In 2018 I cycled from London to the Black Sea, solo and unsupported.
The story began 2 years earlier when I became the first person to take a Stand Up Paddle Board the length of the Danube river. From its source on the edge of the Black Forest of Germany I paddled for 90 days along 3000km of river until reaching the St George in the Danube Delta and its meeting with the Black Sea. It was an amazing journey full of many wonderful experiences and people but I realised at the time this would be only the beginning of my relationship with this epic body of water.
Travelling on a river gives you a unique perspective of the landscape. A view normally reserved for just fisherman and cruise-ships provides views you never experience if traveling by land. My paddle board allowed me to camp in places un-reachable on foot, to meet people living miles from the regular tourist track and glide stealth like through 4 of Europe’s grandest capital cites.
The board did have limitations though. You could only get off the water where the river and bank allowed you. Once on dry land you have a 14’ long board and 110ltrs worth of kit to safely leave if you wanted to explore any further than you could see. This often meant beautiful towns, world heritage sites and local markets lay tantalising close but inaccessible and it was for this reason I knew I’d need to return one day.
And so it was, 24 months after completing the paddle I was ready to go and make friends with the river once more only this time, I would be riding next to and cris crossing over it as I cycled my way along its banks.
The first question was how to get to the start line of the Danube’s source. The obvious plan was to re-trace my original route by flying to Stuttgart and then taking a series of trains until arriving in the small German town of Donaueschingen. In a world where the general acceptance of air travel being a bad way of moving from place to place is becoming increasingly mainstream, I started to look at alternatives. How would it work if I was to go by train? Eurostar into the continent and then onwards to Germany. Sounded simple enough but, at that time Eurostar was only allowing bikes to travel if they had been packed in a box which would mean removing wheels and pedals, lowering the seat and turning the handlebars all for an additional fee on top of my regular ticket. Once on the continent the internet proved to be a wealth of un-helpfulness in reporting which trains a bike could be carried on, what the cost would be and how it should be transported.
Quickly realising this wasn’t going to be an option the thought came to me… how far would it be to cycle from my front door to the source of the river? A quick google routes calculation showed it would add just an extra 660km to the already 3000km journey. Based on my anticipated daily speed and distance that would add on just a week to my plans and that was time I had. Suddenly this was turning into a real cross-continent adventure.
And so the date was set, Sunday the 22nd of July 2018. Having previously always cycle toured with traditional rear panniers, for this adventure I had invested in bike packing frame bags which added to the un-known of what would be my longest cycling trip to date by a good 3000km. Sunday was chosen to make the most of quieter roads as I was to wind my way out of the capital en-route to Dover. With everything packed, the alarm was set and an early night taken before bang; 06:00 arrived. The alarm on my phone filled the room and was quickly silenced.
I remember lying there, fully awake as sunlight crept around the edge of the curtains. The overriding thought and feeling running though my head and whole body was “I don’t want to do this. I don’t feel ready. I don’t want to go” So I simply turned over and went back to sleep. Of all the lessons I was to learn on this journey this is one that has probably stayed with me the longest. Any adventure (and indeed life itself) is to be lived on your own terms. What did it matter to anyone if I started a day or even week later? Who was going to actually care? So I took an extra day; I double checked everything, unpacked and re-packed to ensure I was 100% happy and then relaxed. By the end of that day I knew I was ready; I knew tomorrow would be the day I’d depart.
24 hours later than planned I locked my front door behind me, pushed off and peddled out into the sun lit Monday morning London rush hour. Although I would grow to love my bike packing set up, those first few miles found me wobbling along the road as I got used to the new weight distribution and the added load being supported by the handlebars and front wheel. During Sunday, I had realised part of my hesitation was not the 2500 miles that lay ahead but the 90 miles between London and Dover. I have cycled to the South Coast many times and, aside from one lovely route to Brighton have yet to find an enjoyable route that doesn’t involve main roads and getting far too close and personal with rather large trucks. So, instead of a two day, 90 mile ride to an awaiting ferry in Dover I peddled the 9 miles to Kings Cross Station and took a 1 hour train to my destination instead. Second lesson learnt; this was my adventure and I was going to set the rules. If I wanted to begin a day late and move the start line 90 miles down the road to Dover then that’s what I would do.
Upon arriving at the ferry terminal I remembered cross channel ferries bemuse me slightly when traveling as a cyclist. For those of you who have never crossed the Channel by bike let me explain. There are two routes onto the boat. One for passengers and the other for everyone else. This means little old me on my little old bike would join the queue with cars, caravans, motorbikes and trucks in those big long lanes. It’s cold? You get cold. It’s raining? You get wet. No separate lane or covered shelter for us, no pushing your bike on with the foot passengers. Once, when crossing from the UK to Rotterdam I dared to cycle to the front of the lane in then hope of being let out of the driving rain a littler earlier than those in their nice warm cars only to be scolded and told to return to my place in queue. Once boarding commences you have to peddle your lungs out as you head up the often steep ramp with a traffic jam of other vehicles behind you. You peddle right until the point you reach the ship where you are dutifully told to un-saddle and push your bike the rest of the way into the belly of the boat. If you’re lucky there may be some dedicated bike racks but more often than not you lean your bike against the side of the ship and lock/secure it to any pipe or handrail that is within reach (or as in this case; to a piece of rope.)
But I digress; despite all of that, there is still something special about cycling on to such a large ferry and it puts a smile on my face every time I do it.
Upon arrival in France I had my destination set as a small campsite 60km from the port. The plan was very much to wild camp as much of the way as possible but I always like to have somewhere booked for my first nights stay in a new country. It’s one less thing to worry about and gives me a dedicated target and plan for the day instead of getting sucked into faffing with the bike or stopping at every French cheese shop I passed along the way.
What follows from here was a daily routine that would continue and develop for the next 31 days. Wake early, make breakfast, pack away the tent and be on the bike a little after sunrise. The summer of 2018 was hot. There was not one day where the temperate stayed below 30 degrees which made leaving early important. It allowed me to cover some good distance in the relative cool of the morning before the suns full force backed scything its rays touched. If I was hungry I’d stop and eat. If I was tired I’d stop and nap. If I was hot, I’d drink, swim or sit the shade and if I saw something I liked I’d stop and take a look. There were no set rules, no allotted lunch hour or tea break time. Just the road laid out ahead of me, my bike as my best (and sometimes worst) friend and my eyes and mind open to help fill each day.
I quickly changed the plan of wild camping to one of seeking out campsites. Wild camping on a trip like this is, by nature, a solo experience. Scouting out a location and then where needed, waiting till just before sun down before scurrying away and getting settled for the night. By utilising campsites it would allow me to meet and mingle with locals and fellow travels. To share stories and experiences and if lucky, meet a cyclist heading in the opposite direction who could give tips on what I could expect over the coming days.
Using campsites helped give me daily targets to aim for and more structure to the trip. I would research the next nights destinations before falling asleep which gave me somewhere to aim for the following day. Campsites were relatively easy to find and conveniently spaced to make it possible to camp almost the whole way to the finish line. This was only challenged for the final 6 days when I was peddling through Romania; a country where camping does not seem to be part of the national pastime (or at least not close to the Danube.) For my time in Romania I frequented small guest houses and restaurants who would have a few rooms attached to their establishment and allowed me to meet with locals.