Many roadside cafeterias in Norway are run by Chinese families, although serving normal western food. After a long slog into the wind on my bike I’d stopped at one for chicken and chips. Lapsing into English slang as the waiter brought my food, I said "Cheers". His face lit up. "You speak Chinese!". I had to disappoint him, as I speak one less word in that language than Norwegian, in other words none. I wonder what I’d said. As a recent vegetarian, eating chicken was a bit out of character but choice was sometimes limited and I knew proper food and plenty of it was essential to keep going. The Norwegian name for chicken, kylling, leaves no room for moral ambiguity in what you’re eating.
Norway was the first leg of a 2000 mile journey by bike to the French Riviera, via Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Not being a strong cyclist, I’d planned 31 days for this at an average mileage of 65 miles a day. I’d been following the south coast from Stavanger, thinking it would be a comparatively gentle first few days. How wrong I was, as the road descended to every small fjord before quickly ascending to the next. Real switchback stuff and very tiring. Norway was turning out to be more strenuous than expected. I hoped it would get easier later. Maybe Switzerland would be flatter than I thought, although having been there a few times by car, I doubted it.
This marathon through Europe was fulfilling a childhood ambition to do a long journey abroad by bike and I’d trained hard for two years, not having cycled at all since my teens. At the age of 51, I reckoned it was now or never and the idea of doing it in the year 2000 appealed. I needed a good reliable bike and had one built by Dave Yates, based on the Hosteller model. It handled very well and gave me no trouble of any kind.
My training had suffered a set-back after falling off on an icy patch near Rothbury before Christmas and I had serious doubts about completing the distance. Setting off with pockets stuffed with seven different foreign currencies, it seemed very ambitious. I hadn’t asked for sponsorship because of this, although one of my colleagues had recently raised £1500 just by having his head shaved, and thereby considerably improving his appearance.
The roads in Norway were good, but I faced a problem that was going to haunt me for the rest of the trip. Some stretches of the main roads were closed to cyclists. This involved a detour, sometimes along a poorly-marked cycle-path, other times on minor roads. My detailed map didn’t show which roads were restricted, so made planning ahead difficult.
This was even more a problem in Germany. You could be cycling along happily on a good, fairly traffic-free road when a sign would appear directing cyclists along their own route to the next town. This could mean "Feel free to take this route if you fancy a quiet stretch with no cars, and have time to smell the flowers and listen to the birds, but carry on the road if you prefer", or it could mean "You’d better take this way chum, because if you continue on the road, after a couple of miles you’ll come across a no-cycling sign and have to come all the way back and use me anyway". As some of these cycle routes involved considerable detours and sometimes degenerated into rough tracks, they posed a constant dilemma.
On the other hand, many busy roads in Germany and Scandinavia have well-surfaced cycle-paths running parallel to them for several miles. I was to grow increasingly cynical about whose benefit this separation of cycle and motor traffic was really for. Certainly German drivers in particular seemed very intolerant of cyclists when forced to share the road with them. I thought from the signs one driver was making as he passed that he was questioning my mental competency, but he was pointing out my hat had fallen off a way back.
Tunnels were another problem and could be frightening places. A car going through several hundred yards behind sounded like a forty-ton truck about to flatten you. I had lights and reflective strips, but always felt vulnerable and glad to get out the other side safely. At least the Alpine ones were lit – those in Norway seldom were.
I decided to take a tent because camping seemed to be in the spirit of what I was doing, but drew the line at cooking my own food and ate in restaurants. Something to look forward to at the end of the day. Sometimes campsites weren’t conveniently spaced and I stayed in small hotels. Only twice did I have the choice and take the soft option. One of these was in Switzerland when I was asked nearly £20 to pitch my small tent. I found a hotel nearby charging only £8 more for an en-suite room with breakfast.
Crossing the Alps had been on my mind for a long time. Early on in the trip I accepted I’d be unable to pedal up all hills, especially with a full load. So I pushed a lot of the way up the St. Gotthard Pass at nearly 7000 feet. A sign at the start of the pass reminded cyclists how many thousand feet the road rose in the next few miles, just in case you didn’t realise what lay ahead. A young cyclist, also with a full load, overtook me near the top. He’d pedalled all the way, a real achievement, but his speed was only slightly higher than mine.
Descending was a cyclist’s dream, but you can easily come to grief on the many hairpin bends if you admire the scenery too much and forget to brake in time. A German couple riding a tandem told of another potential problem. Their tyres had burst coming down an alpine pass when the friction from the brakes had made the wheels almost red-hot.
Unsurprisingly, my four days in Switzerland were the scenic highlight of the trip, and the stretches along Lake Maggiore and the Italian Riviera were also very enjoyable cycling. Many parts of Germany had pleasant if less spectacular countryside, particularly along the banks of the larger rivers such as the Neckar and Main. Denmark was a disappointment. It had the advantage of being mostly flat but there, as in Sweden, strong winds were a real nuisance. Together with temperatures in Germany in the mid-nineties, there were few days of easy cycling.
I often wished there was more time to stop and enjoy the places I was passing through, but that wasn’t the nature of the journey. Most evenings there was chance to relax, and I met some interesting people. In Italy a waiter surprised me by speaking idiomatic English with a Yorkshire accent, having lived many years in Bradford.
Riding the last day through Nice and Cannes to my final destination in St Raphael I had mixed feelings; pride at having done the journey, relief at not having to get up every day and cycle hours in the heat, and I was looking forward to seeing my family again. But there was also sadness that something I’d been planning for so long was almost over. What I thought was the final irony was that I was almost knocked down by one of the few English cars I saw, with only ten miles to go, but that turned out to be having my bike stolen the day after returning home. Welcome back to England.