Tuesday, 8 September 2009

You can do it! Brussels to Cortina

The first two weeks of my ride have flown passed yet looking back they have been crammed with more new experiences than I’d encountered in the past few years. The ride and the adventure have well and truly begun.

‘You can do it…’

I would tell myself, calling on the spirit of Lance Armstrong to keep the legs pumping to up a mountain pass – at the end of a long day.

You can do it

The realisation that in spite of having no cycle touring experience, I’m not just hacking the life as a tourer but thoroughly enjoying it. I remember reading: ‘hardship is just an adventure wrongly considered’ and that’s the ethos I’m employing; enjoying the rain and mountains as much as the sun and valleys.

You can do it

My message to you. There is a world of wonderment sitting right on our doorsteps. I couldn’t believe how many fascinating sights there were so close to home. Cycling is a great way to see the world. You needn’t be overly fit, have an expensive bike or even experience. Get a map have your own little micro-adventure, I have no doubt you’ll be rewarded with satisfaction and a zeal to do more.

Brussels to Cortina

The first leg over the next 10 day schlep was time to train. I hadn’t made much time to do extended cycles fully loaded before I left, so I decided to make haste, put the pain on the legs and at the same time save money; the euro isn’t as friendly as it used to be.

Hills

Leaving Brussels heading for Luxembourg, hills appeared and they rapidly grew in size. I gulped. I hadn’t really planned for this, the route I’d chosen was more based on places I’d like to see than the terrain involved. Fortunately help was at hand. Wim & Veerle; two wonderful folks I’d never met, agreed to put me up for the night. After feeding me like a king then generously helped me plan my route a little more clearly for the next week or so; a serious blessing. Not only did this mean less hills and quicker progress but nicer routes to cycle too.

Off I went (details for the cycle enthusiasts) storming along the RV6 cycle route in Belgium, through Bastogne; the site of many epic WWII battles – I have to recommend Band of Brothers drama series at this point, seeing that then cycling through really gave me a poignant appreciation of my surrounds.

Valleys

I seemed to on to a winner on river valley cycle routes and so I continued, down the stunning Saar River valley on the Saar-Radweg cycle route, though Saarbrucken and counter-intuitively back into France to cycle through the picturesque Vosges National Park. I camped under a stunning array of stars surrounded by towering trees that formed a procession along the roadside.

The following day I was back into Germany, again by boat crossing the Rhine near Wissembourg. Here I learnt my first serious lesson: if it’s 30oC+ and super sunny, cover up and take it easy; I didn’t. I was hit with a mild bout of sunstroke. Fortunately Alice a local lady from Karlsruhe guided me on to a tram to Pforzheim where I could find a good place to camp for the night.

I’m not into taking alternative transport if it can be avoided but I actually wanted to ride the tram and the 20km journey was hardly a major shortcut. I’m glad I did. Two soothing Slush-Puppies later I was over the nausea and had found a great spot to stealthily camp by the Nagold river. I slept in my hammock with the water gurgling next to me, by morning I was in much finer fettle.

The next few days I flew down through Germany along the Nagold, Neckar and Iler river valleys – still camping all the way. The high point was reaching the top of a hefty 17% gradient hill after cycling 120kms already that day. I won’t lie, I had to push, nevertheless the determination to get there and the relief at the top was a great feeling of achievement. I was really working myself.

Mountains

The Alps appeared late one night after another 100+ mile cycle. Fortunately the dazzling and somewhat daunting spectacle was eased by the another AoRK (Act of Random Kindness); being given a delicious pizza free by a very friendly delivery place outside Kempten.

The following morning the rain arrived; not drizzle, proper heavy rain - we’re talking torrents on the roads not puddles. However with my Ortlieb panniers bound up tight and my rain jacket on; it was a fun. The mountains looked so mood and mysterious, it made for some cracking photos.

More AoRK abounded when twice in one day the German then Austrian police escorted me off roads not intended for cyclists. One time I knew; it was motorway (which looked safer than the sketchy A-road) - the other I didn’t, too busy gazing at the scenery to see the sign. Both times the police spoke English asked where I was going: ‘South Africa?...’ after looking startled, then seeing my sincerity, they chuckled and sent me on my way. No fines, no nothing. Thanks chaps –quality policing.

Still amid the rains I was ready for my first pass – the Fernpass; height:1280m. I decided to not to push my luck, avoiding a car-only tunnel, adding another 400m to the ascent. The road was perilously thin and heavy with traffic but I stuck to my guns and took the space I needed. You can do it Danny, I’d repeat to myself – and sure enough with the rain flowing in the opposite direction I did.

Flying down the other side was a delight. Open road, hairpins and speed – woohoo! I was lost in happiness and the sense of achievement… but hold up a sec … shiiish… ; a car took a bend on the wrong side of the road, my side. I slammed the breaks; the car flew by; but the incident wasn’t over; the bike slid out from under me at 45kph! I slid down, and with adrenaline pumping pulled myself and my bike out of the road.

The following day I took it a little more steady, made my way to Innsbruck and checked into the relative luxury of the Youth Hostel. It’s a beautiful city… in the centre at least (as with so many; on’t judge a city by its suburbs).

My date with my friend Vivi beckoned, so the following morning I was off for yet another pass. An 800m+ climb to the Brenner Pass. Head down, tunes on, legs pumping, job done. Italy; I have arrived.

The next 24hours flew by, collecting a few more passes en route; and stumbling upon the somewhat bizarre region of northern Italy that feels more like Germany – not two cultures I’d imagined fusing.

The final valley to take me to Cortina was unlike any other, simply breathtaking beauty. I couldn’t stop stopping to take photos. This Italian detour to meet Veronica and visit Cortina really was worth it, for the views alone.

Shortly after, having coasted into Cortina – I was met by the enthusiastic and incredibly hospitable welcoming party of Vivi, her brother Andy and his awesome kids Kristina and Marco. Three bowls of pasta and a good chat later I’d really arrived. Time to put my feet up!