It's difficult to articulate how it feels to leave home for a year on a bike.
I’ve read about others travelling this way for years, so it’s not an alien concept. In fact, it’s the opposite; the amount I’ve read on the topic has normalised this way of travel. So I was surprised by the shock, worry and genuine fascination I received from others. If I was backpacking, no one would give it a second thought, but there’s something about cycling which makes people think differently.
Having said this, the perspective of others had infiltrated its way into how I thought about the trip. In the lead up to leaving, I had questioned every aspect of it. We live in a world where everything is planned, the outcome of any venture is usually known and our daily structure is guaranteed. What makes this type of trip unique is that the majority of it is unknown – and travelling by bike creates a small amount of vulnerability not seen through other modes of transport. The unknown can be daunting, so to question and have doubts is only natural. It can also be enticing and exciting – exactly what I craved.
London to Cologne
We left booking the ferry to the Netherlands too late, which meant it was sold out. We re-routed to Dunkirk from Dover. The first five days of the trip, I was joined by four mates, who cycled from London to Cologne.
Having never cycled 80 miles with over 4,000ft elevation and 27kg of weight, all I could focus on was whether we’d make it to Dover in time for the ferry – check in closes at 7.30pm.
At 6am, I shut the door to my home in North London and pedalled across the road to the Emirates stadium (a fitting start) to meet the rest of the team. I was pretty eager to get going, so after a quick photoshoot to mark the occasion, we made slow but steady progress through central London.
After some time, we got used to each other’s riding styles and the weight on our bikes, so we managed to pick up the pace. By 10.30am, we reached Rochester, our first stop for the day. We sat by the cathedral with a coffee and a bite to eat, and tried to shelter from the wind. It had been forecast to rain all day, but we were blessed with sun and a roaring tailwind.
The rolling hills weren’t as difficult as I’d predicted and the weight was not as heavy. Time went fast, we rode in twos and chatted about what lay ahead over the next few days. Toby acted as photographer for the day, capturing every hill climb, bead of sweat and breakaway attempt. This was the perfect way to start the trip, it was easy. With every rotation of the peddle, we moved closer to Dover. And with that, the anxiety disappeared.
We arrived in Canterbury at 2pm, which gave us more than enough time to enjoy a pub lunch. Canterbury is only 20 miles from Dover, so we relaxed, bought overpriced burgers and I savoured one last Guinness (that’s assuming Guinness isn’t served anywhere else).
As we got closer to Dover, the wind intensified – from tailwind to crosswind to tailwind – it couldn’t make its mind up, but we had made good progress so it wasn't a worry. Descending the white cliffs of Dover was a short, steep descent. Strava made it look like a long, winding one, but it was over in a couple minutes – big anti-climax. On the plus side, we’d made it to Dover with over two hours to spare. We waved Toby off, who was heading back to London, and continued on to the ferry terminal. I was pretty happy. We had cycled from London to Dover and were early enough to board the 6pm ferry. First hurdle, done.
The ferry docked at 9pm local time. As the car ramp latched onto dry land, we peered outside to see what we thought was rain. We layered up, covered head to toe in waterproofs, and cycled off the ferry to start a 45 minute cycle from the terminal to the city. Very quickly, we realised the rain was in fact sea water running off the side of the ferry. So, we swapped rain for sweat and continued in this fashion all the way to Dunkirk.
Day 1 was mammoth, covering a total of 95 miles. The hardest part was over, the trip had started and the first destination ticked off.
Myself and Sam woke up late, meeting the girls at 8.45am. We meandered through Dunkirk on the hunt for a croissant and coffee. This took longer than expected, so we didn’t properly get on the road until 10am. With the sea to our left, we followed a cycle path into Belgium. The route took us past the Westfront Nieuwpoort Monument, a memorial for British soldiers killed on Belgium beaches during WW1. From here, we set our sights on Brugge. Brugge boasts rich historical architecture, small winding cobbled streets, which are all built on a bed of rivers and canals. With stomachs talking and energy low, we found ourselves in the warmth of Vlissinghe, the oldest cafe in Brugge. We inhaled more calories than Eddie Hall's daily intake before heading to our campsite 40 miles east of the city.
The remainder of the day was a struggle – a combination of a food coma, over 100 miles already in the tank, and the lack of scenery, made for a tiresome journey. We reached the campsite just before 8pm. With the sun setting, we quickly put the tents up and ate dinner. The thermostat was touching minus 4C, so we huddled in one tent to keep warm before hitting the hay.
“There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” – Ranulph Fiennes
To keep weight to a minimum, Sam and Emma hadn't brought sleeping bags suitable for the cold temperature – we woke to frost on the tents. They had an awful night’s sleep.
It took some time to shake off the frost from the previous night, so we left camp late. However, when we got going the sun came out and a tailwind gently pushed us along another canal cycle path until we reached Antwerp.
Belgium is incredibly flat. At first I thought I’d enjoy it, but after a while, it was reminiscent of a spin class. I was half expecting someone to appear from a bush to tell us to start doing push ups on the handlebars. It has to be said though, the cycling infrastructure in Belgium puts the UK’s to shame. Cycling seems to be a way of life for the Flemish which is a nice change.
After lunch in Antwerp, and spirits lifted, we continued to follow the river east. The wind was directly behind us, making for an incredible afternoon’s ride. Myself and Sam spent the next few hours slipstreaming and hitting speeds of 27mph. We regrouped with the girls later and rode as a four until we reached the campsite.
We arrived early enough to enjoy a few beers in the campsite’s bar. But as we got used to the warmth, Sam and Emma got flashbacks from the nightmare of the previous night. With temperatures again expected to reach below freezing, they were adamant they couldn’t relive it. Alex and Emma spoke to the campsite owners and arranged for us to sleep in one of the empty caravans on-site. Knowing there’d be four walls around us, everyone relaxed and we stayed for a couple more beers.
I woke up at 5.30am to make the team coffee. With 90 miles ahead of us, we wanted to make it to Cologne in good time, so we left the caravan at 6.45am. After an extremely cold 15 miles through the Neerharerheide Nature Reserve, we crossed into the Netherlands.
The change in culture was obvious and almost immediate. Without any physical border, this was a surprise. It was exactly the same when we crossed into Germany. Coming from the UK, where there is a sea between us and everyone else, it’s interesting to see how culture can be so distinctive with no obvious border. I’m sure this is something I’ll continue to ponder as I progress further.
We stopped in the Netherlands for an hour or so to watch UCI’s Amstel Gold Cup. You can’t beat watching a professional peloton whizz pass whilst on a cycling adventure. I felt like Francis Bourgeois, a trainspotter who lets out yelps of excitement when a train horn goes off.
Again, the sun was out which helped us meander the cycle paths into Germany. We had a kebab for lunch in a small town called Titz, which amused me. After lunch it was all downhill into Cologne. We arrived at our AirBnb at 5pm – situated on the 11th floor of a tower block, it came with incredible views of the city and the cathedral was in plain sight. We quickly got changed and went out for dinner.
I spent the morning in the flat doing admin whilst everyone else went to sort their bikes for the flight home.
For the rest of the day, we sat in the sun eating Bratwurst and drinking beer. The first five days felt like a holiday, so when Sam departed late in the afternoon, the realisation of what I was planning to do hit home.
The real trip starts tomorrow.