Real Life _ Viața Reala

Image

So here’s the deal, I’ve been trying for a while now to write about the first day we spent riding through the Swiss and Italian Alps. But I’m stuck in some embarrassingly pretentious place where I want it to sound like some epic narrative with deep philosophical undertones. Sadly this is somewhat challenging due to the short blocks of writing time I find myself with, and the limitations of my intellect. I’m hoping to get over this hang up fairly soon.

In a bid to stop this place from stagnating completely in the mean time, though, I thought I would throw out some thoughts on where I find myself right now. I’m working in a new area this year, leading a team of 7 with an amazing girl called Lucy. We’re an eclectic mix; two English, three Romanians, a Swede and an American speaking German.The A-team. Four days a week we drive to the nearest city, going to work in a Roma community living on the edge of a waste dumping ground, people scraping a living from the scrap iron they can find in the wasteland. We have a small plot of land on the edge of the community where we have two container buildings, one set up as our school building and the other a small office. It isn’t easy and you can’t always tell if what you are doing is having a positive effect, but we are doing our best to build relationship with these people and improve their lot in someway.

And a few lines about the place I live. Picture a small house in the centre of a vineyard, set part way up the ridge of hills bordering the village. We have to walk past some occasionally aggressive dogs half way up the track to the house, drive all our drinking water up from the village in jerry cans and we are currently fighting off an infestation of mice and rats. Rats make a lot of noise at 4am! But it’s worth it.  The sun setting over the plains to the west is a sight to behold almost every evening, I pray I never tire of it. Add to that the strength of the community we get to live in and you get a very special place. It’s often not a comfortable life, but it is a beautiful one.

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.

Got bananas?

We’ll be living on a very tight budget for the two weeks we are riding across Europe. I think this means we’ll be wanting a lot of bananas, so it will be good to know how to ask for them in every country we’ll hopefully cycle through.

France, Belgium and Luxembourg- hopefully French will work for each of these:

Avez vous des bananes? – Simple enough.

Germany, Switzerland and Austria: Haben sie bananen? Ok, got it.

Italy: Hai banane?

Slovenia: Ali imate banane?

Hungary: Van banan?

Romania: Aveți banană?

These phrases accompanied by copious amount of bread, jam and tea should see us through the worst of the weather and roads that Europe can throw at us!