We lean our bikes against the window of the kebab shop and plonk ourselves at a small table near the door. A young couple sat at the counter chatting and smoking glance over but ignore us. A quartet of older women and a man sat at a table in the corner look over with inquisitiveness mixed with what appears to be disdain. I’m too tired to tell. I can’t remember the last time we slept in a bed or had a decent wash. Last night we were in Italy and slept on some benches next to a cycle path. We’d missed a proper meal due to some faff trying to find a way around a race banned road, which we ended up riding a few kilometres of anyway as we found our alternative blocked by a washed away bridge. Eventually last night’s dinner consisted of peanuts and M&M’s and a can of Fanta. Since then we’ve ridden from Italy into Austria and a chunk of distance towards Slovakia, some 250 kilometres including a 1600 metre mountain pass. Oh yeah, we had a shower at CP2 a couple of days ago, but since then we’ve ridden in unbelievable heat. We must look and smell dreadful.

It’s about 8pm and it’s starting to get dark. We’re in a town called Zeltweg. The plan is to eat and rest for a short while before continuing as far as possible by midnight and then bivvy for a few hours. Having lost time in the first four or five days due to me being ill we are now trying to make up some time by riding longer days with short sleeps. We’re behind where we know we could and should be. We need to drag ourselves up the road as far as possible tonight. We order some drinks and scan the menu for whatever takes our fancy – chicken wings with rice and a kebab for Jo, potato salad and chicken wings and rice for me. The owner of the shop looks at us in some bemusement. He says that the wings and rice is a big meal as are the other things we’ve ordered. We say this is OK. We’re really hungry and this needs to keep us going through the night.

As the food arrives the owner gestures us towards a table in the opposite corner, “It’s larger, more room for all the food.” We shift ourselves across to the bench seating around the table and settle into our food in determined silence. Damn, I’m hungry. Did we stop for lunch today? I remember pastries and fruit and yoghurt in the car park of a Lidl just after we crossed the border from Italy. And there were ice creams near the bottom of the mountain pass when we both felt a bit bonky. Was that it?  Ah hang on there was that disappointing sandwich thing next to the lake near Villach. I continue to shovel food into my face. The ladies at the table next to us glance over now and again with what now seems like a mix of pity and disgust. They can probably smell us from this distance. Some other locals walk into the shop and order beers and sit at the counter and chat, occasionally looking over at the two filthy cyclists shoving food into their faces.

A middle-aged guy strolls over and asks us where we’ve been. We start to explain about the race, that we’ve ridden from Belgium via Italy since last Friday night, that we’re heading for Slovakia. He looks at us askance, Italy? Slovakia? He relays this information to the others at the bar. There is chatter amongst the locals but little interest other than from the owner. He asks how far we are riding each day, we say around 250km. There is a look of shock and then laughter. He says he couldn’t ride a bike one kilometre. They look at us as if we’re idiots. They could very well be right. We start to think about leaving and riding on.

There’s a flash of lightning outside and a crack of thunder, it starts to hammer down with rain. Proper roads turning to rivers amounts of rain. Maybe we won’t leave just yet. The owner says wait, we can stay as long as we need. The go-between guy wanders back and forth asking about the race and where in Slovakia we are heading. I say we’re aiming for Bratislava by tomorrow and then on to the High Tatras mountains. The women on the next table leave. I open the race tracker on my phone and show the go-between and owner the route of the race, zoom in on our dots at his shop, “This is us”. We see that Jonah (#tcrno5cap81) is out in the storm on the road we came along earlier. Bloody hell I wouldn’t want to be out there. It wasn’t a particularly busy road but cars and lorries tanked along it. I think back but don’t recall seeing any obvious cover until you got to the first of the villages a little way south of where we are now. We see his dot move when I hit refresh. I hope he finds shelter soon, maybe the kebab shop we passed a few kilometres before finding the one we’re in now. Perhaps he’ll make it as far as here and spot our bikes outside. We last saw Jonah at breakfast at 7ish this morning in a bar nestled in the mountains in Italy. The time before that was a few days ago as we raced to make CP2 before it officially closed. It’s a bit of a blur but maybe it was him that shouted “Bravo!” as I neared the top of Monte Grappa. He’d headed up the climb as we camped out for the night at the base. Perhaps he had bivvied at the top and he had passed me on his descent the next morning. His dot seems to have stopped in the previous village. I hope that the kebab shop there is still open for him.

The go-between is starting to weird us out. Something doesn’t feel quite right. We unsuccessfully try to avoid his interest and he tells us the rain won’t stop, we won’t be able to ride again tonight. We remain polite but wish he’d leave us in peace. He wanders back to the others but then appears in front of us again. He says he has a flat he is renovating around the corner, there’s water but no toilet, we’re welcome to use it, he can get the key for us. We shuffle uncomfortably and glance at each other. I notice the owner looking over at the go-between, away from his conversation with those at the bar, and says “Don’t worry, you can stay here for as long as you like.” His look tells me that we should definitely decline the offer of the flat. We explain it is against the rules of the race to accept outside help, that we must remain self-sufficient. The owner repeats that we can stay as long as we like and gives us two bottles of water. I lie back on the bench seat…

The next thing I know is I am being covered with a blanket and Jo is laughing. I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep but I sit up and can see everyone is smirking. Apparently I’ve been snoring for a while. Oh well, there are worse ways for an Englishman to embarrass himself in a foreign kebab shop whilst on ‘holiday’. The rain seems to have eased but not stopped. Jo says the road is still flooded. We discuss what to do. The only sensible option seems to sit it out for a bit longer and hope it stops soon. I have no idea what time it is but it’s getting late. Some of the locals drift out of the door. The go-between has also left. We start chatting to the owner some more, we tell him which countries we have ridden through and where we plan to ride, crossing Europe through ten countries. He tells us he is a Kurd from Lebanon and lived in Leicester and worked as a plasterer for a couple of years before moving to Austria. He gestures towards the sky beyond the ceiling of his shop and says, “We all live under one roof,” before repeating we can stay in the shop for as long as we need. We thank him but say we need to leave soon. The last of the locals leave. It’s nearly midnight, the shop should be closing. The rain has eased. We ready ourselves to leave. He hands us further bottles of water so we can fill our bidons, and says again we don’t need to leave, we can stay. He says he can lock us in the shop, we can help ourselves to drinks from the fridge, to call him when we are ready to leave and he will come back and unlock the shop. We thank him again but explain that it’s against the rules of the race and that we need to keep heading for Slovakia. I don’t care if it’s against the rules I would happily stay but I know that if we did we’d want to be back on the road by 3am and it wouldn’t be fair to call him at that time of the day, particularly when it’s clear he’s stayed open longer than normal because of us. We thank him for his kindness and generosity and finally make our introductions. He says to call him Dilman and hands me a menu pointing at his name. “I’m Gavin and this is Jo, thank you again. You have been very kind,” adding with a smile “sorry for falling asleep and snoring”. He points at the number on the menu and tells us to call him if we need to. He is clearly worried about us going out into the night. I tuck the menu in my pocket. We thank him again.

We ride away from the shop in the damp but at least it has stopped raining. We look for somewhere to bivvy so Jo can get some sleep. We scope out a church on the road out of town and look across the road at the trolley park outside the front of a supermarket. We decide to get a bit further out of town but then pass a pizzeria with a covered veranda out front with tables and benches. There’s a wall around it so us and the bikes will be hidden. Perfect. We push the bikes up a step and lean them against a table and start to unclip our bivvy kit. The door to the restaurant opens and a young guy stands there in his pants looking at us wondering what the hell we’re doing. Crap.

“Er, we were just going to rest here for a while, is it OK to sleep here for two hours?” I ask, hopefully. He says, quite resolutely “No.” Shit. Then he says, “You can’t sleep here…”, and taps his chest with his hand, “it is wrong in the heart, you sleep inside.” I look at Jo. We’ve already declined one offer of unbelievable generosity this evening, it seems churlish to turn down another. Having woken up this poor guy thinking he was being burgled it would be ridiculous to say no thanks and ride off. We say outside is OK as we only need a couple of hours and will leave very early. We’re too tired to try and explain the race and the rules. I doubt very much he cares, he’s probably just glad he’s opened the door to two idiot cyclists and not someone about to turn his restaurant over. He repeats “No, inside” and shows me the push bar lock on the door. We can shut the door behind us when we leave and it will lock itself. We push our bikes inside and apologise for waking him. He shows us where the toilet is and drags a mattress down and lays in on the floor. He points to some cushions piled up on a chair and says we can make another bed from those. He points to the fridge and the tap and says we can help ourselves to drinks. We thank him and apologise again. He disappears to bed. We make ourselves comfortable and I set an alarm for 3.30am.


Scaling Up

I’ve written about mapping out rides before but plotting a route for the Transcontinental is bigger than any previous way finding I’ve needed to do by roughly a factor of ten. Both in terms of distance and the number of countries involved. I’ve been drawing a line across Europe. Superimposing a single simple line across many complicated interconnecting lines. Many lines have been drawn and redrawn across the continent throughout human history. Many kinds of lines have been marked across the landscape, some connecting, others separating, some natural, others man made. Many are weighed down by history, even though gone still visible in various ways. The line Jo and I will ride is invisible to all but us and we will traverse lightly, a tracing that will leave no trace other than in our memories. This isn’t strictly true as there’ll be dotwatchers following us and GPS recordings, but that is all just a digital simulacra that will be forgotten in the noise of the internet. This line will be our life for two weeks – we’ll follow it, eat on it, sleep on it, maybe change our minds about it, deviate from it, but we’ll always be close to it.

Two weeks of lunch hours, evenings, and weekends of looking and thinking. No prior knowledge, except for I rode up the Muur a couple of years ago. There’s no memory map to call upon this time. Information is gleaned from where ever it can be found; Paper maps, online routing tools, Streetview, Google Maps, satellite images, eavesdropping on Twitter conversations, searching for trans-European cyclepaths, checking (and double checking) the race manual. Checking the Foreign Office website for border controls and travel guidance. I think to myself I’m glad we’re doing this pre-Brexit – this could be a whole heap of hassle in a couple of years, but let’s not scratch the surface of that subject just yet (I’m sure there will be something else to write about being European after I’ve ridden across the continent). Lots of conversations about the pretty way versus the easier way have been had. We’re going the pretty way whenever possible. I don’t really see why you wouldn’t. This does mean I’ve routed us over the highest pass in the Eastern Alps, but oh heck it looks stunning. Anyway 20km of uphill will be followed by 20km of downhill…fast downhill. Sixty switchbacks I read. Then there’s the option of the easy valley road or climbing in and out of the Dolomites. Pretty vs. Easy, again.

All of Europe has been unfolded and laid out across the floor to see how places link up and which of the multitude of ways between them are both the most feasible. Trying to make sense of something that isn’t entirely sensible. Figuring out road numbering systems (is that a motorway?) and factoring in border and river crossings, sometimes one and the same – the Rhine between France and Germany, the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria. Using paper maps for an overview, to see the lay of the land. Looking for ways across, between or around mountain ranges, finding the flat(ter) way, if there is one and as long as it doesn’t add too much distance. Tapping these thoughts into routing apps and tweaking almost ad infinitum. Avoiding one hill just to find a mountain. Forgetting to take scale into account when checking profiles – when the big pointy bit is significantly higher than 2000 metres then the chances are those other smaller pointy bits are still going to be over 2000 metres. Everything is scaling up.

Additionally there is the need to know we can find food and water at regular intervals along the way and the task has been almost as time consuming as the ride will be. Deliberately routing us through the middle of towns to ensure we can find the things we need along the way. This isn’t my usual practice, I usually look for the smallest little roads that pass through nowhere, but experience tells me food and water can be hard to find following this pattern. I’ve been marking down Lidls and Tescos, McDonalds and Shell petrol stations. We want to soak in some of the culture and customs we ride through, take ourselves out of our comfort zones, live in the moment, experience the situation, that’s all part of the point of riding a bike, to be a part of what surrounds you, not separated and simply viewing. Yes these known quantities are easy, the recognisable amongst the unfamiliar, and as much as I don’t like the thought that these chains have leached across the world we’ll want, or more importantly need the convenience and ease of familiarity every now and again when exhausted and hungry. They are the nearest to a comfort zone we’re likely to get. My experience of Streetview is that the photos may be old and that little shop may no longer be there, but the big chains will be. As much as I want to support local economies sometimes I’m just going to want a big cup of coke whilst I upload to Instagram on the free wifi. Also big chains often means clean toilets.

I don’t want to Streetview the entire route (not that there’s enough time for that) but there’s a trade off, a compromise between having some understanding of where we’re going and what’s in store for us, against the desire to leave things to be found and surprise us. We don’t want to find that that road turns into a dirt track through a forest on a Bulgarian mountain, that way lies difficulties and wolves, but it’s nice to know that there’s a little bar on that corner so we can get a coffee and fill up our water bottles. Also seeing the changes between regions and countries, and how things look more and more unfamiliar the further east and south we travel, only add to the anticipation. Finding place names lodged in my consciousness for reasons I can’t quite pin down – Graz, Bratislava, Sofia – but probably from sixties spy films. Perhaps from geography lessons back in school, but some places aren’t in the same countries as they were when I was a kid. Even in my lifetime the borders of Europe have been re-drawn. Other place names mean nothing now but in a few weeks will have taken on all kinds of significance. I’ve found places to go back to and explore at leisure.

However no matter how much looking at maps and photos I do riding 4000km in two weeks will be an entirely different experience. A line, some photos, a list of countries

Austria (again)

and place names. It’s a flat one-dimensional world I’ve been looking at and it certainly won’t be that when we’re there. There again that corner of Hungary we’ll skedaddle across looks a bit flat.