A cycling trip is something that’s always been in the back of my mind to do, but I never actually thought it would happen…I blame Kelly.
We had originally discussed cycling across Canada in the next 2 years sometime and thought it would be a good idea to see if we liked it by taking a small trip on bikes. It started out as cycling around Iceland, then changed to riding around Croatia and Montenegro, then to Croatia from France and then one day Kelly walked in and said, “So I’ve had an idea….” Which usually means she’s been thinking of something slightly mental and isn’t sure what I’ll think of it. Turns out she thought cycling to China just a couple of months after a serious knee injury was a good idea…I fully agreed!
So the ‘small trip to prepare for the bigger trip’ actually became quite a lot larger than the bigger trip and we had a matter of weeks to get our shit together and get organized! We went on a furious eBay spree and ordered all the finest (cheapest) cycle crap that china had to offer. Seems a waste of postage now that we’re cycling back to china with all the gear. Seemed like the last few weeks of work cleaning toilets and cooking mighty feasts (in that order) for rich ski tourist types dragged on forever and we were itching to hop on the bikes and ride off in search of a bit of adventure and silly times.
We were both pretty nervous seeing as Kelly was still limping badly from her knee injury and neither of us had a clue about how to fix any problems that may arise with the bikes and the fact that it decided to start snowing again a couple of days before we left…the weather can be a harsh little dick. Nevertheless we didn’t let anything stop us from rolling down the hill from the ski station that had been home for the past few months and out of the alps, even when Kelly’s cheap shitty panniers broke several minutes before we set off for the first time. Gaffa tape saved the day!
The first hill down was pretty nerve racking, was still freezing cold and fingertips went numb and could barely pull the brakes plus seeing as we hadn’t actually rode with the bikes loaded up with all our crap was a bit scary, but we survived! The first day on the bike I knew I had found something I loved. The freedom of being able to zip down hills with your home and possessions strapped behind you and travel for as far as your legs will take you made me giddy and excited like a dumb child with a pet turnip. We found a park outside Albertville somewhere and set up our tiny green tent that would be our home for the next 7 or 8 months and my excitement grew as I realized that from now on anywhere with a free patch of ground could be home.
France was an excellent introduction to the world of cycle touring; it is set up for cyclists with excellent roads, drivers that respect people on bikes, beautiful country side and cycle routes through most towns. We were pretty keen to see some new scenery after spending quite a while working in France so took the shortest route out to Italy. The shortest route due to the mountain passes still being covered in snow at the time was actually a huge detour that took us in completely the opposite direction and then back into the alps for a grueling mountain pass but hey, we like a challenge. Balls out!
It was a bit of a reality check when we finally began ascending to the pass into Italy as we’d had pretty much flat cycling for the first week and were then faced with the shitty fact that hills exist and we will have to climb them. I think we did pretty well tackling our first mountain on a bike even though the wind decided it hated us and changed to blow icy cold fury in our faces at the steepest point. It was on this first mountain that hunger kicked in. We’d eaten pretty well for the first few days and hadn’t felt too much more hungry than normal, but once we hit this hill every fibre of my being was screaming for a snickers. This is when we started attacking French sticks like vicious badgers. I’ve never experienced the kind of hunger pains that happened on that mountain, I felt like I could eat all the stinky cheese in France and still not be full.We kept motivated by promising ourselves a huge pizza and beer as soon as we crossed into Italy and continued and eventually conquered the 2067m col du lautaret pass and then the second (much easier) col du something le something pass into Italia!!!
We felt victorious…we could do this whole cycle touring thing and eventually, possibly make it to china! The celebratory pizza and beer tasted ten times better as we felt we’d earned it….plus we’d been living off cream cheese and baguettes for a week and my guts were in need of some grease. We shot across Italy in less than two weeks as we are both tight asses and traveling on a pretty low budget so were attempting to make it to the Balkans as quickly as our feeble legs would take us so we could munch on some cheap fatty burek and live like biking Vikings.
Italy was just as much of a beginner cyclists’ delight as France with flat roads and relatively easy wild camping plus amazing countryside and mind-blowingly good coffee.
The only down side was the weather. The past month we worked in France it had been abnormally sunny and warm for the time of year with very little snowfall or rain, but of course that all changed when we got on a bike. We were followed by constant rain and storms all across Italy and it was slowly crushing our spirits. The first time we got caught in a sudden downpour we didn’t even stop to discuss what to do, if we should stop and shelter or just continue, we just pushed on through the rain. The first and last time we did that.
As I mentioned we are poor stingy folk who can’t afford the fancy waterproof panniers and German designed cycle gear weaved from genuine goat scrotum and carbon fibre so everything we own ended up wet including our tent and sleeping bags. Miserable soggy times.
When we did get a sunny day though, the cycling in Italy was glorious. One of the highlights was riding around Turin past poppy fields and rolling green hills. Kelly may disagree as she unfortunately got her front wheel jammed in a tram track in Turin and came off the bike injuring her shoulder and straining her neck as well as bumping her bad knee…she now had knee, shoulder and neck problems to deal with for the next few weeks cycle but like a trooper she pushed on!!
Managed to find some pretty awesome wild camping spots in Italy, random farmers fields, outside a salami factory, a beautiful tree grove and in desperation one night a ditch 2 meters from the side of the main road. Nothing like waking up to the sound of rats gnawing at the burnt on pasta chunks you left in you pots outside the tent! Due to the rain and storms we did have to cave-in several times and stay in cheap hotels so our budget took a bit of a firm bumming, but we still did alright and thanks to the fine folk at the discount supermarket chain Lidl we ate like royalty gorging on chocolate, granola and pesto pasta constantly.
It was all a bit surreal still and I don’t think it had fully sunk in that we were actually doing it and following through with a crazy idea to jump on bikes and just go, but it kind of hit home when we finally reached the coast and clocked up the 1000km mark at Rimini!!!
We were on a massive high that day after cranking out our biggest day yet (107km), reaching the coast and going over the thousand km mark and treated ourselves to a cheap but amazing hotel room complete with buffet breakfast!!
After our first buffet breakfast experience of the cycle trip in Turin we had made it our number one priority to seek buffets wherever possible. We are like mighty pterodactyls at a buffet; swooping down with skill and precision to fill our plates and selves full of more food than the hotel staff thought possible for any human to fit inside them. In fact, we are a more skilled and terrifying to any buffet than a simple minded pterodactyl…we have hands and backpacks and we will sneakily fill them with enough food to keep a pair of hungry cyclists fed for several days.
Mountains of cheese, boiled eggs, slices of cake, pastries, bread rolls, containers of jam, honey and nuttella all slip into our bags unnoticed (or noticed, we don’t really give a shit) and we eat until our bikes strain under our weight. So that was it, we had finally crossed our second country on a bicycle and hit the thousand kilometer milestone that we weren’t even sure we could achieve. All that was left was to turn the bikes south and get to Ancona to catch the ferry to Croatia…yeah that’s right a ferry. No it’s not cheating…jerk.
Decided against riding north and then looping south through Croatia as we have a slight time deadline and thought we could shave a bit off that way. Plus catching ferries makes me feel like a fearless pirate.
Phase 1 complete!! We had thought of France and Italy as the ‘training period’ for the rest of the trip and we’d shaped up well! No flat tires, hadn’t been arrested for wild camping and hadn’t cycled off a cliff. All bonuses.
Now for the Balkans…there’s no hills in the Balkans right? Right?!?!