Monty’s First UK Outing

A lovely sunny day

Well, I’m finally home!

After more than a year and a half away, travelling overland to Asia and back again with Monty (my bike), Arron and Jessica (his bike), it feels strange to be in somewhere so familiar. 

Cycling the 45km to York I didn’t once need to check the map or question my route. The plan in my head was hazy but as I arrived on each new road I knew the layout like the back of my hand. It was a strange sensation after so much newness in the past few years!

Cycling in the UK felt amazing though and it is good to be back. Spring has arrived in full force, the trees covered in the lime green of new growth and bluebells scattering the ground beneath. I’d forgotten how beautiful the UK is, especially at this time of year!! 

Now I’m home I’m looking forward to catching up with everyone and having some adventures here. Thanks for reading! 🙂

Beautiful​ Bluebells

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Netherlands and Nearly Home

It was our last long day, and almost our very last day, of cycling and we were sitting on the a ferry as we crossed the giant IJsselmeer lake in the Netherlands. We sat, sipping coffee and resting, before the final push; a last 60km pedal to my friend Sanne’s house in Heemskerk – just 11km from the ferry port back to the UK. 

It has been a great last few days, but exhausting too. We decided a week ago to push a bit harder and to pull our return date forward by a week. Then a few days later we decided to pull it forward another day so we could stay at Sanne’s before she left for a holiday. It was a great decision, but meant our daily average increased from between 50 and 80km per day to one hundred kilometres a day or more. Luckily for us, the Netherlands is as flat as a piece of paper which makes it easier. Even better, we were at times pushed along by a tailwind, taking our average speed to 20km per hour despite our 30kg bicycles! 🙂

We also seem to have just caught the tail end of the famous Dutch flower season. A few fields of brightly coloured tulips still remained in sporadic clumps of yellows, purples​, pinks and reds. 

Last Few Days Past Fields of Tulips

We followed tree clad canals, lined with lovely little houses with steep roofs and an eclectic mix of building materials, from wood to thatch, tiles, bricks, stone, even plastic and metal. It seemed that whole villages had worked together to create houses made of as many of these materials as possible, and the result was at once surprising and charming. 

Yesterday was our longest day yet, 120km through this land of canals and fertile fields. We had accidentally prepared terribly for it the day before… feeling like a treat after our 100km day we bought a beer each… Little did we realise until afterwards that they were in fact 12%!! Not exactly what you want after a hard day’s cycling with another couple to come and no rest day for a fortnight! Nor did we camp in the nicest of places… Determined to continue our wild camping all the way home we ended up in a small woodland on the edge of a town (the only one marked on the map for miles around). Unable to find somewhere hidden except on the very edge we ended up camping next to an enormous gas works. Looking out of one side of the tent we were greeted by a lovely woodland scene, complete with deer tracks on the ground and bright new beech leaves. Looking out the other side was concrete, wire fences and huge rumbling metal pipes. Just as we started to fall asleep the gas works suddenly roared into life, making us both jump and me then worry about camping next to it! Suffice to say we woke up to our longest day less than fresh!

By the time we turned up at the forest we had marked out on the map as our final campsite later that day, we were shattered. I was feeling dizzy. I parked up my bike against a tree to look for a suitable place to pitch our tent and as I emerged from the woods, Arron was bent double throwing up. It had been a long day for both of us! 

Thankfully we slept much better that night and after a relatively short cycle to the ferry, we could relax for the rest of the morning as a boat carried us across the huge lake. It was incredible – a small boat for cyclists and foot passengers only. It was packed with other cycle tourers! We chatted to a few and enjoyed being in such good company – it felt good to be surrounded by liked minded souls on one of our last days cycling.

We arrived at Sanne’s feeling triumphant. We have not quite managed to cycle the 8,000km planned from China thanks to the lack of fuel, break downs and visa restrictions, but we have cycled somewhere around 3,000km since arriving in Saint Petersburg just 6 weeks ago! We are trying to raise some money for World Bicycle Relief so if you would like to support us, that would be lovely! Thank you! It has been so much fun, and I am excited to be heading back to the UK in a couple of days to catch up with family and friends! 

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Birds and Building Things

In the past week we have left Sweden with its beautiful forests, lakes and coastline, cycled through Denmark and entered Germany. The cycling has become flatter and flatter which makes it easier in some ways, but harder in others. Obviously we no longer need to put lots of effort into climbing hills, as there aren’t any (!), but it also means that when we have a headwind (most days) we really feel it! There is nothing to stop the wind whistling across the countryside and straight into our wheels!

Having said that, the scenery is still beautiful. Meandering rivers, straight canals and the open sea have adorned our route and we are not bored of the cycling, despite the flat landscape. In fact we have a spotted a lot of birds; red kites, buzzards and storks to name a few that have made our peddling even better!

Our first evening in Denmark we were a little apprehensive as we were finally out of legal wild camping territory. In the end, our first evening could not have been better.  We had completed our distance for the day early and, not wanting to get stuck in the city with no place to stay, decided to camp early. We headed deep into a forest just north of Copenhagen and to our delight found a small clearing with a handmade bivouac shelter built from fir branches – still green it was so new. Next to it was a fire pit with a swinging metal grill that we could cook on and big tree trunks as rustic benches. It was fantastic.

We made use of or afternoon off the bikes whittling spoons from wood we found (Arron’s came out much better than mine!). When we slept, we sheltered under the fir bivouac and despite the rain slept soundly and dryly! 🙂

A few days later Arron continued to the building theme and managed to make a rocket stove out of an old tin can he found. It is incredibly efficient, burns incredibly well even with damp wood and has meant we can leave even less of a trace as we camp now. It has been a great way to continue to use camp fires to cook on. 

Our wild camping adventures continued and so far, we have managed to camp most nights, with just a few exceptions. Mostly these exceptions are warm showers hosts, which are wonderful, but one particularly special evening was thanks to a small A4 sign pinned to a cycle signpost halfway through our day. It offered cyclists a free bed for the night, a shower and a rest. Enchanted by the offer, and intrigued to meet the person behind it, we followed the trail to his house. Helge, out host, was wonderful. He let us sleep in the roof of a wooden cabin that he had built and we cooked in his outdoor kitchen – half dug into the ground and with a grass roof. It was fantastic! 

All in all we have had a great week, and we are less than 500km from the ferry home now, which seems quite surreal! 

The Bivouac

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Togetherness

Enjoying a Campfire

Arron asked me a few weeks ago, ‘If you could do this trip with anyone else, who would it be?’
I thought for a while. In the end, I couldn’t give him an answer, except ‘No one.’ 

It has so become OUR trip that I simply couldn’t imagine it as my trip with anyone else. It is not exactly how I imagined it, or how it would be if I was alone and had complete control, but the sacrifices and adjustments more than make up for Arron’s company, and I hope, though will never truly know, that he feels the same. 

It is incredible to think that this time last year I had never even met him and yet, since the beginning of this year I can count on one hand the days we have spent apart!

I have never before spent this much time with one person and it was one of my biggest concerns about the trip together. What if we didn’t get on? What if we irritated each other or ended up hating one another? In fact I fully suspected that we might decide to split along the way, but, only a few hundred kilometers from home, we are still cycling and camping together. 

At the beginning I believe we needed each other. Cycling and camping in conditions as cold as those we faced in Xinjiang meant that falling out simply wasn’t an option. We needed one another for warmth (I reheated my frozen toes up in his armpits more than once), for shared cooking duties, and to be honest, basic survival.

As time wore on we have needed one another less. The conditions are easier than ever, our own abilities increased and comfort zones stretched to easily encompass our current daily challenges. 

We have stopped at numerous points along the way to talk about whether to stay together or not and have always ended up choosing to do so. Inevitably cycling with someone means compromises on both sides. Sometimes one of us has to stop early because the other is feeling tired, other times we have to push harder to keep up with the other, and sometimes we drive each other nuts for no other reason than that we haven’t had any space for a few days.

Perhaps it would have been different had we managed to cycle the entire journey, as tiredness can often aggravate an otherwise minor issue. However, we had other stresses to deal with (namely wrestling dismantled bicycles onto buses and through numerous unnecessary security checks) and somehow we managed to overcome the difficulties and still find time to laugh together (and sometimes at each other!)

Before we left Hong Kong Arron was lent a book by a friend called, ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’. He read it and raved about it and said I absolutely had to read it. So I did. 

In truth I hated the book, I found it outdated and sexist (though I’m sure it wasn’t intended this way). However, it had unexpectedly positive results when we cycled. Though I may not have liked or agreed with some of it, it gave us a framework that we both understood. We could then use and refer to it when one of us was having difficulty understanding the other and in that way, were able to give each other the space or support needed – or at the very least, try to! 

As it is, we are still cycling, still laughing and sometimes crying and still on our trip together! 🙂 

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 Brake Down

Watching the Sunset on the Ginstleden

For the past week we have been following the Ginstleden cycle path, or rather, attempting to. There are only a few sporadic signs for the Ginstleden; small black plaques that pop up on lampposts or signposts every now and then reaffirming that for that moment at least, we are on the right trail! The rest of the time we follow our own route on maps.me, road or cycle signs to the next town or village in the direction we want to go (south) or the Kattlegattleden. 
The Kattlegattleden is another national cycle trail that follows the west coastline of Sweden from north to south. It is beautiful, incredibly well signposted and took us always on small country lanes and cycle paths. However, for every 10km we planned to cycle, we did another 10km in extra detours through pretty villages or to avoid a couple of kilometres on a road with no cycle path. So, we decided that rather than commit to any one route, we would pick and choose as we liked, taking long winding detours when the skies were blue and the shortest most direct route when we were fighting the wind.

Our final day before a bed indoors and a shower (arranged through Warm Showers) dawned with beautiful clear skies and, even better, a slight tailwind. This was good as we had a long way to go to make our destination that night, having stopped early due to a strong headwind and hail showers the evening before. Warm showers hosts are wonderful, and make our journey so much better, with kindness, hospitality and of course, a warm, dry place to rest our heads. However, it also means that we commit to being in a certain place on a certain day, so we set off with the road stretching out before us, snacks in our pockets and determination on our faces. 

Monty, my bike, was of course, having none of it! 

After the first couple of kilometres, my front brakes, that I had so carefully replaced the pads on just a few days before, were rattling and rubbing on my disc. We stopped, adjusted them, but for some reason could not make the noise disappear. In fact when we continued riding we seemed to make it worse. 

At the next town we had to stop to buy bread anyway, so in Netto car park, sheltered behind the wall and with the sun on our faces, we looked a little closer. The new brake pad did not seem to be sitting as it should, moving as the wheel moved instead of staying stationary. Arron swapped the new ones for the old ones, wondering if we had the wrong size. But that didn’t work. We were now even more puzzled. 

On closer inspection, it seems that the spring inside the brake calliper itself had sprung loose, and as a result, was not holding the brake pads tightly where they should be. It is hard to explain (especially for me who really has no idea about this stuff and is learning all the time!) The long and short of it, the calliper was broken and needed replacing. 

No worries, we thought. We have spare brakes in our bags. I had swapped the hydraulic brakes my bike had come with for mechanical ones back in Hong Kong after tales of hydraulic brakes failing in cold weather, and we had carried the hydraulic ones with us as a back up ever since. 

We unscrewed the calliper and as the screw fell out, the thread did too. 

Arron swore and held his head in his hands. “This is not good, Laura.” He said. He tried to screw the new calliper on, but the bolt would not bite. 

Now I had no front brake at all! 

Arron took it harder than me. He was psyched for a hard day of cycling (which in truth, I wasn’t) and this ruined our chances of making it to Maggi’s house, our host for the night. 

Grinning, I just said, “No worries, worst case scenario I’ll just ride home with no front brakes.” Filled with some new determination from somewhere, I continued, “I’m not giving up now!” 

Arron, as always, came up with a theory. “We may be able to get someone in a bike shop to drill it out and rethread it with a tap and die.” So, we searched our maps for the nearest bike shop and headed that direction. 

I walked into the gloomy basement shop and immediately loved it. It was cluttered with bikes, repaired or waiting to be repaired and bits of bike all over the floor and the walls and every available surface. It was chaos. 

A portly man came to the counter and we began to chat. He took a look at Monty and exclaimed, “How did you manage this?! Bike designers are not stupid you know, they design these things very carefully so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen! What did you do?!” 

“Erm… I don’t know…” I replied sheepishly. (I neglected to mention that until an hour ago it was that bolt that had not only secured my brakes, but also my makeshift front pannier…suffice to say I no longer have a front pannier!) 

Despite being ridiculously busy, Saffa, as I later found out he was called, agreed to do exactly as Arron had proposed. “But you have to understand it is at your own risk.” He said, cautioning us that it might not work. “But don’t think about it too much,” he continued, “You don’t have a choice anyway, and most Swedish bike shops would just tell you you have to replace the fork. They won’t even try this.” I believed this short, smiling Iraqi man who looked me straight in the eye as he spoke. 

For the next hour we hovered nervously in his workshop, watching as he carefully drilled out the bolt hole and rethreaded a new one, chatting to us the entire time. He was interested in our journey and about living in Hong Kong. He laughed when we told him how cramped living conditions are in Hong Kong and told us that we should buy property in Egypt because it was so cheap. In the end, he succeeded and handed me my bicycle back with fully functioning front brakes again. I was over the moon! 🙂 

We didn’t make it to our host’s house that night, but we stole some internet from a nearby mall and managed to email her. Maggi replied saying it was no problem at all, being a cycle tourer herself she totally understood the mishaps on the way, and we were welcome any time. 

Turns out, Maggi is yet another total legend from Warm Showers and we are now enjoying a day off in her lovely home, enjoying the warmth and a brilliant cup of coffee. Thanks Saffa for fixing my bike and Thanks Maggi for being a wonderful host 🙂

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A Day in the Swedish Archipelago

Today has felt strangely autumnal. The promise of spring and summer that the last few days of sunshine brought disappeared overnight. We woke instead to the sounds of raindrops hammering down upon our tent and wind whipping the​ canvas around us. It took me a long while this morning to summon the courage to leave the tent for my morning wee and when I was finally brave enough, I rushed back in as soon as I could, soaked through! 

We set off an hour or so later by which time the wind had calmed a little and the rain had stopped. We pedalled with grey clouds hanging low above us, pregnant with the promise of more rain to come.

Steep granite rose up on either side of the road intermittently, still scarred by the gunpowder that carved the way years ago. In places it darkened almost to black with water that dripped down its face. In other places it was covered in a blend of thick green moss and grey-blue lichen. 

The landscape here is stunning. Granite boulders and islands that protrude from the clear blue sea and today, everywhere I looked reminded me of autumn. Leaves the colour of copper still clung to trees on the roadside and the extensive birch had not yet begun to sprout leaves. The trunks were framed by branches that were still purply-brown and leafless. NVThe only green, apart from the moss, came in the form of evergreens, dark in colour and reminding me more of Christmas than Easter! I had to remind myself we were not plunging once more into the cold of winter. 

Despite the sudden turn in weather, the landscape inspired us both and I cannot stop singing as I cycle. I confess I am a terrible singer, but I simply cannot help myself. Arron joins in sporadically, taking over when I forget the words, or resort to making up the words (which happens a lot). All in all it is a lot of fun and I am loving the cycling at the moment! 

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The Land of Lakes & Light

Lake Iväg and the Setting Sun

It is in fact, Finland, Sweden’s neighbour, that boasts to be the “Land of A Thousand Lakes” and yet it is here that we have really been awed by beautiful bodies of water as we cycle past lake after lake. 

The weather, much to my delight, is warming up; Spring has arrived in full bloom. Every roadside has delicate purply-blue flowers springing up in star or bell shapes depending on the variety. Snowdrops can be glimpsed on brown earth through silver birch trunks and the sun is making an appearance on an almost daily basis. 

With this new warmth beaming down on us, we are cycling in fewer and fewer layers as we struggle and sweat our way up and down Sweden’s many hillocks and against some wild headwinds. We are no longer afraid of our sweat freezing and are happy to push ourselves a little further and a little harder up those neverending hills. 

The lakes, then, that we pass so often become ferociously appealing. The crystal clear water is clean enough to drink and satisfies our thirst along the ride and tempts us to dive in. Finally, giving in, we decided to take the plunge one evening after a hot and sweaty day of cycling and go for a dip. 

It was beautiful. 

It was also bitterly cold!

Arron barely made it over his knees before retreating, shouting “Sorry Laura, today, you are on your own!” as he headed back to the fire smouldering on the shoreside. It took me some minutes more standing thigh deep with tingling legs before I could summon the courage to dive in. I eventually did, and as always with such cold water was rewarded with a warming sensation throughout my body as my skin reacted to the freezing temperatures I was subjecting it to. Having said that, I didn’t last long either, managing only a few quick strokes through the water before hurrying back to join Arron on warm, dry land. 

Since Spring has come, we have often chatted about the joy that cycle touring brings. Not only is it an amazing way to travel, it allows us to live a life that we both desire. We are able to enjoy breakfast cooked on the fire and a chilling swim in a stunning lake. We can get up early and watch the sun rise over the water and go to be as the darkness creeps in around us. We can read and write and watch the fire flicker.

Though winter cycling was a challenge, and fun in its own (“Type 2“) way, spring cycling makes my heart (and Arron’s voice) sing. 

Crystal Blue Water

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