On Monday, 29 August, I set off with my friend, Owen, to ride to Berlin for The 100 Project. The ride would take us across five countries over 8 days, covering a distance of around 1,400km. As we left it was looking as though we'd be in for good weather for at least the first five days - sunshine, relatively warm temperatures, and little wind to neither help nor hinder us.
Our first day's cycling took us to London's east-end, passing through Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, and Buckinghamshire before we'd reach the busy roads of The Big Smoke and the last day of the Nottinghill Carnival. Our route took us past some of the city's best landmarks, including the Royal Albert Hall, Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, and the Victoria Embankment. Cycling in London isn't easy. Even when you're on cycle paths through the parks you're constantly on the look out for inattentive motorists and distracted pedestrians.
Day two would see us head to Folkestone. A quick look at our intended route hinted that we'd end up on the A20, which is a fairly fast and busy road, so at the last minute we turned to Google to get us to our first meeting point at Penenden Heath. That was a mistake. Google's cycling routes don't discern between routes which are good for road bikes and those which are good for hybrids or mountain bikes, so we found ourselves on gravel and dirt tracks more than once. Leaving London, although we were already on the eastern side, took hours. We were caught in stop-start traffic and were victim to Google's crazy route. It took four hours to reach Maidstone, a mere 62km away. By the time we reached our lunch spot we were tired, hot, and a little fed up. We decided to drop back on to the planned route from here to Folkestone, which turned out to be a far better option. Eventually we made it to Frogholt, where we loaded our bikes onto the car and headed for Calais, around two hours late.
The ride on to Dunkirk in the diminishing sunlight was fast-paced. Fortunately, the route was incredibly flat and easy to follow, the only climbs being those over bridges, though a bridge was closed at Gravelines which led to a short diversion around the marina. Arriving at camp as the sun was just past setting, dinner and a quick beer were gladly welcome.
Onward to Antwerp, and we were afforded cycle lanes and tracks almost all the way, with next to no climbing. The wind was occasionally against us, but our good overall pace meant that we could take longer breaks to relax and re-steel ourselves for the next leg.
We spent the night in a cabin, which gave us decent warmth, cooking facilities, and somewhere to sit to eat dinner and plan the following day. Although the site's reception was closed when we arrived, it was sufficiently warm that we could sit outside the bar, still in our cycling gear, and enjoy a cold beer while we waited to check-in.
The site's manager, when he heard that we were cycling from England to Berlin, commented, "Wow. They must really like riding their bikes."
Cycling in Belgium and the Netherlands is easy. Excellent surfaces, beautiful scenery, and, most importantly, no hills to look forward to. As we approached the border between the Netherlands and Germany, this started to change. We'd have four days to cycle across Germany, and we knew that the terrain was about to get tougher, along with a change in the weather.
We left Eindhoven with our bikes covered in morning dew under a cool sky. We'd kept jackets on during breakfast so that we could warm up a little. The skies were overcast, and it took a few hours before the sun broke through and started to power us along.
Our first stop was to be just beyond Druisburg in the small town of Mulheim an der Ruhr. It was here that I tangled with a tramline: the front wheel slipped in as I tried to cross two lanes of traffic, launching me over the handlebars. Luckily, no serious damage to either the bike or the rider was caused, though I do now have a couple of cracking bruises and a slightly out-of-true front wheel for my troubles.
Getting to Dortmund seemed a bit of a trek. We encountered a lot of low-quality cycle lanes and far too many traffic lights to permit good progress. However, we had a hotel waiting for us, so we would at least have a good night's sleep without the effort of having to pitch and take-down the tent.
While in Dortmund we found a great little Greek restaurant, the Akropolis on Körner Hellweg. Providing great service, value, and food a short walk from our hotel, we had time to relax a little and enjoy a civilised evening at the end of a long day.
Our days in Germany were far harder than those in England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. On the whole our route took us away from cycle lanes so we were often amongst general road traffic. Germany's a pretty hilly country, too. The weather was also due to change, with mornings starting out cool and wet, with thunderstorms on the horizon later in the day. Once again, though, we got lucky. On one day we set off in light drizzle, but it wasn't long before we found ourselves following a few minutes behind the damp weather, so although the roads were still wet we were no longer getting rained on. At the end of day seven we were almost caught out by a storm that we'd managed to skirt around and get in front of, so while we had a fast final 15km we stayed dry all the way to our hotel.
Our last day, from Wolmirstedt to Berlin, also started off cool and damp, but it soon cleared to the point that we ditched our rain jackets and returned to shorts and jerseys. Our final afternoon gave us slightly overcast & sunny skies with warm weather again, which was far better than the morning's forecast.
Throughout the trip our support car, driven by Mary-Jane, was at each of our rest stops and end-of-day accommodation waiting for us. MJ made sure that we were up, dressed, fed, and watered in good time to get going. After we left she'd break camp or handle hotel checkouts, then head to the nearest supermarket to stock-up on items for lunch and the afternoon break. Not an easy task when you're trying to look after two blokes who answer, "What would you like for lunch?" with, "Uggh. Anyone seen my nut butter?"
So that MJ would know if were on-time and en route, we used a Tile attached to one of the bikes. Although it's designed to help you find things you've lost (car keys, pets, wallets, and so on), we wondered if we could use it as a rudimentary low-power GPS tracker. After a brief chat, the guys at Tile thought it might not update frequently enough to be useful, so we did a bit of testing in the weeks leading up to the event. Sure enough, the shared Tile's location was often out of date by as much as an hour when MJ checked it. However, if she then hit the "Find my Tile" button a more accurate location would be reported within a few minutes. This meant that instead of hanging around at the car, she could wander off to see some of the towns we'd be meeting in. Invariably, this little wandering was simply to find a cafe with a toilet for us.
It's remarkable to think that you can cross from Belgium into the Netherlands and back into Belgium without leaving the cycle tracks. Sadly, Britain is at least fifty years behind these two forward-thinking countries when it comes provision for cyclists. Cycle lanes on roads are pointless and prone to damage caused by heavy vehicles. For cycling to work, cycle routes must be separate, reserved only for cyclists and, where appropriate, pedestrians and moped users.
I think this challenge was much easier on me that it was on Owen, but for reasons other than physical fitness. We were riding for my charity for one thing. However, Owen left behind his wife, Anne, and his little boy, Toby, for over a week. I knew this would be difficult for them all, but Owen stepped up and came with me anyway. On our last day, when despite the damp weather we were making excellent progress, I received a text message just as we took a quick break at 30km.
I didn't realise it's Toby's first day at school today. Owen must be extra homesick - give him some extra snuggles (or whatever it is you get up to when I'm not around).
I felt my heart sink when I read it. I had no idea that Owen was missing it, and if I had I'd have moved the ride back or sent him home early. The thing is, Owen was in it to the end. Unerring support, unfaltering dedication, brilliant humour, and inspiring company. Every morning at breakfast he'd tell us about his aches as he got ready, forcing one more mouthful of food down to make sure he had a good enough supply of energy to get through to lunchtime. It's not easy to eat enough to make up for burning through 3-4,000kcal a day. Despite his grumbles, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone so positive, even after I'd had us climb for two miles only to turn back because I'd misread the map. Whenever I'd apologise for taking us off course, through his tiredness he'd find something positive to say, such as, "I'd rather have done that than have caught up with the rain."
As far as I'm concerned, it was a heroic act on Owen's part. A mountain biker through and through, he only took up road cycling recently. Off the back of a short Facebook post he accompanied me for 1,339 kilometres across Europe, just because I asked.
I don't have the words to say how grateful I am that Owen came with me, so I'll just leave it at thank you.
In addition to the many private donations we've received, without the generous support of the following companies this challenge would have been a lot more difficult to complete.