Cycling 5,678 km in 70 days through 11 European countries
I acquired a formidable appetite, terrible tan-lines and an ability to sleep in hot tent
Lake Bohinj, Slovenia
“What’s been the roughest day so far?”
I should have been worried when he asked this; everyone else I met on my trip had asked “Where was the best place you’ve been?” or “What is the best thing you’ve done?” This skinny Croatian called Leo, an ultra-endurance cyclist with a Tipperary accent, was only interested in how much suffering I had endured, and how many instances of chafing I had encountered.
He was politely impressed when I had told him I had cycled all the way from Dublin, and was heading to Zagreb that day to catch the World Cup Final against France. “There’s only one road worth taking to Zagreb” he told me, pointing towards a radio mast on top of a mountain range on the horizon. “Aim for that tower there and it’ll be all downhill after that”. He was right, but only after I ran out of water while pedalling my 35kg bike up the hill, complete with tent, stove, and all my worldly possessions for the summer. He would have been delighted to know it was definitely one of the rougher days.
For my summer of 2018, I decided to take some time off work, and to try to cycle as far as I could around Europe, mostly on my own. Picking up a heavily-used touring bike last September from an Australian man who had cycled from Portugal to Dublin, I spent my winter restoring and upgrading it. I set off in May, planning to cycle from Dublin to Budapest and back. I budgeted three months, and expected to cover between 5,000 and 6,000 km, or about 80 to 110 km on a flat day.
I wasn’t too sure why I chose to do this, but it seemed like a good way to explore and meet people from the lesser-visited parts of Europe, and to build up an appetite worthy of the vast food and drink opportunities on offer.
I left Dublin at the end of May with a friend called Dave, whom I had persuaded to join me for the first 1,000 km to Frankfurt. Taking the boat to Holyhead, we made a bee-line for Hull on the east coast of England. After a rowdy Friday night ferry to The Netherlands we found ourselves on the justifiably famed cycle paths of Holland. Broadly following the river Rhine, we cruised into the exceptionally dull Frankfurt on day ten, 1,000 km down, and ready for a rest weekend on some chairs with soft cushions. Our appetites had already doubled since leaving home. Worryingly, we had managed to crash (into each other) three times across the three countries.
Waving Dave off to the airport, I continued south on my own, following the smaller tributary rivers along the “Romantic Road”, through cobblestoned and fortified towns with castles and towers on hilltops, into the heart of Bavaria. Despite being tremendously picturesque, it is somewhat lost on the touring cyclist, as neither cobblestones nor hills are ideal with a heavy bicycle. Making a turn to the east, I headed through Munich and watched the Alps rise out of the horizon as I crossed into Austria at Salzburg.
I decided to take a detour from my main objective at this point, and to explore the Alpine lakes and passes of Upper Austria. The crystal clear glacial lakes made for some refreshing swimming after the oppressive heat on the roads. After accidentally crossing two off-road passes and breaking the 1,000m of altitude mark for the first time, I met an elderly Dutch camper who cooked me some dinner and tried to persuade me to climb a third. Declining this suggestion, I free-wheeled downhill to the Danube at Linz.
Following the Eurovelo Six cycle route along the river, I passed through the vineyard-covered valleys of central Austria, into Slovakia and finally Hungary. I camped next to a couple of middle-aged South Koreans on this stretch who had spent the past two years cycling around the world with an enormous tent and huge amounts of luggage. I couldn’t understand how they could travel so slowly, but they seemed very cheerful. After a week on the Danube, I arrived into Budapest for a full week off the bike, lots of thermals baths and plenty of goulash.
Back in the saddle
With a sense of dread I lowered myself back onto the now familiar hard saddle and turned back west. I decided to cheat and to take a train on the first day, in order to detour to Croatia in time to catch their semi-final against England in the World Cup. I spent half a day winding along the shores of the enormous Lake Balaton, landlocked Hungary’s primary beach resort, relieved that it was a cloudy day for once.
After crossing a Cold-War era checkpoint on a windy bridge into Croatia, I found the Baroque border town of Varaždin with a big screen in the square in which I seemed to be the only non-local. Heavy showers and an England lead didn’t dampen spirits, and when the equaliser and extra-time winner were scored, the screen was hidden behind a cloud of flare-smoke. Crawling out of town the next morning, I felt I had no choice but to head towards Zagreb for the final in four days’ time.
It was on this leg that I met my friend Leo, the sadist who would send me up the hilliest possible road to Zagreb. He had lived in Nenagh for four years, and had just completed a non-stop 1,400 km cycle race across Croatia. He had plans to cycle the Wild Atlantic Way non-stop, and asked if I would like to join him, which I politely declined. He bought me a “burek”, a traditional Balkan filled pastry, and sent me on my way up and over the aforementioned mountain range.
I stopped into a café at the top to rehydrate and met two Croatians who were walking, smoking and camping their way around the country for three months. They very kindly bought me a strudel and offered me a bed. Croatia was already proving itself the most hospitable of countries I had visited up to then.
Despite not being on my original intended itinerary, Zagreb was probably my favourite city that I visited, although I won’t pretend I wasn’t heavily influenced by the atmosphere for the World Cup Final. I watched it in the main square with 100,000 others, including a friend from home I had unexpectedly ran into. Despite comprehensively losing 4-2, nobody seemed to care. They still drank their magnums of champagne, set off their flares and were content to re-watch the match on loop for the night.
After delicately leaving Zagreb on the Monday morning, with fans still partying, I took three gentle recovery days along the river Sava into Slovenia, through Ljubliana, to Lake Bled. Bled is renowned among inter-railers, particularly from Ireland, as a welcome rural retreat from an intense itinerary of capital cities. I approached Bled with enormous expectations, which is always a bad way to go travelling. After two days of swimming in the tepid lake and dodging GAA jerseys, I was ready to leave; on a three-month trip through European countryside, Bled felt strangely crowded and claustrophobic to me.
A second friend from home, Ben, had flown to meet me at Bled; we planned to cycle together for seven days to Venice. Unfortunately he intended to cover as many metres climbing as possible in his short holiday. Starting north from Bled we headed cross-country to the ski-resort of Kranska Gora, where we found a stunning waterfall, and a tear-inducing 25 per cent gradient hill.
Camping in a forest just over the Austrian border, we met 18 year-old Charlie from Bristol, who had just finished his A-levels and was on day 20 of his quest to become the youngest person to cycle around the world. Meeting people like this, who were doing even sillier trips than me, always cheered me up and gave me a useful arguing point when my mother questioned my decisions. Unfortunately Charlie has just had his bike stolen in Australia at my last check of his progress.
The Slovenian roads, scenery, food and people were some of the overall highlights, particularly on our last night when we were invited to camp in a private vineyard overlooking the Italian border, while three generations of the family fed us their own wine and cheese and asked us about our trip.
Unsurprisingly, crossing the northern plains of Italy in the middle of July was distressingly hot. While it was nice and flat, and some of the walled Roman and Medieval towns were very attractive, the heat prevented me from doing any serious mileage per day. It was the only time I was grateful for a headwind. I broadly followed the direction of the river Po for a week to Turin, where I took a break before my third and final visit to the Alps.
I slowly crossed the Col de Montgenèvre into France early on a Sunday morning before the midday heat, and dropped into the walled town of Briançon, France’s highest city, where I would spend some rest days. Skipping the rest part of one of these days, I set out before dawn without panniers to climb the Col d’Izoard with the hordes of other summer cyclists, and even some people busing up to skateboard down the 10km, eight per cent hill. This was another argument to demonstrate to my mother that there are sillier people than me. The rest of my time was spent satisfying my ever-growing appetite on French bread and cheese.
After Briançon, I camped in an unused road tunnel near the top of a pass on the way out of the Alps. This allowed me a long descent the next morning to the base of Alp d’Huez, of Tour de France fame. At one hour 50 minutes for the 13 km I set no course records, but I seemed to be the only one with a tent that day.
After the Alps, I followed the Rhône and Saône rivers northwards into and through the Côte-d’Or and Burgundy wine regions. My very patient girlfriend flew out to Dijon to rent a bike and join me as far as Sens. The pace dropped off significantly here, not least because when I checked that her bike was road-worthy, I failed to notice the tyres were rather soft. In Sens we met two strutting Italian cyclists who were bragging about how they had cycled from Turin along an almost identical route to me. They were impressed that I had managed it with a tent, but I was even more impressed, and concerned, that they were getting back on their bikes at 11pm to cycle another 70km towards Paris after eight pints. I didn’t meet them on the road the next day, so I like to think they made it.
I took a rest day in Paris to sit in the Luxembourg gardens and eat as much as I could; I was averaging two baguettes a day by then, excluding breakfast and dinner. I met one final friend from home under the Eiffel Tower the next morning with a bottle of wine and a baguette to cycle the last five day stretch through Normandy to Cherbourg and the ferry. After just 10 km, during a picture stop at Versailles, his front wheel suffered the first puncture I saw on my whole trip. Despite this worrying omen, it was also the last. We spent the final few days cycling through Band of Brothers sets, from wide open grain fields, to the D-day beaches and memorials, and took a quick swim at Utah Beach.
The weather had gradually turned cooler as August wore on and I crept northwards, and the final day up from Rosslare to Wicklow was the first long-sleeves day since the Alps.
The final mileage was about 5,678 km, in 70 days of riding, through 11 countries over three months. I spent 50 nights in my tent, with the nights in big cities spent in hostels. Apart from a single broken spoke I suffered no gear damage; just a few worn out chains and brake pads. Despite a handful of near misses I had no actual accidents, except crashing into my friends a few times. I acquired a very formidable appetite, some terrible tan-lines and an ability to sleep in an uncomfortably warm tent.
I would strongly recommend this type of a trip for anyone who thinks they might want to try it. The distance, speed, intensity and level of comfort is entirely flexible to the person, as the South Koreans demonstrated. The experiences, both in terms of the places one visits, and the people one meets, will always be the defining features. Just make sure you watch out for the people who only enjoy suffering.