Resting our sore bottoms in Colmar

As we arrived in Colmar we passed the 470 mile mark for our tandem cycling trip. Here’s what that almost looks like:

Route map colmarI say almost, because we caught three trains on route. The first after we left Bruges, as the flat open spaces of Belgium were getting a bit dull, never thought I would crave hills on this trip. Another to get to a house sit on the outskirts of Paris, and finally so we could peg it over to Colmar to see my parents in East France.

We racked up the miles without really paying much attention. It’s our first ever cycling tour and we’d done no training. Plus Kel had been ill with parasites for the last year and I’d got fat. Seemingly to make up for the fact Kellie couldn’t eat much food, I ate her share.

I always thought I was one of those annoying folks who couldn’t put on any weight no matter what I ate. 3 months of stuffing my face in Canada and gaining 12kg (26 pounds) in bulk proved that wrong.

It’s not the normal build up, but thankfully being a bit of a porker doesn’t stop your legs working and Kel continues to recover from her parasite infestation. Dairy and high sugar foods still bring on her waves of nausea, she avoids these now. I imagine it’s torture watching me fill my belly with all the pastry France has to offer.

We’ve adapted pretty quickly to the rigours of cycling. The first 2 weeks involved lots of moaning, groaning and grunting (steady on). A days riding would be littered with breaks, and finish with us collapsing on the floor exhausted. Making an evening meal would be a real chore, staying awake beyond 8:30pm almost impossible.

Now we sometimes extend our days riding, or do a spot of sight seeing. Mornings are not the painful exercise they used to be, lactic acid no longer burning our legs as soon as we set off. The only breaks we need are to rest our painful posteriors. What would life be like without our padded shorts? Probably a lot less stinky, there is definitely a foul stench after 5 days of riding. Never touch another’s padded shorts is an unwritten rule.

It feels like we have hit our stride finally, after many nightmares involving destroying Donkey on a train and France trying to break us. The pleasure of cycling now far outweighs the pain. So of course, just as we find our feet we decide to stop for a week. Yup, very sensible…

Colmar fairytale

Colmar is the town we’ve chosen as a base and it’s impossibly beautiful. Buildings straight from a fairytale, cobbled streets, patisseries, restaurants and coffee shops everywhere. It’s a tourists dream, with museums, tourist trains, Bartholdi statues (the chap who made The Statue of Liberty, in my ignorance I didn’t know this was his hometown) and even a section of town called Little Venice (for obvious reasons). But the crowds of people here in May is not overwhelming, in fact it can be pretty quiet as you roam the streets.

We’ve taken the time to hang out with my parents, who drove down from the UK to join us, in a lovely Airbnb apartment slap bang in the centre of Colmar. When we’d had enough of town life we hired a car and headed to the hills. The nearby Munster Valley is filled with windy roads and huge elevations (they ski here in the winter), resulting in astonishing views of the countryside.

Long ago we discovered researching our destination is pointless. It causes underwheliming-itis. Instead we find a place to stay and just turn up. Then sometimes you get a complete surprise like this…

night colmar

night time colmarcolmar streetsflowers colmarcake colmarswans colmarchurch colmarSt Martin’s Cathedral – Plays host to a family of stalks who’ve built a huge nest on one of its spires.

hills colmar

epic Munster Valley

lake colmarview colmarcolmar crazyMy wife enjoying the tourist train a bit too much

The day we broke Donkey (our tandem bike)

‘We broke Donkey!’ Was the cliffhanger ending to Kellie’s last post.

In fact we completely buggered him up, making him impossible to ride. We were 13 miles from our Airbnb destination, and worst of all it was a Sunday.

Unlike Britain, our home nation, France still holds certain days sacred. On Sunday everything comes to a stand still. Well everything except cafes and patisseries. I normally love the French priorities; except on this occasion where a repair shop for our tandem was a necessity and delicious pastry was not.

donky-tandem-bike

Our tandem bike all shiny and new before we broke him

The morning had gone like clock work, a short ride into Amiens to catch a train to Creil, before cycling the last 13 miles to Orry La Ville. After landing a weekend house sit on the outskirts of Paris we needed to make haste with our journey, rather than pedal for 7 days straight we decided to take it easy and catch a train and have a day off to rest our achy limbs.

Breaking the bike

It was a bit of risk attempting to catch a train, after Googling ‘can you take a tandem on a French train?’ I discovered the official answer was a firm non negotiable ‘NON!’

Thankfully the bicycle forums/chatrooms (they do exist) are full of people who have navigated this country by tandem and train. Basically, the advice being show up, smile at the conductor and hope for the best.

There was not need to stress on this occasion, as the conductors also seem to get Sunday off. We wedged the bike in the last carriage and sat down, ready to go.

And that’s when the shit hit the fan. The train lurched heavily away from the station, instantly Donkey became un-wedged and in slow motion fell to the floor.

I picked him up, checked him over. The tandem still seemed to be in one piece, despite the huge crash. But then I tried to move him. His back wheel was jammed, brakes locked on. After 30 minutes of tinkering, the wheel was freed. Good to go, I thought.

Relieved, I held on to Donkey for the rest of the journey making sure he survived intact.

Unfortunately the first hill out of the train station proved to be the end of our trip. The chain crunched, bits snapped and pieces fell off. The rear derailleur (the bit that changes the gears) was destroyed. We were stuck on a hill, going nowhere.

I tried for and hour to perform a make do a mend job, hoping in vain to get us to our Airbnb place, but even with the help of two passing cyclist who took pity on us, there was no fixing this.

I admit now, I was/am pretty clueless when it comes to the mechanics of a bicycle. A bike maintenance course may have been a good idea before we set off, but no point worrying about that now. We thought our bike was finished with, but the passing cyclists assured us he wasn’t beyond repair.

So after the meltdown and panic, thinking our beloved Donkey was a gonna, we had hope of a resurrection. Although breathing new life into our machine would most likely be delayed until Monday.

Well and truly stuck

Donkey had now become a really heavy anchor. A normal bike is pretty easy to manoeuvre when it’s broken, but the weight and awkward bulk of a tandem takes much more effort and thought.

This left us with the difficulty of moving a huge beast the last 13 miles of our journey. Not a f@!king chance were we pushing it up and down hill in the baking sun.

After the last few days, where France had tried to break us, we’ve become pretty adaptable and can think on our feet fast. First decision made, we pushed the bike back to the train station, and discovered there was a train that would take us within a mile of our destination!

YES!!!

Oh hang on though, what’s that on the station monitor flashing away at the side of our train?

A bus? No. Please. Not a replacement bus service.

NO!!!

Ok, so there is no chance of getting this massive mother flippin tandem on a bus. Why didn’t we get separate bikes again?!

Right, what’s the next option?

Erm. Can we leave the bike here and get the bus? It’s shifty as hell in this town, not a chance. It would be gone by morning.

So… Erm. Yeah… I’m out of options. Kellie is looking at me blankly. We eat a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Perhaps that will help us with a flash of genius.

Nope. Nothing.

We could get a local hotel and lose the money we paid on our Airbnb stay. We decide we don’t want to do this. Creil is a bit of an armpit town, we are refusing to stay here.

When does the bus go? Three minutes. We look at each other agreed. It’s worth a shot!!

We jog to the bus with our anchor and look at the conductor and driver pleadingly, then look to the bike and finally to the bus and say “possibleh?”. Body language gets you through most situation when language fails you.

The conductor looks skeptical, the driver is eager! It looks like it’s a challenge he can’t wait to take on.

One problem though, we have no tickets. Kel sprints off to get them, whilst I do battle with bus and bike.

The driver opens the compartment underneath the bus. It’s tiny! I don’t care anymore. Donkey is going on this sodding bus. I rip off the panniers, flip donkey on his side and try sliding him in. He gets wedged instantly, half in, half out. The conductor is getting antsy, the bus must go on time, with or without us. I start sweating profusely.

The driver nips around the other side, opens the compartment and starts pulling. I push. Still he won’t budge.

My 4 panniers and two bags are scattered everywhere, they contain a laptop, iPods, kindles and expensive camper gear. Right now I am praying this town isn’t as dodgy as it looks.

I quickly grab my bike tools, loosen the handlebars and make them flat against the bike. Surely he will go in now!

NO!!

His front wheel is still sticking out. One last shot! Remove the pedals. Thank god I keep my tools to hand. Pedals off, he’s almost in. The driver looks at me with a grin, gives Donkey one last heave and quickly pulls the door down.

He’s in!!

I’m dripping with sweat; Kellie’s running towards me. The conductor is pushing us on the bus. We hope we have all our bags. A quick check round, we do!!

We did it! Adrenaline pumping. Big smiles. We collapse in our seats. And celebrate with another well-earned peanut butter and jam sandwich.

Plans, plans and more plans

Over the next couple of days we locate a Decathlon (a huge outdoor shop), and get Donkey fixed. It involved a lot of pushing and train catching, but he lives to fight another day.

bike fix decathlon

The rollercoaster ride of bicycle touring continues. I’ve read a few blogs which romantacise such adventures, they make it all seem so easy. We definitely don’t.

We go through Plan A, B, C, D, right through to plan fuckety fuck!

The strange thing is, despite all the ups and downs, we love it. Battling through each day, all the unexpected problems, that’s what makes this so special.

We don’t give up, we get through it.

Then we appreciate the easy days and the times luck runs with us. Especially when we get to stay in beautiful locations like this

bike-view

 Our beautiful airbnb stay – Orry-la-Ville

Yes indeed it’s a challenge, but a rewarding one.

France might be trying to break us…

We’ve made it to France, after cycling through Belgium and The Netherlands, and there are times when I’m cycling I couldn’t be happier.

France-riverside

The sun is shining, there is a slight breeze, the birds are tweeting and I’m drifting along, passing the beautiful rolling French countryside, yellow fields of oilseed rape, green forests and gently flowing rivers. The air feels clean. We have a picnic by the side of a river, the sun is warming me as I lie there taking it all in. It’s a perfect moment.

I hope this lasts forever.

Then in a matter of minutes this all changes. The ground opens up and the fiery pits of hell are there to welcome me. Quickly it becomes the most horrific experience I have ever had to endure. An eternity of suffering.

liedown-france

Our first few days in France were tough. Perhaps more mentally than physically.

The first night we planned to camp. After finding a nice site on the Internet we were good to go. It was a short cycle, so by lunchtime we should be have been set up, relaxing in the sun.

We made good time and arrived at said campsite. Only it wasn’t there. A brand new housing estate stood in its place. Ok, so clearly the campsite does not exist. Time for Plan B.

Plan B involved cycling to the nearest hotel another 10 miles away, which we find thanks to our handy GPS. Sadly we’ve discovered our GPS likes to underestimate the distance by roughly a third, we always add a few miles on, so as not to be disheartened.

Around mile 2 of this additional 10+ miles I start to experience all the joys of being a woman at that special time of month. I shall spare you the details, but right now I’m in pain and not happy.

Eventually we arrive at the hotel on the outskirts of beautiful industrial estate, next to and equally visually appealing motorway. I don’t care, there is a bed, shower and Wi-Fi. I’m firmly back in my happy place. We use our camping stove to whip a delightfully tasty meal of tuna and pasta sauce. I devour it in an instant.

france little chef

Lesson learned – let’s make plans

Having learnt from our initial mistake we spend a few hours making accommodation plans for the next day. We cross check our choice of camp site with several websites and even look on google maps hoping it’s up to date. It seems to be, we’re happy it exists.

We also plan another 2 nights of our journey, content with our choices we sleep soundly.

The majority of the next day I’m ecstatic. It’s truly beautiful and I feel so lucky to outside cycling my way through this stunning countryside, we are cycling through the Somme region. The flat lands of Belgium and The Netherlands are far behind and despite the testing hills I’m happy with the stunning change in scenery.

Now France is a little bit camping crazy. There are signs everywhere. So when your approaching your destination and you’ve not seen a sign, you start to worry.

Arriving at the destination we find yet another housing estate!

Slightly broken we stumble towards a shop and in our best French, which basically involves badly pronouncing words from a phrase book to a bemused shop assistant, to try to find some accommodation. Thankfully the shop assistant is able to speak a little bit of English to help us on our way.

She points us onwards to the next town just 4 miles away, where two hotels await us.

To our despair the first is closed and the second is full. Three accommodation strikes in one day, our luck is out. Rob is ever the optimist, but even this has dampened his spirits.

I start to think, ‘What the f**k am I doing?’ Most people go to a 5* resorts for their honeymoon, and I’m again without a place to stay for the night with very few options left.

After a moan, a snickers bar and a regroup we decide there is actually only one option. Find a field and covertly camp.

france cyclists

I was a little bit jealous of these guys on their tiny lightweight bikes

Unlike Scotland, wild camping in France is illegal so we are taking a bit of a risk. The Lonely Planet actually says you risk the wrath of a farmers shotgun if caught. We convince ourselves this is scaremongering, find a secluded wood and set us and Donkey up for a night of camping.

We cook tuna pasta (again) and settle in for the night. Only slightly jumping at every noise we hear in case it’s a disgruntled farner wanting us off his land.

This isn’t so bad, we are in a beautiful setting, close to nature. But our bad luck was not done with for the day. Settling into bed, I hear a noise pffffft noise. Nope, it’s not a trump from my beloved husband.

I ask him, “Rob does that sound like air escaping from somewhere?”

We’d bought two fancy pants inflatable sleeping mats. Lightweight but comfortable and they reflect your heat back, to keep you toasty warm. Amazing inventions.

Well, amazing when they work. The one I was laid on had a faulty valve and collapsed immediately. The cool of the floor leaking through, making me cold to the bone.

We spend the rest of the night squashed onto one of them. Which is less than half the size of a single bed. It isn’t a comfortable nights sleep.

France-wild-camping

We survive the night undetected by any trigger happy farmers and set off on our merry way in the early morning.

There are lots of hills in France and whilst I swear my way up them as my legs feel like they’ve been set on fire, coming down is bliss.

There is no greater part to my day then when Rob says the word, “Coast.”

We even hit a high of 29mph on a downhill that day.

WTF??!!

We come to a town and see lots of the lovely camping signs. It’s only lunchtime but as its a nice day and we’ve hit our daily target we decide to call it a day.

But it is a familiar story that awaits us. All three of them have closed down. WTF??!! Where have all the campsites gone?

Onwards to the next town. Where not a campsite or a hotel await us. Then the next town. Still nothing.

We continue riding. Our energy levels low and our spirits even lower. We cycle in silence.

Then a miracle! Out of nowhere I see the word motel!

Forgetting all the 10 words of French I know, I run in and ask if they have room. They are actually closed as it’s a holiday in France, but they take pity on us and let us have a room.

Never have two people been so happy to be in a room with a bed and a shower. A day without such luxuries made me so appreciative of them. Quickly we have gone from the depths of despair, to smiling like a buffoon at the sight of a kettle in a motel room!

We are back on top of the world, ready for whatever is thrown at us next.

Honestly every day is filled with these moments. I’ve never done anything that can change my emotions so quickly. There are many times a day I question our sanity for taking this on. Then there are many times a day I question why we didn’t do this sooner.

Oh, and just when you thought our bad luck had finished….

The next day ran without a hitch. Fate decided it was not ok with this, so the following day we broke Donkey (our tandem bike)….

Pedal Challenge Europe – The highs and lows (so far)

Six miles. That’s the furthest distance Kellie had pedalled on a bicycle, before this European cycling trip (or honeymoon) we’ve embarked upon. I‘m not too far ahead, with 16 miles.

The aim is to get from Amsterdam to Florence, via The Netherlands, Belgium and France.

Yesterday, on our seventh day of riding, we managed 45 miles, our biggest distance so far, riding from Antwerp to Gent.

pedal drempelsThere may be bumps ahead

It’s not a huge amount I know. But our burning thighs and heavy eyes, scream that it is. Sleep is not a problem each day, staying awake is.

The whole thing is ridiculous concept for two extremely unseasoned cyclists, the idea dreamt up by Kellie in a moment of madness. I think she regretted it the moment the words left her mouth, “let’s cycle Europe”. I immediately said, “YES”. Her face instantly replied OH SHIT!

The weight of it all

Without being too cruel to our much-loved Donkey (our bike), he is the cheapest tandem bicycle we could find. We could have quite easily called him Elephant due to his immense weight. But his wheels go round, and that’s all that matters.

Then there is at least at least 35-40kg of luggage, gear and food that we carry with us each day.

Oh yeah, I also forgot to mention we did no training for this. Zilch! We thought any amount of training would just scare us.

It’s a world away from the comfortable house sitting gigs we’ve had for the last 16 months. But sometimes it’s a necessity to escape your comfort zone.

We sped (not sure that’s the correct term for our snail pace) through the Netherlands in the matter of days, cracking a smile as we passed the België sign. The realisation finally hitting home that we are actually doing this, CYCLING EUROPE!!

pedal-Belgie

Pedal Challenge

When we hit Belgium, the wind formed a barrier. “You shall not pass!” seemed to be its message, but we creaked on ever so slowly for two days. Although the question of, “what the fridging hell are we doing?” was on both our lips.

Then we arrived at our accommodation each night, completely knackered, but happy. We did it! We made it through the day.

For us it is a big challenge, but one which we desperately need. Each day we wake up and have a goal, to get from A to B. On rest days we get the glorious pleasure of doing nothing, or taking in the city sights, or eating the delicious local pastries (Kel hates me a bit for this as her parasite recovery stops her from doing it, she has to watch me stuff my face).

pedal-street-antwerp pedal-antwerp-flagAntwerp is definitely one of our unexpected highlights so far

pedal-calories-cake

Not having a function each day was something I often struggled with when house sitting. I set targets, like learning to make websites, or attempting to learn a new language, but these came up short to this current physical challenge.

Maybe I’m weird, but there is nothing more satisfying than being physically exhausted at the end of the day rather than mentally drained.

Divorce Bike

The divorce bike, as tandems are often nicknamed, makes us work as a team. When we are tired mistakes are inevitable, and so are frustrated snaps. But those moments pass quickly, we pedal through them. Suddenly Kellie is excitedly shouting, “Look at the little lambies!” as we pedal through spring in the flat open countryside, past the fields and canals.

pedal-kid-goat

Spring in all its cuteness

This adventure is definitely one to share and a tandem suits us perfectly.

We have settled into nice little routines in the morning. Kel makes breakfast, organises lunch and the food bag. I pack the panniers and carry out essential bike maintenance (or EBM as we now call it). I have become geekily addicted to a spot of EBM, making sure our bike is roadworthy each day.

Our cycling day usual involves this: Pedal, stop, eat. Pedal, stop, eat. Pedal, stop, collapse, stretch, shower, eat and finally bed.

Then there is the daily laundry to keep up with. Underpants and socks join us in the shower, getting a squirt of shower gel and good foot stomping. It’s important to keep them fresh with only 3 pairs of undies to choose from. I wouldn’t want to inflict my cheesy feet on anyone.

It’s an uncomplicated way of life. All you need is an average bike, an average level of fitness, and some cream to stop chafing and away you go! I wish we’d done it sooner.

We have ourselves a challenge, and despite our achy legs, all the moaning and groaning each day, we are hitting new highs in our travelling life.

Tomorrow we make haste to Bruges!