The Road to Thessaloniki – Part I

Gone at last

After years of dreaming and scheming, we finally took the plunge to take time out from the world of work to spend more time with our bikes. Months of ground work, and weeks of patchy preparation, including a camping stove cooked breakfast in the garden, and we were ready to go. Sort of.

The day of departure was not at first quite the smooth, relaxed start we had envisaged, with last minute preparations for packing panniers, tidying the house and packing up our belongings into the loft.

Day 1, we got underway some 4 hours after the planned departure time, being waylaid by finally meeting our elderly neighbour’s daughter, then taking a trip to the post office to post a parcel of clothes ahead to ourselves in Italy for Mark and Cristina’s wedding in July. Leaving at 2pm, and after a toilet stop in Victoria Park, 1km in, we wondered if this would be a sign of the pace to come, and if we would ever make it to Kent by nightfall.

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Fortunately, the first day’s riding wasn’t too far, around 70km to (Auntie and Uncle) Diane and Paul’s in Kent. We cycled out through the Olympic Park, Victoria Park, along the canal to the Thames (narrowly avoiding getting taken out by a Deliveroo rider, who came round a bend under a bridge too fast – he skidded and we missed, the worst driving we came across until Italy). Then over Tower Bridge, past Burgess Park, through Peckham and to Herne Hill, where we got a few celebratory laps of the velodrome in, on our fully loaded bikes. Then through Dulwich and Crystal Palace before escaping to the countryside.

Kent was steep, with lots of 10-15% short, sharp climbs. We rode through beautiful little villages in cool weather, with early spring sunshine on the new green of the hedgerows, trees in bloom, past daffodils, tulips and bluebell woods, with swallows flitting by. Cycling in London and Essex maybe dulls the senses to friendliness on the roads, and we were taken aback when a van driver in Kent stopped and reversed down a hill to let us by.

We were spoilt with our first night’s accommodation at Diane and Paul’s, well fed and watered (with wine), and the last proper bed for a while. Amazing reception, and thanks again!

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The second day through Kent made us appreciate the beauty of the English countryside, and how quickly you can get away from the city on 2 wheels. It’s nice looking back now, and thinking about travelling through your own country by bicycle, especially as part of a trip that takes in so much of Europe. Just over 100km to Dover, another lumpy day, but good weather.

We stayed at a small campsite just north of Dover, with a short ride to the ferry the next morning. We eased our way into camping life, opting to go to the pub for dinner, particularly as the camp shop had fairly limited provisions. Having been assured by the campsite that the pub served food, we arrived to the kitchen being renovated. We had what was the first of many ham and cheese meals, washed down with beer. I also had my first “mechanical”, a slow puncture in my air bed, requiring top-ups in the night.

The ride down to the ferry terminal in the morning was fun, 8km finishing with a fast drop down from the white cliffs to the terminal, cycling past the queues of cars, following the bike lane line painted on the tarmac to the check-in. We ended up getting there just in time, riding to the front of the queue and then up the ramp to the ferry with a big audience of car passengers watching us. Cooked breakfast and snooze on the ferry, before riding down the ramp on the other side, but having to wait for all the cars to get off first this time.

Tour de France

We stayed in Calais for a couple of days to go back to the Help Refugees warehouse where we’d worked for a few days last October, packing food for the residents of the Jungle migrant camp before it was evicted. The short ride from the ferry terminal to the campsite took us past the now abandoned Jungle site, but the graffiti painting dreams of a brighter future in the UK remained, alongside the high metal fences next to the motorway, built to stop people trying to jump onto lorries crossing the channel.

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The off-season campsite was a strange place, with a little village of static caravans and a tiny patch of grass where the grumpy French owner squeezed a couple of tents, including ours. There were a few locals there, but it seemed like the owner grudgingly made his living out of season from a few mobile homes of volunteers from the warehouse. The road to the campsite was lined with old WWII gun bunkers, the first of many reminders through our journey of a fragmented Europe and the damage it has caused in the past.

We spent a day in the warehouse, preparing food for the kitchen that was distributing to homeless migrants in Calais and the nearby Dunkirk camp, which had been nearly completely destroyed by a fire the day before, apparently after a fight had broken out between Kurdish and Afghan residents. Around 1,500 people were left without shelter and cooking facilities. There were a few familiar faces at the warehouse, though it was operating on a much smaller scale since the main camp had been cleared, and many of the resources and supplies from Calais had been sent to the charity’s operations in Greece and Syria.

……..

After repairing my air bed puncture, and topping up our supplies, we set off on the first continental stage of the tour, a wind-assisted sunny ride across the Flanders plains, virtually all flat apart from a couple of steep climbs to the hill town of Cassel, complete with cobbled descent the other side. We traced the border with Belgium over the next few days, detouring slightly to Roubaix to pay homage to the famous velodrome, just a week after Greg van Avermaet had won Paris-Roubaix there. We managed to convince the organisers of the European junior rugby sevens tournament taking place in the centre of the velodrome to let us in for a look, and got a ride round in, dodging rugby balls and a log on the Côte d’Azur section of the track, forcing me up the banking with 18kg of luggage and my washing drying on the back. Van Avermaet didn’t have to deal with that kind of thing.

For the the first few days, we rode through countryside very like England save for cultural markers — roof shapes, building styles, road signs and markings — covering 80-100km a day. From Roubaix we went to Fourmies along great little forestry commission roads through woods, and lanes with shrines to various saints along the way. Leaving Roubaix though, I suffered further non-bike “mechanicals”, with my Garmin computer crashing twice in the space of 10 minutes as we tried to navigate out of the suburban sprawl. I also lost a screw that held on one of my rear panniers, which must have shaken itself loose over some of the bumpier terrain. We made a quick stop in a car park to switch the screw for a less critical part of the bag, and tightened the rest of the screws on our bags as a precaution.

Through France, we were mainly navigating following routes I’d plotted on Strava. This largely worked really well, but sometimes led to surprising places. Part of our route dipped into Belgium, the border crossing marked by little more than a cycleway sign, and following the route we wound down increasingly small roads until we passed a dead end sign and emerged onto a gravel track. This narrowed and became basically a footpath, leading steeply uphill and a couple of km through woodland, over tree roots and along rutted tracks. We’ve since become quite accustomed to pioneering the niche new sport of cyclo-cross touring, with quite a bit of luggage. Most of it was rideable and quite fun.

We’d left London in 20 degree heat, but the warm spring turned unseasonably cold as we moved through France. The crunch came just after the Easter weekend, riding south to the Ardennes with a cold northerly wind, the temperature gradually dropping as we reached the river Meuse, but the last 20km along the river in glorious sunshine as the skies cleared. The first half of the day, again, could have been somewhere in the UK, rolling fields of dairy farms, bits of forest that could have been in the Peak District, and dark stone houses from the Lake District. Only when we descended into the river valley did the landscape become markedly different, much more continental. I had cold hands for most of the day, riding in thin gloves watching the temperature drop from 12 to 10 to 8 degrees on the bike computer and falling. We ended the day at a small campsite in a steep valley where the rivers Meuse and Samoy meet, and the temperature plummeted overnight, with cold air pooling in the valley. We put on pretty much all of our clothes, and pulled in the drawstrings of our sleeping bags tightly. Two season summer bags didn’t quite cut it for these conditions, with condensation from our breath collecting on the cold outside surface of the sleeping bag, and ice crystals forming on the inside of the tent by the morning. The temperature on the Garmin in the morning read -4. Once we’d motivated ourselves to get up and leave the tent, we emerged to find fog filling the valley and the cycling clothes we’d rinsed out the night before frozen on the line we’d put up. Clouds gathered again, and the rain started just in time for us to put the tent away. The one saving grace was a hot coffee from the little bar at the campsite before we left, and a hill to warm up with.


The wind was still from the north, but it wasn’t so bad as most of the day we were heading south along the Meuse, past lots of fortifications and Allied cemeteries from the First World War, after initially winding south-east out of the Samoy valley. The first big climb out of the Samoy valley warmed us up, despite a brief hail storm. Then the sun came out and we had a day of April showers, mostly missing the showers, riding through lovely rolling landscape. We camped at a small site run by a retired Dutch man and woman in Sivry-sur-Meuse. The campsite appeared almost out of nowhere, as we turned off a main road with no sign of a camp ground in sight. The evening looked promising too, feeling milder and the sun coming through for our recovery beer and peanuts as we set up camp. But the temperature dropped again in the night to minus something, leaving us planning a B&B for the following evening.

The starts were getting quicker, but we still weren’t away before 11, with the daily routine — staying in bed long enough to warm up, snooze after not sleeping well in the cold, get water for breakfast, eat, wash up, pack up the camping stuff, get changed from all our clothes into our cycling gear, pack down the tent and strap all the bags on — taking a certain amount of time. We became more efficient as the trip went on, but also refined our procedures to cut out some elements (no tea, buying coffee in cheaper countries, better preparing our clothes the night before — much easier to achieve when you don’t have to wear everything in your non-cycling possession in the night. In fact, owing to only having 2 pairs of non-cycling socks, I also wore cycling socks in addition on several nights).

Arm warmer toe warmers

We ate really rather well, creating such gourmet leftover concoctions for breakfast as goat’s cheese and marmalade baguette, or the goat’s cheese and apricot with avocado starter, which should have won us a Michelin star for it looking like a fried egg on avocado (tough life). It’s amazing what you can make in 2 pans on a gas and a petrol stove.

Possibly the hardest day for me to date was that ride from Sivry-sur-Meuse towards Nancy, another long day at almost 100km, with a cold cross-head wind from the east. (We managed to strike unusual and adverse weather almost the whole journey to Greece, with strange weather systems moving around us!) It took several days to get accustomed to the weight we were carrying, and the (limited) speed we could achieve. My gearing especially wasn’t ideal for adventure cycle touring, leaving me dreaming of triple chain rings and massive cassettes. Sarah’s custom Condor was spot on though. The constant effort demanded by the headwind exacerbated the repetitive knee strain I had developed, to the point that I was worried about damage I was doing. The fully loaded bike was good weight and resistance training, but lacked the gears to spin up slopes over 5% or so.

That day was another bitter one, with landscape to match. We rode through the killing fields of the First World War round Verdun — trenches, bunkers and destroyed villages still visible — and past numerous Allied, American, British and German war cemeteries, with chilling rows of representative crosses lined up. Outside one small German cemetery, where over 11,000 people were buried, stood a sign, written before the current European uncertainty took hold, quoting Jean-Claude Junker (then “former Prime Minister of Luxembourg”). “Those who question Europe or despair about Europe should visit military cemeteries. They show what a disunited Europe […] must lead too.” Poignant, whatever you think of the man. We also learnt that day of Theresa May calling the snap general election, at the time thinking it was rubber stamping her Brexit project. Little did we know… Interesting times for Europe, with the French presidential election campaign in full swing as we crossed the country, past campaign posters of all the candidates lined up in every town we went through.


The dreamt-of B&B sadly didn’t materialise that night, around 20km outside of Toul, a medieval market town near Nancy, and we spent (yet another) sub-zero night in a barely open site in the woods, with only a dodgy-looking Belgian man alone in his caravan for company. Enough was enough, and the next day was declared a rest day. We thawed out through the forestry tracks and roads to Toul in the morning sun, even managing to get a little sunburnt as I defrosted my fingers over a morning coffee break.

I can’t begin to describe how good it was to check into a hotel for a night in Toul. What a pleasure it was to have a shower without shivering, or getting cold feet getting out. We did our first full laundry day, wearing the few items that were still relatively clean, while we washed the rest of the kit, drying it around the hotel room. Even a rest day took most of the day, washing, route planning and catching up on communications. We got our money’s worth at the breakfast the next morning, before time-trailing our way to Nancy along the river to try and sort my gears at a bike shop there. The mechanic said there was nothing to do without changing the whole drive train, which would be time consuming and expensive, so we carried on, taking it a bit easier, heading further south along the river to our next camp spot along the Moselle river, our base before we headed into the Vosges mountains. It was our first day riding in short sleeves, and first night in a while that was comfortable to camp. We thought the weather had finally turned in our favour. The campsite was run by a French former Tour de France rider, Damien Nazon. He’d ridden with the Banesto and Française des Jeux teams, riding in six or seven Tours de France. Though he didn’t really ride anymore, he did give us some route recommendations for the next couple of days through the Vosges.

The Vosges started off fairly flat and fairly industrial, and remained fairly industrial through the first day as we climbed through several small towns, before a 3km 20% shocker to a campsite up a narrow lane. What was fast becoming an unpleasant pattern emerged as the warmth of the day gave way to the cold of the night. The next day provided everything the previous day lacked in the way of warmth, scenery and road quality. The narrow lane from the campsite continued to climb, turned into an unpaved track, then continued to climb, before rejoining the tarmac for a stunning switchback descent into Gerardmér in the sunshine. The landscape became more Alpine, with pretty villages and ski resorts, plus the occasional 20% section courtesy of Mario’s route that we borrowed (thanks Super M…). We climbed over 1,000m above sea level for the first time on the trip, cresting 2 passes before a long uninterrupted descent towards Colmar, with eagles soaring overhead. At one point, a deer cut up the steep slope to the side of the road and ran out in front of me (they never cross where the signs warning about deer are), thankfully far enough ahead not to be a problem. Coming into the valley out of the Vosges, all the town names suddenly became German as we neared the border, and through the mountains we’d ridden past several monuments to French resistance fighters killed in the Second World War.

A headwind meant we had to pedal the last section of 1-2% decline to the town, crossing the river to the campsite still in sunshine. The next day we were to leave France, and we celebrated crossing the country with a traditional local Alsace rösti in a bar in town.

We’d been on the road for two weeks, and covered almost 1,000km. The perception of distance has changed, and we got used to travelling slowly (apart from downhill), moving at the pace of the landscape, following the lines of swallows as they moved across the continent in the opposite direction. There have been days where I wanted to shed the bags and be on my carbon road bike, and definitely sections where a mountain bike would have been a much better prospect, but the freedom of two wheels is hard to beat.

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4 thoughts on “The Road to Thessaloniki – Part I

  1. Cheers James – really interesting! I don’t think it’s anything to do with gearing that you can’t keep up with Sarah up the hills!! Bad workmen and all that!!

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