alps

Swiss Rolling

Another long gap between posts.

Who’d have thought that Switzerland, and then Germany, would produce such formidable technical challenges?  No electricity in one, and virtually no internet in the other…

I should’ve known things were going to get tricky.  Just a few kilometres out of Albertville on Sunday, the road towards Chamonix was closed.  This was, on the face of it, a bad thing.

It meant that I missed my reconnaissance of the Tour de France mountain time trial, which I’d been intending to ride (in reverse) on the way towards the Swiss border, as well as the Col du Forclaz on the border.  A swift re-routing was required.  This was a pain.

On the other hand, the only alternative was up a long, and very pretty, cycle route to (and along) Lake Annecy:

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Which was the first in a series of spectacular lakes.

And after one more (low) alpine pass, I was done with the French Alps, and parked up near the Swiss border.  Ready to have a proper look at the country, after my 90-minute preview a couple of weeks ago.

Like several Swiss towns which sit on the border with other countries, Geneva has ‘foreign’ suburbs.  So it was only a few minutes on the bike from my overnight stop in France to the centre of town, and Lake Geneva:

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The first thing you notice (as a cyclist) in Switzerland is the proliferation of bike lanes.  You can roll into pretty much any town on marked routes.  Often, these are segregated, although a lot are just British-style paint on the road, too.  In either case, it makes a nice change from having to fight for space on crowded streets.

The second thing you notice is how hideously expensive everything is.  This is obviously exacerbated for me by the inevitable economic damage done by the ‘Brexit’ vote – thanks for the extra 15% on everything, Britain!  But Switzerland is outrageously expensive anyway.

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For example, my campsite at Lausanne was in a beautiful lakeside location (above).  But US $24 for one person and a tent is not exactly as economical as camping should be.  A fizzy drink and a bottle of water costs US $6 in the average cafe or petrol station.  A ‘value’ meal in a well-known burger chain runs to US $13, (and those prices are against a pretty strong US dollar).  So you know you just need to cross the country as quickly as possible.  To get somewhere (anywhere!) where you can survive on less than a banker’s salary.

While I was out of the Alps, I still had to cross another range of big hills (the Jura) before reaching Basel, and the Rhine valley.  At first glance on the map, the Jura look quite intimidating; ridge after ridge after ridge of fairly high, steep hills barring the way north.

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But a little more planning reveals that there are little gorges between the valleys, so you actually ride all the way from Neuchatel to Basel with only one major climb.  Despite fairly often heading into apparently closed valleys with dismayingly steep sides, there’s always a little ‘doorway’ through which you can escape (like the one above).

Which made for a fairly relaxing run down from the lakes, and through the hills on Wednesday and Thursday.

The city of Basel is another Swiss border city.  I’d been flipping between French and German-speaking Switzerland every few kilometres from Neuchatel, and Basel sits on the border of three countries, with France and Germany both sitting across the city limits to the north.

Given that this triple border lies on the Rhine, which is one of Europe’s great rivers, I was hoping to get a picture of the wide river, with all three countries in one photo.  Unfortunately (certainly when heading to Germany), all you see is warehouses and industrial buildings before the – empty – border post.  At which point, you enter Germany, while your phone lights up with a ‘Welcome to France’ message.

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Thankfully, there are some flags to make the ‘triple border’ point without the panoramic picture or the inaccurate text messages.

And so, yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, I rolled along the flat Rhine valley in yet another country; Germany.  I can’t say much about it yet, as the area’s heavily forested (it’s on the edge of the Black Forest, in fact).

So it’s short on stunning views so far.  I do know that it’s much cheaper than Switzerland, which is good.  And that staying in a small spa-town with ‘lots of old people’ (as I had it described to me) is not a recipe for a decent internet connection.

It was also the wrong choice of country.  Had I chosen the French side of the river, I’d have watched a glorious footballing victory last night, instead of a bitter footballing disappointment.

Still, I’ll hopefully find out more about Germany as I go along.  In the meanwhile, the weather is good, the roads are flat, and I have exactly two weeks left to enjoy my ride around the world (I’m expecting to get into Greenwich on 22nd July, barring any problems).

Oh, and I received the photo I mentioned last time, which is nice.  For those who haven’t seen it on Facebook yet, the picture below is me and the bike taking on the Col du Glandon last Wednesday.

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Not quite in the style of the Tour riders (including Steve Cummings, who just won today’s stage up the Col d’Aspin in the Pyrenees), but a professional photographer certainly makes it look easier than it was…

More from the heart of Europe next time (hopefully a bit quicker, and with fewer technical problems).

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For UK-based Touring Cyclists

Note that most ‘universal’ adaptors for UK electrical devices do not fit modern Swiss electric sockets.  The socket design prevents anything other than narrow, two-pin European plugs from fitting.  There are a few old sockets around (I managed to find one in the whole country), which will work, but it makes sense to check whether your adaptor will fit Swiss sockets before you get there.

Otherwise, you might not be able to update your blog for a week 😉

Climbing and Procrastination

The 2016 Tour de France began today, with a fantastic win for Mark Cavendish in Normandy – hurrah!  Entirely irrelevant though it may be, here’s a picture I took of him a few years ago (2013), while he was British champion, just to celebrate:

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The Tour takes just over three weeks to complete its journey around France.  Since leaving Italy, I’ve been riding some of its most famous roads.  Tomorrow, I’ll head towards Switzerland, and will ride a bit of this year’s route.  I’ll touch it again inside Switzerland.

But, by the time the 2016 Tour is decided, my round-the-world trip will be over.  Unless some sort of catastrophe strikes, of course…

I’m nearer to London than the Tour is to Paris.  Which is making me a bit sad, as well as possibly contributing to my lack of progress in the last few days.  I don’t really want to finish, and I think I’m slowing down accordingly.

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I didn’t have much of this reflective melancholy going on as I left Bourg d’Oisans on Wednesday morning.  The sun was out, the roads were full of cyclists (mostly preparing for today’s La Marmotte sportive), and the Col du Glandon was waiting (above).

The Glandon is another pass regularly used by the TdF, most recently last year (the road is still covered with painted encouragement for the riders).  It’s a long, long climb, and I was happy to have company.  Lots of company.  Mostly, but not exclusively, on very light and expensive carbon-fibre road bikes.

Despite the relatively crazy weight of the Beastlet when loaded, things went OK (the advantage of taking your time and having tiny gears).  I was actually quicker than a few of the roadies, which surprised me (and must have upset them no end).

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There were three good things about making it to the top of the pass.

There was a cafe (immensely overpriced, naturally), where the bike got to lounge around with its skinnier, race-orientated cousins.  Presumably telling them tall tales about the Uzbek desert, or Nepal.  Meanwhile, I got endlessly ribbed by Scandinavians about Iceland knocking England out of the Euros.  And endlessly questioned about what on earth the UK was doing knocking itself out of the EU.

There was also a professional photographer snapping away as the cyclists approached the top.  So I’ve paid for, but not yet received, a very fetching (if I do say so myself) portrait of the Beastlet and me, ‘powering’ up the higher slopes.  It’s amazing how you can get your head off the handlebars and stop dribbling for a second or two when someone points a camera at you…

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And the third good thing was the view from the top (above).  And knowing that I was about to plunge down that valley for well over a thousand vertical metres.  Cue smelly brakes, overtaking cars, and panicked unclipping of feet as I nearly overshot a hairpin.  Oops!

There were storms forecast for Thursday, and, after three high passes in three days, I (quite reasonably, I think) felt the time was right for a day off.

The trouble was, I still felt like a day off on Friday.  Maybe partly because of the sun; the temperature was up to slightly uncomfortable levels.  I trundled a few kilometres along the valley to Albertville (former Winter Olympic host town), and decided that was enough for the day.

The alternative was hitting a (gentle) 900-metre climb, so I suppose I can justify my lack of application to some extent.  On the other hand, I know the temperature and the climbing were only partly to blame.

It was really my reluctance to end the trip.  I was procrastinating.  Because Bourg d’Oisans was, literally, a turning point.  My route from there stops wiggling around, and begins heading relentlessly, and all too quickly, north towards the English Channel.

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So I wasn’t too upset when I woke up this morning (Saturday) to find that the mountains had been smothered in clouds, and the rain was beating down – how come raindrops are so much bigger in the mountains, by the way?  Another day in the Alps without the effort.  Another day watching cycling on TV instead of cycling.  And another day no closer to the end of the trip.

But I know I can’t stay here for ever.  The journey home must continue.  And I still have mountains, rivers and seas to cross, as well as (at least) four countries to visit, before I get back.

Even the Tour de France can’t match that.  Which should really give me the motivation to get the pedals turning homewards tomorrow…

Rediscovering the Adventure Mojo

What a difference a day or two and some sunshine makes.  And the mountains, of course.

Thursday was the last of the flat, straight roads for a while.  Constantly harassed by showers and big black clouds.  But I realised halfway through the day that my diversion plan must actually be working.  Despite missing the north of Slovenia and a little bit of Austria, I was still moving.  I was beating the big storms.

And yesterday morning (Friday), I awoke at the entrance to the mountains.  The sun was out.  And I was ready to get my exploring head back on.  No more whining about being nearly home.  Or the weather, if I can help it.

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The nice thing about the Alps (and the Dolomites, to which they are joined with no obvious boundary – I think I’m in the Dolomites at the moment, but will apparently be climbing in the Alps tomorrow) is that, although the mountains are big, the valleys in-between tend to be wide and quite flat.

There is the odd place where you have to climb, and then drop, a few hundred metres to cross to another valley, which can be quite spectacular:

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But, if you hit the right valley, you can make quite a lot of progress without too much climbing.  The flip side of this, of course, is that when you do hit a proper climb, it’s likely to be massive.

Anyway, this part of Italy is a mixed area.  There are German speakers as well as Italian speakers here, and many of the towns have two names.  It’s probably the only place in the world where a frankfurter pizza is actually an authentic local dish.  Or at least, that’s what they told me… Which suits my healthy touring cyclist’s diet perfectly.

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It’s also an area with more fairytale castles than you can shake a stick at (one pictured above).  And as you roll up the valleys, you hardly notice that you’re gaining height, as the mountains on either side just open up more and more astonishingly beautiful vistas.

But there are definitely easier ways to climb in the mountains than by pedalling.  I’ve always fancied having a go at paramotoring (essentially flying around on a parachute with a propeller attached to your back), and the guy below was having a great time dive-bombing cyclists in the valley this morning:

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Maybe that’s the next challenge; it’s certainly a lot less sweaty than cycle touring, but possibly more dangerous in thunderstorms…

My musings about how I could attach a bike to a parachute were, however, rudely interrupted by the tunnels.  As you can see from the rugged landscape, there’s a lot of call for them, and the Italians seem to love building them.  This is the entrance to the second of three on the drop down to Trento:

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The last of the three tunnels was by far the longest I’ve done on the trip so far, at over 3km.  And it was pretty steeply downhill.

Downhill tunnels on a touring bike are a bit like a theme-park ride.  Italian tunnels are well-lit, and I remembered to take my shades off this time (I’ve done a few nearly blind due to dark glasses), but the inside is still dark enough compared to the bright sunshine to to be disorientating.  Then there’s the noise, with every engine echoing and amplified by the tunnel walls.

And then there’s the wind, as every truck, bus and car creates a pressure-wave of air which has nowhere to go.  So it pushes you about.  And pushes you forward.  Faster and faster and faster.  The Italians have electronic speed warnings on a lot of their roads.  I hit the speed trap in tunnel three at 77 kph (48 mph).  And still accelerating.  If you want to know the speed limit, I’ll refer you back to the photo above.  Oops…

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I exploded out of the end of the last tunnel like a cork out of a bottle, and, after a little break to let the adrenaline subside, headed up the valley through Trento.  I was on a short day today, which ultimately joined me up with my original intended route, after the longish detour of the last few days.

Returning to the original plan made me happy, and I began looking at the slightly menacing clouds over the valley walls (above) as just a spectacular landscape feature rather than anything to worry about.

This was nearly a mistake, as there was a rogue downpour lurking, which almost pinged me before I got to shelter:

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The benefit of that shower is that it stopped me getting too intimidated by being able to see much of tomorrow’s climb.  It’s the only hill I’d class as a ‘monster’ before I get to the French border (I’m using the valleys to good effect), but it’s unavoidable if I want to get further west.

Nearly 1900 metres (or nearly 6200 ft).  Gulp…

Here’s how much my attitude to the weather has adjusted itself.  There’s a chance of heavy rain tomorrow afternoon.  Just for a few hours.  I’m thinking that I might be glad of an excuse to break that climb into two manageable chunks.

It’s just possible that I’ll actually be wishing for rain…

Deflection. Reflection.

I’m not where I thought I’d be.

One of the joys of bike touring is that you can pretty much go where you like, and change your plans when you want.  One of the pains of bike touring is that sometimes your plans get changed for you, and you have to miss things to keep moving.

So I’m in Italy today, when I should really be in either Slovenia or Austria.  I’d better explain why, I suppose…

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About two inches of rain fell in my part of Croatia on Saturday, in the couple of hours it took England to make a typically underwhelming start to Euro 2016.  In contrast to the football, the lightning was pretty spectacular.

Then it rained all day on my day off (Sunday) too.  Thankfully, my now well-tested bike chrysalis stood up to the deluge (above – a good reason to carry a tarp, even if you never use it to keep yourself dry).  So the Beastlet was saved from drowning.  And the rain failed to dampen the spirits of the locals, who celebrated Croatia’s first goal in the competition by lighting every flare in the marina, while running around in clouds of early-afternoon alcohol fumes (below).

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But the rain was starting to get to me.  You might have noticed that the last few posts had lost a little sparkle.  Spending what has felt like weeks dodging thunderstorms wears you down eventually.  But I think I’m also suffering from quite a bad case of end-of-trip blues.  Of which more later.

Monday morning dawned cloudy and drizzly.  Some time before I eventually woke up, needless to say.  I was heading for Slovenia, my last ex-Yugoslav country.  I’d been there on a brief work trip years ago, and was looking forward to heading north through the big hills, and reacquainting myself with the pretty capital, Ljubljana, and lovely Lake Bled.

But the central European storms are back.  I’m not sure they ever really went away.  I can’t imagine it’s been much fun for people who live there for the last few months, as storm after storm has just bombarded the whole area.  But the weather forecast on Monday showed an area of storms nearly as big as Germany sitting all over the mountains to the north.

It looked like I could squeeze across the border before the rain hit on Monday, so I hammered along, trying not to notice the damage I was doing to my quads by climbing over a thousand vertical metres much too quickly.  I suppose it’s good training for when I hit the Alps…

And I did just get under cover in Slovenia before the rain hit.  And then got soaked to the skin just getting to the supermarket and back.

My only hope yesterday morning was that the weather forecast might have changed miraculously overnight.  It hadn’t.  At least three days of heavy electrical storms if I continued north.  Electrical storms in the mountains are a terrible idea.  Half a chance that the rain would be intermittent enough to keep moving if I swung out of the hills and made a run for the lowlands of north-east Italy.

Slovenia’s not a big country, but it is very pretty.  So it seems very unfair that my enforced deflection from my intended route left me riding only about 40 miles of the country.  And in the pleasant, but entirely unremarkable, south-western corner.  So unremarkable that it wasn’t worth any photos.  And I’ve missed out on clipping Austria before getting to Italy, too.

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On the positive side, as the picture above may suggest, the plan seems to be working.  There’s been occasional drizzle, black clouds, isolated showers, massive downpours overnight, and wet roads.  But nothing that’s stopped me riding.  Yet.  And I’ll hopefully be able to get up into the Italian Alps to rejoin my intended route in a couple more days, when the weather has (hopefully) eased a bit up there.

Shops selling wine in milk cartons for less than 2 Euros a litre helps to ease the pain a little, too.  As does access to lovely Italian food.  And proper coffee.  It’s nice to be back in Italy.

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And that brings me back to those end-of-trip blues.  I’ve had plenty of time on long, straight Italian (probably Roman) roads to reflect on why I’m feeling a bit off at the moment.

Getting back into Europe when I arrived in Greece was stage one.  Things immediately got more familiar.  Then I had the fascinating and beautiful Balkans, which were adventurous again.  But ever since I began working my way up the Croatian coast, I’ve been in holiday country.  People from all over Europe go to Croatia for their dose of summer sun and relaxation.  Same with Italy.  And it’ll be the same again with France.  You know you’re back in Europe proper when every incline has a Dutch caravan on it.

The Italians have even named a phone network in my honour.  So my phone now says ‘I Tim’ on it, just in case I ever forget my own name:

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I think the problem is that these last few weeks before home feel more like a holiday than an adventure.  It’s exactly six months today (Wednesday) since I pedalled away from Hanoi to begin part two of the round-the-world ride.  And just over 23 months since I left London to begin the circumnavigation.

And after all those months and continents, after the big accident in Thailand, after the deserts, mountains, different cultures, and interesting people, it feels a bit like I’m already home.  And that I’ve just nipped away for a couple of weeks’ break.

I should be enjoying feeling this comfortable, and having all the benefits of civilisation available on demand again.  And I know that the idea of riding a bike across western Europe should be an exciting adventure in itself.

But it just feels a bit tame compared to Uzbekistan.  Or Laos.  Or Myanmar.  Or even Georgia.  Which is why I need to get back to the mountains.  The Alps should snap me out of it.  Just as long as it stops raining…