After a great adventure by kayak across the whole of Poland last summer, I am itching to get back on my bike for a new adventure. The bike allows for a much faster speed and easily accessible hot food along the route!
I have always wanted to go to Marathon, Greece and run the original 25 mile route from Marathon to Athens that was taken by an ancient greek messenger. From where I currently call home (Katowice, Poland), there is a very interesting route, passing (albeit briefly in some) through 11 different countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and finally Greece).
This new adventure is approximately 2200km, just like the London to Auschwitz bike ride. However, this new journey appears more hilly, especially the second half. London to Auschwitz took 25 days, but I did stop off at a lot of sites to explore and I didn’t push the cycling too much.
Now the question is “when?” As a freelance software developer, I live in project work, and I am hoping to forge a gap in the projects within the next few months of winter.
Why do it in Winter? Why not? Adventure!
The cold of winter can be overcome with more layers – and actually, extreme minus temperatures are too cold to snow or rain, saving you from becoming damp. The difficulty with winter comes when you only have 8 hours of sunlight as you do here in Poland now. Fortunately I will be heading southwards and so the days will be getting longer as I go – in Athens right now there are almost 2 hours more sunlight a day and the temperatures are in the teens – warm enough for tee shirt and shorts!
I am looking for people (who might know people) along the route who I could stay with or at least meet for company. If you know anyone directly, or friends of friends, please do put me in contact with them! Failing that, I was planning on finding hostels/hotels that will no doubt be relatively cheap in this part of Europe. I haven’t brought myself to the idea of camping wild in winter on a cycling trip yet!
Similarly, if you have visited this part of the world before and have some recommendations, I would appreciate advice! The UK Government website suggests that all of these countries need NO visas and are all perfectly safe, apart from a few countries that might still have active landmines.
Below are some cycling specific rules I have given myself whilst touring (usually solo) over the years. It is by no means a bible and I know many other people who do things completely differently.
Always have water. If you are running low then you MUST stop at the next available place as you don’t know when you might get lost!
Never get dehydrated – down what you have and fill it up as often as you can. Remember, if you aren’t peeing regularly then you aren’t hydrated enough!
Just keep drinking water!
There is nothing worse than dehydration – fatigue, grumpiness, dizziness and potentially DEATH. That’s right, KEEP DRINKING!
Ok ok…stop drinking water!
Too much stopping for fill-ups and toilet breaks can seriously ruin your flow when trying to knock off big chunks of distance – everything in moderation – just don’t dehydrate, ok?
Cycling for 6 hours or more a day will burn a lot of calories, no matter the terrain or speed. You need to eat. Lots. Fast food is cheap and a great way to pack in the calories, but remember to eat some vegetables as well to make sure your immune system doesn’t weaken too much making you prone to illness.
Do not be afraid of packing in the calories anyway you can though – fast food is your friend here, especially if you need to press on down the road. If you can eat more cleanly (i.e. lots of fresh fruit and vegetables), you should. However this can often be much more difficult, more expensive and time consuming when on the road than grabbing a cheeky kebab. Volume is a priority; make sure you eat enough as there is nothing worse than not having enough fuel in the tank!
It will be hard at times
Don’t fool yourself, there will be stupidly tough hills and some ridiculous headwinds; but like everything in life, these things have a way of balancing out. “This is a game for life, not just a day”: meaning if you spend 4 days going uphill into headwind then you will get some ridiculously amazing downhills soon enough that will massively outweigh any pain from the past. The wind might even turn your way to help you out – stay positive and stay patient.
I absolutely hate pieces of paper. I have been given so many free tourist maps which are utterly useless. Despite the smartphone revolution, people seem determined to give me something else to carry. Too many times has someone in a shop or hotel got a map out for me, only to draw directions that consist of “go outside, turn left, walk for about 50 yards”. Just tell me that and I don’t have to take your stupid map!
I have maps, emails, phone numbers, addresses, notes and photos all on my phone. Everything I do is on there, from work to pleasure. If I lost or broke my beloved iPhone (which I have done several times) then I would be ruined – or rather probably have some ‘fun’ trying to sort out an alternative for everything!
I still don’t see why people would ever buy a Garmin GPS device. Map applications are far better than any other device I have seen for navigation, and there are quite a few apps with good terrain information. Personally I like to use Google maps as it is always up to date and super easy to use – especially with Streetview! It also caches nicely offline. Don’t waste your money on anything else!
There are however some tricks to using any map when planning a route. Look out for rivers as they will help to indicate hills – the source of the river will be high and larger parts of the river will be lower down. Try to follow rivers if you can as they tend to be flatter than the hills or mountains that divide them.
Remember – if a river bends significantly (apart from in cities), it is probably because there is a hill in between. Be prepared!
It doesn’t have to cost a lot
I have met too many people (particularly around Richmond and Regents Park in London) that turn up on a Sunday morning with their pristine carbon bike that cost them upwards of several thousand pounds. My relatively cheap aluminium bike with panniers, mud, scratches and real wear and tear still zooms past them and I get a great satisfaction when doing so. Your legs are the most important part of the bike and improving them involves spending time on the bike – not money on it!
In terms of ‘running costs’ on a tour, you can generally find cheap hostels/hotels in small towns. Alternatively camping is a great way to save some money – but be prepared to carry more if you choose this option.
Remember to enjoy it
Touring is called touring because it’s not a race. Don’t be stupid and push your legs so hard that you can’t stand up the next day. Chances are you have a few more days of cycling ahead of you and you need to conserve your legs as much as possible. Remember to stop and appreciate your surroundings along the route – if something looks interesting then stop and take a closer look.
But always remember – you gotta beat all those riding around on the fancy carbon bikes!
Always ask for a discount
If you don’t ask, you won’t get! Almost every hotel/hostel/bed and breakfast has given me a discount. Even if it’s just a few Euros off the price, it still feels good and over a whole trip it can really make a significant difference. It’s also a really useful skill to have not just for a cycling tour but in life – you can end up saving a lot!
Learn to point
If you are in a country where you know zero words of their strange language, then learn a few phrases like ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ This will make a good first impression to most of the people you meet – then you can point to things and use hand gestures to try and explain yourself – it is sometimes fun, but sometimes embarrassing too!
I have had success getting things like a screw that fell off my panniers, water, and many cakes – without knowing a word of the relevant language!
I mean really write a diary (even if it is just for yourself) as you will value it forever. Memories fade, but photos, videos and diaries don’t. Just as important as taking the photos is remembering to back them up too!
Reminiscing about a life changing trip is part of the point of setting out in the first place. You are doing this because it is fun, interesting, cool and it’s important to remember these things in the future. It also serves as a separate purpose to motivate yourself for future trips too!
Learn to tinker with the bike
Like computers, most things can be reset. Unscrew a brake pad, see how it fits together. Play with the derailleur and see what happens. Everything can be fixed on a bike as parts can be replaced (even the frame as my American friends found out!). Oh, and if you can’t fix it yourself, then a bike shop will no doubt be able to!
Accidents are called accidents for a reason – they are unplanned! For years I never had a proper accident because I always cycle carefully anticipating the worst of other drivers. I was a cycle courier in London for a short period and never wore a helmet – but I never had a problem. Any small scrapes have been my own fault; e.g. misjudging a curb, another was where I got angry at an awful driver and punched their car – I ended up seriously hurting my hand!
Just over a year ago, I was on a charity ride across Sri Lanka where we were forced to wear helmets or we were banned from riding. Begrudgingly, I donned my lid and continued to pedal. One day I was sprinting down a hill on the rental mountain bike which seemed stable enough. I found an opportunity on this clear day, with an open road, to overtake my fellow riders. I moved across to the empty other side of the road. Getting my head down, I pushed hard to speed past my friends at about 35/40mph until suddenly a large ‘BANG!’ came from the front wheel.
A friend to my side screamed instructions at me: ‘FRONTWHEEL BLOWOUT! KEEP IT STEADY! SLOW DOWN! STEADY! EASY ON THE BRAKES! KEEP IT STEADY! SLOW! SLOW! SLOW!!!’ Fortunately my brain was on the same page and I managed to do exactly that.
Slowing to about 10mph the tyre finally gave up and came off the wheel. The metal rim skidded across the ground and immediately the bike slid from under me. I went over headfirst (somehow getting at least one foot out of the pedal). The ground came towards my face and I bowed to it. Fortunately with this helmet I managed to escape any pain. The only thing I had to show was a ruined front wheel and a small scrape on my knee (which later got infected but hey – I’m not brain dead!).
My point is, you can’t plan for something like that and without a helmet that day I am certain I would have been in hospital for a long time, if not worse.
I am therefore writing this article to educate a previous version of myself who wouldn’t wear a helmet out of stubbornness: I thought I was invincible.
Wearing a helmet now, I am definitely more invincible! (The same is true of car seat-belts)
Always smile. Even if everyone out on a Sunday morning looks like their life has just fallen apart, even if no one returns your smile and they look at you as if you are some strange alien passing through their town. I still urge you to continue to smile and nod your head to these strangers.
Even if your life has fallen apart, or worse yet: your bike has fallen apart, you gotta smile as it is part of the journey of life.
Every cafe or restaurant you go in, smile to the attendant as it will make their day better too – and might even get you a better deal or help to find a special recommendation!
From time to time people may seem unfriendly, but most of the time they are likely just be having a bad moment. The ones who are just simply miserable will always be like that, so move on to the next! Don’t let them get you down.