Month 3: England Away

The last month has been a blur, Russia has delivered an epic World Cup and England battled through to the semi final, which no one expected. I’ve tried to condense it down into one post, but inevitably I will have missed parts out. Thanks to everyone who has made the past month one to remember.

Following England from Volgograd I switched from bicycle to car for a 3 day road trip up the Volga river. Cedric was the driver, having come by car from his home in Yorkshire.

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Cedric’s car, travelling in style

We had a quick stop off in Saransk to check out the smallest host city of the World Cup, where even the locals are surprised to be involved.

The next day we arrived in Nizny Novgorod, the venue for England’s 2nd match of the tournament against Panama, considered by many to be Russia’s 3rd city after Moscow and St. Petersburg. After the immense amount of flies in Volgograd the heat of Nizny didn’t seem too bad. The travelling England contingent was much more vocal here, with a large presence camped out on the main bar street in the city.

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England fans on the loose in Nizny the morning before the match. Garry, Me, Josh, Matt.

Nizny delivered a strong performance from England, with the most goals scored by an England team in a World Cup match. We looked more like a team than in any other tournament I’ve watched.

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Tops off.. Now we’re proper England fans

The World Cup party was truly on, after the last-minute relief of the 2-1 vs. Tunisia to sheer disbelief that this was actually England scoring 6 goals in front of us.

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Meeting the sunrise (credit https://www.davidjshaw.com)

The next day with sore heads, hoarse voices and hope that football was coming home, we went our separate ways, (Josh off to Kazan, Matt flying home, Cedric driving to Moscow).

I waited for my 3am train to Moscow in a bar off the main street to avoid the crowds and recover a bit. Then, some locals realised I was English and they immediately offered me shots of vodka and some food, despite my fragile condition I couldn’t turn them down.

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Dead on my feet before 3am train

They dragged some other Russians in to talk, as their English was not so good and I was soon drinking with a big group. I almost forgot I had left all my bags in the fanzone’s luggage area, and at midnight I set off with my new friends to retrieve everything. The door was locked and the lights were off when we arrived, fortunately I had Yevgeny, Max and Vladimir with me and they managed to persuade a policeman to call in the guy with the key.

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Woops

To celebrate we went to Max’s nearby flat and drank samogonka or homemade vodka outside until around 2am when I had to set off to the train station. We said our goodbyes and off I went, laden down with a bottle of the potent samogonka.

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Yeveney, Max, Vladimir setting up a midnight feast + Samogonka

At the station I had about 10 minutes to go through the airport style security (all security has been notched up for the World Cup) and find my train, I was surprised to find the 3 Russians running in to help me, they had driven down to make sure I made it on time. They carried the bags and led me to the train while I rolled the bike, more importantly they persuaded the unhappy carriage stewardess to let my bike on. Amazing hospitality from the Russians once more!

I spent the next week in Moscow, with Eugene a host from couch surfing who generously was happy for me to stay for the rest of the tournament. A few days recovering and sightseeing followed before meeting up with some more England fans. England losing to Belgium in Kaliningrad meant the next match would be played in Moscow, rather than a 20 hour train ride away in Rostov, and that England were placed in the (theoretically at least) easier side of the draw. This meant Simon, Luke, Angus and me cheered on as Rashford purposely (allegedly) scuffed his chance wide. The result a one nil Belgium win, and a last 16 date with Colombia in the Spartak Stadium, Moscow.

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Simon and Agnus, in Moscow to watch England vs. Belgium

The atmosphere in Moscow, especially on the Nicolskaya street just off Red Square, was amazing. Each night fans from around the world and loads of locals gathered to sing and dance in the street. Setting up an England flag brought a lot of attention as there were only a few of us around.

The day Russia beat Spain in the quarter-final brought Moscow to a stand still, cars driving around honking and people flooding the centre to celebrate the shocking win of the unfancied Russian team against the 2010 champions. I got a free ticket from my brother, Charlie, for this match and was expecting like most of the crowd to see the Spanish sweep the plucky Russian aside. The noise inside the Luzhniki was deafening, as the Russians went through after a penalty shootout.

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They’ve only got one chant but it does get loud: RASS-SI-YAA!

After this match I met up with Frankie, last seen wandering around the streets of Nizny, and met his mates, Bob and Matt, known as ‘The Old Boys’. They had set up camp in a bar on the main Nicolskaya Street they’d christened Bar 200, based on the price of a Piva/Beer.

My brother Charlie, not normally a football fan, had flown out taking advantage of the Fan ID to visit Russia as a tourist and we went to a fans match in the temporary Red Square football pitch.

These matches have been played in each city England’s been too, organised by George Smith. It’s normally a group of England fans against fans of the local football club.

On this occasion in the shadow of the Kremlin, the Russians brought in a few ringers; 3 international women’s players, a current Russian premier league player and some pro ice hockey players as well. Final score 16 – 1 to Russia.

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St. Basil’s Cathedral over to the left, England holding 2-1 at this point
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Enjoying a buffett after the match

Throughout my time in Russia friendships forged around football and alcohol were a recurring theme, with English, Russians and fans from everywhere and anywhere. I met Alex, a Russian fan of the England team in Volgograd, and again in Ninzy, amazingly he managed to find me a ticket for the Colombia match, via his American friend Steve-o. I met them for vodka and piva before the match. I hadn’t planned to go to any more matches, having arrived in Russia with tickets for the group stages only, but since football was coming home and I was already in Russia it would be a missed opportunity not to go to more matches.

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David from Ethiopia, Bubs with the England tattoo, and Alex my Russian friend that arranged my ticket to the Colombia match

Match day arrived with many more England fans around, gathering in Nicolskaya before heading out to the suburbs. Colombia’s tactics were similar to those of Tunisia and Panama, trying to prevent England from playing but getting away with it in most cases. England led through a penalty, and looked to be going through, until in very English way we conceded in the 93rd minute. Extra time and penalties followed, and in a very Un-English way we won a penalty shoot out. The euphoria and release of nervous energy at finally winning in a shootout was immense.

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We’re not going home

After this my weeks of drinking and late nights caught up with me and dose of man flu set in, I lay low at Eugenes, only venturing out to find tickets for the next match, managing to find some sad-looking Colombian fans wandering around Moscow. For this match I took a 15 hour train ride to Samara.

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Luke and Simon relaxing with a game of chess on the train to Samara

In Samara I was reunited with Josh who had sat out the Colombia match to enjoy the famous pancakes found in the riverside city of Nizny Novgorod. A planned stay with a local Russian fell through so we found ourselves on the floor of Dave and Frankie’s Airbnb, conveniently located near the spaceship-esque stadium.

waiting for the bus before England vs. Sweden

England were building momentum, always crucial in a tournament, and they swept aside a one-dimensional Swedish team, with Jordan Pickford vital in making some amazing saves. This was almost unbelievable stuff now, England were in a World Cup semi final and I was there to witness it.

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Here we go!

A few more days in Samara then it was back on the train to Moscow. Now that we were here, with England in a World Cup semi final for the first time in our lives we had to try to get tickets. Josh and I spent hours on the FIFA website, trawling Twitter and Facebook to try and get our hands on some. There were lots available online from re-sellers but at a big markup. Amazingly Josh managed to track down some in St. Petersburg for only $10 above face value, and fortunately Charlie now in tourist mode was in St. Petersburg. Perfect. Charlie got sent the money, collected the tickets and planned to be back in Moscow on the day of the match, due to collect his own ticket from a seller there.

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Tickets secured, time to relax on the Samaran beaches

Once we arrived back to Eugene’s in Moscow at 5am, after another long train journey, on the day of the match, I decided to check my phone following a quick snooze. I had about 20 messages from Charlie. There were no trains or planes from St. Petersburg to Moscow so he was hiring a car. His ETA was around 9pm which was the exact time of kick off. He was holding the tickets for me, Josh and Matt who had flown back out for the big occasion, this was not ideal. Having worked out the best approach for Charlie; driving to the North of Moscow, leaving the car and taking a metro across the city to the Stadium there was nothing to do but wait and see if he made it. We went to find the England fans and pre-drown our sorrow about missing the match.

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Will Charlie get here? I don’t know!

This made the build up to this huge match even more nerve-wracking. Amazingly, Charlie and his heavy foot arrived to the Stadium at 8:50pm, was quickly mobbed by 3 very relieved England fans, and we ran in and found our place behind the England goal just as they kicked off.

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Waiting for Charlie again, on the other side of stadium security, tickets in hand

For 63 glorious minutes we were on our way to the World Cup Final. Trippier’s free kick in the 5th minute sending the bolstered English ranks in to delirium. A few good chances in the first half led to a confident mood at half time, just need to convert some of these chances and it’s job done. Then Croatia came out after half time and took control of the match, scored to take it to extra time and scored again to break English hearts. Football is coming home, just not yet.

We stayed to sing and show our support to the players who like us were clearly agonised at having come so close to the final.

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Players shattered after the semi final
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Singing till the end

From here it was back to Bar 200, peace and quiet set back from the madness of Nicolskaya. Charlie set off to drive to his airport hotel, before having to make the long drive back to St. Petersburg later that morning, and the Josh and Matt provided some musical backing to see England’s participation in the World Cup out in dubious style.

However the show must go on and although some England fans made the trip up to St. Petersburg for the 3rd place playoff many more were either heading directly home, or staying around Moscow for the final.

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Final night for Frankie and Matt, hanging out with Russians; Denis and Pawel, and their Azeri mate Frankey. Me and Chris (front) hanging around Russia for a bit longer

The final lived up to the rest of the tournament, high scoring, amazing goals, controversy. The best team won on the day, well done to France. Max, my first host in Russia, had come up to Moscow to be in the fanzone for the final and we met up on Nicolskaya with the promise of a gift from Russia with love. His mum had made me a Harry Kane t-shirt which I wore with pride for the rest of the night.

This and the green bum bag (a gift from another Max – my host in Volgograd) are great examples of the generosity experienced and the friendships made in Russia in the last month, something that is replicated with loads of the England fans I talk to.

Alex, Steve-O, Dave and Diana completed our diminished party for the final night on Nicolskaya.

Volgograd

My first hosts in Volgograd were Yulia and Mikhail. I knew they were not big football fans so I was a little worried about asking to watch the match straight after arriving at their home. Luckily for me though, they understood the first match of the World Cup is special so we had it on live stream straight away.

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Yulia, Mikhail, Leiana – First hosts in Volgograd

Yulia and Mikhail are cycling activists who are involved in trying to promote cycling infrastructure across the city. They had arranged for the local news to come meet and interview me about my trip. The interview process was slightly overwhelming, there were various interviewers asking the same questions about what I thought about Russia, how well I thought England would do in the World Cup, how I found the new cycle paths in Volgograd and whether I thought England fans would cause any trouble while they were here. This line of questioning was a bit misleading considering what happened in Marseille, but I think the truth of that situation has not been widely reported in Russia. The interview was quite a novel experience and I even got filmed cycling for a segment on the local news.

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Questions from all angles

The next day, while in the fan-zone, I met some England fans for the first time; Brighton brothers Clarke and Ellis, and Dave Mills. Dave has walked/hitchhiked to Volgograd on his way to walking around the world – http://www.davemillscontinentaldrift.com

The four of us wondered where the rest of the England fans were as we had only spotted a few in the fan-zone or around town. We were far outnumbered by Tunisian fans who had travelled en masse to the match and were not afraid of making their presence known around Volgograd.

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Tunisians on the march

I was trying not to outstay my welcome with one host, especially as I was out drinking most nights, so I moved to Maxim and Svetlana’s house for the remainder of my time in Volgograd. I arrived at Max’s in the middle of Sveti’s birthday party and was greeted with a huge meal, shots of vodka and told it was my turn to make a toast. I was made to feel right at home.

I remembered the time I hosted two Romanian cyclists who were touring the UK. They arrived on my birthday and we had a BBQ together with my family and friends. I hoped the way I was feeling now was how they felt at my house.

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Party games

Many more shots of vodka, and some party games later, a bloke turned up and led a chakra healing meditation. Not something I have seen at a birthday party before but looked like everyone was enjoying themselves.

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Chakra meditation

Max is part of a Randonneur Club of Russian cycle tourers. The day after the party he took me to an event with his club. It was bike handling involving figures of eight’s, ramps and all sorts of tasks. It was basically an obstacle course for a bike and having the only ‘racing’ type bike I felt at a bit of a disadvantage but performed okay considering.

Following this, we went together to the WWII Museum with Misha, Max’s son. This museum is an important place in the history of Volgograd – which was formerly known as Stalingrad. One of the turning points in WWII was after the heroic Soviet defence of this city. The museum and the stadium are overlooked by the impressive Motherland Calls Monument on the Mamayev Kurgan Hill.

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Tank inspection at the WWII museum
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The Motherland Calls

I spent most of my time in Volgograd in the fan-zone watching the early matches and swatting off the same midges that seemed to have followed me from the countryside. It was a great atmosphere with fans from all over the world mixing and curious Russians approaching us to practise their English.

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Fanzone on match day – finally some English

When I made the decision to go to Volgograd, I had consequently given myself a slight logistical problem for when it was time to leave the city. I needed to catch a pre-booked early morning train to Nizny Novgorod before 24th June in time for the next England match. My last attempt at a train hadn’t gone to plan as there was no space for me let alone my bike. However, if I didn’t sort out a way of getting to Nizny Novgorod I would miss the match. I posted a speculative message on the FA fans forum asking if anyone could help. I got a reply from Cedric that he was driving from the UK and could fit me and the bike in his car for the journey to the next England match. This was great news, so I ditched the train idea arranged to meet Cedric in the fanzone.

Once in Volgograd, Cedric had no place to stay. Luckily Max kindly welcomed him in, as well as my friend Josh from home. Josh had arrived by train from Moscow and has spent the last year cycling to Kazakhstan -www.cyclingfordays.bike. Josh arrived on the day of the first match just as Cedric, Max and I were tucking into some breakfast beers and the vodka that Ivan had gifted me in Mikhaylovka.

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Breakfast beers and pre-match vodka

From here we caught the free transport into town and met up with the England contingent; Dave, Clarke and Ellis.

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Max (our new friend from Khazakstan), Ellis, Dave, Clarke and me

A good old fashioned English pub crawl to the stadium and we were ready.

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Match ready

Josh had pulled a Houdini act but managed to reappear just in time for us to take our place behind the England goal. The match started off so well but looked to be fizzling out slightly, which seems to be a very English way to start the World Cup. Then, as if he could hear our singing, Harry Kane’s injury time winner changed everything.

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We’re on our way!
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Happy England fans 30 minutes after the match finished, less happy stadium stewards
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Me and Josh outside the Volgograd arena after the win

Agony to ecstasy; the joy of football. We stayed in the stadium singing and jumping, until the stewards kicked us out. Then, it was onto an Irish Bar along with our small English contingent, to sing some more until the early hours of the morning.

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Next morning outside the pub with new Rusisan friends, knackered, hoarse and ready for bed

Volgograd was a great host city and a brilliant way to start the World Cup – with a win.

Month 2: Poland – Ukraine – Russia

Setting off from Berlin Schönefeld airport alone felt like the end of a holiday. I had been travelling for a month together with Lauren in countries we had both been to before. Now it was the opposite, I am travelling alone to countries I have never been.

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Last campsite in Germany

Poland – 15th – 22nd May

The morning after leaving the airport I crossed into Poland. The landscape was familiar; flat plains, farmland and forests, quiet villages and busy towns. With a few subtle differences; almost no windfarms, which were common place in Germany, unpaved backroads making picking a quite route a bit more of a gamble. It was also where the people stopped to stare with an expression of what the hell is this guy doing? Probably due to bike touring being less common in Poland than the countries I had recently come through, making me much more of a novelty.

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Poznan Roubaix

It was strange, I had thought about cycling the world on my own for a long time. Now that it was underway, I felt like the same old me and not the heroic grizzled traveller I had pictured, while day dreaming on those boring afternoons sat in the office. It was all really happening, there is no safety net anymore, even though home is only a phone call away. I have set myself a goal of making it to Russia in time for the World Cup, now I just have to do it.

My route to Russia had been undecided until midway through Germany. I had to get to Warsaw, to collect my fan ID (the laminated document that allows visa free entry to Russia, access to stadiums, and must be worn during all matches to allow easy identification of any troublemakers). After this I could follow a northern route through Latvia and Lithuania to Moscow, leave my bike there and travel to the matches by train, or bear south-east for Ukraine and head directly to Volgograd for England’s first match. The first option would be easier; less cycling, better roads, and less hassle in Russia. Everything seemed pretty set. Then, after watching the Liverpool vs Roma match I decided to have a look where the Champions League Final would be taking place. Once I saw where it was the plan changed, I was heading to Kiev. It had to be a sign, on my way to watch the most important competition in football, I was also so close to the city which was holding the final of the biggest club competition, even better, an English team had made it to the final.

There were pros and cons of making it to Kiev by the 26th May. I was going to have to cycle quite a way to get there in time for the match, but I would be there for the match. I would also have made the next stint through Eastern Ukraine into Russia a lot more relaxed with more time to do what I wanted.

The day after crossing the German – Polish border I stayed with Pawel and Patricia in Poznan. Having both just returned from a big trip in South America, they knew exactly what I needed; a wash, a lot of food, and a beer. After a few days on my own, chatting only occasionally to people cycling between villages or outside shops, it was nice to talk about football and cycling. Pawel also helped me with some useful Polish phrases.

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Patricia and Pawel

My days cycling went from roughly 60km to 100km a day, with my longest day so far coming in at 162km on Friday 17th May from Szetlew to Nieborow, which was also through a rainstorm. It was not the best day in terms of cycling, but I had put myself within striking distance of Warsaw to get to the Visa Office before it shut for the weekend. If I didn’t make it before it shut, it ended my chances of making it to Kiev the next Saturday for the match.

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Moody scenes in Pyzdry, Poland

In Warsaw, once I’d collected my Fan ID, I stayed with Tadek, a host I met on WarmShowers. Tadek is a former chef who worked on the canal boat through the wine regions of France. After slogging it through the last week, I had decided I deserved a day off to recover before another big week to Kiev. Tadek and I thought it would be nice to go for a short roll around the city centre. This turned into a 40km tour around the various monuments, old/rebuilt town centre and the newer embankment. There is still a lot of issues regarding ownership of buildings in Warsaw, with disputes dating back to World War II and the Communist period. This resulted in a lack of investment as it’s unclear if you’ll benefit from spending when the building may be taken away by the courts.

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Central Warsaw

Later we headed to a BBQ at his friend Anna’s Dacha/allotment, in a suburb of Warsaw. Fortunately Anna’s husband Sebastian is a big football fan, particularly of Legia Warsaw, and so he arranged to watch the FA Cup final on a tablet while we enjoyed a few beers.

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Dacha – Similar to an allotment but also includes a building

More than a few beers later, and after watching the German Cup final, which my new friend Max’s team lost. Tadek and I decided to call it a night and cycle back across Warsaw, slightly more worse for wear than the ride here. Reminder, always wear a helmet. Tadek had a slow motion crash on the way home. To recover from this ordeal we had some traditional Polish food, some sort of pork gelatin and a herring gelatin products.

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Jellied Pig’s Trotters
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Cycling out of Warsaw with Tadek and a hangover

After this nice break, it was back to cycling. The Ukrainian border was looming ahead which meant another new country, language, alphabet and currency. I was very excited about the progress I was making but I was also very aware of the situation in Donesk and Lugansk where the fighting between the Ukrainian Government and Russian backed separatists is ongoing. My planned route to Kharkiv would take me close to these regions and as I pedalled closer to the border I imagined different scenarios where my route ran straight through the fighting, or that I would be denied access at the Russian Border for visiting Ukraine.

On my last day in Poland I was treated to some amazing Polish hospitality, not once but twice. First, when stopping at a Sklep to buy an ice cream to supplement my lunch of leftovers, the owner treated me to a lunch of bread, ham, cheese, radish and coffee, I wanted to buy a beer to have on my last night in Poland and use up my remaining Zloty – but was quickly told to put my money away and take the beer.

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Gift from the Sklep owner

That evening I stopped to ask for water before looking for a spot to camp in the village of Sawin. That’s when I met Wojciech and Marta who invited me in to their home. I was presented with a big plate of food, a shower and a place to sleep. Wojciech runs an ice cream business but is a former Polish border guard. He phoned ahead to confirm that bicycles could indeed cross where I planned to go the next day.  Wojciech and Marta were concerned about my heading to Ukraine, with the advice to be careful as there are a lot of thieves over there, though for some reason this eased my worries – this is standard advice for neighbouring countries and at least they didn’t tell me to avoid it completely as it is a war zone.

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Feast generously provided by Wojciech and Marta

Ukraine – 22nd May – 4th June

The next day brought the first physical border control since arriving in France, after a month of rolling unhindered from one EU country to another. The Polish guards were friendly and chatted away in English, wishing me luck on my way to Russia. The Ukrainians were a bit more suspicious, though decided after a bit of a wait that even though bikes weren’t allowed through they would make an exception.

If Poland looked similar to the flatland’s of northern Germany but less developed by a good 10 years then entering Ukraine was like going back another 10 years. As with so much it comes down to money, Poland has benefited from being part of the EU and emerged from the financial crises as one of the faster growing EU economies. Ukraine has had years of political upheaval and is an unwilling participant in a tug of war between the EU and Russia.

The first Ukrainian I met was on the road between the border and Kovel, the first town of any size. Sacha was trying to bump start his car, pushing down a slight descent then running to jump in and start the engine. I stopped to help push and after the first 3 failed attempts I started to realise that Sacha had probably had far more than the recommended alcohol intake. I ran 500 metres back up the hill to get my bike and leave him to it, hoping that he wouldn’t get it going and knock me over from behind. Fortunately for Sacha and potentially unfortunately for the other road users, a van had stopped to provide a tow, and an hour later I saw Sacha driving down the road toward me smiling and waving like crazy.

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Sacha being towed away
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First morning in Ukraine

My route to Kiev was slightly uninspiring, I had 5 days to reach Kiev in time for the final and I had to cycle around 500km on the same straight road.

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One road for 5 days

There were vast areas of forest, followed by vast fields of wheat, and the occasional village with a brightly painted Orthodox Church. Camping in Ukraine involved a lot more wildlife than previous places, swarms of mosquitoes faced in Germany and Poland turned into a dense cloud, but also lots of others insects and a few lizards were around. This is probably due to cycling later into the evenings as well as the possible less use of pesticides.

The Ukrainians I met along the way were all very friendly, exchanging numbers and promising to help any time if I got into trouble.

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Pasha and his mates off cycling who I met on the way into Kiev

On my way to Kiev I checked online for tickets for the final; Liverpool vs. Real Madrid. Lots of stories around of fans struggling with tickets and travel to the match, with the usual story of under allocation to the actual fans and the majority going to UEFA and their cronies corporate partners. Regardless, the atmosphere in Kiev was electric with Liverpool fans outnumbering their Real Madrid counterparts and locals mostly siding with the team from England. Liverpool fans had such a good time they even inspired a few joke stories like this.. http://www.thedaisycutter.co.uk/2018/06/billy-toxteth-goes-kyiv-note-spelling/

Sergio Ramos injuring Salah in the first half, when Liverpool were on top took the wind out of everyone’s sails.  Alongside with Bale’s stunner and Karius 2nd blunder the match was over.

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Liverpool comes to Kiev

This part of the trip required me to put my head down and get cycling, but doing that for 2 weeks takes some pressure off the next 3 weeks heading to Volgograd, with my aim to arrive by the 18th June for England’s first match of the World Cup.

Leaving Kiev, I stopped to see the Maidan square. This is where the Euromaidan movement centred in 2014, resulting in the “Revolution of Dignity” and the eventual collapse of the previous government, and the catalyst starting the war in Eastern Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea.

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Kiev – Ready for the Champions League Final

There’s a monument to the people killed by government forces and an exhibit showing how the movement developed and organised itself within the square. Many people I spoke with believed the Russian interference in the country was to make a point to the people of Russia, and make an example of Ukraine to show that such revolutions do not end positively. Andrii, my host from WarmShowers is one of approx. 1.6 millions Ukrainians that have been “internally displaced” by the war, he was forced to leave his home and everything he owned in Lugansk.  He has recently started a new life in Kiev, and despite these problems he welcomed me and shared his home with me.

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Andrii – My host in Kiev

Leaving Kiev I headed South East along the Dnipro river, helped with route planning by Andrii. The route was a lot more scenic and relaxed than my race in to Kiev and it was good to be on a different road. I was heading to Buchak Ozero, a lake that sits above the Dnipro river. After the chaos of Kiev I enjoyed a few shorter days of cycling through quiet countryside and arrived for a nice swim in the lake. My route took me down a lot of sand roads so it involved quite of lot of pushing; my tires combined with the weight of the panniers can’t deal with deep sand. Most of the local tourers ride mountain bikes with much thicker tyres and I can understand why.

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Buchak Ozero

I arrived in Ukraine during the strawberry season and people were often out in the fields picking. For 25 Hryvnia/80p I could buy a kilo of deliciousness, though rattling around on the bike turned into jam pretty quickly.

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I followed the South side of the river past Kaniv, I tried to cross by bridge in Chirkasy but was turned away by soldiers who pointed out the very clear no cycling sign I had tried to ignore – hoping it would be a case of better to ask forgiveness than permission. I thought it should be possible as roadworks on the bridge meant all traffic was going at a snails pace anyway.

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Town signs are a big deal in Ukraine

The soldiers showed me to a train platform 500 metres back from the bridge and assured me I would have no problems catching a train. A guy rocked up wearing a Gloucester rugby shirt but even using google translate he couldn’t tell me where he had got it from, or help me explain the rich history of Bath rugby. The train arrived and it was immediately obvious there was no room for me or the bike, it was a metre climb up to start with and the carriage was full to bursting. I recalculated and decided to keep on my side of the river for another days ride and eventually crossed a smaller bridge at Kremenchuk, also with a no bicycle sign but I passed about 5 cyclists on my way over.

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Crossing the Dnipro in Kremenchuk after following it South East for a few days

Outside Kremenchuk I met another touring cyclist on his way home to Kiev after a 500km lap around this part of the Dnipro, and a car pulled up to say hi and let us know he was a big cycling fan as well and he topped up our water bottles.

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Fellow cyclists near Kremenchuk

From Kremenchuk I aimed North East towards Kharkiv and the border with Russia, the direct route to Volgograd was off limits as it was through the regions of Donesk and Lugansk. The language had shifted without me really realising from Ukrainian to Russian, though most people living in this part of Ukraine are bilingual. En route I watched England’s win against Nigeria in a bar in Poltava, World Cup fever definitely starting to simmer away nicely. This was followed by probably my least sensible camp spot,  just off a path in a local park, so when I heard footsteps at 5:30am I decided it was time to get moving. I headed straight to a cafe on my way out of town, this sort of early start was a real shock to the system. The owner kindly stocked me up with free coffee and pastries. These sort of small kindnesses mean a lot and can help lift me for the day ahead.

My relaxed few days after Kiev along with my unplanned extended route after being denied access to cross the bridge at Chirkasy meant I was back under a time pressure.  I wanted to cross to Russia on the 4th, the first day allowed using the fan ID – 10 days before the first match. I had no specific route planned once I arrived, but wanted to stay in the city on the other side of the border; Belgorod. I would decide how to get to Volgograd from there.

My last big ride in Ukraine was 150km to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city and the former capital. It’s one of the centres of education in Ukraine, with over 200,000 university students.

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One cyclist taking extra precautions, met on the way to Kharkiv

I arrived in a thunderous downpour to Andrii’s where he fed me a recovery meal of Ukrainian cottage cheese and strawberries. Andrii is another of the people I met whose life had been greatly affected by the war, his parents live in the Lugansk region within what is now known as the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone, this makes it almost impossible to see them and living in an active war zone makes life very hard for them.

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Andrii in Kharkiv

I didn’t see much off Kharkiv, stopping only long enough for a quick roll around the city to find a place to change my remaining Hryvnia into Rubles.

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Kharkiv

Russia: 4th June

With only 80km to Belgorod I had an easier day ahead with only the heat to contend with. The border was about halfway between the cities of Kharkiv and Belgorod , and was a lot busier than I expected considering the countries are engaged in a proxy war in 2 Ukrainian regions directly south-east of the Kharkiv region (Lugansk and Donetsk) with the usual rest stops for trucks and small businesses that flourish where people have to wait to cross a border.

Using the FAN ID as a visa did initially cause some confusion, but once a few phone calls were made and an English speaking border guard asked a few questions about which cities I planned to visit I was waved through, probably waiting only 30 minutes in total.

Arriving in Russia was a significant moment, I had been planning this for a long time and now I had finally made it. I was in the final country of this stretch of the trip and would soon be off the bike for a few weeks mingling in with the crowds at the World Cup. I also nervous, only seeing bad news and warnings for England fans heading to the World Cup, but I was prepared to see it for myself.

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Arrival in Russia
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Battle of Omsk diorama in Belgorod
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Tanks are everywhere in in Russia

From Belgorod I headed South and East, using the app maps.me to pick a town ahead as a target for the day and try to adjust that route to be on paved but not main roads. This was not always possible as I spent sometime pushing through sand or chalk roads and sometime on busy highways. The Russian steppe I passed through was mostly farmland and small villages, and a few smaller towns. I have read that small villages in Russia are disappearing as people migrate away for work and the older population dies out. I am certain I passed through some places that are on the verge of gaining ghost town status.

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Peaceful dirt roads in South West Russia

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Cross country roads from Belgorod to Volgograd
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Typical Russian countryside shop

In Alexeyevka, Belgorod Oblast, I had my first proper meeting with a Russian, staying with Max, a football mad Russian about my age. I thought he was slightly odd as he supports the German national team, however after spending a month here many Russians seem to have Russia as a second team and support Germany, Spain or England ahead of them, that may change now after the Russian teams strong performance in the tournament. When we went for a walk I even asked if it was sensible to wear my England shirt around, having had a lot of warnings about hooligans and also some first hand experiences in Marseille. It was, of course, fine to walk around in an England shirt.

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Wondering around Alexeyevka with Max

From Alexeyevka I had about 600km to go to Volgograd. I took the first few days a bit easier before I decided to try and reach Volgograd for the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia on the 14th June. The decision to speed up was partly made so I could watch as much football as possible and also because of the swarms of midges that seemed to start following me from Alexeyevka. The insects were annoying me, every time I stopped even for a second I was surrounded,  each evening become a race to set up the tent, cook something and hide away from the bugs. They didn’t bite as much as mosquitoes but just buzz around your eyes, ears and mouth and my bug spray had no perceptible effect. Plus side, I now know I will need some sort of head net for when I hit Africa as the bugs.

I crossed the Don River and headed East to Mikhaylovka which is the last big town before Volgograd. I had about 200km to go with a busy main road my only route South. I camped the whole way and not a single bear was to be found.

Here I met Ivan while trying to top up my petrol bottle for my stove. This mainly involves asking someone to fill it up whilst they fill up their car as at 500ml it’s below the minimum fill for most petrol stations. This does present a good opportunity to talk to locals though. Ivan waved away my roubles when I tried to pay him for the petrol, and we talked using Google translate about what it is like in Russia and the UK and how I was finding my time in Russia so far. I then headed off to the supermarket after realising I’d lost a screw from my front pannier, I bumped into Ivan again and I followed his car back to his house, he fixed the bag, made me some lunch and gave me a bottle of homemade vodka with strict instructions to enjoy it before the England vs. Tunisia match.

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Ivan
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Last night camping for a while

2 days later, 14th June, I finally arrived in Volgograd. I headed straight to the stadium to get a photo. After 2 months, 4,500km cycled I had arrived at my end destination for the first stint of the trip. I was ready for a break from cycling while I watched a lot of football and drank a lot of beer.

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Volgograd
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Arrival at the Volgograd Arena

Month 1: France – Germany

I am very behind on blog posts, time has gone quicker than I thought and now that I have made it to Russia I’ve been busy cheering England on. The World Cup is over now so I am trying to catch up with blog posts.

France: 15th – 21st April

Lauren and I arrived off the Ferry to meet our first Warmshowers host; Al Honolulu. He was waiting for us with his bike and after a few introductions he took us straight to a boulangerie to pick up some breakfast. It was maybe a 5 minute cycle away but Lauren was still getting used to clipping in to her bike and fell over right outside the bakery, an unfortunate trade off for extra efficiency.

Al took us to see the ‘End of the World’. There was a moment or two of confusion on what that actually meant but it turned out to be a walk along the beach to a cliff in Le Harve. Even though the path had big holes in it from a storm, it was hard to fear the End of the World, we were very excited to have made it to a different country and to meet Al. It felt like the trip was really just beginning now we were out of the UK.

Al then drove us to Honfleur and Deauville which are 2 local tourist hotspots. Honfleur is a beautiful little town famous for its authentic Norman architecture. We checked out the Saint Catherine’s Church, ate some of Al’s favourite pastries, roamed around an antiques market and stopped for an ice cream.  We continued on to Deauville which is where the rich and famous of Paris hang out in Summer apparently. The buildings all looked like castles with their turrets and their half timbered walls. Lots of walking after 3 days of moving exclusively by bike knackered us out and both we fell asleep for the whole car ride back to Le Havre.

Honfleur Bay

The next morning we were ready to set off again. Al kindly cycled with us until we found the coastal road, it was up a pretty big hill with a bit of traffic around. I was slightly tense as I knew Lauren would be worried about the cars and being on the opposite side of the road. We said our goodbyes and were now alone in a foreign country with only my amateur French (and all the locals excellent English) to protect us. Our first stop was L’Etretat, France’s picturesque answer to Durdledoor.

The sun was out in full force with the April heatwave well underway in Northern France. We stopped to cool off and read a few chapters of our books which sounds lovely but the downside of this spontaneous break in cycling was setting off after lunch. After a measly distance we found ourselves at the bottom of a huge hill, which sadly became a theme for the next few days. The hills aren’t a real problem for me but Lauren just looking at one can cause Lauren more problems than actually cycling them. Fortunately she is incredibly stubborn so most of the time does make it to the top. Until she gains more confidence I have taken on the act of Knight in Shining Armour. I cycle up the hill, run back down to find how far Lauren made it, I then carry her to the top of the hill and then run back down to collect her bike and run that to the top too.

 

Slowing in Fecamp we were on the look out for a supermarket. We took a wrong turn and ended up in a sort of housing estate when Lauren fell again, this time she managed to graze her knee and much to her amusement a nice French lady came to ask if she should call an ambulance. We decided to call it a day once we had made it out of the town, this involved another hill, and about 200 metres from the top Lauren staged a David Millar/L’Angliru style protest. I rode up to see if we could camp right at the top and in this time another friendly French lady had seen our plight and gave me a lift down the hill so I could cycle Lauren’s bike up, she also drove Lauren up to the summit. Surrounded by open fields our only hope was to follow a small track with a ‘Gites’ sign. At the end we found a holiday villa and an old French couple tidying up ready to finish their day of work. I explained our situation in my best French. I’m not sure if it was my powers of persuasion or Lauren’s look of desperation but either way they let us sleep in a small room to the side of the main villa, as long as we cleared off by 8am. It all worked out very well for us, our new French hosts were very kind and once they left for the day we had the whole place to ourselves, sharing only with ducks, chickens and rabbits. We had been planning to wild camp and use WarmShowers with the occasional hotel room so this was a very welcome surprise.

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Unexpected cabin stay

The following 2 days we did wild camp, the first spot was on a verge just outside Haulot Sur Mer, where we also utilised the bucket shower for the first time.

We woke to a policewoman preparing to knock on our tent. We apologised and said we had got lost and couldn’t find a campsite. She initially didn’t buy this and she started angrily pointing to the map to show where we currently were and where the campsite was. However, she started to hesitate looking at this map and she got less and less confident pointing out the area we were in until finally she decided to just leave us alone to save her embarrassment. If she can’t find it on the map there’s no chance me or Lauren will. Our next spot, just outside Le Treport was much more secluded to avoid a repeat incident.

The following day Lauren’s parents offered to pay for a hotel for us in Abbeville, possibly fearing for either our safety or our stench. This gave us a nice taste of luxury. Lauren went off to the launderette while I went to a bike shop to get new tyres for Lauren and a new stem for me. We then treated ourselves to a nice dinner in a fancy restaurant.

On our last day in France we had done our usual of stopping in a supermarket car park, found some shade and set up our camp chairs. Lauren had to take a piece of glass out of my foot, turns out walking around a carpark bare foot isnt a great idea. Then a guy cycled up and introdced himself as Christian, he is another bike tourer who is about to embark on a long trip through Europe. It was a great chance meeting where we got to exchange some details about ourselves, our trips and our blogs. His blog; www.lescycloverts.com if you want to practise some French.

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Christian and his bike

In general, our route across the rolling farmland of Northern France was a choice between quiet and hilly coastal roads or busier direct roads, we alternated as we went and in general the roads were safe, quiet and flat. On busier roads I would ride behind and slightly outside Lauren to try and stop cars passing too close, especially with big trucks creating a wave of wind that can blow you off course. Our days in this first week fell into a pattern mainly dictated by the weather. We would start off slow – getting going around 11am, then riding for a few hours until we hit around 20 miles when we would stop off for lunch in a shady spot so we could read our books through the hottest part of the day, then continue on in the late afternoon for a few hours until we found a camp spot.

In a week we cycled from Le Havre to the Belgian border and crossed by Camphin-en-Pevele. Just as we crossed the boarder there was a pub so taking it as a sign from above we stopped for a drink to celebrate, I also got to watch the FA cup semi-final as Man United beat Tottenham. All in all a great first week to the trip.

Belgium: 21st April – 26th April

On our first night in Belgium we went to camp in the small village of Lamain. We were trying to be quiet when arriving to our camp spot as it was fairly late (having just come from the pub). This didn’t work though as a farmer came straight out to check what was going on. After a quick conversation on what we were doing he started to offer us food, water and asked how we shower. We explained we have everything we need on us but thanked him for his offer. This was a great first encounter with a Belgian farmer, we had been told in the pub just after crossing into Belgium that the French farmers were no where near as friendly as the Belgian ones.

The next day we realised that while the Belgian farmers may be friendly, the shopkeepers of Gooik were less so. Quickly nicknamed Belgium’s friendliest town we were onto the third cafe before we were treated as fellow humans. First cafe came across a little hostile and even though there was only myself and Lauren in there, they forgot to make me my sandwich. The next cafe we had decided to sit in their huge beer garden which also was completely empty apart from me and Lauren, we left our bikes near a table by the exit and as we walked in to get a drink the owner sent us straight back outside to move our bikes 5 metres to the side. We didn’t feel much welcome walking back in so decided that cafe number 3 might be the lucky winner. As we walked in we knew this was a better option, this cafe actually had people in and one wall was completely taken up with a picture of Marianne Vos.

In Brussels we stayed with Nicolas where we got to have another ‘proper’ wash and to fix my phone which had broken 2 days earlier.

Nicolas’s flat mate was having a belated birthday party so we stayed up drinking and eating. Andreas, who was another person staying in the flat through couch surfing, knows someone who lives next door to Peter Sagan! I  spent most of the evening talking to him about Sagan’s recent win in Paris Roubaix (which I watched in Bath with my cycling club VC Walcot before setting off on this trip) and what modifications I had made to my bike for this trip. Lauren was making friends through music with another flat mate named Robin. She had been asking our different hosts about their favourite music and had been creating a playlist of it all. One artist that seemed to be a hit over most of France and Belgium were Bigflo & Oli, especially with their song ‘Papa’.

The next few days were straight forwards and flat. We were into a more Flandrian section after the hillier Wallonia pre Brussels. Now that we were a few weeks in it was all becoming a lot more natural and comfortable to wake up and set off cycling each day around 11am. We had a good set up in the evening and would relax with a beer or bottle of wine. One evening Lauren decided to try to cook a meal from home. I had been the main chef of the trip and had mostly been cooking couscous, tinned fish and tinned peas and carrots, simple easy and filling. Lauren cooked orzo salmon which is one of our favourites that my mum makes. It was delicious but the lack of control on the cooker and no proper kitchen set up caused a lot of frustration.

On our last day in Belgium we camped in a forest just off a bike path near Dome. The bugs were out in full force so we were trying to eat quick and get into the tent before we got eaten. Just before finishing packing up the cooker a woman on a horse spotted us, the horse got a little jumpy but all was okay. About 30 minutes later we could hear noises outside the tent. Eventually 2 police officers knocked on our tent, we were asked what we were doing and we explained we were camping and had cycled here and pointed to our bikes next to the tent. The female officer asked Lauren if she was scared about sleeping in the woods. She replied that the scariest part was the police officers creeping round our tent looking for us, and the spiders. Realising we were harmless and not planning on staying long they left us to it and wished us luck. The rest of the night we were pretty unsettled and thought we could hear people walking around but it was just the wind and our minds playing tricks on us.

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Hiding from the bugs.

The next morning we left Belgium by boat, after the original route turned out to be a recently opened mine. It was all very simple, we cycled up to the boat, got on and within a couple minutes we were off the other side and in the Netherlands. Didn’t cost us anything.

Boat that took us from Belgium to The Netherlands.

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Crossing to the Netherlands at Berg aan de Maas, we headed to Sittard for lunch. Once we arrived at lunch it had started raining and we were really starting to feel the strain, we had been up against some strong wind and with it now raining our moral was starting to dip. Our last break was in Le Havre so we decided to re-evaluate our plan and thought we deserved a break. A quickly booked Airbnb and a couple miles later we were in Selfkant, just over the German boarder ready to do nothing for 2 nights.

Germany: 26th April – 14th May

Arriving in Germany was a major milestone for us, Lauren had grown up there and hadn’t been back since moving to the UK in 2012. It also marked about 500 miles travelled since leaving Bath, so we were both very proud to have made it that far.

Crossing the border to Germany

The rest day in Selfkant was just that, we did cycle an 8 mile round trip to the nearest Aldi to pick up supplies but that was with no luggage so hardly counts. We spent the rest of the day reading, writing our diaries and watching the only English speaking show on TV – The Incredible Dr.Pol.

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Rest day in Selfkant

Our first important visit was to JHQ, a former British Army base that has since returned to German control. Sadly no one actually lives there anymore so it is just a ghost town with a few people patrolling it. It used to house around 4,000 people. When Lauren lived there it had a cinema, bowling alley, shops, kennels, library, schools, boarding school, doctors surgery, swimming pool and more. We weren’t allowed on the camp to see anything so instead tried to cycle along the fence but sadly didn’t get to see anything that way either. It wasn’t the best stop for Lauren. I could tell it wasn’t easy for her to see it all ruined. Windows had been smashed and graffiti everywhere and plants overgrown in the streets. Lauren had last lived there when she was roughly 16-17 so it had only been 7ish years and in that time the whole area had been trashed.

The next place of meaning we went to was Krefeld, even though Lauren doesn’t actually remember living there, she thinks she was 4-5 last time she was there. We found a fairground in town so stopped for the first Currywurst mit pommes of the trip, a go on the Ferris wheel and an ice slushy to cool us down.

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Krefeld Fair

We were now fully into the Ruhr region, Germany’s industrial heartland and one of the most densely populated parts of Europe. This made cycling hard work with cycle paths playing second fiddle to the road, and resulted in a few days of very stop/start cycling, the most knackering sort especially when starting involves shifting about 30kgs of bike and luggage.

We camped in Essen, which is in the middle of the Ruhr. Once in bed we heard a huge rumble and that was the start of a major thunderstorm which lasted nearly the whole night. We couldn’t sleep because of the noise of rain and thunder and the bright flashes and the feeling of impending doom. The next morning we went straight to a McDonald’s in town to wait for the rain to pass. We decided it was time to find another WarmShowers host. We found Christoph and Fred in Werne. Christoph is a very keen cyclist who has cycled lots of India and other parts of the world. They were great hosts who made us feel very welcome and had lots of stories to tell us.

Christoph, Fred, Lauren and Me. 

The next town we stopped in was another major point for Lauren. Even though she had never lived in Bielefeld she had been countless times with her parents. I never realised but there is an ‘in-joke’ about Bielefeld in Germany. People pretend it doesn’t exist. Our hosts in Bielefeld were busy clearing out their home and moving into a van to go travel the world, so they left us a set of keys and told us to have fun. We went to a steakhouse in town for dinner and I got to watch more football. Great evening. We were clear of the Ruhr now so the roads were much nicer for cycling.

From Bielefeld we rode the short distance to Herford. Lauren has lived in Herford a couple times, she was born in Rinteln but was living in Herford at the time, she then returned when she was 7 and then returned again when she was maybe 15. Each time in different houses, she couldn’t remember 2 of them but we went to Goethestrasse to see where Lauren lived when she was 15. This was being lived in by Germans but apparently the place was nothing like it used to be. I have to admit it was also pretty overgrown, Lauren explained that right opposite her house used to be a play park but instead there was parts of the rubber floor missing and big weeds growing all over and all the swings and climbing bars were dismantled on the floor, they looked like they had been there a while too.

Deciding that viewing these houses maybe wasn’t as exciting as we thought, we headed straight to one of the Stoker families favourite places to eat in Germany- The Schalk. Its a local takeaway that apparently hasn’t changed one bit. I had half a chicken and Lauren a snitzchel which went down a treat.

Next and final big stop for us was Bad Salzuflen. This is only a 20 minute bike ride from Herford. Bad Sal is a spa town famous for its salt walls, very odd to look at but supposedly provide healing properties to the air.

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One salt wall. If you stand near it it smells like the sea.

This is the most recent place Lauren lived in Germany, only leaving after first year of University. The route we cycled from Herford to Bad Sal was one Lauren had done many times before, the nightclub her and her friends used to go to is in Herford (Go Parc) and they used to cycle there and home. After a certain distance down this road Lauren recognised where she was and took off. The whole time we are cycling shes shouting ‘oh my god’ and telling me about how shes seen a fight outside the supermarket Marktkauf and all these other random facts that I can hardly hear. She was excited to be back. Once we got to her street she was telling me about who used to live where and pointed out her own house. The former British forces suburb is now being used to house asylum seekers, which is a much better use than JHQ which was just left to crumble. Lauren’s old house seems to be the hub of the street and is now a sort of community centre rather than a house.

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Entrance to the Kurpark.

We then cycled into Bad Sal town centre and into the Kurpark which is a huge wood with a bird sanctuary and a deer enclosure and the Vitasol (spa resort).

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Part of the bird sanctuary.

Lauren had been raving about the Vitasol before we set off so we parked our bikes up outside, attempted to tie all our panniers down and went in to the local spa. The water in the Vitasol is of various salt content and then there is one very cold fresh water pool. One pool is so salty you fully float and if you put your head under water there is music playing. A great way to relax after a few weeks of cycling. We spent a few hours there, before we went to grab a pizza in the pub while I watched Liverpool in the Champions League Semi Final. The next morning we were feeling a little hungover and not too keen to move on. So over a breakfast of bread rolls and fruit tea we decided we should stay another day. Lauren’s parents offered a hotel and a meal, so we found the cheapest place in Bad Sal, left all our stuff and headed straight back to the Vitasol. In the evening we ate in an amazing Greek restaurant called Hellas. The owner got chatting to us outside to ask why we were in Bad Sal, we explained we had cycled there for the UK and what our plans were and she decided we deserved an extra shot of ouzo for our hardwork. Lauren doesn’t drink ouzo so I ended up having all her shots too.

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Hellas Greek

Now that we had seen all the major Stoker landmarks in Germany we were on Lauren’s final stretch to Berlin. A few days out of Bad Sal we had our first encounter with a wild boar. We were camping just outside Badenstedt, we first heard rustling while we were washing in the bucket like we did every night. We thought it was a person and after a few seconds of silence we forgot about it. As it was getting dark we were sat outside the tent with a glass of wine each, watching TV on an iPad when there was this almighty grunting/screaming noise. Cue panic and Lauren was up and in the tent in a heart beat. I was outside dismantling our chairs and hiding our rubbish. Once I was safely in the tent Lauren had been googling what to do and what a wild boar actually sounds like because we were only guessing. Boars avoid humans, and will normally only attack if their young are threatened. Google advised that they don’t like noise so we fell asleep with an audio book playing out loud.

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Boar country

We decided to get ourselves another cheap hotel in Magdeburg, It was 49.82 miles away so to reach our first 50 mile day we did a few laps of the block before rolling into the hotel car park. The celebration quickly turned into frustration, the hotel owner came storming over to us to say that our room had been given away. Lauren was straight in there asking how that was possible. The owner decided that because we had booked online but never rang to confirm the booking we hadn’t technically booked. He got out this sheet of other guests and said how everyone else had said what time they want to check in, and Lauren is pointing at the bikes saying its a little hard to tell when you are cycling. It was such a mess, the sort of problem that really grinds when you are tired, hot and hungry. When Lauren got her email out of the booking it said we could book in from 3pm-10pm and it was only 7pm. Eventually he decided we could stay after all, he was just trying to make a point but we were not in the mood. We weren’t best pleased about staying there now but it was getting late and we had no other plans.

We had another run in with the owner when we wanted to check out the next morning after he decided that we had booked for 2 nights. He finally accepted we were leaving and that was the end of Magdeburg.

Wind turbines forever facing the wrong way for the wind.
Lauren avoiding the sun.

On the 11th May we arrived in Berlin, the end point of the trip for Lauren, with me heading on East to Russia and the World Cup alone.

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First marker for Berlin, 20km left to cycle across the city

We decided to make our final day together special so Lauren bought us tickets to watch RB Leipzig vs Hertha Berlin. Great match which ended 6-2 to Leipzig, with  Ademola Lookman an outside contender for the World Cup squad starring in Liepzig’s win. Later I had bought tickets to see Little Simz, one of Lauren’s favourite musicians. We went to a currywurst museum and went to see the usual tourist areas like Checkpoint Charlie.

RB Leipzig VS Hertha Berlin
Gendarmenmarkt where we stopped for a drink.
Lauren pretending to own her own currywurst shop.
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Do you want to see a dead body? Probably not

The day before Lauren went home I collected the world’s biggest bike box and dragged it for 2 kilometres back to our accommodation. I had told Lauren I had collected and carried bike boxes on my own before so she didn’t need to come along. It was for an XXL Electric mountain bike and was the only box the shop had going spare, it was massive. At the airport I took the box to oversize baggage but it was too oversized, so after setting up an arts and crafts centre outside the airport we chopped the top off the box and pushed it down as far as it would go and we hoped for the best. We obviously didn’t hope enough because the bike box was still too big to fit through the oversize baggage scanners. However, a woman came and swabbed the bike box then said it’s all fine and off it went. No one checked what was in it, it just got put on the plane.

Lauren’s bike box cut down to size and ready to go.

After an emotional goodbye Lauren was off back to the UK and I was now on my own in Germany heading to Russia to watch the World Cup.

Miles: 950

Countries: 5

Days camped: 15/31

 

 

We’ve made it! (To France)

After 3 days of riding we have made it into country #2; France. Here’s an update on the tour so far.

Day 1

A late start from Combe Down after final preparations lasted till 6am, we eventually rolled out just after 11am, my mum came to see us leave and made porridge to set us up well for the day.

Ready to go

At 11.05am we were back to pick up Lauren’s hat and gloves. A good start.

Then we were off for real, flying down Summer Lane before facing the steep back roads through Limpley Stoke and on to the national cycle network. While these roads were almost empty of cars you could see why, they were muddy, potholed and in one place completely flooded.

More mud and more potholes followed before we met my Dad in Upton Scudamore for lunch. A pit stop of a beer and pasta helped us refuel and we set off again. After Warminster we continued down the Wylye Valley and asked a friendly looking farmer if we could sleep in his field. This led to a wild goose chase where each person we asked saying they were sure they knew of someone in the next village who would be able to help. Eventually we went to the tried and tested method of ducking off the road and found this spot.

Tent up, we enjoyed some left overs from the pub lunch and settled down for the night.

Day 2

With 30 miles to cycle we allowed ourselves a late start. Once underway the roads were a big improvement to day 1 – gently rolling, less mud and an intact surface.

We stopped for lunch in Salisbury and Lauren enjoyed a bratwurst – probably the first of many as we head to Germany.

The cycle path out of Salisbury was pretty frustrating with the route disappearing at will and once found criss crossing the busiest road in the area, this is sadly pretty standard for UK cities from my experience.

Out on the open road again we were making steady progress until Lauren spotted a helpless bird in the middle of the road, despite being knackered she sprung off her bike and picked up the stunned animal which promptly vomited onto her glove.

Lauren in full rescue mode

After knocking on a few doors to see if anyone could assist she set it down and as I tried to feed it a cereal bar it recovered and flew away.

On through the Hampshire lanes we went, trying to find a way to my brother’s without spending too long on the A36. This led to a roundabout route and another animal encounter; a friendly dog got a bit over excited and marked it’s territory on Lauren’s front wheel. Clever dog as it’s territory now includes parts of northern France.

Tom, my younger brother lives in a converted ex-army Bedford truck on a farm just outside Romsey. Once we arrived he helped with a few bike repairs and cooked us food, whilst we showered and washed our cycling kit; just what we needed!

Day 3

We started the day with a fry up, cooked by Tom, luxury touring indeed!

Frying up
Brothers

After that we went to meet Tom’s landlords; Rob and Polly (longwayhome.travellerspoint.com) who cycled to the UK from South Africa in 2010 and had lots of useful advice to pass on as well as a well travelled travel sink and water bag.

Our final destination was a ferry 30 miles away in Portsmouth. We set off around 1pm, with plenty of time to make the 11:30pm crossing.

We were entering a more populated area so navigating became harder, especially when trying to avoid busy roads, but the combined efforts of my maps, garmin and phone finally managed to help us find a bike path!

The sun was out, making it a pleasant final ride in the UK and once we had only a few km to go we stopped for a well deserved pub meal.

The final kilometres were on a bike path (actually a bus lane) that was fit for purpose, from Fareham to Gosport. From there we took a 4 minute ferry to Portsmouth followed by a 2 km ride to the international ferry port and we were home and dry, just having to wait to board our ship.

It was a short and sweet stint in the UK, good weather and short rides to ease into life on a bike. Next stop Le Havre!

How it all started

“Tour de Med” – Santander to Slough in 5 weeks. I was 17, just finished school and very unfit, so it was a rude awakening to bike touring. My only go on the bike before getting off the ferry in Santander, was a slow and painful ride up one of the many hills in Bath with no luggage.

I was travelling with 3 of my school friends who were all a lot more prepared for the trip. They ended up having to be very patient on every climb – especially in the Pyrenees, though waiting for me did allow enough time for a snapped chain repair.

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Tour de Med – Larry, Me, Robot, Medi, Nathan

One issue before the trip was where we were going to watch the remaining football World Cup matches. England had already been knocked out thanks to the lack of goal-line technology for Lampard’s goal, not to mention Thomas Muller’s finishing ability. However, Spain were in it to win it and we found plenty of bars showing the matches on TV.

We watched the Germany – Spain semi-final in the Basque Country, but slightly oblivious to local politics we were surprised to be the only ones cheering when Puyol headed in. Then we watched the final in a French town right on the Spanish border. We didn’t sleep as the locals were driving around celebrating all night. A good World Cup that even featured an Englishman in the final; Chapeau Monsieur Webb!

Upon my return I realised how much fun the whole experience had been. Meeting different people, spending time outdoors and being on a bike all day (even if I wasn’t quick) was brilliant and I found myself slightly at a loss back at home.

8 years later, after graduating University, spending 3 years in a job to save money, and a few more bike tours under my belt I am enroute to Russia hoping that in June, England can be at least equal to the sum of their parts, rather than playing like it’s the first time they’ve met. (see England vs. Iceland 2016).

The last England match I went to was against Russia in Euro 2016. It had plenty of unsavory scenes, before and during the match that I hope won’t be repeated this tournament. However, the lasting memory for me was a happy one; being hoarse from singing ‘Don’t take me home, I just don’t want to go to work’ on repeat with the thousands of other England fans who made the trip over to Marseille.

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England vs. Russia

The Plan

Estimated Time of Departure – 9 hours

I have decided to make this blog on the eve of my trip. Tomorrow morning I am setting off from home for 12-18 months with only my bike, my 4 pannier bags, my handlebar box and a map. My girlfriend Lauren will be joining for the first month.

The plan is to spend 3 days cycling to Portsmouth then catch a ferry to Le Harve. Enroute we have planned to have lunch with my dad when we cycle past his house, and to stay in my brother’s lorry house he built last year. https://www.facebook.com/thelorrylife/. Lauren has never been on a touring trip before so I am trying not to scare her off in the first week. Our aim together is to get to Germany, as this is where Lauren grew up so she has lots of places she wants to see again. Then I will continue solo to support England at the World Cup in Russia. Our first match is in Volgograd on the 18th June, so that will be the first major deadline I will be aiming for. A rough google maps route shows this being around 2,500 miles of cycling.

I will be carrying everything I need to be self sufficient, and will be camping and hosteling as I go, as well as using the website https://www.warmshowers.org/ along the way. I’ve wanted to do a trip like this for a few years and it seems to be one of those now or never moments in life.

We are now packed and hopefully ready to set off. Yesterday morning the living room looked like this;

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And now it looks like this;

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So, on that note, I better get some sleep. I have a busy year ahead of me.