headwinds

Last Night in Asia

It’s been a tough few days, with a constant headwind trying to batter me into submission.  And a few more hills than expected.

But I’ve made it to where I want to be; just 60 km (38 miles) from the narrow strait between Asia and Europe.  I should get to the Asian side of the crossing just after lunchtime tomorrow (Sunday), from where a ferry should whisk me effortlessly across the (roughly) three mile gap between two continents.

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Leaving Iznik was hard, though.

Partly because of that interesting mix of history and culture that I discussed last time (the Ayasofya mosque, above, sums it up pretty well; an ancient church converted into a mosque, just like its much bigger and more impressive namesake in Istanbul).

Partly because it was a really nice, chilled-out little place with loads of lakeside cafes.  And partly because, from Iznik, the only way out is upwards.

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At least I got a last view of Iznik as I left.  The vast majority of Turkish towns I’ve been to have been flat, meaning there’s rarely a vantage point on the road to see the whole place at once.  And, despite a little shower as I hit the top of the hill, the short(ish) run to Bursa was unproblematic.

The only big issue in Bursa (which is regarded as the birthplace of the Ottoman Empire, by the way) was the traffic, which got a bit manic in the city centre.  It’s the biggest Turkish city I’ve ridden in, so I suppose this is excusable to an extent.  Although it made me very glad that I decided against riding through Istanbul, which is many times bigger (and therefore the traffic’s likely to be many times worse).

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Another reason that I was happy not to be riding into Istanbul on Thursday was that there was (yet) another bomb attack there that afternoon.  In the eastern suburbs, which may have put me nearby if I’d headed that way.

Then again, there was also a suicide bombing in Bursa only a fortnight before I got there (27th April), which I thought it was probably better not to mention until I was through, in case people worried.

It seems to be a grim, almost daily occurrence in Turkey at the moment.  And the frequency may go some way to explaining why neither attack appears to have made it anywhere near the news at home (along with obsessive Euro referendum navel-gazing, I’d guess).

In any case, unless you’re unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (and that could happen just as easily at home), you’d never even know they’d happened.  Bursa city centre was a scene of total, big city normality.  I’m sure Istanbul’s the same.

It’s a real shame that things like that seem to be putting tourists off coming to Turkey.  I’ve had a great time here so far, but I’ve lost count of the amount of people in the tourist trade bemoaning the lack of business this year.

I was much more worried about the bike’s health, to be honest.  It had developed a distinct wobble at the back end.  And wobbles at the back end can’t be good news.

As usual, it took a while to work out that it wasn’t something mechanical (and therefore expensive, and maybe problematic).  It was just the rear tyre finally giving up the ghost.

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I’d decided not to rotate the tyres this time, just to see how long they actually last.  The front will be fine all the way home, I think.  Maybe even for ever; it still looks almost new.

But the rear, having carried most of the weight, and delivered all the traction for 11,500 fully-loaded kilometres (including the UK Tour) had finally had enough.  As you can probably tell from the badly-focussed picture above; the replacement tyre (identical to the old one) is on the left, obviously.

Still, 11,500 kms is pretty good.  Especially as it still showed no signs of actually falling apart.  One puncture in all that time (way back in Myanmar).  Dirt roads, potholes, mud, rocks and glass dealt with with aplomb.  It’s just a shame that it didn’t quite last until Europe.  But, in the end, the wobbling was driving me nuts, and making the whole bike shimmy, so it had to go.

It’s possible that I just spent slightly too long mourning the loss of a tyre.

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For the rest of the bike and me, Europe awaits.  Although I’ve been roughly following the south coast of the Sea of Marmara for the last few days, I only got to see it for the first time today (above).

Tomorrow should take me pretty much along the coast, until it narrows into the Dardanelles (that strait between the two continents I mentioned before).  The ferry will take me to the town of Gelibolu.

Which, as well as being my entry into Europe, also gives its name to the peninsular on which it sits.  In English, its name is Gallipoli.  Site of one of the most appalling wastes of life in the First World War.

And that should certainly put today’s relatively tiny risks of terrorism into perspective…

Big(ish) Miles in the Big Dust

So… back in India again.  How’s it working out?

Well, to be honest, it’s much the same as the first time.  But with better roads.  Long, flat miles, unchanging scenery, sweat and dust.  A few interesting temples and imperial relics (and kite flyers, below) in town centres.  A third (so far, but I suppose you never know) non-activated SIM.  Oh, and headwinds, for a ‘nice’ change.

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The main roads which I’m following have the great merit of being flat and smooth.  If you were looking to set round-the-world cycling records, heading along here (with the wind, rather than against it) would be a good way to get your 200+ kms a day.

I’m not, of course, trying to set any records.  So for me, it’s more a case of trying not to lose concentration.  Because the second the long, straight road lulls me into relaxation, a piece of Indian driving insanity is likely to cause me significant amount of grief.

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It’s a bit like that famous definition of war; long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

I think I’ve sorted out the ‘rules’ of the road here, now.  Which is helpful, if not exactly encouraging.  Essentially, it’s all about the horn.  And I haven’t got a horn on the bike.

If you hit the horn, you are in the right.  It doesn’t matter which level of motoring insanity you’ve just descended to.  It doesn’t matter if you’re doing things (like driving a car the wrong way down the fast lane of a dual carriageway) which would get you imprisoned in most countries.

If your hand is on the horn, you can do exactly what you want, and expect everyone else to get out of the way.  Or die.  And, best of all, you get to stare aggressively at people who have the temerity to remain on their own side of the road, minding their own business, while you try your best to kill them and yourself.

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For the last few days, the trick to keeping myself alert (and therefore alive) has been cows.  Uttar Pradesh, which is the region I’ve been traversing since crossing the border from Nepal on Friday, seems to have a lot more of them than the other parts of India I’ve been.

Yesterday, I had the privilege to witness a lengthy tug-of-war between cow and man at a large roadside cattle market (above).  But I’ve also seen cows in vans, small cows in rickshaws, and cows wandering across the highway (relying on bells, rather than their horns, strangely).

And, of course, there’s that classic Indian ‘cows lounging in the middle of the street in the city centre’ thing going on, too:

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I’m in Lucknow at the moment, which is the biggest city around here by a margin.  It’s a major centre in northern India, home to about a million colleges, a large Muslim population, and stacks of historic buildings, running right through from the Mughal Empire to the British Raj.  It’s actually a really interesting town to stroll around (once you’ve reminded yourself that you’re not a pedestrian in Nepal any more).

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From here, the road should remain flat and smooth all the way to Delhi.  Hopefully, the headwinds will give it a rest for a day or two.  No doubt the driving clowns will still be out in abundance, but there’s another possible cloud on the horizon.  There’s a lot of civil unrest just to the north of Delhi at the moment, which The Times of India says has spread around the country a bit.

The main road to Agra (which I’ll be taking) was blocked for a few hours yesterday.  And most of the highways to the north of Delhi – towards Amritsar, which is my final target in India – have been disrupted by protests too.  Apparently, the water supply to Delhi’s been interrupted, too; it’s clearly all kicking off.

This is one situation where being on a bike may work to my advantage.  There are still a few days before I get to Agra, and another few from there to Delhi.  So there’s a chance that things will have calmed down up there by the time I get that far north.

I’ll just have to wait and see whether this ends up affecting things or not.  With a bit of luck, a change of plan won’t be required, but I’m not going to know for a while.

In the meantime, it’s back on those crazy, dusty roads tomorrow (Tuesday).  Wish me luck!

Deja-Vu and Cycling Zen in the Wild West

There’s every chance that the picture below will look slightly familiar.  Compare and contrast with the road picture in my last post.  Yes, there’s a tree in this one.  Yes, the hard shoulder of the highway is a little wider.  But there’s not much doubt that we’re still in Kansas, is there?

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For the record, this is about two-hundred miles from the previous picture, and not a whole lot has changed.  The grass desert just rolls on and on.  As I write, there’s another thunder-storm battering the roof (and presumably the tent, which is some way distant, but hopefully up to it).

And the headwinds just keep on coming, together with more heat, though this is apparently about to break properly.  But I think I’ve cracked those evil winds through Cycling Zen.  I’d copyright it, but I actually have no idea whether it has anything to do with Zen (yet another layer of ignorance reveals itself); it just seems like a good label.

After the rest day in Newton, I was raring to go again on Sunday.  I’d been half-listening to the conversation between the other three bikers on my first night there, and decided to follow Ian and Alejo’s example by switching routes from the TransAm to the Race Across America (RAAM) route, which finishes close to San Diego.  It cuts a little further south across the Rockies, but still drops me out on a good line for Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.

With the remnants of a tailwind(!), I made 80-odd miles that day, charging across the featureless plain like some sort of caffeine-and-sugar-fuelled buffalo.  On wheels.  Roughly.  I reckoned I’d make it to Dodge City (who could miss the real Wild West if passing reasonably close?) in another day, easily.  Just the same again, thanks.

It took two days.  And pretty much two whole days.

It became apparent yesterday that the headwinds were back with a vengeance.  And the weather people were talking about 25mph winds for today (they were right, by the way).  I mindlessly deployed the same tactics I’d used on that horrendous day to Eureka, put my head down and put the pressure on as hard as I could.  More sweat, more aches and pains, and a grand total of 42 miles covered in a total of eight-and-a-half hours, including about a thousand stops for water and to ease sore muscles.  A one-legged tortoise would find that a tad on the less-than-quick side.

I spent the evening considering my position.  This was not fun.  This was not even sustainable; remember how horrible that ride to Eureka had been?  Could I even face another day like that?  Clearly, a new approach was required, which is where Cycling Zen came in.

I had about another 40 miles to get to my target campsite at Dodge City.  You can walk 40 miles in a day, at a push.  And however slow I ride, I’m always going to be (a little) quicker than walking.  So I was going to make it today.  That was a fact.  And the speed didn’t matter.  Another fact.  The wind could do what it liked, and I’d just go as slow as necessary to take the pressure off my legs.  I’d retreat into a little bubble of non-worry, telling myself amusing stories (these are unprintable, so don’t get your hopes up), and try to enjoy the ride.

My moving average speed today was 8.4mph.  That one-legged tortoise is killing himself laughing.  But I rode without pain or effort, and with a smile on my face.  A slightly loopy smile, but still…  I only stopped a couple of times for drinks, and for lunch at a truck stop.  And somewhat miraculously, within six hours, I saw this:

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So…  Going slower in headwinds makes you quite a lot faster over the course of a day, and happier to boot.  There’s a lesson I didn’t think I’d learn.  And a new weapon which will get me through the headwinds.  Don’t fight it, just relax, switch off, and enjoy the ride.  Cycling Zen.  Or arguably, just what cycling should be all about, anyway…

There’s a lot of history in Dodge City, so I’m taking tomorrow (Wednesday) off to explore.  More from the Wild West soon.