Iconic rides

When first considering routes around Australia I looked at a number of possibilities though one road I was always planning to ride was The Great Ocean Road. In touring terms a real must do. Having started in Brisbane this would come towards the end of our time here, in the final stage as we head round from Melbourne to Adelaide.

In the past week or so we have seen a real change in the weather here. Leg and arm warmers have been pulled from the bottom of the panniers and I’ve even been filling my hot water bottle at night. Eventually we decided to book up cheap accommodation. Getting out of a warm sleeping bag to the cold outdoors in the morning was just becoming too much and given the heavy rain of the past few days this it seems was a very wise decision. The travel brochures of course always show the Great Ocean Road in glorious sunshine. Fortunately, despite numb toes, the days when water seemed to pour from buckets in the sky we had rest days planned and our days on the most stunning section of the route were dry so we we’re able to stop, take pictures and take a peak at the various viewpoints along the way.

We followed the sea line out from Melbourne, taking the ferry between Sorrento and Queenscliff we would soon be on undulating, winding roads heading through Lorne and Apollo Bay, stopping to watch crashing waves, heading inland and up to Lavers Hill before reaching the most photographed areas of the Twelve Apostles and the rocky craggs of the shipwreck coast. It really was beautiful and would continue to be out past Port Campbell, through to Port Fairy.

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So far on our tour we’ve ridden through fabulous seaside areas including Oregon, South Africa, Italy and Thailand and The Great Ocean Road has certainly been added to this list of one of the best coastal routes. There really is good reason why this is an Australian must do. Far too often we look for trips, routes and journeys that may be considered the road less travelled. Sometimes it seems there is however a good reason why some places see thousands of visitors.

We(s)t coast

Our ride down the West coast of the South island would start in Greymouth after a stunning ride on the TranzScenic railway following a catch up with pals in Christchurch. Many folk had told us how dramatic the West coast was and while excited to discover more they had also been quick to point out just how wet it would be too. We were expecting mixed blessings.

Following an organised tour to Pancake rocks (though I would highly recommend riding this fabulous coastal road) we left Greymouth for Hokitika. Just 40km down the road and I was pleased to arrive. A visit to A and E the previous day for an excruciating ear infection meant I was not feeling at my best. That said we made time to head to the beachfront and there met fellow cyclists, Richard and Katie; we would meet them again and share a few ales a little further on. In the meantime my lurgy called for a complete days rest.

We continued our journey the following day and after the best chai latte of our trip to date in the ex-goldmine town of Ross we finally arrived at Harihari. We were only expecting a basic camp yet the ground the back of the pub/motel offered glorious showers, free wi-fi, comfy chairs, scrumptious pub grub and a really really friendly welcome. They saw us off with free coffee the next morning and we arrived at Franz Josef glacier some time later. We were told it was a flat ride once we were over Mt Hercules and the cafe was just past the climb. Well, there was a cafe some 30km later and some hills. This was obviously kiwi flat.

It was good preparation for the following day and our three peak challenge to Fox Glacier.

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The beer and wine shared with Richard and Katy however was not necessarily in the preparation guide book. As it turned out the 555m of climbing was not as bad as we thought and we were set on making it without a stop which we managed to do, arriving in just under two hours. Given I had allowed a day for the ride we were then able to relax before our Glacier walk, including a stroll around Lake Matheson with, yep, Richard and Katy. Great day, shared dinner and a fascinating walk on the glacier before we left for the DoC camp at Lake Paringa. With thousands of sandflies and very basic amenities we were pleased to meet Tara and Toc. Given no access to drinking water they shared both their kettle and cold beers. Amazing kindness yet again.

Overjoyed to leave the sandflies we woke to drizzle the following morning. Our first sight of the wet stuff – so far the weather had been beautiful. We rode to Haast township that day before embarking on the steep climb ahead over the Haast pass and into Makarora. More huffing and puffing. We had just checked into a cabin when we bumped into…..yep, Richard and Katy! We shared a coffee but they had already decided to continue. Having arranged to meet up in Wanaka we took refuge in our cabin.

The journey to Wanaka was incredible. My favourite ride in New Zealand – an opinion it seems was shared with other riders we spoke to. Passing Lake Wanaka, climbing up past “the neck” then finally dropping down the hill to more lake and mountain scenery this truly was a wow moment. Wanaka was a brilliant town, we took full advantage of the Patagonia chocolate/icecream shop following high recommendations and….yep, beers with …..Jon, another cycle tourer from the UK and….Richard and Katy! Well, our routes now may be going in different directions so we had to say goodbye!

As per the last time the beers were ill timed for the big climb the next day…43km up hill over the highest sealed road in New Zealand. Oh well. The gradient was gentle for the first 25km where we stopped in the Cordrona hotel though shortly after was a tough push to the summit. I stopped three times to catch my breath on this one though the steeper hairpins of the descent
were certainly just reward. Whoosh.

We had a final stopover in Arrowtown before the final West coast ride to Queenstown. Arrowtown was another interesting place and to end this section of the journey in Queenstown meant more icecream, new cycle shorts and a chance to drool in the outdoor shops. We were more inland now and had come back sunshine though our final reminder of the wet coast would come from our coach trip to Milford Sound. While the scenery would have made this a spectacular ride the cars, coaches, lack of shoulder and the Homer tunnel would makes for a treacherous ride. It was a long and unfortunately wet day in Fiordland and though this meant the many waterfalls were in good flow as we left the valley, our boat tour did not fully reveal the drama this great national park has to offer.

Back in Queenstown we prepared for the final stages. We were heading for the Otago rail trail. Our journey down the West coast had been a tour to remember. Changing landscapes, changing weather and some new great friends too. A part of New Zealand not to be missed.

Pedallers paradise?

A trip to New Zealand had been on my “bucket list” for some time. Lush green scenery surrounding a slightly hippy, laid back approach  – the outdoor adventurers idyll. Everyone I knew who lived here/ had been here raved about their trip and told me I would love mine. Expectations were high and as I read through guidebooks and holiday brochures I was really struggling to see what to leave out knowing that to try and see everything would be an impossible task.

I had been told about the cycle route books “Pedallers Paradise” by both Inga and Bas, two Dutch riders from our Africa ride, and so I ordered them from a book store in Wellington. So far  -  so good.

Whether you think something is paradise is of course subject to one’s own definition. For me it would entail rolling hills, stunning views, calorie free ice-cream and great ale to finish the day. We would chat to great folk, do a few touristy things and pedal. While some days may still be tougher from a physical perspective the payback for the additional effort would always be worth it. While predominantly sunny, given the time of year we had arrived, a few short showers would still be expected given that while I may be a complete optimist I am also a realist.

What I hadn’t accounted for were aggressive drivers, headwinds and sandflies!

Drivers, particularly on the busier North island are not so keen on our two wheeled machines and it’s unfortunate that, despite riding well on the left and in single file, we still found ourselves subject to abuse hurled from windows and as trucks passed it was obvious which ones had drivers that also rode bikes.  Most roads have a small shoulder and while other European riders have felt too much in the traffic, as Brits, where finding a shoulder to ride in is rare, we have found it ok in the most part. Conversly, as soon as we stop the hospitality is overwhelming – on a par with Malaysia – and we even found ourselves staying at the home of complete strangers, Martyn and Kathy, in Nelson. Incredible. Fortunately, the South Island is much quieter and so we hope that as holidays end, roads too will quieten…there’s that optimist again!

Despite the above we have still had some amazing rides, taking the old rail trail over the Rimitukas, following Queen Charlotte Drive out of Picton and more recently I enjoyed our back road from Tapawera to Glenhope then onto the main highway towards Merchison. The wind on our last ride was fiercesome again and although cold and tired I still loved the feeling of isolation and desolation the gravel track though old barren woodlands provided – reminding me of the final days of my Lands End to John O’Groats trip back in 2005.

I’m aware there is little one can do about sandflies but they don’t carry malaria so we are finally off tablets. The roads are getting quieter and while I hate riding into headwind but at least it seems that the stronger it is the more amusing I find it – for now at least. We’ve found some good ale and ice-cream (though sadly not calorie free) and the scenery is always good.  I’m not sure I would cycle tour here again though. Given a lack of roads means sharing with the bigger vehicles I too would hire a camper. With mountain bikes to hand I would ride the rougher tracks and roads I’ve loved more but without the panniers. Being outside is the key thing to do here and I must say I’m missing history in terms of architecture and buildings. New Zealand really is a stunning country and while this blog has perhaps considered whether it is really a paradise for cycle touring there is no doubt that it is an outdoor one.

New year. New Zealand. New friends.

After a long flight we finally arrived at our hotel in Auckland around 330pm on NewYears Eve. It seemed our bike, tent and shoe cleaning regime had been up to scratch so we passed through bio-control at the airport without too much difficulty. It was strange leaving so quickly after Christmas especially after my ma’s hospital appointment on Christmas eve and without getting to really see friends and family much again after the main seasonal activities. However, despite some apprehension I was still excited to finally get to land in a country I have wanted to visit for some time. Deemed the land of adventure it was also now a country of new friends too.

We managed to stay awake long enough to watch midnight fireworks from the Skytower though it’s fair to say I’m not a fan of busy new year bars and felt particularly unglamorous so we soon headed back to catch up on sleep. Fully charged the next day we set about sightseeing, going up the skytower and walking around the harbour. This city has a great feel, a fantastic sense of space and fabulous arty industrial areas. A brilliant start to this new adventure.

The following day we would prepare to leave – final shopping (I needed a new camping mug for this tea-aholic Brit), bike building and dinner and beers with Darragh, our first meet up with newish friends here since meeting on the Africa trip. Smiles and ales later we said goodbye. Unfortunately I had not been quite so lucky to meet other older friends from Bristol but we had to get moving.

We made our way round the coast with a plan to reach Miranda. However, with very steep climbs, up and down all day after a month without riding we eventually stopped after 90km at Orere Point. Relieved to reach a camp site we were sore, tired and early to rest. We had made a plan to meet fellow rider, Vince, from our Africa trip too in a few days and wanted to make good Southerly progress. Fortunately roads were flat and after a great lunch stop in a very friendly, quirky cafe and our first hokey pokey ice-cream we were 107km down the road in Te Aroha. Vince would pick us up the next day in Tirau and take us and our bikes to Rotarua.

All went as planned and soon we were in the town known for being geo-thermal and therefore also a little stinky. We visited bubbling mud pools, hot springs, lakes, coffee shops and scenery a-plenty. On our way we passed through a trout farm where we met guy called Red who invited us back for smoked fresh trout the following day. We were really getting a kiwi welcome. Vince had driven up from Wellington to show us round and now a complete stranger was preparing food for us all. Amazing.

The route we planned should then have taken us to Taupo but just a few days into our trip we were changing plans. Given Vince had now shown us around here he would now drop us in art-deco town, Napier. However, before leaving Rotarua there was just time to squeeze in another spa, known as DeBretts and ….a bit of biking!

While obviously keen riders it’s fair to say John and I generally prefer tarmac. Yes, I have a mountain bike, have ridden trails and we rode rough sections through Africa and Nepal but when it comes to technical riding I am a wuss though I will have a go. Vince, being more a downhill rider was determined to show us the technical trails through the redwoods in Rotaura and had brought two spare mountain bikes for us to use. After a steep, gravelly climb we would follow the intermediate route downhill. Known as “corners” the route twisted through the trees, jumping, screeching and whooshing until we reached the bottom. It was the slowest time Vince had ever recorded, John had taken a wee tumble and I had certainly walked significant sections yet despite this we had smiles on our faces and not just because we were now safe at the car!

Another hot spa and a drive across to the coast we’re now in Napier. John and I will be back on the road bikes soon enough to continue our journey. We’ve had such a welcoming start and stunning scenery so far and look forward to meeting Vince again and other newly made friends as we make our way through the next few months.

Gutted only to have missed my old pals it’s great to be able to consolidate new friendships.

Killing Fields

As I’ve travelled I have, much to my embarassment, been constantly surprised by my own lack of knowledge. We were already in Japan when I registered the land was 90 percent hills; in Africa I would realise it was not all a dustbowl and could be pretty chilly; in Cambodia I would learn more of the extent of the misery, torture and power of the Khmer Rouge. Nothing will ever prepare you for visiting The Killing Fields.

Just outside Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia is an area called Choeung Ek. Nestled in among paddy fields, we rode down a bumpy, muddy track, passing children cycling to school and the usual hustle and bustle of village life. Our driver pulled in, under some trees and arranged to meet us there in two hours time. We had decided to visit what in essence was a scene of  great brutality. Around 17, 000 people (men, women and children) were brought to this extermination camp from a prison, known as S-21, where they had already been held and tortured.

While much of the site infrastructure (waiting rooms, tool stores etc) have long since gone, mass graves are clearly marked and a chilling audio guide leads you around. Steadfast on a communist ideal whereby cities were destroyed and peasant farming and manual labour were the standards being set to bring equality to all the Khmer Rouge led a war of unimaginable proportions. Teachers, foreigners, anyone who spoke more than one language , those who spoke up against them, took rice or belongings from the collective pool or it seemed anyone even with a vague association to any of the former were simply removed. While the exact figure is unknown estimates are as high as 3.5 million deaths (half the population).

8595 bodies were exhumed  at Choeung Ek in 1980 and as you wonder through what is now a quiet memorial site, clothing remnants, bones and teeth that continue to rise to the surface each year as rain disturbs the ground are displayed.

Thankfully  those arriving at the site were unaware of their fate.  They didn’t use bullets here but bludgeoned people to death and the audio guide played loud vitriolic songs that were blasted out alongside the noise of the generator to cover up the sounds of people screaming as they were killed.  I couldn’t listen to the audio. They had done too good a job of stimulating the noise of the environment. One grave housed many bodies that had been beheaded – thought to be soildiers who had raised objections- and the site marked a tree where babies heads were thrashed before being discarded. Again, the audio was turned off. It was too much for me.

In 1988 the Memorial Stupa was built on the site. In essence, a narrow tower, ten stories high displaying the skulls and bones of some 8000 people.

I had not been sure whether to visit The Killing Fields. The War Museum in Saigon had also been vivid in it’s portrayal of the Vietnam War and I saw only enough there to understand. Nothing is masked here. I had been ignorant of the full extent of the torture Pol Pott had inflicted and while The Killing Fields was far from being a pleasant experience this is history I am now much more aware of.

Lest we forget.

Cycling South East Asia

Despite the fact that my panniers contain guidebooks, each of a few hundred pages, for Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia this blog acts as my overall write-up and guide to cycling in south east Asia.

When planning bike routes, given I am of course also a tourist, one of the first places I often start is by looking at the routes chosen by cycle tour operators in the region. I won’t know exact routes and don’t have access to support vehicles for bus transfers between areas where there may be little to see but the itineraries will give a sense of key places to visit, an idea of where there are places to stay and an indication of what’s possible in a given time period. Having been on one of these trips to Vietnam around ten years ago for a three week holiday I was also aware that just over three months to tour all of south east Asia would be a significant challenge. It would require  careful reading and selection, a good understanding of border crossing points  and possibly a train or two. As ever, I started off with a very optimistic plan and one that has been constantly adapted throughout this tour.

The original intention had been to cycle all the way from Singapore to Bangkok – it always felt like quite an iconic journey. We knew to avoid the border between Malaysia and South West Thailand though had no exact plan for this when we started and from Bangkok to Vientiane, in Laos we had always planned to take a train before riding to Vinh and up to Hanoi, in Vietnam, crossing the border at Lak Sao. As things turned out, some of this worked out as planned and some of it…well, it was changed either following further research, talking to other travellers or, in the case of one border crossing was a force majore.

So, as outlined in a previous  blog we left Singapore in a thunder storm, rode up through a very generous Malaysia and then made our way to Thailand. Given border complications we decided to take the boat option using a ferry from Langkawi to Saturn. However, given we arrived at a land border we had a visa in Thailand for only fifteen days. We didn’t want to detour to get this lengthened and so we would use public transport between Krabi and Hua Hin and then again, this time as planned, from Bangkok to Nong Khai. As it turned out this worked out for the better or we really would have run out of time here.

We were only due to be in Laos for a very short time but as soon as we arrived it felt so calm, comfortable and welcoming we wanted to stay longer. I love being in the hills and we decided to go to Luang Prabang and Vang Vien though yet again we had time for this only if we left the bikes behind. We would have to cheat. This was our trip after all.

One week later and we were back on the bikes making our way towards Hanoi. Some of my favourite days riding came as we pedaled our way to the border near Lak Sao. We were climbing and our route took us through beautiful paddy fields, past limestone crags and friendly villages. Just glorious. We also hit more rain and as we passed through muddy roads and landslides up to the border we had no idea that we would soon be riding back the same way. Vietnamese soldiers would not let us continue and border control showed us photographs on a mobile phone to explain why. The road ahead had actually slipped away in the rain leaving a gap of around two hundred metres. While a detour was possible by foot – a bamboo ladder and forest trek we later found out- they would not let us through with The Captain and Kylie. Back to Lak Sao; back to the drawing board; back on the bus!

Thirty six hours later and we were in Hanoi. More sightseeing, a trip out to Halong Bay and then another bus down to Dong Hoi. Well, we are tourists as well as cyclists and we were now really running out of time.

Our detour here came as we decided to visit Paradise Caves following a glowing recommendation from another traveller. The walk through the cave would go beyond the standard visitor route, following guides and headtorches through rivers in the cave, clamouring over rocks and getting wet. The cave was vast and it’s hard to imagine it hasn’t long been discovered with no previous signs of human visitors.

It was another fabulous tourist day though we were both very much looking forward to riding. We would follow the coast and highway one for a few days visiting Hue and Hoi An from where we hoped to cross back into Laos. It quickly became apparent that if we did this we would see nothing of Cambodia and so we changed plans again….

To make up time we would need to catch the train again and so after riding to Quang Ngai we caught the sleeper to Ho Chi Min City, still more commonly known as Saigon. Pedalling in from the station to find a hotel was such fun. There were so many scooters it seemed like chaos though actually traffic flowed very well. The only rule….”never don’t stop”.  Here, like in India, the horn is a must, the  only difference being the biggest vehicle is not automatically the one with right of way.  The little guy wins as bikes and scooters weave their way forwards advancing much more quickly than their larger counterparts.

Arriving on a high it would not be long before we would ride again in the mayhem on our way to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. While our time in Saigon had been slightly marred by a passing scooter rider trying to grab John’s camera we’d enjoyed the change of itinerary and, after two days riding we would be in the capital of Cambodia. Described as pancake flat I was surprised to be finding it so hard and on that second day was struggling badly in the first 10km. My legs wouldn’t work, I averaged only around 17km pr hr and it was only the fact that we had a hotel booked that meant I was determined to continue eventually making 120km. The next day I was reminded of the fact that I’m a girl on a bicycle though at least that served as explanation for the achy legs the day before. I had been worried this was a more serious lurgy.

We’re in Siem Reap as I write this having followed route six north and with sightseeing here now over we will head out by the border west of Battambang back into Thailand. Our south east Asia trip is drawing to a close. We’ve taken the train much more than expected, changed routes and plans on numerous occasions,  seen far less than we would have liked and despite being perhaps a little tired of rice and noodles would certainly love to return. Cycling in this part of the world is a real pleasure – you just need more than three months.

Selamat Datang Malaysia

“Welcome”, that’s what it means. You see it everywhere here….shops, hotels, restaurants and on entering new towns. For me it will really sum up my experience of Malaysia. This had been the most hospitable country we have travelled in so far.  Amazing.

It was on our second hotel check in, The Silver Inn at Batu Phahat,  that an old guy, struggling with his mobility, first approached us. “Welcome to Malaysia”. That was it. No long chat, Just a quick question to ask where we were from and he was off again. It had been an experience that has continued throughout Malaysia. Cars and trucks beep. Children wave and shout hello. Scooter riders chat at traffic lights. Random strangers show real acts of kindness and generosity.

We were on our way to Melaka where a local restaurant owner refused to charge us for breakfast. We had chatted to him as we tucked in to a typical Malay plate of rice, spicy sambhal and side dishes of fresh greens, peanuts and dried anchovies….toast here was rare!  Having studied himself  Glasgow and with a son also now in the UK there was plenty to talk about. On leaving he even supplied us with a selection of Malay sweets, flavoured with Rose essence and full of sugar…..perfect for a quick energy boost.

In addition to this we would continue to find that on two more occasions our breakfast needs were fully catered for. Another small family run, road side cafe refused payment and a second stranger, Hacheram,  bought us dosa and coffee at Batu caves. We were taken to dinner in Kuala Lumpur by Alexander, a facebook friend from the early days of the World Cycle Challenge and an old guy, who spoke no English and didn’t announce he was about to treat us, got us cold drinks on another refreshment stop.

People often ask us whether we feel safe as we make our journey. Do we not worry about robbers, of other vehicles etc etc. Of course, we are reasonably sensible….we avoid cycling in the dark, we are far from flashy and despite no wing mirrors I am pretty aware of what may be going on around me. While often warned to look our for the baddies it’s the goodies out there can really take you by surprise.It is so humbling to see such warmth and kindness being given to a complete stranger.

I am very much of the opinion that in embarking on any trip such as this, you have to take the view that most people in the world are good people. Regardless of money and personal circumstance the human race is generally kind and most individuals are proud of their country, their heritage and their people.

No one ever warned me to look out for the good guys but trust me, that can be just as scary.

Such kindness will never be forgotten.

Via Roma?

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They say all roads lead to Rome and while strictly speaking of course this is not true as we continue on our journey this is certainly the direction we are heading. Following the Tour de France we continued over the Alps into Italy. We had been heading up hill since Grenoble and it would continue like this for some time.

Leaving Bourg d’osian we made our way up to Le Grave, up to Guilliestre, passed over Col de Vars, passed over Col de Larche, passed over Col de Lauterat and then finally….Italy!

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We had followed the summit countdown posts through France and on reaching the top we searched for the final sign. This marker acted as a finishing line, a congratulations and of course the obligatory photograph. Alas, other than the “respect” and “chapeau” from the male racer group I received (I loved that bit!) it appears the Italian border did not offer the same rewards. Instead, there was a just a closed tax free off licence…..and a fabulous downhill.

Hairpin after hairpin, the road curved at around a 12% gradient. It was early, the road was quiet and the only challenge we faced was getting the balance between stopping for photos or just going whoosh…

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Despite days of climbing our descent downwards, while lasting for quite a few kilometres, would go much faster and our day would still end with the obligatory uphill, this time into camp. Our France trip was complete and we were now on schedule for Rome. The next target being a date at The Vatican on the 5th August. We had prearranged plans for an appointment there, though as far as I’m aware not with the Pope!

With the Alps behind us we were looking forward to a few easier days and some warmer weather. The temperature quickly rose and we have been riding at 30 to 35 degrees ever since…as for the hills…well, they continued!

We headed to the Cinque terre, an area referring to five beautifully positioned old fishing villages. Colourfully painted houses and vineyards perched on cliff edges hugging the coastline and providing dramatic photos and steep climbs. While based on a  great camp site in Lavanto  we were left with plenty time to explore and to watched a fabulous firework show over the sea.

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Climbing out we soon found ourselves in the “rolling” hills of Tuscany. More stunning scenery and yet more uphill.

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It was time to see the coast again to see if it had flattened out yet….

The result? … No.

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We continued on our way only to soon find out that not all roads do lead to Rome – at least, not any suitable for bike travel.

Riding down from Monticello Amiato we were making great progress, aiming for a camp at Talamone, next to the sea. It was 1030 am and we were hoping to reach camp early. No rush, a  cool dip in the sea and perhaps an icecream or so. Then we reached a significant junction.

We have a map of all of Italy with us and while it has more detail than our map of all of India ever had there are of course more roads and more traffic. Thijs, our Dutch friend with us for this section, had a GPS and had  downloaded maps. I had a new GPS but no maps and no idea how it yet works! To date the GPS had provided fabulous alternative and scenic routes (though do remember read hilly into scenic) yet for this section it listed only the highway.

Illegal for bikes and quite frankly way too dangerous this was not a route I wished to take. It was south to Rome and clearly signposted. North led us to Grosetto. Turning round, well that was  a big uphill. While it was in the opposite direction we had no choice. Grosetto was our only option. We would try tourist information to see if they could help. We were stuck.

We had tried to find tourist info points befor having followed signs on three occasions. All to no avail. On the one occasion we were successful we then found a five hour lunch break meant our search was yet again a waste of time. As luck would have it this time there were signs, an office and a really helpful receptionist. Unfortunately she’d met cycle tourists before in Grosetto. Stuck – just like we were. While some had taken their chances on the highway the only other option south was the train.

Bikes loaded we went to Orbetello then Tarquinia the following day. From there we were back on Via Roma.

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With some busier traffic, hundreds of potholes and three punctures we finally arrived at our destination. We were  in Rome.

Now all we need to do is find Via Roma to get out again though we have a few days to worry about that. For now, we have a Collesseum, 40000 fountains and a trip to the smallest country in the world (aka The Vatican ) to go and explore.

Tour de France 100

The idea to combine our trip through France with the opportunity to watch the tour was a mere glint, a slight possibility and a “nice to do”  given we’re going there notion. While I have watched the tour, as much for the scenery (the riders and the landscape) and take a distant interest in bike events I don’t really have a full history and understanding of the competitive cycling world. While my interest has grown as British cycling success has, getting to Alpe D’huez to watch stage 18 has become a major factor in our route planning and daily mileage targets.

Having travelled around 650 km from 9th July we finally arrived at the top of the mountain the day before the tour. Cycling up from Grenoble to Bourg d’Osian then up to the peak at around 1800m was a real buzz. Surrounded by thousands of other riders, they were all so encouraging as with my 17kg bike (well, Bob, the borrowed bike) and a further 30kg or so in panniers etc, I slowly made my way to the top. Bon courage, bravo, respect and chapeau – hats off – all shouted at me as I slowly pushed ahead.

While the climb was far from easy it was not as difficult as I was expecting. Sometimes I guess we can build these things up to be much bigger than they are. I was nervous as I started but as I got into granny gear the trick was Ghent to keep a comfortable pace. I was not planning (and had no hope) of keeping up with John and Thijs. I stooped at corners when I had the chance – I could not get my bike going again on the hill so when I spotted a chance to rest on a flattish corner turn I just had to do it.

Nearer the top  I got chatting to another rider – he had also done a little touring. It was great to talk to him though unfortunately his front wheel ran into mine – just where I knew getting going again would be difficult. Usually in situations like this I would traverse the road first, then quickly turn to continue my journey. Alps d’huez was very busy. I waited for a gap and went for it only just avoiding a collision with a guy heading downhill. Chatting was nice but did make things tricky! The same happened again closer to the top though I did finally arrive. Seen as a real cyclists badge of achievement I finally reached the top after just under 3 hours ride time. Averaging 5.8 km/hr , my Garmin recorded a climb of 1123m over a distance of 18 Km. slow but yep, I was quite chuffed.

Having drunk a few coffees to warm up again we were on the lookout for a wild camp spot for the night. Despite picturing this as a spot with magnificent views and a quiet nights sleep, we soon had our homes built. On the roundabout, next to a water tap and porta loos. There were a lot of folks “wild” camping tonight! We woke early after a very noisy night – exuberant supporters (aka drunken idiots), fleets of trucks and about about 2am – the barriers were being erected for the next day.

We left early to make our way to the Dutch corner. Given we were travelling with our Dutch friend Thijs then where else would we go. We arrived at 930 am and it was here we would wait for 5 or so hours before the pro riders came through. The atmosphere was buzzing as bike, after bike, after bike came up the mountain, just as we had the day before.  Soon trucks, vehicles and pedestrians would follow. The smell of burning clutches, Dutch carnival music and the sheer mass of cyclists will be my over-riding memories. It was estimated there would be more than 1 million people on the Alpe d’huez that day. To me, it looked like this was be exceeded. Phenomenal but very glad I rode up the day before.

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Soon, 2pm arrived and the carnival was about to begin. I thought ads on the TV came on at a much louder volume but boy, this was mind blowing. Hundreds of cars, decorated to theme , built in microphones and “goodies” galore just thrown at the crowds.  The  trucks sped round the corner we were standing on and it was not uncommon to have to very quickly jump back to avoid being run over. As for the goodies we got – while perhaps not what everyone was looking for, we were really pleased with our small packets of washing powder – Very useful for the touring cyclist!

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The record up Alpe d’huez is for 37 minutes and as we lined up to watch the pro riders we would get a sense of the speeds it is possible to go should you chose. I missed Froome the first time around – lucky for me they sent the pros up twice!

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The chaos of course then began as everyone headed down the mountain back to Bourg. We all rode slowly down the hill, avoiding other cyclists (some riding like lunatics giving cyclists a bad name) and pedestrians. Finally we set up camp ready to say goodbye to the tdf and continue our journey into Italy. Seeing the tour was such a fabulous day. I’m already looking forward to seeing the mayhem in Yorkshire … infact I’m starting to have an idea about that one … I’m sure you”ll all find out soon if the plan comes together…

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Week one

Well, here’s the week in stats … 340 miles, 1 puncture, 2 broken tent poles (since fixed) and 5 oysters.

We’ve been following the pacific coast highway  for a few days now – while to date it’s certainly been more highway than coast…. Hopefully that’s all set to change. While it’s great for getting used to the bike the scenery has been mostly tarmac, logging trucks and lots of trees. Going over the Astoria bridge meant entering Oregon though and we were told the scenery would get better….

To date the people have been the real highlight. Starting with our hosts in Seattle we have found people to be generous, interested and really helpful. The other day we met a family doing the same trip as us… Down to san fran anyhow. So impressed and what an experience for a 4 year old.

The USA is a fascinating place…. While we put up our small two man tents between coaches, 4x4s etc etc we are also coming across those folks struggling more and I am reminded that one of the real advantages of bike travel is not only the chance to feel the landscape but also the opportunity to meet a diverse group of people, lives and opinion. No judgement. Just different.

I’m so looking forward to more of that.