of the huge day that was to come as we rode out of Liechentenstein, up into the Swiss Alps before passing into Italy. I can safely say it was the most stunning day I have ever had on a bike. Packing our gear away in the floodlights of an enormous pet food factory, and struggling to lift the bikes over the barriers by the side of the road was an inconspicuous start to such an epic day of riding. Liechtenstein proved to be even smaller than I had imagined, as we drifted through the capital city at rush hour in just a few minutes and hit the Swiss border, the road beginning to climb already.

To be continued…

At last we made it!

First of all the good news, WE MADE IT. We crossed the border into Romania yesterday around lunch time, and cruised into the village where I will be living in the early evening, tired yet overjoyed. It was completely surreal, and hard to believe that we had actually cycled all the way out there. I think it is all still sinking in, but after one evening back here I realise it was worth all the sweat and tears.

I have to say sorry that we only managed one blog update from the road, a combination of the “smart” phone not being able to hold a charge over night, and not being able to connect to WiFi without a foreign mobile number made it much trickier than I thought it would be. Plus we did have to spend a lot of time in the saddle. I did manage to keep updating facebook via text message from a second phone, so I’ll copy those real time updates below for those that won’t have seen them.

In the mean time I would love to start sharing the photos from the journey but the tech woes are continuing this morning and I haven’t found  a laptop to read an xD card, yet. Sure this will be resolved and plenty of stories from the ride still to come. If you’ve been thinking about donating but have’t got round to it yet now would be a fantastic time I’m sure you’ll agree, click here.

So here’s the run down of FB statuses after the first post came out, hopefully gives you an impression of how we were feeling on the road. Lots more thoughts and photos to come soon.

31.8.13

Dodging rain showers and camping in the black forest tonight. Road maxed out at 1057m , had to descend away from scary ghost town, safe for now.

1.9.13

Just pitched the tent in a cornfield in liechtenstein, hard day where we both had stomach problems after lunch. Knackered. Huge day tomorrow, up the Splugen Pass into Italy! Please check out the blog and think about donating, time for some sleep…

3.9.13

Stopped for ice cream in Brescia after worst 100 km ever ridden, seems we picked the same single carriageway road as every truck crossing northern Italy. Lake garda tonight once we have our nerves back…

5.9.13

Ran out of energy and light on the 27km climb of mount grappa last night, camped 4km from summit. Popped to the top this morning followed by sketchy descent. Smart phone issues making blog update difficult, trying to find a work around.

6.9.13

Flirted with the mountains again this morning, climbing out of Slovenia back into Italy and then a long afternoon smashing across Austria. Four more rides, can’t wait for that shower.

7.9.13

Breakfast in Austria, lunch in Slovenia, chased by first dog in Croatia and feeling very tired and Hungary tonight. Three to go.

9.9.13

Monday morning and some Hungarian men already supping beers at the local bar, luckily coffee seems to translate in most languages.

9.9.13

Today reminded us its not over til its over, five hours of riding in freezing rain saw to that. Felt more like white water rafting as lorries sent waves crashing over us. Tomorrow we finish the ride we started two weeks ago, dreaming of Romania tonight!

10.9.13

Just crossed the border into Romania near Cenad and stopped for some lunch. Feels like we’ve nearly cracked it, so happy!

The way back…

P1020972

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.

Fettling

P1030922-001At the end of my second week of painting corridors in a local school it was great to do some proper fettling last night, something requiring slightly more thought. The only major change I knew I wanted to change on the Marin for the ride was the gearing, something with a lower range for the mountains of Switzerland and northern Italy. A few weeks of scouring ebay and various cycling forums and eventually a barely used MTB crank set turned up for very little money. Perfect.

I’d been putting off making switching the crankset, aware that if it didn’t all go smoothly then I might lose a few days of being able to ride whilst waiting for a solution. Equally, from about ten days before the tour starts I wouldn’t want to make any major changes to the bike. So you end up with an ever smaller window in which to do  the work. Why not touch it within ten days of the start? There’s always potential for uncovering a major headache of a problem, something which would have been fine had it not been pulled around by an amateur mechanic, but that suddenly requires a lot of attention once disturbed. Of course it doesn’t always go to plan, I think Rob had to go and buy a new set of wheels two days before we started LEJOG last summer!

The only thing I was missing for the job was a 14mm socket spanner, so I rode round to my Grandpas house to have a rummage around for one. A short time later and we had found a socket set that he had bought for my Dad when he was about 12 years old, great. It took a bit of grunt to get the old bottom bracket out but other than that things went smoothly, the smell of grease and sounds of Toploader rising as the sun slowly fell in the sky. I find there is a very simple joy to be taken from doing this kind of work on your own machine. Credit should go here to a guy called Ian who has taught me a lot of the bicycle mechanics that I know, something of a cycling shaman to me since I fell in love with the sport in 2009. Also to my friend Ben, we fixed my bike countless times in his basement during my time in Sheffield, the Peak District chews up both rider and bike then spits them out again. I don’t know if they’ll be reading this but I’m still grateful.

17 days to go.