July 2016: my book is now published and available from Amazon...sorry if that sticks in the craw, but it was the simplest way I could find to self-publish and distribute. You can feel good in knowing that all royalties will be going to my charity RoadPeace
June 2016 update: book is finished and I'm waiting for a printed proof copy. Hoping it will be on sale sometime in July.
It's exactly a year since I set off from London on April 5th 2014, how time flies! The book is now drafted as far as Auckland, in a day-to-day diary format. I'm looking for a publisher...or will self-publish. Royalties (if any!) will go to RoadPeace.
Anyway, here's the second week from the current draft, I hope you enjoy it:
Saturday 12th April
I'd arrived in Warsaw, a week and 1,467 km since I'd left London, and rose early feeling full of the joys of spring. The day was dawning sunny and full of promise and the mildly anxious feelings I'd had the previous evening about setting off alone now after the first week riding with Dave Bradshaw were bleached away by the low brilliant April sunshine. Dave was planning to spend a day or two in Warsaw, then get the train back to Berlin to avoid any further riding on hazardous Polish roads, from where he'd potter back to Calais and home in time to see his son ride at the Herne Hill velodrome Good Friday track races. Far from feeling daunted, I was chomping at the bit. I'd enjoyed Dave's company and the "tow" to Warsaw had been very useful – indeed quite possibly I wouldn't have made it in time for the parkrun without his help. Nonetheless I was ready to go solo, and would have it no other way for the bulk of the trip – it's definitely the best way to travel if you want to meet more locals.
It was also best for Dave that he wasn't coming any further, as his previous night out on the tiles had taken its toll. He'd asked me to wake him in time to come and spectate at parkrun, so I did that around 08:00. He turned over in bed exposing a sorry and somewhat alarming sight: his face was covered in dried blood. He discovered that he had bashed his forehead and nose somehow on the way home after a few too many beers – he's still not sure how it happened, though thinks it was in Marek's flat after they got back. He made a sterling effort to rise from his stupor, clean himself up a bit, utter some brief words of relief that his injuries were just skin deep, and help me down the four-storey stairwell with my bike and bags.
Warsaw Praga parkrun is held in the beautiful Skaryszewski city park just across the road from Marek's flat – the chief reason I'd picked him from the wide choice of Warmshowers hosts in Warsaw. A hundred or so runners and volunteers were milling about at the start area when I arrived, busy putting up the event flags, finish funnel and catching up with a week's gossip – just like parkrun back home. I pushed my funny bike into this throng and was immediately welcomed by the run director who had a few pairs of running shoes ready for me to try. I selected the most comfortable pair and did a little stretching to try and bring some relief to my Achilles tendons which were just beginning to get rather sore from overuse in the first week of the trip.
After the run director had given the pre-race briefing, which I assumed was pretty much verbatim what they say at parkruns back home (a description of the 5km route, mind out for other park users and dogs, applause for today's volunteers…) we were off and I settled into a sedate pace towards the back of the field on account of the sore Achilles and the fact that I wanted to keep some energy in reserve for the rest of the day. It was two and a bit laps around the park and local runner Vitaliy Sorochuk came home first in a scorching 16:50. I finished at a stately gentle jogging pace in 28:44, my slowest ever parkrun, 97th out of 114 runners, but ecstatic to have made it to Warsaw in time to run at all. Plus I got to run round with the prettiest girl in the field! Post run banter and photos were fun as usual and there was a festival of chocolate – almost all runners had brought chocolate to share so I got a good energy boost for the exertions to follow.
I said my goodbyes to my new parkrun friends and to Dave at around 10:00, and set off into the eastern suburbs of Warsaw and beyond towards the Belarusian border. The sun still blazed and I felt great – a wonderful feeling of liberty that I only had myself to consider, the world really was my oyster now! The weather stayed fair and I made steady progress on the E30 out through Siedlce, stopping in a bus shelter for a picnic lunch where the phone rang – a bunch of local club cyclists were planning to meet up and ride with me into their home town of Miedzyrzec Podlaski. Sure enough, some 20km short of the town, two of them were waiting for me by the side of the road on their bikes, ready to escort me into town where we were met by a further six club members and taken into a local bar for some beer. They had been notified of my arrival by their Belarusian friend and fellow cyclist Michael Kuz'menchuk in Brest, who had helped me get my Belarusian visa a few weeks earlier. After a couple of beers I was escorted a further 30km down the road to Biala Podlaska where I was met by yet more cyclists and the local press – I was beginning to feel quite the Queen Bee by this stage – what a wonderful welcome! Press interviews were conducted at around 20:00 in the town square, and an hour later I was finally shown to a hotel they'd booked for me. Exhausted again, I couldn't face going out to find dinner, so managed to get the receptionist to phone for a take away pizza.
158 km today / 1,625 km since London
Sunday 13th April
A lie-in at the hotel, what luxury! Today I was in no hurry because I was being met at the Belarusian border by Michael Kuz'menchuk who, I'd gathered from recent emails, had organised quite a reception for me which would take all afternoon and evening, then I'd be his overnight guest. The plan was to meet at the border crossing at noon, just 40km down the road. So I rose from a good long deep sleep at 08:00, completely refreshed, and went downstairs to the dining room for a decent cooked breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, paté, tomatoes, bread (basket refilled twice), butter, honey, coffee…I scoffed the lot and felt fantastic! Three local club cyclists appeared at the hotel shortly after 09:00 to help me downstairs with my bike and bags, and led me out of town and back onto the main road where we said our goodbyes.
A couple of hours later I arrived at the border, a little ahead of schedule, so sat on the crash barrier at the side of the road and ate a sandwich that the club cyclists had kindly provided. At noon I approached the border and soon discovered that I should not have tarried – this was the border out of the EU and into the Russian Federation and was clearly going to take some time. There were long queues of cars but needless to say no other cyclists, and I was sidelined and told to wait – I wasn't sure what for. After five minutes or so a border guard tried to explain what they were planning for me but the language barrier beat us both. I waited a little longer and another guard managed to convey that cyclists were not permitted to cycle (or walk) across the no-man's-land bit between the exit from Poland and the entry into Belarus. It became apparent that the guards were asking motorists in larger vehicles if they had space to take the bike and me across the border. After ten minutes or so I was beckoned over to a large car towing an empty trailer – perfect! The amiable driver was happy to co-operate and helped load my bike and panniers into his trailer. I was motioned to get into the passenger seat beside the driver, then we joined another slow queue towards a checkpoint and barrier. Our passports were duly inspected and stamped and we were across and into a few hundred yards of no-man's-land, over a small bridge, only to join the tail of another queue to proceed through Belarusian entry formalities. Another 15 minutes elapsed and we finally emerged into Belarus proper at 13:00. I'd spent a whole hour getting through and it had felt like crossing the Berlin Wall at the height of the cold war!
I needn't have worried as my patient hosts obviously knew that these things take a while. I was a little embarrassed at the ignominy of having to unload my bike from a car trailer; it was not how I'd planned to arrive! The 15 locals lined up by the side of the road waiting to meet me were clearly familiar with the procedure. Michael, a large jovial fellow wearing a loud day-glo pink and yellow jacket with megaphone voice to match, introduced himself with a great bear hug and back-slapping routine, then presented the rest of the welcome committee – a mix of local press and cyclists…and a TV crew. It was at this point that I lost all control over what happened to the rest of my day. Everything had been scripted and planned out for me and all I had to do was follow and smile and answer simple questions.
We started with a couple of interviews for the local paper and the evening TV news. Fortunately one of the cyclists was an English teacher and provided a useful interpretation service. In response to an early question I referred to my blog and gave out some of my cards which proved an instant hit – they all wanted one, so I distributed…and a minute later they were all being handed them back to be autographed! I quite enjoyed this minor celebrity status.
After 20 minutes or so we all got on our bikes and rode into the historic city of Brest for a sightseeing tour, TV crew in tow filming from their van, visiting the ruins of the fortress where the Brest-Litovsk treaty was signed in March 1918, and where locals held out for six days against the invading German army in June 1941. That was followed by lunch in a typical Belarusian restaurant for borscht and pancakes, also filmed for the TV news clip. Then Michael led me back to his 3rd floor flat where I met his wife and son, who helped me up with the bike and kit, after which I was bustled into a large car and found myself in a diminished group of just six men going shopping in a supermarket for various comestibles and beer. Following that we drove for about half an hour out to the edge of the city and parked up by a large suburban house where the shopping was unloaded and taken down to a large shed at the bottom of the garden! I was intrigued and mildly anxious by this stage, but they all seemed friendly enough so I continued to let myself be carried along with their plans, which turned out to be a sauna bath and picnic in the garden shed. The shopping bags were unloaded to reveal quite a feast including plenty of good strong local beer, and vodka. We all got our kit off and into the sauna which was cranked up to hotter than I've ever known, and I was introduced to the "special equipment" – a hefty bunch of birch twigs and leaves with which we beat each other across the backs – all good jolly harmless fun! Incriminating photos were taken but fortunately I stayed just sober enough to protect modesty, holding a strategically positioned felt hat in one hand and the birch whip in the other. Explaining in a subsequent slide show back at work that I was holding the "special equipment", one colleague was prompted to quip: "which hand?"
The TV item was featured on the evening news bulletin, lasting 2½ minutes. It must have been a slow news day in Brest that day!
47 km today / 1,672 km since London
Monday 14th April
A very comfortable night as Michael's guest in his flat was followed by a leisurely cooked breakfast, then we were off to meet the Mayor of Brest, my final engagement before I could get back out on the road and get on with the job. We pedalled over to the City Hall and were shown up to a rather spartan and plain office on the third floor where tea and biscuits were served and an interpreter relayed questions from the Mayor who asked much the same as others interested in my tour – my route, daily distances, where was I sleeping etc. When he found out about my profession he wanted to know about School Travel Plans and lamented that Brest had exactly the same problems of car-dependency as London with daily traffic jams full of children who should be walking and cycling to school. He was absolutely right of course but I was looking out of the window and getting itchy feet as the clock ticked on towards 11:00, acutely aware that in the last 24 hours I had ridden less than 50kms.
I finally broke free from the almost overwhelming hospitality shortly after 11:00 and set off eastwards on the M1 then M10 under foreboding grey skies and cold rain, escorted 75kms by a Brest cyclist beyond Kobryn and then alone. I tried to make up for lost time but the road surface was very poor in places impeding swift progress, so I was pleased to get as far as Pinsk by 22:00 where I pulled into a roadside motel to avoid the cold wet night. No English spoken, nor German, French or Spanish, so I fired up Google Translate on the smartphone and chose soup, pancakes and goulash from the skimpy menu. My room was adequate but austere, without WC or bathroom, or pillow, and the towel on offer for use in the communal showers was little larger or thicker than the hanky in my pocket. Nonetheless it was clean and a lot warmer and more comfy than a bus shelter would have been that wild night, and the sleep, as always after a day of hard pedalling, was top quality.
176 km today / 1,848 km since London
Tuesday 15th April
My 11th day on the road, and amazingly the first riding alone all day. After a reasonable hotel breakfast I was back on the flat long straight M10 highway which traverses the entire country west to east, about 600km from Brest to Gomel near the Russian border. The landscape was bleak, alternating between vast fields, open spaces and forests. Traffic was thankfully light, mostly trucks, and most of them giving me a comfortably wide berth. The road surface was variable all day, so speeds were up and down – on the good bits a useful tailwind helped push me along at giddy speeds of up to 30km/h. It was cold still, raining on and off all day, but nothing too heavy and my new waterproofs kept me dry and warm. Every few hours I stopped for big hearty meals at roadside cafés, most of which involved borscht, and just before 22:00 I stopped in a 3* Audax hotel (bus shelter) for the night.
197 km today / 2,045 km since London
Wednesday 16th April
After a quick bowl of muesli in my bus shelter I was back on the road at 06:30, listening to some music on the mp3 player for the first time – it would have been rude in company, and yesterday, my first day alone, was too wet and the earphones were not waterproof. Today stayed dry but still a wind-chilled 10C. The M10 remained straight and featureless, so I lost little time stopping to take photos. Frequent roadside shrines provided more evidence of motor-slaughter – similar numbers perish every year on their roads as ours, but they have only 1/6th of the UK population. That said, my personal experience in Belarus was one of sharing the roads with patient, considerate and friendly drivers.
At 48,000 Roubles, my lunch bill at a roadside café caused momentary alarm. But at an exchange rate of 16,000:1 that was just £3, and it had been a particularly fine and nourishing meal so I tried to leave 50,000 to include a small tip. The café owner was reluctant to accept this and tried to push the change back into my hands, which I managed to deposit on a neighbouring table as I was leaving. Before I could unlock my bike however, she came dashing out of the café with a free loaf of bread for me – extraordinary! Little was I to know at this stage, but this was the first of many increasingly generous gifts that I was to receive from complete strangers over coming weeks.
At 16:30 I crossed the River Dnieper, and a couple of hours later was met by 40 Gomel cyclists at the city boundary and escorted en masse into the city centre for press interviews. This had obviously been arranged by Michael in Brest whose sphere of influence apparently ranged across the entire country. After an enjoyable hour or so with the locals I was led to a recommended hotel where I showered, washed all my kit, and enjoyed a hearty dinner.
164 km today / 2,209 km since London
Thursday 17th April
A quick breakfast at the hotel and I was away by 07:00. Today was the first properly sunny day since London, but a stiff headwind pegged my average speed back to 17.5km/h. I stopped for a mid-morning coffee at a service station, offered free of charge with bonus chocolates once they'd read my magic letter – a brief introduction of myself and my ride in the various languages I'd need around the planet. At 45km I crossed the open border into Russia, where a few soldierly looking types lolled about lazily with no passport stamping duties or other formalities to perform. A friendly guard posed with me for a photo, then I was on my way, feeling pleased with myself for having cycled from London to Russia in 12 days. But rather less pleased with Russian drivers on the M13 – there was a distinct deterioration in standards with far too many close passes and dangerous overtaking manoeuvres, and so many roadside shrines it felt like riding through a graveyard. I felt very vulnerable, acutely aware that the dangers of the road far outweighed any other threats to my survival on this trip.
One good feature was some cosy sheltered roadside picnic spots in the forest, useful as towns and villages were now few and far between. I raided my pantry bag for bread, cheese, paté and fruit and made a couple of social phone calls back home to family and a work colleague. The road surface had marginally improved since the border and was gently rolling up and down, so despite the headwind I managed to reach my target 200kms by 23:00 where a convenient 3* Audax hotel near Pochep had my name on it. It was a relief to crawl into my sleeping bag still in one piece, and I shuddered a little as I relived some of the close passes of the day.
202 km today / 2,411 km since London
Friday 18th April
Up at 06:00 and away at 06:40 after first breakfast; another cold start and the road surface much worse than the previous day. I still had sore Achilles tendons – they'd been bugging me for a week now since Germany – and the headwind had strengthened. Traffic had thickened in both directions and international juggernauts were passing far too close. The roadside was littered with shrines to the fallen on this battlefield of a highway. Then came the first serious canine attack, a hefty mongrel managing to sink its teeth into the left pannier and almost dragging the bike down and me with it, but somehow we kept steady and I withdrew the dog stick, waving it about and shouting like a lunatic. I think that did the trick because he didn't get close enough for me to strike a direct hit, more's the pity!
The road rolled over long climbs and descents, there was less wifi available at the café stops, more dreadful overtaking and further canine incidents followed – at one point I was trying to fend off juggernauts to the left and dogs to the right (“stuck in the middle with you”!). Whenever I got off the bike, for snack stops and the like, walking and especially going down any steps was painful and difficult on account of the sore Achilles, though surprisingly and thankfully I could still ride well enough, if a bit more slowly. Remarkably they recovered just enough each night to keep going the following day.
All in all today was the first properly hard day and by 21:00 I'd had enough. Arriving shattered in the town of Orel I decided I'd earned myself a hotel night. The first place I tried was very welcoming, the proprietor and his wife helped me upstairs with my bike and bags to the room, and later brought a huge dinner of various grilled meats, chips, soup, bread and beer up for me – I must have looked too whacked to even make it back down to the dining room, or perhaps they were fearful I'd scare off the other guests! Deep sleep followed soon thereafter.
188 km today / 2,599 km since London
Saturday 19th April
05:30 was too early for the hotel breakfast, so I stopped a little down the road in a garage for coffee and snacks, and then again after 50km for a truly splendid meal chosen by looking at the food being cooked, this being the easiest way to choose – there were no objections to my visiting their kitchens. In reality there was not usually much choice with most places offering some or all of the following: soup, potatoes, big joints of beef or lamb, cabbage, bread and dumplings; I usually ended up having a portion of each. Sometimes the quality was high…and others not. A good feed would get me up to 100km down the road before I needed a refill.
It was altogether a welcome easier day today, sunny and warm at last, I even put some sun cream on – hurrah! The dog stick was unsheathed three times but the brutes never got quite close enough to be bashed. The road surface had improved, traffic was lighter, and there was a rideable hard shoulder on the M2 highway bearing south to the city of Kursk where a Warmshowers host awaited. 35km out from the city two cyclists were waiting for me by the side of the road – Michael's influence evidently spanned international boundaries, I was now well over 1,000km east of Brest! Yuri and Alex escorted me into Kursk, where at the city boundary a further ten local cycling club members were lined up by the city sign proudly displaying their club flag. We trundled en masse into the city centre where I was strategically positioned below a replica Arc de Triomphe for a Triumphal Entry into Kursk photo-shoot. After that we all rode out into the suburbs to a big family dinner with my Warmshowers host Dmitri and family. I think there was vodka involved, and I remember sleeping very well.
173 km today / 2,771 km since London
Sunday 20th April, Easter Day
Dmitri provided an early big breakfast and filled my pantry bag with sundry picnic items, then rode 25km with me out of town, leading me to the A144 highway east towards Voronezh. This was very poor quality with lots of cars, though mercifully fewer lorries than recent days. There was also a raging headwind, and I struggled at times to make even 10km/h. At these low speeds in the blustery conditions, and trying to steer round crater-sized potholes, I was a little wobbly on the bike, so took refuge by riding close to the stony verge out of the traffic flow, but that proved slower still, and not without its own risks – the bike wasn't brilliant on a loose surface and I nearly skidded off more than once. This was the hardest and slowest day yet, my mettle was severely tested; on a good day I could run 50% faster!
The wind dropped, as it often does, at sunset, by which time I'd managed to cover just 140km. I rolled into a fantastic family welcome from Boris, Nicolai, Yulia and Marina at their transport café near Gorshechnoe where, upon sight of the magic letter, my huge dinner was offered free of charge and furthermore would I like a free bed for the night too? Such acts of kindness and generosity from complete strangers were truly moving. I accepted the dinner but faced a dilemma over the accommodation offer, as I was well short of my 200km target and the wind had dropped so conditions were ideal to ride on for another couple of hours. On the other hand it was 22:00, dark, and the thought of going straight to bed was not without appeal. I sought advice on Twitter and a couple of followers urged me to take the bed…to this day I don't really know why I opted to go back out into the dark to ride another 45kms, finishing at a 2* bus shelter in the small village of Vyaznovatovka at 01:00.
185 km today / 2,956 km since London