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?”
“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.

The beginning…

This will be my first blog post from the road and for those who were concerned confirmation that I did indeed survive the cold snap.

It was great to see so many mates at my send off on the 5th of January at St Thomas’ Hospital. It warmed my heart. The warm feeling didnt last long. As the coldest winter in almost 30 years descended on the UK I pedalled off on my trusty steed Belinda.

As I cycled out of London, a bit emotional I admit, I glanced upwards to see this sign. It must be an omen. Soon afterwards my first hurdle. Leaving Dartford… a puncture. On closer examination a three inch nail had penetrated my brand spanking new top of the range Kevlar reinforced back tyre. You can’t plan for everything.

The following day the snow began to fall and by the late afternoon three inches had settled on top of each pannier. I cycled past abandoned cars and the air reeked of burning rubber as vans and lorries tried to ascend inclines on the ice. By 7pm I still hadnt found anywhere to spend the night after turning my nose up at two roadside Premier Inns, a night in which would equal my entire weeks budget. It was late. I was getting progressively colder. No pub I passed offered accomodation and there was nowhere to camp. I stopped to ask a passing couple in Sittingbourne. I explained my predicament and five minutes later I was sitting on the couch, mug of tea in hand and the promise of a bed for the night. A kind act from total strangers and in miserable England as well.

The next day came with the biggest challenge yet. Frostbite? No. Exposure? No. This was far worse. The children of Kent. Across the county over 200 schools had closed because of the snow. Manic hoards of kids were running wild and hurling snowballs at anything mobile. This was not the occasional cheeky chuck in my direction. This was more akin to a military operation. They flanked bridges and underpasses and fired at will and without restraint. Occasionally an arial bombardment rained down from bridges over the A2. I wasn’t just a good target, I was the ultimate prize. Kids would immediately turn their attention from passing lorries to me. With little physical preparation for the trip and with four heavy panniers I was a large slow moving and exposed target. There was little escape from the onslaught and I was ambushed frequently from Dartford to Dover. Unusually on one occasion a group asked permission to throw snowballs at me. I cycled a fair distance past and then turned to shout “Yes” before pedalling off. I turned the next corner to be confronted by an steep ascent. Behind me I could hear them gaining and letting out hysterical shreaks. “He said YES!”, “Get him in the face!”.

After drying off I arrived at Dover. The woman operating the barrier for access to the ferry declared that it was a bit temperamental. “Just like my wife” remarked a passing lorry driver. I was going to miss England. On the ferry to Calais I prayed that I would encounter the same kindness and generosity as I had in Sittingbourne but also that children on the continent would be more forgiving. Still the snow fell as I made my way south to Paris, the coastal route resembling more arctic tundra than Western Europe. After a brief rest in the capital I moved on again, edging east through the Champagne region.

Whilst cycling through the countryside outside Troyes a small foxhound saw me cycle by and gave chase. Initially I felt nervous and quickened my pace, forever edgy when I see dogs after my experience of South American canines. But he didnt look aggressive. Perhaps he’s after the food on my bike, I reasoned, so after a while I threw him some ham from my pannier. He continued without hesitation. Five miles later, with the dog still trotting next to my back wheel, I came across this sign (see left). Soon after the little guy was called back to the hunt. Perhaps he confused my bike with a horse.

I had forgotton exactly how life on a bike can be. A bit older now I have a few fleeting aches and pains, absent when I was a young un, but my gastronomic obsession has returned. A day in the saddle can make you obsess about food. I even dream of it. Those who know me well will vouch for my chocolate addiction… up until now kept in check only by virtue of working sixty hour weeks in the NHS. Now unchecked and fuelled by my new active lifestyle I am in hyperglycaemic freefall. France, with a Patisserie on every street corner, is my nirvana. If you locked me in a room of a million Yorkies I would surely gorge myself to a chocolatey death.

I’ve already gone through a set of front brake blocks (two weeks… how did that happen?) but otherwise Belinda is holding up nicely. After thawing out in Besancon I leave today on a six day ride through the Jura mountain range before hitting Switzerland. I am running out of the handwarmers provided by my mum for Christmas… undeniably the best bit of kit I have discovered to date, but I’m loving life on the road and this will be the first post of many as I continue across continent number one and ever nearer the next obstacle… Les Alpes.

STATS so far…

Distance cycled – 950 km
Punctures – 1
Got lost – 3 times
Kg of chocolate consumed – incalcuable

For my current(ish) location and to see where I have spent each night see the map above (there is usually some lag). There are more photos on Flickr (cyclingthe6).

Ready for continent number 1… Europe

I’ve pestered my good friend and freelance travel journalist Henry Wismayer into writing up a desciption of my route around the planet. Here’s continent number 1…

“St Thomas’ Hospital forecourt – Monday the 5th of January 2010. It will probably be drizzling, but Steve will have to get used to that; he is about to tackle all that nature can throw at a man – wind, snow and rain. Peaks and troughs. Coldest tundra, hottest desert. The whole spectrum of human discomfiture. Steve will say cheerio to loved ones then start peddling – he will be peddling for the next 1,700 days. London to Dover; ferry to Calais and continent number 1. This is the easy bit: a few short months of smooth asphalt and accurate maps; relatively small and summer-holiday familiar, Europe is the proving ground. Cycling-Round-the-World Module 1.He could have chosen a flatter route mind. Exhibiting the mixture of optimism and masochism that will either cradle him or kill him on this lunatic endeavour, Steve whizzes south-east to Switzerland and into the Alps. In mid-winter.

Over Italy’s Dolomites and onto Slovenia’s karst plateau, then through the Balkans – Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia. Bulgaria next, followed by that patch of Turkey that’s not Asia. Then Istanbul and the part that is. Cue obligatory handycam pan from one side of the Bosporus to the other. Steve’s voice off camera: “Europe…Asia…Europe…Asia.” Europe done. Well not ‘done’ exactly. He will be travelling this axis again, with five more continents in the bag, on the final push for home.”