The smell of baking bread wafts through the air as I climb the hill away from the ferry. The streets are still and quiet. Beyond the light pollution stars prickle the black sky. The air smells of recently ploughed earth and the sound from wind turbines overhead accentuate the strength of the wind. For a couple of hours I ride in darkness, red lights on turbines blinking all around. The huhuhuhooo of a tawny owl somewhere in the woods. The land feels familiar, I’ve ridden this way before, rolling through farmland and woodland, but maybe not these exact roads. Descending gently into a village I spot the glow of a patisserie, first stop of the day. On a bench under a tree on the village square I sit and eat breakfast.
Darkness fades into the twilight of dawn which in turn fades into day. There’s the sudden recognition of a bend in the road and a short rise through some trees. I am close to the River Somme. The sun is low in the sky as I turn onto the flat path along the river. The rise and fall starts again as soon as I turn away from the river. I’ve not ventured further east of the Somme before so the rest of the day will be new to me until I reach the suburbs of Ghent.
At a crossroads I spy a petrol station and cafe. Perfect, a caffeine hit is required. The landscape continues to roll and undulate north-eastwards and the day gets warmer as the sun climbs higher. Knee warmers and arm warmers are removed and tucked under bungee straps. In a town somewhere I stop of coffee and pastries, enough to get me to the Belgian border. Turns out it isn’t quite enough so somewhere along the way I stop for a quiche when I spot another bakery. Drinks topped up but I still have to use a cemetery tap a few kilometres later. I really wasn’t expecting to need cemetery taps in October.
Giant molehills appear on the horizon, artificial hills betraying a mining past. The towns nearby are build on grids and concentric circles. Suddenly everything feels very different. Roads are flatter and straighter, houses get squarer, the shapes of roofs change. France seems to be melding into Belgium long before the border. Roads get even straighter, I cross many small waterways until I enter the outskirts of Armentieres. Through the town I stop for a cold drink before joining a path along a river. I realise this is La Lys which I will follow almost all the way to Ghent, though it will change it’s name to Leie in Belgium.
I play hopscotch with the border, which follows the middle of the river with odd little deviations beyond each bank occasionally, for a while until crossing a bridge the signs and languages change and I’m definitively in Belgium. I hug the river with occasional detours into towns and around industrial estates. I pass through places made famous by the spring classics; Wevelgem, Harelbeke, Kuurne.
250 kilometres ridden and energy is flagging. Crisps and Fanta from a vending machine in the middle of nowhere. A digital display shows 18:30 and still 23 degrees. Flickers of cramp. Head down, let’s get this done. The next 20 kilometres drag. I track railway lines to the edge of the city centre where I transfer from the smooth cycle path to cobbled streets and look for my hotel. I start thinking about dinner and beer.
289 kilometres, 14 hours and 4 minutes.
I wake up late and make the most of the breakfast buffet, it’s going to be another long day. Not as long as yesterday but over 200 kilometres. It’s not too much of a concern though as it is going to be very flat and according to the forecast I should have a cross-tailwind all day. Out of Ghent my route passes through many nondescript towns that remind me of those mid-week non-World Tour Belgian not quite Classic races you see on Eurosport in spring. Soon the towns give way to countryside and long straight tree-lined roads. It being Flanders cobbles make their presence felt now and again.
For some stupid reason I have routed myself into Antwerp unnecessarily along a cyclepath next to a motorway for some 20 odd kilometres. It’s noisy and not very pretty. I plug my headphones in and zone out for an hour. Between a long queue in a small supermarket, road works, traffic lights, and more roadworks I seem to lose an hour in Antwerp. I make a note to avoid this place in future. The pedestrian tunnel under the river is fun though.
The 35 kilometres after Antwerp follow a river and two canals. Flat apart from little ramps at the locks at regular intervals, climbing in tiny increments. Somewhere in a busy town market weaving in and out of pedestrians I crossed a dotted line painted across the cycle lane with NL painted on the far side. Things seem to get even straighter and flatter, though I am sure this is not actually possible. Houses get fancier, more modernist looking, and towns are built on grids and order. Everything just seems a little neater and tidier. It’s all very De Stijl. Cyclists and pedestrians get priority everywhere, it’s like a dream. Here the car is not king. Every path side cafe and bar is bustling, bikes racked up outsides, kids playing, adults drinking and eating. And there seems to be a cafe or bar on every corner. I make a mental note to come back and explore the Netherlands far more slowly.
Ice Tea and a Magnum on the edge of Tilburg. More straight roads, canal paths, and a dyke that snakes along the river Waal. A sinking feeling as I turn onto what I expect to be a bridge that turns out to be a little jetty. Shit. I didn’t realise there was a foot passenger ferry on today’s route, and there is absolutely no sign of one. Clearly at sundown on a Sunday there are no ferries.
Phone out and hit up Google Maps.
…Panic over. Detour to a motorway bridge eight kilometres up river and then follow my phone until I pick up the plotted route on a bridge in Arnhem. I follow the line on the Garmin up a hill to a hostel for the night.
240 kilometres, 11 hours and 20 mins.
The ‘short’ day, roughly 180km planned from Netherlands into Germany. Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana (I forgot how very good the book is) and David Bowie in my left ear for company. I was expecting cooler temperatures today so am wearing 3/4 lengths and a long sleeve jersey. This turns out to be a mistake, by midday a town centre digital display indicates 29 degrees. It’s October f.f.s., tea and cake season, not more Ice Tea and Magnums.
A petrol station snack stop potato latke turns out to be a hamburger. Oh well, fuel is fuel. Fizzy ice tea. Something resembling a hill about halfway, just before the border. Not much of one but offers two minutes of freewheeling down the other side.
Other than that a day of long straight flat roads and autumn colours. Towards the border the land becomes more agricultural, big farms and large fields. Many stables, horse country. There’s a feeling of mid-west America. With no hills or mountains the landscape reveals it’s changes slowly and subtlely. Netherlands all very neat and tidy, lots of waterways. Germany a little messier, a little more undulating, just as many waterways. Architecture becomes more austere and imposing. Red brick and green paint. Three cats sit on a stable door, looking like an 1970’s Athena poster. I’ve seen more windmills in Germany than the Netherlands. On a map a border may be a distinct line, in reality countries blend together gradually.
Third day tiredness is combatted with double espressos all day long. I stop for the night in a town where nothing is open (seems Monday is the quiet day in the protestant countries) except Lidl. A seven euro random-picnic dinner in a motel. I wash my kit in the shower and fall asleep.
180 kilometres, 8 hours and 22 minutes.
Drying my shorts with a hairdryer after again I’ve made the most of the breakfast buffet. Big fields, vast horizon. The faint odour of horse shit. The stronger stink of a turkey farm. The longest straightest roads I’ve seen since South Dakota. 10km straight, slight kink, 4km straight.
Only 2 gears needed this morning, one for ever so slightly uphill, one for ever so slightly downhill. Rummaging in framebag for the babybels snaffled from the motel breakfast platter. A double decker train full of cars like little toys. Singing (shouting) along to the ‘long ride shuffle’ playlist.
Right here, right now
there is no other place I want to be
I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Drinking in the morning sun
Blinking in the morning sun
…like everybody else
Just be like everybody else
Just be like everybody else
Be like everybody else
Be like everybody else
Ah, thoughts all seem to stray to places far away
I need a change of scenery
Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes I swear I can see your soul
It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin’
Trees flew by, me and Del were singin’ little Runaway
I was flyin’
And all the world is football-shaped
It’s just for me to kick in space
And I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste
And I’ve got one, two, three, four, five
Senses working overtime
If you go down winding roads
Only winding roads will follow you
Hold on to the thoughts that matter
Think back and remember more
They are yours
Time stops when you’re always moving
Nothing can change it
Life’s what you make it
More and more straight roads. A change in the land, nearing a river, a hinterland that reminds me of Essex north of Tilbury. I always feel there’s something sinister about these places. Reeds and red tipped turbines. A bright orange ferry over the river whilst eating a pastry.
Beyond the river ditches and dykes, riding on river defences and shiny black cobbles before the roads straighten again. Fields of cranes, the birds honking warnings as I approach. Right angle corners.
40km to go. More straight roads. So many straight roads. And cobbles. Riding on patterns.
Sitting on a curb staring at petrol pumps, an espresso and a Snickers to hand. Plus an Ice Tea, obviously.
The land starts a slight roll. Three gears needed this afternoon. Convoluted cyclepaths lead me through the city. I get to my booked apartment and discover I have to pick up the keys from 3km back the other way. Always read the details properly. Idiot. One and a half pizzas for dinner, the other half saved for breakfast, it’s an early start tomorrow.
195 kilometres, 8 hours 53 minutes.
Up and out with the commuters and school kids at bus stops. A drop of chain lube on a squeaky jockey wheel. Rumble across a metal gantry onto a ferry jetty. No sign of a ferry or people. After Sunday, paranoia that I misread the online timetable. I’m sure I double checked, the winter timetable started yesterday so only mornings and evenings from this week. I don’t want to have to ride into Hamburg to find a bridge. With my mitt I wipe the dew from the timetable pinned up. Yes, 8.10am for the last ferry of the morning. I’m half an hour early. A fruitless lap of the houses looking for coffee. When I return there are commuters on the jetty watching the sun rise above the Elbe. From behind a container ship the small yellow ferry appears.
A second breakfast with petrol station flowers. Is the light softer, paler today? A slight haze or dirty glasses or tired fuzzy eyeballs? Probably all three. What day is it? Trees glow golden in the early light.
Riding through a half built housing estate. A disappointing coffee and bun from a cafe near a bus station. Two kilometres later pass a lovely looking bakery. Such is the lottery of grabbing food whilst you know you can rather than risking another 30km with possibly nothing but fields.
The landscape changes once more. It feels more intimate, more woodland, narrower horizons, small hills. Bumps really, but they require gear changes. The legs are feeling the 1000km in the last 4 and a half days. Oh, that means only 100km to the boat to Denmark. There’s time for lunch at a Greek restaurant. It comes served with a liqueur in a Meteora shot glass. A nudge towards the Transcontinental, a sign?
A church spire amongst trees across a field. Wedging a tyre lever between front discs to stop that damn squeal. A junction that looks like France rather than Germany.
The afternoon isn’t quite going to plan. I am hoping to get to ferry by 5(ish) but I discover I’ve made a couple of routing errors. The first one is when I find myself on a motorway slip road. Fortunately I have a second route plotted so I find my way onto my alternative route which happens to be just the other side of the same town. This one gets me closer to the bridge across Fehmarn Sound but also tries to send me down the motorway via the back entrance of a petrol station. Out with the phone and Google Maps again. Finding the entrance to the cyclepath across the bridge Kraftwerk’s Europe Endless starts in my earphone.
Endless endless, endless endless
Endless endless, endless endless
A wind rises. Flags stiffen. Roll the sleeves back down, zip up jersey. A closed road and a pretty town with nice looking bars and bakery. I would stop but I’m determined to get a ferry before sundown. Google Maps and Garmin bodge get me to the ferry terminal at one minute to six. Quarter past six departure to Denmark.
From the deck I watch the sun set over the Baltic Sea. Spag bol and a Carlsberg for dinner on the ferry, and then roll off the boat straight into motel reception.
205km, 11 hours and 5 minutes.
After a good eight hours sleep I’m ready for the last day. I have breakfast in the deserted motel restaurant watching trucks trundle off the ferry. Out in the dawn gloom I’m reminded that I’ve lucked out with five days of pretty much perfect weather up to now. There’s no rain though so time to crack on, less than 200 kilometres today.
The wind has changed direction too, damn. Legs feel tired. Sixth day fatique or that damn cross-headwind? An erect windsock and blown sideways for three kilometres across a bridge.
For lunch the most incredible roast beef sandwich and the sun comes out. Now i just need the wind to shift to my back.
Out of town the hills start. Ok, they barely count as hills but compared to anything I’ve seen since France they are hills. My legs are telling me they are hills and added to the wind the going gets slow. In a tunnel of trees the wind picks up and I find myself in a snow globe of yellow leaves. Never far from the sea I catch glimpses regularly, and ride along the edge of a fjord for a while.
My route is beautiful but devoid of shops so the next 70km is done on one bottle of water. I knew I should have bought a spare bun for the musette at lunchtime. No peanut M&Ms left in the framebag, no snaffled goods from the breakfast buffet. One day I’ll learn to carry spare food at all times. I’m tired and hungry. As nice a place for a puncture as anywhere I suppose. A bonk or sense of humour loss is imminent. Saved by a kœmpe snegl (pastry, custard, cinnamon, icing – it’s so good I’m tempted to go back for a second) on the outskirts of Køge. There are fifty kilometres left on my planned route I reckon. A couple of hours. A sign for Copenhagen, 38km. The “fuck it, let’s just get this done” switch is flicked in my head. Garmin off, turn right. It’s not pretty but it’s functional and fast. I’ve done 1250km of pretty, i can cope with mediocre for an hour or so. My average speed jumps about 3kph.
I realise I’m passing a recommended bike shop on way into the city so swing by South Harbour Cycles to blag a bike box for the flight home. Liam, the owner, originally from England, makes me a coffee and says I can pick up a box tomorrow. You have to love a good local bike shop.
A handful of commuter weaving kilometres and I pull up on the bridge at Nyhavn as somewhere bell rings for 6pm.
182 kilometres, 9 hours and 57 minutes.
5 days, 13 hours, 2 minutes.
I lost count of espressos, ice teas, and pastries.