How does it feel to set off on an epic bike ride across Europe? Helen Moat is about to find out ...
“Isn’t there a bus to Istanbul?” the man in my local bike shop asked.
“Well, it’s very complicated trying to link all those buses through 11 countries. It’s easier on the bike,” I joked back.
Never have I felt so ill-prepared for a journey. There are three weeks to go before the big day on 30 April. The ferry’s booked, so I suppose I’ve made a start. And I’ve organised the first night in Dordrecht through couch-surfing. The host family has persuaded my son and me to stay a second night so they can show us around town. One day’s cycling and we’re already having a break day – this is going to be one heck of a long journey.
After that, I’ve arranged to stay with friends in Germany, Switzerland and Austria – which will eat up almost three weeks. And I’ve built in two rest days a week, once I run out of friends in Hungary. The idea being that I can change it back to one day if we’re not making enough progress.
The complication is this: my husband, youngest son and sister want to be there in Istanbul to cheer us in when we arrive (they are very optimistic), but I’ve no idea how long we’ll need. We’ve come up with the 16th August. But as I study my silly time-table (how on earth can you calculate daily distances over an approximate 3,000 miles?) it seems the most ridiculous of exercises. The furthest I’ve travelled on a bike in a single day is 55 miles. The longest period of time I’ve cycled is three consecutive days. There are so many unknowns...
Will I be able to sustain long distance cycling over three and a half months?
What happens if I get ill/have an accident?
How often is the bike going to break down in the middle of nowhere? (We think we can manage flat tyres now – that’s a major breakthrough. But anything else will probably require a bike shop)
What if we get lost? (The only reason why Jamie has agreed to come is because I’m hopeless with maps)
How will I manage the bike with loaded panniers? (I’ve never tried)
And why did I choose one of the heaviest ‘Dutch style’ bikes in the shop?
What happens once we leave Austria behind – and no longer speak the languages of the remaining eight countries we’re travelling through?
How do we ward off the packs of dogs that roam eastern European towns and villages?
Oh, and what happens if we’re mugged?
And how will we survive the lorries that thunder along busy stretches of road?
And will I ever have the courage to try wild camping?
And the biggest question of all: How will I ever get over the Balkan Mountains? (since I have a penchant for seeking out pleasingly flat dismantled railways, valley floors and hill-less countries/counties...)
Most of these questions go through my mind at night when I can’t sleep. During the day, I don’t have time to think about the trip as I focus on reaching the deadline for the book I’m writing. There’s no time for cycling, and the bike hasn’t seen daylight since its single outing in March (until I took it into town today for its service).
I’ve asked the bike shop to fill the inners with slime (to minimalize punctures, hopefully). And I wrote a kit list on the plane coming back from a wedding in Ireland the day before yesterday. Who knows, maybe I’ll get a chance to buy some equipment for the bikes this weekend. Some lights would be good.
But when I stop feeling worried sick at my lack of preparation, I remember why I’m doing this: From the first rotation of the pedals, I stop thinking about the future or the past, and start to live in the moment. There is just the now with the wind, the rain and the sun in my face – and a new world slowly unfurling with the spin of the wheels. And there’s nothing to beat it.
Helen Moat has won several travel writing competitions, including runner-up x 2 with The British Guild of Travel Writers and highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing competition. She is the author of Slow Travel: Peak District for Bradt Guides and on April 30 begins an epic cycle ride across Europe.You can follow her adventures here and on her blog.
Main credit: Long distance cyclist at sunrise (Shutterstock)