Pit-Stops

La Roche-sur-Yon to a Corn Field 12k beyond La Tranche-sur-Mer: Friday 18 August 2017

12:20. Another large E.Leclerc in La Roche-sur-Yon, to the South of the city this time, as that’s the direction we’re headed, but it’s still massive! Bit of a ridiculous size for us to do our shopping for the day, but it was exactly on the way, with little inspiring us to deviate – in this weather.

Pissing
it
Down

Temperature’s pleasant enough – 21º – so the bare minimum of layers is possible under the proving-ever-so-useful poncho, which will enable us to dry out more quickly when the rain does cease.

If

Our second point of call today will take us to La Tranche-sur-Mer, and a campsite there to meet a guy, Robert, who’s going to give me a hand with, and a second opinion on, tuning my front derailleur – thanks for putting us in touch, Sue.

I’ve been given a great step-by-step by the ever-supportive Rob from Rob’s Bikecenter, but it’ll be nice to have access to a stand and some more tools should I discover something unexpected.

It’s also a lovely ride to and along the coast there, and doesn’t add any k to our way, in terms of Bordeaux, so why the hell not make contact with another kindly soul?

And, from his last text, I get the impression the weather’s going to pick up.

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The People in Our Paths #2

Canterbury to Melton Mowbray [Part 2]: Sunday 23 July 2017

16:50. Market Place, Melton.

Nine days since receiving the confirmation. Ten days since receiving the warning about what was happening and wondering how in the hell we’d get from there to here.

We’re here.

We’ve journeyed across five countries, almost incidentally, in order to do so.

Despite the circumstances that impelled the detour, we’ve been able to take in: the fabulous riding experience that is Belgium, the scarily erratic to quirkily quaint North of France, the real beauty of Kent, and the, to be fair, not-too-shabby scenery surrounding my old stomping grounds.

The bicycle moments of feeling a place on all of the senses would have been tragic to miss on a headlong, blind dash here. We’ve felt and experienced them together, as we always intended to try and do once we made our first tentative steps towards achieving this way of life a little over two years ago.

Every cloud. As always.

And there would always have been a feeling that some of the world was missing if we’d never made it to England on our outing, so something else to appreciate.

And, of course, last but not least – people: the kindness and generosity of people.

Through our mediated lives, we are led to believe that the world is populated by untold monsters, psychos and fanatics ready to take your life, your belongings or your principles at the drop of a hat.

Then you get out and you meet people; you open your need to people; your self to people. Love is returned and is never the less touching for being much more ubiquitous than our subscriber channels would like us to believe.

Thank you so so much: Peter and family in Asse, Isabelle and Tom in Aalter-Brug, restaurant-lady in Schoorbakkehoeve, and Chris and Caroline in Canterbury. You warmed our hearts on our mini-odyssey here.

Now to family I see all too rarely, so, despite the circumstances, I hope we’re able to enjoy some quality moments together.

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Isabelle and Tom

Aalter-Brug to Schoorbakkehoeve: Wednesday 19 July 2017

“Excuse me, do you have any idea where we might be able to camp around here tonight?” Unhesitatingly, casually, without any pause to reflect on negatives: Isabelle, “You can stay in our garden.”

Easy.

We followed a horse drawing a cart carrying two pairs of identical twins and two sisters.

Invited to drink with everyone at the table.

Space made in the garage so we didn’t have to camp outside – there was talk of a storm, which didn’t happen, coming.

Invited to join them for dinner. It was no trouble: the food was already prepared.

“Would you like to use the shower? Here it is, and there are two towels. And here’s the toilet.”

“Would you like an aperitif before dinner? Whisky and coke? Rum and coke? Gin and tonic? Something else?”

Conversation with a friendly, open, young family and their friends in the beautiful garden of the beautiful house they are renovating on the banks of the Ghent-Brugges Canal. With a menagerie of chickens, geese, sheep, horses, the runaway dog and the curious cat: “What’s in this tent? Let me in! Let me in!”

“Would you like another drink?”

“Would you like to try this?”

Interesting talk. Interesting people.

More good people.

As the night drew to a close: “Let me show you the code to the house, so you can get in if you need access during the night; for the toilet, for a shower, for something from the fridge, food from the kitchen, water from the taps. Oh, and there are crates of bottled water, beer and various other things. Feel like at home.”

“Sorry to keep repeating this, but thank you so much.”

“It’s normal. If I were doing such a journey, I would like it if people did the same for me.”

It’s normal.

We’re strangers.

The world is not a scary place … if you’re not afraid.

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Bicycles and Croissants

Asse to Aalter-Brug: Tuesday 18 July 2017

So ‘Bicycles, Trains, Trains and More Trains’ has turned into ‘Bicycles, Lots of Trains and Back to Bicycles’.

We arrived in Brussels early yesterday afternoon – after disembarking our eleventh train since mid-Saturday afternoon, spunking €500 on tickets for the stress-inducing privilege, plus €200 in hotels, and around €100 in sundry employing-more-typical-means-of-travel expenses – with a renewed sense of vigour.

Some way into Belgium our proximity to the UK seemed heightened. As the more clearly Germanic architecture gave way to the more delicate, bricky houses of Belgium, something suggested home wasn’t as far as it had been when we mounted the train in Austria.

Its geography seemed easier to navigate, too. Zeebrugge announced itself, and the sentiment: “I’ve had enough of trains,” had already been expressed and shared along the way. “Maybe rather than getting at least a couple more trains to Calais, we can ride some of the way? And how far is Zeebrugge? there are also ferries to the UK from there.”

‘Zeebrugge and ferry’ will always be imprinted on my mind due to the one that went down in February 1987 at a similar hour to me rousing to a kind of consciousness in an ambulance, and then a hospital, following a rather spectacular – I can only speculate, as I wasn’t able to witness it, obviously – motorcycle accident.

We referred again to maps.me. Despite its flaws, it has proved a useful tool to have so far. Zeebrugge: just up the coast from Dunkirk and Calais, and we wouldn’t really be going out of our way to get there. Also, it arrives in the North of England, and working our way South to Melton Mowbray would be preferable to North and having to circumnavigate London.

The ferry takes a considerably longer route, but there’d be fewer days riding in England; plus, we could stop this train-business in Brussels, ride to Gent, stop overnight there, then on to Zeebrugge some time Tuesday. The only thing is: I’m not sure if the ferries that go from there take bicycles on board as they are. When we get to Brussels, we’ll head straight for a cafe and make use of their wi-fi to check.

Negotiating our way out of Brussels Central Station, disappointingly, was not that easy with fully-laden touring bikes. With lifts to platforms in Germany already providing challenges there, and locating ways to get to ground level here, we got a tiny insight into the kinds of challenges that wheelchair-users face every day! Not easy. Your ease of access is much more restricted than I think you would imagine; and in countries like Germany or in a central European hub such as Brussels you’d think that facilities would be better than most. If they are, Jesus! Much much much more needs to be done. Much!

I digress.

We sat in an overpriced cafe drinking overpriced cappuccinos – not eating, as it was so ‘drogo’, as Agnieszka had said to me in Polish to disguise our embarrassment for only ordering what we did amongst the flows of free-spending tourists. It was a good coffee, but a bad cappuccino. I’d have begrudged €1 from a vending machine – but €3.50?!

Still, we were there for the wi-fi. Zeebrugge. Ferries. Aha, P+O go from there, so the bicycle option is an option. Let me just check how much. “Jesus, it’s a lot more expensive than Calais.”

“How much?”

“For one, £175. That works out at about €400 for both of us.” Agnieszka’s face sank in a way that steals the joy from your soul when you see it in a loved one.

We both started manically doing sums, working out various permutations until we reached the conclusion that, wherever we travelled from or to, on our present course of trains, trains and hotels, we were fucked!

This was fucking up our finances. Big time! Smashing them. With no idea of the day or date the funeral would be as of yet, we had no idea how long we’d have to stay in the UK stringing out the meagre amount of money we’d have left.

Fuck, we may not even have enough money to get out of England. It all became too much. The adrenalin and the emotion of the previous days flattened and tumbled out of us. Hope and optimism vanished. We clawed at alternatives, desperately, frantically, trying to maintain at least  our position on this smooth road that had suddenly become a vertical cliff-face.

It was a moment of clarity and a moment of crisis.

It was a necessary moment when we returned to defining our lives and situation rather than being defined (too much) by them.

Despite ourselves, as the goal of being back in England became paramount, rather than ‘just’ travelling from here to there to here, we had silently slipped back into dependence on the illusion of convenience – the convenience that comes at such a cost the more ‘convenient’ it is – and the whole convenient lifestyle it condones, fosters and nurtures as part of its package.

We were bicycle tourers and travellers: this was our way of life. And here we had been, since the realisation that England had emerged on the horizon, travelling expensively and uncomfortably (I like trains, but with a fully-laden touring bike they’re not fun) on innumerable trains; therefore buying and eating overpriced and life-destroying crap for our stomachs, and  checking into overpriced hotels along the way.

How quickly we had reverted to Western-Consumer-Type! How easy, once you buy into one part of the system, all the other parts seem so unavoidable, too! How quickly, aside from taking the bikes with us, we had abandoned bicycle travelling when travelling was imperative! Oh, there were extenuating circumstances that had taken over, sure, but we had abandoned so much so quickly; or, at least, lost sight briefly of who we were.

We had, of course, planned to cycle when in England while we could, but were letting our desperation to be on hand in the UK when need be over-ride any other concerns … or even logic.

And it was costing us. This was not who we were – we were bicycle tourers. We were already travelling, pointing our bikes forwards. We had been told on numerous occasions that time was not of the essence. We were carrying everything we needed to travel from A to B, and stop, and go and stop again.

We were exhausting ourselves – spiritually, emotionally, physically, financially – for what? We had achieved a little speed. We had shot through much of the beauty that is Germany. We were nearer a goal, but losing ourselves.

And the goal was ill-defined, in terms of time.

And means.

We are bicycle tourers…

…and we are on our way!

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15:55. Gent. Break. Due to odometer issues – ‘Sigma’ is Latin for ‘unreliable piece of shit’: maybe should’ve checked that before I bought it – I can’t be very precise as to the number of kms we’ve covered or to the amount of time we’ve been rolling, but it’s been fairly easy going: Belgium isn’t known for its mountains or hills. We’ve been riding on and off, on our third significant break, since about 9:30am, so maybe four hours of riding and close to 50k would be a fair estimate.

Just stopped for a vital refuel and refresh, and to work out today’s kind-of target – Aalter Brug. About another 30k and maybe three hours max’ of riding – to find somewhere to camp, which doesn’t feel easy in Belgium: every inch of land feels like it’s been bought by, sold to or allotted to someone. Doesn’t feel like there is much public land, at least, not in the areas we’ve travelled so far.

Think it’s a question of just getting somewhere and asking around: we did OK last night, asking a helpful guy, Peter, who, despite being unsure how to react at first when we asked him about camping possibilities in the area, hesitatingly offered us a spot in one of his fields – he looks after competition horses.

As we have found to be the case so far when asking for a patch of land to pitch our tent, after a while our hosts begin to develop a sense of responsibility towards us and feel that they should offer us more. In Czechia it was the lady mentioning bicycle storage, use of the toilet, then bringing us the chairs to sit on; here it was, again, the toilet, asking if the noise from his water-sprinkler was OK – it was – asking if we need electricity to charge our devices, and the sweet surprise this morning when we opened our tent to discover two fresh croissants from a local bakery sitting outside waiting for us.

Lovely.

Fingers crossed for tonight; you never know in this game.

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Thank You, Czechia

Brno to Těšetice [Part 1]: Tuesday 11 July 2017

0639. In a kitchen listening to and smelling the cleansing scent of a Summer downpour. Think it’s been at it for most of the night. Every time I recall waking, it was to the sound of rain and the distant echo of thunder. If it continues like this for much of the day, which it certainly appears like doing at the moment, it’ll add another dimension to the day’s ride, but nothing too dramatic: the temperatures are still high, so just the same riding gear as usual, with the poncho, the clear lenses in my shades, and sandals instead of my riding boots. Sounds a bit minimal, but one thing I learnt from last Friday’s downpour-day is that it wasn’t so much the getting wet that was the problem, but the staying wet while accumulating more water.

As we speak, it seems like there is a brief let up,
but, as I said,
that doesn’t really change anything in terms of getting off today.

That’s what we’re doing.

The next stage of our journey will hopefully see us in and around Vienna late Thursday afternoon, where we hope to be able to find someone to host us for a couple of nights, to put our feet up for a little longer and be able to enjoy some of this historic city. Have contacted five Warmshowers potentials so far, but, as of yet, have only received two negatives to our enquiries; which is cool, as it’s totally their prerogative which stranger they graciously invite into their homes, isn’t it; and it’s nice they have responded so promptly, so we can already tick them off the list.

It is July though, and Vienna’s not the most anonymous of cities, so one would imagine there are a fair few visitors more than usual.

Still, fingers crossed.

Something will turn up, and we’re going that way, anyway, so one way or another it will get experienced.

So, we approach the time when we’ll be saying a fond farewell to Czechia. This will be our ninth day here – and what a positive experience it’s been! From the beautifully lush, sweeping terrain of Moravia, to the slightly more scorched, Northern Mediterranean feel of the lower lying central regions, it has been an absolute joy, pleasure and privilege to be able to enjoy and be a part of the natural treasures that, to be honest, I wasn’t aware existed on such a Czech-wide scale as they do.

For that reason alone, I’d recommend anyone who has the opportunity, time or inclination taking as prolonged a visit as possible to this part of the world – preferably by bike or on foot, as I’m pretty sure that’s the best way to allow a place to touch all your senses 😉

And the people, too:

  • from the woman on the first night who allowed us space to camp in her lovely garden, and kept offering us extra things as afternoon progressed into evening;
  • to our fantastic Warmshowers’ hosts, Michal and Zuza, who invited us to join them on that wonderful ride through Beskidy;
  • which was then the ride that took us to the community in the mountain forests, who keep them clear by traditional means from their predation by various grasses, to allow the wild orchids that are native there to flourish. Great people, with whom it would have been nice to be able to spend a little more time and support them in what they’re doing. Unfortunately, time and circumstance didn’t allow it to be so at this time;
  • to the guy in the petrol station who acted as an informal Bureau de Change to allow a pair of tired looking cyclists the possibility to be able to get a coffee from a cash-only coffee machine;
  • to Ondrej and Jaroslava , who, despite being in the middle of moving home, with two young children, a son of one and a half – the cheeky Jakub, with the sweet grin that’ll see him get away with murder one day – and a daughter of three months, found time to offer us accommodation in the flat which they’re leaving – all to ourselves!!! – while they slowly settle into the impressive house they now call home; and who also found time to invite us round to said new home for a chill evening of good food, pleasant chat, good beer and a tasty Slivovitz, homemade by Ondrej’s dad 😃

Yes, Czechia, you’ve done yourself proud, and we’ve really enjoyed our time here. As a clearly keen cycling nation – and quite an active nation in general, I feel – the pleasure has also been heightened by the possibility to enjoy our environs on roads, routes, and trails that don’t pose the ominous threats roads and routes in other areas often do.

Of course, we’ve still got the prospect of another day and a half here, so time for something to take the shine off yet, but so far, Czechia – you’re looking good!!!

Today’s goal is Vitonice, some 60km to the South-East of Brno, and about 20km from the border with Austria. The plan is to stop and camp somewhere there overnight, before setting off tomorrow and making our way into our second country via Znojmo. We’ll then continue in a similar South-Westerly direction to Retz, before swinging South-East again to Hollabrunn, where we’ll make camp for another night. From there, it’ll be on towards Vienna on Thursday, and, yes, hopefully a two-night stop-over to enjoy a little of what the city has to offer.

Who knows – after just three days riding rather than the seven that brought us from Bielsko-Biała to Brno, we may even find the energy to go and see that new Spiderman movie this time? 😁

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Discarded Items #1

Kyjov to Brno: Sunday 09 July 2017

At almost 9am we pack and prepare to make our way to Brno, and the promise of two nights’ stay in a three-bedroomed flat all to ourselves; thanks Ondrej, who, with his wife and children, is in the process of moving flat.

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Is it wrong that quite prominent in my mind is the thought of being able to see the new Spiderman movie?

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Items Discarded Thus Far

    • Covers to protect food whilst camping.
    • Spare ruler. ‘Spare ruler?’ What?!
    • Running jacket with removable sleeves. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
    • Recorder. Yes, the instrument.
    • Kettle. Unnecessary when you have a pan. And the cloudy water is suspicious.
    • Rain shoe covers. Agnieszka’s, though I think mine will soon follow.

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Restoring Our Faith (in Elements of Humanity)

Cieszyn to Vojkovice: Monday 03 July 2017

Today has been beautiful so far; and Czechia is making a wonderful first impression. Clearly, in this part, more unspoilt – and with a nice amount of space devoted to harvesting solar energy. Trees in the hedgerows rather than being torn down as a ‘hazard’ or to make more space for chemical crops – or whatever excuse they conjure for cutting down ever more of our tree breddren.

It’s 5:15pm, with 149.47km on the clock (48.2km today) and 11 hours 11 minutes of riding (3 hours 21 minutes today). A kindly lady has allowed us to pitch our tent on her land for the night, make use of her yard for the bikes, and sit on the chairs she brings out to us as we’re preparing dinner. We feel just great.

With a cacophony of bird calls coming from an orchard to the West, a view of a copse to the North, fields, sheep and mountains to the East, and the discrete protection of a bush for us to secrete our tent behind to the South: yep, we happy 😁

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Shifting Terms

Bielsko-Biała: Sunday 02 July 2017

Today has been about waking up in a bed, following the humbling, overwhelming hospitality of our overnight hosts, Andrzej and Teresa. Their lovely home, situated in what could almost be a village on the outskirts of Bielsko-Biała, with a view of the surrounding mountains, awaited, along with a super warm welcome, a beer and a feast of food; followed by an evening of easy banter and a chilled bottle of vodka.

After a quick shower, we snuggled into the bed and hazily connected our devices to the Internet. So lovely to see the messages of support from our friends and acquaintances: really nice. Thank you one and all.

We awoke some time before 10am – such a nice sleep; and such lovely smells ascending from the kitchen. Smells like Teresa and Andrzej have had a fantastic breakfast. But no, they haven’t. Not yet. They’re waiting for us, with another feast fit for a championship start the day. Again, lovely food and easy banter go down great: thank you so much to you both, and to your daughter, Asia. Wonderful people.

Which makes us think of the owner of the land where we pitched our tent the previous night. Again, wonderful, but consumed by first night, first morning thoughts, we neglected to get a photo with him. But thank you, anyway, Jacek – we won’t forget you (for all the right reasons).

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With a rest day – so soon? – we leave our bikes for one day to check out the city of Bielsko-Biała, taking the second part of its hyphenated name from the river on which it sits. It’s a damp, drizzly, overcast day, and we’re tired, though buzzing through a blend of strange adrenalins based on excitement, wonder, joy and mystery, and maybe fear with a touch of panic, too.

We discover quite a small old town swallowed by various versions of modernity, and, as you make your way towards the centre, it takes its time to work its magic on you. Approaching the heart, you seem to rewind through various epochs until mid-twentieth century socialist realism shifts into a maze of winding, cobbled, medievality.

It’s like a work-in-progress that hasn’t decided what it wants to be yet. But its clashes of derelict and renovated, old and restored, new and nature, do inspire a range of thoughts and emotions, and feelings and ideas. Yes, an inspiring mixture makes for an inspiring place.

The cacophony of times in these human artefacts actually heightens your sense of time here, and the fact that you’re constantly aware of your situation in relation to the mountains means there’s also a very real sense of place, which is somehow, for want of a better word, humbling.

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I like it here.

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And now: sugar.

A wonderful ‘szarlotka’. Boy! does Poland know how to do apple-crumble – a long time favourite of mine 😊 I can understand how I made this place my home for so many years.

Epilogue

Every day is a new experience. There is nothing predictable except our most immediate concerns. That’s how we wanted it and how we are liking it. Lovely.

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