Words by Sarah Lloyd
The tent flysheet hung over the bathroom door, the residue of the previous day’s downpour trickling into the plughole. The rain lashed down on the windows of the cheap hotel as we huddled under the covers, our bikes stowed inside a small courtyard. This wasn’t how long-distance cycle touring was meant to be.
When we first conceived of our international cycle adventure we envisaged long days in the saddle, breezing along country roads assisted by generous tailwinds, with relaxing nights stargazing and camping in the wild. We didn’t appreciate the energy which would go into addressing basic quotidian concerns, nor how a meditative rhythm and routine would come to surround our daily quest to find shelter, source food and wash and dry the limited kit in our possession. This is the tale of how we found freedom and beauty on a two-wheeled ride around Europe.
The idea of leaving the relative stability of our London lives and jobs had come to me and my husband a little while ago. Inspired by volunteering with refugees in France last year, we wanted to take some time out to help further afield in Greece where the crisis is most acutely felt.
The Great European Escape: Planning
As keen cyclists and lovers of the outdoors, there was never a question of the mode of transport we’d take to get there. We intentionally kept route planning fairly open, enjoying the freedom to be guided by serendipity rather than following a predetermined programme. However, to ensure a smooth start we mapped out the first couple of weeks on Strava, thereafter devising routes using a mixture of paper maps, GPS and local recommendations. In much of northern Europe, navigation was ably assisted by the prevalence of good-quality, logical bicycle routes, which was not something we saw in such abundance on the British stretch of the journey.
I took a similarly relaxed approach to training for the ride. Starting from a good fitness base as a keen cyclist and sometime rower, and with a regular 15-mile daily commute providing a bit of time in the saddle, I was confident of my ability to build my strength during the course of the trip. This optimistic strategy faltered at the first hurdle when it became clear that the unforgiving gradients of Kent’s countryside roads would be even more challenging than anything the Alps or Pyrenees would later throw at us.
The Great European Escape: Setting Out
We left London in warm and bright spring conditions, the hopeful hint of summer brimming in the air. We had calculated that our timing would treat us to pleasant, sunny days whilst avoiding the sweltering heat of summer. Yet the weather gods had other plans, and ground frost, snow, rain, and thunderstorms contrived against us for a significant stretch of the journey to Greece.
On occasions, we felt more like Arctic explorers than springtime cycle tourers. The first unseasonable cold snap came a week or so into the trip camping in the Ardennes region of France. We had struggled to sleep, and huddled together for warmth during the night, waking to find that the green grass we’d pitched our tent on had been replaced by a white carpet of frost.
The various bits of clothing that we had hand washed and left to dry on the hedge overnight had frozen solid. A departure that morning was a struggle, but eventually, we gritted our teeth, donned all of the layers in our possession, and headed out into the chilly day, delighted with every heat-inducing steep climb that came along. We crossed our fingers for a change in the weather and in the meantime conjured up creative solutions to cope with the plummeting temperatures, using our latex mechanic’s gloves over our thin spring gloves to keep out the wind chill.
The Great European Escape: Cold challenges
By the time we reached Switzerland a couple of weeks later, we found ourselves knee-deep in snow and decided that it was wise to give in and invest in some proper winter gloves.
A few weeks later in Macedonia, despite some sunny weather through Croatia and the Balkans, the winter kit was still making appearances. Following a gruelling 2-hour climb up the ample hairpin bends between Lakes Ohrid and Prespa, we found ourselves yet again treated to the worst that European springtime could offer.
Just as we reached the summit, at 1550m, the heavens opened. The sweat from our climb quickly turned cold and in the few minutes it took to layer up for the long descent ahead, my hands turned to icicles making it almost impossible to put on my winter gloves and zip up my multiple jackets.
As we descended, the rain lashed at my face and covered my glasses in so much spray that I could barely see. The road resembled a river, with water gushing along its tributaries, potholes and rocks scattered along its bed. My teeth chattered as I urged my body to remain alert on every steep bend, shaking my legs every few minutes in an attempt to dispel the numbness that was setting in. Soon we came across a large roadblock of some 80 or so sheep flanked by 5 menacing-looking hounds, guided along by a friendly elderly shepherdess. Being forced to stop turned out to be a blessing as we felt relatively warm for a moment without the windchill, before the road cleared and we pedalled on in search of shelter.
But a ride of this magnitude wouldn’t be memorable without a few challenges, and on reflection, it was by going through the uncomfortable moments that we appreciated the beauty and simplicity of life on two wheels.
Benefits of travelling by bike
The real gift of an ultra-distance tour was making time to observe our surroundings, rather than whizzing through at the breakneck speed of car, air or rail travel. It is the beauty of the incidental, reaching roads and corners of Europe that we wouldn't have thought to journey to.
To see the changing landscapes, notice subtle differences from one valley to the next, and more marked shifts in language and cultural behaviours, infrastructure and road quality, with every border crossing. To know that every climb, or hair-raising descent, was the fruit of our own labour and that we could choose the path less trodden. Which of course we did on several memorable occasions, negotiating footpaths, carrying our heavy bikes up stairs, riding parts of the rough Camino de Santiago in Spain, and dodging potholes on the gravel roads of Albania.
Whether it was cresting the summit of Pierre St Martin - the gruelling last kilometre crossing the Pyrenees from France to Spain, reaching the high wild spaces unimaginable from the valley floor and soaring down the wild southern side into the warmth of Spain and the spectacular Roncal valley - or riding out of Dubrovnik in southern Croatia as the sunset, the promise of the unknown of Montenegro and the rest of the Balkans beyond, the journey was quite magical and completely transformative.
We clocked up around 5,000km, riding first from London to Thessaloniki in northern Greece, and some months later meandering from Girona through the Pyrenees, northern Spain and southern France, seeing some of the most striking landscapes that Europe has to offer. Each border crossing as we rode further from home felt wild until the next one made the country we left feel familiar.
The contrasts on our journey were enchanting - leaving the mountains surrounded by eagles and vultures to be greeted on the coast by seagulls, once familiar but now a novelty again. The voyage into the past that was Albania, wild camping in a field of fireflies, attracting bemused attention and shouts of ‘hello’ everywhere we went. Tracing the route of the old Roman Egnatia road from the Adriatic through the Balkans all the way to our destination. Encouraging shouts from local club riders of “chapeau!" in France, “ánimo!" in Spain, and “aúpa!" in the Basque region straddling the two.
Kit and preparations
Preparing for an ultra-distance tour is a fun part of the trip itself. Guided by the principles of travelling as compact and lightweight as possible, we carefully researched tents, stoves, pans, clothing and tools.
I count myself as a pretty confident and experienced cyclist, yet I have never felt comfortable using drop handlebars or cleats. For me, this was a major consideration when deciding on a new set of wheels. After various test rides and discussions, I settled on a steel, disc brake Heritage touring bike from London-based Condor Cycles, with wider 32mm tyres to tackle any terrain.
The staff were attentive to my needs and advised an SRAM groupset, which allowed me to feel more in control of the brakes when on the drops. I decided that a long-distance tour was the wrong moment to attempt to overcome my fear of cleats, but the addition of some toe clips helped guide my feet into a good position on the pedals.
When grinding up seemingly interminable mountain climbs I was content with my choices, as my mountain bike chainrings allowed me to sit back and spin quite happily in a tiny gear no matter how challenging the gradient. I added an old saddle of mine, tried and tested and therefore unlikely to cause any saddle sore, and a bell - invaluable for riding on shared spaces and keeping on the friendly side of pedestrians across the continent.
We tested the roadworthiness of our loaded steeds on a few weekend jaunts before leaving the UK, riding along Epping Forest trails and the quiet lanes of Essex. Little did I know at that stage that the off-road practice would come in quite so handy, as we found ourselves on more than a handful of occasions cycling through forests, up steep gravel tracks and along pot-holed dirt roads in many of the fourteen countries we would cycle through.
James had two rear and two front panniers, totalling around 20kg of luggage and rack. The two season down sleeping bags, small camping airbeds, pillows and our shoes went in the front, while clothes, camping gear and tools were at the back, with our lightweight 3-man MSR tent strapped on top of the rack. The extra space in the tent is well worth it to be able to live a little more comfortably under canvas for several months.
I kept the food and kitchen utensils in one of my rear panniers, with my clothes in the other, and took a handlebar bag up front loaded with the things we needed through the day - snacks, suncream, camera and gloves.
We powered our various gadgets with a couple of USB battery sticks made by a small German company, Znex (https://www.znex.de/notstrom/). The sticks clipped onto our frames, just as a bike pump would, and charged from the mains. They happily powered our two Garmin computers, phones, lights and iPad for a couple of days before needing a top-up. It’s easy to charge devices whilst cycling; handy on particularly long days.
Another welcome addition to our kit list was the Sea to Summit compact daypacks that stored easily in a pocket, weighed hardly anything but were sturdy enough to hold our grocery shopping, or everything for a rest day hiking in the hills or at the beach.
Despite my love-hate relationship with Garmin technology, the trusty navigator found us some wonderful accidental off-road routes (often on terrain more suited to mountain bikes, but our bikes coped favourably). But on more occasions than we would have liked, it came up with some bonkers route suggestions, my favourite being the recommended 195 km Pyrenean detour from Spain into France, when we were looking for the best route to a nearby campsite.
The Great European Escape: back home again...
The return to ‘normal life’ has taken a little getting used to. We’re slowly readjusting to living indoors, have just about managed to wean ourselves off the ‘3 lunches a day’ cycling diet and are trying hard to fight the urge to go to sleep as soon as it gets dark.
For a more in-depth account of James and Sarah’s cycling tour, and experiences of volunteering in Greece, check out their blog here.