The Endless Road - Cycling Monk: Scotland to Athens 2015
You couldn't call mine a normal Mid-Life Crisis. There was no Harley Davidson or ridiculous sports car. No drink problem. No narcotic abuse. No, mine was quite the contrary. I'd just become lost as if the road ahead had become overgrown or the signposts removed. So I sold everything and got on my bike to find the way ahead.
I've always ridden, more latterly just weekend rides with the local guys and girls, trying to shun the obvious MAMIL connotations by quoting my many years on the bike and my decades long affinity with lycra. It had been a long time since I had last embarked on a cycle tour, but once I let the thought in, the floodgates of possibility opened. An outpouring of desire to to be free of the shackles of possessions, responsibility and ties took over.
First to go was my house, then the furniture. More difficult disposals were my music collection, books and that detritus of memorabilia we all drag along through our lives – an old gift from a loved one, a nostalgic photograph, a well-loved well-worn shirt.... Oh how it saps the energy, this management of stuff. Once I got going with eschewing possessions it became remarkably easy. Indeed, the easier I could make palming off stuff, the better and more cathartic it became. Possessions that had intrinsic financial value, and that could easily have been flogged on eBay, were soon passed onto friends and strangers just for the joy of liberation it provided.
“I’d just become lost as if the road ahead had become overgrown or the signposts removed. So I sold everything and got on my bike to find the way ahead."
Left finally with three bicycles, a sports bag of clothes, a map of Europe and a cheap picture frame containing the words 'Life Without Objects' the first stage of trip planning began and the Cycling Monk had been born.
I had harboured a desire to cycle from Edinburgh (known affectionately as the Athens of the North) to Athens, Greece, for a long time. With the Greek financial crisis that was gripping the news at the time, Athens became an essential destination.
Having pretty much denounced material possessions, I perversely had to begin buying kit. This was a painful process. So many of the months running up to departure had been about stripping down, clearing out and freeing up. To consider appropriating items went against the grain, gnawing at me like an evil grip from the past. But equally I wanted to go with good kit that would work well and be so light and unobtrusive as to be almost unnoticeable. I committed to having a roof over my head every night. That helped matters – no bivvy, no tent, no sleeping bag or stove. I wanted to ride light as if everyday was a fast training ride. I didn't want to be encumbered by any excess of stuff. I wanted to be free and ride fast, or to be able to ride slowly without effort. I dreamt about it every night before I departed. Just me, the road bike and the road.
So began the re-appropriation of stuff. At the end of the exercise I had achieved a touring load of just 7kg (including panniers) to sustain me for the 3000 mile trip to Athens. I would take my winter training bike (a titanium Enigma Etape running on 700x25c training tyres) with the only change being to flip the stem upwards (thereby lifting the bars up 15mm from my BikeFitting.com “Pro” position) and I fitted a Tubus Fly carrier rack. As for breakdowns I left myself no room for errors: two inner tubes, one multi-tool, one chain tool, a pump, a puncture repair kit, an emergency tyre boot, one spare gear hanger and a handful of cable ties. And it was all I needed. In the end I suffered three punctures and absolutely no other problems.
“I dreamt about it every night before I departed. Just me, the road bike and the road."
With help from the guys at Always Riding I developed a range of kit where every item had either one dedicated essential use (i.e. I had only one pair of bibshorts) or covered a multitude of uses (i.e. the lightweight shorts which were worn on the bike as 'modesty' shorts, off the bike as casual shorts and even worn in the pool for the occasional swim!).
GAVIN'S KIT OF CHOICE
Of my most prized kit was the Cafe Du Cycliste Lucienne merino jersey. I thought this would have to be ditched mid-ride when the heat really descended but the jersey's thermo regulation was stunning. From 12°C in Denmark to 42°C in Greece the jersey shone and was also remarkably resistant to stinking. My choice to take a Nokia 1020 smartphone was also perfect – with an awesome 40 megapixel camera, offline maps and large screen I basically had my communication, navigation, banking, logistics planning, Facebook blog updating and book reading all in one handy device. I even managed a Skype job interview with it mid trip. Luckily it survived the multiple times I dropped the phone when filming narcissistic videos! Unable to find good quality lightweight panniers I decided to use a pair of Altura Arc 15 litre panniers which I modified to save extra weight, thus taking a risk that the modified fitting attachments would not be robust enough for the lumpy-bumpy Central European roads. I looked after them as best I could and nursed them to Athens, no problems. For cash I packed a pre-loaded euro card and squirrelled €200 into my handlebar ends in case of a Greek banking meltdown!
Kit I soon jettisoned included a mid-weight merino top and a pair of legwarmers, which both proved too warm, and a notebook that was made obsolete by my smartphone.
I laboured over my route, but two principles developed – I wanted to avoid riding in the UK as much as possible and I favoured adventure over the traditional safe route through Western Europe. So it was that I would fly from Scotland to Denmark then find a route though southern Scandinavia before taking the ferry to Northern Poland. I'd then head south with the sun as my guiding light until I had tracked through Poland and Slovakia to reach Budapest in Hungary. I'd left the rest of the route to my desires, confidence, bravery or stupidity on the day of arrival in Budapest. In the event I opted for continuing via Slovenia, Croatia, Italy (via a ferry-hop over the Adriatic Sea, principally just to watch the end of the Tour de France in an Italian Cafe!), back over the Adriatic to Albania, and finally on to Greece and Athens.
“I'd found freedom, space to think, friendship, challenge, purpose and unending joy on the road."
How lucky I was to have been blessed with good weather. Whilst the UK suffered a terrible summer I was struggling with endless days of 35-45°C. Consequently I got little sympathy from those at home, but the heat became one of my toughest day-to-day challenges. Lack of sleep, dehydration, mozzie bites, headaches and no escape due to my pig-headed refusal to pay for accommodation with air-conditioning.
Rolling into Athens was profoundly saddening and elating at once. I'd found freedom, space to think, friendship, challenge, purpose and unending joy on the road. But the road was at an end. I wished I could live that way all the time. Willed my body to keep pushing me onwards: Turkey? Iran?... The reality was that I had ended up, in cycling parlance, “in the bucket”. My limbs ached and my mental drive had collapsed upon sighting the Acropolis.
What would happen if that road had just kept stretching onwards and the wheels just kept turning forever.....
The journey was documented on Facebook as a daily travel blog and so far £1500 has been raised for the charity WaterAid.