After three months cycling in Europe, I have plenty to reflect on, which will take a while to get through, although I’ll make a separate post for that, once the jetlag has worn off and I can think properly. In the meantime it’s easy to wrap up the logistics side of things and declare the tour a success! By using the same format as my NZ debrief, it’s cool to see how far I’ve come and how much more I’ve learnt from this tour. There were plenty of differences from my previous tour and it’s exciting to know what comes next.
I changed the route slightly from my original plans, however, the major achievements cycling-wise are:
- Completing 53 rides, totalling 4145km in distance, 24,242m in elevation gain (nearly 3 times the height of Mount Everest) and 227 hours on the bike.
- Completing the three Strava Gran Fondo challenges (a monthly goal to ride Xkm in a single ride), 130km, 150km and 120km respectively.
- Cycling through 16 countries: Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Belgium, The Netherlands.
The first ten rides from Berlin, Germany to Budapest, Hungary were solo and started off with four consecutive rides over 100km which took more than 7 hours to cycle through each day, including an absurdly steep part through the Czech Republic (1630m elevation). It was tough adjusting from riding in winter in NZ to riding in the middle of summer, where I had to be mindful of avoiding dehydration, reapplying sunscreen and resisting the urge to scratch when bugs kept biting me. The pace was good though, I balanced it out to have four days of cycling and three days off to explore the major cities and make friends in various hostels.
I flew to Istanbul, Turkey to meet my friend Leo, who I volunteered with in Tonga, the place where I really started enjoying cycling. Ride 11 to 22 were the parts through Bulgaria (with a bit of Macedonia in the middle) and those high elevation gains were due to the Rhodope mountain ranges we cycled along. These days were brutal, for me mostly, Leo’s years of cycling and experience in more difficult rides had prepared him well for the days of intense heat, climbing and pain. Aside from the physical challenges, I struggled with the social and cultural element, in terms of cycling with another person and not having access to my usual creature comforts, compared to the first part of the tour. Leo was a great supporter, as a touring partner as well as a friend, I learnt a lot from him and the experience of overcoming some tough obstacles. It sounds a bit silly, because it’s a cycling tour and of course cycling can be hard, but to me, it’s deeper than that, it’s hard to explain why, but touring is more than just an activity or adventure. It’s a lifestyle which is riddled with highs and lows, often at extremes and although it doesn’t appear to suit my personality, I do love it.
Once we made it to Serbia in ride 23 to 29, the weather cooled down and we cycled
through some drizzly parts, but our routes had sufficient shade and better quality roads to cycle on. There were some long rides too, but we had some shorter rides to conserve our energy and sanity. By now we had established a good pace and became familiar with each other’s routines, and since the rides weren’t so demanding it was easier to chill out and wind down at the end of each day. We split up in Novi Sad, Serbia, for Leo to meet his other friends through Europe and I continued on through Croatia. I cycled for five days straight, through some intense heat, around 33 degrees during the day with absolutely no shade in between the towns. In ride 35 to 38 I was in Slovenia, which presented me with beautiful, green, rolling hills, the perfect opportunity to test out my climbing skills, and compared to the climbs in Bulgaria, I nailed it. Physically I was a lot stronger, but more importantly, mentally I knew that I could do it and I could always tell myself “This hill isn’t too bad, I’ve had worse”.
After Slovenia, I took some trains to France and as I cycled out from Paris, my phone died, it happened on a Saturday and all the shops close on Sunday, so it was pretty inconvenient. I made do with taking trains and cycling with handwritten directions, although it rained for four consecutive days and I was a tad demoralised. Mostly because I’d manage to get to my accommodation, soaking wet, then not be able to chat online to friends, listen to music, organise my plans or find anything other than origami to help me relax. On the bright side, all of the rides from Paris onwards were on dedicated bike paths which made up extensive cycling networks and covered beautiful landscapes. During these rides I saw more livestock than cars and noticed little things, like eagles and hawks scanning fields for prey and vending machines filled with fresh produce from local markets. The last bit on the graph, with the really low elevation was my week in the Netherlands, by far the easiest place to cycle and get my fix of unlimited sweets and treats.
I learnt that while I’m on tour, food is just as important for my comfort and mood, as it is for replacing calories and nutrients. Tiramisu is hands down my favourite dessert, mainly because it’s delicious and I’ve never had a bad tiramisu, and Vietnamese food is my first choice when I’m feeling homesick. I loved the food in Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary because it was good value, generous in portion size and the food is very hearty and rich in carbs, meat and that warm feeling you get from mum’s cooking. Throughout the Balkans, I enjoyed the excessive amounts of meat at first, but found myself struggling with lack of variety, however Leo is a vegetarian, so he had even less options to choose from. In Western Europe, eating out was more expensive, but there was more variety, so I switched between take away food and dining out. I really enjoyed tasting the traditional dishes in each country and I apologise if the food pictures make you hungry too.
After the first tour, packing was really easy, just 12kg for 3 months, and I had everything I needed, although when it got cold towards the end I did wear the same yellow pajama pants and hot pink cycling jacket all the time, fashion crimes aside, there are only some minor things I would take out next time and I’m due to buy new pannier bags, as both of them have fallen apart.
This is my favourite part to analyse, partly because the pie chart is neat, but also it’s a useful way to figure out a target amount to save for my next tour. I compared my spending to my NZ trip and they do look very similar. Clockwise from the top, I have some notes for each section:
- Airfares: flying from Australia will generally be quite expensive, I flew with Etihad Airlines and was allocated 30kg of checked baggage, which meant I could bring my bicycle for free, however they have recently changed their baggage policy so I don’t know if that still applies.
- Other transport: the trains in Western Europe were quite expensive, however bus services are quite competitive and in Germany they’re very comfortable and good value.
- Accommodation: this was a huge slice of the pie, I didn’t have time to do any WOOFing (volunteering in exchange for food and accommodation) and in Western Europe the hostels are expensive, approximately 25 Euros per night in a hostel dormitory. For the next tour I’ll look at camping, WOOFing and staying with friends where possible.
- Eating/drinking out and groceries: I spent around the same proportion of my budget on food, basically because I followed the same habits as last time. Most of my accommodation places didn’t have kitchens or it was much cheaper to eat out at local restaurants. Luckily groceries were very affordable and I managed to stay stocked up on snacks during my rides.
- Activities: I spent a lot of time enjoying free attractions or going on tip-based walking tours, which are available in most of the bigger cities.