by Jeff Henderson
June 15, 2003
If it's good enough for Lance, it's good enough for me. Each spring Lance Armstrong heads for the mountains of France to spend time doing one thing: riding his bike. He trains alone and with a single goal: get himself into shape for the upcoming season. I had a similar intention when I left the campervan in Utrecht, Holland and headed west for England: ride my legs into shape and see some of Great Britain at the same time. I intended to make a full circle of five countries on a bike loaded with all of the gear I would need for twelve days. Leisure time was to be kept at a minimum - I had given myself five days to get to Swansea, Wales for a June 8th ITU race, and then I needed to be back in Utrecht by June 14th. I planned to cross England from east to west, Wales, England again (this time longitudinally), France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Two ferries would be involved - one from Hoek van Holland, the Netherlands, to Harwich, England, and one from Newhaven, England, to Dieppe, France. Everything else would be aboard a sagging yet dependable Cannondale T700 touring bike, draped with four panniers and my sleeping bag and tent.
I felt a bit funny standing in the long line of cars waiting their turn to board the ferry. I stood next to a bike heaving with all that I would need to survive for two weeks, plus perhaps a little more. I carried a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, sneakers, sandals, a camera, cooking pots and pans, a small stove, fuel, water bottles, questionable maps, clothing for cold and warm, and enough food for one full day of three squares. In time one item I forgot to pack would become painfully obvious in its absence - a raincoat.
I had arrived at the ferry terminal by train. After hauling my bike onto the platform of Hoek van Holland Harbor, departure point for StenaLine's ferry to Harwich, England, I tottered across the street and into the dark and desserted passenger terminal, where the lone woman behind the desk asked if I wanted the slow or fast ferry. The slow one, of course, as I am on a budget and naturally assumed that the fast one would be more expensive. You should take the fast one, she replied, because it leaves later but arrives sooner, and costs the same. A shorter ride but costing the same? I wondered what marketing genius was behind this plan as I forked over my 46 euros for the express ticket.
With my extra time I did some food shopping for dinner and explored the beach area. The Netherlands are not known for their sunny and sandy stretches of beach, and now I know why. The water is cold, smells of decaying oil, and the pasty white Europeans strewn about were not into hiding their ample surface areas with clothing.
No need to spend more time at the beach, I thought to myself. I made my way back to the ferry and took my place in the long line of cars waiting their turn to board. Once through customs and onto the vessel, a feeling hit me that I remembered from my first trip to Minnesota's Mall of America - way too much going on and not nearly enough mental capacity to process it all. I guess I haven't been on a ferry in a while, because now there is MUCH more to do than just look out the window: try your hand at the blackjack tables, watch a movie in one of the three cinemas, enjoy a meal in one of the six restaurants, all offering a different genre of fare. If you ever get bored, you can call one of six different countries from the phones on the wall or watch Sky Television on the big screens. In the end my personal favorite was Ahmad The Entertainer, who thrilled children with his balloon animal creations and shocked parents with his off-color jokes. I hardly noticed when we slowed to enter Harwich Harbor.
Like most events involving large amounts of people, there was a mad scramble to get back to the cars followed by an interminably long period of waiting. The doors were finally lowered onto a lovely scene of evening on the wharf. The golden sun was low in the sky, the winds were cool, and I intended to get one hour into the journey before settling down for the night. Off I went.
There is not much between Harwich and Colchester in the eastern part of England, but the road is busy for periods right before the ferry departs and right after the ferry arrives. Seemingly all of England blasted by me as I pedaled for Colchester. The dual lane road gave way to full-bore highway in 10 miles, and a theme that would play out time and again for the next two weeks became clear to me - there are no shoulders on the roads in Great Britain, but there are millions of cars, all jostling for position.
As the sun was about to disappear, I curled off the highway and onto the first road into Colchester. I stopped at a farmhouse to ask if I could pitch my tent in their lawn, which was clearly their property though it lay outside the main gate. The woman out feeding the ducks said she needed to ask her husband, and then came back to tell me the answer was no. I regret not asking her why, but I suspect I was too close to London. Big cities always make people wary.
With darkness encroaching and supper still to be cooked, I found the only green, wooded area I could - a business park with professional landscaping. I disembarked behind a thin grove of birch trees and, amidst the nearby roar of the highway and the sickly glow of streetlights, cooked some pasta. With the last of the day's light, I pulled together the tent and slipped myself and my panniers within, invisible to the rush of humanity all around.
I awoke and packed up to quizzical glances from office workers walking from the parking lot to work. These must be the real go-getters, I surmised, as it was still only 7 am. I pondered the map as I worked over the muesli and soy milk in my bowl; I needed to head due west and arrive on the opposite coast by Friday morning at 11 am, in time for the press conference. It was now Tuesday morning; I guessed that around 400 miles separated Harwich from Swansea but had no real notion of terrain or prevailing winds. Off I went.
Past Coggshall and Braintree I pushed along the A120, the same busy thoroughfare I had been on since Harwich. Somewhere around Great Dunmow it became apparent that my AAA map showing the whole of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland would not suffice for my journey - this road was much too busy to tolerate and my map offered no helpful secondary roads to choose from. In fact, according to my map this was a secondary road.
I ducked into a gas station and plunked down £6.99 for an 128-page book of Great Britain at four miles to the inch. Suddenly a great teeming labyrinth of side roads appeared and the world was my oyster. This wouldn't be so bad after all.
I subsequently spent the afternoon, and the better part of the next day, getting myself lost in all manner of ways. I tried to avoid going through larger towns by following small roads around them; these smaller roads frequently did not come with signage of any sort and unceremoniously dropped me back onto a large road miles from where I intended. When they did have signs indicating upcoming towns or streets, the semantics were just as fuzzy - there are two towns clearly indicated on my map, roughly three miles from each other, each named Great Totham. Add to this mess another nearby town named Little Totham, another named Totham Manor, and Great Broad Street Totham just up the hill, and you have some idea of why at one point I succeeded in unintentionally completing a full loop.
I was beside myself with frustration. The small roads were theoretically perfect - no traffic, stunning views of broad green fields and country manors, and an endless supply of them all over the English countryside - but to make heads or tails of them would have required a skilled guide. The larger roads, however, would get you places quickly and probably even the places you intended to go, but they are narrow, shoulderless affairs boiling with 70 million Brits all trying to get to work on time.
This game of pick-your-poison came to a head somewhere near Hadham Cross. I'm still not sure whether I actually passed through this town or not - my map indicates that I may have, but Little Hadham and Hadham Ford were also vying for my attention. At any rate, I was trying to get to Thundridge by going through Hadham Cross - either of the other two Hadhams would have been going the wrong way. So, to be sure, I asked a smart-looking lad waiting for the bus which town I was currently in (don't laugh, this happened quite often).
"Well," he said with some hesitance that wasn't altogether reassuring, "my address says Hadham Cross, and I live just down the road that way, so you must either be in Hadham Cross or be very close to it." Hadham Cross was the town I was after, so I set off in the direction of dear boy's house, not considering that he might possibly not know where he lives. As it turns out, that boy may never get back home because Hadham Cross was not in the indicated direction, causing me to bike an extra ten miles all in the avoidance of the dreaded A120. May he be cursed to ride the bus forever.
I hear they are wonderful places but I completely missed such authentic English towns as Perry Green, Datchworth, King's Walden, Old Knebworth, and Little Wymondley (and of course how could Little Wymondley exist without Great Wymondley). Instead I found myself forever being funneled toward the epicenters of vast, inescapable industrial towns. About the only good thing I could comfort myself with at the end of the day was that this part of England is flat - had there been hills, I probably would have hurled my bike off one of the larger ones.
After nearly the entire day in the saddle and only two pages (in my book of maps) closer to Swansea, I collapsed at the edge of a peaceful glade near Aldbury. Just in time to listen to the local rich kids tear up and down the country roads on their high-powered motorcycles.
Day three, Wednesday morning, dawned stagnant and humid. My goal was Gloucester, some three pages to the west (my world was now measured in terms of StreetMaster's Motoring Britain 2003 book of maps). I vowed to stay clear of Aylesbury but allow the forces of nature to guide me into Thame and Oxford. I also had a trump card hidden in my back pocket - a friend I had met in Normandie has parents with a country cottage just past Burford, on today's route, and they invited me to stay the night. It was fewer miles than I hoped to cover, but if the previous day's madness prevailed again, it might just be perfect.
I set off with a tailwind. I was on the right road, it wasn't too busy just yet, and I knew where I was going - things were looking up. But if I had looked up, my eyes would have gotten wet, for it had started to rain. Had I brought a raincoat in my infinite wisdom, this would have been an excellent time to crack it out; alas, I got wet. Past Wendover and Nash Lee, hooking a right toward Longwick, and a few miles beyond Kingsey the small, elegant town of Thame appeared. Even the grocery store where I searched for cheap, lightweight non-perishables carried a haughty air, as if princes and dukes used to buy dog food in aisle six and someday might return, so be ready. I nibbled my peanuts and sipped my water bottle on the bench outside, enjoying sitting still while the town recoiled with disgust at the uncouth vagrant in their midst.
It was a short stop, and I was soon on my way to storied Oxford and the completion of one full page on the day. Just about the only way into Oxford from the east - without making a sizeable detour through the town of Horsepath - is via the A40, which if you're following along you know by now is a big one; the very biggest highways start with an "M," and their only-slightly-smaller siblings start with an "A." Thankfully and mercifully this "dual carriageway," as they're still called though I dare you to take a carriage on one of them, had a shoulder and I was able to sail along quite nicely with the semis providing blasts of moving air to encourage my progress.
Bigger towns and cities typically show one of two faces to newcomers descending into their grasp - either a long stretch of franchises and strip malls or a long stretch of heavy industry. Oxford would only reveal its treasures after the requisite gauntlet of Chinese takeout and Instant Muffler shops. Only then did I wind past great stretches of manicured green lawns and ornate Gothic halls of education, in a bike lane no less. The center of town was closed to traffic but on a bike you are free to go where you may, so my freedom was unemcumbered by exhaust fumes.
Although it was still early, I simply could not resist the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet on the departing edge of town. Pounds come and pounds go, but that meal stayed with me for the better part of the afternoon - I got my money's worth. An hour or so later I was burping and belching my way beyond the farthest reaches of the green bike lane and into the English countryside. Slowly but surely London's influences were lifting and fewer cars tore past while the towns spread further apart. I was still on one of the more major routes, having concluded that that was the only way to get anywhere, but the riding was now bordering on pleasant. I nearly cracked a smile.
About an hour further along the A40 I dropped down off the main road into the miniature town of Windrush, where my friend's parents own a similarly miniature cottage. No one was home but I had been instructed where to find the key, so I let myself in. I did not intend to spend the night, as the sun was still high in the sky and there were miles to go. My first shower in several days was followed by some clothes washing by hand in the tub, then a fill-up of the water bottles and I was on my way.
Twenty miles outside of Gloucester the rolling countryside gave way to hills of more enormity, with more up than down I noted. The traffic was also increasing again, flowing into Gloucester along the only major road from the east. I urged my exhausted legs to muscle the overburdened bike up the longer and longer inclines, all the while staying as far left as I could. Six miles out of Gloucester it became apparent why there had been so much climbing - the longest, steepest downhill of the trip brought me up to 75 kph and screaming straight down into mid-town. I sailed along with the wind at my back and my legs windmilling.
After a quick stop to buy some groceries and fill water bottles for the night, I hopped back in the saddle to scoot out of town and find a place to camp. An hour later I was still within the Gloucester city limits and back at the very same grocery store... you cannot imagine my frustration. Signs in the city center wind you hopelessly through roundabout after roundabout, one-way streets appear everywhere, and bike lanes have a curious habit of ending in parked cars. The rest of England refuses to consider the thought of bike lanes, but Gloucester's efforts possibly make the situation even worse.
Once I had escaped Gloucester's tenacious tentacles, I straggled into Birdwood and decided to call it a day. One of the true challenges of these bike rides is finding places to camp - I have no idea if camping by the side of the road is legal or not, so I try to get out of sight as much as possible while keeping the comfort level and scenery as pleasant as I can. I've been in baseball dugouts in the United States and orange groves in Spain, never with any trouble over the course of the night. I damage nothing and take everything with me, including trash, in the morning.
Wednesday night in England was a lucky one, for a mile past Birdwood a vast, well-manicured apple orchard appeared on the left. Rows of bushy trees alternated with strips of lush, fluffy grass just the perfect width for a one-man tent. The only potential risk in these situations is that the farmer will rise early intending to get some plowing in before breakfast, but I've been lucky so far and it hasn't happened. Maybe today's subsistence farmer likes to sleep in.
Thursday dawned bright and clear, with a slight wind from the west. This was meant to be the last full day of riding before Swansea. A check of Motoring Britain the night before had revealed a small side road running the entire length of the highway down through the Vale of Neath, which would deposit me straight into Swansea proper. The road would allow me to avoid the busy A465 while the Vale would hopefully avoid the worst of The Brecon Beacons, a rugged chain of mountains rising up across Carmarthenshire in southern Wales.
My legs revolted upon hitting the pedals for another long day following two and a half long days. I pointed for Monmouth and had a mere five miles to warmup before the road lurched up in front of me. Extended climbs gave way to fleeting downhills and somewhere along the way the downhills fled altogether. At Monmouth I encountered the A465 but spurned it for the oasis of the local side road.
The side road, to my dismay, offered more of the same - steep climbs followed by short stretches of downhill, intermixed with the occassional small town. All the while the noisy A465 was in sight, yet it was not undulating with the terrain I was battling just a few hundred meters to the side. The highway was graded and straight, and I had a winding roller coaster. It was again time to pick a poison.
It was clear I was not getting anywhere so the A465 won. I got on right around Raglan and said goodbye to messing around. Throughout the morning I climbed into the heart of Wales, passing villages with such impossible names as Garn-yr-erw, Ffawyddog, and Cwmgwrach. Some of them didn't have any vowels at all, and I prayed I would never have to pronounce one to ask directions.
My private hell descended upon me somewhere between Bryn-Mawr and Merthyr Tydfil. The road became an unceasing uphill grade, construction crews constricted the highway and backed up the deisel-spewing semis, and a cold rain began to fall. I was exhausted and famished.
I rolled into Merthyr Tydfil at noon ready to board the next train to Swansea. It was then that I ran into a chipper Welshman intrigued by my traveling accoutrements. I had the darndest time understanding his accent, but I did hear him say "it's all downhill from here to Swansea - you're at the edge of the crest" and that was all I needed. Had it been appropriate I would have hugged the wonderful man, but as we had known each other all of ten minutes it most certainly would not have been.
Like a condemned man suddenly set free, I savored the thought of an afternoon of downhills throughout lunch. I dined at a local diner on chicken curry over rice, baked potato, and vegetable samosas. I could have had my curry over french fries (or "chips") as I believe the establishment was going for authentic British Indian fare. The owners asked, after I told them I was from the United States, how I had managed to ride my bike into Wales. I told them the Atlantic was easier than coming via Monmouth, as there are decidedly fewer hills.
The time had come to get back on the bike. One thing I had noticed about towns in Great Britain is that each and every one of them is situated in a valley, so you descend into them and then have to climb to get back out. I'm sure someone can explain to me why this is, but suffice it to say the city planners were not cyclists.
So up and out of Myrthyr Tydfil I went, eagerly awaiting the promised downhill run. Though it was not as dramatic as hyped, it arrived nonetheless and a very pleasant afternoon was spent in the Vale. I planned to camp just outside of Swansea and then pop into town in the morning for the press conference, so I pulled off the highway at Resolven and followed the side road, scanning for a suitable campsite. Immediately I was back into rolling hills, and potential campsites were few and far between due to the steep walls of the valley rising to the left. I cycled the entire stretch from Resolven to Neath - around ten miles - with the only possibility being a semi-flat pasture inhabited by ambivalent cows.
I was getting dangerously close to Swansea when a small sign appeared indicating a town park to the left. Town parks sometimes mean adequate tent spots, so I veered left and was confronted immediately by the steepest hill of the trip, no questions asked. Muttering oaths under my breath about how it didn't matter what this town park was like, I was camping there, I stood on the pedals and strained to get to the crest.
And I must say it was worth it. Under a brooding sky and with the wind sweeping over the heath, I looked back from my perch across the broad expanse of the mouth of the River Tawe. I could see past the city of Swansea to Swansea Bay and the vast Atlantic Ocean beyond. Down in the valley I could make out my afternoon companion, the A465, and its sidekick the B4434 as they snaked down from the deep green north. Not a soul was in the postage stamp park, simply a flat parcel of mowed grass and a dirt parking lot at the edge of a forest.
Sometime around 2 am I awoke to the soothing sound of driving rain pelting the top and sides of the tent. I deliriously scrambled around trying to put the rainfly in place, then scurried back inside. In the morning everything was drenched, and as I completed loading a much heavier collection of gear back onto my bike, the skies opened up once again.
I had no choice but to ride. The press conference would be starting in a few hours and I needed to make sure I got there. In that hour everything that wasn't already wet got wet, and I flirted with hypothermia on the windy descent through the miles of industrial wasteland leading into Swansea (remember what I said about coming into big towns?).
I finally pulled into the Dylan Thomas Centre and the kind receptionist took pity on my pathetic state, allowing me to bring the bike into a storage room and thus keep it out of the rain. There I met Fraser, a shaven headed, tattooed security guard working on his mountain bike before work. I lent him a tool he needed and we fell into conversation.
I told him about my trip and the race that weekend, and he told me about the local mountain bike scene. He asked where I was staying in Swansea, and I asked if he knew of any good spots to pitch a tent. He smiled and said he would think about it.
The press conference was something of a joke, as the organizers were mainly interested in drilling the idea of having the 2012 Olympic Triathlon in their fair city into everyone's skull (London was bidding for the Games, but a couple hundred miles isn't too far to come, is it?). A small, shifty red-faced Welshman was in charge of the media and gave me a strange look when I asked when the media center would be ready.
"Where do you think you are, son?" he asked rhetorically. He condescended further: "you're in Britain, and British reporters do their work in their hotel rooms." I quickly concluded it would do no good to tell him I had no hotel room.
The kind security folks allowed me to keep the bike in hoc for the afternoon while I looked around Swansea, but I didn't have any luck finding a suitable plot of ground for illicit camping that evening.
I informed Fraser of this around closing time and asked if he had any ideas. He asked if I had been to The Mumbles, the small village on the other side of Swansea Bay. I told him no, and he said I should tag along with him as he rode home after work and I could camp in his front garden. I could only stay there one night, though, as his girlfriend and, more importantly, their landlady would be back the next day.
I agreed that this was a fine idea and we set off. The ride from Swansea to The Mumbles is completely on a bike path along the ocean, taking in some of the most pleasant scenery you will ever see. It reminded me of San Francisco Bay on a much smaller, more intimate scale.
Along the way we passed what appeared to be a large tent exhibition on a massive lawn across the road - there had to be 50 tents set up. I casually remarked to Fraser that I could probably pitch my little tent there and no one would notice. For a frightful moment I thought he was going to ask me to try.
But alas we continued on to his apartment, and upon arrival he revealed that I would be welcome to stay in their guest room. Well praise the Lord and can I get an Halleluhah!!! No wet tent for me and I basked in a glow of joy I had not felt since Merthyr Tydfil, when that kind fellow revealed the end of the day's climbing.
I had a warm bed, a sink to clean my pots and pans (you don't want to know), and a sunny deck to dry the tent on. Best of all, I had someone to talk to after a week of swearing at my bike, the road, and the trees. Fraser revealed he is lead singer for a punk-pop band called Nozzle and he, like most Welshmen, pursues heavy drinking as an avid hobby. I revealed that I don't drink but I did enjoy one of Wham's songs back in the 80's. Surprisingly we still got along.
I fell into a deep sleep somewhere around 10 pm and in the morning joined Fraser on his commute into work. During the day I wandered into a camping supply store to see if they had a replacement for part of my stove that had been damaged. "LeisureQuest" was the name of the store and, although they didn't have the part I was looking for, my foreign accent led to a conversation with the salesclerks. I told them I was in town for the triathlon, and one asked where I was staying.
"Just camping," I told him, "I'm a journalist and don't have the funds for a hotel."
The man smiled at me in a funny sort of way and said, "I know where you're staying tonight!" It turns out LeisureQuest was running the tent show down near the bay, and I was talking with one of the owners. He told me to come down that evening and pick a tent, and I could sleep in it for the night. I couldn't believe my good fortune - this is Britain, son, and British reporters do their work in hotel rooms!
So that evening I made my way down to the lawn and found my new friend, Wayne. Wayne said, "pick your favorite!" and that I did: a massive tent with five rooms that I could have pitched four of my tents comfortably within. I have no idea where you would actually go camping with such a thing; maybe they're for family reunions when the beds have all beeen claimed. Over dinner I was encouraged to stay WELL WITHIN the tent during the night as the security guard would have a man-eating German Shepherd patrolling the grounds. A flurry of barking erupted from the back of a nearby van; I considered this very good advice.
Race day arrived dark and foreboding; rain had come overnight and hadn't completely left. Over breakfast I chatted with the security guard and his haggard wife, who did not enjoy the night of roughing it. The third brilliant stroke of good fortune came to me in so many days - John, the security guard, and his wife, Paula, live in Penarth, 40 miles to the east and directly in line with where I would be cycling that afternoon on my return trip. They informed me they have a guest room and would welcome me for the night if I chose to stop by. With another night out of the rain secured, I joyously left my gear in tentland and scurried over to the start armed with notebook and camera.
It was becoming apparent that "press" clearly meant "the BBC" and all others take a number in the eyes of the organizers. I had been issued a tiny tag stating simply "press" that no one could read at more than two feet, so I was constantly harassed to show my credentials whenever I tried to go under the ropes. For the run leg I did what I normally do and brought out the bike, using it to ride along with the leaders and watch the chess match unfold. This is not a common tactic used by journalists; normally they place themselves by the side of the road and wait for the athletes to go by - the more loops, the more in tune they are with the developing race. As with most forms of innovation, my method occassionally does not sit well with the powers that be.
The run was comprised of three loops, and the first time my bike and I passed through the finish line the organizers had confused looks on their faces. Who is that clown riding on the course? The second time through one of them made a half-hearted attempt to wave me over to the side, but the race was heating up and I had a report to write on its outcome. About halfway around a motorcyclist roared up beside me and told me to get off the course. I flashed my measly press pass but since it didn't say "BBC" it had no effect. I refused to stop and at one point he tried to push me over to the side of the road. I continued arguing with him the rest of the way around, but I refrained from continuing across the finish line and he eventually disappeared. For the upcoming women's race I made a note to cut the finishing section out of my route.
After keeping a low profile during the women's race and doing my best to gather the scraps of interviews left behind by the BBC, I retrieved my belongings and wobbled back out of town. I had enjoyed my stay in Swansea, mainly because of the people I had met. I couldn't help but wonder if the British journalists holed up in their hotel rooms tapping away at their keyboards had the same impression.
My ride to Penarth was a joyous one - a fierce tailwind propelled me over hill and dale and my legs were fresh for the first time in days. I enjoyed a blissful night in luxury, with my own bed and a chance to do some laundry. The only negative occurred in the morning, when I had to sift my way through Cardiff, home of two and a half of the three million people in Wales, on my way to the Severn Bridge. I was taking a chance by going this way - the bridge would cut at least 50 miles off my route and would allow me to avoid the mountains of Monmouth and Gloucester that I had so enjoyed days before, but it was unclear whether bikes were allowed across the bridge. I held my breath.
The first Severn Bridge - the older one a few miles up the Severn River from the second, newer one - did indeed have a wide bike lane. Across I went, then skirted the north of Bristol on my way to Chipping Sodbury for lunch. After lunch and just past Chippenham I came to the broad expanse of the Salisbury Plain, with the thatched roof cottages and their wealthy inhabitants. With legs about to fail and no more interest in the scenery, my day's target finally appeared on the heath - Stonehenge.
Though this was not a tourism trip, a slight alteration of my route allowed me to ride by these pillars of ancient rock. Stonehenge is not what is used to be - locals in Swansea told me about pictures they have of climbing on the stones as children. Now you have to 5 for the privilege of penetrating the outer fence and walking along the roped-off perimeter, never getting to within 10 meters of the hallowed circle of stone. Apparently some of the stones had begun falling over, and as I gazed over the chainlink I couldn't help but be saddened by man's breakneck course through the 20th Century. Stonehenge is near the confluence of two heavily-traveled autoroutes across south-central England, so the roar of the traffic is never far away. It was not the mystical pilgrimage of so many years of New Age hippies.
Stonehenge is also surrounded by Britain's Department of Defense training grounds. Tank paths, warning placards, and "secret" airfields were all around me, but it was evening and I could go no further. I threw my gear over a barbed wire fence in a forested area that had clearly been used for tank maneuvers and crouched in the thicket. Were the passing cars military men who would send infantrymen to flush me out? Was I in the crosshairs of thermal sensing goggles? I kept the tent stowed and cooked dinner, silently. Just after the main course a pair of hounds trotted by across the clearing - I held my breath and waited for them to pick up my scent.
Perhaps they weren't military mongrels on patrol or maybe I smelled enough like the forest, but for whatever reason they kept going and never came back. Under the cover of darkness I pitched the tent, slipped inside, and spent an uneasy night waiting for the grenades. I've seen too much CNN.
In the morning I congratulated myself for outfoxing Britain's finest and resumed the civilian side of the barbed wire. If my legs held together this was to be my last day in England - Newhaven was a long day's ride east and that was where I would catch the ferry for Dieppe, France. Too many hills or unconquerable headwinds, however, and I would land somewhere in Sussex.
Hanging a right at Lopcombe Corner and passing by Over Wallop, Middle Wallop, and Nether Wallop (I am not making this up) I bore down on Winchester, home of an ancient cathedral and the inspiration for Crosby, Stills, and Nash's song of the same name. Sadly, the cathedral has gone the way of Stonehenge and pay a £4 "donation" is strongly, powerfully suggested upon entering its hallowed walls. I absorbed as much as I could from the entryway and wandered the tree-lined grounds under an ominous sky. The wind picked up and a drop of rain tapped my shoulder. For the first time on this trip I felt a very long way from home.
After a lonely lunch on the cold benches outside a grocery store, I shook off the melancholy by moving on. Passing through the town of Tiddleywink brought a smile back to my face and through Petersfield, Midhurst, and Petworth I roamed. By mid-afternoon I was making fine time and made the turn for Shoreham By Sea. Instead of going around the north of Brighton, I had decided to drop down to the coast before the city and hedge my bets that there would be a waterfront area where I could cycle with a view of the water.
My guess was correct. The Brighton and Hove waterfront is a magnificent stretch of promenade, bike path, and walking trails covering a full ten miles of beachfront real estate. I passed by the distinctly British institution of beachfront cottages, hundreds of little shed-like structures used by beachgoers to store their beach gear.
Between Brighton and Newhaven is a stretch of some nine miles occupied by the towns of Rottingdean, Saltdean, Telscombe Cliffs, and Peacehaven, all huddled on top of brilliant white cliffs overlooking the English Channel. Between the main road and the edge of the cliffs lies a wide expanse of immaculate lawn with park benches, rough walking paths, and dignified WW II monuments. Here I chose to stop, just close enough to Newhaven to make the 7:30 ferry in the morning.
It was the most overwhelmingly beautiful spot of the trip - the setting sun cast golden rays out through the high dark clouds and families and lovers walked by, hand in hand. I again waited for dark to pitch the tent, passing the time by reading a copy of the London Times and trying to light the trusty Optimus stove for dinner. A curious older couple from northern England wandered over and we shared stories of past bike trips. Their visit was too short and I was returned to solitude, longing for the companionship of my wife on this ledge of indescribable beauty.
During that time the slight sea breeze increased dramatically, and by nightfall the gale was howling in a full-fledged rage. I struggled to secure the tent. I moved everything inside and spent a fitful night listening to the tent being battered around me. The supporting rods would flex so much the side walls brushed my forehead, but the stakes held. Somewhere around 5:30 in the morning, as the wind continued and the sun glowed in the east, I loaded everything back onto my mule and pedaled the final miles to the ferry terminal. "A little bit sad for the place you are leaving, a little bit glad for the place you are going," as Robert McCloskey wrote. We pushed off for the continent.
The ferry ride was entirely too short and I was back on my bike by 11 am in a new country. This ferry had none of the circus atmosphere of the one into Harwich; instead we were blessed with about 70,000 rowdy children unaccustomed to waking at such an hour. I longed for irreverent Ahmad The Entertainer as young Johnathan informed his mother and half the ship, "there's no candy on this boat!"
Somewhere along the way I befriended a fellow bicyclist; there were only five of us onboard and each time you run into one you feel a bit of community. He was headed to France for five days of riding without traffic; I empathized with his plight of being a cyclist in Britain. In the brief time we chatted he related a "better" way out of the ferry terminal: "head into town," he said, "and you'll avoid the traffic and the big hill, all to the east."
So that I did. Heading into the heart of Dieppe is not something I would normally have done, but I badly needed a new pair of bike shorts, having worn the same pair for a few days now. Though I had left the Mother Tongue behind, I can get by in French and I enjoy trying to converse with the locals. I came up alongside an older gentleman an inquired as to the direction of the nearest "magasin du velo." I've never seen a man give me a more bewildered look. Thinking I had used the wrong phrase, I gestured to my bike and asked where people buy bikes in this town. I got an even more bewildered look in reply, as he must have wondered why I was in the market for a new bike when I clearly had a perfectly good one under me.
The conversation was going nowhere. He shrugged his shoulders, I thanked him for his troubles, and I set off to find another knowledgeable soul. The next guy I ran into was younger but just as helpful. He pondered for a few moments before replying that he didn't think there was a bike shop in Dieppe. In assessing the size of the town, I found that hard to believe - bustling commerce was going on all around me. I pressed on.
Finally I found a woman who seemed to know what I was talking about and, more importantly, knew where one was to be found. I eagerly followed her directions and rolled right up to a motorcycle shop. All the leather clothes I could want, but not much in the way of bike shorts.
Since I had not intended to spend the day in Dieppe and I was feeling claustrophobic amidst all the narrow downtown streets, I resigned myself to failure and started looking for the way to Eu, the next town on the map. Imagine my surprise when I found myself climbing the hill out of town, the very same hill I had smugly avoided by heading into Dieppe an hour earlier.
After a week and a half of busy British streets and short, steep hills, the French countryside was magical: almost no traffic, a slight tailwind, perfectly flat as far as the eye could see. My legs were thankful and I couldn't help but feel ready to be done with the trip. Loneliness and the wearying miles were taking their toll. It was not comforting to consider that half of my trip still remained - Utrecht was three countries away and northern France is not a small place. Wishing I had read "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," I did my best to push these thoughts from my mind.
Eu arrived just as my stomach chimed in for a lunch break. Conveniently France has a robust selection of large grocery stores, most complete with an inexpensive restaurant. I pulled in to Auchan and strolled my sweaty, dirty, smelly self into "Flunch," the name of the attached eatery that makes me laugh everytime I hear it. I plodded my way through ordering and threw my bones down into a chair, ready to stare into space for an hour. It was getting hot and, more oppressively, humid outside. I wondered where I would sleep that night.
After lunch I headed into Abbeville, something I would not normally have done (Abbeville is a big city) but it lay directly in my path. One immutable fact about the roads in France - they all lead into big towns and cities, much like spokes of a wheel. Armed with a map showing 20 miles to the inch, I again faced the problem I had had in England - no side roads leading me around the towns.
By mid-afternoon I had woven through Abbeville and started climbing with the mercury. My next intended destination was Auxi-le-Chateau, a small town in a thicket of secondary roads, but due to an unfortunate detour which slipped me past the side roads I ended up bearing down on Hesdin, another thriving French metropolis. The hills reared up before me against the glare of a white-hot sun, while passing trucks threw me toward the ditch with blasts of tepid air. I still had no clear route in mind for getting into Belgium, but that wasn't immediately a problem because northern France was turning out to be a rather large place.
Hesdin was good for a grocery store, so I popped in to purchase the evening meal. I was sweaty, weary, and beginning to look skinny from the long miles and not enough calories. On the way out of town I dropped into a small park to have a snack, a picture-perfect park with large beech trees on the edges and flowers along the paths. I had the golden light of the setting sun to myself, along with a thousand memories newly forming. I was only a day out of England and already I was nostalgic for the glimpses of beauty I had seen.
I returned to my bike and steered for Fruges, 25 kilometers distant, amidst the most perfect of evenings. The diffuse light cast long, elegant shadows across brilliant fields of wheat; not a breath of wind stirred. The traffic had gone home to dinner and I had the winding country roads largely to myself. I hummed a quiet tune and pedaled lightly; it was not my place to upset the serenity.
As the sun lay like a marachino cherry on the edge of the ice cream bowl horizon, I came upon a small forest of thin elms. I walked amongst the trees, found a spot for the tent, and slowly prepared supper. Passing cars knew nothing of the stowaway a few paces to their side. As the light vanished, my thoughts melted into dreams and the chirping of the crickets rose.
The morning dawned with the undeniable anticipation of another milestone to be reached: today I would cross out of France and into Belgium. To do so, however, would be to decipher the labyrinth of roads criss-crossing this section of Europe. My woefully inadequate map showed no direct route to Gent and the lands beyond without crossing through Lille and Roubaix, a sprawl of roads and development. I aimed for Leper (or Ypres as it's known in Belgium) and wondered why the rest of the world doesn't call cities by their native names.
I sailed over idyllic country roads passing through Therouanne and Hazebrouck, pausing for a glance at the map here and there. Before I knew it the towns had taken on Dutch-sounding names and I crossed the border at Steenvoorde. No formalities, no border patrols, no handing over of the passport; the EU has done away with all of that and the money changers have had to find alternative employment.
About five kilometers down the road I discovered how the border police now spend their time - trolling for wayward cyclists. I had just passed a sign indicating a bicycle surrounded by a red circle, and as my prior experiences had always involved a slash across the circle to indicate something was forbidden, I continued on, assuming the way was acceptable for cyclists. Apparently I was wrong.
The border patrol, a large van stocked with four officers, motioned for me to pull over and the one in the passenger seat asked if I spoke French. "A little," I replied, prepared to not understand a word.
Unfortunately, though, it all made perfect sense; I was not to be on this road with a bicycle. His comrades nodded gravely in agreement as they waited for me to do something. I asked if there was a suitable route into Ghent, and here I lost all understanding of his vague hand movements and rapid-fire Francais. I maneuvered my offending vehicle onto a tangential dirt road and they sped away, presumably happy they had restored order to the border zone.
Now I was in a pickle. My map was hopeless for the task, the current road had no name or signs of any sort, and there were still around sixty kilometers to Ghent, provided I went the right direction. Throwing chance to the wind I started off.
In the next town I hit upon a plan for winding my way back to Utrecht. Not wanting to shell out the pesos for better maps of Belgium and the Netherlands, I instead began a bike tour of Benelux tourism and travel shops. In larger towns I would pop into these shops and have a look at the appropriate map for the region I was in, then memorize the names of the next three or four towns down the road in the proper direction. I would hop back on my bike, follow the street signs for these towns, then repeat the process at the furthest town I could remember.
The plan was not completely foolproof. Twice I ran aground in towns with names very similar to ones I had memorized, and once I ran out of towns before I found a shop. It was also taking forever to weave through these little towns and then find suitable maps to continue my quest, and I was feeling a bit sleazy for browsing and never buying.
But I made it to Ghent! None the worse for wear, I rolled into town around suppertime and asked a bright-looking fellow where I could find the road to Lokeren. Magically he knew English and the correct road, so I was out of Ghent in a jiffy and speeding along the endless bike paths. A potential disaster - not having any water left for drinking or the night's pasta - was averted by the discovery of a kind, and more importantly generous, man watering his plants by the side of the road.
As the sun dipped low in the sky I began my search for a campsite. Belgium can be a densely populated place, especially on the outskirts of its larger cities, so my search carried a small hint of anxiety. I left the main road and almost immediately fell into quieter farming communities. Only a few kilometers up the road I curiously followed a small dirt road to its conclusion at the edge of a picturesque field of clover, flanked on all sides by small fruit trees. A softer mattress could not be found in seven counties.
Bright sunshine pulled me from peaceful slumber on my penultimate day of travel. The day looked full of promise - along the N70 into Antwerp, then out of the big town on the N1 into the Netherlands. The roads should be flat and accompanied by bike lanes, I told myself. Without a care in the world I leisurely enjoyed a bowl of muesli and loaded my belongings back onto my pack horse.
Antwerp arrived without much fuss until I came up against the first major canal cutting through the city. I rode up and down looking for a bridge, frustration mounting and the morning disappearing. Finally I noticed that cyclists kept passing me in the direction of the canal, but none were coming back; clearly someone was getting into Antwerp and it wasn't me. I followed one of them into a nondescript building and down an escalator. At the bottom I peered into a seemingly neverending bike path surrounded by perfectly white, curved walls - a bike tunnel! It took me around ten minutes of the weirdest cycling I have ever experienced - directly straight ahead and through a claustrophobic tube - to complete the crossing and out I popped into the middle of bustling Antwerp.
I fumbled my way around the city for an hour or so before finding the old city center. The narrow streets and passageways left no room for vehicles and I walked my bike delicately, afraid of knocking the old ladies over or swatting an innocent schoolchild with my wide load. I settled into a decrepit park bench and enjoyed a snack of peanuts and fruit. Next to me was a public water pump that you could extract water from by spinning the handle at the top. I stepped back in time to fill my water bottles with cool, clean liquid and began the search for a way out of town.
Presently I was back on the road to Breda, in the Netherlands. Along the big A1 highway there lies a road more suitable for bikes (in that there is a big lane); the N1 crawls along past commercial centers, schools, industrial belts, and towns. I was aiming for Zundert ("birthplace of Vincent Van Gogh"), a quaint small town just across the border where I had been two weeks earlier for an ITU points race. The swim portion of the race had been held in a small lake just over the highway from the town center, and that is where I intended to eat lunch.
I stopped in a small grocery store to purchase some food and then continued along to the lake. In doing so I crossed the final border of the journey, into the Netherlands, my country of departure. I dined beside the lake; my stop there two weeks earlier seemed an eternity ago. After lunch I went for a dip in the lake, while vacationing teenagers along the water's edge amused themselves by lobbing rocks in my direction. It must be a Dutch sport of some sort, as I had been the target of the same activity in my previous visit as well.
Lunch had been late in the day and lazy, so the sun hung low in the sky as I pedaled my way toward the outskirts of Breda, the last city I would encouter before returning full circle to Utrecht. I intended to traverse the city before settling down for the night, but a magnificently dense forest appeared along the country lane outside of town and I couldn't resist its camping possibilities. I ducked into the cool, dark recesses and carefully selected a flat clearing carpeted with pine needles. The forest muted the traffic passing beside me. I opened cans of corn, tuna, tomato sauce, and kidney beans for dinner, combining them in a saucepan for my "po' man's special." In a few hours the sun had disappeared and I did likewise, into the familiar walls of my small tent. Tonight would be the last night within its cozy, musty confines, and tomorrow the final day. In a strange, comforting way, nostalgia had crept into my mindset.
I awoke to a bit of adrenaline and the expectation of coming to my journey's end. Today I would not have to worry about finding water, food, and staying dry, for the campervan and its relative civility awaited just 70 kilometers down the bike path. Have I mentioned the ridiculous plentitude of bike paths in Holland? Nearly every road had an accompanying path at its side, either as part of the road itself or an entirely separate, small lane. The bike paths have their own signals, mileposts, traffic patterns, and direction signs pointing the way to nearby towns. In fact, many of the roads forbid bike traffic and cars will honk at you in irritation if you venture onto them.
With such a vast infrastructure in place, its no surprise that there are more bikes in Holland than cars and at all hours of the day you will see people out riding, in all weather. While passing through one of the small towns on the outskirts of Breda, I found myself in an unexpected predicament - I was stuck in a bicycle traffic jam. I could feel the road rage rising within me... just kidding. It was the most pleasant traffic jam I have ever been involved in, riding along behind about thirty kids on their way to school.
A curious mixture of sun and rain followed me into Utrecht, along canals and small country lanes. I managed to get myself lost a couple times, due to construction detours on the bike lanes, but the signs consistently pointed to Utrecht and they eventually led me into the big town. On Saturday, June 14th I was back in Utrecht, navigating the narrow side streets along the canal on my way back to the campervan. My legs were tired but my mind was at peace, full of memories of people and places gone by. This, I thought to myself, is the way to get in shape.