europe

The End (Part 2) – Closing the Loop

As you’ll probably have gathered from my brief post last Friday, the long line of red blobs on the map of the world has finally become a loop.

Or, put another way, I’m no longer circumnavigating.

I’ve circumnavigated.

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Last Friday was just over two years since I began (above), including the time off after the accident in Thailand.  I can’t quite believe I was that chubby…

Still, after 480 days actually on the road for the round-the-world ride (and considerably thinner), I rolled back into Kent, then Greater London, then Greenwich, and finally back to the viewpoint next to the Royal Observatory where the whole thing started.

It was a pretty relaxed final leg in the end.

Splitting the ride from Calais to London into three days gave me plenty of time to dawdle, and get used to the idea of finishing the trip.  Although I’m pretty sure that even now, after a few more days and a surprisingly large number of intoxicating beverages, it still hasn’t properly sunk in.

From central Calais, it was just a couple of kilometres to the port.  And then another couple around the miles of high security fencing.  Through the French exit checks, then the UK entry checks, then the ferry check-in.  I was (at least bureaucratically) back in the UK before I got on the ship.

A millpond-flat crossing to Dover, a long wait for all the motorised vehicles to clear the ferry before I was allowed off, and I hit English tarmac for the first time in ages.

Turns out the roads are still rubbish.  Though not quite as bad as Belgium, as I now know…

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Apart from the port, there wasn’t a lot to keep me in Dover, so it was up the hill and into the country lanes towards Canterbury, my first overnight stop back on home soil.  Tiny country lanes, as you can see above.  But full of cyclists; I was running along a National Cycle Network route, and there was a large London-to-Paris group heading the other way.

Nice though it was to be constantly saying ‘hello’ to dozens of other adventurous cyclists, it was also a slightly sobering reminder that, while they were just starting their adventure, I was very close to finishing mine.

When I wasn’t nodding and grinning at the other bikers, I was trying to keep a reasonably straight line through the lanes.  The tiny roads caught me out twice.  Not by getting me lost, but by allowing me to head off on the wrong side of the road after map checks.  Given that I’ve spent most of my life walking, driving and cycling in this country, that’s pretty much unforgivable.  But I guess it was just taking a little while to readjust; the last time I’d been expected to ride on the left was in India…

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Canterbury was a nice last urban stop before the metropolis.  A bit like York, which is probably better known to many tourists, it’s an ancient cathedral city, with narrow lanes and city walls.  It helped that the weather was (by UK standards) spectacular.  And that it’s not exactly difficult to find a good pub for the first decent cider in a while.

After Canterbury, it was the old pilgrim trail to London on Thursday.  Following pretty much along the line taken by Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales.  At least until the distinctly less-than-medieval M25 motorway came into sight, marking the visible start of London’s massive gravitational field.

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And all that was left the next morning was the suburbs.  Only about 20 miles, but back into the urban traffic madness of the capital.  It took me past the end of the entirely unremarkable street where I used to live in Bromley (above).  Where the journey really started (or, at least, the idea for it was born).  I still find it a bit odd that just selling a tiny flat on that road bought me the time (and the bikes and kit) that I needed to get around the globe.  It’s a bit of a shame that I haven’t got another one to sell in order to keep going…

A cup of coffee, and then it was just a mile of parkland and driveway to the end of the road.  And the mandatory approach to finishing something like this (thanks to LG for both the champagne and the photo):

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If I seem to be concentrating very hard on spraying the champers, I can assure you it was nothing compared to the concentration required to remain upright by the early hours of Saturday.  And I think that waking up with a brutal headache probably masked the mixed feelings produced by finishing the ride.  They’re just starting to crystallise now.

I’m very happy to have made it, of course.  And to be able, finally, to think of myself as a ‘proper’ round-the-world cyclist.  It’s great to be catching up with family and friends (and having drunk arguments with some of them!).  And to be able to look back with a degree of satisfaction on those deserts, high mountains, tropical forests, lakes and coastlines which have provided such a spectacular backdrop for my life in the last couple of years.

I’m also happy that (apart from occasional lingering aches and pains, and a funny-shaped shoulder) I’ve not caused myself any permanent damage on the way around.  And I’m immensely grateful to the people I met all over the world who, without exception, chose free lodging, free food and water, and roadside rescues instead of robbery, theft, or hitting me with their cars.

But there’s definitely sadness too.  No more heading off to see new things and ride new roads every day.  And a slight sense of dislocation.

My life for the last two years has been pretty simple.  Get up, ride, eat, sleep, and then do it all again.  Now, of course, there are things which need sorting out.  I’ve got a blank sheet of paper, which will need filling in.  I’ll need money, and all that tedious sort of stuff, which it’s been so nice to escape for a while.  Where am I going to live?  What am I going to do with myself?  None of this has received a great deal of my attention of late.

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The road ahead may not always be a literal road like the one above.  Although I’m pretty sure that it will be again (and hopefully on a bike) before too long.  The feet are already itchy.

But the Unknown will always be there.  Around the Corner.  I just need to work out how I’m going to keep on finding it…

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The Ardennes

The German Army discovered that it was not especially easy to cross the Ardennes forest in late 1944.  The area was the site of the last major German counter-offensive of World War 2, an offensive which was hampered by the tightly-packed trees, steep hills and narrow valleys of the area.

I’ve spent the last few days confirming their findings.  Even without overwhelming opposing military forces shooting at you, it’s much tougher than it looks on paper.  There’s a reason that some of the hardest one-day races on the professional cycling calendar take place in the area.

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I was still on relatively flat land as I left France on Thursday (after a rain-inflicted extra rest day on Wednesday).  I was happy to be heading back into Germany on the 14th July.  I still remember how difficult it is to find anything whatsoever open in France on Bastille Day (after nearly starving to death on Day 2 of the round-the-world trip in 2014).

The price you pay for a gentle re-introduction to Germany (in the Saar valley, at least), is plenty of heavy industry (above), rather than delightful views.  But, as the hills started to rear up, and I approached the border with Luxembourg, it started to look much prettier.

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I crossed into Luxembourg at the village of Schengen, where it was finally possible to get a photo with three countries in (above).

The photo’s taken from the German side of the bridge.  The left bank is Germany, the right is Luxembourg.  And the village on the hill in the background is in France.  Needless to say, as all three countries are in the Schengen area, crossing the border is as simple as finishing crossing the bridge.

Luxembourg is tiny.  After breakfast in Schengen, and still absorbing the horrible news that was starting to come in from Nice overnight, I crossed the country before lunchtime.

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As well as being essentially a giant duty-free shop (every petrol station sells bulk tobacco and alcohol, as well as dirt-cheap fuel), Luxembourg is where the Ardennes really start.  As I got closer to the Belgian border, the landscape became more forested, as well as corrugated by what felt like hundreds of small hills.

It actually feels a lot like riding the bike at home: lots of small, sharp climbs, with equally short descents.  So you don’t really have time to recover before you’re heading uphill again.  It’s taken a bit of getting used to, as I’ve become accustomed to either flat plains or majestic mountains in the last few weeks.

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And, as I entered Belgium, the sky clouded up, too.  Just so I really felt at home, there was even a little bit of drizzle.

Maybe because it has felt so familiar, or maybe because the forested nature of the countryside means that impressive views are few and far between, both Luxembourg and Belgium (so far) felt kind of pleasant but not super-special.  And that impression’s not helped by the standard of the roads in Belgium, which might give the UK a run for it’s money for the ‘worst in Europe’ award.

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Still, I find myself this evening, in the small town of Givet, on the Meuse river (above).  It’s a really nice little town, surrounded by some of the last of the Ardennes hills.  But it’s not in Luxembourg or Belgium – I’m back in France for about ten kilometres.  So that’s France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and back to France in three days’ riding.  Small world.

But it’ll be Belgium for me again tomorrow.  Out of the hills, and on to the flat lands which lead to the English Channel.  The last few days outside the UK.

I really am nearly finished now.  The good news is that the hair’s starting to grow back, slowly…

Crossing Alsace: Canals and Cols. And a Scalping.

On Saturday morning, I woke up in Germany, just a couple of hundred yards across the river from the French border.  Today (Tuesday), I’m having a rest in France, just a couple of hundred yards across the river from the German border.

Which makes it sound a little bit like I’ve not gone very far.  Just crossing the river would’ve done it, wouldn’t it?

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In fact, I’ve left the wide, flat plains of the Rhine valley, crossed Alsace and Lorraine, and arrived on the banks of the Saar.  I’ve moved from the eastern border of France to the northern border of France.

The Rhine is like a motorway between northern and southern Europe.  Traditionally, it’s been freight that has made the journey, either on the river itself, or on the canals which flank it (pic above).

Today, it seems to be just as much a ‘motorway’ for cyclists, with a surfeit of choices of waymarked route; do you want to be on the road, or car free?  By the canal, or by the river?  Through the towns, or bypassing them?

The only thing you don’t get a choice about is the terrain.  It’s either flat, pan flat, or billiard-table flat.  Which, after the drama of the Alps, and the hills, lakes and gorges of Switzerland, was just a bit, well…  Boring, I suppose.  Good for making distance, but no expansive views, and the sort of area where a headwind can make your day a misery.

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I opted for the canals for the first couple of days.  No navigational issues; you just follow the (generally) well-surfaced paths.  Fairly straight lines, too, so you’re not doing lots of extra miles like you do on the roads.

And the canals here take you straight into the town centres, like Strasbourg (above).  A nice, straight, traffic free route into the city centre.  And straight out of the other side.  Like many canal paths, it’s not necessarily the quickest riding, as you avoid tree roots, kids, dogs and the elderly.  But the lack of traffic lights (and traffic) make it just as fast overall as the road, and without any of the stress.

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Still, as I trundled further along the canal path to the north of Strasbourg (above), I’d had enough of the flat lands.  It was time to cut away from the canals, and to give my legs a little bit of work to do.

The thing that’s very obvious in Alsace is that it used to be part of Germany.  It was given to France after the First World War, which is a reminder that I’m quickly heading towards some of the areas most affected by that horrible conflict just a century ago.

And as I headed into the rolling hills towards Lorraine, it was easy to forget I was in France at all.  The villages all look German, and the names on the signposts all look like this:

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Of course, you never forget completely.  Whether it’s having to speak French to people, or the amazing (in this 24/7 age) habit of closing everything for a two hour lunch break, you’re always reminded that this is France.

And France had one more little surprise for me.  I rode up a fairly large hill to discover that I’d just bagged my last French col (below).  It says something about the size of the hills around here that this is considered to be a ‘Col’ at just 350 metres high.

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And it says something about how much my climbing has improved in the last few weeks that I cruised up it in the big ring, without even really noticing.  I’d have struggled to do that without the bags before I left on the trip in 2014.  There’s not much doubt that loaded climbing makes you a stronger bike rider.

I said ‘one last surprise’, didn’t I?  Well, I got another this morning.  After putting it off (arguably) far too long, I finally got my first haircut since Kazakhstan.  Despite being sure that I asked the guy to cut it short, but not too short, I’ve ended up with the hair of an eighteen-year-old army recruit.

Which is something to remember France by as I head back into Germany tomorrow (two years to the day since I set off from London), and towards Luxembourg and Belgium.  I just hope it grows out a bit before I get home; it scares me a little every time I catch sight of my reflection…

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…

Alpine Balm

This update’s been a long time coming.

For those who see my Facebook, you’ll know why.  It was because I’ve been afraid since Thursday that, if I started writing, you would just end up getting a rant about the fact that my country has gone completely nuts in my absence.

So, I thought I’d get back to the big mountains, and see if they calmed me down.  And they have.  If only by tiring me out.

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I’d made it to Novara, (roughly) between Milan and Turin by the time the Brexit nonsense began on Thursday night.  I’d already decided on a day off there, partly because I was due one, and partly because it was getting very hot on the flat, northern Italian plains.

It was a decent plan, as the temperature flirted with 40 degrees centigrade (104 F) on Friday.  I didn’t feel like doing much anyway, so lounging around and keeping cool was all that was going to happen.

But on Saturday, the weather had freshened up.  The temperature was back to being reasonable to ride in, and the plains remained flat.  Oh, and the wind was at my back for the first time in a while.  I piled on the miles, stopping that night just north of Turin.  And then getting back into the mountains by Sunday evening, rolling up a long valley towards the French Alps.

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Although I was still extremely grumpy at that point, it was time for the therapy to start.  As seems to be traditional with borders in mountains, my entry to France would take place close to the top of a high pass.  It was time to get the climbing legs out again.

A whole day of climbing got me close to the border by yesterday (Monday) afternoon.  The heat was back, and I was struggling as I hit around 1100 metres (3600 ft) of vertical gain for the day.  Then the road steepened as it set course for the top of the col.  Plenty more climbing to go.  Ouch!

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And then, amazingly, a bike tunnel appeared (above).  A couple of kilometres long, it was the old road tunnel.  More importantly, although I was still climbing, it was shady, cool, and with a nice breeze rushing through it.  Just in time to save my climbing bacon.

And so, as refreshed as you can be while still climbing a 6% gradient, I popped out of the tunnel, through a little village, and into France.  Within another mile or two, I finally hit my first col of the French Alps:

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After a very fun plunge off the top (the French downhills have been superb so far, if over much too quickly), I was in Briancon last night.  Watching England’s football team shamefully following the rest of the country out of Europe.  Two results that are hard to understand in less than a week…

Still, I had to do it all again today.  Another huge col, this one the Lauteret, which is a Tour de France regular, and goes up to over 2000 metres (6500 ft).  This time, I was helped out on the climb by already being reasonably high up at Briancon.  And also by getting a bit of company from Ivor, a semi-expat Brit, who was riding up a whole lot quicker than me (though without the bags, in my defence).  Nice to have a cuppa and a chat at the pass, rather than just dropping straight over…

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And then, it was another long, long downhill.  So long that I’m going to try to illustrate it with two pictures.  The landscape changed as I dropped from the high peaks at the top (above), to the narrow, but still massive, gorges and valleys (below, on a rare uphill section – spot the big truck).

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And I eventually got down off the mountain to the town of Bourg d’Oisans, which is right in the middle of a whole ring of enormous climbs.  Bizarrely, the smallest of these (or at least, it looks the smallest from the town) is the legendary Alpe d’Huez, which zigzags up the side of the valley, and is one of the most iconic Tour de France climbs (often, as in 2015, it’s where the race is decided).  Most of the other climbs around here are much bigger.

But, as a result of having the Alpe just across the road from town, the area is swamped with recreational cyclists.  I rolled into town in the company of a little peloton coming back from an afternoon run up to Huez.  They said it’s not actually a difficult climb.  I’m not so sure that’s likely to be the case on a 40kg touring rig, though…

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So I’m still considering whether it will be Alpe d’Huez, or one of the other famous cols near here tomorrow.  What I do know is that the rhythm of climbing all morning, and then dropping down a vertical kilometre of twists and turns in the afternoon, is very soothing.  It’s almost stopped me brooding about Brexit, which is quite an achievement.

Maybe the answer to all the world’s problems can be found in the French Alps, on a bike…

Out of Aprica (And How to Cross Switzerland in 90 minutes)

Up into the big hills.  Turn left.  Keep going until you hit the lakes.

That’s pretty much it for the last few days.  After another rain-enforced rest day on Sunday, of course.

Naturally, there’s a bit more to it than that.  These are big hills, after all.  So there’s been over 3000 vertical metres of climbing (around 10,000 ft) in three days.  And a comparable amount of decending.  And boy, is northern Italy beautiful.

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The first and biggest pass was the Passo Tonale, which topped out at 1884 metres.  It’s used fairly regularly by the Giro d’Italia bike race.  The pass itself is ‘only’ 15 kms (9 miles) of fairly hard (6-7%) climbing when coming from the east.

But this ignores the fact that you have to climb nearly a thousand metres just to get to the ‘official’ bottom.  The picture above looks nice an unthreatening, doesn’t it?  But it’s all gently uphill, and the climbing doesn’t stop until you hit those snow-capped peaks at the back of the picture.

Here they are again, a couple of hours later, and a little bit closer:

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Stunning, but ever so hard.  Thankfully, there’s the payback of a nice (but all-too-short) downhill to come.  Once again illustrating that, while headwinds and hills are both hard, hills do, at least, give you something in return for your efforts.  Though I have to say that this would have been more comfortable with working brakes (fixed now!):

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A dip, and another climb to another pass at Aprica. The climb to Aprica is rated (by none other than the arch-villain of cycling, Lance Armstrong) as one of the hardest in Italy.  It certainly looked it, from the sweating faces of the recreational cyclists I flashed past in the other direction.  It’s certainly another contender for ‘downhill of the trip’ as far as I’m concerned.  The brakes were heating up, and the insects dying in droves against the crash helmet once again.

I could feel the temperature increasing as I plunged down.  And, I was dropping quick enough for my ears to ‘pop’ twice before I got to the bottom.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone (though you may want to get the cable car up to the top!).

From the bottom of the Aprica downhill, it was a long, flat valley road to Lake Como.  Quite a different landscape, but still with those big mountains lurking in the background.  There’s nothing like lakes and mountains, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve been cruising around staring at picture-perfect views for a day-and-a-half now.  It makes me very happy.

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And from Como, I’ve managed to cross a country today (Wednesday).  It only took and hour-and-a-half, and some of that was due to traffic problems.  A massive tunnel, a city, and a few kilometres of road near the airport.  And that was it.  There’s a slightly odd-shaped wedge of Switzerland jutting down into Italy around the town and lake of Lugano.  And a gentle ride today, including plenty of coffee stops and chats with other cyclists, took me straight across it.

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I’m now back in Italy (literally by fifty yards).  But don’t worry, I will be giving Switzerland a bit more time on the way home.  I just have to nip across and have a look at the French Alps first…

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…

Isles of Thunder

Up the coast a bit, then some island hopping up to the very north of Croatia.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  After all, the road’s bound to be quite flat by the sea.  The islands have much lower hills than the mainland, too.  And there are ferries to cover the little blue bits between the lumps of land.  Definitely pretty simple.

Well, pretty is right.  Not so simple, though.

After just one clear, if slightly too warm, day on the coast (on Wednesday, pic below), the thunder started rolling.

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If you live anywhere in Europe, you’re probably aware of the massive thunderstorms which have been sitting over the central areas of the continent for weeks, causing flooding and hitting people with lightning.  Well, they’ve left the middle of Europe in the last few days, and meandered south to Italy and the Balkans.

Just as I’ve been heading north into them.

Thankfully, while the inland areas appear to be getting absolutely pasted, the storms only occasionally make it across the last range to the islands.  But this makes trying to plan a day’s ride quite tricky.

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As you can see in the picture above (from the very bottom of Pag island), the big clouds and heaviest downpours lurk behind the last range on the mainland.  Then, at a seemingly random point, and with very little warning, they rush out to either electrocute or drown you.  They don’t care which.

As you can also see from the picture, the islands are pretty rocky, and not exactly flush with shelter.  So there’s been quite a bit of ‘ride like mad, hide, check the sky, ride like mad’ etc, etc going on.

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The biggest storms seem to be in the evening (it feels like there’s a cracking one waiting to get going this evening (Saturday), and even then, as you can see above, you can have bright sunshine in one place and the world’s blackest clouds a mile or so away.  It’s all been a bit unpredictable.

The roads and ferries probably haven’t helped that much, although that’s mainly my fault for pathetic levels of research.  I got to Novalja yesterday only to discover that the ferry I thought I was going to get from there doesn’t take bikes.  So today ended up being three ferries (from Pag to the mainland, from the mainland to Rab, and from Rab to Krk – got to love the names of these islands!).

It also cost me an extra 600 vertical metres of climbing, which will also teach me not to assume that coast roads are flat…

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Still, at least a bit of climbing gets you some decent views (above).  And the scenery remains spectacular.  The hills might be a little smaller, but all the little islands are really pretty.

And a bit of time on ferries lets you have a proper look at the sea (below).  Crystal clear waters and millions of tiny fish sum it up.  The bike wanted a dip after all its hard work.  I had to assure it that if it jumped in, I wasn’t going to be the one to pull it back out; those fish looked like man-eaters…

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But the Beastlet was right; it’s time for a little rest and relaxation.  I’m having my first full rest day tomorrow since Dubrovnik.  Partly because tomorrow’s supposed to be the worst day for storms.

Mainly because Euro 2016 kicked off last night, and England are playing Russia this evening.  A beer or two will probably seem appropriate, so there’s little point in trying to ride tomorrow.  From this point until England (almost inevitably) get knocked out, I’ll have to juggle the riding with both the weather and being near a TV at the appropriate time for the football.  Another complication thrown into that ‘simple’ ride up Croatia.

Still, I’m nearly there now.  I should be able to move back into the mountains, in Slovenia, at some point on Monday.  If the storms and roads play ball; I think I’m done with boats until Calais now…

As a ‘Stop Press’, and in case you’re not following the footy yet, Wales just beat Slovakia in their first game.  Fingers crossed for England this evening…

Croatia to Bosnia (and Herzegovina) to Croatia to Bosnia (and Herzegovina) to Croatia

Border after border after border.

Today was the first day’s riding in the last week that I didn’t have to pull out my passport on the road.  Just since Dubrovnik, I’ve crossed four international borders.  But, because of the peculiar geography in this part of the world, I’ve only been in two countries.

I was slightly inaccurate in the last post, as I suggested that Bosnia and Herzegovina (‘BiH’) was going to be my last Muslim-majority country.  That’s not actually quite true, as the Bosniak (Muslim) population is actually marginally less than 50%.  And my time there only took in the Herzegovina part of the country, where the majority of the population are ethnically Croatian.

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But it is the last country that I’ll ride where the Ottoman Empire had a significant influence.  I’ve probably done a few too many lists of historical ‘owners’ of various pieces of Balkan real estate, so I’ll keep this one brief.  BiH had Slavic rulers for a few hundred years, then the Ottomans for a few hundred, then the Austro-Hungarians.  Then the Yugoslavs and the Communists.

It’s no wonder that there are bundles of fortified towns (like the one above) all over the country.  And perhaps it’s also no surprise that BiH was where the spark occurred that started World War 1 (the assassination of Franz Ferdinand).  Or that most of the worst damage and atrocities of the Balkan wars of the 1990s occurred there, too.

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The old town of Mostar is a beautiful place, sitting in a bowl between steep hills (hills from which my legs are still recovering).  Its ancient Stari Most (Old Bridge, above) had spanned the river for centuries before the 1990s.  And then, in a microcosm of what was going on all over the country, it was besieged twice in a few years.  First, the Muslims and Croats were fighting the Serbs.  Then they were fighting each other.

Hundreds were killed, and almost a hundred thousand refugees were forced out (pretty much the whole population).  And the Stari Most was destroyed.  Today, the bridge has been rebuilt, and much of the damage cleared up.  But the city still bears the scars over two decades on.  Several burned-out buildings still dot the old town, and bullet / shrapnel holes are still visible all over the place.

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Still, apart from its sometimes grim history, BiH is a beautiful country of mountains, valleys, and colossal thunderstorms.  I really enjoyed riding there, and was quite sad to be heading out yesterday (Monday).  Although the blow was softened a little by knowing I was heading back to stunning Croatia.

I had my longest and most thorough questioning at the border.  Not because I was looking especially suspicious (or even especially sweaty).  But the border guard was apparently a bit of a stamp and visa buff, and wanted to chat through pretty much the whole trip, while admiring the various stickers and marks.

I was a little relieved when another vehicle finally appeared behind me, as trying to identify visas on a passport being waved at you through partially-reflective glass is quite exhausting.

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Eventually, though, I was back into Croatia.  And I spent today (Tuesday) heading back to the Adriatic coast.  It wasn’t quite as downhill as I’d expected to start with, but there were some spectacular views to appreciate as I crossed the coastal range (above).

And then there was the drop back to the seaside, which was kind of spectacular:

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It’s not often that I’ll stop to take a picture halfway down a hill (apart from anything else, it takes quite a lot of effort to stop a fully loaded touring bike from 40-odd miles an hour), but this one was just fantastic.  Twisting right off the mountains down to the waterside.  It’s hard to get scale properly on photos.  But there’s a tiny boat with a tiny white wake just next to the big headland, which gives an idea of just how big those hills are.

Although it was lovely dropping off the big hills, my legs are feeling the effects of climbing them.  So it’s going to be nice to stick along the coast for a while.  I’ll be heading north, and an awful lot of big mountains will be looming all too soon.

A bit of island hopping and a little less climbing is probably just the thing for the next few days…

The Adriatic

The small Balkan countries have been flashing past again.

Since the last update, I’ve left Albania, crossed Montenegro, and entered Croatia for the first of two visits.  And, after a day off in Dubrovnik today (Friday), it’s on to Bosnia tomorrow…

But such a brutally short summary doesn’t do any justice to the places I’ve been for the last few days.  Let’s start with finishing up Albania.

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Impressive when I first arrived from Macedonia, Albania got better and better.  My only full day in the country was a bit hilly, to be sure.  But the hills are what give you long descents through stunning valleys (above).

Unfortunately, the downhills eventually ended, and I was left on the flat for the last few miles to Shkoder, running alongside, but never quite within view of, the Adriatic Sea.  Which meant I’d pretty much crossed the Balkan Peninsular.

It also meant I was within a few miles of the border with the tiny country of Montenegro.

Crossing the border, just west of Shkoder, I was entering the most recently independent of the ex-Yugoslav states (if you don’t count Kosovo, which not everyone agrees is a country).  It was only a mile or so after the border that I realised I’d only stopped at one control on the way through.  I’d been expecting to come up to the Montenegrin entry check at some point, but realised something was amiss when I saw a mini-market and a petrol station instead.

Frantically checking my passport stamps, I worked out that I’d skipped the Albanian exit gate somehow (I didn’t even see it, but maybe the guy was just on a break or something).  So I wouldn’t have any trouble leaving Montenegro again, as they had stamped me in properly.

Phew!  Although I suppose I may never be able to go back to Albania again…

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Anyway, Montenegro, as the name suggests (and as the photo above shows), proved to be another hilly country.  But really not very big.  I wasn’t rushing, and yet, despite constant ups and downs, I rode the entire length of its coastline in roughly eight hours (spread over two days).

The road essentially glued itself to the Adriatic coast, and just stayed there.  It’s still there at the moment, in southern Croatia, too.  Which makes for a lot of little climbs, and detours into bays.  And even the odd tunnel and ferry.  But I find it hard to complain about the little delays, the hard work, and the extra few kilometres when it looks like this:

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All too soon, I was a handful of miles from the Croatian border.  I’d soon be back into the EU again (albeit only for a couple of days).  Although, in keeping with the cultural oddities of the region, Croatia is in the EU, but doesn’t use the Euro.  On the other hand, Montenegro is not in the EU, but doesn’t have its own currency, and just uses the Euro regardless.  Odd…

Montenegro makes it difficult to leave.  Not just because it’s beautiful, but because there’s a monster hill up to the Croatian border (below, looking back into Montenegro).  I’m not actually sure which country you’re in as you climb; it’s about two kilometres of steep between the exit from Montenegro at the bottom of the pass, and the entry to Croatia / the EU at the top.

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Which is hard work.  But any fears that the effort might be rewarded by a much uglier country on the other side of the border were (kind of obviously) unfounded.  The coast, the hills and the bays all continue in the same, exceedingly pretty, way.

And it wasn’t all that far after the border, before I crested another steep hill, and saw the city of Dubrovnik below me:

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Dubrovnik is a world heritage site (that’s quite a few I’ve seen on the way round so far).  It was a city-state for most of its history.  And that history is very different from the Ottoman / Slavic battles of the Balkan areas I’ve seen so far.  Dubrovnik’s been squeezed between western European powers, such as Venice, and the Ottomans instead.  Although, given the amount of foreign influences and changes of ruler, you could just say it’s the same old stuff with a few different players.

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Anyway, I had a day off to explore (and to rest – it’s the first day off the bike since Skopje).  The old town is really lovely; tiny alleyways running between the main street and the massive city walls.  And you can really see the Italian influences; it actually feels a bit like a tiny Venice without the canals.

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Tomorrow (Saturday) will be a little strange.  And maybe a little sad.  I’ll be heading back out of the EU again, into Bosnia.  You can’t get from here to the rest of Croatia without either crossing Bosnia or using a boat.

But it will be a day of lasts.  Bosnia will be my last Muslim-majority country.  And the last country that I’ve never been to before.  Things will be getting increasingly familiar as I head closer to home.

No more of the excitement of crossing into places that I’ve never been before.  On this trip, at least.  I’ll have to savour it while I can…