Fame, fortune, and a couple of days off

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Hull & East Riding Mail today, perhaps the Scunthorpe Chronicle tomorrow! Who knows!

Fame has, after long last, illuminated me in the dusky twilight of the unknown, following my appearance in that world-renowned publication, the Hull & East Riding Mail. To celebrate, I’ve had a couple of leisurely days of sitting outside cafes in the sunshine and drinking beer and coffee (though not usually at the same time), in the beautiful medieval French city of Strasbourg.

The further east I travelled for the last few days, the more Germanic the names of the villages and the architecture became, and after a while even the accents changed. I stopped in one small village on Friday to douse my head in a fountain, when a man with very little hair on his head, and even fewer teeth in his mouth, began talking in what sounded, to my ears, like German. I knew I must be close.

It took the combined remains of my ration of Kendal Mint Cake to get me up the final few hills, and before I knew it I was flying down the other side at 40mph (motorists may be unaware of how much fun 40mph can be on a bicycle!) down wide switchbacks, surrounded by a blur of tall trees, and into the Rhine valley.

I push on across the German border tomorrow morning, where I plan to head to the heart of the Black Forest, in search of the source of the mighty River Danube!

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A slightly more grizzled face than the clean and spritely one above, having just come over the ‘mountains’ in the background!

Breakdown and damnation: Northern France

I rolled down the last English hill on Saturday lunchtime with fish and chips in my belly, and dark clouds hung over Dover as I looked back from the ferry. Eastwards, all was clear and blue. I’d had enough of foul weather, and was looking forward to some French sunshine.

My ride through France began inauspiciously, cycling straight onto the motorway, on the wrong side of the road. I slipped past an approaching police car as I slunk down a grassy bank and towards the town of Calais.

The last few days have been largely aimless. I spent a couple of days just using my compass to navigate and pointing due east. But after a while I tired of going round in circles: even if you know which way is east, you can’t very well go there on a bicycle if there’s no road!

Disaster struck on Tuesday. I was progressing well, and had found myself on a good road that should take me most of the way to Strasbourg on the German border. A strange squeaking had been coming from the back of my bike all morning, so I had resolved to stop in the early afternoon and give everything a good going over with some oil. But then I realised that the sound was coming from the mudguard, because the two supporting arms of my rear pannier rack (which holds all my luggage to the back of the bike) had both snapped! My two heavy panniers, tent and various other bits, had all spent the morning resting on the rear mudguard!

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I tried a bodge-job temporary fix by splinting the broken supporting arms with tie-wraps and tyre levers, but I didn’t have much faith in it lasting very long. I put as much weight as I could in the front pannier bags, and limped a couple of miles back into the last town I’d passed through. I found a bike shop fairly quickly, but they didn’t stock any replacement racks, but recommended I go to a big city, where I might find one. Unfortunately the nearest sizeable city anywhere near my planned route was about 45 miles away, and it was already mid afternoon.

I had planned to get as close to Reims as I could, camp, and head into town to find a bike shop early the next day. As it happened, there was nowhere suitable to camp, and I ended up riding all the way into town. I blew my budget completely out of the water with a hotel room, but as tired, dirty, and smelly as I was, I felt I deserved it.

I found a new rack in the second shop I went to in the morning. But I’ve learnt my lesson, and have since given up some unnecessary items, and distributed the weight over my bike much more evenly, in the hope that it doesn’t happen again.

The most challenging aspect of the ride at the moment, apart from intermittent technical problems, is the heat. I have no idea how hot it is as the moment, but I saw 31 degrees on a thermometer a couple of days ago. The midday sun is almost unbearably hot, so I’m currently taking some much needed shelter in a shady spot in a park in Verdun. I should reach Strasbourg tomorrow night, for a much needed day off, before I set forth into Germany!

The road to London

Central London loomed high above me

Someone once described American football to me as a sport in which one spends six seconds absolutely playing one’s heart out, during which time everyone in the vicinity tries to plough you to the ground, before a whistle is blown and everything stops for a minute or two, to be repeated several times over. Based on yesterday’s experience, I can say that much the same can be said of cycling into central London.

Having limited myself to quiet country lanes for the last few days, it was rather daunting to come across the first big, busy roundabout as I crossed under the M25 and entered the capital. So much so, that I quickly donned my high-vis jacket and, for the first time in many years, a helmet. I then proceeded along busy streets in a rather vague southward direction towards the Thames, stopping and starting between the lights, with huge road-hungry buses bearing down on me, revving motorcycles and reckless cyclists spinning their intricate webs around me and amongst the traffic. Not really knowing London beyond the interior of King’s Cross station, I submitted myself wholly to the directions of the locals.

I passed the newly built Olympic stadium, and crossed Tower Bridge early in the afternoon, before ambling down Old Kent Road (based solely on the fact that it was familiar from Monopoly) towards Bromley, where a large mug of tea and some cream scones where waiting for me at my aunt and uncle’s home, where I was to stay the night. Every hardship, it seems, has its glorious reward.

The reward at the end of the road

Ale pie and summer rain

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Sunday was the day of departure. It was also, it transpired, the day of doing most of my packing. For all of the months of planning and preparation, there I was at 10 o’clock on Sunday, my planned time of departure, sticking everything desperately into my bags that I’d need for the next six months.

Almost ready to go, I had a quick run through my kit list, to ensure that I’d packed everything. I was surprised to see that I’d got everything. Everything, except my travel trowel! I searched in bags and boxes for ages, to no avail. Everyone was sat outside with my bike, expectantly waiting for me to set off on this great transcontinental adventure, and there I was, looking for a small folding spade, wondering how on earth I would be able to ‘go about my business’ without it. But my super sister, Sarah, saved the day. She practically leapt into her car, raced to the nearest camping shop, and returned in no time with a replacement!

I had some photographs taken of me with my bike, and there were no excuses left. I would have to set off. At least it was warm and sunny. My bike was heavy and unwieldy, but I nervously guided it through my village, and onto the road. I was away! I had begun!

I’ve covered nearly 170 miles since then. I’ve seen rain, wind, and sunshine. The rain began again about half an hour ago, when I leapt for the shelter of a pub near Huntingdon, north of Cambridge. I’m watching the summer rain fall, and my steak and ale pie is sitting, steaming, in front of me. Jam sandwiches are wearing a bit thin, and everyone needs a treat now and then!

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Time, and ‘last times’

The ‘last times’ began a couple of weeks ago. I would watch a DVD and think ‘that’s the last time I’ll watch a DVD before I go and cycle to India!’. Or I would walk to work, go food shopping, or play football. They were all ‘last times’. This morning there have been even more of them. The ‘last time’ I drink a cup of tea in the comfort of my home, look out of my bedroom window, or thank my mum for making breakfast.

I try to remind myself that they are not the ‘last times, ever’. Just for a while. I also try to remind myself that the reason I’m doing this is to remind myself how much I value these little things, though perhaps I take them for granted.

Time also seems unfairly short. I’ve not even finished packing yet. And I never finished putting my preparation notebook, with details and useful words of the countries and languages I expect to encounter, as I had planned. I haven’t had the time to have the BBQs or parties, and enough time to read all the books I wanted, or all the films I wanted to watch, before I set off. But then I remember that these are the very things that stop many people from doing just the kind of thing I’m doing.

There’s so many things, so many people, so many times, that I’m going to miss over the next few months. The challenge today will be to put them all to the back of my mind, and just go. I feel as though I’m floating on a river, creeping ever closer to a great waterfall. I’m on the brink of the waterfall now, and there’s no realistic way of turning back. I’m going over the waterfall, so I really had better enjoy it!

Things I’m Looking Forward to: an A to Z (Part 1)

Departure is less than two weeks away, and people keep asking me whether I’m excited, or afraid. Some days I wake up and feel incredibly positive about the whole thing: I can’t wait to leap elegantly on to my bicycle and get the it started. Some days I feel rather indifferent about the whole thing.

Then there are other days, when I wake up in the sepia half-light of dawn, trot off to the bathroom and give myself a good looking at in the mirror, and I’m absolutely terrified. I wonder what I’ve let myself in for, and think of all the things I will miss. I can’t help but think that it would be better to stay at home, buy a massive tele and an Xbox, and while away the next six months comfortably drinking tea, eating biscuits, and wallowing in the glow of Match of the Day, and my own pathetic unadventurousness.

But then I remind myself of the reasons I decided I wanted to do this in the first place. I think about all the things I’m looking forward to, the things I’ll experience, the people I’ll meet, and the first-hand view of the world I’ll acquire by peddling through it.

Here is the first part of an A to Z of the things I’m most looking forward to:

A: Adventure. I couldn’t resist beginning with this. It will, after all, be one hell of an adventure, which is the main reason for doing it. I want to look back at my life when I’m old and grey, grin, and say ‘yes, I went on adventures’.

B: Bay of Bengal. I don’t have a definite end point to my journey, but that first sight of the rising sun glinting off the Indian Ocean in the Bay of Bengal will certainly be a destination to aim for!

C: Camping, in many different places. The awe inspiring places, the scary places, and every other place in between. I’m looking forward to spending many a night under the thin fabric of my tent!

D: Downhills! (I’m also really looking forward to cycling along the banks of the Danube river – the second longest river in Europe!)

E: Europe. I may be underestimating the European leg of my trip, but I have this fantastic image in my head of sunshine, green trees, blue rivers, good food, mountains and easy riding, but I’m ready to be proven wrong. I’m also looking forward to traversing my first continent by pedal-power.

F: Food, from a number of different countries, not to mention the culinary delights that I will be preparing on my very own camping stove!

G: Ganges, one of the world’s longest rivers, and flowing from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, will be a major milestone of my trip. I’m expecting it to make the mighty river Humber look rather feeble.

H: Home. The cynics will point out that I could just stay at home – it would certainly be the easier option! But I think doing things like this help you to appreciate the simple comforts of home all the more. Part of me is already looking forward to getting home for a nice cup of tea, because it may well be the tastiest one I’ll ever have!

I: Iran. I tempted to say India (which I’m also looking forward to), but I think Iran will be a particularly special experience given the limited exposure we have of Iranian culture in the UK. I’m looking forward to debunking people’s preconceptions, fueled by scare-stories prevalent in the newspapers which stop many people travelling to such amazing countries. Fingers crossed I can get the visa sorted out successfully!

J: Jumping from the bridge at Mostar. This isn’t quite as suicidal as it sounds. People have been jumping into the river from the bridge at Mostar, Bosnia, for hundreds of years, and it has become something of a bravado challenge and spectator sport. Whether I have the balls to jump in myself when I get there remains to be seen!

K: Killing mosquitoes with 100% Deet, before they give me malaria (okay, so I’m not looking forward to that too much)

L: Lincolnshire. A few years ago, I headed off on my bicycle with no real destination in mind to Lincolnshire, and had my first solo cycling touring/wild camping expedition, and had a great time along the quiet back roads and gently undulating hills of the Lincolnshire Wolds. I hope to enjoy this last section of familiar scenery before I move on to more unfamiliar lands.

M: Maps. I’ve always loved maps. I can spend hours looking at them, and drawing imaginary lines across them of routes I would like to one day travel. On my trip I will get to do this every day, and then travel those imaginary lines!

I’ll post N to Z as soon as I’ve thought of something I’m looking forward to beginning with X.