2nd August 2018
'I Could' - 80 Days | #womendurance | #FastFar
Spain - 23 days
My 3 month cycling adventure began in February this year in northern Spain, where I spent a week at an Adventure Syndicate run ‘cycling get together’. I was setting out on this trip feeling fairly free of responsibilities. I was unemployed, had no dependants, no mortgage and enough savings to be free of financial worries for a while. A few niggling worries remained - worrying if I really had what it takes to cope with bad weather, solitude, wild camping, cold nights, unpredictable terrain, constantly changing cultures and languages etc etc - all equating to a fear that I wouldn’t be able to cope if the going got to tough. However I saw no option but to ignore these doubts, as I couldn't let a load of ‘what if’s?’ get in the way of my first real adventure! It was time to leave the safety of the familiar at home and to head out into the unknown, I’d just have to shake off those last few constraining doubts and worries on the road!
Asides from the odd cycling trip in Scotland and France, I hadn’t done much longer term touring, and very little wild camping. Fortunately Spain couldn’t have provided a better warm up for the trip ahead. Frequent small towns and villages meant I didn’t have to worry about finding water or food, and there wasn’t much in the way of human habitation in between leaving vast empty landscapes providing plentiful, discreet and stunning wild camp spots. The weather was mostly kind with clear blue skies and the days warming to a balmy 15 degrees. The temperature would however plummet at night to as low as -6, and I would often wake with frozen water bottles and a tent lined with frozen condensation, making for some rather chilly mornings.
My route broadly speaking took me to Valencia, then inland towards Albacete and into the Sierras de Carzorla Segura where I spent a number of very quiet days pedalling high in the mountains rarely seeing another person or car. I was loosely following an Altravuser route provided by bikepacking.com advising ‘you almost need a mountain bike to ride it’ which I picked and chose sections from.
Once I found my spot I would instantly relax and start setting up my home for the night. I’d cook dinner then retreat into my tent to read until I fell asleep, feeling cosy and protected from the outside world.
I rode olive grove tracks, old railway lines, gravel tracks, roads and the odd bit of single track. The variety of terrain kept me entertained and I felt content in my own company. I felt lucky to be able to take in my surroundings, distracted only by my thoughts (of which there weren’t many), from dawn till dusk each day. An hour before sunset, a slight nervousness would set in as I began to think about where I might sleep, which at that moment could be anywhere! Once I found my spot I would instantly relax and start setting up my home for the night. I’d cook dinner then retreat into my tent to read until I fell asleep, feeling cosy and protected from the outside world.
I really enjoyed my mornings when I’d wake in my little tent. First up I would normally have to mop condensation with my travel towel - its primary use, before leaning out to grab my stove and cooking pot trying not to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. Coffee first then porridge, using the pot to warm my hands. Eventually I’d surface, pack up quick and roll on, warming up quickly. I would normally stop in the first or second village bar/ cafe I came across for a coffee and tostada and to freshen up in the facilities. Sometimes I’d sit at the bar with a number of men mostly dressed like labourers or farm workers, me in dirty cycling clothes. I was mostly met with indifferent nods, but very little attempt at conversation.
As I headed further South I passed through bigger cities such as Granada and Ronda, which thronged with tourists and all that went with it. Reaching Cadiz on the south west coast it felt like a milestone as geographically it would be the furthest west as I’d go. I therefore rode straight to the sea for a ‘cleansing’ swim, much to the amusement of the wrapped up onlookers. From Cadiz I rode east to Algeciras so I could catch a ferry to Tangier Med. This was merely so I could pedal a few hundred metres along the Moroccan port onto my next ferry which would take me all the way to Savona in Northern Italy…
Italy - 6 Days
The warmth of Moroccans was immediately apparent, particularly in contrast to the not so forth coming Spanish. I’d barely sat down on the ferry when a woman ushered me over to feed me homemade delights and lemonade, while we attempted to communicate with hand signals and gestures. This warmth and kindness continued, and it saddened me slightly that I wasn’t continuing my journey south through Morocco and beyond, but that would have to wait for another time! The ferry journey was 53 hours, but fortunately two days camping on a 1970s chrome and mirror clad ferry with a backpack full of food is my idea of heaven. I enjoy that continued sense of motion, even if my legs aren’t spinning, and it offers the opportunity to rest, read, nap, and eat lots while staring out at the flat neverending horizon. The sense of time becomes blurred and the calm rolling motion of the boat I find relaxing and soporific. As we headed north conditions notably began to change at sea, occasionally I’d pop up on deck and it was cold and very wet, as wind blasted across the sea. I had been checking the weather online, and while I was pleased to see I was leaving behind some very very wet weather in Spain, I was sailing into considerably colder and snowy conditions as I travelled 1500km North East. I would find out later that this would mark the beginning of the ‘beast from the east no.1… ‘a cold spell carrying freezing winds across the continent’. I was entering unknown weather territory for cycling and worries and doubts began to creep back in, but I just reminded myself - take one day at a time.
The ferry arrived in Savona 2 hours late. I had arranged to stay with a ‘warmshowers’ host ‘Pietro’ 10 miles further east along the coast, as camping did not seem like a feasible option. At 10pm I rolled off the ferry into icy temperatures and a biting wind. Pietro had kindly tried to come and pick me up due to the weather but I insisted I should be fine. On arrival I was greeted by a warm and smiling Pietro, and since it was already late he showed me straight to my bedroom where I couldn’t have been happier to see a log burner blazing! Damp clothes hung to dry, I couldn’t wait to get into bed having spent 2 nights camping on the redundant dance floor of the ferry and I dozed off to the sound of Pietro tinkling on his piano upstairs. When I woke I could already hear the wind and looking out the window snow was billowing around as it was whipped in all directions. I wanted nothing more than to stay in my nice warm bed forever and not get on my bike, but I had a ferry to catch in 6 days and the self imposed pressure to just keep moving forced me up and out. Pietro and I had breakfast together and he voiced his concerns about me cycling out into the snow. He told me ‘snow hasn’t fallen on the beach here since 1985!” which I thought was fitting given it was the year I was born. To put his mind at ease (as well as my own…) I said I’d cycle as far as the next train station and assess things there, then I could always hop on a train if conditions seemed unmanageable. He clearly thought I was mad. We said our farewells and once I hit the road I realised my 35mm tyres could cope with a bit of snow, and cycling in falling snow on the Italian coast seemed to unique an opportunity to miss! I rode on past the train station and quickly located a sports shop so I could buy some more appropriate winter cycling clothes. I arrived at a decathlon in Genoa with two wool gloves on my left hand, and an odd cycling glove on the other, my fingers sticks of painful ice. With new gloves and waterproof trousers on I felt marginally better prepared for the weeks weather I was about to face.
I had 6 days to reach Ancona on the east coast of Italy to catch a ferry to Albania. Here I was meeting a couple of pals for a few days cycling together. This didn’t really allow much time off for snow days, so I covered as many miles as I could when the going was good and shorter days when things got tough. I soon discovered that I would prefer to ride in snow any day over riding in the rain in near freezing temperatures. The snow stings your face and eyeballs like a thousand little icey pin pricks, but snow doesn't chill you to the bone the way being wet does. However the silver lining of any unbearable discomfort is the heightened comfort which comes after. On my shortest, and coldest day, I reached the town of Citta di Castello after only 40 miles and took shelter in a cafe to try and warm up with coffee and pastries. I decided I’d had enough so assessed the limited accommodation options, and booked the cheapest room at an ‘agriturismo’ 10km away. I arrived at the completely deserted agriturismo complex wondering if I’d come to the right place, but shortly after a very nice Italian woman arrived to check me in. On seeing I had arrived by bike, wet, cold and shivering, she made me a cappuccino, gave me various biscuits and treats and upgraded me to a family sized house complete with a huge fireplace. I spent the evening in an armchair in front of the roaring fire eating gnocchi, streaming music and drinking red wine. I couldn't have felt warmer, happier or more grateful for the simplest of things that evening!
Italy ended on a cycling high, a long final day to make up the miles, up and over the Appenine mountains before an easy ride to the coast. The weather was dry and the scenery of Umbria beautiful and I was told this is one of the best times of year to experience the rich, deep colours of Umbria.
The Balkans (Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia) - 25 Days
The second ferry from Ancona to Durress was a disappointment compared to the first, less chrome and chintz with no room to roam, but the crossing was less than 24 hours so it was manageable. There were limited on board camping facilities so I ended up sharing a very long bench which spanned the back of the bar area with 5 others. We arrived early afternoon and I rolled off into Duress port. As I sorted my things and got ready to ride off, a young boy sidled up to me begging. I had no local currency so gave him my oranges which he seemed depressingly pleased with. Within a few kms my plotted route was leading me through some urban sprawl along a questionable gravel road, maybe this is what all roads in Albania were like?? I passed some youngsters who tried to tell me I couldn’t get through that way as the road was bad but I continued confidently thinking ‘they don’t know what terrain I can handle…’. Turns out they did. Soon the track disappeared under a festering pile of mud and rubbish which I couldn’t see the extent of and I wasn’t prepared to push and wade through it to find out. I turned back and sheepishly passed the youngsters again, who rightly gave me ‘we told you so looks!” before asking for a selfie.
As I rode away from the outskirts of Duress it was like travelling forward through time with each mile closer I got to the capital - Tirana. Roads were in bad condition and over enthusiastic drivers would pass unnervingly close. There was a lot of friendly honking which became the mildly irritating norm through the Balkans, however often with an accompanying thumbs up or cheer out the window which would make me smile. At the roadside tables sat selling sparse amounts of produce, knackered old sofas positioned behind speaking of long days of quiet commerce.
I warmed to Albania quickly, probably helped by my introduction to ‘burek’....This would be my cycling staple for the next 3000ishkm,
There was rubbish everywhere, and the landscape was littered with oversized detached dwellings and buildings in different states of completion, mostly unfinished. This can apparently partly be attributed to property tax not being levied on incomplete buildings, a reason not to finish them. As Tirana neared, shops, cafes, well dressed people appeared, and it felt like I had leapt forward into the 21st century in a matter of miles. Following some super vague but in the end adequate instructions I met Penny and Alice in the enormous main square of Tirana. Rather touchingly they had cycled out on the main highway to the port to try and meet me off the ferry, but arrived 1.5 hours after my ferry came in, assuming it would be late. They then hopped on a bus with their bikes back to Tirana and arrived shortly before me with just enough time to get the beers in!
I warmed to Albania quickly, probably helped by my introduction to ‘burek’, which was to become a very important part of my life for the next 6 weeks. Burek is a baked filo pastry thing commonly filled with cheese, as well as spinach, meat, potatoes, ham, and ‘pizza’ depending on the country. This would be my cycling staple for the next 3000ishkm, and eating 3 a day wasn’t unheard of. It was the cheapest in Albania at the equivalent of a mere 25p. It was apparent Albania was still feeling the affects of its recent communist rule and thankfully it hadn’t yet fully geared up for tourists. Coffee, rakija, accommodation and anything else you might want was also very very cheap. Refreshingly this also meant that locals wanting to interact with us came more from curiosity and helpfulness, rather than seeing us as an easy buck.
After 4 days as a 4 we arrived in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. From here we became 2, and Penny and I continued into Kosovo for what we hoped would be a relatively painless jaunt over a 1400m pass and down the other side into the town of Prizren. However as we slalomed up the 7 mile steady climb, the driving rain and force of the headwind really begged belief at times. The intensity continued on the descent where the road had become a stream, and we could barely see through our rapidly blinking eyes in an attempt to shed the rain. Not over yet, and getting dark, the final 10 mile straight road into town was waterlogged and shared with speeding heavy traffic so all we could do was hope we didn’t end up at the bottom of a waterfilled pothole or ran off the road by a truck. We were greatly relieved to finally arriving in Prizhren, quickly finding a cafe to take refuge, both looking at each other as if we’d just survived something. We ate rice pudding, cakes and drank coffee while we found somewhere to stay, and eventually left the warmth of the cafe in our soaked clothes for what felt like one of the coldest rides of my life to our hostel. It was far from luxury, but I will probably be remembered as the best hot shower I’ve ever had. The owner stuck an english film on and plied us with home brewed kosovan red wine from a coke bottle. Tired, but content, it was another evening of post traumatic cycling joy.
A week later I moved on. Snow was still on the ground but the air was crisp and the sky blue and it looked like I had a 2 day weather window to get me to the Bosnian border and onto Sarajevo. A few sedentary days really reignites the joy of being back on the bike and it was great to be on the move again. There was a reasonable amount of snow still about, with streams of snow melt twinkling in the sun as it ran down the lesser used roads my route was taking. I passed through remote and rural areas where I’d see the occasional person, who would stare wide eyes following me, often trying to wave me down. In a town a man waved me down and I was surprised when he spoke English and asked if I needed water, I did. It turned out he was a cyclist who organised a mountain bike race in the area. He asked which way I was going and when I said to the Bosnian border he scribbled a note in Serbian and told me to stop in at the ‘paradise cafe’ 10km up the road and to give the owner the note. As I approached the cafe the owner was there waiting and waving, having been given the heads up I was on my way. I gave him the note and took the opportunity to have a proper lunch of grilled chicken, salad and bread. He put a large glass of clear liquid on the table of what I assumed was water given the quantity. I knocked it back quickly realising it was in fact A LOT of Rakija, and I coughed and spluttered much to the amusement of the others drinking and chain smoking in the restaurant. I could now guess what the note said. I wobbled on reaching the Bosnian bridge border crossing after dark finding a camp spot soon after.
It was easter sunday and I had messed up, as absolutely nothing, not even petrol stations were open.
The ride to Sarajevo was tough, one which began in the rain, turning to snow as I climbed higher into the mountains and the air got cooler. Visibility reduced until car headlights would eerily appear out of the white haze only metres away. Doubling up gloves and wet overshoes were not doing enough to keep my extremities warm, so I would stop in at bars when they occasionally appeared and have a coffee before pushing on. I had a bed booked in Sarajevo, so I knew I would be warm and comfortable that night, i just had to keep inching forward. Snow continued to fall and I was feeling the affects of the 3000m of climbing I had already done that day. None of this was helped by my unusually mannered appetite which hadn’t completely recovered after a stomach bug in Belgrade. But I had no real option but to keep going, so slow as it was, eventually I was descending into Sarajevo, amazingly situated surrounded by hills dusted in snow, the peaks hidden in the low clouds as it was beginning to get dark. I was so grateful to arrive in what turned out to be a real homely hostel and I ended up spending a few days here, learning more about Sarajevo and its seriously checkered but also prosperous past (a visit to the eery snow covered 1984 Olympic bobsleigh track was testament to this). I found out more about the almost 4 year siege of the city, the Bosnian war, the genocide and the tatters Bosnia had been left in after the war, all things I knew virtually nothing about before. Oddly this knowledge began to spook me, as my mind was filling with images of war and mass graves, my imagination running wild worrying about landmines and other remnants of war. Yet I was merely passing through this landscape in a matter of days whereas people have lived and managed here for the 20 years since the war because they have no other choice. Yet again I was fearing unknowns, and once I left Sarajevo and I was back on my bike heading north, my imagination was calmed by experiencing the beautiful reality of Bosnia.
Central Europe (Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France) - 26 days
I passed through Croatia and into Slovenia swiftly, following the river Kolpa which also formed the border for a number of miles. This was a beautiful river valley marred only by what looked like a recently built ugly fence along the edge of the river, I assume in response to the refugee crisis. It was easter sunday and I had messed up, as absolutely nothing, not even petrol stations were open. I had some porridge oats stashed in my bags and that was about it, which was a miserable prospect for my dinner. I came to an open bar where given the hour moods were running high. Guttingly the barmaid said they weren’t doing food so I settled for a coffee. Virtually no english was spoken by anyone yet a rather drunk man appeared with a plate full of meat, coleslaw and bread and insisted I ate it and then bought me a beer. I don’t know where he got the food from, and I didn’t really care but was incredibly grateful that I wouldn’t have to resort to my oats yet. Back on the road still no opportunities to buy food presented themselves so I eventually stopped to try and ask a woman in her garden if i could buy some pasta off her. Not speaking any english she called her daughter off the hillside to translate and I ended up being waved off by the whole smiling family with pasta, tuna, various meats and stuffings and cakes as it was there Easter leftovers! People are so kind.
Slovenia was stunning; snow covered mountains, the Julian alps, beautiful lakes and the mindboggling colour of the river Soca, which I couldn't resist a couple of very icey dips in. I stayed a couple of nights in the very pleasant capital Ljubljana before a reasonably flat and uneventful ride to Budapest. I had a few days off in budapest with my Mum while my whole drivetrain was replaced with the help of the Mason team and a lovely hungarian mechanic. His english was limited, but the facial expression and ‘wow’ when he saw what I had whittled my chainring teeth down to said it all.
Leaving Budapest, I really was now heading in the direction of home, with one minor detour via Zurich to see friends. Heading west I followed the Danube threading between the Slovakian and Hungarian border before heading into Austria. It was flat and fast, and nice to be traffic free for a while, with only one near collision to speak of as a wild boar shot across my path just in front of me. I stopped in my tracks, shocked and fleetingly scared, but thankfully it charged away oblivious to me and my bike. All aspects of cycle touring were definitely becoming easier as I headed west, helped by a significant improvement in the weather as it began to feel noticeably spring like. Road conditions improved, prices sadly rose, communication became easier and rubbish littering the landscape had almost disappeared. I was becoming aware I was on a well trodden cycle route now by the number of fellow tourers I was seeing. Until week 9 I’d only seen one other tourer the whole trip. By the time I reached france I felt like I was in very familiar territory, and I could feel my relative closeness to home. The last few days I pushed the miles due to a last minute decision to make a family commitment , which ended in a 65 mile morning dash to make the 12.30 ferry from Calais which I very narrowly caught. I was teary as I boarded, I’m not sure if it was relief that my efforts hadn’t been wasted or that I was sad i was nearly home and all those associations with came with it.
You see, the wonderful thing about cycle touring is that once you hit the road, as prepared as you can be, you are released from the responsibilities of modern life and left only with the realities of living. There may be an end date or intermediate deadlines, but you essentially don’t have to weigh yourself down with plans and commitments, instead existing only in a world of forward motion and constant change. However once the end loomed, those stresses and pressures begin to creep in once more… money, job, friends etc etc, head filled with thoughts and concerns around ‘I should’ scenarios, rather than opportunistic ‘I could...?’. All I wanted to do was keep pedalling away from the ‘shoulds’ in the direction of more ‘coulds’...
Looking back I am grateful for my naive and hopeful assumption that anything south of England would be warm in early Spring. It was perhaps a tad optimistic to set off with a pair of flip flops as my only alternative to cycling shoes though. Had I known that the beast from the east was on its way, I would likely have never left. However I’m glad that it charged through, twice, because of what it brought with it. I passed by and over countless snow covered mountains, and got to experience the remoteness and sense of solitude you get when travelling through places out of season. Consecutive blurred days on the bike were punctuated by days of extreme weather, which I suspect will last in my memory far longer than those warm sunny days cycling the home straight through France. Plus I’ve now experienced conditions I wasn’t sure if I was capable of dealing with, giving me valuable confidence to take with me on my next cycling adventure.
Since this adventure Philippa has raced the Transatlantic Way, and this week she dropped by at the Barn with the big news that she's entered the Silk Road Mountain Race alongside #masonite Naomi. Matt's preparing her Bokeh for the endlessly hardcore terrain that will decorate her next #FastFar adventure.
We're super excited for her updates as we follow her journeys, you can see all of them her on our blog, our IG and frequently on her IG too.