The eighth rule of the bicycle traveler: know your limits

December 27, 2015

The strange feature of memory — I hardly remember my life a couple of years ago, but clearly and detailed — what happened in my bike trips. The weather, the smells, the taste of food, the colors of nature, the people I met, the range of items at local food markets, everything I felt in every moment I spent on the road. I see the picture and dive inside, the picture revives, roll sound, roll camera, action!

The fragments come to me taken out of the whole history, as if the old favorite scenes from the film, the characters of which you know longer than most of your friends. That cold and humid morning in France, our orange tent had placed on the lawn in elite cottage village, its dwellers looked at us warily, walking their dogs. We’d arrived here late at night looking for camping, fought for choosing a place to overnight and decided to set camp right where had stopped to argue. In the morning the tent was torn down quickly, in the humid French forest on the way to the city we cooked cocoa drink and greeted the runners with our poor French, and then dried our tent near McDonalds.

Or here the first night in the Netherlands, we’d arrived to the camp by the evening, where friendly host Ian explained how to get to our camp place. «You …», — led his finger on the map from the point we’d stayed to inside the campsite and tried to remember English – «Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle …».

Or the last German village on the way to Holland, we sat down to rest near the harbor, and the sky was blue, and I ate a hamburger with fresh fish for 2.50 euros, which had been assembled right here in the kiosk surrounded by chewing tourists. The schooners on the water smelt like fish, my hands smelt like fish, the fish smell came from the doors of restaurants. And everything smelt like sea wind and sun-dried grass.

Or here is Italy. On the main square of the small suburb the Italian teenagers dance to music of the Jesus Christ Superstar, and dark-skinned saleswoman of leather bags scolds the Helmsman for filming. We accidentally got into the thick of the local fest on our way from the Swiss-Italian border to Milan. I sleep for about an hour sitting at a table nearby McDonalds, resting my head on the cat Bear. The night before we had ridden to the camp for a long time through swiss Lugano and woke up, surprisingly, at 6 am, to continue our journey.

I still cannot get used to that a long road requires the right cycling nutrition and enough sleeping. The distances seem small. Ha-ha, one hundred kilometres, we’d passed through much longer routes. But one hundred at once is not the same thing as the long-haul trip for days. The flat valleys’ paths along the water channels cannot be compared with the tedious climbing upwards along the mountain serpentines. And it is not really interesting to watch only the front wheel within the trip, the adventures require stepping out a way periodically and spending time for exploring around.

I’d never been able to know my strength and limits within bike trips, so the planning had not made any sense. Although with time I learned hot to figure out if I have enough time to reach next campsite before nightfall, or I’d end up in the dark corn field, where the only light source is the bicycle headlamp and maybe stars. But I was wrong so often that I cannot probably have that skill in the short list of my achievements.

Italy was stuffy and dusty with hazed landscapes, after the clear Alpine air everything looked unfit for riding. Even the surroundings of Lake Como in the dusty veil seemed dirty. Somewhere here Lance Armstrong had rented a house and loved training. We did not understand that choice compared to the Alps.

We got out of Como for a long time, there were no bike paths but the Belgian like car traffic was tight and with clouds of dust, and it was difficult to even breathe. I felt myself like in Russia, even though the climate was warmer and the palm trees were everywhere.

Our journey to Milan was brightened with a huge family-size carbonara (it was almost impossible to deal with), ice cream from gelateria in a small village, and exceptional sunset. We arrived in the dark to the campsite in Milan, had been straying in the dusking suburbs, passing roadside prostitutes (with a chair) and tired workers, peacefully walking their dogs before bedtime. We rode through the street fair where I tried to find gifts to home, but soon I gave up the idea and just walked around, staring at people and listening the language.

Something familiar and warm and simple was there in the picture. Some ordinary people in the midst of their everyday life, resting satellites villages, children on bikes, teens and couples, and the whole village gathered at gelateria the only one open on Sunday, the roads with paving stones, the smell of marijuana swept past the dusty car.

But it wasn’t “my” territory. I’m glad to remember about how “convenient to be a horse in the mountains — the head to the slope and eat like on the table, do not even have to bend over”. About the Danish strong winds, the German northern landscapes of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with the long grass in the white dunes. To remember Norway, wool socks, the snow. The Alps that I previously had seen only in the airplane’s window, and I cried because they are so beautiful and so colossal that take your entire head and all your thoughts. My favorite Scandinavian countries, neat and orderly Germany, the Netherlands with its long cold nights and long straight hauls. These countries are about me. Further to the South I feel myself out of place, except in the German part of Switzerland, separated from the whole world and neutral, I feel comfortable because of the mountains.

In some unknown pub, the only one that was surprisingly opened at night on a hundred kilometers of Holland, a young drunk aborigine gave me an unknown drink, had known that we are from Russia. The drink was similar to cognac, I was supposed to drink it savoring. The air was moist and heavy and smoky, the drunk middle aged female bartender treated us with boiled eggs, the old american music was playing.

The hour of the wolf, we had frozen and stopped at a tavern to warm with the poor instant coffee that you enjoy like if you lovingly cooked it. It was long before dawn, we had to find a camping for sleeping to have the strength for riding tomorrow. Empty towns, wind farms, drunk Dutches riding home on their rusty bicycles faster than us. The feeling of lostness – that’s what makes bike traveling so sharp.

In Milan we killed time till night before heading to the airport. We ate a couple of pizzas, bought gifts to home. Milan reminded me a bit of Barcelona, ​​except it can’t be really considered as a bike-friendly city. We had to drive 60 km to the airport and wait there till our morning flight, dismantling bicycles and eating up food reserves. We left Milan at the dusk, turned on all the lights on bikes and dressed warmly. Even in Italy at night it is desirable to wear woolen socks, so that’s a European autumn.

We passed through villages, trucks rushed by us, a young couple argued loudly in Italian at a crossroads, noisily slamming the car’s doors. We stopped to rest on a tiny square of a tiny village, made coffee, ate cake from Milan’s store, watching for airplanes landing in the night sky — the airport was no more than 10 km away from us. We got into last warm clothes and continued our way.

It’s hard to reach Malpensa airport doors by bicycle, the road led us to a freeway that we’d not use even at night. We had to seek alternate paths. At the airport we spent the night dismantling bikes, I had even a little nap on the floor, following the example of other travelers sleeping there. But by 6 am the airport alived and staff appeared, and I had to force myself to wake up, having coffee and trying not to fall asleep again. Joyful anticipation of the flight and meeting with friends, a slight sadness. Huge windows that could show you the Alps in the distance. I could not see them because of the thick haze on the horizon and my poor vision, but they were there.

They’re always there and we can always come back.

Long before me Oleg Kuvaev, Soviet geologist and writer, said: “Romance can be different. The most restless of it is the one that does not tolerate the routes rigidly laid on the map”.

My trip became real thanks to support of IZI.Travel company that makes cool audioguide OPAS.

This post is also available in: Russian