Going Feral on the Transcontinental - London to Istanbul
I honestly had no idea if I could do this, the thought of it was totally overwhelming. It was almost too scary to even begin but it would be sad to live life not doing things because of fear. Many times I've been asked why and my honest answer is why not? Really... why not?
So to begin the journey...
At the 8th strike of Big Ben on 9th August on a car-free Westminster Bridge,100 lycra-clad adventurers started their journey towards the furthest tip of Europe. What lay ahead for many was their own personal battles, battles between each other, against the weather, negotiating tough terrain and many other challenges.
For me, I wanted to ride strong and finish, to step into the unknown and do the best I can, to complete the journey I'd chosen to begin.
I left the ferry at Dieppe at 3am and to ride off into the darkness was at first unnerving. I had to get to Paris and tick of the first checkpoint. Riding through Paris in torrential rain with visibility down to 10 metres, I could just about read the Garmin (a food bag makes an excellent waterproof cover). I must have broke at least 50 traffic regulations as the traffic lights are pointless so I chose to ignore most of them.
At the checkpoint it was definitely food o'clock. Now I don't often invite random men I've never met before to dinner, but given that John was in lycra and on a fully-loaded road bike it was safe bet he'd be a good dinner mate.
I soon came to realise that a menu becomes unimportant, meals are chosen on calories, days are measured in kilometres not time and darkness does not mean sleep time but quiet roads and sleeping dogs.
My first night was spent in a bush. I didn't bother with an air bed as I figured when I'm that tired I'll sleep literally on anything. I wasn't the only one in the bush, there were a lot of animals rustling around, too tired to care I thought they'd have more of a shock finding me than me worrying about getting eaten by some wild raccoons so I slept well.
On day two the Garmin broke. I wanted to throw the thing in the bin. What I've now established I think, is that it didn't react well to being powered by the plug 3/dynamo. A factory reset was necessary which meant I lost my entire route, I was furious. Navigating by map is just too slow especially as the amount of mapping for this distance is enough to fill a book shelf. Many other riders suffered the 'Tour de Garmin'. I pretty much did 50km the wrong way to Zurich, wasting time and energy I couldn't afford to waste.
You're right on the edge of safe, constantly checking if you can wiggle your toes. I was swearing to myself. "Fu@/# you is this all you've got?!" I shouted through clattering teeth into the deafening wind. "I will not be bbbbb bbbbeaten!" Every now and then I had to refocus my eyes, I saw two deer run through the high alpine meadows and it brought a brief smile to my face.
I phoned Laura but I was so cold I could barely speak so I decided to leave the Stelvio for the morning and seek refuge in a hotel, never in my life have I been so glad to get inside. I went to the restaurant in no shoes and asked for some food, I asked the waiter to choose for me as I didn't really care. My plan was to get up at 4am and head to the Stelvio - I love this climb, it's big and quite often ruthless. I was climbing with excitement: 49 hair pins, crisp air, checkpoint 2, less rain, coffee at the top - the perfect way to start the day. I can't remember how many hours the climb took but I loved every second. My swollen ankle went away and I could no longer feel my sore bum, I was just tapping it out totally engrossed in the mountain. This is why I ride.
I met Gavin at the top, he was making leg warmers out of a foil blanket. I sellotaped them round his ankles, he looked quite special! I decided to put one leg warmer over my head and face as I had two sets, I borderline choked myself but it was warm!
The next dash was to Ancona to catch the ferry to Split. I was glad of a wash and the bed, the morning came too soon and the almighty rush out of port began.
Now I never intentionally decided to ride to checkpoint 3 in one day, it just happened. This was the first really hot day and I watched with envy as holiday makers basked in the Croatian sunshine and swam in the clear blue ocean. It's not flat along the coast down to Dubrovnik and across the border into Montenegro.
Vasiliki the Greek and I arrived at the same time, there were no rooms and the night porter said we couldn't sleep in the reception. Well I'm not ashamed to say we begged him until he had to say yes. Marble floors make excellent beds in times of need. 7am was the wake up call and I awoke to find Aussie and Chris had joined us in the foyer. We promptly ate so much food between us that the waiter actually said "I serve you no more food!" I think I drank 4 espressos.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are places I wouldn't be too fussed about going to again. In Albania I doubt you need a driving licence to drive and there are not a lot of women about. There was a traumatic incident with a dog (be warned you may want to skip this paragraph....)
A stray dog ran out in front as a car was overtaking which resulted in an almighty collision (it was a big dog) and it ripped the front of the car right off and what was left of the dog lay in the road yelping. You have to understand the dogs are wild here not pets, they're dangerous and if they are pets they are used as guard dogs so you must back right off. I used my water bottle to defend against the persistent ones!
Just outside Tirane I slept in a brothel - a 24hr hotel with red walls, naked women (in pictures), few bed sheets and many towels but the bit that really gave it away was the leather studded door. I was glad Chris was in the room opposite. I had a shower in my cycling clothes and they dried overnight because of the heat. The guy who ran the place carried my bike up/down stairs which I thought was very polite I don't think he was a pimp just a ummm facilitator of sorts.
From Albania it was through to Macedonia which is also quite hilly. The road conditions were surprisingly good and knowing Greece was on the horizon spurred me on, the heat always beating down on me - relentless.
It turns out Chris and I were pretty much the same pace and we chatted. We started a game of who can eat the most ice cream. After all this was a race of excess. The final ice cream count was 6 for me and 8 for Chris - in one day!
The Greeks can cook and in volume and cheap. I got a huge piece of steak at 9pm for €8.
In Greece the temperature rose to 42.7 degrees - it wasn't ideal riding conditions, I just tried to stay hydrated and sun creamed. I got kicked out of a school for sleeping under their trees briefly. My most elaborate alarm was a tortoise crawling on my head - they have sharp nails!
As the last couple of days approached I didn't dare believe I'd make it there until I saw a sign for Turkey and thought, "Oh hang on it's nearly at an end." Part of me craved the sleep, a wash, to see Laura but part of me wanted to carry on, see what else is out there, just pedal on. The Turkish border was armed and prostitutes seemed busy at the truck stop, it felt grim in the dark. The sleep monster arrived and my body decided to throw up so sleeping in a petrol station forecourt for a couple of hours was a good call - even with the lorry headlights and rumbling traffic roaring by. Soon the call to prayer signalled the start of another day in the furnace and the final push to Istanbul.
Throughout the trip I'd had numerous punctures and within the final 100km I had yet another. I stripped my rim and managed to find some electrical tape in a random shop. I used the local water fountain to find the holes in my tube but by this point I was pretty pissed off with fixing tubes. The extra time needed to fix these issues meant approaching Istanbul in the dark, I don't know what is safer because they drive like they want to die or kill all the time!
The final climb through the arboretum came and went all too quickly and I prepared myself for the taxi dodge slalom towards the Rumel Hisari.
With Phil Collins "I can feel it coming in the air tonight" playing on Chris's iPod - I looked across to the glistening Bosphorus and up at the illuminated bridge to Asia and thought, "This is COOL." And then I saw Laura and to be honest I really nearly did cry - relieved to have arrived in one piece. I was privileged to share those final moments with Chris Bennett who over the journey had become a really good friend.
I've had some time to think about the trip and I've concluded that I could do this faster and better. I've learnt that navigation and route planning are key and that my body can do more miles than my brain thinks possible and I can function on less sleep so I ushould.
I've loved this experience and now really want to do more.....further/faster/better.