Thursday, 27 August 2009

A flying start

The day arrived, 22nd August 2009 and my adventure began. After teary farewells, I rode to Canterbury, into Belgium under starlight and by day three arrived in Brussels. The 377km/234miles have flown by. The bike’s running well, my butt ‘aint too sore and I’ve been blessed by some uncannily good fortune.

Day 1: Au revior

The night before the ride, I’d felt calm and spent the evening with my Mum and aunt, pottering as they cooked up my last supper. Despite the lack of nerves, and seeming readiness I still only managed four hours kip, leaving me a little bleary eyed in the morning, as I was waved off by a few faithful friends and family. I’m not one for goodbyes – save the fanfare for the finish … if/when I finish!

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The weather was kind, sunny with the odd shade casting cloud; a good omen.

My first concern was how I was going to cope with the weight on the bike – circa 45kgs - my departure was the first time I’d had all the kit packed on. After the weather had done me a favour I didn’t want to wobble into a wall to start; better concentrate I muttered mutely. My blushes were spared … but I still had the hills to think about.

I was joined for the first day by Rebecca and for the most by Martin, an old colleague. We wound our way through London stopping at Greenwich Park to look out over London, grab a bite to eat and bade London farewell. I’d never seen the famous vista in person before, it was stunning.

Blackheath Hill and Shooters Hill, not small by any estimation. Cautiously I slipped down through the gears and got the legs spinning. Sure I was moving slow but I was making it and without too much effort to boot. Phew! The bonus was the other side of the hill hitting 64kph/40mph on the way down – wahoo!

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We followed the A2 out toward Canterbury and found a delightful cycle route on the way. Traversing the South Downs was more hilly than anticipated… much more hilly. They should really be called the ups and downs. Nevertheless after a pit stop or two, as the sun was heading down we made it to out campsite, just in time for the last orders at the local pub.

Day 1 of 400 (or so): done! It had been an emotional, relieving and memorable day. There’s more to see than I’d thought right here in the UK.

Day 2: Night rider!

After a much needed lie-in, Rebecca & I packed up camp and set off for Canterbury, over yet more might mounds. After a quick lunch we said the last goodbyes and headed for the coast. I was on my own.

I had two hours to cover 19 hilly miles to make the ferry. The start to solo cycling included a hike up a super steep embankment to get back on the A2, pushing through bushes and having to pack and repack the bike just to lug it over the 5ft fence; a bit of a rude awakening but not bad enough to dent my spirits.

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The miles were hot and furious but I made it. Rolling into the docks and buying a ticket for the 6pm ferry then sweet talking my way onto the one two hours earlier, courtesy of a car break-down on the on-ramp. My luck was their despair. C’est la vie!

The ferry journey seemed to symbolize the start of the journey into the unknown and with the last of the phone calls home, I wistfully wrote my first journal entry: “Having wanted the solitude for so long, finally getting it feels is causing me to draw breath”

Through flat France I rode on to the border keen to get some miles on the clock. Passing the last French campsite near sundown I decided I’d be able to find one just inside Belgium. Two and a half dark hours later I was still riding.

With my head torch low on battery and having forgotten my front bike light I was cycling and navigating by starlight; it was wonderful– I had the country to myself. All the sounds and rustles of nature seemed amplified as the Belgians slept. I felt a sense of pride at not losing my cool or feeling forlorn, this was mini-adventure and I was loving it.

Eventually I snuck into a campsite and after scoffing yesterday’s left-overs promptly passed out.

Day 3: Belgium, Brussels, Brilliant!

I left the campsite in a hurry, it wasn’t worth staying … or even paying. The showers broken, and facilities non-existent so I saw it as I was a little creaky for the first few hours but a midday stop and snooze, after refuelling at the worlds most awesome patisserie in Koolskamp, saw me right. Not long after hoping on the bike I was joined by Norbert a 77 year old local cyclist on the way to see his daughter. “Wher rre you headit” – he cooed as he pedalled by me, Brussels I said, “Follo mi” he replied and off we went.

He took me through Tielt giving me a WWI history lesson; it was the location of the German headquarters, as well as showing me the magnificent belfry. A simple yet poignant Act of Random Kindness (ARK). It was a real pleasure. Only three years ago he’d cycled to Italy, just goes to show keeping active keeps you young.

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I passed on through various towns, arriving in Gent, to which I decided to give myself a unguided cycle tour. It’s a picturesque and varied city, I enjoyed immensely. Going round without a guidebook really meant I could just take it in without feeling like I’d missed out on anything; I’d recommend doing it. If you want to know about something ask a local- easy! Plus less books to carry; I have seven as it is.

After a whistle-stop last 50kms I arrived in Brussels, cycling in to the magnificent vista of the Basilica. I’d never seen it up close, it’s a geometric masterpiece. So many curves and lines drawing the eye around it’s considerable edifice.

A light rain shower gave me a much needed wash down and set up one of the most vivid sunsets I’d seen in a long time, showing Brussels at it’s finest. I decided to put my camera (Canon D450) through it’s paces, with some pleasing results.

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I met several like minded photographers, one of whom, Luxembourger Laurent, has given me a great list of places to visit in Slovenia; such is the euro melting pot Brussels is.

After spending an inordinate amount of time snapping the local version of the imperious Arc du Triomphe in Cinquantenaire, I found my way to my friends place and celebrate with not a beer but Ribena; a sign of the times. Happy days.