Lesson one

LESSON ONE: When it’s cold outside… put your gloves in your sleeping bag at night time.

I had been awake most of the night and I was wearing almost everything I owned. The thermometer on my Kestral weather metre had recorded a low of -19°C during the early hours and I had never experienced anything this cold. Although I admit I had enjoyed the looks of incredulity on the faces of the French drivers the preceding evening as they watched me erect my tent in thick snow at 1800 metres, it was undoubtedly not the greatest idea to begin my journey over the Alps in mid-winter. But almost as painful and frustrating as the cold was the question repeatedly posed by people I’ve met en route… “and why did you decide to leave during the winter?”

I’d like to say it was because I relish a challenge, that it was all part of the plan, perhaps a calculated decision in order to avoid even harsher climes further on in my journey. The mundane truth is that it’s just when everything came together and I was ready to leave.

I slowly eased out of an ice covered sleeping bag as the sun rose, almost everything inside my tent gleamed with a frosty coating. My gloves had also succombed to this fate and were rock solid. Unwearable. I had filled up my water bottle the night before and the expanding ice had ruptured the solid metal of the container. I began the long process of packing and taking down my tent amidst the freeze. Without gloves.

I cursed a lot. The metal of the tent pegs and poles stuck to my hands. I tried to improvise gloves with other items of clothing but nothing I tried enabled me to use my fingers well enough to deconstruct my shelter. I had to blow on both the tent poles in order to separate the links between them and then on my hands to keep them warm and this I was doing now every fifteen seconds. By the end of the ordeal I was unable even to roll my tent up to get it into the bag so I stubbornly stuffed it unpacked under the bungees on the back of my bike and cycled off slowly with guy ropes trailing behind me and praying for some uphill riding to alleviate the pain of the cold. The saliva that had accumulated around my mouth from blowing on my hands turned to ice within a couple of minutes and I had ice crystals in my beard. The honks of encouragement from French drivers that I had greated with a smile and a wave yesterday now felt like taunts.

That evening I eagerly clambered off my bike and entered a roadside cafe. I looked dispairingly into my coffee but allowed myself a small moment of self-congratulation. It had been tough yes, but I’d stuck to the game plan. At least by rough camping I’d saved the thirty euro it would have cost to stay in a hotel. As I re-lived the mornings events in my memory I remembered that in my haste to get cycling I had left my tent pegs behind on that mountainside. I picked some more up in the next town. They cost thirty euros.

I thanked the lady who had served me my coffee and turned to leave. “Did you travel from England by biycle?”
“Yes”
“And you’ve been camping?”
“I have”
“So why did you decide to leave in the winter?”

So I’ve had my rant and moan. In my first post I think I even embellished to the point of comparing Western Europe to Arctic tundra. I’m just not built for the cold. My hands turn purple with just the slightest nip in the air. But being an eternal optimist I thought I’d try and come up with ten reasons why its fun, ney even better, to cycle during the winter…

1. Misty valleys. Shortly after the sun rises and you’re cycling through the hills, mist sitting low in the valley can be an awe inspiring sight.
2. You’re living in a fridge. Ham, cheese, chicken, they can all be eaten a week down the line without the fear of explosive gastroenteritis.
3. Hotels always have rooms and campsites are closed (and therefore free, albeit without facilities).
4. You dont share the road with hundreds of other tourists or cyclists. The sunset is all yours.
5. There is no need for the courtesy two metre gap between you and the hostel owner when you arrive caked in summer sweat and exuding the scent of a decomposing skunk carcass.
6. There are less winged nasties to sting and bite you as you ride.
7. No need for suncream or sandals or sun hats (I know, I’m reaching).
8. OK I failed to make the ten. Please add your suggestions below. But this one’s a classic and the clincher… “fun doesnt have to be fun”.

After my alpine “fun” I pushed on towards the Riveria. The transition from one climate to another was abrupt and monolithic. It was as if as soon I exited the 330 metre long tunnel under the Alps north of Nice I was suddenly rolling through valleys of palm trees, lemon trees and succulents. I realised that it was the first time since the day I started on my journey from London that I wasn’t able to see snow on the ground. I followed the Var river into Nice, the sun in the southern sky illuminated the valley and I cycled to the coast where it was nineteen degrees the right side of zero. I’m currently resting in Genoa before some easier riding across northern Italy and then it’s down the Adriatic coast before pushing east towards Istanbul.

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Comments (13)

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    Ju_B

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    9. if you get really thirsty you can drink the snow?

    10. if you get really lonely you can build a snowman 🙂

    nice work – keep going 😉 I'll follow ur blog!

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    go on son!

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    Brrrrr….i feel cold reading this mate! Loving the optimism though, keep that up and you'll get through these rougher times no doubt!

    All the best buddy,

    Henry

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    Friedel

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    Kudos to you for toughing it out! It looks like you're on the right side of the mountains now.

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    Fantastic photos! Must be a chilly beginning but your be in the middle east by spring, keep it up! xx

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Grave

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    STEVE< YOU ARE MY HERO!
    love ollie grove.

    Keep going, la

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    Go on Steve,

    Not many can say they have braved a nights wild camping at -19, It will make the sun all the sweeter when it comes.

    All the best

    Jamie-the balzing saddles

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    Get that beard cut son! You look like a morris dancer

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    Cycling The 6

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    No way… I'm cultivating some serious facial foliage.

    Reply

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    pat niland

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    well done, steve—really enjoy reading your blogs
    your mum is coming here next week-end

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    You will appreciate the hot hot hot african sun more than anyone else cycling in it, and hopefully we will provide the cold beer.
    Love the blog Steve, and take care
    Lucy H x

    Reply

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    oanh

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    9. You can – nay, need to eat much, much more chocolate than normal.

    10. Most of the day is in the golden light of dawn and dusk – great for photographs!

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Tim Moss

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    Enjoying the positivity Steve and, in particular, the Doctor in you showing through in Point #2 ("explosive gastroenteritis" where most would have just put "the runs")…

    Reply

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