It has been all systems go here at VanillaBikes over the past month, or so I’ve been told. Tracy, Kevin, Adam and Paolo have been busting a lung fulfilling your orders, balancing the books and keeping Phil the postman in a job; all the while I’ve been ‘swanning about on the continent’. Yes, it’s been busy and I’ve received more than a few angry messages from the guys letting me know as such.
Thanks to the generosity of Tracy and Kevin, and funding from The Hadfield Trust, I was able to plan and complete a ride from my home in the Northern fells of the UK to my extended family who live in the remote mountains of Northern Greece. Despite having done some touring and bikepacking before, it had never been anything of this ambition and so the idea seemed a little daunting. I spent quite a bit of time researching routes and planning equipment choices.
The route worked out to be a little over 3500km. As such, longevity was a key factor in selecting gear. I opted for a pair of 25mm GP4000s with Conti Race Light tubes, fitted to wide, shallow wheels, on an alloy frame. The tyres were bombproof, suffering no punctures despite being fairly weighted down by the bikepacking kit and being railed into every minor European switchback by an over-enthused rider (we don’t have switchbacks here, just straight lines and myopic road-planners).
Shimano’s ‘middle of the road’ 105 R7000 groupset was fitted with an 11-34T cassette matched to a compact chainset. This gearing was an eye-opener for me and I’d certainly recommend it. The 34T tamed the Mortirolo and allowed me to ride some pretty exciting and steep singletrack. I’m tempted to keep the ratio on my winter-bike for the fun-factor – it’s a real enabler. A KMC X11 SL Gold kept the wheels turning with flair and provided a crucial 40g weight saving. And on the subject of flair, some controversial reggae coated splatter bar tape completed the build. I’ve been asking Kevin to let me put this product on the website for you all, but he’s not relented… yet. Despite carrying enough tools to fix most issues and riding on some pretty gnarly gravel and singletrack for much of the way, I can honestly say the bike suffered no mechanicals. I was very happy with the build.
For sleeping I packed a lightweight bivvy bag, an outdoor sleeping mat, and a down quilt, using a down jacket as a posh pillow when the nights became hotter. I had one set of clothes for the bike and one set for walking around. A camera, powerpack, garmin, phone, charger and two USB lights kept things ticking over. All this was packed into a seatpack and a smallish frame pack, with a stem cell for food on the go. Overall the setup was fairly minimal and ‘only’ weighed 14kg. Water was stored in two Elite Fly bottles.
Route-wise, I blitzed through the UK from Morecambe to Harwich in two days, keen to get to the ferry. Weirdly though, the steep climbs of Yorkshire and the Peak District made for some of the hardest and most rewarding riding. From Hook of Holland I rode towards my girlfriend’s house on the Rhein in Germany, a long headwind, slog of a ride. I followed the Rhein to Basel with some climbing detours to mix things up. From Basel I made my way up the sublime Grindelwald pass. I’d hoped to go over the Nufenen pass and then onto the Gotthardt pass but both were shut so I doubled back to Luzern, riding as high up the next pass as possible before having to catch a train to the Italian-speaking side of Switzerland, finishing in Como. From Como I rode to the Mortirolo and took a break, absorbing some of the hardest and most famous climbs in pro-cycling in two ‘rest-days’.
The Dolomites were next, followed by a flat, mentally torturous 230km along a sewage canal. From central Italy, I rode to San Marino, then along the coast to Ancona where I caught a ferry to Albania. After a bizarre night playing cards with lorry drivers and sampling Albanian lager, I followed the highways to the coast, enjoyed some of the best roads of the trip and suffered in a heatwave, before crossing into Greece. From Igoumenitsa I’d planned to ride to my destination of Kozani in a day but a storm at the top of a 1500m pass put paid to that idea. Initially frustrated, I was eventually grateful. The old roads in Greece are stunning, and I’d happily return in a group where the threat of being eaten by wild dogs and bears is lessened.
Overall, I really enjoyed the trip. Although there were difficult days, both mentally as well as physically, the sense of unity with the occasional like-minded cyclist on the road and the hostel conversations with other travellers provided perspective and smiles. Travelling on the bike is an intimate way of being able to experience your surroundings; though the jump from racing cyclist to tourer took some adapting to, I began to understand and feel energised by the old adage that it is the journey not the average speed. If you were interested in my travels, I’ll be creating an arty photobook, responding to the idea of borders. Feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.