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Unknown Beginnings

Unknown Beginnings

Richard Burton
“The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.”

Day 20 – 1,485 miles

I write this while on the Italian/Slovenian border having spent the past three weeks churning away the pedals enough to make my way down through France and then across Italy. Both are countries I have visited many times before but I see them now in a different guise. I have nothing groundbreaking to inform on either but it has been a highly informative stint thus far.

The speed one moves on a bike enables a sense of appreciation of all the small things unusually available to us when in a car or a motorbike. On a bike, you have time to ponder about the changing landscapes and agriculture. There is time to appreciate patterns of life, subtle topographical changes, road surfaces, architecture, smells and sounds. Through fleeting encounters with locals, you develop a greater cultural understanding for places which I assumed I knew plenty about.

Those are just some of the reasons why I have embarked on this venture. Being such a short way through a trip which will take me to cultures I have little understanding, places I have never heard and languages I can’t speak is pretty scary.

I have probably spent too much of the past few weeks thinking about what’s ahead and being daunted by it. I can’t let myself do that. The trip is too long to be overawed, I just need to take it bit by bit and give myself small checkpoints to embrace along the way.

The Opening Chapter

Goodbyes are hard. Saying farewell to family, friends and loved ones without a clear return date is something I have never done before. Airport departures on climbing expeditions were challenging for their own reasons based on the obvious risk of high altitude climbing. With those though, there was a return flight and something to anticipate. This was different and my tearful eyes upon pedalling away, masked beneath my sunglasses, were a testament to the anxiety I had about what lay ahead.

This is a solo venture. Unemployment was now upon me. The safety vest of a secure job as an Officer in the British Army was now something of the past and new horizons beckoned. I have saved money over the past few months to enable this to happen. This venture was my own choice. Nobody was telling me where to go, what time to set off or what deadline to meet.

I knew uncertainty lay around the corner in every guise and, even in this early stint, I have come to anticipate and try to embrace that unknown. The question of what to eat every day, where to sleep and what route to take. In many ways, the past few weeks have been so simple. The complexities of everyday life have been removed a little bit and the relatively mundane process of movement from a to b has become my norm. This is still so early though. I remain so open, immature and wide-eyed about what lies ahead.

Such a weight on a bike, the like of which was new to me. My “training” consisted of cycling (in two days) the 90 miles to London just so I could return the journey a few days later. My legs were unconditioned. My arms, shoulders, back and ass were oblivious as to what was about to be thrown upon them but relieved to make it to the south coast in Portsmouth to catch my evening ferry.

Allez Les Blues

Moving through France and then Italy alone has been as informative, challenging and reflective as I thought it would be. Thoughts popping in and out of my head about anything and everything, incorrect song lyrics stuck on a loop in my own mind, internal dialogue about national identities and inner anxiety about what the hell I was opting to do with my life. This wasn’t a brief stint I was beginning before settling into life in London, it was my new existence and my bike was (is) my new home.

I battled the early undulating terrain in France attempting to force my body into adapting to what it was now embarking on. I was regretful at the weight on my bike which forced such agonisingly slow ascents and then fiendishly quick downhills. This steel steam train with fully loaded panniers and a 90kg pilot picks up speed and stops with only ample warning signs. The heat of France was matched later on by Northern Italy but, to the unacclimatised body, it meant dehydration and the next water stop was never far from my mind.

With new smells, sounds, almost empty roads and civil drivers, France made for a joyous stint. My pathetic French language skills restricted my desire to venture out too far in terms of meeting people but, even in the few encounters I did, I found the people courteous, welcoming and positive about my big bags. I felt I could trust the people and the country which is certainly a positive takeaway.

My existence had already become functional rather than fashionable. I wear Shimano SPD clip-in sandals every day, shorts, one of two pairs of undershorts and one of three tops. I rotate them and feel cleaner. The reality of this kind of venture is often less glamorous than the postcard snapshots of Himalayan sunsets and crisp mornings.

I enjoy it immensely, every day is a new adventure. Every day has given me something different. This might well change as the trip goes on but it’s a routine I am content with for now.

Lifestyle

My routine from arrival in Portsmouth until this moment has been one I have tried to adapt to. It might sound strict, frugal and mundane but I know that restricting the luxuries now will enable me to travel further and longer in months to come. I view the places I will be able to visit in the future through saving money on the little things as a worthwhile sacrifice.

My eating strategy is functional rather than indulgent. I eat enough to keep me turning over the pedals and keeping the costs down. I eat banana sandwiches, peanut butter and jam wraps, biscuits then rice, pasta or noodles in the evening. It isn’t glamorous, it isn’t that varied but it does the job. I have a coffee in the morning before I get pedalling and a Pukka herbal tea in the evening – they’re both treats. Other than that, I drink water. This is how I intend to function for the foreseeable future.

My sleeping routine is to wild camp when I find a discreet spot. So far I’ve had garlic fields, scrap yards, woods, ditches and a disused barn to name a few. I enjoy scouting a good site, cooking my noodles and waiting until nightfall to pitch my tent and await the morning to get back on the pedals and see new sights in a place I have never been before.

Friendly Faces

The exceptions to both the eating and sleeping are when I stay with someone en route. To date, there have been chance encounters via social media as well as pre-planned ones with friends. The joy of seeing friends is immense, even at this early stage. It shows the kindness, love and support for the venture I will be going on. The few days with Pip and Ben Saunders will stay with me as the scenery changes and loneliness sets in. They were my first and only real checkpoint enabling a rest day in the south of France. They’re trusted and wonderful friends who I will miss hugely. Added to that, Ben’s polar kit OCD came in handy as we managed to shave 1kg of kit through label cutting and kit expulsion.

Cycling for a few days with Jack and Jilly near Toulouse, two mates from my old Regiment in Winchester, was also special as they flew down to see me and wish me on my way before our paths veered off in different directions.

Their decision to join me was typical of the spirit within a lot of Army Officers. Intrepid, impetuous and free-spirited. They booked return flights, hired a couple of bikes and cycled 400km with me over three days. They hadn’t even trained but plugged away and selflessly sheltered my heavy loads from the wind. I’m so grateful they made the decision to join me and added a memorable element to the trip.

My next adventure involved an unnecessary detour via Monaco to experience a place I had read and seen so much about. It didn’t disappoint. All the glitz, glamour and ostentation I expected. The irony of a sweaty dirty cyclist posing for a photo outside the Monte Carlo Casino was not lost on me. I made an attempt to cycle the famous Formula One circuit and compare my lap time to that of Lewis Hamilton et al. I was firstly struck by the steepness of the track before being accosted by a policeman who denied me the chance to complete my challenge. Bike security checks and full personal details accounted for, I thankfully escaped a fine under the acceptance I would walk my bike out of the city centre. Doesn’t look like I’ll be getting an invite to the Monaco Grand Prix anytime soon.

After a night with another pal and his girlfriend near the Italian border, I was ready to move again with no more planned stops for the foreseeable future. It was a final and hugely appreciated break after a tough day – 1,800m of ascent in 80 miles.

Coffees and Kindness

Crossing the border into Italy was exciting and represented a bit of a shift in my own head. No rest days or friends lay ahead, but I feel I had achieved something by going down and across France even if it had been done many times before. This was a new solo trip for me so that list of unknowns was already reducing. I could now just pedal east.

The thermometer continued to rise well into the mid-30s which are a battle for one’s mental as well as physical fatigue. I could identify different skin tones in people, with slightly varied lifestyles and cultural identities. Bikes enable this because there is no engine purring, visor or windscreen in the way. You’re there, you’re vulnerable, you’re watching, listening and observing. I try and take it all in. I have tended to avoid music as right now my senses are overloaded already.

After hopping over the Alps, my route along Northern Italy was fairly unexciting. I wanted to make good speed on this easier terrain before hitting the mountains again and to an area I was really enthused about – Slovenia and beyond. The strong headwinds and debilitating heat rather slowed my progress and combined to make an unenviable ratio of effort:progress. Regardless, east I headed and it might have been fairly forgettable but for the people I met along the way.

I ended up with a trio of Italians (Marco, Giovanni and Vanessa) and about twenty dogs in the foothills of the Italian Alps. I stayed with Simone, a great 42-year-old punk rock guitarist near Piacenza before then staying with his wonderful friend, Luca, near Mantua. Luca has 4 dogs, 3 pigs and 2 donkeys, works with children assisting in their mental health and was an immensely generous host. We explored Mantua, had a lovely dinner and it was a pleasure to spend time with him before begrudgingly mounting my bike and continuing on.

A sense of Monaco déjà vu occurred near the end of my Italia stint as I decided to head into Venice. For obvious reasons, I was wary and warned that cycling near the city was not possible. Continuing my general approach to this trip of ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’, I pedalled across the bridge and hey presto, found myself amongst the canals and tourists with a bucket list city ticked off. Unsurprisingly, the polizia did not take too kindly to a sweaty, dirty cyclist. Like in Monaco, my details were taken, I escaped a fine but was also told to make a hasty retreat or their leniency might wear off. Another place I can’t see myself being invited back to.

Looking Ahead

I have been to Slovenia several times before and loved it for different reasons – hospitable people, beautiful roads and enchanting mountains. I’m excited to cross the border and enter this special country once again.

My route beyond that will likely head across Hungary before going through Romania, Bulgaria and then the next main checkpoint in my mind: Istanbul. The change of scenery, the move to more remote places and pedalling further away from home still fills me with excitement.

The novelty of this venture has far from worn off and I continue to marvel at my surroundings, enjoy my solitude and embrace the opportunities that this trip is bringing.

If you want to follow my trip more regularly then Instagram is the best place filled with pointless videos, inane musings and terrible selfies. Beware!