Tuesday 8 October 2019

#bikelife vs #vanlife

Last year, researching my latest book, I cycled 6,000 miles from southern Spain to Nagorno-Karabakh, the war-ravaged and disputed region of the Caucasus. Despite government warnings not to go anywhere near the place, you should have a look at Nagorno-Karabakh if you get a chance. It's truly gorgeous. But conflict zones are not what this post is about, unless we're talking about the one that was inside my head.

During the majority of my five months on the road, I suffered truly awful weather. I would've been better off on a jetski. During yet another abandoned day on a sodden French campsite I downloaded an e-book about #vanlife, y'know, the concept of converting a van into something habitable and then living on the road. The idea suddenly appealed, having all the freedom of cycling but with the ability to remain dry even in the worst of weathers. In the weeks that followed, every time I sheltered drippily in a shop doorway, which is to say several times each and every day, a van would pass by as if to mock me. "Ditch the bike, son," its engine seemed to purr. "Get yourself a nice, dry van."

So this year I did, a Transit. I used plastic storage boxes and sheets of wood to create a very modular bed and seat arrangement, and I covered the whole lot with cushions. It was very comfortable. I even hung a photo of my girlfriend's dog on the wall to make it feel like home.

I decided to tour around Britain in my new mobile home. Things started well. The first time it rained, I smiled to myself. Ah-ha! This was better than cycling. The raindrops bounced off my windscreen rather than my forehead. The ends of my fingers remained entirely unwrinkled. Van 1, Bicycle 0.

But over the coming weeks, I learnt some other stuff.

Somewhere in England's south-west, I came to the top of a steep hill. I slowed and looked down the slope. Something was missing from this situation, I thought. Ah, yes. The exhilaration! When you reach the top of a hill on a bicycle, there's a sense of achievement but also the expectation of a fast and joyous descent. On this occasion, however, I drove down the hill feeling dead inside.

Of course, I might have been glad of the engine at the bottom of the next hill, but over time I realised the van robbed my journey of its highs and lows. Yes, I could drive sixty miles in a single hour whereas on my bike the same distance would take me all day, but it would be a day full of challenging ups and delicious downs, of country smells, of feeling the wind in my ever-thinning hair, of rain showers and sunshine but mostly rain showers and, importantly, of being able to guiltlessly fill my face with pizza, cake and beer at the end of it all. In short, on a bike, it would have been a day full of adventure. The most adventurous thing I did in my van was attempt to listen to Radio One.

To be honest, in my van I still guiltlessly filled my face with pizza, cake and beer but without the expended calories I just got fat.

But that wasn't all. Often in end-of-tour blog posts, cyclists write about what they learned on their voyages. One typical conclusion is that the world is full of kind and wonderful people. I wrote the same thing after my 22,000-mile European capital tour six years ago. When you're on a bicycle, the other people you meet show their best side. Perhaps because they see you as adventurous or eccentric or penniless or, at the very least, unthreatening - after all, cycle-by shootings are rare - they open up to you with smiles, warmth and generosity. Well, let me tell you, that's not what they bloody well do if you travel in a van in the UK. In a van, they look at you suspiciously, ask why you parked near their house and are thirty seconds from calling the Paedo Hotline. After some of the looks I received, I wondered if my new, fuller beard had them mistaking me for Charles Manson. I started to get worried. Maybe I was a monster. Perhaps my mind had blacked out that time I'd shanked a pensioner or kicked a puppy to death.

Maybe it doesn't matter what other people think of you. Still, I'd rather someone see me as an eccentric, unthreatening peasant than a highly punchable pariah. Life is better from a bicycle seat. This is just a roundabout way of saying my van is back on the market and next year I'll return to touring slowly and damply on a bicycle. It's only water after all. Lots and lots of water. #rainlife

Thursday 4 February 2016

Long-Distance Foraging by Bicycle

Last summer, three complete strangers and I set off on an experiment. We wanted to see whether it would be possible to cycle the 3,500 miles from the north of England to the Mediterranean along the west coast of Europe. Oh, but I've missed the most important bit: We wanted to see whether we could do it on a budget of £1 a day (approximately US$1.50 or €1.40 at the time we set off). Obviously, £1 doesn't buy very much food and so we'd supplement our groceries by foraging and fishing.

The biggest problem we had was that only one of us had extensive foraging knowledge and he had to quit the ride after two weeks when his knee exploded. Another problem we had was that none of us knew much, or in fact anything, about fishing. Ever optimistic, we figured we'd pick up this knowledge as we progressed.

Originally I'd planned the journey to be entirely supported by foraged food and with a budget of zero. But then I did some research and the only similar bike ride I could find was a much shorter one – eight or nine days – by Vin Cox, a very keen and knowledgeable forager, who'd had to cheat after two days and buy a packet of biscuits and who gave up entirely after a week when some dodgy road-kill made him sick. So I decided, inexperienced as we were, we'd definitely need that one pound. And I was right.

That said, we did forage some really quite lovely stuff. As we were already into summer, many of the common leaves – the dandelion and nettles – were past their best, but the fruit was on its way. In Britain we found cherries, plums and wild strawberries. In France, this list was supplemented with blackberries, wild raspberries, grapes and pears. In addition to nectarines and peaches, Spain gave us so many apples we could have started a cider factory. And then there were the sweet, sweet figs. Loads of them. We ate so many that their rough, abrasive skins burnt our tongues and our digestive systems were tested to the limit, and occasionally beyond.

It wasn't all fruit. Other highlights included a delicious tea made from elderflower blossom, and the not-so-delicious wine I tried to make out of the same. It got tipped into the corner of a field that will remain forever barren. Other good stuff included ramsons (wild garlic), wild horseradish, huge bags of gorgeous marsh samphire and the ever-so-slightly gnarly but tangy sea purslane.

If our foraging was successful, our fishing wasn't. We ran a little competition to see who could catch the most. I came joint first and I only caught two fish, and I'm not entirely sure they weren't too small to legally keep. I would have put our small haul down to our lack of fishing knowledge but wherever others were fishing – people who knew what they were doing, with loads of expensive-looking equipment – they weren't catching anything either. Maybe there just aren't any fish left to catch.

Did we achieve our aim? We did. Just. It wasn't easy but we had a great time, trying to find new species – I had a copy of the classic Food For Free with me – and moving southwards through Europe with its ever-changing culinary offerings. If you ever fancy a cheap holiday, it's something to bear in mind, although I'd recommend a larger budget than £1. And I'd also recommend knowing more about foraging and fishing than we did. Much, much more.

I'd love to hear from anyone who has ever attempted anything remotely like this.

Dave strips a plum tree

A selection of seaweed

Fishing unsuccessfully in France

Wednesday 27 January 2016

No, I'm Sorry, You Can't Cycle-Tour for Free

I've read a couple of blog posts recently whose titles have suggested it's possible to cycle-tour entirely for free. When you read the blog's content, however, you realise it isn't actually possible, or you can only get close to free by behaving like a selfish arse, taking advantage of people, sometimes people with a lot less than you have. I don't want to be a selfish arse.
That said, you can cycle-tour for very, very little. Last summer three complete strangers and I tried an experiment. We wanted to see whether, on an extremely small budget, it was possible to cycle a long distance: approximately 3,500 miles along Europe's western coast from Liverpool in the UK to Gibraltar on the Mediterranean. Our budget had to cover everything except travel tickets (in our case, one ferry ticket) and major repairs to bikes, and so our minimal funds had to include all food, fuel to cook the food, drinks, accommodation, bike consumables like inner tubes and spokes, and anything else we might need along the way. It would also have to cover bottles of single malt whisky, diamond tiaras and trips to the opera, but you won't be surprised to learn that we didn't spend money on any of those.
Importantly, we wanted to do this in a sustainable way. This meant not stealing stuff or raiding bins, since one day the supermarket bins might be locked for good, or – who knows? – people might stop throwing so much food away. It also meant not using sites like Warm Showers or Couchsurfing. I know that I move around too much to offer a future bed to a fellow cyclist and so it would be unfair to take advantage of this free service without returning the favour. Sheets have to be washed. Water has to be heated. That would just be passing the cost on to someone else, and we didn't want to do it like that.
We set the daily budget at just £1 for each cyclist, which at the time was approximately US$1.50 or €1.40. It's not much, but when you shop carefully and supplement your food by foraging and fishing, it's just about doable. Oddly, it's easier to get by on so little in a relatively expensive country like the UK than it is in generally cheaper places like Spain and Portugal. Britain's huge, ubiquitous supermarkets each carry a massive range of budget lines – a large sliced loaf of bread for 40p ($0.60, €0.56), a pot of strawberry jam (that's jelly for US cyclists) for 27p ($0.40, €0.38) and a tub of peanut butter for 60p ($0.90, €0.84) – whereas in Spain, the big supermarkets tended to be on cycle-unfriendly roads and their cheapest lines aren't that cheap anyway, and so we usually ended up buying from less economical, tiny village supermarkets. Luckily, Spain was abundant in free, roadside fruit, especially figs, and these are great once your digestive system has worked out how to cope with the onslaught.
Usually in France, Spain and Portugal we wild-camped. Wild-camping is fine but, for peace of mind, it's better to stay legal. For this reason, throughout England and Wales, we asked farmers if we could stick our tents in the far corner of an unloved field. Of the twenty or so people we asked, only two refused and they were tenant farmers; our staying there would have caused problems if the landowner had found out. Sleeping at the farms was great. Unlike when wild-camping, we could set up early, wake up when our bodies wanted to and get a comfortable night's sleep in a field with no nasty surprises, although we did share one with fifteen curious bullocks who looked like they wanted to kick our heads in.
Did we manage it? Yes, we did. Just. It can be done for very little and without taking advantage of anyone. That said, I can't recommend it unless it's your only option. Wild-camping and frugal dining hides you away from hotels, camp sites, restaurants, bars and all those other places where you're likely to meet people and, for me, it is finding interesting and inspiring, or wacky and weird, people that makes a bike tour special. And, for that reason alone, I won't be touring again on a budget of £1. But if my finances deteriorate in future, it's reassuring to know I can always afford a nice, long bike ride. I'll just need to get used to the figs again.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Europe's Most Dangerous Roads for Cyclists

I came across an interesting report this morning. It provides statistics for European bicycle-based death rates. Oh, happy day.

Don't worry, I'm not a monster. I'd wanted to write about Europe's most dangerous roads for cyclists. From my gut feeling, having cycled throughout most of Europe, the countries that felt scariest to me were Romania, Ukraine, Russia and the UK, the first three because of terrible roads and bad driving, and the latter because there are just too many people in a small space and the roads are badly designed for cyclists (yes, I know they aren't designed for cyclists at all). Anyway, I wanted to put together something a little more objective.

The best road in Ukraine.

Despite the report describing how many people died on the roads, it missed context. The death statistics mean nothing without bicycle usage data. So I had to go elsewhere for that. In the end I divided the percentage-of-road-deaths-that-were-cyclists from the first document by the percentage-of-people-for-whom-cycling-is-the-main-mode-of-transport from the second. (It would have been better to divide by the total number of kilometres cycled but I don't have that.) The result gives the Danger Level, the higher the number, the more dangerous the country is for cyclists. So – ta-daaah! – I present to you...

The Cyclist's Top Ten Most Dangerous European Countries 

(Danger Level in brackets)

1. Portugal (2.15)
2. United Kingdom (1.43)
3. Czech Republic (1.37)
4. Romania (1.26)
=5. Ireland (1.2)
=5. Italy (1.2)
7. France (1.1)
8. Spain (1.0)
9. Slovakia (0.92)
10. Slovenia (0.90)

(I also had data for Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Sweden.)

Both documents give information for Poland and Finland but both countries' bike usage is listed as 0%, which is unlikely for Poland and definitely not true of Finland – they have a well-developed cycle path network – and so maybe the source data is dodgy. I didn't see anyone else cycling in Poland and so if we give Poland a low percentage usage but higher than zero – you can't divide by zero – then Poland leaps to the top of the Danger List. From what I've read on cycling forums, quite a few would agree with that. Congratulations, Poland!

But at least my hunch about the UK seems right, which, as a Briton, is no consolation. Get on your bikes and cycle to mainland Europe. Almost everywhere else is safer.

The European death document also tells us the most dangerous day of the week to cycle. It's Saturday in Slovenia, Tuesday in Greece and Monday in France. But in Denmark, the Netherlands, Romania and the UK, as well as overall in Europe, the day to stay indoors is Friday. So, it's maybe better to sleep at your desk on Thursday night and cycle home again on Saturday. Or just stay at home and plan your next cycle tour.

Safe pedalling,

Thursday 7 August 2014

Europe's Top 46 Touring Destinations

To kick off this reworked blog, I figured I'd write something to which I could add a sexy clickbait title, like "The 7 Most Delicious Ways To Cook Your Cat" or "The World's 13 Largest Penises (You Won't Believe Number 4. I Was Shocked!)" - y'know, that kind of nonsense.

Usually, these types of article don't provide any justification for their ordering, but I will. There's a very popular website called Crazy Guy On A Bike, where nearly 10,000 cycle touring blogs are collected. If you type something into its search engine, you get told how many of its pages contain that word. So I figured that by typing in the countries of Europe, it would provide a measure of their popularity.

Now, I'm aware that this is slightly flawed. For example, if someone cycling through Grimsby mentions a particularly lovely turkey sandwich then obviously Turkey scores an extra point. Likewise, if someone in Scunthorpe waxes lyrical about her love of the Wombles, and in particular Uncle Bulgaria, again we get a skewed result.

There are other problems too. Some countries have several names - United Kingdom might be Britain, or England, or Scotland, or Poundland - and Ireland could be north or south. Let's not get Sinn Fein involved. Also, these results apply only to English language blogs and so really it should be "Europe's Top 44 Touring Destinations For People Who Write In English", but that would have been as crap as Abu Hamza on Bullseye.

But forget that. Just like those adverts for expensive shampoo, let's pretend it's scientific.

So, here's the list with the hits in brackets.

1. France (66670)
2. Germany (41052)
3. Turkey (27918)
4. Italy (26355)
5. Netherlands (21629)
6. UK (21067)
7. Austria (20148)
8. Switzerland (20039)
9. Spain (17679)
10. Belgium (14752)
11. Ireland (14462)
12. Hungary (13650)
13. Croatia (13261)
14. Greece (10833)
15. Bulgaria (10405)
16. Slovakia (9648)
17. Romania (9229)
18. Slovenia (9142)
19. Czech Republic (8873)
20. Denmark (8700)
21. Serbia (7964)
22. Poland (7402)
23. Portugal (6883)
24. Luxembourg (6112)
25. Norway (5667)
26. Iceland (4744)
27. Sweden (4431)
28. Montenegro (4035)
29. Russia (3966)
30. Bosnia & Herzegovina (3446)
31. Albania (3440)
32. Liechtenstein (3172)
33. Finland (2783)
34. Estonia (2473)
35. Lithuania (2275)
36. Latvia (2264)
37. Monaco (2009)
38. Ukraine (1702)
39. Malta (1566)
40. Macedonia (1537)
41. Andorra (1269)
42. Cyprus (944)
43. Moldova (657)
44. San Marino (606)
45. Belarus (594)
46. Kosovo (466)

It's fairly obvious that France would get the number one spot, but what surprises me is how popular Turkey is (or maybe how popular turkey sandwiches are in Grimsby). That said, maybe Turkey really just means "everywhere else in Asia", as it's the easiest way to get to everywhere else in Asia. I'm discounting the idea that it's loads of people writing, "You'll never get me going to Turkey!"

What also surprises me is how high Liechtenstein is. I've been there. It's rubbish. And it beats all the Baltic States and some of Europe's other gems. What's going on?

Anyway, there you go. What do you reckon? Are there any countries in this list that deserve to be higher or lower?

Happy pedalling,

PS. In case you were wondering, that shocking number 4 was David Cameron. I thought he would've been higher. He is a massive penis.

Saturday 2 August 2014

A New Start

It's time to breathe life back into this blog. It's no longer "Getting There By Degrees" (the diary of my 22,000 mile ride) and is now "The European Cycling Blog".

From now on, it will be a more generalised cycle touring blog, not solely concentrating on my adventures, but hopefully with as much nonsense as before.

Bring it on!

Wednesday 3 July 2013

The Giant Hogweeds of Destiny

Let's start off with some drama. Today it was only down to pure luck that I wasn't killed. But let's come back to that in a bit.

So I'm in Russia. I'd been told all sorts of horror stories about Russia and so let's explode a few myths:

Myth 1. The Border is Bad: I'd been told border formalities can take up to three hours and include a full bag search - yikes! I have self-labelled blood pressure pill bottles. My crossing involved no search whatsoever and took less than ten minutes. Next!

Myth 2. The People are Bad: You'd think that Russians were demonic if you believed what I've heard. They aren't. Yesterday, due to reasons that I'll explain later, I had another spoke go pop. Although I was only halfway through my day, luckily I was just a few kilometres from Ostrov, a town of about 20,000, which around these parts is massive. I figured it'd have a bike shop. In the past, most bike malfunctions have resulted in some serendipitous interaction with the locals. Given Russia's monstrous reputation I doubted it this time.

I saw a man with a bike. He had his head down. So I asked him, in my finest Russian (which isn't fine at all) where  the bike shop was. He looked up, pissed as pint glass full of newts, with food - or vomit - all around his mouth and slurred, 'Da!'. OK, maybe he misunderstood and so I tried again. But no. I got another 'da!' And then another. Maybe his sense of the absurd lead him to an extremely literal form of dadaism. Or perhaps, as I suspect, he'd had one bottle of vodka too many. Not a good start, Russia.

But the next cyclist I asked, Alex, spoke about ten words of English, took me to the bike shop, waited outside with me until it reopened after lunch, purloined a spoke and a spoke key - at least I saw no money changing hands - took me to his garden, introduced me to Valya, his retired English teacher wife, gave me lunch, attempted to fix my bike with less knowledge than I have (the bike shop only sold spares, it didn't repair), gave up and, as time was getting on, helped me find a room for the evening at a place for Russian army officers. I don't want to sound ungrateful but the hotel - which, by the way, is too grand a word - had hints of Patarei Prison, the scary one I'd seen in Tallinn the other day. But on the plus side it was cheap, and cheap is good. Alex and Valya were a great couple and if the entirety of this country is filled with Ian Huntleys, their loveliness still balances out Russians on the niceness scale pretty damn well.

Alex and Valya

Myth 3. The Roads are Bad: Ha! They aren't bad. They are fucking atrocious. They would make the transport minister of a banana republic blush with shame.

I'd been lulled into a false sense of security. From the Estonian border to Pskov, the road was fine - nice tidy tarmac, a little hard shoulder, and no traffic. Only the nasty Giant Hogweeds standing sentry along the roadside gave a hint of the horrors to come. After Pskov, the hard shoulder becomes a sand and gravel pit, alluringly rideable at times, when the intimacy of a speeding juggernaut three inches from your left-hand cheek gets too much. The road surface itself became Ukrainian in its shitness, which was another reason why the sandpit was alluring. For the quality of ride, these roads may as well have been made of cobbles, and that was the coroner's verdict for yesterday's spoke death.

Today things just got worse. The trucks got closer and so the sandpit became even more alluring and, like all sandpits, you never know how deep they are. And then your front wheel goes in and your handlebars go somewhere else and you fall into the road on to the tarmac, skinning both knees, praying, "Please, please, please let there be no cars coming from behind." I got up as quickly as I could and spun around. Phew, an oddly clear bit of road. Not wanting the shock of a dismount to unnerve me, I continued immediately, with a racing heart and stiffening, bloody knees. It was a few kilometres before I stopped and took stock of what had happened. Then I carried on and the same thing very nearly happened again, this time with a juicy truck hovering just close enough behind to squish my head. Luckily I caught the bike before it threw me from it.
Roads in Russia are scarce. There's no alternative to the route I've been taking. It took the rest of the day to come to a big decision.

That this is stupid.

Myth 4. Moscow is Rubbish: Apparently, Red Square aside, there's very little worth seeing. This is one myth that I won't be able to explode, because my decision is that I'm not going to go there. I've checked on Google StreetView, and with the information available, I would be encountering these types of roads every day for the next three weeks. I just don't think that my luck could hold out that long. Besides, I have a lovely girlfriend and a doting mum (and a dad, but dad's don't get factored into these equations for some reason) and I'd like not to die just yet. I'm not missing out on much. Russia is just a massive forest. There are few settlements of any size. There are only so many times you can look at a tree and go, "Oo, it's a tree!" But boredom isn't the reason for avoiding Moscow. Death: That's the reason for avoiding Moscow. Even the stupidly expensive visa isn't enough to make me want to carry on.

Opuchka, the town I'm in right now, is my last chance to escape Russia relatively easily. It's only 70 kilometres to the Latvian border. The rest of my trip will carry on as planned but I'll get to see both Latvia and Estonia again, which is nice. I liked both of those countries. Neither of them tried to kill me.

So has my challenge failed? In a way, yes. But in another way, hell no. I started off with a plan to see 50 capitals. But then I decided to include Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. So even by dropping Moscow, I will still have done 52 capitals. Turn a negative into a positive.

UniCycle52 - it's the future, baby! And I'd quite like to have a future.