My Review

From London to Istanbul….

By Mike from London on 10/19/2012

 

5out of 5

I have had the Trek 1.2 (2007) for 4 years cycling through the heavy traffic of central London. It has done that job very well. In August of this year, I stuck a rack on the back, two full panniers and a tent, and all fifteen stones of me from London to Istanbul on the thing. It was (and remains) an absolute treasure of a bike. Hardy, light, comfortable, and easy to fix. I don’t have a bad word to say about it. I even took it off of roads, with all of that weight, bumping along some pretty unsavoury terrain – hardly scratched it. Well recommended for touring, road cycling, commuting. A fabulous all round bike. And if you do what I did and grab an older model, you’ll get it around £400. Result. PS. stick a brooks saddle on it.

(legalese)

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reflections

Hi All,

Im sitting here in my room back in London with a cup of tea made in a kettle and a mug made out of material whose weight Tom Campbell would consider far above ride-regulation issue. I had a shower this morning and the water was clean and hot, and most importantly, my clothes are spinning at 1200 rpm to extract the last traces of dirt and sweat from them that my nightly hand-washing just couldn’t get out.

It’s strange how things settle back down as quickly as they do. I’ve been back at work for a week now and the procedures are unchanged. Sit and wait for calls. Answer calls. Type up calls. Sit and wait for calls.  Whilst on the one hand the trip gave me an appreciation of the comforts of home, I don’t think I ever missed the “sitting and waiting” part of my day. It’s terrifying how quickly the body acclimatises back to it. I wonder whether, even 2 weeks after the end of the ride, I could jump back on the bike and ride 70 miles fully loaded like I could on the 1st of October.

Having spent a week or two telling people about what we have done – I thought I would summarise some of the things I’ve said here, in part because I find it cathartic to summarise and in part because I don’t want to forget what I have learned. So here goes.

1. I can basically rise to any physical challenge that I set myself. Sounds a bit cringeworthy, but I will never lack confidence in myself physically again. Despite all the months I’ll probably spend eating biscuits and drinking tea and sitting in an ergonomic chair in the coming months – I know that if someone (including me) said, “you’ve got to do this, off you go” (and that thing was climb a big hill or something), then I could do it.

2. I can live happily and comfortably in 1 outfit, cook and eat from a tiny stove, live underneath some canvas, and then take great pleasure in packing up my entire life in the morning, and moving on. I took two bags with me on the trip. I reckon I could have survived with one, because you don’t really need anything. This has been hugely freeing. Whilst on the one hand it’s nice to have a choice of two shirts, on the other, it just adds an unnecessary time delay between showering and eating dinner.

3. Cultures change slowly. Moving from west to east, there are undeniably big shifts at times (like the look of architecture behind the old iron curtain, compared to the west) but overall, food, music, skin tone, language – they all change slowly and they smear across the carefully drawn and patrolled borders which now seem so arbitrary. A Serbian salad is tomatoes and cucumber with sheep’s cheese, a Bulgarian salad is tomatoes, cucumber onion and sheep’s cheese, a Greek salad is all of these plus some olives. Its a slow process – and everyone has their identifying characteristics, but the essence is the same.

4. The team was the most important part of the ride, without a doubt. More important than being fit, or being organised, or good mapping – respecting, trusting and enjoying the company of the other members of the team was what got us from London to Istanbul. It was evident in the first few days that we were focussed on getting to the goal together, and knowing that we were all on the same page, I feel, just galvanised us all into action.  For the first time I think ,I really experienced proper team work and it was a pleasure to have that knowledge in the back of my mind that no matter what we were going to face, we could absolutely do it together – and I could rely on the others at all times.

6. Serbia was the best cycling. My favourite day was when Tom Bird stopped us coming out of Belgrade in thumping rain and cold, to stand outside Red Star Belgrade’s stadium and tell us about why they were an important side back in the 90’s. I could have kissed him, because although the conditions were as bad as they had ever been in 5 weeks of riding, and the temptation was to just get our heads down without stopping – this place meant something to him, and so we stopped. It reminded me that this wasn’t about “getting there”, but about going there. I know, I know, its a cliche.

7. Night cycling is horrible. Its dark and terrifying. Especially on main roads. The ONE saving grace of it is that you get to watch the sunset while you are riding. It was spectacular to watch the land slowly turning red and the sun grow huge in the sky. Every day our shadows accompanied us and watching them move from left to right as the day turned cooler signified how well (or how badly) we were doing.  Seeing the city you’re cycling towards appear before you with the sun dipping behind the mountains and knowing you’ll make it there in the light is also a wonderful thing. 8km to Vize. 150km to Istanbul. 6:30 pm. My favourite signpost of the trip, on the penultimate night of the tour.

There might be 3 more things, and I could make this a round 10. No point dragging them out though, because its late now and I can’t be bothered.

10. Writing this blog has been such a pleasure from the start.

Here’s me and Tom C in a Hamam in Istanbul.

x

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last day interviews

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Sofia to Istanbul

And so…  We had arrıved ın Sofıa, cıty of dogs.  Apparently there were 11,000 stray dogs roamıng the street untıl the recent vısıt of an EU comıssıoner to ınspect the new metro.   The dogs were removed.  Nonetheless, Sofıa ıs stıll  dog patrolled by gangs of stray, hungry and occasıonally agressıve dogs who herded us ınto the lıght on our way home on the two nıghts we spent there.  Amongst those dogs we found Henry Pescod, an old frıend of Tom Bırd’s who was good enought to pıtch up wıth a bıke and a load of enthusıasm and joın our trıp for the last week.  Despıte cuttıng our rest days from 2 down to one ın Sofıa, we managed to see ıt’s array of archıtecture and partıcularly the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral who’s neobyzantıne style gave us a brıef foretaste of Istanbul whıch stıll lay a long way ahead.  We also met wıth an old frıend of Mıke’s – Manuella – who showed us a great tradıtıonal restaurant complete wıth tradıtıonal Bulgarıan folk sıngıng!  Wine flowed, a few beers and a good tot of raki, untill at least one of us was particularly poorly.

After a more restful day with Henry, we headed off for a moderate but hilly day of cycling to Manuella’s grandparent’s house.  Manuela’s grandparents live in the village of Kostenets outside the town of the same name where we were greeted with home cooked food, beds by an open fire and a genuine wartmth from two people who spoke no English but were amongst the greatest hosts of our trip.  Manuella tranlsated as required, but the hospitality required no translation at all.  We left after two punctures the next morning for a very short day to Plovdiv.

When the tour was originally concieved, or at least when the daily milage was planned, the hope was to enter each destination mid afternoon.  This was something we categorifcally failed to achieve as many days turned out longer or hillier, or more puncture prone than envisaged.  However there may have been some sense in arriving a little later in each town as the eary afternoon arrival for lunch in Plovdiv turned lunch into a beery afternoon feast followed by a look round the evening town punctuated by cold drinks as required.  Around 9pm we were told that the real life of Plovdiv didn’t get going till midnight, leaving us sad to miss out on all the potential culture this town had to offer.  But fear not.  After several more beers the team found the courage to stay up 2 hours past our normal bedtime and explore the local mafia ridden dancefloors of central Bulgaria, a decision we all regretted the next morning when we began our cycle to Haskovo.

The day to Haskovo was a struggle.  Hot sun, raging hangovers, poor road surfaces and finally the dark.  Mike’s singing dragged our morale the last 5 km along a busy highway to the first friendly light we saw: a roadside motel, where we agreed as a team to stop, despite it’s fairly run down appearance to sleep, eat and take stock.  By the time we got to the front doors, this didn’t seem such a great plan.  To say that the motel was deserted would be a disservice to the two Bulgarian speaking hosts who manned the reception desk and the bizarre “couple” who showed up late and didn’t stay the whole night.  But nevertheless we unpacked our bikes and since the restaurant wasn’t operational (possibly due to excess of cobwebs) we cooked our pasta and sauce on the front patio over the trangia stove once more.  So intrigued/confused by us were the hosts that they began fetching furniture from around the hotel which had clearly not been used in several years and created a makeshift picnic area for us to eat.  We had a good night’s rest and got ready to face the run for the Turkish border.

At difficult times like this the temptation is to simplify the trip, to cut corners and to just look to the goal.  Under stress we resisted this temptation and instead turned our bikes more southernly in an attempt to take nicer roads and skip in a twelth country in Greece!  An early start allowed us to cross on reasonable roads into Greece, where we found that things got a little more “dirt track”, but we plowed on in good spirits to the Turkish border and then duely turned around and rode back to stay in the last town in Greece as we lost patience with the carload in front of us who were “just taking too long”.  Along the border between Greece, Turkey and nearby Bulgaria, apart from the obvious Greek/Turkish tensions, there is a gateway to the EU which has to be guarded by a lesion of enthusiastic but overstretched border guards.  As we wound our way along the dirttracks along the border we were frequently stopped and reminded not to stray acrros the railway and defacto border, but to keep on the track at all times.  Their job was made the more clear to us later that day when we came accross the same border unit apprehending 3 Somali women who had travalled a long way and spent some time in prison it appeared to get into Greece.  At this point the guards asked us to get going as things were getting “difficult”.  It left us all with a feeling of how different some journeys are to ours and how fortunate we are to have travelled most of the continent without showing a passport let alone acquiring visas.  We camped by the river for free, swam to get clean, ate in a taverna in town, and slept.

The next morning was into Turkey at last through the ancient town of Edirne with it’s stunning bridges, mosque and abysmal traffic.  As soon as we cleared the city we headed for small roads and dirt tracks through hot dry hills.   Traffic consisted of horses and carts and the odd 4×4 racing along the rought dirt and tar.  These were the times when we had to talk amongst the team to get things going, play games, tell stories and sing a bit – Mike at this point completing a full three verses of Janis Joplin without an involunatary key change.  We were all tired and the riding was very hot and hilly – so for my 32nd Birthday I took what I could get – which turned out to be 80 odd dusty miles, a sour milky drink with a traditional Turkish meal and my own room, courtesy of the boys (possibly just to escape my snorning for the night).

From Vize we had hoped to make it to the black sea coast, have a dip in the sea and then a lasteasy day down the coast into Istanbul.  However, a multitude of punctures and difficult slow hills later, we accpeted a cheap hotel with a pool and sauna in the basement which we had to ourselves as the only guests.  Until that day Tom Campbell’s eagle eye over whoever was navigating had prevented any major unintentional detours or wrong turns, so it was a difficult Irony when we cycled a full hour in the wrong direction amongst the other difficulties on our second to last day.  The restaurant was not really prepared to serve dinner, but managed to get some simple food and a few beers to help us bury our frustrations deep, deep down inside.

The last morning was a time for prank punctures, real punctures, break failures and Tom Bird trying to put Mike’s seat back down without him noticing (as things had got a bit tense).  Our early start to beat the traffic turned into a mid morning ooze out of the hotel and onto the busy roads again.  The entry into Istanbul has as a friend of mine explained “been achieved by many people who have had no worse problem than extreme stress” but yet we felt a little apprehensive negotiating the network of major highways and poorly signed side streets.  Driving was notably worse in Turkey, but there seemed little point reflecting on that so we just cycled.  Once we got off the main road into Istanbul, we managed to ease through some small suburbs of high rise flats and narrow alleys with dozens of children cheering, high fiving us and generally making mischief.  This all culminated in the attack of three 7 year olds brandishing six feet long sheets of polystyrene which to their dismay broke in mid strike.  After these direct attacks, we then took on a more tangible challenge of hills and heavy traffic before cycling up a cobble street to the Hagia Sofia and our hotel.

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Nearly getting better?

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Brake issues

So we were all ready for the off this morning and a triumphant entry to Istanbul when we found that several tires had been let down (team practical jokes) and more seriously that Mike had problems with his brakes.  2 hours later we’re still working bike tools and ignorance to get them fixed.  A more detailed report will be filed when we finally get to the bull.

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Last day?

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some minor adjustments….

londontoistanbulcycle

It gets harder and harder to write these things, as we spend almost all our time pedalling, and I can’t just write “Pedalled. Pedalled. Pedalled.”

We left Belgrade early, in the rain. The water was gushing down the road as we climbed out of town past the Red Star stadium and a thousand car repair workshops. If your car is broken, you can definitely get it mended in Serbia. In Barajevo, at our coffee stop, all the cars had carpets rolled up on their bonnets. The barmaid talked to us about David Beckham, cage fighting and Kate Middleton’s chest. Then someone fired a gun, and the wedding that was happening in town that day swung into action. Cars beeped their horns, not only in celebration of our remarkable cycling feat, but also because a couple of Barajevans were getting hitched. We knew it was really for us, so we pedalled…

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Belgrade to Sofia

It gets harder and harder to write these things, as we spend almost all our time pedalling, and I can’t just write “Pedalled. Pedalled. Pedalled.”

We left Belgrade early, in the rain. The water was gushing down the road as we climbed out of town past the Red Star stadium and a thousand car repair workshops. If your car is broken, you can definitely get it mended in Serbia. In Barajevo, at our coffee stop, all the cars had carpets rolled up on their bonnets. The barmaid talked to us about David Beckham, cage fighting and Kate Middleton’s chest. Then someone fired a gun, and the wedding that was happening in town that day swung into action. Cars beeped their horns, not only in celebration of our remarkable cycling feat, but also because a couple of Barajevans were getting hitched. We knew it was really for us, so we pedalled on reinvigorated, hoping the sun would come out for the wedding but also mainly because we don’t like cycling in the cold and miserable wet.

In Arandelovac, there’s only one hotel, because no-one ever visits. It has a water park, which Mike really wanted to visit because he “loves a lazy river and a flume”. However, it’s a hundred euro a night, so we pedalled round exhaustedly asking young Serbians (more likely to speak English) where we could stay. Then, like a great Serbian warlord messiah, Ivan crossed our path. He’s a huge man, and he runs an average-at-best restaurant in Arandelovac. However, we told him his food was spectacularly good, because he’s a scary beast of a human being, and in Serbia when they make them scary they’re really scary. Ivan found us a room with his mate, who looked like one of Vladimir Putin’s bodyguards, but was in fact the curator of a modern art gallery. We settled in there before dropping back into town for a meal at Ivan’s, during which he insisted to us, again and again, that he definitely wasn’t criminal or a gangster or a bootlegger or a dealer or a murderer.

On the whole, we have camped on this trip, because Tom Campbell makes us even though none of us like it. If we say we might stay in a hostel, Tom gets lairy and threatens to tie us all up and feed us to the wolves and bears that are ten a penny in the Balkan countryside (unless they’ve been blown up by the landmines). However, three or four nights ago we got a real accommodation treat, which was to stay in the Hotel Rubin in Krusevac, after another stunning day’s cycling in the hills. The Rubin is a hangover from communist Yugoslavia, and seems barely to have changed since that time. In the shower there was an SOS button, just in case the Cold War went hot, and the lifts took a maximum of 3 people. Calvin got very excited because the hotel’s aesthetic very much fitted in with his own political and aesthetic ideals, (Stalinism), whilst Tom C was extra delighted as he got to play at being a spy, his favourite game since childhood.

From Krusevac, we had our first flat day in a while, along a valley to Niš, Serbia’s third largest city. After a huge meal, we all listened to Dido together whilst drinking cocktails in the old fortress. Alpha males, one and all.

The climb out of Niš towards the border town of Dmitrovgrad was probably the second-longest climb of the tour, and was extra steep. Fuelled by the classic Serbian dish of McDonalds double cheeseburgers, however, we ascended it smartly, whilst huge birds of prey circled us threateningly from above, and wolves peeked through trees deciding when to attack. The view back down the valley to Niš was stunningly beautiful.

Dogs (Latin name: wolfus domesticus) did actually attack us at various points over the last few days. Various team members use various different tactics to fight back: Calvin barks himself, Mike cycles extremely fast, Tom C tells everyone to stay calm and not show any fear – before proceeding to panic and cycle extremely fast away from the vicious hordes of poodles, terriers and dachshunds.

Perhaps the most picturesque cycling of the whole trip came on our first morning in Bulgaria, when, after crossing the border and being stopped by two different police cars asking why we weren’t cycling to Sofia on the motorway, we turned off the main road into the near-empty valley of Stanisci. Colossal rock formations loom over silent wine-growing villages. After lunch in the quiet town of Godeč, we dropped speedily off the plateau into the Sofia, through swarms of flies that were particularly attracted to Mike because he is the most unclean member of the team, and wears the dirtiest clothes.

The lovely Manuela Dimitrova took us for a gargantuan Bulgarian dinner, and we toasted Bulgaria and the cycle with excellent local red wine, before heading out to the bright spots of Sofia’s hedonist nightlife (i.e. we went for a drink in our hostel bar).

The final leg of the trip is coming up – we have 7 more cycling days to reach Istanbul, and the team has swelled to 5 with the arrival of Henry, who will cycle to the end with us. He’s just gone to sleep in our dorm, and is snoring like a tuba, so will fit right in.

Nearly there…

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Late last night.

It’s three in the morning and I am bored to tears. The others have gone to bed so I thought I would write this, a brief update of our last week, which has had both highs and lows, dark points and light points, peaks and troughs, so to speak.

The first thing to say is that Budapest was and is utterly beatiful and I will be hot footing it back there sans bicycle as soon as my bank balance can carry me. It might seem controversial, butIi think Budapest is the most attractive city we have visited so far…the others preferred Gravesend…but then I grew up there so am less dumbstruck by its beauty these days.

The moment we left Budapest, Calvin noticed a serious clunking in his bottom bracket, and whilst fortunately that isn’t a medical issue, it did leave us slumped in the hands of a couple of east london look-a-like bike mechanics, in the stupid little caps, who seemed as though even the sight of a bike with gears was a painful ordeal for them.

As ever, my prejudices against people were ill-founded (though they are silly hats) and the guys fix(y)ed us up in an hour or so, and helpfully clarified that the Danube cycle path was by now a myth perpetuated only by masochists intent on bumping and grinding their way along its snake infested grass until they are completely unable to sustain erection.

Campbell was, unsurprisingly, up for it.

Off we toddled for 67 miles in the well paved direction of Kecsecmet – a beautiful town in the south east of Hungary – where a lovely lady gave us a room, showers, and a dinner recomendation that really sewed up the whole occasion. It was Tom Campbell’s 29th Birthday and to show him a good time, we all stayed up until 10pm.

Fed and drunk we leapt up at 7 for a solid breakfast and a quick scan of the map. Today was the day of the border crossing -and the first time we would show our passports since leaving the UK – namely, at Subotica in Serbia. While we are on this subject, it is one of the most fantastic things about Europe that there are no borders anymore. Nothing terrifies me more than a border guard. I have never ever done anything to warrant international sanction, honest. Yet when at a border, I find myself rattling through the awful closet of my past, thinking about how once I didnt pay my German 02 bill in 2005 and that this might somehow end up with me spending the rest of my life in a Serbian prison.

We travelled 82 miles that day, arriving late at night, dinging our bells along the way at the sight of Soviet era Yugo’s and Skodas. There are lots, and now we are only allowed to ding if we see a horse and cart, to save our thumbs.

The next day, this happened.

I cant really be bothered to explain it. Its all over now, and Im really glad I experienced it, but at the time, I was shitting a brick.

And now we are in Belgrade, flouncing about the town with guided tours courtesy of Tom Bird’s extraordinary international connections. You can see him infuriatingly not showing off about it here:

We will bid you adieu for the next 5 days, as we cross from Serbia into Bulgaria, and hit the Carpathian mountains for our first serious climbing since the Black Forest. Lets hope we havent become too soft through all this spinning along the Danube. Wish us luck.

Sleep tight.

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