Tag Archives: Expedition

What’s important in life?

Last week everything was getting a bit hectic. Work was busy as always, I had a stack of admin to do, and I’d been trying to sort out house buying/selling stuff as well as visiting my brother and family, then visiting him again to collect my laptop which I left behind; what a plonker! Thankfully he only lives just over an hour away.

With stress levels mounting the short film below by Alastair Humphries was brought to my attention, which came as a timely reminder of what’s important in life, and got me thinking about future adventures again. I’d highly recommend you take 5 minutes to watch it.

I love the quote from John Muir…

‘A lifetime is so little a time, that we die before we get ready to live’

I bet this is a concern many share, and we should do our utmost to ensure we don’t delay living, instead of just plodding along hoping something will change, for a lottery win, or that fame and fortune will randomly find you if fame and fortune are what you really want. Definitely don’t wait for retirement to spread your wings. Who knows what the future holds and how long you have to enjoy it; the world doesn’t feel like a very stable place at the moment.

So  reminding myself of the above, I think it’s time to start planning some fun stuff in the outdoors for next year. I’m not thinking of trips taking several months again, instead it’ll be shorter excursions, and not just by bike this time. Current ideas include hiking/biking in Scotland, one of my favourite places, climbing in France, and perhaps canoeing in Canada. I’d better get saving however not all of these need be expensive. I also really need to commit to doing some writing, something I always say I’m going to do but rarely prioritise, finding other things to occupy my time instead. On top of that I’d like to commit time to environmental and conservation causes and projects, perhaps with some volunteer work, or fundraising for charities involved. Looks like 2017 could be busy then.

On the environment front a colleague at work asked me today why I don’t use my car to get to work when it’s cold and wet, instead of cycling all the time. Aside from the fitness side of things and constantly trying to lose weight, my more immediate response was as follows.

‘If your house catches fire, do you throw more fuel on it to make it burn more quickly and destructively,  or do you go and fetch a hose pipe and call the fire brigade?’

Every time I get in my car, and even though it has very low emissions, I’m conscious of the fossil fuel it’s burning and how the emissions from this are contributing to climate change. 2016 is another record breaker, being the hottest year on record, and CO2 levels have permanently gone over 400 ppm now. The planet seems to be on course to continue warming, with all the disastrous side effects such as ice melt, sea levels rising, warming oceans leading to coral bleaching and anaerobic dead zones, as well as habitat destruction and species decline on a massive scale. I could go on with examples but it gets a little depressing, especially with a new president due in the USA who doesn’t believe in climate change and who is going to encourage more coal-burning. I think the Paris Climate change agreement to limit temperatures to a 2’C rise is broken.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Of course you wouldn’t throw more fuel onto your house if it’s on fire, however most people just can’t see that the same thing is happening to the planet.

The human race seems determined to ignore all the warning signs, and continue blindly on with its destructive lifestyle. Endless consumerism of goods you don’t really need and often pointless technology, is driven by large corporations driven only by profits and greed. People are often completely unwilling to compromise on their comfortable lifestyles to try to limit their impact on the environment. Having the latest gadget, upgrade, a new car, or a wardrobe full of new clothes is still a necessary status symbol for many people, even though we’re using up the planet’s resources at an unprecedented rate and destroying countless habitats to do so.

It really is completely messed up and illogical, and I think I’m beginning to agree with Sir David Attenborough’s comments that humanity are a plague on Earth and population growth needs to be limited and reversed; unfortunately that still seems to be a bit of a taboo subject. Any arguments around the planet not being overpopulated by humans as there’s still loads of space, of which I’ve seen a few recently, are seriously flawed. Yes there’s enough space to make lots more farmland, but at the expense of more critical ecosystems, and with more people will come more demand for goods that will strip the our remaining resources even further, at the expense of the other animals we share this world with, and future generations.

Still, I like to think there’s still hope, with awareness growing of the issues we face, and more and more people taking notice and trying to change their lifestyles to limit an adverse impact on the environment, pollution, waste and energy use. Even the small things like stopping buying coffee in non reusable cups with plastic lids helps; just stop it! It may be too late to stop some of the changes such as sea level rises that will sink coastal cities, but hopefully other changes can be averted.

If we can persuade governments to invest more in renewable energy, expose large corporations with damaging practices, and change our habits things will get better. There are also projects such as ITER, which I just read about, which could provide a clean source of energy on a permanent basis, solving many of the world’s problems (see https://www.iter.org/). And perhaps more critically I firmly believe, along with hundreds of thousands of others, that we need to do more to  keep fossil fuels in the ground, even if that means fuel prices may rise and life might get a little more difficult in the short-term. We’ve got to do something to force the political elite, as well as the very small percentage of the superrich who seem to control everything with only their own wellbeing and wealth in mind, to take notice.

Those were my musings for a Tuesday evening. By writing about this I hope to increase awareness and make people think, as it should (IMHO) be something we are all concerned about on a daily basis; after all, what is important in life? And if you didn’t like the environmental bit I hope the video was at least enjoyable.

The animals of Cycling Europe

From the Arctic tundra of northern Norway, to hot arid climes of Spain, and the varied landscapes of Eastern Europe, I came across a variety of flora and fauna as I pedalled my way around Europe this summer. Whilst some of the animals were too quick to be photographed, such as the Black Woodpecker I saw in France, or just to fast as was the case with the hares in Sweden, I did manage to capture a few on camera; mostly dogs and cats as they tended to make their presence known, whilst in search of fuss or food.

In the far North there wasn’t initially a lot to be seen, aside from a few friendly trolls lurking around Nordkapp.

On the road South to Honningsvag I was pleased to see reindeer, but reminded of Scandinavia’s penchant for hunting at the hostel where I was staying.

I came across more reindeer and a couple of living  moose on my way to Finland and Sweden, and was constantly accompanied by the sounds of birds singing, as the snow thawed and Spring arrived.

I was of course always accompanied by an animal of sorts, Travelling Lobster, and I shouldn’t forget that I am also classified as part of the Animal Kingdom. I couldn’t have done without my ‘jovial’ companion, even if he wasn’t one for doing much pedalling.

Travelling Lobster modelling a catalogue pose in Sweden

Travelling Lobster modelling a catalogue pose in Sweden

The Lobster had a fondness for cows. I’m really not sure why, however it could be to do with his addiction to chocolate, and realisation that cows are integral to its manufacture. It was he that ate all the chocolate I was forced to buy to feed this addiction…honest.

Has anyone else found that some cows get quite excited when you cycle past them? I quite often found they’d follow me as I pedalled past their field, and that they’d sometimes break into a run to keep up. This happened to me a lot on my cycle tour in Scotland in 2013, and I’m wondering if it’s something to do with my red panniers.

As well as cows I encountered lots of goats on my way around Europe, more so in the South where herds sometimes blocked the road, and sometimes on campsites where they were used as environmentally friendly lawnmowers; don’t leave your washing out near them though.

Birds were often to far away to get a good picture, or moving to quickly, however wildfowl proved more easier to photograph, especially when they wanted food.

I lost count of the number of birds of prey I spotted, ranging from huge numbers of buzzards, to Black Kites, massive eagles where I couldn’t be definite on the species, countless Kestrels, and soaring falcons. They were often being mobbed by gangs of crows intent of driving them off; crows a long with pigeons were a constant feature around Europe. Birds of prey weren’t the most lethal of feathered friend I came across, although thankfully I only saw a sign warning of the dangers of the following.

Pretty sure flying sheep don't count as birds, but a worrying development nonetheless

Pretty sure flying sheep don’t count as birds, but a worrying development nonetheless

Yep, sheep, I really hope they don’t evolve wings, no one would be safe. I encountered many sheep ambushes on my tour around the coast of Britain in 2013, and became convinced they were after me and possess some kind of hive intelligence, with a grand conspiracy in play. I came across many more sheep in Europe, however they weren’t quite as vicious as their British cousins.

On the dangerous animal front there isn’t much to report. The only bears I saw were on signs, stuffed, or statues thereof, and although I visited a wolf sanctuary I didn’t see any as they were all asleep.

I guess the most alarming animals of the whole trip were the dogs encountered in Greece, Turkey and Eastern Europe in general. Often wild or feral, they would chase me, snarling and barking. My scariest experience of the whole tour was being surrounded by a pack of 7 or 8 growling feral dogs in the hills outside Thessaloniki. On the flip side I came across a lot of friendly hounds, who were more than happy to say hello and stick their noses in my panniers looking for snacks.

Cats were also a common feature along the way, especially further South. They’d often arrive to inspect my tent and panniers, or to just say hello and settle down beside me in the sunshine.

Horse drawn vehicles became more common in parts of Eastern Europe, however I happened upon many equine beasts elsewhere.

On the farm animal front, I met a few when staying with friends on their farm in the Ardeche, a wonderful break on my tour that I’ll always remember.

And then there were a few exotic or miscellaneous beasts, or imaginary creatures, that I came across.

Finally here are a couple of nice landscape shots, although really I could do a whole series of blog posts just show-casing some of the amazing panoramas I pedalled past.

Poppies in France, not far from Paris

Poppies in France, not far from Paris

Spain also had some stunning countryside

Spain also had some stunning countryside

All these pictures were taken using the camera on my iPhone 6. I considered taking my Canon digital SLR, however it’s just another piece of baggage and thing that I could potentially lose or get stolen, so decided against it in the end; good decision I think.

Still thinking about ideas for my next cycle tour adventure; likely to be a series of shorter expeditions I suspect, to fit around work, but looking forward to whatever they will be next year – for starters mountain biking around some bothies in Scotland has got to be a good plan.

Cycling Europe – bike and kit review

I couldn’t tell you how much all the kit I took with me around Europe for six months weighed, maybe 35 kg, including my bike, I don’t think I ever weighed it. There was certainly quite a lot of ‘gubbins’ involved, making me slightly jealous of the ultralight tourers I encountered with nothing but a sawn-off toothbrush and a credit card for comfort, however not as much as I’ve seen some people take with them.

The following is a review of some of the kit I toured with. It’s worth mentioning that, aside from a few maps, I finished pedalling around Europe with all the kit I started with, apart from one Icebreaker base layer which disintegrated somewhere in Spain.

Travelling Lobster even made it back, although he still needs a wash; a more erstwhile travelling companion I could not have asked for, despite his lack of assistance in the pedalling department, or any department aside from sightseeing and chocolate eating.

Travelling Lobster helping with tour prep

Travelling Lobster helping with tour prep

The Bike
–> Oxford Bike Works – Expedition Bike
Here are a few photos of the bike, christened Smaug, in transit on the way to Nordkapp, then on to Tarifa, followed by Istanbul, before returning back to the UK.

Smaug is based on the Expedition Bike design from Oxford Bike Works, with a few custom tweaks such as the addition of a dynamo hub, as well as a Brooks saddle. I wanted something simple, strong, and reliable, and was not disappointed. Richard from Oxford Bike Works did a great job with the specification, in partnership with Tom Allen of http://tomsbiketrip.com renown.

The steel frame proved resilient, using Reynolds 525 tubing. Some people use aluminium frames when touring, however I prefer the additional strength from steel, even if it is heavier, and the fact you can weld it back together again if it does break; aluminium doesn’t take too kindly to a welding torch. I wouldn’t go near carbon on any part of a touring frame. I also chose the colour red, as everyone knows a red bike goes faster, and that, along with the fact it flew up and down mountains and breathed fire, led to the name Smaug.

I changed the rear cassette and chain twice, once in France on the way to Tarifa, and once upon my return to the UK, so not bad considering that’s over 10,200 miles. I also had to replace the chain set (front rings) once back in the UK. The Schwalbe Marathon plus tyres performed admirably, as you’d expect, although I did suffer from more punctures than on my previous long tour around the coast of Britain. I think the punctures may have been more down to a duff batch of inner tubes, or more likely my impatience whilst mending them. I had to change my tyres once in the South of France, to a set of Malamuts which although larger did the job, and once upon my return to the UK; the rear tyre only just made it back.

The Shimano brakes were great, and simple to change when I needed to. I had to swap the cartridge shoe inserts for brake blocks at one point, as I couldn’t find any replacement inserts, however I was glad of the simple set up, and that I didn’t have to fiddle around with disc brakes. I’ve also heard disc brakes put more strain on your wheels, due to their stopping power which can cause more spoke breakages; I hate spoke breakages so more than happy to forego the extra stopping power and complexity.

Brooks saddle - perhaps the most important part of the bike

Brooks saddle – perhaps the most important part of the bike

Perhaps the most important feature on a touring bike is the saddle. I started with a gel saddle, however soon found this became uncomfortable after long days in the saddle, and caused chafing; gel saddles may be great for a commuting but I would not recommend them for long distance touring. I swapped it for a Brooks B17 in Sweden, which took until Spain to wear in, but proved an excellent choice with no more complaints. I suspect this Brooks saddle will last me a very long time, and will almost certainly move between bikes.

My favourite gadget had to be my SP Dynamo Hub, which did a fantastic job of charging my Garmin GPS and iPhone, as well as powering the fantastically bright Luxos from light. I sometimes wonder if bike lights are getting a little too bright, to the point where they pose a danger to drivers by blinding them, however the Luxos does have a dip and full beam setting, and it was great on the occasions I had cycle at night, especially on the last stretch to Dieppe in the early hours of the morning.

Only two problems over the course of six months, the first being several spokes that all broke at once, and the second being the bike stand. The spoke breakages resulted from the gears being knocked out of alignment during the plane flight, meaning the chain slipped off the top rear ring, and slid down in between the cassette and spokes, chewing several of them up; luckily I wasn’t far from a decent bike shop. I should mention that I had no problems with the rims; Rigida Sputnik 26” (559), 36H, Schrader valve. If I had to choose a vital component of a touring bike, aside from the saddle, it would be the wheels. After having numerous problems with my factory built wheels on my Bike around Britain tour (different bike), I’d always go for hand-built wheels where they use decent spokes (factory built often use shoddy spokes). With such a heavy bike, due to all the luggage, wheel strength is massively important if you want to avoid mechanical issues. I was also happy with 26 inch wheels, rather than going for 700cc size. 26 inch might be slower, however that doesn’t particularly matter when you’re touring on a heavy bike, and there are two distinct advantages; increased wheel strength and ease of finding replacements.

Bike stand attachment deformed over time

Bike stand attachment deformed over time

The bike stand itself was great, however the point at which it attached the bike deformed over time, and eventually made it unusable, probably due to the weight. I think you can attach it slightly differently to the bike, by fitting the clamp over the top of the chain stay tubes, which would probably increase durability, however I might go with one of those clip on bike stands next time. I definitely missed having a stand after it broke, however I wouldn’t say it’s a vital component of a touring set up, as you can usually find somewhere to lean your machine.

Other points:

  • Ergon GP1 BioKork lock-on grips were comfortable, spreading the weight across my palms, however I’d think twice about wearing gel cycling gloves with them. After while they caused me significant pain and actually damaged my hands; the combination doesn’t work, and once I removed my gloves the pain and nerve damage went away. I swapped the standard bar ends for longer versions, which I prefer as it gives me more alternatives grip wise, and more to pull on when I’m standing up on the pedals going up hills; probably do that too much.
  • Tubus racks proved excellent, with no breakages to report, unlike the Blackburn racks I used on by Bike around Britain tour.
  • Using Shimano PD-M324, combination SPD/flat pedals gave me a choice between clipping in, or riding unclipped occasionally for a change, or when I changed into trainers for a bit. My Shimano MT71 cycling shoes were an excellent choice, and comfy to walk around in off the bike.
  • Never go without mud-guards on a cycling tour, I really valued mine; they save on laundry bills and a wet behind.
  • I chose to use security skewers for my wheels, to minimise the chance of theft. I think this is a good idea, however remained nervous throughout the tour of losing the security allen key!
  • I added an extra bottle cage for my stove fuel bottle, bringing the total to 3 cages on the bike. This proved a very good idea, as I had to drink vast amounts in the hotter countries, so was glad of two water bottles, and further bottles stuck through the webbing over my rear rack.
  • I liked the little touches such as the brass bell.
Brass bell still ringing clearly after 6 months on the road

Brass bell still ringing clearly after 6 months on the road

You can find the full specification of the Expedition Bike on the Oxford Bike Works website here: http://www.oxfordbikeworks.co.uk/expedition/

Overall I’m extremely happy with my choice of bike for the Cycle Europe tour. It coped with 6 months on the road, covering over 10,200 miles in all sorts of conditions; snow and freezing temperatures in Scandinavia, rain, weeks of hot weather with temperatures exceeding 40′ Celsius, all sorts really. I wanted something that could contend with rough trails and tree root ambushes, for example through woodland or up and down mountains, as well as road riding, and this machine rose to the task. I’m sure it will continue to serve me well on future tours, although I have just noticed a few rust spots on the front handle bars I’ll have to deal with; wear and tear to be expected.

One last point to mention. This bike could be regarded as expensive, although not versus some road bikes, however I chose to pay more because at the time I could afford to, and wanted a quality build. You don’t however have to buy an expensive machine to tour on, a second-hand mountain bike will do. The most important thing is getting out there, giving it a go, and enjoying an adventure on the road. There’s absolutely loads of advice on the Internet on how to achieve this; send me an email or leave a comment if you can’t find it and I’ll do my best point you in the right direction. The hardest bit is setting off, the rest just happens 🙂

Panniers
–> Ortlieb front and rear classic panniers
No issues with these. They’re the same ones I used on my Bike around Britain tour in 2013, and they’re still going strong. I’ve only ever had to replace one bolt, and although they have a few nicks and small holes in them I think they’ll last for years yet. Ortlieb panniers are fully waterproof, which is a real bonus in wet conditions, however the only downside is stuff sweats in them when it’s hot, meaning things can get a bit smelly, or smellier; still wouldn’t choose anything else though. I also used a 35 litre Ortlieb dry bag, on the top of my rear rack, which I stuck my tent, spare shoes, hammock and other bits and pieces in.

Bike lock
–> D-Lock and Kryptonite Kryptoflex cable – effective security but a bit heavy. Some would say a lock is unnecessary with a heavy touring bike, however I wouldn’t go without, especially when travelling solo.

Camping and misc stuff
–> Hilleberg Akto Tent
My Hilleberg Akto Tent is the same one I used on my tour around the coast of Britain in 2013, and several times since then, and is still going strong. I’ve re-waterproofed it once, which also helps with UV resistance, and it didn’t leak all tour. Compared with some tents it can get a bit too hot in sunny conditions, however this is a feature of tents in general, and the warmth is welcome in colder conditions. With a small porch area it has plenty of room to store your panniers in, and even a bit of shelter to cook under should the need arise. After 6 months my Akto definitely became a home from home.

Only a couple of issues to report:

  • Doesn’t react well to attacks by Varmints. Voles had a go at it in Sweden one night, emerging from their dens under snow drifts to menace me. It’s very unnerving feeling a small rodent moving under your tent at night, and very annoying when they naw holes in your ground sheet and bite through the retaining cord underneath the tent!
  • I’ve had trouble with the tent zip a few times, with it breaking/un-threading and needing to be re-threaded using a pair of pliers and a lot of patience. This can get kind of annoying, especially after a long day and if it’s raining. I’m not sure what caused it.

–> Multimat – thermal sleeping mat and Deuter Travel Lite 300 sleeping bag
This combination served me well over six months, despite the thermarest being punctured so not offering a lot of padding; it still provided a layer of insulation and I got used to sleeping on the ground. The sleeping bag was warm enough, especially when used in conjunction with a set of thermals. The trick to being warm when going to sleep is being warm when you get into your sleeping bag, so a quick run about or a few press-ups were sometimes in order.

–> Hammock
My Ticket to the Moon hammock was a late addition to my touring kit, having acquired it in Marseille, however I wish I’d had one before then. They’re great when it’s hot and there are suitable trees around, even if you just use it for sitting in, rather than sleeping overnight. Spent many a lazy hour chilling out in my hammock after a long ride.

Me in hammock, siesta time

Me in hammock, siesta time

–> Misc – never go without cable ties and gaffer tape. Handy for mending all sorts of things, from  holes in the bottom of your tent to temporary bike fixes, or emergency clothing repairs; my shorts were a little threadbare by the time I got home.

One more thing on camping, as it’s a question I’m often asked. I didn’t always know where I was going to stay each night when I set off in the morning, although I could get ideas on campsites via asking people, an app on my phone, or the Internet.  I tended to plan a few days in advance, but remain flexible in case I wanted to divert to see something interesting. If a campsite didn’t materialise, or a ride took longer than expected, I always had the option to find somewhere quiet and wild camp; when you have a tent, bivvy bag or hammock, you’re never without somewhere to sleep.

Cooking – Whisperlite International – MSR
Great for cooking on, using my Tatonka pans, although didn’t use it a lot after Scandinavia as cold meals were fine. Like the fact you can use unleaded petrol to fuel it, which is available everywhere, unlike some gas canisters. I took a few bits of cooking kit with me including a chopping board that I rarely used, although a sharp knife is vital; had my trusty Bison Bushcraft sheath knife. I was also never without a bottle of Tabasco sauce, or equivalent thereof, to spice up a bland meal. Noodles and pasta featured heavily on the cooking front, as did frankfurters at one point. I ate a lot whilst on tour,including lots of biscuits and Haribos to replace burnt calories. It’s kind of difficult cutting down on food intake after consuming 4000 plus calories a day for 6 months, however I need to do so otherwise the kilograms are going to pile on.

Maps versus GPS
My Garmin 810 GPS worked well on this tour, only needing a factory reset once, and helping to guide me through some confusing parts of Europe. I wouldn’t however always trust it, as it did send me through an army base in Albania, and attempt to do so again in a few other countries. Up until Turkey I also used paper maps, which in general I prefer, however they became tricky to source them in Eastern Europe, so for the return leg from Istanbul to the UK I used a combination of my Garmin and the maps app on my iPhone; worked very well. A bit of preparation each night, memorising key towns or villages along the route, goes a long way to easing navigational issues.

Clothes
I had to take clothes with me that were suitable for the cold conditions of Scandinavia, and parts of the return leg through Germany and into France, as well as the hot conditions of Spain and Southern Europe. This meant some clothes, such as my Rab down jacket, weren’t used a lot, but made a good pillow. I also valued my two buffs (like a snood), which provided protection from the cold, rain, and sun, as well as a pollution mask sometimes; a buff is another piece of kit I wouldn’t go without – simple but effective. My BBB Cycling Sportsglasses worked a treat, with different coloured lenses for different conditions, and for once I didn’t lose or break them! You don’t have room for a lot of clothes, however things like merino base layers don’t need washing that often, and there’s always somewhere you can rinse things through, even if it’s stream in the woods. Don’t go without swimming shorts of the equivalent; can’t miss opportunities to swim in gorgeous and cooling rivers and lakes, or crystal clear seas.

Gadgets
I’ve already mentioned my Garmin Edge 810, and my iPhone which doubled as my camera for the tour. The camera on the iPhone is excellent, and saves on space when compared with lugging around a bulky SLR. You can also use it to record good short movies, which I need to do more of in future. I took an Apple MacBook Air for blogging and browsing purposes, which fitted easily in my rear panniers. Finding wifi wasn’t too much of a problem, although I was amazed that wifi in Western Europe, and the richer countries, was in general much worse than in Eastern Europe and the perceived poorer countries. If I couldn’t find wifi I nearly always had 3G or 4G, which bizarrely I don’t always in the UK, so could tether my phone to my laptop if I really needed to do some planning. I had PowerMonkey-eXtreme solar charged battery pack which I used a few times, but didn’t really need as my dynamo hub worked so well; it was a good back-up in any case.

 

Aside from a hammock, which I bought half way round anyway, there was nothing else I thought I really needed. In retrospect something to scare off dogs wouldn’t have been a bad idea. The best idea I came across for this was from a French couple touring with their 6 year old son; an air horn, which dogs flee from.

You can find a full list of the kit I took with me on the Gubbins page of my blog, however feel free to leave a comment or send me an email if you’ve any questions. I’m sure I’ve missed something out.

Next blog post will be something fun; the animals I encountered whilst on tour, which will feature a lot of dogs, as well as the occasional Llama, and several cats. Here are a few warm up pics.

Cycling Europe – the final scores

That’s it, tour done, a weird feeling after being away for nearly 6 months. It’s still quite hard to take it all in, having pedalled from Nordkapp, Norway, in the Arctic Circle, the Northernmost point of Europe accessible by road, all the way to Tarifa in Spain, the Southernmost point, then across to Istanbul and Eastern Europe before pedalling back to the UK alongside the Danube. Today was my first day back at work, which mentally drove home that this adventure has come to an end, however I’m sure there will be plenty more in the future.

Overall I’m very happy with how it all went, having encountered no insurmountable obstacles, and visited lots of great countries and places. It’s all about adding brilliant memories to the bank, by filling the time I have on this planet with new, exciting and varied experiences whilst I have the chance. To choose but a few; I’ve swum in the sea and rivers, lazed in the sun, climbed mountains, whizzed down valleys and gorges, slept in forests and under the stars, tried lots of new food…and drink, stayed with old friends in France and made lots of new ones across Europe, met my parents in Spain on the Camino de Santiago route for my birthday, and challenged myself to see just how far I can pedal, in all sorts of conditions, and on a variety of road and trail! As with my tour around the UK coastline in 2013 I was reminded of how friendly, generous and welcoming most people are, something the media have an unfortunate tendency of distorting at times. Even the weather was mostly kind to me, although I won’t miss cycling in temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius in Spain, or the headwinds and rain of Denmark.

Here’s my final route map:

Cycling Europe - final route map

Cycling Europe – final route map

And a link to this in Strava, where you can zoom in:

https://www.strava.com/athletes/11810278/heatmaps/7c5e7d05#10/52.63298/1.25881

One of the most common questions I get asked is ‘What was your favourite bit?’. I find this almost impossible to answer as it was a journey of such contrasts; Scandinavia with its wonderful wilderness and nature, snow and ice abounding whilst I was in the Arctic Circle, the Camino de Santiago, the dizzying heat of Spain with its ancient towns and cites, France that I just love anyway, the fantastic Croatian coastline, crazy Istanbul, friendly Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, and cycling alongside the Danube through picturesque forests and gorges in Germany and Austria – very good food and again friendly people in the latter two too. The more I think about it the more I remember great experiences, with any bad points or anxieties I felt at the time slowly fading into the background. I still think one of the best ‘bits’ is all the people I met along the way, especially those with whom I pedalled for a bit. Finishing the tour with a stop off at the Yestival festival, with more great people, buckets of inspiration and motivation, topped it all off; it also added a certain symmetry to the tour, having started at the Cycle Tour Festival in May, which along with Yestival is going in the calendar for 2016.

Here are some updated tour statistics and facts you might find interesting, or not, depending on how much you like numbers.

  • Start point: Honningsvåg (Norway)
  • End point: Norwich (UK)
  • Number of countries visited: 23
  • Distance pedalled: circa 10,230 miles or 16,460 km
  • Longest day: 120 miles (193km)
  • Number of days on tour: 175
  • Number of rest days: around 31
  • Average distance per day including rest days: approx 58 miles or 94km
  • Average distance per day excluding rest days: approx 71 miles or 114km
  • Number of punctures: 8
  • Number of new tyres: 4 – back on the Schwalbe Marathon Plus now
  • Number of new spokes: 6 (all at once due to chain slippage spoke mangling incident in Sweden)
  • Number of new chains and rear cassettes: 2 of each
  • Number of new chain sets: 1
  • Number of new brake pads: 6
  • Number of new cables: changed them all once
  • Number of new saddles: 1 – the Brooks saddle has been a wonderful replacement
  • Min temperature: -2 degrees Celsius
  • Max temperature: About 42 degrees Celsius in Spain
  • Windiest conditions: Denmark – about 5 hellish days of headwind mixed with rain
  • Favourite stop: With friends in France (Ardeche, Provence, Marseille), followed closely by Tarifa and Istanbul.
  • Most useful gadget: SP Dynamo Hub, for recharging my phone and Garmin
  • Friendliest country: Not had an unfriendly one, however Albania or Serbia probably win – Eastern Europe in general; can’t count France as was with good friends there anyway!
  • Scariest encounter: the dogs in Greece, and specifically when I was surrounded by a feral pack when cycling up the hill out of Thessaloniki
  • Weight lost: about 2 stone (13kg), although I’ve about a half stone on since I’ve been back due to still having a huge appetite but not cycling 100km each day; gonna have to fast soon.

If there are any other stats you’re interested in let me know, and likewise shout if you’ve any questions.

I’m also very happy to have raised £1,600 for charity, which equates to nearly £2,000 with gift aid, which I know the Big C will really appreciate. Thank you all for your sponsorship; definitely helped keep me motivated at times. If you haven’t already and would like to make a donation you can do so via the link below:

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=james

Another common question, which people ask me nearly straight away, is what’s next? I’m starting to respond by asking them what adventure they have planned instead! I have lots of ideas, but I doubt they’ll be anything quite as long for a while; need to save up some money if I want to go on a long tour to Canada, South America, Morocco, or South East Asia, which are all on the list.

I’ll be attempting to write a book about this latest tour, mainly to see if I can write a book rather than earning lots of money off it, and I hope to continue filling life with great memories by going away on shorter adventures. Things on the list so far include mountain biking around bothies in Scotland and perhaps Wales, hiking the Coast to Coast route along Hadrian’s Wall, kayaking and camping on the Norfolk Broads, starting to rock climb again and visiting the Peak District, learning how to kite surf, taking my Kendo 1st Dan grading, and lots of local micro adventures in Norfolk; just sleeping out under the stars whenever possible, after cooking over a campfire or stove, and waking up as the sun rises. Always up for company on trips if you fancy getting outside and enjoying life.

I’m going to pick out some of my favourite photos from the tour over the next couple of weeks, to help prepare for book writing, but I’ll also post them here for folks to enjoy, and to hopefully give you ideas for places to visit. To kick things off here’s where it all began, in Nordkapp Norway, after flying out form the Cycle Touring festival in Clitheroe, UK:

Thanks again for reading and support along the way; as with the sponsorship it’s really appreciated and helped keep me going. And Travelling Lobster says hi; he still needs a wash!

23 to 27 October – Yestival and back to Norwich

I thought it was about time I concluded the write-up of my cycle tour around Europe; the final stage from my parents house near Hastings, up to the first ever Yestival festival near Guildford, then back to Norwich via London and Cambridge. I’ve been back home a few days now, and am going to enjoy a glass of wine or two whilst writing this, before plunging back into ‘normal’ life again.

Here are my routes and stats for the last 4 rides that got me home:

–> 23 October – Yestival
I had one more side trek planned before I firmly set my sights on Norwich and home; the Yestival festival near Godalming in Surrey. The Yestival describes itself as ‘…a celebration of community, positive mindset and adventurous thinking’; it was all that and more!

Having had Smaug thoroughly serviced I was ready to set off on Friday morning, pedalling into one of those brilliant Autumn days where it’s sunny but cold, with vibrant colours spread across the English countryside as the trees start to lose their leaves.

Ready to depart for Yestival

Ready to depart for Yestival

My route North West was mostly on country lanes, at least to start off with, and was thoroughly enjoyable even it was on the hilly side. I’d forgotten just how many hills there are as you travel across the Sussex and into Surrey; none of them are particularly big, however there aren’t many flat bits, so it was mostly up and down for 70 miles. It was great cycling along saying hello to people out walking their dogs, and just soaking up the atmosphere, sights, smells and sounds of the English countryside, which I think are hard to beat. I did meet a couple of dogs scampering down the road, however unlike Greek canines these ones didn’t bark and rush to menace me; they just said hello and continued on their way, sniffing out interesting smells as they went.

I made it to Godalming after a sandwich in Horsham, and located the festival near the village of Shackleford without a problem.

As I pedalled up to the gate I bumped into another cycle tourer, Tommy aka the Hopeful Vagabond, who was just about to start a ride from the Yestival, all the way to China. Tommy is a huge character, and is going to have an amazing adventure for the next 12 months as he makes his way through Europe and beyond. You can learn more about him and follow his journey via his website, as well as on Twitter and Facebook: https://www.bloglovin.com/blogs/hopeful-vagabond-14117321

Tommy, the Hopeful Vagabond, as he was about to set off on Sunday

Tommy, the Hopeful Vagabond, as he was about to set off on Sunday

Bumping into Tommy and his slightly worried father as I arrived seemed like fate, with me just finishing my tour and him just about to start a circa 9,000 mile odyssey. I passed on a few tips and did my best to reassure him (and his Dad) that people are essentially friendly and helpful everywhere; he had all the same concerns I did when I started. Please follow Tommy’s journey and give him some support along the way.

The next few days at Yestival were brilliant. It was great to finish my tour amongst a group of like-minded individuals, in an inspirational and positive atmosphere, with so many fantastic stories to hear, or plans for new adventures or life changes. Dave Cornthwaite and the Yestival team did a brilliant job pulling it all together in just a couple of months, and everyone is very much looking forward to next year’s gathering now.

Throughout the weekend there were talks from guest speakers, or from fellow Yestival goers during open-mike sessions, which worked really well. Talks varied from stories of personal adventures and challenges, to advice on how to start making the most out of life, conservation efforts, the pit falls of social media, podcasting, and much more. And there was a bar in the form of a Land Rover; an essential ingredient at any such gathering.

I was also ‘fortunate’ enough to take part in the Saturday morning exercise session run by the illustrious Danny Bent, of recent BBC 2 Special Forces fame, and Anna McNuff. Danny founded Project Awesome, based predominantly in London but expanding, and is now ably assisted by Anna now she is back from running the length of New Zealand.; they’re both a little bit insane. Project Awesome involves groups of people meeting up a few days a week, before the day job, and working out on the streets of London with lots of energy, enthusiasm and noise, followed by a coffee. I’m relatively fit after pedalling 10,000 miles, however whilst I can cycle a long way my body is not used to sit-ups, burpees and the like, so needless to say I ached a bit on Sunday, having used muscles that have been neglected for some time. I think I’ll need to do more of the same if I want to get back into climbing, so maybe I’ll have to see if there’s something similar in Norwich, or perhaps start something with friends, I’m sure they’d love it! You can check out Project Awesome via their Facebook page, and go along to one of their sessions if you’re local; they’re all free: https://www.facebook.com/projectawesomelondon/

I could go on about the Yestival for a long time, about how on Saturday night I laughed until I was nearly crying, of all the great new friends I made, stories I heard, plans for the future, chatting round the camp fire, inspiration, and learnings, however I think if you’re interested you should just come along next year and see for yourself, as well as checking out the Say Yes More tribe on Facebook. Thank you Dave and Team, the farm, all the speakers and fellow guests, as well as the caterers, Landrover bar, & Oppo who cycled all the way from London on tandem towing a freezer full of ice-cream for everyone; it was a fab weekend.

One more person to follow over the next year: Elise Downing who is running the coast of Britain following roughly the same route I cycled in 2013, go Elise! https://www.facebook.com/elisecdowning

–> 25 to 27 October – London, Cambourne, Norwich
With Yestival ending it was time to set my sights on Norwich, however I still had nearly 200 miles to pedal to get home. I left the festival at about 15.00 to cycle to London, to stay the night with my friends John and Emma, some 40 miles away. Handily a fellow cyclist, Helen, was also riding back to London, so I had some company along the way, and Helen had already cycled to the festival so knew the route.

We were able to follow the Saturn trail alongside a canal for a long part of the ride, passing house boats, a kingfisher, and lots of expensive looking villages, before entering the boroughs of London, pedalling through parks and trying to avoid the traffic. With the clocks changing it was dark by 17.00 so I was very glad of my Luxos dynamo powered front light!

After bidding Helen goodbye I arrived at John and Emma’s Hammersmith, and spent a very pleasant evening catching up and relaxing; they’d also cooked Spaghetti Bolognese which was most welcome. I’ve known John since sixth form college and as normal with good friends it doesn’t matter how long you haven’t seen someone for, it’s just like you left off. John was up early to fly to Singapore the next day, one of his various trips around the globe for work, however I had a slightly slower start to the day, pedalling off towards Cambridge about 09:00 after chatting to Emma for a bit.

I was a little bit nervous about cycling out of London, with all the traffic and potential for getting lost, but it turned out to be fine. London has a reputation for people not making eye contact or saying hello when you’re commuting, however I had several chats with cyclists or pedestrians on my way out of the city, and didn’t have any trouble navigating my way to Enfield, then over the M25 and back into he countryside. I ended up talking to another cyclist at some traffic lights for about 10 minutes, who’d toured down in South East Asia a few years back, and now wanted to do something similar, especially after I’d related some of my recent experiences.

From Enfield I made my way to Ware, then up to Royston, chatting to another cyclist for a few miles, who again decided it was time to set his sights on a tour somewhere, before arriving at by brother and his family’s house in Cambourne, just outside Cambridge. I’d seen Will, Louisa, and my nephew and niece when they popped down to my parents last week, however it was great to meet up again, and I thoroughly enjoyed the curry we consumed with enormous vigour that evening; the Tandoori King Prawns were excellent. Seb, my nephew, also got to show me all his Lego, as well as his football skills, and Anna fed be lots of sushi from her kitchen; it was a little bit wooden.

Setting off for Norwich, with Seb and Anna in support

Setting off for Norwich, with Seb and Anna in support

After a good night’s sleep, ably assisted by a Jura whisky courtesy of my bro, I set off in good time in the morning, with about 75 miles to pedal to Norwich. Seb and Anna were keen to accompany me on their vehicles for the first bit, so I had a cycle/scooter escort up the avenue to the main road, all the way to the post box; awesome work team!

The cycle back to Norwich followed a route I’ve done several times now, via Cambridge, then through lots of small picturesque villages into Suffolk then Norfolk, avoiding the busy main roads. The Autumnal countryside again looked great, and I got to see several F16s plus a few helicopters roaring about as I passed Mildenhall then Lakenheath; a Top Gun impression on a bike duly followed.

On my way to Norwich, emotional ride

On my way to Norwich, emotional ride

Due to a slight diversion I’d pedalled nearly 80 miles before I made it to Norwich. It was exciting, and slightly emotional, passing over the A47 and through the outskirts, before arriving at Sheila and Norman’s house for dinner; they’ve been following my tour closely and are responsible for lots of the webcam pics! Sheila and Lucy’s sister Susan cycled the last mile with me, before a celebratory beer, meal and lots of catching up was had. It was lovely to see them all again after 6 months on the road, and as with my parents I’ve really appreciated all the support they’ve given me along the way.

Back Norwich with Lobster - worth a thumbs up moment

Back Norwich with Lobster – worth a thumbs up moment

It’s going to take me a little while to adjust back to not pedalling somewhere new each day, a day job and routine, however I’m looking forward to digesting the experiences from my tour, as well as making new plans and starting to write a book about my ride around Europe. I’ve got a lot of ideas for future expeditions, some small, some large, and will be continuing this blog to relate them all. Thank you for reading, donations to the Big C, and support along the way, it’s been bodacious! 🙂

Me celebrating with friends at Norwich beer festival

Me celebrating with friends at Norwich beer festival

Oh, and I made the Norwich Beer Festival, meeting up with loads of friends and sampling many fine ales.

Next post will be an updated tour map and some stats on the ride in total, as well as some future plans.

Cheers all, and Happy Halloween.

12 to 22 October 2015 – back to Blighty

I’ve been back in the UK for 10 days now, and have just about re-acclimatised whilst staying with my parents in East Sussex. I set off on my bike again tomorrow, to pedal my way back to Norwich via a festival in Surrey this weekend; the Yestival, gonna be great.

My last leg back from France on 12 October was a bit of an adventure, pedalling off from Neufchatel-en-Bray at about 01:30 in the morning, after 3 hours sleep, into a very dark and somewhat damp night. Here are my routes and stats; one for the French side of the Channel, and the other for the English side.

I’m very close to passing 10,000 miles pedalled, or 16,000km, for this tour, which is exciting in itself. By my reckoning I’ll pass that milestone when I reach the Yestival tomorrow; they have a bar, in a Landrover, with cocktails, perfect to celebrate. I’ve compiled my route to date into Strava, by uploading all the Garmin files into the application, which took ages, but was worth it to see the tour in totality.

Cycling Europe Tour Map - approaching 10,000 mile mark

Cycling Europe Tour Map – approaching 10,000 mile mark

Here’s a link to the tour map in Strava, where you can zoom in more easily:

https://www.strava.com/athletes/11810278/heatmaps/7c5e7d05#3/58.76820/13.88672

–> 12 October – to Dieppe, Newhaven and Bexhill-on-Sea (80km)
I’d decided to try to make the early ferry on the 12th, rather than hang around in Dieppe all day and spend the night at the ferry terminal, before catching the boat back to Blighty on the 13th. It seemed like a good plan, even if it did involve getting up very early after not very much sleep; someone insisted on clattering about with their caravan at about midnight which didn’t help matters.

I struggled out of my warm sleeping bag at 01:00, then packed up my very wet tent, soaked in condensation, before riding off in the dark on the Avenue Verte, which runs all the way to Dieppe, avoiding roads altogether. The Avenue Verte was literally yards from Saint Claire campsite; very handy!

It was only 34km to the port, however quite a different experience riding at the dead of night, and with no street lamps lighting the cycle route. Tendrils of fog snaked their way across my path, and all was quiet aside from the occasional car in the distance, or farm animals moving about, and at one point a lot of rather startled ducks quacking, alarmed by my passing. There were also a lot of rabbits out, grazing on the grass either side of the Avenue Verte; I ended up inadvertently chasing several of them down the path for a while, before they scampered off into the fields.

Despite a very bright Luxor front lamp, run off my hub dynamo, I couldn’t see very far in front of me due to the fog; thankfully the path was smooth with no potholes. I rattled over several wooden bridges, and then made it to the outskirts of Dieppe, pedalling around the outside of the town to the ferry port. The roads were very quiet, with traffic only appearing as I approached the terminal; a few lorries, coaches and camper vans.

After buying my ticket, €35 for the crossing, I only had about an hour to wait before I could board the ferry at 04:30. I passed the time in the waiting room, where a few people were dozing along with their dogs; the hot chocolate from the machine wasn’t very nice but perked me up a bit.

The ferry was reasonably busy due to about 6 coach loads of French school children on their way to the UK, which made for a noisy crossing. There are only 2 sailings from Dieppe to Newhaven a day, one at 05.30 and the other at 18.30, so not a lot of choice. After a partially successful attempt at a snooze I visited the cafeteria for a full English breakfast, which I’d been looking forward to for months; whilst not brilliant it was definitely welcome! I spent the rest of the crossing snoozing and trying to avoid over excited schoolchildren, before arriving in Newhaven at about 09:30 local time.

I was back in the UK after nearly 5.5 months abroad. A weird feeling but also very exciting; I pedalled off the ferry and through customs with a huge grin on my face, then swiftly swapped sides of the road when I realised I was pedalling on the right instead of the left; this caught me out a few times as I pedalled to my parents house, especially on narrow country roads.

From Newhaven I followed the National Cycle Route 2 along the coast to the Cuckmere Haven, then turned inland to the Long Man of Wilmington, before looping back round and down to Eastbourne via a bit of a circuitous and illogical but pleasant route (aside from the bit alongside the A27). I paused at my old school, Eastbourne College, randomly chatting to an elderly South African man about rugby and travelling, before continuing along the seafront, then through more countryside to rendezvous with my parents at a pub; what better place to meet up after a few months than at an English pub, with a pint of ale!

It was great to meet up with my parents again, and at the Red Lion pub I’d been coming to since I was about 4. After a pint of Harvey’s Ale, a very fine local brewery but unfortunately no relation, I cycled back to Mum and Dad’s house, a few miles down the road, and have been eating ever since!

–> 13 to 22 October – Bexhill-on-Sea
The last 10 days has involved quite a lot of snoozing, a fair bit of eating, some more snoozing, and several relatively short cycle rides around the local countryside. My brother, sister-in-law and their children also came down to visit for a couple of days, so great to catch up with the whole family.

I’ve also had Smaug serviced and several parts replaced. Everything was pretty worn out, so the following needed changing:

  • Chain set – Hollowtech Shimano unit
  • Cassette – Shimano
  • SRAM Chain
  • Front and rear tyres changed to Schwalbe  Marathon Plus
  • All cables
  • Brake pads – Swiss Stop pads

The chain and cassette haven’t done badly at all – about 7,000 miles since I last changed them!

Needless to say the bike is running a lot more smoothly now, with far less creaks and groans; or maybe that was me and I’m running a lot more smoothly after several day’s rest, and lots of food.

Whilst I’ve spent a lot of time reading and not doing a lot, I haven’t been completely idle; it’s been fun helping out in the garden with some wood chopping and tree pruning, and great to take out my old mountain bike and aim for bumps rather than avoid them. I am however ready to get back on Smaug now, and start the final leg of my journey back to Norwich, via the Yestival.

Really looking forward to seeing everyone in Norwich, as well as going to the Beer Festival which conveniently coincides with my return, not that that was planned or anything. My next blog post will probably be from Norwich, once I’m back, as taking a break from the internet over the next few days for the Yestival and ride home. I’ll be pulling together a summary of the whole trip, and I need to start thinking about writing a book of my travels; don’t expect to make any money from such an enterprise, it’ll just be great to have a written book. Needless to say I’m already thinking about future tours and expeditions; settling back into routine ‘normal’ life is going to be tricky this time around.

Thanks for reading, and as always thanks for any donations to the Big C; got an email from them today saying how much they appreciate it. There’s still time to sponsor me via this link: www.virginmoneygiving.com/james

09, 10 & 11 October – 3 days and 539km through France

Wowsers, that was a long 3 days, but very satisfying to see just how far I can pedal if I challenge myself; 337 miles or 539km is quite a long way, and I’d definitely not have been able to cover that in as short time at the beginning of my tour. As well as wanting a challenge, the distances covered were partly motivated by deteriorating weather and campsites closing for the season, as well as a desire for a pint of ale in an English pub!

Here are my routes and stats for the race across France:

From a personal point of view it’s fantastic to have proven to myself what I’m capable of if I put my mind to it, and a great confidence boost for future activities, both at work and life in general. When I get back home I’ll need to carry on regularly pedalling and exercising to maintain at least some of this level of fitness and motivation, to keep in trim for future adventures, and to keep the weight off; it’ll be tricky reducing down my daily calorie intake whilst I’m not using as much energy.

–> 09 October – to Verdun (193km)
I broke two personal tour records today, one for longest distance pedalled in a day, and the other for biggest distance climbed; 193km and 1,784m respectively. Thankfully the climbing was spread out over the course of the day and not all at once, and I was also grateful for the lack of headwind, which would have made it extremely hard going. It’s still a bit surprising to realise that’s well over the height of Ben Nevis climbed in one day’s cycling.

It was 06.15 when my alarm went off and I rolled out of my tent. The sun wouldn’t rise for another hour and a half, so I breakfasted and packed up in the dark, before pedalling off as it started to get light.

I don’t think I really got off my bike all the way to Verdun, as I had a long way to go, and needed to keep focussed on the turning the pedals.  The weather was perfect for cycling, with the sun coming out but it not getting hot, or windy.

It was very hilly up until Metz, which was a long ride in itself, however still feeling fit I decided to push straight on to Verdun. I crossed the River Moselle, then after a big climb it was fairly flat up until the outskirts of Verdun, across a lot of farmland, passing many a tractor.

To get into Verdun involved one last big climb, as the sun started to get lower, then a round-about route to get to the city centre and avoid the dual carriageway. One downhill section had a few hidden speed bumps, a particularly vicious one of which threw a pannier off Smaug, resulting in much cursing and probably the biggest pause of the day as I reattached it. I hate speed bumps, and would far rather see speed cameras in use. If you must have speed bumps at least make sure they’re painted white to stand out so road users can see them and not damage themselves or their vehicles!

After passing through the outskirts and resisting the temptation to grab a McDonald’s, I crossed La Meuse to the city centre, pausing to watch a few rowers out on the river for an evening training session. I pedalled through the city to the campsite on the Western side, passing through the huge fortress walls and by lots of statues and monuments.

Verdun was the sight of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, with 400,000 German casualties, and a similar number of French, as the Germans sought to break the French lines. The city has been the centre of many conflicts between France and Prussia/Germany over the centuries, and you can almost sense the ghosts of these battles as you wander its streets, especially when the weather is a little dreary.

Les Breuils campsite is one of few that remains open into October, on my route back through France, and I was very happy to arrive and pitch my tent after the longest ride of my tour to date. At 193km I hadn’t quite broken the elusive 200km mark I’d like to get to one day; that’ll have to wait for another day. Feeling famished I headed back into Verdun to grab some dinner, before enjoying a medicinal beer and whisky as the campsite bar.

Tomorrow’s target is Soissons, which is another 100 miles away, however the route should be a bit flatter. According to my calculations, which have in the past been a little suspect, I reckon there’s about 230km to go to get to Dieppe; hoping nothing breaks on Smaug between now and the UK!

–> 10 October – to Soissons via Reims (184km)
I was once again getting up in the dark for a pre-sunrise start, pedalling out of Verdun by 08:00 on my way South West towards Reims.

The D roads I’m using are quiet anyway, however at that time of the morning I didn’t see any other traffic for a while, as I rode up and over hills, and through more farmland, with only cows, buzzards and crows for company. Lobster had decided to go back to sleep for at least another 2 hours, claiming these early starts are most uncivilised affairs.

The road did eventually flatten out, leading to about 40 miles of easy riding, aside from an off-road section down a few farm tracks to cut a corner off. There were a lot of farmers out with shotguns and dogs, looking for grouse or other game birds hiding in their fields; they waved rather than shot at me thankfully. The off-road section was muddy, flinging up lumps of sticky clay to cling to my bike and panniers, and causing me to skid about a bit; fun but it was nice to get back on the road again and not have to double back.

I followed the Voie de Liberte (Liberty Road) for much of the day, which is a commemorative way marking the route the allies took for the D-Day landing in June 1944. It passes by a lot of military cemeteries, giving a poignant reminder of all the lives lost, on both sides, during the Second World War.

I passed straight through Reims, which looked nice in the sunshine when I stopped for a banana and haribo break, however events conspired against me shortly after leaving the city. I encountered my first ‘route barrée’ sign on the outskirts, which lead to a diversion of just a few kilometres, however a more significant ”route barrée’ a bit later on added about 20km to the day’s ride, and a whole load of hills I wasn’t expecting. I was rather unimpressed at the additional mileage, which might be easy to cover in a car, but definitely aren’t on a bike, however at least the countryside and small French villages were pleasant to cycle through. My amateur ‘twitching’ skills also came into play with lots of bird life to look at, including herons, buzzards and other birds of prey, and at one point lots of Lapwings dancing around in a flock.

My estimated 100 mile day rapidly became a 115 miles day as I pedalled onwards. Up one particularly steep hill 3 dogs decided to wake up and bark at the passing cyclist, which somewhat startled me, however at least they couldn’t chase me due to being behind a fence; in Turkey, Greece or Bulgaria it’d be a different story.

Halloween seems to be popular in France, with decorations already going up despite it being nearly 3 weeks away. I’d never seen a ‘Halloween Man’ before, a bit of different take on a Snow Man; the one above was colourful, surrounded by pumpkins, but looked a bit sinister! Nice idea though.

I made it to Soissons for 18.00, feeling very tired but accomplished after 184km of pedalling; it’s amazing what your body will put up with after five and half months on the road. I found the Municipal du Mail campsite on the South side of the city and checked in just before reception closed, before heading to a local shop to find some dinner. After food and checking tomorrow’s route it wasn’t long before I fell asleep; seem to be following the ‘Eat, Sleep, Cycle…repeat’ routine at the moment.

–> 11 October – to Neufchatel-en-Bray (161km)
I expected today to be my last long ride in France, for this tour anyway, as long as there weren’t any further diversions due to ‘route barrée’ encounters. I awoke to another cold and damp morning, pedalling off from Soissons at 08:00 and heading for Neufchatel-en-Bray.

Again I stuck to D roads, enjoying the quiet, rather than use the Route National to Compiegne which may have been slightly shorter, but would have been a lot busier. Before reaching Compiegne things started to look very familiar, and I realised I was crossing the route I’d taken on my way down from Nordkapp to Tarifa, back in June. It felt a bit weird cycling some of the same route again, especially now the weather is so different. I passed the campsite I’d stayed at in Vic-sur-Aisne, which had been a great night’s stop, then continued South West, this time ignoring the turning that would take me towards Paris.

After negotiating Compiegne, and a steep hill out of the town, more D roads followed through cold and misty countryside, passing wind farms, buzzards, tractors and fields of potatoes. The road climbed steadily but generally not steeply most of the way to Neufchatel-en-Bray, resulting in tired legs by the end of the day again, however I ended up only 34km from Dieppe and ‘La Manche’.

Saint Claire Camping in Neufchatel-en-Bray is another that is due to close in a few days time, so I’ve timed my return to the UK quite well. Given the number of caravan and camper vans present it’s obviously used by a lot of people touring Europe, and on their way back to the UK or up the coast to Belgium and the Netherlands. After pitching my tent I chatted to a few other travellers; bit strange hearing lots of people speaking English again, with a variety of accents.

I headed into town to get a pizza for dinner, plus a few supplies, trying to decide how and when to tackle the last stretch to Dieppe. There are two ferries a day at this time of year, one at 05:30 and the other at 18:30. Both these times aren’t very convenient for a cyclist, as I’d end up cycling in the dark either in France or the UK, or having to overnight in the waiting room at the ferry port in Dieppe. In the end I decided to make an adventure of it, aiming to get up at 01:00 for a very early morning ride to catch the 05:30 boat to Newhaven. I was hoping this would be a relatively straightforward ride, as there’s an Avenue Verte (cycle path) all the way to Dieppe, which meant no cars to deal with, although it would be very dark! Pondering the wisdom of my plan I set my alarm and tried to get a few hours sleep before having to get up for hopefully the last time before reaching the UK.

There endeth 337 miles in 3 days; think it’ll be a while before I cover the same sort of distance again so quickly.