Monday 23 July 2012

Edinburgh, Scotland - Home is where the heart is

It was another miserable, wet Sunday morning. Wind-driven rain lashed against the big bay windows of the waterfront guesthouses where, dry and cosy inside, the guests enjoyed their croissants and lashings of hot coffee as they looked out over the grey North Sea. Did they see the woman on a heavily–loaded bike cycle by, wrapped up in layers of waterproofs that hid the shabby clothes that she wore, tattered by the winds and bleached by the sun? Did they wonder where she had come from or where she was going? She was going home. 

That woman was me on my way north up the coast of Holland. I had battled across the horrible sprawl of Rotterdam in pouring rain the day before and was now riding in the rain again to the ferry terminal at Ijmuiden to catch the Newcastle sailing. It’s funny how there are key moments in life and you imagine exactly how they are going to be but it never quite works out like that. I had imagined this moment for some time. Although I still had some cycling to do back in Britain to get to Portobello, stepping onto the ferry in Holland seemed to me like the end of my world bicycle adventure. As the ferry pulled out from the quayside I stood out on deck and, as I listened to a favourite, melancholy tune on my ipod, I gazed to the horizon and tried to look well-travelled, windswept and interesting. But my music was drowned out by the ferry company playing at deafening levels what sounded like the comedy theme tune for Pathe News and the moment, as I had imagined it, was lost. Next morning the rain was still falling as the boat docked in Newcastle and I began my ride towards Scotland.

I cycled north up the coast and passed the seaside town of Whitley Bay. It was freezing cold and raining and a bitter wind whipped up white horses on the gunmetal grey waters of the North Sea. But the beach was full of people picnicking, swimming and surfing. You have to admire the Brits with their stiff upper lips, making the best of another bad British summer. 

The sun came out briefly next day as I pedalled by the sea and along the back roads of Northumberland but it was raining again when I picnicked below Bamburgh Castle and cycled across the old bridge over the Tweed at Berwick. It was pouring when I started climbing up through the Lammermuirs, the last hills to cross on my journey. On one of the most foul weather nights I have ever spent in the outdoors, I pitched my tent at Whiteadder Reservoir behind the sailing club. I re-arranged some of the outdoor furniture to get a good spot for my tent. The correct thing to do was to put it back next morning but I thought my own arrangement had slightly better “feng shui” and I had left quickly to take advantage of a beautiful morning, as early sunshine bathed the hills. 

I had chosen this particular route over the Lammermuirs for a special reason. Just after the last rise, where the little road from Longformacus comes in from the left and beyond the first bend, there is a stunning view of the Forth estuary. Today, with morning sun and blue skies, it was magnificent. Edinburgh nestled on the shore in the distance, the Lomond Hills of Fife provided a backdrop and the sapphire-blue waters of the River Forth stretched out passed North Berwick Law and the gannet colony on the Bass Rock. It was the route that I had set out on over two years ago on a ferry to Belgium. I choked back tears as I gazed down on the scene now and imagined an orange-painted ferry cutting its way through the blue waters and out into open seas. I imagined I could see a Scottish woman standing out on deck on the brink of the greatest adventure of her life. She had a bicycle below and a big smile up top. And I thought to myself … I would give anything to turn back the clock and do it all again. 

But there was already a small welcoming party gathered on the promenade in Portobello so I cycled on along the familiar routes of East Lothian and down the banks of the River Esk. Due to the rains, much of the route was under several inches of water but I cycled on right through it, just like Lausanne, my Atlantic cargo ship, ploughing through the high seas. A local cyclist pulled up beside me and said “Have you been on a bit of a tour?”. “Yes” I said, “a bit of a tour”. Minutes later I was pedalling along the prom back to my starting point of two years ago. The “Pauline’s World Cycle” banner that had been hung out at the start of my trip was up again but it had been repainted from “Start” to “Finish”. So my bicycle adventure has finished and I am back home. 

But I’m not sure that I am home. Home is where the heart is and my heart is out on the open road with a distant horizon, an ever-changing view and a colourful set of characters. And there’s another cyclist on my road and in my heart … a rather loveable Belgian man!

Brit pics on Flickr. Keep reading for the final installment and the competition winner.


Thursday 19 July 2012

Edinburgh, Scotland - Update

This afternoon, two years and two weeks after setting out, I rolled into Portobello under sunny, blue skies to complete my world cycle.

Keep reading for the rest of the story ...

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Seahouses, England - Last chance to win

Blimey, I'm back in Blighty! In celebration of two years on the road and the fast-approaching end of my trip, I'm launching the third and final "bicycle diaries" competition. There's a fabulous prize up for grabs - a 2013 calendar featuring the top photos from the tour! Tigger, my faithful navigator, is currently pouring over the maps to work out the total number of miles that I have cycled on the trip. All you have to do to win is guess correctly the total mileage and send your answer by email to with your agreement to be named in the blog if you win and your postal address. Closing date is 31 July. Good luck!

And remember to sponsor me for Oxfam if you've not already done so ... just click on the link on the right. Thank you.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Dordrecht, Holland - A river runs through it

It’s one of Europe’s great rivers, an industrial powerhouse and a key transport artery into the heart of the continent. It’s graced with natural landscapes, historic towns and vineyards but blemished by urban sprawl and factories. Since I left the Alps it has guided me north on the homeward leg of my trip. It is, of course, the River Rhine or, as I shall forever affectionately call it, the “River Rain”. Yes … it has been wet!

I joined the Rhine just east of Basel after I cycled out of the Swiss Alps and it was just west of Basel in the French village of Kembs that I was kidnapped by Bart and returned to the mountains for another idyllic month of hiking, biking and living it up in his campervan. And so it was that when Bart returned to Belgium he dropped me back on the Rhine at Kembs to continue my journey home. We said goodbye on a miserable, wet Sunday morning and I cycled away in rivers of rain and floods of tears. 

As I pedalled downriver through forests and pastures and pretty little villages, the rain lashed for several days, a case of the weather matching my mood. But eventually the sun came through for a little while and with it came the mosquitoes! I’ve slept in some strange places on this trip from gas stations to hotel storage rooms to public toilets and on the Rhine I found another strange spot. It was getting late in the day and I couldn’t find a place to camp as every good spot was infested with millions of mozzies. Then, just outside the quiet village of Reinsheim in the far corner of a sportsfield, I spotted a tent that on closer inspection was empty and abandoned. It was one of those huge, cheap tents that people buy in Asda for 50 quid then throw in the bin after the first gust of wind blows it down. I wheeled my bike straight in and dived into bed in one of the rooms, well out of the reach of the mozzies! 

There is a bicycle route that runs the full length of the Rhine, all the way through Germany and into Holland where the river splits into a huge delta and flows into the North Sea and it’s that route that I followed for nearly two weeks. It’s a small part of an amazing network of bicycle routes throughout Germany and Holland, all mapped and signposted. I barely ever touched traffic. In an effort to save money, I didn’t buy a proper map of the route and was laying my trust in the efficient signposting. Unfortunately the signs all disappeared around the large town of Ludwigshafen in a maze of roadworks, motorways and diversions, and I got incredibly lost. A local man came to my rescue and cycled with me for over an hour in a mini adventure along back roads, bike routes, farm tracks and muddy fields to get me back on my route. I had a job keeping up with him even though he was 72! 

Each day I would pass and exchange a greeting with all sorts of cyclists from locals on their daily commute to heavily-loaded, long-distance pedallers like myself. I especially remember two very loud German cyclists that I kept meeting. They wore those “bib” style cycling lycras that Bart likes but then Bart has the figure for them … these chaps did not! They didn’t even wear T-shirts on top so their huge, bloated bellies bulged out between the braces, looking like they’d been inflated with bicycle pumps! I never saw them without a beer in their hand so that explains a lot. Mind you, you have to sympathise with them because you can’t pedal a mile along the Rhine without passing a bar or cafĂ© with a waterfront terrace. It’s so tempting to sit a while and watch the barges ferrying cargo, coal and cars up and down the river, or the cruise boats depositing tourists at another castle or historic bridge or souvenir stall. I took a few short cruises on the Rhine myself … each time I had to cross from one side to the other on the little ferries. Thankfully there are hundreds of these ferries that haven’t been replaced by bridges. They are a very charming aspect of cycling along the river. 

The sun did make a few appearances. At the beautiful small city of Koblenz I sat on a terrace enjoying a coffee at Deutches Eck where the Mosel adds its waters to the Rhine and listened to the music from an accordion player drift through the hot summer air. But the sun brings its own problems! My water bottles had developed a lining of green algae and I didn’t have a long-handled brush to clean them. Late one afternoon I stopped to ask a farmer if I could have some water. He helpfully took my bottles away into the house to fill them but took a long time to bring them back. I later discovered why … he had cleaned all the algae out of them! It briefly got really hot and sweaty as I cycled through the vineyards and orchards of the upper Rhine before I was engulfed by rain again. As the Rhine passed into Holland huge headwinds whipped across the flat farmland and waterways, driving the rain into my face. I cycled on along bike routes and quiet back roads, peering through the rain for views of windmills and pretty little villages with narrow, cobbled streets. I always wanted to linger in these places but the rain and wind blew me onwards to the end of the river.

My wet but wonderful journey along the Rhine has brought me from the mountains to the sea. In the next few days I’ll cross the city of Rotterdam and cycle north up the coast to catch my ferry from Amsterdam back to old Blighty! From what I’ve heard about this summer’s weather, I can expect more rivers of rain.

Photos from the Rhine on Flickr - sorry but the camera wasn't out much in the rain!

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Rastatt, Germany - The king and queen of cols

As I pedal my way north along the Rhine in the rain, the world’s most famous bicycle race, the Tour de France, is underway. I never paid much attention to it myself but this year I’ll be eager to catch the mountain stages. You see, Bart and I have just finished an eight-day cycle tour climbing some of the highest Alpine road passes, many of which have been made legendary by the cyclists of “Le Tour”. 

Many people may find it a bit strange to want to cycle every day up one, two or even three high mountain passes in the stinking heat of a European summer, only to come straight back down the other side. But “collecting” these passes, or “cols” as the French call them, can become quite addictive! We’d loaded up our bikes and parked Bart’s campervan in the quiet ski village of Saint Sirlon d’Arves, where it would be safe while we were away, and started our tour with one of the most famous and beautiful cols, the 2642m Galibier. Hours of hard climbing took us up into the mountains and the last of the winter snows alongside hundreds of other cyclists keen to add this col to their “tick list”. Most cyclists undertaking these rides are cycling superlight race bikes with no luggage and some even have support vehicles.  So I was pleased to do the climb on my superheavy touring bike with all my kit for a week on the road and to make the top not too far behind Bart! The climb was rewarded with spectacular views of Park Nationale des Ecrins and a bit of a party atmosphere on top as all the cyclists celebrated their achievement and queued to take a photo in front of the sign! 

Our next famous pass was the 2360m Col d’Izoard, a bizarre landscape of bare mountains and weathered rock formations. As we sat on top eating our picnic, we watched with admiration as an elderly coupled arrived by bicycle on the summit. They were probably in their sixties or seventies! When the man stepped off his bike, he was almost bent double with a bad back but the woman was fit and beautiful for her age with long, plaited hair and tanned skin. We hoped to still be cycling when we were their age! After Izoard we ticked off the easy 2109m Col de Vars which was notable for me as there I passed the 15,000 miles mark on my world bicycle trip. 

I never come first or win anything in life but that was about to change as we pedalled on to tackle our next legendary col! The highest road pass in Europe is the 2802m Col de la Bonette which seems to sit on the roof of the Alps, high up in remote and rugged mountain scenery. Bart and I couldn’t believe our luck when we got to the final section of the long, hard climb to the col – snowploughs were just clearing the last remnants of the winter snows to officially open the road for 2012! As soon as we could, we squeezed by the machines and pedalled furiously to be the first official cyclists over the col this year. Forever a sweetheart, Bart let me go ahead to reach the col first and crowned me Miss Col de la Bonette 2012! 

We added many more miles and many metres of ascent as the days rolled by and we conquered one col after another. And as the temperature soared into the thirties, we watched the world go by sipping cold drinks on the terraces of bars and cafes in the pretty, little French towns that we cycled through. On our final day we cycled over the easiest col of the tour, the 1367m Col d’Ornon, and then the most difficult one, the 2067m Col de la Croix de Fer. As Bart’s GPS gave a temperature reading of 36 degrees, we climbed a long and initially steep approach road that dispiritingly plummeted back down several times, forcing us to climb again all the height that we’d lost. But eventually the top came and we cycled over the col which is dominated by the impressive rock spires of Les Aiguilles d’Arves. A short descent took us back to the van at Saint Sirlon and we were surprised to see it joined on this quiet spot by about twenty other campervans. Bart and I laughed all evening when we found out that we had parked in the middle of a campervan club reunion! 

All-in-all on our 8-day tour we conquered 14 cols over a distance of 632 kms and with 14,567m of climbing! We may not be signing up for next year’s Tour de France but I think we have earned our title of the “King and Queen of Cols”.

Photos on Flickr in the Alps folder