Greetings one and all from Italy where I find my legs slightly stronger, saddle slightly more comfortable and tan lines becoming almost competition standard (according to my Italian connections, tan lines are going to be all the rage this season). It's fair to say that it's been a good couple of weeks despite the slighly red nose at times and the enduring lack of a decent cup of tea.
After surviving the streets of Paris I made my way across to the river Saòne, where I was united with my replacement kindle thanks to my Dad's organisation, then down to the Rhone where I enjoyed sampling some of the local produce (had to buy a corkscrew first though as the French don't seem to believe in screwcap bottles). Once I made it to the rivers, I was rewarded with days of flat roads winding down towards the sea. There were even times when I thought a few hills would be welcome to break up the days a bit. Eventually these hills came and I realised how deluded I'd become and how heavy my bike is again! I followed the coast as best I could through to Nice where I enjoyed cycling along some familiar roads and onwards to Monaco.
Before I entered Monaco, the lap record stood at 1:14.439. After tearing round the circuit, Mr Schumacher can breathe easily again as I got round in a slightly disappointing 29:52.35! Though to be fair he had a clear track, didn't keep stopping to take photos and didn't stop to chat to a doorman at a posh hotel for ten minutes!
After that poor performance I skipped town and headed for Italy. And what was the first thing I did when I crossed the border? Take some photos to mark the occasion? Perhaps find somewhere to enjoy a celebratory pizza and glass of Peroni? No, both of these came later. You see the trouble with cycling along the coast is that opportunities to relieve one's bladder are few and far between and this has been an issue over the last few days. There simply are no hiding places (apart from on the border it appears).
My first impressions of the Italians are mixed. I commend their desire to build tunnels through hills where the French would make you suffer a series of thigh-destroying switchbacks, and I can accept their slightly lax approach to distance markers between towns where one can reduce the distance to a place by 10km in just 3km (and suffer the effect of the reverse of this) but the Italians' greatest downfall are the plagues of 'motos' (or 'otom's as I first thought they were called as they are written upwards in motorbike parking spaces) which constantly suffocate you at traffic lights and cut you up wherever they can. Thankfully I've just replaced my brakepads as they are being well used.
After a day off in Genoa, I'm heading into the hills tomorrow, up to Milan then across towards Slovenia. This will be the furthest east I've ever been, I'll not be this far south again until Mongolia and once I get out of Italy I'll not see the sea again until China. Have cycled over 3,000km so far and have considerably further yet to go but still very much enjoying it.
Things yet to experience on my trip:
A compliment about my attire, beard and tanlines
A campsite that provides toilet roll
A Frenchman with a beret and onions round his neck (now unlikely to be fulfilled)
A clear indication as to what the point of kettles without plugs are in hostels
A person on a bike carrying more kit than me
After a very pleasant journey across the south of England, a ferry trip later and I find myself enjoying bagettes, roads without potholes and nursing my first bit of sunburn. I have made it to Paris and tomorrow I shall be attempting to negotiate the Champs-Élyséés and the Arc de Triomphe (not to mention the rest of the never-ending streets of Paris) as I start heading further south.
Wild camping in France is proving to be a little more problematic than anticipated. It appears that there are magical treasures and wild beasts in the woods and forests of France as they seem to protect them with great care. Most of the time they are surrounded by barbed fencing, use big gates and have a range of signs effectively saying "keep out!" Many of the woods also claim to be catching these wild beasts which would otherwise be roaming freely across the French countryside as they have big animal trap signs up. Less than ideal camping ground. In addition to this the farmers don't do their bit for bio-diversity as there seem to be no hedges to separate fields which could otherwise have been used to provide a bit of cover. Finally, it's aparently not yet camping season in France as the majority of the campsites are closed at this time of year. So far in France I have sought the mystical treasure in forests twice (avoiding being gobbled up by the wild beasts) and found two campsites which were happy to accept me (one of which was closed but after putting on my best dispondent face, the nice Frenchman let me stay anyway). I now have a magic letter (I hope) translated into French (and Romainian for when I arrive there) which explains what I am doing and asks for a little assistance from people where possible. The idea came from Alistair Humphries and Rob Lilwall who have both done cycle expeditions much longer than mine and said that the letter was amazingly useful. If I get stuck any night I can now hopefully use this to help pursuade the kind French farmers to pitch my tent on their land. If anyone is fluent (or knows someone who is fluent) in Italian, Slovak, Hungarian or Mongolian please let me know!
Strong headwinds and crosswinds have made cycling a little more hard work and scary. I'm very much looking forward to reaching the south coast when the prevailing winds will be mostly behind me for the rest of the journey. I'm also looking forward to recieving my new kindle through the post thanks to my Dad's efforts, as my first one sadly passed away during my first night in France. Very much looking forward to being able to read the last couple of chapters of Mark Cavendish's autobiography and hopefully having a bit more regular access to the internet again (at least while there is still free wi-fi kicking about in cafe's etc).
Finally, I have been recieiving a few unsavoury comments about the fluff that is appearing on my face. One cannot become a true adventurer without a bit of facial hair even if it is slightly tinged with a bit of ginger (or as some of you like to call it 'African Sunset')!
Another week has flown past and I find myself back at home in Wiltshire enjoying chocolate & Guiness cupcakes, fresh clothes to wear and am still basking in the glory of England's victory over the French! The hours in the saddle are starting to extend a bit more and thankfully the knee and posteria are starting to object a bit less.
In just a week's time I shall be saying goodbye to regular stops with family and friends as I enter the French part of my escapade. I think my experience will change significantly when I cross the channel, not just because of the funny languages and having to cycle on the wrong side of the road, but because I will no longer have destinations to hit every day or two with people to visit. When I reach Calais, I just have to head south until I reach the coast and then take a left. I won't have to cycle up closed roads in order to reach a destination because all other routes into the city seem to be dual carriageways or motorways (Coventry), nor will I have to listen to my GPS beeping at me telling me I've gone the wrong way as it tries to lead me to an address. However I will miss the company of those I know well (or those who know someone well that knows me well) and the kindness they have continued to show me over the past week.
I've woken up to various sights and sounds this week: sustained sunshine for the first time on the trip, the sound of my brother snoring and the sound of a gun being fired (not sure which was loudest!) It appears that hunting starts at first light in Yorkshire. Thankfully it wasn't in the wood I was residing in that night. Yesterday I was joined by my brother for the trip from Tewkesbury to my parents' house in Wiltshire and enjoyed having some company again whilst riding. Now I've got a few days off at my parents in order to finish off the final things I didn't get a chance to do when I was down at the start of February. It will also give me a chance to straighten out my brake lever and let my bruises recover as I took another tumble yesterday just a mile or so from home as I hit a curb and again experienced the drawback of clipping one's feet into pedals. Anyone would think I had never ridden a bike before!
So what are the lessons from the week? If you want to cycle south into Coventry consider another form of transport, don't dress up as a fox in Yorkshire and England are definitely going to win the 6 nations!
A response to some comments I have received:
Unfortunately I have been receiving a number of derogatory comments since the start of my journey which I feel have been unfair and disrespectful, all of which have come from those I have know well. People seem to have forgotten that some of the greatest of man's accomplishments have been made whilst sporting a pair of tights! The last week has taken me on a journey through areas where these men have been appreciated and respected. On my way down from County Durham to Wiltshire, I passed Sherwood Forest, home to the greatest tight-wearing outlaw that ever lived. I then made it through Stratford-Upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, the most celebrated (tight-wearing) play-write in history. It made me think that men who wear tights are a special, select breed. Think of all the best superheros: Superman, Spiderman, Batman etc. Even SuperTed wore tights.
Next time you see a man in tights, don't let your mind trick you into thinking they are not cool or attractive, but instead think about the extraordinary things he is about to achieve.