rain

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…

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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…

No Drama

You can tell you’re back in Europe when the weather decides to play a large (and largely unwanted) role in your touring.

I was pretty sure, heading west from Alexandroupoli on Thursday, that I’d be able to update you on southern Bulgaria today.  The weather was nice, the road was good, and the hills weren’t too big and threatening:

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Xanthi on Thursday, then Drama on Friday, and Bulgaria on Saturday.  Not even stupidly long days.  Should have been easy.

And Thursday was fine, with the exception of a nagging headwind.  More of a head-breeze, really, so not a major problem.  The sun was out, the birds were singing (there seem to be a lot more birds here than in Turkey, for some reason), and all was well.

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I even found that ultimate mark of civilisation, a Lidl supermarket, when I got to Xanthi.  It was probably the busiest shop I’ve seen in Greece so far, which may be an indication that the Greeks’ economic woes are not yet all in the past.

My usual weather check that evening was where things started to go a bit sideways.  A huge blob of slow-moving rain was due to cover pretty much the whole of northern Greece (and southern Bulgaria and Macedonia) for about 36 hours from yesterday afternoon (Friday).

This was unfortunate.  You’ll be aware of my enthusiasm for getting completely soaked from previous posts.  And this blob of rain had all manner of online weather warnings attached to it, so it looked like the internet didn’t think it was just going to fade away, either.

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But you never know with weather forecasts.  It’s not like they’re never wrong, is it?  And this is Greece.  And it’s almost summer.  Surely it couldn’t rain that much?

So, proceeding according to plan, I twiddled away from Xanthi towards Drama.  But it was already clouding up by the time I hit the coast at the Beach of the Giant Pineapples (above).  It’s not really called that, by the way.  And I’m pretty sure it’s actually some sort of palm…

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I decided not to stop in Kavala, despite its impressive old town, complete with ancient castle and aqueduct (above – you might have to squint a bit to see the acqueduct).

I’d get as close as I could to Drama before the rain came.  And hope that I didn’t get stuck in no-man’s-land between the two big towns.  So, pausing only to have a quick look at the monastery at the top of the hill out of Kavala, I ploughed on.

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And duly got stuck in no-man’s-land.

Last night was a bit damp.  Today has been wet in an English summer sort of way – pouring with rain one minute, drizzling the next.  Miserable.  And not entirely helped by being stuck in the sort of village where a car driving down the main street would be a local talking point for weeks afterwards.

It’s my own fault.  In retrospect, I could have got to Drama in the dry quite easily, but it just didn’t feel that way at the time.

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If I’d been here a thousand or two years ago, things would have been different.  Where now there are just a couple of villages, separated by the fairly large hill above, there was once a Greek / Roman city called Phillipi (roughly; the spellings, and even the name, have not been particularly consistent over the years).

It was on the Via Egnatia, which was the Roman ‘motorway’ between the western and eastern parts of the empire.  And it was, by all accounts, a busy place; an administrative centre and a military site.  It was also, apparently, the first place in Europe where St Paul started spreading Christianity to the Romans.  Then it was abandoned.  Pretty thoroughly.  And used by the Ottomans as a quarry, according to Wikipedia.

So an interesting past, and a desolate and rain-soaked present.  I do hope that’s not some sort of metaphor for the rest of my journey!

It shouldn’t be.  The bike’s had a clean and fettle today, so I’ll be ready to head on to Bulgaria whenever the weather clears.  Which will hopefully be tomorrow.

If there are no more dramas.  Except for Drama, finally…

The Cloud Tunnel

Back at altitude, and dodging showers.

It’s felt like the same day over and over for the last few.  With the honourable exception of yesterday (Friday), which I sat out, due to the entire day being nothing but one long thunderstorm.  But I was due a rest, anyway…

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It took a little while to arrive, but the rain comes with a vengeance in the hills.  There was already a hint of it in the air as I left Osmancik on Thursday.  But it stuck on the mountains, and didn’t do more than spit on the road as I headed gently downhill in the Red River valley (above).

The downhills haven’t lasted long, as the road’s been mainly upwards.  I’m in Cerkes this evening (Saturday), due north of Ankara, and back up at around 1000 metres altitude.  So every down has been paid for by a slightly longer up.  And the hills have got steeper as I’ve got further in.  Where the first days out from Samsun were on lovely, moderate gradients, I’ve been copping three or four 10% ramps a day on the way here.

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By Thursday afternoon, as I dropped down another short valley (above), the clouds were closing in at the end.  For the whole afternoon, there was at least one massive downpour lurking within a mile or two of where I was.

A man at a petrol station pointed at the sky, and performed a very entertaining and realistic mime of a wet and shivering cyclist.  I was worried he might be right.

And whenever I wasn’t moving, I was staring at the sky, trying to work out if I could outrun the nearest rain before it got to the road, or whether I should stop and wait for it to pass.

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If there’s an effective incentive to finish the last (uphill) few kilometres of the day, it’s seeing a bank of black clouds following you up the road (above).

But later, as this particular storm again missed the road outside, I began to wonder.  There had been showers around ever since I left Samsun, and yet I’d not got wet.  More surprisingly, the road had not even been wet when I got to places where showers had seemed to be minutes before.

Maybe the road, as well as being smooth and well-engineered, has some sort of magical rain-repelling properties?  Maybe it’s a tunnel through the clouds.

It wasn’t yesterday.  Thankfully, I’d taken notice of the forecast this time, and decided that a day off was in order.  So I lay around, stuffed myself with food, and listened to the rain battering the streets outside.

But today, it seemed to be back in full effect.  Showers everywhere except on the road, even when I watched downpours apparently cross the route just in front of me.  I was certain I was about to get soaked three or four times, and yet I finished the day dry again.  Despite a vast amount of liquid falling from the sky as I approached Cerkes this afternoon:

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Whether the road really does repel the rain or not, things should clear up in the next couple of days.  And, from tomorrow afternoon onwards (after one more biggish hill), I should begin dropping towards the Sea of Marmara and Istanbul.

Though, as well as pondering the weather, I’m still trying to decide whether heading to Istanbul is the best option.  It’s a great city, but I know that because I’ve been there before.  And, although the Bosphorus is by far the most famous border point between Asia and Europe, there are other options which don’t involve the dire Istanbul traffic.

With a bit of luck, the more downhill nature of the riding in the next few days, together with fewer showers, will give me the chance to think through my best route to Europe.  I’ll let you know exactly where I’m going next time.

On Climbing and Waiting for Rain

I wasn’t sure that I’d get very far after I left Samsun yesterday morning (Tuesday).

First, there were some horrendous weather forecasts flying around.  Most of which suggested that I’d be pinned down by thunderstorms and wave after wave of heavy rain until Saturday.

Second, it was time to hit the mountains again.  This was sure to slow me down, and so leave me trapped in the middle of nowhere as the lightning flashed and a month’s worth of rain fell in twenty minutes.

All in all, it looked a bit nasty as I pulled on my brand new cycling shorts*.  The cloud was already down on the tops of the hills around the city, and I almost decided just to go back to bed for a week, and wait for the rain to get to me.

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So far, it’s been a decent decision not to.

The clouds began to clear as soon as I turned inland, and the remnants of the breeze which had pushed me along the coast were funnelled by the hills into a little tailwind.  The road has been beautifully engineered throughout, too.  But it was still quite a surprise to start at sea level, and to hit a 900-metre (close to 3000 ft) pass before lunchtime.  At an average of 13 mph.  And in the sunshine, too.

I wasn’t fooled, though.  This was not allowed to be a brilliant day.  I knew the mass of rain that the TV news was showing couldn’t just disappear.  It was just a matter of time.  I watched the skies, suspiciously.

Still, as I rolled into Havsa yesterday afternoon, I was still bone dry.  There were a handful of heavy storms about, but they were all pretty small and none came too close.  I figured I’d got lucky, and prepared to be rained in the next morning.

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After watching the sun go down behind the mosque, I considered composing a few sentences on how my trip has also been a little window onto the Islamic world.  Then I realised that nobody likes a pretentious cycle-tourist, and went to bed instead.  To everyone’s great relief, I’m sure.

I was woken after midnight by the sound of rain pounding down outside.  I felt vindicated, and a little smug, and drifted back off again.

The morning sunlight woke me before my alarm went off.  I was confused.  There really wasn’t supposed to be any sunlight this morning (Wednesday).  I looked outside.  There were some clouds scudding about on what looked like a fairly strong headwind.  But nothing that really spelled the sustained heavy rain I was anticipating.

I put my jacket on against the wind, and pedalled onwards in the sunshine.  Towards Osmancik.  More hills, more tunnels, and another 1000-metre pass.  With a beautiful, swooping decent off the top (below), which was only partly spoiled by the headwind.

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But finally, as you can see above, the horizon was darkening.  A mass of cloud was rushing toward me.  This was obviously the forerunner of the huge area of rain.  I actually thought I’d cut it too fine as I dropped into town, with another small but vicious-looking storm pummelling the valley next door.

As you can see, I didn’t get under cover a moment too soon, as the sky blackened over the castle, and the rain began.

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It stopped five minutes later, having barely wet the street.  And although there have been a few evil-looking clouds about since, it’s still dry as darkness falls this evening.

The forecast, needless to say, reckons that it’s already raining here, and will do so (heavily) for the next 48 hours.

However the weather works out, I’ve got to congratulate the Turks on their main roads.  The climbs are very long, but barely get above 3%.  And the road surface is almost silky, meaning that the bike rolls really nicely on the inclines.

So, if the weather seems designed to make me look silly at the moment, the roads are making me look good.

There’s definitely a lot more climbing to come, though.  And I can’t help feeling that the rain’s going to have its say eventually…

* This was a great result: I found a far-flung branch of Decathlon (large, French outdoors store) in Samsun, so was able to get a cheap (but reasonable quality) pair to replace my original shorts, which… erm… seem to have melted.  Or maybe rotted.  Don’t ask…

Stuck Between the Past and the Future

Another month and a bit ticks by…

It’s sixteen months (almost to the day) since I pedalled out of London to ride around the world.  Seven-and-a-half since my unfortunate vehicular mishap in Thailand, thirteen countries and 9300 miles later.  Two-and-a-half since I began my ‘comeback’ tour of the UK.  And one-and-a-half since I got home from the far north of Scotland.

I’m getting older and fatter.  Rapidly.

Summer’s long gone, and the UK’s experiencing the usual downsides of its location; constant streams of rain and wind whipping in off the Atlantic.  The clocks have gone back, so it’s dark by four thirty in the afternoon.  And getting darker every day.

Having cheated the gloom and damp of the last English autumn and winter by cunningly being on the other, sunnier, side of the globe, it’s especially depressing.

But…

The passage of time does have some advantages.  At the moment, it’s bringing me closer to resuming the round-the-world trip.  Much closer.

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For the last eighteen months, most of my days have looked something like the picture above.  In just a bit over four weeks, they will again.  The road’s calling.

In truth, there’s a fair chance that the road involved will look more like this, initially at least:

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Because I’ll soon be back in South-East Asian Scooter Madness.  I’m flying out to Vietnam in early December.  I’ll spend a few days acclimatising to the heat (I rode into it slowly last time, rather than being dropped straight into the sauna).  Then I’ll be on the road to Laos, then back to Thailand, then (assuming I get the visa sorted) to Burma / Myanmar.  Then India.  And then onwards.

This is the rough idea of how it’s planned to go at the moment:

This obviously depends on all the usual things.  Continued health, fitness, bike road-worthiness, visas, natural disasters and the weather.  Oh, and careful avoidance of physical contact with goods vehicles.  I might need to go south, rather than heading for the Silk Road through Central Asia.  It’s even possible that Iran might start letting Brits travel independently again.  Who knows?

But whichever way it goes, I should be back in the sun soon, and back on the road.  And back to peppering you with far more regular updates than has been the case of late.  The future’s good, isn’t it?

Fingers firmly crossed…

Type 2 Fun – The First Sportive

It’s after four on Sunday afternoon, but it feels much later with the glowering black clouds cutting the light down.  Driving rain lashes Newbury racecourse, as it has, intermittently, for most of the day.  And it’s chilly, even for the fickle English summer.

The Wiggle Magnificat Sportive is drawing to a close.  Think of it as a mass-participation marathon on wheels, without an elite race in front.  Hundreds of damp, tired cyclists have completed their choice of 44, 85 or 128 mile rides.  They shelter in the cafe and bar, easing their pain with alcohol or warming up with steaming cups of tea.

Maybe a few of the nicer ones among them are sparing a thought for the stragglers still out on the course.

A couple of miles away, two of those stragglers are finally rolling down the last hill towards the finishing line, and carefully negotiating the slippery white paint of the mini-roundabout on the last corner.  One of them is trying, unsuccessfully, to prevent his teeth from chattering as the cold wind cuts through his soaked clothes.  This is me.  The other can’t quite believe that his legs, which stopped working properly over an hour ago, are actually getting him to the finish line.  This is my friend Luke.

Few would argue that this is conventional, Type 1, instant gratification fun.  But we finished.  It wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t pretty in places.  But that really isn’t the point.  We’ve been there, and (literally) got the T-shirts:

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And, at least for me, as a protein-rich dinner and a couple of pints of cider mingled happily in my stomach a few hours later, it retrospectively became so much fun that I signed up to do another one in a couple of weeks.

Luke may take a bit longer to convince.  But I’m sure that, eventually (when he can sit down again without a soft cushion), he’ll agree that it was fun too.

Given our various physical issues and relative lack of preparation (basically, find a sportive training guide online, tear it into tiny pieces, and replace it with a few sporadic short rides, beer, and darts marathons), I reckon we did OK.

85 miles (136km) and 1366m (nearly 4500ft) of climbing in a day is a decent ride by most standards.

In a straight line, the 85 miles would have taken us from Newbury (pretty much in the middle of southern England) to Newport in Wales, or Birmingham in the midlands.  And the climbing was a little more than going from sea level to the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK.

For me, it was really about continuing my rehab after the accident.  I was pretty sure I’d be fine with the mileage after touring halfway round the world in the last year (the same Sunday in 2014 saw me rolling off from Greenwich to start my still-unfinished circumnavigation).

But, with my shoulder, back and neck still in pieces, it was a test to see if my body could deal with a whole day on the bike.  It can, which makes me very happy.  I’d struggle to do it for several days in a row, though, so I’ve still got some recovering to do before I get back to touring in a few weeks.

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For Luke (above, climbing one of the countless small hills in a rare non-rainy moment), it was a different sort of challenge.  He only bought his bike a few weeks ago, and his training’s been limited to laps of Richmond Park in London.  Which means that Sunday was his first ever ride over 40 miles, and the first time he’d gone anywhere close to that level of climbing.  Forcing his exhausted legs over the last few hills and miles was a proper result for him.

So, a cycling first for both of us; sportive number one completed.  An achievement, if not quite on the level of what Team Sky just did to the rest of the Tour de France this afternoon (Tuesday).

Was it worth it?  I’d say ‘definitely’.  But then, I’ve made hard riding a bit of a habit over the last year.  Luke might say ‘maybe’.  Or something unprintable.  The countryside was lovely, if damp.  The riding was fairly tough, but not outrageous.  The organisation was excellent.  The weather was shocking, and the course designer was a bit of a sadist, throwing stacks of stinging little climbs into the last few kilometres.  But in the end it was good, if definitely Type 2, fun.

And it hasn’t put Luke off cycling.  He’s talking about putting some bags on his bike and joining me for a couple of days on my UK tour in a few weeks.

Assuming he can bear to sit on a bike again by then, of course…

The Reef, the West, and the Rain Man

I’m not sure how a post without any cycling involved really fits into an account of a round-the-world bike ride.  But there hasn’t been any riding since I got to Cairns.  Some coral, some fish, an awful lot of flying and another international border.  No riding at all.

But I need to provide a neat finish to Australia; it wouldn’t do to just jump suddenly into the middle of Indonesia as if nothing happened in-between, would it?  So here we go…

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I spent so many weeks in Queensland riding parallel with the Great Barrier Reef that it would have been a crime not to go and see it.  I finally got the chance in Cairns (it’s probably more accurate to say that I had my last chance at Cairns; I’ve always been an expert in putting things off ’til the last minute).

And so, on my last whole day on the east coast of Australia (Saturday), I hopped on a ferry and headed for Green Island.

Halfway there (it was the morning, and I’m never all that sharp before lunch), I realised that I’d forgotten to either rent an underwater camera or buy a waterproof disposable one.  This was yet another ‘doh!’ moment to add to the several I’ve accumulated so far during the trip.

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Still, I had a pleasant snorkel around, and then a glass-bottomed boat ride, which at least enabled me to get a couple of blurry snaps of a chunk of reef and a few of its denizens.  I don’t think that they’re likely to set the world of aquatic photography alight, but at least there’s a record…

As I waited on the jetty for the boat back to town, it became apparent that another (yet another?) storm was heading straight toward me, entirely obscuring Cairns behind an impenetrable sheet of rain.

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When I got back that evening, I was accused for the first (but by far not the last) time this week of bringing the rain with me.  It hadn’t rained much in Cairns this wet season until my arrival, despite my fairly regular soakings further south in Queensland.  I didn’t think too much of this at the time, until I crossed the country to Perth.

As I said last time, the ridiculousness of aviation routes and fares meant that flying three sides of a fairly large (think most-of-Europe sized) square was cheaper than heading to Indonesia in a straight line.

It also meant that I could visit old friends (Matt, Jennifer and family) in Perth.  I went to school with Matt, but we worked out that it was fairly close to decades (plural) since we’d last seen each other.  Astonishing how time flies (and how old I must be).  And it was also an excuse to stretch my time off the bike by another few days.  Though the Beast’s not particularly happy at having been wrapped in cardboard and battered by baggage handlers across three time zones.

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As the picture above might suggest, Perth in the summer is usually hot (but emphatically not humid) and dry.  As the picture above might not adequately suggest, within an hour or so of my arrival on Sunday, an immense thunder storm kicked off.  The accusation of storms following me around was repeated, and staunchly defended.  But it was starting to worry me now.

And the worry deepened yesterday (Tuesday), as I raced incoming, menacing dark cloud back to the house.  A casual observer might have thought that the rain thrashing in within five minutes of my arrival meant that wherever I go, precipitation follows.  I might even be starting to agree.  Maybe I am, indeed, destined to be forever stalked by lightning and heavy rain.

If it’s going to catch up with me again, though, it’s going to have to leave Australia and get me in Indonesia.  As I left Perth today, I was departing under crystal-clear blue skies, and remained in them all the way to Bali.

It clouded up later, though.  Of course it did.  Any bets that the first update from the road in Indonesia won’t include the word ‘storm’?  Or ‘rain’?  Or at least ‘shower’?

Summertime in the Sunshine State

Back at home in the UK, there’s an ancient summer tradition of kids riding donkeys at the seaside.  That’s on the five days of the summer that it’s not raining, blowing a gale or freezing cold, obviously.  And on the couple of beaches from which animals are not banned in the name of health and safety.  It probably doesn’t happen quite as much as it once did.

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In Queensland, it’s a little different.  There’s a camel train which wanders along the (fairly tiny) Airlie Beach, and it looks like it’s there to stay for another generation, at least.  The little chap above was being trained (not especially effectively, it appeared) to follow the rest of his family around, in preparation for a lifetime of trudging about with apes on his back.  I suspect the Beast sympathises.

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The sunshine and heat lasted for another day before I had something else to moan about.  At sunset in Bowen on Tuesday, I could already see clouds building behind the palm trees.  And by the time I started rolling up the highway on Wednesday morning, it was to the accompaniment of dire predictions of thunderstorms, torrential rain, and even possible highway closures due to flooding.

This was a bit of a bummer, as I was hoping to get to Townsville (roughly 200km / 125 miles away) by this evening (Thursday).

It’s been known to rain in the UK in the summer, too, so I shrugged off the warnings, slapped on the factor fifty, and pootled off determinedly up the road.  By lunchtime, I’d begun to think that I might get away with it, and make it to my target destination of Home Hill before anything too dramatic happened.  Then I stopped for a nice cold drink at the tiny hamlet of Gumlu, and emerged to see this hurtling down the road towards me:

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Ouch.

Needless to say, the Queensland rain’s not quite the same as at home either.  I spent three hours cowering in Gumlu as wave after wave of clouds unloaded, along with a spectacular lightning show.

Just as I thought I’d be stuck there forever, the clouds parted.  Enough time to dash the remaining 40km?  It looked like it might be.  And it would be light just about long enough, too.  I shifted into time-trial mode, ignoring the protests from my legs, and floored it.

For about ten kilometres.

Then I got a flat tyre.  Only the fifth of the whole trip.  Just one every 39 days.  So why, oh why do I get one in the middle of nowhere when I’m trying to beat a gazillion litres of airborne water to the next shelter?

I’m still not sure whether the puncture did me a favour in the end.  I was still 15kms out of Home Hill when the rain began again.  Amazingly, the arrival of the heavy stuff coincided with me spotting the illuminated sign of the petrol station / hotel / campground at Inkerman.  In I dived, and was rewarded by their phenomenal ‘waifs and strays’ policy – a free worker’s cabin (rather dubiously known as a ‘donga’) for the night.  Lucky, lucky boy…

Today’s forecast was even worse that yesterday’s, so I didn’t really expect to make Townsville.  In fact, I only just scraped that elusive 15kms to Home Hill before cloudburst number one arrived at eight this morning.

I hung around (under shelter) in town for a couple of hours, but things didn’t improve a great deal:

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And so in Home Hill I remain.  As I write, the sixth cloudburst of the day is ongoing.  At home, one shower like that would clear the air for days.  Not here.

Things are forecast to be a little better tomorrow, so I might be able to scramble up to Townsville with just a few showers to dodge.  My optimism remains undimmed.  More likely, I’ll make it to the next town, Ayr, and get stranded again.

So, summer in Queensland.  Animal rides on the beach and changeable weather.  Sounds very much like an English summer on paper.

But it’s really, really, not the same at all.

The Occasional Alps

This might sound a little familiar.  Sitting in a hostel, gazing forlornly out of the window at astonishing quantities of driving rain.  And much twiddling of thumbs and pacing up and down until the skies (maybe) clear.

I’m sure someone else was doing that yesterday morning (Tuesday).  They may even have experienced a flicker of sympathy for any cyclists plugging away outside.  I, however, was busy multi-tasking.  I was out on the Beast, getting soaked to the skin and climbing hills.

The west coast of New Zealand is proving tricky on a bike.  Towns are spread unevenly and without much between, so you sometimes need to ride a short repositioning day before a longer run.  And the Southern Alps, which are a constant companion to the left of the road, have been getting bigger and bigger, which means the foothills are bigger too.  Oh, and I might have mentioned that the weather is a little bit fickle.  To say the least.

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Yes, the Southern Alps are always there, but you only get to see them occasionally.  Usually (at least with me seeming to attract moisture from the air wherever I go in NZ), they’re either hiding their heads in low cloud, or are completely obscured by heavy rain.  They’re always there, but you definitely wouldn’t always know.

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When you can see it, the scenery is spectacular.  As I’ve meandered south into glacier country, the sun has sometimes bothered to appear, and the snow-capped peaks, lakes and icy rivers are absolutely beautiful.  And the sun is strong when it comes out.  I’ve actually had to dig out the sunscreen a couple of times, which must be an improvement, mustn’t it?  Until you look at the forecast for the rest of the week…

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I got to Franz Josef Glacier on Monday.  This is both true and slightly misleading, as I only got to the town of Franz Josef Glacier.  Not quite to Franz Josef Glacier itself.  Hope that’s all clear enough?  And then I got soaked on the short, but hilly, run to Fox Glacier yesterday (again, that’s Fox Glacier, not Fox Glacier, but then I guess you’ve worked that out already).

This morning (Wednesday), and a now all-too-familiar scene repeated itself.  I was, once again, the one in the hostel, watching the hills disappear and reappear between sheets of torrential rain.  Given that the nearest hill is only half a kilometre away, it takes some fairly serious precipitation to make it vanish.  I was set to push on to Haast today, which is a long day’s ride, and then over the Alps tomorrow to, hopefully, better weather.  But the rain’s not ready to let me go just yet.

That may be just as well.  It would have been a shame to leave glacier country without seeing a glacier.  And as the rain became a little more showery around lunchtime, I commandeered a Swede’s car (OK, OK, he was going anyway, and offered me a lift), and we drove up to have a look.

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The glaciers here come fairly close to sea level, and are surrounded by temperate rainforest.  That’s RAINforest.  Appropriately enough.  Makes a pretty frame for the hills and glaciers, mind you.

So, in theory, I should hit the westernmost end of the Kiwi leg of my trip tomorrow, before cutting over the mountains (sounds easy, right?), and then swinging north toward Christchurch and my flight to Australia.  Don’t be too surprised if nothing of the sort happens, though.

I’m also pretty determined that my next post won’t have anything negative to say about the weather.  Don’t be too surprised if that’s not the case either…