The Fellowship of the (52 tooth) Ring (3 Brits Abroad on Bikes)
It was the summer of 1986 and I was at work, chatting to a fellow apprentice about the quality of the nickel plate that I had just on to my 'Brain Rourke' 753. John knew a bit about cycling and trained with a bike when preparing for his amateur boxing fights. He shook his head saying, "You should never 'plate 753…" I was pretending to listen to him but as I watched the electrolyte drip from my gleaming creation, I was thinking about planning a summer ride across Europe.
I had always been fascinated by the idea that, in theory, once you got off the ferry, you can ride, across one continuous landmass, to the Far East or Siberia. Knowing our limitations, we aimed a bit nearer home than Siberia and 3 weeks later, myself, John and Robin were rolling off the ferry in Dieppe, on a 2 week jaunt to Rome. The combination of a lack of research, inadequate preparation and questionable map reading skills, ensured that it was to prove an event full trip.
80 miles and 2 punctures in to the ride and it's all smiles, 80's hair do's and retro jerseys. "This is the furthest East I've ever been Master Frodo..."
At Dieppe we encountered our first problem of many... the ferry had been delayed leaving Newhaven and it was 10pm when we docked in France. Without any lights, we had no choice but to settle down at the foot of the chateau wall and wait for day break. As it was July, the nights were short and so we didn't have to wait long for the dawn. We spent most of the night chatting excitedly about what may be in store for us.
The French are a most civalised nation - where else would you find public wash facilities in the middle of a roundabout?
If you've never toured on your bike, you really must try it. Pure racer's just don't understand what they are missing, spending the whole year 'eye-balls-out!' It is hard to describe the feeling of independence and freedom, that you get from carrying all you need for days on board, unless you have tried it for yourself.
Setting out that morning we didn't even bother with the map and just headed East across the French quarter of The North European Plain and into the rising sun. For hours we didn't see a soul until we reached St. Quentin, where a few locals took videos and photos of 3 mad 'Roost Bifs' washing and lathering up in their town fountain.
An English 'Lad' abroad - sad!
We soon discovered that one of the reasons why the roads were so quiet - it was a Departmental Bank Holiday. This was to prove a real pain because we hadn't changed any money on the boat and only had a few Centimes between us. Our travelers cheques were pretty useless as we didn't find anywhere open to cash them in. We had to ride the whole day on water only. John did produce a battered box of 'emergency' porridge oats and proceeded to soak them with a bottle of Perrier that he had obtained somewhere. Despite encouraging grunts between mouthfuls, we did not take him up on his offer to share the fizzy wallpaper adhesive with him.
Despite 300 miles without any proper food spirits were high. The lad in the background is waiting for that french stick to be safely stowed before entering tent...
Day 3 and we entered the beautiful Ardennes, following some of the roads used in the hilly, classic, Liege-Bastogne-Liege. That night, with some schedules cashed, we treated ourselves to staying in a campsite. We anticipated the feeling of 'luxury' showers but it was short lived. The showers had been locked an hour earlier that evening and - while trying to 'Bunk in over the top Watson style,' a certain porky team manager, ripped a wash basin off the wall. We had to do a runner - water was spraying every where. (Years later I called into the campsite on a driving holiday and I really felt guilty when I saw the neat row of basins, minus one - they never replaced it. - we are so sorry...)
Take 3 fresh faced Lads, a wheel and a haystack...(check out that biker's tan!)
...and have some fun! (pathetic!)
Day four and we decided that it would be a good idea to consult the map. Our plan up to now was just to head East and turn Right when we got to the Rhine. Then obviously (!) you just follow the Rhine until you get to the Alps and on to Milan then down the front of 'The Boot' and on to Rome.
Trouble was, we had discovered that Europe is quite a big place and there was a chance that we might miss Switzerland by a few 100km or so. John triumphantly produced a map of the entire Northern hemisphere - A3 size! OK, I'm exaggerating a bit but it had a very large scale and went as far South as Gibraltar and as far East as the Urals. A day's ride was about 2 inches on the map! Undaunted, we felt sure that if we continued East and maybe a bit to the Right, we would eventually hit the Rhine.
So it went on, up at every dawn and riding into the rising sun, we headed east across Luxembourg, then cutting back into France through the beautiful green Voseges hills and then into the Rhineland.
This area used to be part of Germany but the French kept it after WW2 and so the villages are a strange mix of fresco covered, German style chalets and French Cafes. It was a confusing combination and with our 'map', we were not actually sure what country we were in. Robin saw a sign for Strasbourg and we went for it.
Day 7 and to stay on schedule, we had to ride 120 miles up the Rhine to Mulhouse on the Swiss Border. It was incredibly warm across Europe that summer – you may remember that holidaymakers were returning early, from places like Greece and Turkey because it was so hot. The ride south along the banks and levees of the Rhine, made perfect cycling country for 3 fit and healthy riders. Unfortunately, myself and Robin were feeling the effects of indulging too deeply into the local cuisine
"Kebab Monsieur? Cesskooosayeeee?"
"OK, Bratwurst it is then mate!"
John, on the other hand, his body always a temple, was still living mainly on his never-ending box of oats. He was flying! He had been giving us a hard time for the past couple of days and we were supposed to be the club cyclists!. We arrived in Mulhouse late afternoon and proceeded on our habitual quest for the local park with a fountain, so that we could do our wash. One look at Robin and I could see he was shattered. I wasn't feeling too pukka myself, so I asked him if he wanted to quit now and head back on the train. Unselfishly, of course, he said no but I decided that I would ride to the station, just to enquire what the price of a ticket to Le Harve would be. I left the other two and rode off to find 'le Garre du Centre,' wobbling across the cobbles on my fully leaden Rouke. It was only a couple of miles, on a beautiful afternoon and all I wore was running shorts and a pair of flip flops. The station staff were helpful and tolerant of my poor Francais and I obtained all the info on times and prices that I needed. Turning away to leave, I glanced across to my bike and my jaw hit the floor. NO BIKE! Not only that but NO CLOTHES, MONEY or PASSPORT. Now, you can imagine my predicament as I set off back through town to the others, flip-flops flapping and feeling rather, ahem, 'camp,' in my 'Steve Ovett's'.
This is the picture that inspired Bonnie Tyler to pen the song,' I was lost in France...'
About a 2 hours later I got back to the other's, who greeted me with rather bemused faces. Panic quickly spread amongst us as we realised my situation. Luckily, we had swapped travelers cheque receipt stubs, so I had some money. John and Robin routed around in the bottom of their panniers and between them, sorted me out an outfit that made me look like a refugee, (I'm sure that some whiffy items hadn't seen the light of day since Dieppe!)
We tried for help at the local Gendamerie for but they just stared at us, hands on guns and pointed us in the direction of the police. The Police were less helpful and told me basically to go home. It was the only option after all and so we headed on to the station. We had a pizza in a station café to cheer ourselves up and chatted about what might have been over a beer. Robin was coming back with me on the TGV via Paris but John decided to carry on alone,
Now you have to remember that John was a rare breed, a South Paw boxer from Gosport. Streetwise – you couldn't fault him - and as a mate – one of the best. But he certainly wasn't well traveled and didn't seem to have done lot of Geography at school. He was always amazed when we crossed a frontier,
He'd ask, "Where's this place to Rob?"
"Belgium," Rob would reply.
That was enough for John, anymore detail and his eyes would start to glaze. We took it for granted that he knew where Belgium was! So, in the simplest possible way, we told him to head across Switzerland and head for the St. Bernard Pass in to Italy and on to Milan and Rome.
Rob and I bought our tickets and we went to the waiting room to spend the night there. The next train was in the morning and John would set off then too. We only had our heads down for about an hour when we were prodded by a ranting security guard – we had to leave, the station was shutting. We sneaked back into the station and tried to hide in a kids play zone but we were spotted on camera and this time, well and truly evicted! We found some benches in the park opposite the station and settled down there with the local tramps, feeling thoroughly dejected. We didn't have a chance to nod off when there was a massive 'CRACK' off thunder – the heat wave had broken and the heavens opened. To add to our misery, we were laughed at by a steady stream of ravers heading back from night clubs up town. We got soaked for what seemed hours.
The station opened up again at 6am and we said our goodbyes to John. He looked confused when we handed him the 1:500 000 000 map and he shoved it in his pannier. It was still raining as we watched him head off in the direction of the Alps, which were lost under a cloak of thunder storms.
With our morall on a bit of a downer, it didn't come as a total shock when we realised that Rob's bike had gone missing in Paris. Robin and I had to wait in Paris a day for the slow train (which had Rob's bike on board – no bikes on the TGV.) It didn't turn off and it seemed as if Rob's bike had decided to complete the tour on it's own! Short on cash (and clothes,) we headed on to Le Harve and got the ferry home. Rob had to get the ferry back the following weekend and literally grabbed his bike out of the hands of the lost property man.
Two weeks later I got 7th in the National Points Race Championships at Leicester.
John Gosling took it upon himself to finish the quest - "Although I know not the way…" he said.
Amazingly, John did get to Milan – at least he says he did but it could have been Zurich for all he'd know!
1: Pack some spare socks and give them to your mate in case your bike gets nicked!
2: High 5 and Creatine? - You can do 1500 miles on a box of porridge oats!
3: Specific track training? – Go touring instead!