Cycling France, and falling in love with travel

How travel changed my life

This is the story of my first ever cycle tour in 2002. I was 19 years old and broke, but desperately wanted to see the world.

My friend Sean and I

A friend and I bought two second-hand mountain bikes for €40 each and planned to cycle from Paris to Rome. Neither of us had ever cycled further than 1 or 2 miles – to school and such.  We spent about two months working in London to save up a few hundred pounds, a large section of which went on the Eurostar ticket to Paris.

Putting a rack on the mountain bike
Day 1, Paris

Remember Mapbooks?

This was before mobile phones and GPS. Our only guidance was a map book and a compass. We got lost often, and it was awesome.  Eventually, we stopped using the map book for guidance and simply cycled into the wild.  We only looked back on it occasionally to track the route we had come.

Into the wild

Survival Food

We bought a tent, roll mats and a gas stove. In four weeks cycling we never once paid for accommodation and spent about €1 a day on food. Oats for breakfast, spaghetti for dinner.  We drank only water and black coffee, and invented some strange lunch options too, like bulk cheap croissants wrapped in budget salami.  I can still taste it…

Too much equipment!

No bike, no problem

Unfortunately, halfway to Rome, one bike was stolen while we slept on the beach in Cannes. Unable to afford a new one, we sold the other and continued on foot, hitch-hiking.  We crossed into Italy and walked for almost eight hours the first day without catching a single lift.

Sleeping outdoors on the French Riviera

After spending two nights sleeping at a truck stop and still with no luck, we asked a police officer if he could help.  He instructed us to hitch-hike on the freeway, and then promptly arrested us for doing so.  We had no money for a fine or bribe, so eventually, he let us go.

Hitching after the bike was stolen.

Penniless but free, we eventually caught a lift to Genoa, and continued from there by hopping trains to Pisa, Venice and Florence, sleeping in stations and on beaches.

Sleeping in a train station

Discover Life

That trip was the single greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It not only made me fall in love with cycling and travel, but it defined everything that I am as a person today. It imbued within me a confidence to achieve any goal I desire, to never give up, to see the beauty in the world and all the possibilities in life.

Cycle touring is not about the bike or the equipment. Travel is not about the route or the destination.

It’s about you.

Get out there and discover yourself.


 

Cycling to Amsterdam

 

I decided to make use of the four day Easter holiday weekend and cycle from London to Amsterdam.  However, since I was leaving directly after work on Thursday evening and didn’t want to cycle dangerous British roads in the dark, I got a train to Dover and made it just in time to catch the midnight ferry to Dunkirk.  This however, proved to be a mistake, as, due to the length of the journey and the hour time difference, I arrived in Dunkirk at 3am.  Predictably the hostel I had booked gave up waiting for me and locked up, so I had no choice but to either keep cycling and hope to find somewhere open, or sleep outdoors in the rain with the refugees.

I cycled on for the next two hours through rainy traffic and refugee camps until eventually at five am I was lucky enough to find another hostel, the lovely owner of which took me in and gave me my own private room for the night/morning.  I knew I had to make it 150km’s the next day through Belgium to Breskens in the Netherlands if I wanted to catch the last ferry to Vlissengen, so I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in late.  I grabbed five hours sleep and was up at 10am, had a quick (free) breakfast and was back on the road.

Riding along the beach in Belgium

The day went fairly smoothly for the first few hours – it was nice and sunny and I dried out my wet clothes by hanging them off my bike as I rode. Initially I felt I was making good time, but after a number of stops for photographs, lunch and exploring I realised at 5pm I was going to have to hurry to make the 9pm ferry!  I abandoned the slow moving beach roads and got onto the main road for a few hours of hard pedalling.  I whisked through Belgium fairly quickly and then just after entering the Netherlands developed a rather serious pain in my left Achilles tendon.  I tried adjusting my foot to accommodate it but I couldn’t really slow down or rest so I had to push through, despite the pain worsening.  Luckily I made it to the ferry in time, but I was seriously worried about whether I could continue the next day.

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I spent that evening in quite a nice hostel in Vlissengen, and being that it was a seemingly quiet deserted town I thought nothing of leaving my bike locked up outside on the street.  Bad idea…. but more of that later.

Anyway this hostel had been left in the care of a very young lad from somewhere or other who was travelling and needed work, and the owner was busy that night DJ’ing at a club in town.  Luckily the hostel only had one or two other guests who were already in bed, so he decided he would come with me for a few drinks at an Irish pub down the road, where we chatted about our respective travels and had a few beers.  He was a nice enough chap but clearly didn’t know anything about how the hostel worked, and forgot to take any payment from me before I left the next morning!  (the owner, luckily for him, had my email and tracked me down for payment a few days later).

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My bike with stolen seat

Upon returning to my bike I found my seat missing – the whole seat-post and saddle as well as my saddlebag with all my tools and puncture kit!  Coupled with the somewhat better but still sore pain in my Achilles tendon this was not good news.  I hummed-and-harred about what to do for awhile until eventually deciding to push on through, standing up to pedal until I found a bike shop.

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New seat and ready to go

Fortunately this was exactly what my Achilles tendon needed, as the change in foot position while standing took the pressure off it and I went along quite well and full of renewed energy for the next hour until I reached a town with a fairly big bike shop.  There a very helpful bike mechanic found me a cheap, used seat-post and saddle and I was on my way again, only €30 poorer.

dykes
The route along the dykes

I continued on along a route I’ve been wanting to cycle for many years, along the Dutch dyke system that holds back the ocean south of Rotterdam and The Hague and connects many small islands and outcropping bits of land.  It’s an incredibly interesting landscape and the huge, modern mechanical dykes are amazing to see up close.

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t great that day, and with the combination of a headwind, my sore Achilles tendon and the delays of buying a new seat it didn’t look like I would make it to Amsterdam that evening as planned. However I still had a good time exploring the dykes and cycling the tiny little villages on the many islands along the route.  The cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands is incredible, and is maintained equally if not better than the roads.

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A typical Dutch dyke bridge

There is a seperate, dedicated bicycle lane next to every single street, no matter where you go.  In many places it even goes under or over the road when crossing, so for the most part you need never be involved with or worry about vehicular traffic.  Despite this I still managed to accidentally cycle onto the freeway at one point, and had to get off and walk back along the grass verge to the normal road.  The truckers driving past in their massive 18-wheelers found this rather amusing.

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Rotterdam

I stopped for lunch in a great little seafood restaurant in the docks of a small village and had a well deserved beer with calamari and chips.  By the time I got to Rotterdam it was already 6pm and I was exhausted, so I had to choose to spend a night in Rotterdam and continue the next day, or get the train to Amsterdam and spend the night there.

I decided to go with the latter as I knew Amsterdam better and figured I would have a good Saturday night there.  I almost got in trouble on the train as I didn’t put my bike in the correct section, but luckily the conductors are understanding of foreigners and let me off.

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Amsterdam

So I finally arrived in Amsterdam, and although I didn’t quite cycle all the way I had a great trip and overcame many obstacles.  That night I made some friends in The Flying Pig hostel, drank an entire pitcher of beer and multiple tequila’s, explored a bit of the red light district and then we went out to a techno club until 4am.  The next afternoon, slightly hungover, I packed up my bike into a box kindly donated by a local bike shop, and headed off to the airport to fly back home to London.

I hope to do this trip again some time, however I would spread it over 3 days and go via Bruges.

 

 

New Years Snowboarding in France

 

New Years 2016 found me snowboarding in the small French alpine town of St Francois-Longchamp.  Unfortunately, snow conditions were not ideal, and we found ourselves spending the entire week boarding down the same one run.  Despite a small spattering of snow on the 3rd day, only one ski-lift remained open the entire week.  However, the braver amongst us took to the off-piste and managed to find a few nice patches of powder to keep us entertained.  At one point I boarded straight over a ravine hidden by packed snow and was very lucky not to land head first into a pile of rocks.

Hiking Weather

We also took advantage of the fair weather to hike up some of the surrounding mountains and got some lovely shots.  Since we all knew there wasn’t any excellent snow to wake up early for, we spent most nights partying until the wee hours.  After one particularly drunken night, I awoke to find my snowboard was not in the board room where I usually kept it.  A quick panicked run down to where we were drinking the night before revealed it had been saved by the bar owners, who kindly stored it safely overnight behind the bar in the hopes my hungover ass would come retrieve it!

While cooking dinner one night, Alex managed to dislodge the top of a wooden meat hammer while demonstrating his hammering skills, which then proceeded to fly across the room and hit me square in the mouth, splitting my lip and exploding pain across my face.  Luckily I didn’t lose any teeth, and Alex was kind enough to buy me a bottle of whiskey as an apology!  No hard feelings!

Snowless Off-piste

Despite the bad snow conditions and the snowpark being closed (!), I managed to get in a few jumps off the side of the piste and tighten up a few surface tricks on the board. One day we hiked up the opposite mountain and a few of our group, including the group leader, snowboarded down through very rough off-piste – over slush,  grass and rocks!   Luckily they were using free testing boards provided by a sponsor!

New Years

New Year’s Eve itself was the usual drunken debauchery. The resort even had a small outdoor party in the parking lot with DJ’s, fireworks and all.  We had a huge dinner with our tour group of about 30 guests and then watched the fireworks from the hotel balcony before heading down to the party for a bit.  After that, the three or four local bars continued the party until the early hours.  I vaguely remember something about jager-bombs and not much else after that.