England - Italy
"Cycling is an economical, environmentally
friendly and healthy mode of transport. It is also a realistic means of
The rain pelted into my face like hundreds of tiny needles and the wind whipped at my coat like a sail in a stormy sea. Drivers sped past in their warm cocoons showering us in their wake. My legs seemed to be turning in slow motion as I tried to slice through the impenetrable headwind. There is only one thing more frustrating than using your lowest gear to go along the flat and that is having to use it downhill!
It took us three very long, wet hours to cycle the 10 miles to the Luxembourg border and our next instalment of maps. Clutching our soaked parcel outside the post office we asked ourselves if we had made a big mistake by starting this expedition in the middle of a European winter.
The early days camping out in England were balmy compared to the icy weather we endured on the continent. It felt like a beautiful spring day when we were overtaken by the West Surrey Midweek Wayfarers climbing Coombe Bottom Hill, in the North Downs. As we struggled up the 1:5 incline we were glad to have offloaded so much gear whilst staying with my father in Hampshire.
After successfully losing the wandering Wayfarers, who keep asking if they could come along, we were literally blown up to London by gale force winds. Weaving our way through Oxford Street past stationary lines of buses, cars and taxis I could understand recent Government figures stating that car journeys in central London take on average nearly half as long again as by bike. It was only as we reached the outer limits of the city that the traffic began to speed up and push us once more towards the edge of the tarmac - and at times onto the pavement. The A12 into Essex is not a place for cyclists, and we had arrived at night. Discovering the error of our ways we retraced our steps along the hard shoulder and detoured along the slightly quieter roads of Romford city centre.
As our cycle computers reminded us that it was reaching midnight we finally escaped suburbia and found a couple of trees on the edge of Mill Green Common to pitch our tent. Setting off at dawn to avoid confrontation with early morning walkers, we made it to the ferry port of Harwich in record time, only to discover that our gallant effort had been in vain. A fire in the engine room meant we had five days in which to become well acquainted with Harwich and all its' attractions.
From Hook van Holland we battled our way north along the North Sea cycle route into a sandy headwind, and arrived in Den Haag as the rain began to fall. We were still getting to know our new maps and had never cycled outside England before. As the rain grew harder we lost our way in the middle of an inner-city park and spent the next half an hour trying to get back on route. We had nowhere to stay and were completely soaked. I was wondering what adventurous cycle tourists were meant to do at this point when I heard a voice behind us.
"Are you lost?" said the man with the umbrella. The rain and cold forced us to speak to our first Dutch person. "Yes" I replied. "We are looking for somewhere to camp for the night."
"This is no weather to be camping - come and stay at my house." Those magic words meant that ten minutes later our dripping clothes were hanging out to dry, whilst our new friend cooked us a beautiful vegetarian extravaganza.
The next day we cycled north. In Amsterdam we were saw first-hand how the trams, bikes, buses, footpaths, underground, local and national trains all combine to push the car into very last place. It was an amazing, liberating experience to be able to cycle around a city without the fumes, smell, and intrusion of traffic. It excited us with possibilities and frustrated us with the knowledge of how little is actually achieved in most of the world's cities.
With endless bike lanes, signposts, and even our own traffic lights, the Netherlands was a cyclist's paradise. Not surprising when you hear the government spend £1.60 per person per year on cycling initiatives, compared with only 10 pence per person per year in the UK. This made me wonder if passing through the Netherlands was such a good idea. Would every other country en-route be a letdown in comparison?
Belgium appeared to confirm my fears. The cycle lanes disappeared as quickly as the snow began to fall. The terrible weather continued throughout our stay and the national cycle maps were appalling. The maps had no indication of height -something I thought to be important for cyclists - and many the roads were not marked. There was one highlight however. As we reached the top of a particularly gruesome hill we stumbled upon a statue of Eddy Merckx, winner of five Tour de France and endless other competitions. Our chance encounter with a cycling great renewed our pride in our quest and gave us the strength to push on through frozen fingers and toes.
After the wet encounter with our post in Bastogne we turned east, and as further snowflakes swirled through our spokes we arrived in Luxembourg. In a local pub in Wiltz we met Gust Muller from the Luxembourg Velo Initiative (the national cycling organisation) on his return from a weekend hike in the mountains.
Over Sunday lunch, he carefully added a new cycle route to our map. In a country only 30 miles by 50 miles there are already 215 miles of cycle paths - and the total should reach 500 within a few years. Gust explained that publicity was a key factor in the success of their network, and that is why the Ministry of Tourism, Youth Hostel Association and Luxembourg Rail Network have combined forces to produce an integrated cycle map for tourists.
It is anticipated that the predominantly rural network will also benefit city cyclists. Gust elaborated: "Although the routes are built more for fun than commuting, we hope that as they get people onto their bikes they will have more respect for cyclists in traffic - be able to relate to them and respect their space as fellow road users."
Testing the route out for ourselves, we curved south along an old railway line through beautiful forests, tunnels, and river valleys. The sun shone, the wind was behind us, and a wild boar shot across our path. It was relaxing to again leave the maps in the bar-bag and follow the brilliant sign posting. There was time to admire the beautiful landscape, talk to each other, and once more hear the sound of birds.
The moment we entered Germany the road began to rise and the rain began to fall. Donning our waterproof gear (which had barely dried out from the previous downpour), we searched in vain for the German cycle route to Saarbruken.
Although cycling is one of Germany's fastest growing leisure activities - an estimated 3 million people went on bicycle vacations in 1999 - the cycle lane we attempted to follow was in an appalling state of disrepair.
As a frustrated Thomas Fläschner from the German cycling group ADFC explained: "Germany is an 'Autoland'. That's the reality."
There is some hope for the future however. Seven of the new European long distance routes pass through Germany, and the ADFC have just initiated plans to connect their system of independent cycle paths into one integrated network.
In search of change, we crossed the river Rhine into France. My rear end was relieved to discover that not only was our bike lane along the canal beautifully signposted, but someone had also been considerate enough to tarmac it. All the way down the Rhine towards Strasbourg, we saw a stream of workers creating new cycle lanes in time for the summer.
We asked why all the development was taking place and discovered that we were following the planned path of one of the EuroVelo long distance cycle routes. Further enquiries revealed that the 1300 mile long cycle path will eventually run all the way from Canterbury to Rome, and follows an ancient 11th Century pilgrimage route.
Happy to be covering more than the 12 miles a day managed by most pilgrims we carried on south through France. As we peddled, I started noticing huge trees lying on their sides all around us. The destruction increased as we sped along the towpath until we were reaching whole woodlands torn from the ground. I had seen the footage on television and listened to reports detailing the massive carnage that had taken place last Boxing Day, but it was only as we cycled through the countryside that the impact of the unprecedented storms began to sink in.
The sound of chainsaws echoed through the forests, the smell of raw pine and wood smoke hung in the air and an overwhelming sadness rose from within. Every turn of the pedal rammed home the realisation that global warming meant more than the opportunity to grow wine in the Midlands, and re-enforced our decision to choose the bicycle above the plane as ours means of getting to Australia.
Arriving in Switzerland, we were completely engulfed by the madness of Carnival in Basel. We quickly learnt that heavily laden touring bikes and crowds do not mix. At one point, we started making our way through the mass of colourful bodies only to discover we had gone the wrong way. Trying to reverse was impossible and we remained trapped like an anchor in a sea of confetti throwing clowns.
Stuck in the centre of the festivities Lowanna spotted the first sign for Route Nord Sud - the cycle route that would take us all the way to Italy. Although we could not actually get through the parade to join our path, we were happy to know which way to go and took the time to soak up the energy and spirit of the party.
The Swiss cycle network is an amazing feat of co-operation. The development of the nine national routes is the first time in the 150-year history of the Swiss Federal Republic that all 26 autonomous regions have worked together in near-perfect harmony on a national project.
The facts speak for themselves. The £4 million initially invested in the project was repaid seven times over within a year through tourist revenues. 3.5 million trips were made on the network in 1998, with people riding a total approaching 100 million miles - roughly the distance between the earth and the sun.
Armed with such knowledge we finally managed to make our way through the whistle-blowing crowds and set off to find out for ourselves if the 225 mile path stood up to the hype.
Our first test came with the climb up to the Schafmatt Pass at 800 metres. After finishing the last of the tea in the thermos we started the climb, and within hours found ourselves looking down over Aarau, the 'town of beautiful gables.'
A much faster descent left us cursing the freezing conditions and with numb fingers, we decided to warm up with a huge lunch. An hour later we rejoined our path feeling much warmer and bigger!
The next day we found ourselves leaving the beautiful town of Luzern and cycling along the winding lakeside path. We could see distant snow softening the sharp contours of mountains that seemed to reach into the heavens. Still on the flat, I could feel the land beginning to close in around us.
An hour later a cycle sign warning of the climb ahead appeared at the side of the road. We sat down on the kerb and shared two bananas, a handful of sultanas, and half a block of 70% dark chocolate. But time was ticking away. Our accommodation for the night lay high above us and we knew the ascent would prove too dangerous when the sun fell behind the glittering peaks.
For the next three hours we climbed and climbed, cursing the panniers full of equipment that tried to drag us down towards the valley below. By this point, we were completely surrounded, deep in the middle of The Alps. I was sure each steep corner would be the last. Every few kilometres we cycled past deep ravines full of slow moving glaciers. Neither of us had ever seen anything so quiet, yet so powerful. The hard-packed snow slid slowly and surely down the valley engulfing everything in its path. We passed a couple of hillsides swept clear of life by winter avalanches.
The sun had fallen behind the ridges and the remains of the winter snow lay in thick, melting clumps at the side of the road. We could see our destination above us but by this point my butt was sending jolts of pain through my body. I was shaking from the cold and exhaustion and needed all my mental strength to push up the last steep stretch towards the top. Finally, we made it to Goschenen station, where we caught the train through the last of Gottard Mountain.
Minutes later we emerged into the Italian-speaking (and much warmer!) town of Airolo. We were still in Switzerland but I felt we had changed continents.
We walked straight from the station into the first cheap hotel. Asparagus risotto, a scalding hot shower, and a huge duvet were no less than we felt we deserved. We had pushed through one of the biggest physical and mental hurdles of the journey so far, and fell asleep smiling at the thought of the downhill run all the way into Italy...