Saturday, 21 June 2008

Hair shirts or polyester, sir?

First post. 

There are so many expectations for a first post, yet if I'm honest, all I really want to do is get this blog off the ground. You know, start it rolling to the point where it will inevitably pick up momentum and take care of itself, trying to keep pace with my excited tapping whilst I try to describe the cycle trip, rather than incessantly demanding focused attention as I attempt to make the long build-up sound interesting. In fact, I have a suspicion that this trip will probably mirror the development of the blog itself. I'm pretty rusty; I haven't done any travel writing for a couple of years and the most engaging stuff I've produced of late has been an undergraduate paper on Assyrian royal ideology, so excuse any stilted or dry prose to begin with. As my legs warm up and the miles feel shorter, so my appreciation of my surroundings will grow.

At the beginning of July, I will slip once again into my other personality; leaving behind my all too serious, over-worked, scholarly side  (on the right there) and letting loose the irresponsible, grubby, cheap, easy-going, energetic traveler within me. It's slightly new this time round as I'll be doing it on a bike (rather than as a backpack with legs) and I think its fair to say that I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. I've read hundreds of other cycle tourist blogs, boned up on nutrition and hydration, made up both minimalist and maximalist gear lists (before tossing them all in the recycling bin), shopped around, trained like crazy, grown legs the size of temple pillars and shaved my head in some desperate attempt to get some kind of grip on what is ahead of me, yet it remains totally elusive. People have gone round the world on a bicycle and have fascinating stories to tell, but clearly none of them have the same experience, even if they take the same route.

So many questions remain regarding the nature of living on a bike for seven weeks. Will it be a leisurely holiday on wheels? An old Etonian style European 'grand tour'? An intense endurance exercise, peppered with 'goals' and 'dreams', 'pain' and 'reward', 'endurance' and 'acheivement', like the tacky motivational posters on the wall of some swanky Central London gym? The truth is, it will probably be all of these things, sometimes all in the space of one hour, whilst those hours can sometimes feel like they've been stretched into a whole week of experiences. For all of my ignorance about the scale and significance of the trip I am about to embark on, there is one thing that I have definitely learnt since I decided to start riding long distance by bicycle; that time slows down and all of the real riding is done in your head. Sometimes you really have to hunt for the extra 10 miles that you know your legs have in them and cajole, beg and threaten them into putting it out, even if they're telling you otherwise in a lactic, sulky and obnoxious manner.

To make the trip I've had a bike built up. 
For those interested, it's a Surly Cross-Check frame, with Campagnolo Veloce Groupset and Mavic Open Pro Ceramic rims on Veloce 32 hubs, Panaracer Pasela 700x28 tyres, Avid Shorty 4 cantilever ceramic brakes, Brooks leather bar tape, a Charge Spoon saddle (having finally given up on a Brooks), Bontrager Race stem, bars and seatpost and a Cane Creek S3 headset. I'm just taking one pair of tough Merrell shoes and using flat pedals and Power Grip straps, whilst all my luggage will be carried by Tubus racks and Ortlieb panniers. I also have a Cateye V2c cycle computer that should record my mileage, hopefully with a bit of accuracy!

As for the route, which is highly likely to change as I go along, it is essentially a ferry to Holland then to Maastricht via the Hague and Amsterdam first, before joining the Rhine at Koln and following it upriver most of the way to Basel. Then, cross the Alps at the Gotthard pass before rolling down into Northern Italy, then cross the North-East corner to Venice for a ferry to Corfu. After exploring Corfu, one more ferry to the mainland at Igoumenitsa and a long arduous ride through the rugged mountainous region of Epirus in western Greece, before descending upon the gentler plains of Attica and into Athens. There I'll join the British School at Athens for an archaeology summer school, before heading up to my final destination in the north for an exchange year at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

So that's the plan, we'll see if the results resemble it even remotely in due course. I'd wager there's going to be a fair amount of winging it on this trip...