Posts Tagged ‘Travel stories’


“Patience is the key to paradise” – Turkish Proverb
Patience may be a virtue but it is not one I am overly familiar with. Queueing and people who faff have the tendency to make me rage. I don’t like lie-ins and sometimes I wish people who walk too slowly in the street would be very promptly removed from society altogether. During my bike ride I always get riled if a problem occurs and I have to spend an extra day somewhere to sort it out. Impatience doesn’t seem like a personality trait very compatible with the life of a cycle tourer but actually when travelling by bicycle you get quickly used to the pace. I do suffer spells of boredom at times but as I ride I occupy my mind with many things. I re-live days in my past, I plan for the future and I daydream about the road ahead. I expected to cross Europe and reach Istanbul in four months, I have made it in three but despite this I have taken the roads less travelled en route. You could, if you wanted, cycle along dual carriage ways and make the journey even faster. Nevertheless cycling around the world can highlight the drawbacks of an impatient disposition and I have had to constantly strive to resist my inherent impetuous nature. I tell myself to stop trying to break my top speed on the downhills, just appreciate the rolling vista. In fact try to ignore the cycle computer altogether. Camp earlier. Look around more. Eat slower. Stop arranging ambitious rendez-vous on travel networking websites and then rushing to get there. I don’t need deadlines in my life. There is always time for a good photo and to write in my journal. Always take the route marked out as scenic on the map regardless of altitude or terrain and every so often cycle somewhere just because it has a funny sounding place name on the map.

I am still encountering the odd malicious mutt and I thank you for the myriad of suggestions of tactics to solve the problem put forward after my last post. I particularly liked Michael’s idea of improvising a handlebar mounted flamethrower using WD40 and a brake cable. Michael you have demonstrated intimate knowledge of how to construct a homemade explosive device and I am therefore slightly worried about you and whichever dissident militia you have become associated with. I have however stumbled upon not so much a weapon but perhaps a partial solution in the form of Motown. I have been cycling along buoyantly whilst listening to my IPOD and the vicious dog chase which followed just wasn’t as distressing. In the future I will reach for my headphones and put my faith in Marvin Gaye getting me through the ordeal.

On the road through Macedonia and Greece I was consumed by worry. My left knee which had swelled up in Italy had improved some but was still a real problem. I could still cycle but now I had pain walking, especially up or down stairs. I could feel a small curious mobile mass within the joint space which often got trapped causing me sudden pain. My medical sensibilities told me this was very bad news. I arrived into Thessaloniki in Greece with a plan to get some answers knowing this was not a problem I could ignore. I went to a particularly chaotic emergency department to be confronted by a overworked junior who glanced at my knee and wrote me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory medicine without laying a hand on me. I unashamedly played my doctor card. I needed to get this sorted out. A more senior physician appeared and after an innocuous looking x-ray and much debate there was only one option left open to me and I bit the bullet and shelled out almost my entire monthly budget for an MRI scan of the troublesome joint and the curious lump within. After the scan the grim-faced radiologist leafed through a medical textbook and pointed at the page entitled “Osteochondritis Dissecans”. I confess I wasn’t overly familiar with the condition but I knew enough to know that this was not a term I wanted to hear.

The curious lump migrating around my knee was a piece of loose cartilage sometimes referred to as a “joint mouse”. I wondered why it had to be given such a cutesy name and decided something like “joint wraith” or “knee plague” would be more fitting terminology. Repetitive micro-trauma from my cycle ride across Europe had caused the piece of cartilage to break off the end of my femur and this rogue chunk of useless debris was now roaming free inside my knee. He pointed out the 11 millimetre lesion on the scan blunting the contour of the lower part of my femur and I stared at it in anguish and disbelief. There it was. An unequivocal abnormality. It was worse than I had anticipated and the radiologist agreed this could be a serious problem for me. He made a call to a friend, an Orthopaedic specialist with a private clinic who would see me for free out of “professional courtesy”. The Orthopaedic doctor was thorough and detailed in his questioning, clinical examination and study of the films. I instantly had faith in his judgement.

Is there any doubt as to the problem? None.
Can I continue to cycle? It will almost certainly get worse.
Do I need a keyhole surgery? Yes you do.
How long after the surgery until I can cycle again? It will be three months. I’m sorry.

Gutted. Crushed. Heartbroken. I had developed a problem which affects just 15 to 30 people per 100,000 and my dream of an unbroken journey around the world by bicycle lay in tatters. It was a punch in the stomach that wouldn’t kill me but didn’t feel like it would make me any stronger and in an instant I plummeted to my lowest ebb. Had my inpatient nature been partly to blame? Looking back, I don’t know. I have had twenty days off my bike in the first two months before my knee became sore and I felt as if I was moving at a comfortable pace.

Before I left London a few things did worry me. Perhaps I would run out of courage and would not complete the challenge. Possibly. But I was more afraid that something entirely beyond my control would prevent me from continuing. It felt like my greatest fear was coming true and so early into my trip. I have to admit my impetuous character has made it hard to resist the temptation to carry on regardless, and perhaps if I was 3 or 4 years in I would, but I realise that soon I will have little access to scans and western style health care as my route takes me next into Africa and afterwards South America. In reality I have no choice but to return home to the UK and get the problem fixed. I have contacted doctors at my previous place of work in London who have reviewed the images and agree. I will fly back from Istanbul, head down and pissed off. Three months at home feels like an eternity. After the post-op recovery and some physiotherapy I will return to Istanbul and continue my world ride.

Perhaps some think I’m being a little melodramatic and perhaps I am, but mentally preparing myself to leave home for five years was not an easy task and neither is very abruptly and prematurely having to prepare myself to return. I will now probably miss the friends I had arranged to meet in Syria, Jordon and Malawi but it’s not a life-shattering problem, not even dream-shattering, just a set back. My proposed route took me through Europe twice so my goal remains intact. The journey can still be an unbroken trip across six continents as I’d planned. If I pass through Istanbul on my way home it will also still fulfill the criteria of a true circumnavigation of the world. But I know that these are trivial objectives. I’m not trying to break a world record.

Frustratingly although the knee becomes sore I am still able to ride, but to avoid further damage I took a flat unchallenging route to Istanbul and moved slowly, determined to at least finish my first continent. I tried what I could to eliminate the thought of the impending journey back to England from my consciousness and decided to try to decipher and learn the Greek alphabet from road signs en route. I passed through a lake district and stalks wading in the shallows looked on impassively as I weaved down the arrow straight roads trying unsuccessfully to dodge huge flurries of mosquitoes. I was due to collect my mosquito repellent in Istanbul and was therefore defenceless from the bombardment. In a cruel twist of fate the vast majority of bites I sustained were centred around my left knee. To boost my morale I decided I would take a boat from Alexandroupolis to the island of Samothraki, a verdant land where tourism has not yet taken over island life and nature predominates. I needed some time out to consolidate. The first part of my break did little to settle me. After getting on board the ship to the island we were all ordered to debark. “They think there is a bomb on board” remarked the passenger next to me with surprising nonchalance. People gathered on the tarmac giggling and laughing, there was not a sliver of alarm amongst the crowd. Another passenger informed me, with deep sincerity, that calling in a bomb scare usually happened when someone was late for the boat and needed to delay the departure. A few stragglers arrived and I wondered. The police were already there when we got off. An ambulance and fire engine soon arrived followed by a News crew. The gathered hoard were engaged in insouciant banter. The Police chatted wıth the Firemen who chatted with the Ambulance staff who chatted with the ship’s crew and the passengers talked amongst themselves. I tried to imagine what was being said and guessed it was something along the lines of “God not another bomb. Every damn Wednesday”. I chuckled at the fact that in Greece even bomb scares were treated with calm coolness.

In Samothraki I camped under a perfectly clear sky, strolled around the island, skinny dipped in river pools, clambered up to waterfalls and explored hidden coves. I regained some karma, cleared out my cluttered cranium and started to see the silver lining. Money was always a worry when planning to travel for so long and the Euro to Pound exchange rate has decimated my budget. I am very lucky that locum hospital work in London pays an hourly rate equal to a week’s living expenses in the developing world and I will take advantage of this fact after the operation when I am able. Perhaps after I set off again on my adventure I will not have to spend hours in local book shops trying to memorise sections of maps and guide books whilst feigning to consider making a purchase. Another plus is that I will now also miss most of the stiflingly hot summer in Syria, Jordon and North Africa and there is no rush to get to Patagonia as I will arrive comfortably after the winter. I will also be at home for the Football World Cup and not in the Sudanese wilderness. A small consolation at least. Slightly kinder weather, a bit more cash and a world cup on the tele… I would trade it all to continue. I don’t know if everything happens for a reason or not, but if it does at least I have some reasons.

After my short break I continued slowly to the Turkish frontier. Up until this point I had been without dilemma at the border posts and I was just contemplating this fact when I approached the Turkish border and had my first dilemma. The Greek border guards were all smiles, ‘Bravo’ and handshakes when they saw me ride up. I had grown accustomed to these pleasantries at the border. The Greek and Turkish posts were separated by a 200 metre long bridge, the start of which was manned by two soldiers holding rifles. Both very young, perhaps just teenagers, and both looked very unassuming even with their obvious armoury on display. ‘There are no bicycles allowed across the bridge. You must find another way across. I’m really sorry.’ One said despondently. I knew instantly what he meant by this other way. It was a 150 kilometre round trip. I pleaded and argued against this bizarre and irrational regulation, after all the border guards had let me through, there was virtually no traffic and the bridge was only 200 metres long. They called their commanding officer but the answer that came back was fırm and indisputable and I would not be allowed to cross. I returned to the border guards affronted and perplexed. There had obviously been some tension between the guards and the soldiers in the past because after I related the story the guards tutted and sighed and cursed the soldiers. One advised that I wait two hours, have some tea and try again when there would be new soldiers on shift. I doubted this would work. Then another piped up ‘lets smuggle him over in a truck!’. This idea was seized upon instantly and they all started tittering naughtily like school children about to play a hilarious prank on their teacher. Only five minutes later and a Greek Farmer and his wife pulled up in a truck with plenty of room in the back. There was nowhere to hide but I reasoned that it didn’t really matter and they drove me up to the bridge. Travelling by means other than by bicycle has been strictly against my religion but I told the purist in me to stop complaining, it would be 200 metres by truck or 150 kilometres by bike. I couldn’t resist waving at the soldiers as I passed by. To my surprise the once stern and obdurate senior officers on the other side of the bridge found it all very amusing and waved mirthfully as I crossed. I climbed off the truck after the bridge and cycled into Turkey to collect my first VISA. Two days later I reached Istanbul and stared across the Bosphorus to Asia with mixed emotions. Angry and upset that I could not yet continue my journey, anxious about what had befallen my knee and what lay in store at home but with one continent in the bag… a touch of pride.

In the wake of the volcanic eruption in Iceland and with European air travel in chaos I realised that even though I must return home I am stuck in Istanbul. So I made a decision… My adventure will not yet be over. I will hitch-hike back to London from Istanbul. I found somewhere safe to store my bike and most of my equipment and scribbled the words ‘Volcano Victim’ on a sign I can hold up by the roadside. I will set off this week. I have set up a new Justgiving page so people can sponsor my hitch-hike home. So far people have been immensely generous and have donated almost 10,000 pounds to the charity Merlin for my bike ride. I hope that we can raise 2000 quid for my hitch-hike home. Every penny will go to the UK medical charity Merlin.

If you want to help me make the best of a bad situation please sponsor my mini-adventure back to the UK for my surgery by visiting to make a donation.

My memory flicks back to the sign I saw on my first day of cycling just outside London which read “don’t give up” and I know that a small problem like this will not get in the way. The three months I have spent on the road have flown by. I suspect the three months I will spend at home will not. But I remind myself that three months out of five years is a snip. I will be back riding as soon as I am able. This blog will continue and I hope you will still be reading. My trans-European ride has been more than magnificent and this is just a small bump in the road and another test of that elusive virtue… my patience.

So it’s one continent down and five to go. At the end of continent number one here are the Cycling The 6 European Awards… the best and the worst of the continent as I saw it…

Best food – France
How I still managed to lose weight during my Patisserie fuelled ride across France is perhaps the biggest mystery of all.

Fastest Drivers – Croatia
I often think that the little flashing green man shown walking calmly at Croatian traffic lights should be replaced by a panic stricken red faced green man diving headlong towards the curb.

Toughest cycling – The French Alps
Spectacular and challenging. It was a love and hate relationship. I will never forgive them for what they have done to my knee.

Cheapest – Albania
“Byrek” – a cheese filled pastry purchased for the equivalent of less than 20 cents a pop washed down with 1.5 litres of Albanian beer for less than a Euro. Happy days.

Best Welcome – Albania
Salutes, waves, cheers and jubilation. It felt like a homecoming.

Fiercest dogs – Rural Greece (Turkey was a close second)
Chopper stay back! No Chopper! NO CHOPPER! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Favourite city – Thessaloniki, Greece

I stayed in Thessaloniki for ten days. It may not be the most beautiful but Thessaloniki has lots of history, friendly locals, great food and fine weather but most of all a young energetic heart and a quick pulse. Everywhere there are raucous parties and young people cutting loose. It’s a good place to have fun and I relished hanging out in the university drinking frappes, munching copious grub in Tavernas with traditional Greek music or dancing to techno in dingy squat parties.

And of course… The statistics

Distance cycled – 5000 km (I arrived into Istanbul on 4960 km. I had an obsessive-compulsive twinge and rode around until I had clocked up a nice round number.)

Countries cycled through – 13 (UK, France, Switzerland, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey)

Amount raised for the charity Merlin – Currently £9271. Thank you to everyone who has donated.

Accomodation – 99 nights (Slept for free for 80 of them)
Rough camped – 40
Couchsurfed (for the uninitiated CS is a travel networking website where local people put you up for free) – 32
Hostels – 18
Campsites – 2
With strangers who have invited me in – 3
With friends – 4
On my bike – not yet

Most expensive pint of Guinness – 6.80 Euro in Nice

Bike repairs – I’m one tyre, two sets of brake blocks and a chain link down

Punctures – Only one and brilliantly after just 20 km of the 5000 km outside Ashford in Kent.

Lowest temperature – Minus 19 in the Alps

Top Speed – 67 km/hr, coming into Gap, The French Alps.

Top altitude – Around 2000 metres, The Alps

Longest continuous ascent – Sea level to 1200 metres in Montenegro. 35 km of uphill riding.

Two things I lost count of – random acts of generosity from strangers and random acts of terrorism from dogs.

Paranoia and pesky pooches

At the border post I realised that I knew virtually nothing of Montenegro, the country I was about to enter. I quite liked this. I grew even more excited when I began cycling again and unfamiliar sights appeared by the roadside… a sign warning of wild boar and then a few kilometres later a dead one by the road. My plan for the day was another tough climb. From the ancient city of Kotor at sea level I would pedal uphill for thirty five kilometres, up to a height equal to that of Britain’s loftiest peaks, and at the top reap the reward… a view over Europe’s deepest fjord. I asked for some directions out of Kotor. “Its up up up” the woman kept saying gesturing wildly by turning her hand from left to right to mimic the road snaking up the side of the mountain. Is there any flat? “In Montenegro” said the man standing next to her “there is no flat”. And with that I bid them a hasty farewell before I talked myself out of it and I made up the mountain.

The ascent was a lung cruncher and after dodging the odd football sized chunk of falling ice on the way up I came face to muzzle with two huge sheepdogs that were waiting for me at the top. Wretched, savage looked beasts and despite their size they didn’t look very healthy. I tried desperately to remember if I’d had that third rabies jab. Their eyes were fixed on me and they were barking incessantly. I realise here a photo would be helpful but at the time I don’t recall feeling inclined to ready my camera. Farm dogs in Eastern Europe are fiercely territorial and since reaching Slovenia I have been chased around three times per day. It seems these menacing mutts had decided the road was their territory and it was clear what they wanted to do to the intruder. After a tense stand off I passed by with the assistance of the farmer who scolded Brutus and Chopper (I don’t know their names, I’m just guessing). I was unaware at this point that soon much worse would be in store from man’s best friend.

My route from the Montenegrin fjord would go northeast until I hit Bulgaria. That was the plan at least but I have got into the habit of making decisions quickly and only when I have to. That is not to say I don’t think them through, I just don’t worry about them until I’m actually at the junction, not hours or days beforehand. My first day of riding north and I was fighting against a vicious headwind. I had made just 10 km in over an hour. I’m not a patient person and this was frustrating. There’s a certain justice and fairness to the hills. Whatever I go up, I will eventually descend. Headwinds and tailwinds are more of a lottery and this was really pissing me off. I stopped in the road and weighed up my options. Continue or venture south to Albania. It was not like me to be plagued by indecision but I stood in the road and dithered.

Albania. I’d been warned not to venture into its interior and up until now I’d planned to take heed of this advice. “Albania is mafia country” I was told by a hostel owner in Dubrovnik. I was also warned of the poor quality of Albanian roads and I had even heard rumours of Albania being home to terrorist training camps. The UK foreign office site gave advice on travelling in Albania and did little to convince me this would be a sensible path to take…

“Gun ownership, crime and violence widespread”
“Driving can often be aggressive and erratic”
“Fatality rates from road traffic accidents are amongst the highest in Europe”
“Minor traffic disputes can quickly escalate, especially as some motorists could be armed”
“Risk of unexploded ordnance from the conflict in neighbouring Kosovo”

Even the Albanian flag, a black two headed eagle on a red background, to me looked decidedly sinister. I decided my idea of adventure probably stopped short of risking losing vital body parts in exploding land mines and on my journey I reasoned my legs would be quite useful accessories. I would get my head down and edge northeastwards.

I continued on, head down. Ten minutes later I paused again, intensely frustrated as another gust stopped me dead in my tracks. But I should push on… I looked up at the road in front and saw another farm dog yapping, growling and coming in my direction. In an instant I turned and was heading towards Albania. As I whizzed along with the breeze I thought about the perfunctory decision I had just made. The direction of the wind and a small dog would now shape the next month of my life. The experiences and challenges ahead would be dramatically different on this new route to Istanbul. I thought about Albania and my head was full of negative imaginings; a lawless land of landmines, terrorists and bandits. What was I getting myself into?

I crossed the border into Albania and immediately my fears were confirmed. The road became a hotchpotch of potholes and craters. But then what I didn’t expect, cheers and waves from Albanians out working in the fields. I was even saluted by some of the children as I rode past. People were clearly surprised to see me. Horses and carriages now shared the road with bashed up old Mercs and the occasional new one which I secretly hoped was occupied by the Albanian mafia. My first night in Albania was spent drinking vodka with a group of men in a metalwork shop. In fact Albania has been the most welcoming country of my journey so far and nothing better highlights the generosity of the Albanians than my experience near Elbesan.

I was on my way to the “Summer day” festival, a carnival with pagan roots which celebrates the end of winter. After my chilly start I was in the mood to cheer for warmer climes. I put up my tent on a small makeshift football pitch close to a few houses in the hills above the town. The local children seemed fascinated by this strange bearded curiosity camping under their goal posts and they watched my every move in silence. I was just settling down for the night when a man arrived with the cheekiest of the children, Albert. They couldn’t speak any English but it became clear that they wanted me to take down my tent and come into the house. This was an invitation and I followed them inside. The front room had a crucifix adorning one wall and a picture of Mary Magdalene on another. There were no other colours, carpets or decorations to be seen. Eight of them lived here, a Greek Orthodox family and clearly religious. Mum, dad, four children, the grandmother and the father’s sister who was profoundly deaf but knew a little English and I answered their questions in writing which she would then translate. She had suffered “nerve damage” and didn’t have enough money for the medical treatment for her hearing loss. The father was the only money earner after the grandfather died two months ago. The female members of the household were still wearing black. We took it in turns to ask questions. I established that the children wanted to be an economist, a nurse and Albert… a boxer. They had lots of questions for me, the usual regarding my family, whether I am married, whether I worried about travelling alone and finally to my amusement the sister wrote “Princess Diana. Accident or murder?”!

After the questioning I was led to the shower and afterwards sat down, watched intensely by the whole family and a small table was pulled up. They discovered my socks were wet so these were removed and a pair of the father’s socks brought for me to wear. A coat was placed over my shoulders. The women brought out food… sausage, egg, gherkins, yogurt, a nondescript meat dip, bread and cheese. Every time I finished the father would click his fingers and someone would scuttle off to fetch more. I refused and gestured that I had had my fill but he wasn’t taking no for an answer. When I persisted he looked suddenly dejected and gloomy. Even a bit frustrated. So I kept eating. They served me a plum spirit, beer, coffee and wine. Then at the end a cigar. “No thank you”. The look returned. I would smoke the cigar. I felt ridiculous sitting with a family who didn’t have enough money for basic healthcare, in a house where eight people slept in three rooms, wearing someone else’s socks, beer in hand, full to bursting with food and smoking a cigar.

The next day I got up early and went outside to my bike to find the plastic bag of food missing. The father looked upset as he showed me round to the back of the shed and there was the bag, shredded with food spilt over the ground. He pointed at the dog and started beating it. I had felt totally unworthy of such hospitality but now due to my stupidity by leaving my food outside they were feeling guilty. But one thing did cheer me up. I watched the dog getting whacked and couldn’t help notice that instead of flinching it was wide eyed and jumping around manically. I looked to the ground to find that the mutt had devoured several of my three in one coffee and chocolate sachets. I think he was having a little trouble handling the caffeine high.

In the capital Tirana I stayed in a hostel for a few days. One evening a figure entered in an immediately familiar outfit, looking I suspect, as ridiculous as I often do. A luminous workman’s jacket, trousers tucked in, glasses and helmet. It was another cyclist and the first I have met so far. Robin left England roughly when I did and had followed the Danube for most of his route across Europe. His girlfriend lives in Korea and being both English and a bit nutty he had decided the best way to get there would be by bicycle. I enjoyed winding him up by suggesting she wouldn’t be there when he arrived. We shared advice and tips and mused over maps. It was great to find someone who had their own woeful canine stories to tell and finally someone who was both excited and in awe by the sheer variety of Jaffa Cake-type confectionery in Eastern European supermarkets. He laughed at my inability to fully close two of my panniers due to the huge amount of useless tat I was lugging whilst I laughed heartily at his large rear pannier which was full to the brim with one commodity only… food. We walked through Tirana’s bazaars in the rain wearing the last of our clean clothes, indulging in the occasional impulse buy (me – a novelty horn for the bike, Robin – more food), ate ice cream and looked thoroughly English.

I had trouble leaving Elbesan after the festivities and found myself going in circles, riding down the same streets again and again. What was I doing wrong? I was navigating by compass as roadsigns had become a rarity in Albania. Then it dawned on me the problem. My novelty horn, mounted on my handlebars and next to my compass, was obviously made from iron interfering with the compass reading and leading me on a merry dance. I ditched the horn and finally crossed the border into Greece. In the vast rural emptiness of this region I had the most terrifying ordeal of the trip. I was travelling through a barren landscape which developed an otherworldly aura when the sun began to sink.

During the night I had heard barking nearby but the last farm I had seen was around twenty kilometres behind me. I was on the road for 6.30am. The day before perhaps one car had passed every hour but this early I knew there would be no vehicles coming by. As I cycled I caught sight of a small dog racing out of the scrub. No worries. I had a couple of stones ready to launch in its direction. Suddenly another larger animal appeared and then more barks from the scrub. Another two. Two more. Larger, barking relentlessly and bearing down on me fast. I sounded my mega-horn but there was nobody around to hear it. Now three more grizzly creatures, tufts of fur missing. Who could need this many dogs? There was no farm in sight. I chucked a couple of pebbles at the group to little effect. More appeared and by now I’d lost count. Certainly more than ten. Several were large and all highly aggressive. This felt different to my experience so far. Frenzied. It was as if they were goading each other on. The pack mentality seemed rife through the group. Two went for my legs and I kicked the air trying to fend them off. The road went steeply downhill ahead. I could out run them if I could get there quickly. In my effort to get away I pushed down hard on the pedals and the inevitable happened. “Clunk”. I looked down despairingly to see the chain lying limp against the crankset. I jumped off and started to push. The dogs were coming in to bite me and I jumped around wildly to avoid them. Finally I reached the incline and gravity came to the rescue. I freewheeled down the slope taking me away from the attack.

I have learnt two important lessons of late. Firstly I will try not to be so paranoid and will have faith in the world being a friendlier place than it is frequently portrayed or perceived. The foreign office I think is often over-cautionary. After all, it does have a vested interest. If a British citizen gets into trouble overseas if may be them who has to help, financially or otherwise. I will trust people more and listen to the doomsayers less. Secondly I am getting some proper protection from these troublesome mutts. A friend will bring me a Dog Dazer in Istanbul, a device with emits a high frequency sound, above that of the human range, but which is allegedly unpleasant for dogs and acts as a repellent. But this doesn’t seem enough. You get viciously threatened so what do you do? Make a loud noise? Come on. I’m going on the offensive. I don’t want to, no wait, I do want to inflict permanent injury on these pesky beasts but I empathise with those of you who think this may be a little heavy-handed. So bearing this in mind in the comments section below please leave your suggestions for weapons I can carry with me and use against aggressive dogs en route. Please include some sensible suggestions. This is not Doom 3 and I can’t imagine being able to get a rocket launcher or plasma gun across borders.

Reggae, rain and a dodgy beard

Despite contending with mountains and ice I have hugely enjoyed the thirty three days I spent cycling through France. It was a privilege to cycle through the big alpine landscape and the Champagne countryside but more than anything I am grateful for the goodwill and hospitality of the French people. I am grateful to the people who took me, fed me and gave me a bed for the night on three separate occasions and to the strangers who bought me breakfast in cafes twice. I am grateful to the man who saw me cycling and insisted that I take ten euros to buy myself a coffee and some food. I am grateful to the supermarkets for stocking 1 litre bottles of coconut flavoured Yops. I am grateful to whoever decided to build tunnels under the Alps when I was tired of cycling over them. I am grateful for all the bike lanes (France has many) and to the French drivers who often gave me so much space that I feared I would be unwittingly responsible for a collision between them and a vehicle coming the other direction. I am grateful to the farmer who found me rough camping in his field the morning after a storm and instead of chasing me off his land with a shotgun gave me an understanding nod and a smile. Finally I am grateful to the French Alps and The Jura for teaching me to man up and for making the next leg comparatively easy. In fact the only thing I am ungrateful for is that scrappy mongrel who gave chase and very nearly sunk his teeth into my left ankle near Nice. You are a disgrace to your country. Vive la France!

After a brief visit to Monaco I crossed the border and arrived in Italy to a very Italian welcome. It was carnival season and soon after crossing the border a festival procession passed by with children on floats wearing an array of different costumes. Whilst waiting at the traffic lights and watching the display a young Italian girl threw a full bucket of confetti over my head. I cycled off chuckling and haemorrhaging confetti in my wake. In Switzerland I heard the locals describe the French as a little “chaotic”. I wonder which adjective they would choose to describe the Italian mentality. I cycled past cars at jaunty angles in Italian town centres, less parked and more abondoned with hazards flashing and as I approached Italian cities the apparent distance to my destination would intermittently rise and fall according to which road signs you chose to believe.

I had to rest in Genoa. There was no getting away from it. The hills and cold had taken its toll on my body, or more likely my student days of hedonism and indulgence which had spilled over into my postgraduate life had led to some serious deconditioning. This, I realised, would take a while to reverse. In any case I have lost almost 10% of my body weight in the last two months despite a voracious appetite. To ensure my weight plateaus I have introduced a new meal into my daily routine and “Middle breakfast” will now take place between breakfast 1 and breakfast 2. Twice I have wondered which component of my bike was clicking only to realise the sound was emanating from my left knee. This then proceeded to become painful and swollen. My back has been giving me the occasional spasm and I have some tendonitis in my hands due to clutching too hard to my handlebars. I took heed of my accident and emergency acronym RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and put my feet up in Genoa for a few days before pushing on. My plan was to take off into Cinque Terre; a strange rugged coastal landscape with terraces spread over steep hills. My Lonely Planet guide to Cycling Italy described the riding as “demanding”. I naively shrugged this off forgetting that whilst I might be on a world tour as opposed to the average LP reader, I have a fully loaded touring bike and a dodgy left knee. But reinforced with cappuccino, cold pizza and a tubigrip I felt up to the challenge, at least mentally.

A rouge glow at dawn heralded the change coming my direction. The weather turned and it was my fault. I had commented to a friend the previous night that since reaching the coast I had been lucky with the weather. Hex number one. Then foolishly I believed the forecast on the BBC weather website and should have known better. The sullen murk descended and I was robbed of the views that I had worked so hard to enjoy, but every so often the grey veil lifted to reveal a glimpse of the landscape below. The road snaked towards and away from the coastline in a series of sharp chicanes. With an offshore breeze this gave the strange sensation of slowly fighting a headwind on the descents followed by exuberant sprightly climbs uphill with the aid of a tailwind. But things were about to get even steeper. I had saved money on my map of Northern Italy and mine gave little information about the altitude although I was in little doubt as to what lay in store. All the signs were there. The road I had started on was a series of S shaped curves on my map and I saw a sign stating that the road was open but that coaches were not allowed to proceed. I noticed young Italians passing me in four wheel drives with skis and snowboards strapped to the roof racks. Worryingly I also realised that even those Lycra-clad hill junkies of the coast were nowhere to be seen.

I began the thirty five kilometres of almost continuous uphill climbing and by lunch had reached the pass, cycling from roughly sea level to 1200 metres and back into the snow zone. My knee was complaining but I felt exhilarated and glad for the challenge and the change. The Riviera had felt crowded and claustrophobic with little countryside and I had been yearning for some wide open spaces. A group of Italian men bought me a glass of wine at the top of the pass. “Fantastico!”, pat on the back and I plunged down the other side to the pancake flat terrain of the Po river delta and on to Venice.

Cycling in Italy is a competitive sport and the common questions I had got used to “where have you come from?” and “where are you going?” were replaced with “how many kilometres have you done today?” from the Italian cyclists, invariably male. I enjoyed the Italian sense of humour as much as the landscape. Whilst friends in England have compared my new bearded look as akin to that of a Morris Dancer, Italians commented on my hairy visage by putting an arm around my shoulder, grinning and saying “hello homeless man!”. Whilst in Italy I also briefly appeared in the local newspaper in Ferrara, Italy’s “City for cyclists”. I was described as “The Real Forest Gump”. In a town near Ferrara a street gang of elderly Italian men stopped me in the street to comment on my shortcomings of bicycle maintenance.

“You need to oil your chain”.
“I know, thanks”
“Your saddle is too high”
“I think its OK”
“When you come home you will have huge ass”
The gentleman then pranced around with his hands held out behind him to mimic my grossly engorged buttocks. His posse roared with laughter.

The ride from Venice to Trieste was complicated by torrential rain which persistently without cessation for three days and nights whilst I cycled and rough camped at petrol stations, staying clear of the swollen rivers. Many times as I cycle I sing. This is not a habit I had at home and for good reason. The more horizontal the rain and the more punishing the headwind the sunnier my songs become. On the third day I had bashed out an assortment of reggae classics and I was launching into “in the summertime” by Mungo Jerry when I spotted a hunched figure walking through the aerial onslaught in the road ahead. Poncho, beard, pack, a look of resolve. An adventurer. As I greeted him he turned towards me and his face lit up.

“You’re are the first travelling man I have seen in two months” he said with a French accent
“Where are you walking to?”
“I walk to Mongolia!” He announced.

After establishing we were on equally preposterous missions we took some time to share food, tea, stories of alpine cold and tips on how to live cheap on the road. Mateo is a French sculptor and as he walks he leaves cairns along his route. I hopped off my bike and walked with him for fifteen kilometres through the night. We camped together in the park before parting ways the following day. I admired his pluck and his ambition but also his resourcefulness. On his year and half march across the Eurasian landmass he gets by on very little by cooking on open fires and resolving to never spend money on accommodation. “There is always somewhere to sleep” he told me. He had no map but simply walked towards the rising sun in the morning and followed his compass bearing east through the day. This is his blog, in French but with good photos of his work.

Croatian drivers are faster than the Italians. This is a significant statement. In Italy I had begun to suspect someone was putting amphetamines in the Foccacia. As I cycled down the Adriatic coast cars and motorbikes whizzed by and I tried not to look at the roadside memorials, most for young Croatians and many I suspected had died on the road. The fierce weather continued to slow my progress but the rust coloured rock of northern Croatia looked spectacular in the wet. Whenever the sun came out I converted my bike to a rolling drying rack, clothes flapping in the breeze. A cycling rag and bone man. I knew that soon there would be no more putting on wet socks in the morning. Friends were waiting near Zadar with curry, beer, a bed and means to wash and dry the sodden conglomerate mass of fabric that used to represent my clothes.

I said goodbye and set off but again the recurring theme of my journey showed its teeth. As I rode through the hills I saw a flash in the distance. Sheet lightning. Soon I was in the midst of the storm. I had seen electrical storms of this intensity only once before in India. Forks of lightning were visible every ten seconds and I saw one hit the ground perhaps only two kilometres from my location. Milliseconds separated the spark and the boom. In the hills I was exposed and vulnerable. I sought refuge at a small cafe and ate Jaffa cakes whilst I watched for two hours as storm after storm rolled in and lightning lit up the horizon in almost every direction as I looked on. The next morning began with crimson patches of light scintillating over the eastern sky and the new day was a stark contrast to the one before. Sun, sea and the winter tranquility of the Adriatic coastline conspired to make this the best cycling of my trip so far. I coasted south over gentle undulations with the help of a slight tailwind. By nightfall I had covered 160 km. My front light wasn’t working but with little traffic and a full moon I continued into the night, exhilarated and high on endorphins. I reached Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, on the last day of February. Time to kill with another friend, time to rest my knee and time to explore the nearby island national park of Mljet.

I leave Western Europe behind with my budget in tatters and hoping to gain some fiscal control in the cheaper and beautiful Balkan lands ahead. Tomorrow I start on my way to the next stopping point, the European capital of culture and the end of continent number one… Istanbul.

Random statistics from my journey so far…

Distance cycled: 3470 km
Top speed: 67.1 km/hr (The Approach to Gap, Les Alpes)
Countries travelled through: 8
Nights I have paid for accommodation: 9 / 58
Most amount of Milka consumed in one sitting: 450g

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).