Week three - Getting into my stride
21 days of cycling now and I feel that I am getting into my stride.
The last three weeks have been physically tough. My ability falls short of my expectations, which have been largely drawn from last summers cycling trips, from London to Edinburgh and Venice, respectively. Coming into this trip I anticipated the same physical performance, but didn't take into account that I was fitter last year (having done four months marathon training before summer 2017) and the significantly heavier weight of my current bike setup. I struggle to cover less than half the daily distances of last year. This discord has meant that I pushed too hard sometimes to hit my previous distances, and then suffered in the following days.
There have also been mentally tough moments. In the first week particularly I wrestled with the issue of how to be social without spending any money (£5 per day rarely stretches to a night in a hostel or campsite). I was scared of becoming isolated, this trip was meant to be my opportunity to learn about other cultures, hard to do if you don't talk to anyone who lives there.
21 days of cycling now and I am finding some solutions. Physically, my expectations have nosedived headfirst down a Slovak mountain pass while my ability sweatily winches its way upwards to meet them. I am still sore in the mornings, but am generally satisfied with my trade of kilometres for pain.
I have also discovered ways to socialise which require little or no cash. By combining ‘warmshowers’ and asking to sleep in people's gardens I am able to spend at least half of my evenings in the company of others. It really is just a case of asking! My eight days in Czech Republic were coloured by three different hosts and five nights with new friends.
The Czech leg began with a two day haul to Prague, where I had organised two nights with a warmshowers host. My host family was part German, part American and part Czech, meaning that they could have dinner conversations fluently in three different languages! Prague was my first full day off the bike, but I realised that exploring tourist traps is far more enjoyable when you have someone to be ironically cliche with. Winding my way through couples, families and tour groups on Charles Bridge made me wish I had someone to wander with, and I missed the peace and quiet of the countryside. I still enjoyed exploring St Vitus Cathedral and watching a crowd of 200 tourists gather on the hour to stare at the scaffolding covering the clock in the Old Town Square.
What I found was an oasis of sustainable living. Numerous vegetable patches carpeted the floor of the field, radishes, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, fresh garlic and basil to name a few. I pitched my tent in one of the few unused square meters of grass and spent a glorious two nights on fur covered palettes around the campfire, cooking food on the open fire and sharing stories. I was keen to showcase fin English cuisine, so on my second day we heated a can of baked beans, toasted bread and roasted tomatoes, and enjoyed a semi-English breakfast. That evening we fired up the home-made wood fired pizza oven and baked an apple crumble. Really the ideal start and end to any day.
I left Brno with the increasingly familiar paradox of excitement and sadness. Excitement for the adventures ahead, and sadness to be leaving friends who in a short space of time become disproportionately important to me.
From Brno I was just a short two day ride from the border. I didn't love the first days ride from Brno due to a lack of smaller roads forcing me to contend with the monsters of the highway, but the evening was marked by some more unexpected kindness. After reaching the days 100km target, I began to wind down and look for a place to sleep. A young woman witnessed my botched job of communicating “please I want to sleep in your field” to an old man and offered me instead to sleep in her garden. Strings attached included a 40 minute game of football against her son which I comprehensively lost (I was very tired and he was very good), a dinner of roasted sausages on the barbecue, and five shots of home-made plum brandy with her husband, on the house.
A developing trend I am noticing is that every time I enter a new country, I become quickly convinced that THIS is the best place to cycle. I am enjoying this trend, and it's certainly applies to Slovakia. The roads are glorious, smooth grey tarmac twisting their way up mountain passes, thick with Fichtel trees (like pine trees but with light green tips on the branches - traditionally these tips were boiled which produces a honey imitation). Slovakia is my first introduction on this journey to
proper mountains, which for me hold an energy and mystical majesty about them.
So, last night was on the floor of Jan’s apartment in Banska Bystrica. Jan is an artist and adventure cycle racer. Today I will start riding towards Kosice in eastern Slovakia. I have an important deadline. I must arrive by the 26th with enough time to find a sports pub and cheer on Liverpool in the Champions League final.