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, 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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A Charmed Life

The Trees Above

What a wonderfully​ charmed life I live!
I sat on a tree trunk with knees bent like those pictures of woodland fairies on toadstools. It had fallen to the ground years ago and was now covered in a sprinkling of green dust. The sun fell through the sparse spruce branches above, soaking me in its warm spring light. Ben Howard sang from Arron’s phone and he alternately snapped sticks and blew on the small fire behind me. The smell of woodsmoke drifted over. 

In the soft light, strings of spiders’ webs were visible in horizontal lines from the young trees in the small clearing we had found. I could hear a road in the distance. We were not so far from the town, but it faded out of my consciousness, drowned out by the beauty that engulfed my senses. 

My bicycle was propped up against one tree. Arron’s bicycle was propped up against another. The spokes on his back wheel remained missing, still broken since we discovered them last night. I knew he was frustrated, as I would be if the situation was reversed. Yet I felt grateful. How lucky I was to end up in the forest for an extra day, able to enjoy the sunshine and a campfire! How lucky we were to be living this simple life! 

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Sweden, Spokes and Setting Fire to the Tent (again)…

Eskilstuna River

As we entered Sweden by boat from Helsinki and the ferry chugged its way through the channel that leads into Stockholm, we were blown away by the buildings that lined the sea front. Everything was beautifully designed and constructed, built in stones of varying colours and decorated with delicate features around windows and rooftops. 
Though neither Arron or I are really city people, it was impossible not to enjoy the the old town. It is built on a small island in the middle of the city and every building is three or four stories high. Quaint coffee shops and stores selling an eclectic array of goods spill into the streets as tourists like ourselves wander round (or in our case, push our bikes up and down the steep hills) taking photos. 

We were lucky to arrive in sunshine and although it has not been sunny everyday, it is definitely beginning to feel more like spring with temperatures breaking free of zero and no snow on the ground! The warmer weather makes for great cycling and it has been so much fun following cycle routes around lovely lakes and through silver birch forests. 

Camping has also become much more enjoyable with the warmer weather. It takes us less than two hours on a morning now to get ready, pack up, eat two breakfasts and relax, compared with the four hours it would take us in the freezing conditions of China. On an evening we have sometimes had a small campfire and at night it is no longer a struggle to stay warm. On the whole, things are going great! 🙂

However, our bicycles have continued to cause problems. Mine, also known as Monty, seems to hate panniers. Now onto my fourth pannier rack set-up you might be fooled (as I was) into believing all was well. However the Chinese panniers (all we could find before we left Hong Kong) then started to bend… into my cassette and disc brakes. Obviously this was not ideal and after multiple attempts to find a solution with no success, I crashed emotionally a few days ago. 

After a long cry that evening, I decided I was too lazy to cook in the drizzling rain outside and, as we were now running on gas again, it would probably be fine to cook inside the tent porch again. 

All was fine whilst I cooked…

But as I unscrewed the gas canister after cooking I realised I had forgotten​ to check the flame was completely out. Our cookers are also Chinese knock-offs and as a result the gauge doesn’t always work, meaning gas can leak and a tiny flame can burn unnoticeable after we think we have turned off the gas. It is easy to check and blow out but in my slightly over emotional state, I forgot. As I unscrewed the stove the gas caught and suddenly the canister was flaming in my hand and singeing the tent. 

‘Why are you setting fire to my tent?!?!?!’ Arron yelled as he leapt out of his side of the tent.

‘Not on purpose!’ I replied.

Luckily I unscrewed the canister quick enough and the flames subsided, but both of us were visibly shaking at another too close call. Suffice to say that whatever the weather, or emotions, we will not be cooking anywhere near our tent again!!!

Luckily, it did provide a bit of perspective and finally my bicycle playing up seemed a minor issue that we could and since have resolved with a simple solution – we swapped panniers.

Unfortunately that has not been the end of our bicycle problems. Arron’s ‘Trinx’ bicycle (also an unknown Chinese brand), also known as Jessica, has begun to snap spokes on a semi regular basis. Arron replaced one in Finland, as well as the rear mech which also broke, but now more spokes have snapped and on closer inspection it seems they are all rusting through (yet more top Chinese quality). As a result we are now in Orebro, enjoying a coffee while we wait for a bicycle shop to open, in the hope that we can replace some, or possibly all of the rear wheel spokes and continue once more. 

One of our friends in Hong Kong said to us before we left that it will be the things we hadn’t thought of that would be challenges along the way. He couldn’t have been more right! The cycling itself, the camping and the cold conditions were all challenges we expected and prepared for as best we could, yet none have been too hard or unmanageable. We have carried with us spare brakes, cables, gears, bolts, inner tubes, tyres, spokes (which later turned out to be the wrong size) and so on but we didn’t anticipate problems with pannier racks or the entire rear mech breaking. 

Setting up from Hong Kong and buying a lot of unregulated Chinese gear has definitely provided us with a few more challenges along the way and had kept us on our toes!! Thankfully we are now in Europe with extensive bicycle shops, high quality supplies and great coffee! 🙂  

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We had arranged in advance to stay with Angel and Paula on Warmshowers, a spanish couple now living in Helsinki. We turned up outside their house on Saturday afternoon utterly exhausted.

They were incredible. They welcomed us in to their lovely, warm home with smiles and friendliness. Paula had cooked an amazing lunch of salmon soup and homemade brown bread. It smelt amazing. Deciding that showering was the priority, we took turns to rinse away the dirt and grime of the last ten days in one of the best showers I have ever had. 

Emerging clean, and completely dry for the first time since we left Saint Petersburg, we sat down and tucked in to her delicious soup. It was amazing to be so well looked after. Despite wanting nothing more than to lie down and rest our eyes, we forced ourselves to do all the jobs that we needed to do like laundry and drying out tents and sleeping bags so that we could enjoy the next day.

Yesterday we spent the day eating food, drinking coffee and wandering round the beautiful centre of Helsinki. It was beautiful.

However, it was the evening that was really fun. Angel, our host, asked us if we would like to try a traditional Finnish Sauna and of course, we said yes. He gave us a choice of 3; one of the oldest and most traditional saunas in Finland, a new, modern take on a traditional sauna that has many rules to follow but seeks to help customers find peace, and a third, free sauna that is built and run by volunteers next to the sea. At this point Paula interjected and just said “It’s the best!” If I wasn’t already persuaded by the hippy community sauna, I was now! 

And what a great choice!

Sompasauna is, as far as I can understand, totally unique in Helsinki, and everyone who goes thinks it is the best. We followed Angel on our bicycles (which, incidentally felt amazing to ride as we had no gear on whatsoever!) through the streets of housing down toward the sea. We cycled past old industrial buildings, big red brick chimneys and giant metal structures which were no longer functional, but, Angel explained, were being reborn into music and art festival venues. I could see why, the structures themselves towered over huge open spaces and made for a dramatic and beautiful skyline. 

After passing these, we ended up weaving our way through a construction site, Angel seemingly just following his nose toward Sompasauna. Graffitied and derelict buildings lined our route as we darted round red tape and plastic barriers. Eventually, we arrived. 

Three small shacks, built from reclaimed wood in a charming eclectic style, stood apart from the construction site on the edge of the sea. A giant, rust-coloured elephant sculpture, built from found metal, towered beside the shacks, a beautiful guardian of this special place. Two of the three shacks have smoking chimneys and all are covered in paintings and murals. There are crude benches built outside and a set of stairs leading to the sea behind the largest of the buildings. 

As we locked our bicycles to a some wooden sleepers, naked people milled about. Some were getting changed, either into or out of their clothes, some had just been swimming in the sea and were hurriedly wrapping towels around themselves and others were relaxing with a beer, laughing and chatting. Everyone seemed to be smiling. 

We joined in, getting undressed as the wind whistled around us, hanging our clothes on one of the many metal pegs in the outside wall and hoping they didn’t get blown away while we were inside. 

Naked, we crept through the tarpaulin that covers the entrance to the largest of the two saunas and then through the stiff wooden door beyond it. Inside it was packed. 

The room was about 1.5m wide and 6m long. It was divided into three and when we entered, we stood for a while in the middle section, next to the wood burning stove. It was warm here, but not too hot, being at ground level. On my left, there was a platform with seating built around it in a U-shape. I guess it was designed to fit maybe ten people comfortably. On the other side were two more benches, each for 3 people. Every spot is full so we waited until a seat on one or the other side of us became available.

After a few minutes some people left and we filled their spaces. We ended up on the side that has just two benches, each for three people. Angel sat opposite us, and Arron and I sat next to each other. Everbody was touching everybody, it is too cramped not to, but nobody seemed to mind. Behind me there was a window out to the sea, and the skyline of Helsinki beyond. The sky was scorched red and orange with the sunset and in the foreground, naked people hurried down the steps into the sea for a brief dip and back up again. It was beautiful. 

Inside, we were a mass of naked bodies. More people kept coming in and soon there were more people than spaces, even including the spaces to stand. Those on the other side of the sauna squashed up, slippery, sweaty, naked body next to more slippery, sweaty, naked bodies. They managed to make room for a couple more people to sit down. Someone was in charge of the steam and slowly made the sauna hotter, pouring more water on the stones. People went quiet for a while as everyone breathed in the hot, humid air. The temperature gauge read more than 80 degrees C.

Someone asked if everyone in the room had played ‘tetris’ before. Everyone laughed and jokes were made about playing a new game called “Wetris”. At one point I counted at least 24 people, probably more, inside a space designed for maybe 16 at best. We were squashed, but nobody minded. I cannot think of another place in the world where being naked with so many strangers, so close together, is not only acceptable, but embraced and enjoyed, and not at all sexual. 

After a while we left the steam room, very hot and very sweaty, freeing up space for the more people to sit. We skirted round the edge of the building and down the steps to the sea. There was still ice floating on the surface. I jumped in anyway. It is the coldest water I think I have ever been in and after a couple of rushed strokes I climbed back up the steps to find my fleece and down jacket, thankfully still hanging on the peg I left it on. 

Angel, Arron and I huddle on a bench, sheltered behind the only building that isn’t a sauna. We crack open some beers and chat away. I shiver….I am the only person who seemed to think jumping into the sea was a good idea (most people just dip in gently and quickly) and it showed. I don’t regret it, but the next time, I joined everybody else in walking in slowly! I definitely suffered less!

Half a beer later we got undressed again and headed for the second, much smaller sauna. It was designed only for three, so we are lucky and managed to squash together on the seat. We chatted away and a couple more Finns joined us, standing beside us in the small amount of space that there was. They soon introduced themselves and asked us about our trip. 

Everyone was friendly inside the sauna and although we have experienced nothing but friendliness in Finland, Angel tells us that this is something very unique to the sauna. In day to day life, Finns are very reserved and quiet, but inside a sauna, people open up, chat and have fun with strangers. He told us that sauna culture is an important and valuable part of Finnish culture and there is a lot of etiquette that is respected around it. I felt privileged to enjoy it! What a perfect end to our day off! 

The View of Helsinki from Sompasauna

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Eat. Sleep. Bike. Repeat.

Cycling through Finish forests

It has been eight days now since we struck out from Saint Petersburg on bicycles. We are yet to have a day off from cycling, or a proper shower, and it is beginning to show. 
Today has been hard work with yet more hills and a hefty headwind. After seven days straight of cycling our legs and minds are starting to feel tired. Despite this, we are still smiling, and the novelty of being back on the road had yet to wane for me. In fact, I feel like I’m just getting back into this cycle touring malarkey! 🙂

Much of our day is reduced to simple things. On a morning we wake up as it starts to get light outside, around 6am. Usually I am upright first, and immediately make coffee with the flask of hot water I store in the bottom of my sleeping bag overnight. This habit started in China, when it was so cold at night that simply leaving flasks in the tent drained all of the heat overnight. With temperatures closer to zero now we could probably get away without this now, but the habit had stayed. 

After our petrol fire inside the tent last week, we have ceased to cook inside it. Instead we soak our oats overnight in a tupperware box with a mix of water, raisins, jam and condensed milk. We eat our cold porridge and warm coffee still inside our arctic sleeping bags. 

After that we go off on our own to find a secluded spot to do our business before the time-consuming task of packing everything down for the day. We have managed to improve on the four hours it was taking us in China and this morning we managed it in record time: from waking up to setting off in 2.5 hours. This morning that even included a second breakfast of eggy bread!!! Our stomachs seem to rule our days and we have started having many small meals instead of a couple of big ones – they are much needed with cycling like this! 
After a day of cycling, we usually arrive at camp somewhere between 3 and 4pm. We set up our tent again and begin dinner preparations. Our campstove cooking seems to be improving all the time, from generic soup/slop in China to gourmet curries and tonight, if all goes well, pasta carbonara! 

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