Month: July 2014

Farewell to the Tour de France

After what turned out to be over 80 miles (112km) of riding the day before, I was feeling pretty tired so had a good sleep in. When I did finally get up, Auntie Val was still getting ready for work. It was good to have the chance to say a final goodbye before she left. I had breakfast, a shower, then packed my things to go. I decided to go a different way back to Leeds to avoid the hills and discover something new. I found the path that runs along the canal from Leeds to Liverpool. It was a lovely morning, with many other people out riding, walking the dog, jogging or boating down the canal. The path was narrow in places, leading under bridges, winding around corners but led me all the way back into the heart of the city. From there it was simple to find my way back to Grandma’s house.

My train back to London didn’t leave until the afternoon, so once I got back to Grandma’s we caught the bus into the city so she could show me around a little and have some lunch. It’s only been 18 months since I’ve been to Leeds, but even in that time it has changed quite a bit. There is a big new shopping centre that wasn’t there before. We went inside to have a look around. It has an interesting design of an all glass roof, which was being cleaned while we were there and I wondered if they are constantly having to clean it. It is also open at the top, which was great on a summer day but could be bad in winter, then again if you’re coming into the city on a cold winter’s day, you’re probably all rugged up anyway. We sat down for some burgers and shared some chips. After lunch we wandered through the mall and the markets on our way back to the bus stop. On the way I spotted a stall selling bags similar to the one I had been using for my luggage. After tripping all over Europe, mine was getting pretty tired so I bought a shiny new blue one.

Once we got back to Grandma’s house, I gathered my things quickly, loaded up the bike and cycled back to the train station. Grandma came down shortly after to see me off. It had been really great to spend some time with her again, and she had looked after me so well. I had to walk the length of the train to find the carriage for my bike, so I’m glad I was there with plenty of time to spare. Once I was onboard, I walked back through the train to my seat, waving to Grandma all the way as she walked along on the platform outside the train.

By the time my train arrived in London the race was run and won. Despite that, I still made a beeline for the Fan Park at Trafalgar Square where I was sure there would still be some activity going on. I couldn’t get my bike on the train to St. Albans until after 7PM anyway, so it was an ideal way to kill some time. The bike ride from Kings Cross to Trafalgar Square was fun on a fully loaded touring bike with a bunch of other cycling commuters, buses, taxis, cars… When I arrived the square was decorated in yellow and a replay of the finish was playing on the big screen under Nelson’s column. Bikes weren’t allowed inside, so after cycling around the square, I took a position on the terrace outside the national gallery with a perfect view overlooking the screen. A number of fellow (banished) cyclists had gathered. We chatted about the race, team Sky’s chances, the perils of riding in London and shared some cycling tales. After watching Kittel sprint to victory (again) I hopped on the bike and pedalled back through the London traffic to St. Pancras.

I caught the express to train to St. Albans which got me there about 7:30PM. By the time I got back to Simon’s place in London Colney it was about 7:45PM. It was great to see him again. I brought him up to speed on all my news as I unloaded a bunch of my TdF souvenirs that I didn’t need to take to Poland with me. Simon had also picked up a second CrossKing tyre for me. I had mistakenly ordered only one from Wiggle, so I ordered one at the local bike shop before I left for France for Simon to pick up while I was away. I was anticipating a bit of gravel paths in Poland, so I thought it best to change the Gatorskins for something with a bigger contact patch and more grip. Even though Simon had to work the next day, he had kindly offered to take me down to a B&B near Stansted airport. I didn’t want to keep him longer than I needed to so I pulled the old tyres off, left them there and took the new ones with me to fit later.

The drive to Stansted was further than I imagined, so I was really grateful to Simon for the lift. I still hadn’t eaten dinner, so we pulled into the services near the Stansted exit for some Subway. Just in case you were wondering, a footlong Honey Oat, Steak and Cheese with Chipotle sauce and all the salads tastes pretty much the same in Australia as it does in England. So do the cookies 🙂 The B&B I had booked into was actually in Bishop’s Stortford.  At first I was skeptical as we started driving into the village, but then we came to a large house that had been converted into a B&B. As we pulled up, a lady opened the door to greet us. Simon and I started pulling everything out of the Golf. Tent, pannier bags, bike frame, wheels, tyres… The lady (Annie) seemed surprised. She suggested that the garage was the best place for the bike, so she opened the door for me. There was a vintage car parked in there, a convertible called “Milly”. To be honest there wasn’t much room with the car, but I did manage to squeeze the Surly in next to Milly without any scrapes. I mentioned that I was going to put the tyres on, but Annie convinced me to do it in the morning. I was reluctant, but decided it wouldn’t be too bad to get up a bit earlier. I said goodbye to Simon and went inside to check in. Annie was a gracious host. The room was small, but ideal for what I needed. I even had my own bathroom. Incidentally “The Armstrong Lie” was playing on TV so I watched that before going to sleep. After cheering the current professional peloton over the last few days, then seeing this documentary on what will no doubt be known as the darkest days of cycling, it made me consider the contradiction. I really hope that era is past and the athletes we see today are the honest and clean heroes we can believe in.

Chasing the peloton

I arrived into Hull and sent my cousin Joanna a text. She was going to meet me there and drive me back to her place in Rise. I had a few minutes to spare so I went to the ticket office to see if I could organise a ticket for my bike and I from Leeds to London on Monday. Bizarrely the Leeds ticket office could only sell me a ticket on the day for an extortionate amount. As I was in the ticket office, Joanna arrived at the station and made her way over. I hadn’t seen her since her wedding about 18 months ago, apart from a few Skype calls. Her latest news was that she was expecting a baby, due pretty much on my birthday (which is extra special). It was great to see here again, looking great and just starting to show her 6 month baby bump. With my mission accomplished at the ticket office, we loaded my bike into the back of the car and set off for the countryside.

Rise is a lovely little country village where Joanna and her husband Steve make the most of country living. When we arrived, Steve was already cooking dinner and it was great to see him again too. Steve and I met for the first time when I came over for the wedding. We only spent a couple of days together, but we got along like old friends. After a quick (much needed) shower, we sat down outside in the evening sun to enjoy the first course, a rainbow Bruschetta. Steve calls it that because it is full of colour, including edible flowers from the garden. In fact most of the ingredients for dinner either came from the garden or the local village. While we waited for the main course, Steve took me on a tour of the impressive garden. Full of fruit trees, vegetable patches, greenhouses, edible flowers, the chook pen. He is very passionate about it and he certainly has a reason to be proud of it. We went inside for the main course, delicious roast pork from the local farmer served with greens and potatoes from the garden.

After dinner, we watched the World Cup quarter final match between Netherlands and Costa Rica. I was sure Netherlands would win easily, but Costa Rica were putting on such an admirable performance, it wasn’t long before we were all cheering them on. During the game Steve showed me his collectable World Cup sticker book too. He open a few more packs, fist-pumping when he got a player he needed to complete his set. At one point he lamented the fact he had nobody to trade with, which I thought was a little sad (albeit hilariously funny). We laughed at the suggestion of him hanging around school playgrounds looking for 10 year old boys… As the match carried on with a solid defensive display from Costa Rica, I thought Netherlands got a bit narky. Finally with the climax (or anti-climax) of a penalty shoot-out, Netherlands were through and Costa Rica were going home.

In the morning, I woke early to the sound of rain. Knowing it was a big day ahead, I had every intention of an early start, but procrastinated with a leisurely breakfast. The rain had stopped, but the grey skies still appeared gloomy with no sign of improving. It was probably about 8AM by the time I finally said goodbye and set off for York. Despite the wet roads, clouds overhead and drizzle, the ride from Rise to York was quite pleasant. I found my way onto one of the National Cycling Network routes, following it most of the way. I was going to struggle to make the start at the racecourse. I had already missed the caravan too, so I found a spot on the outskirts of the city near Clifford’s tower. I arrived just in time. There was already a huge crowd, so I made my way into the throng, pulled out my GoPro on a stick and watched the peloton whiz past. 10 minutes and it was all over, but I got to see the Tour de France again!

I’ve been to York a few times in the past, but not for at least 10 years. It’s a great old city. After the race had come through, I set off to explore. The city streets were closed to traffic, so riding the bike around once again was bliss. I stopped to ask some of the marshall’s where I could find the best coffee in York, but they were clearly tea drinkers. Eventually I found a little cafe that looked promising, so I sat down for a latte and refuelled with a second breakfast. Not far from the cafe I also found the Stone Roses bar, which probably has no affiliation with the iconic band, but was still pretty cool. I continued rolling around the city streets until I came to cool little bike shop cafe. At this stage by bike was in need of a little TLC. The makeshift repair to my rear brake was ok, but the lever had started sticking and I had pretty much worn through the brake blocks. I left it with them to work on it, while a took a seat in the cafe next door with a good view of the big screen showing the race. I noticed the couple sitting next to me were wearing matching “over 55 riders” jerseys with Aussie flags on the arm. Always glad to see a fellow Aussie I started up a conversation with them. They were from Perth on their annual European cycling holiday. They had been doing it for 10 years now going to different European destinations and cycling touring for 6 weeks at a time. They weren’t just over 55s either – they were actually in their 70s!

After the bike shop cafe, with my brakes now working nicely, I meandered through the streets of York to the racecourse where the race had started earlier that day. After the huge crowds of the day before, I was a little surprised to find the place pretty empty. There were 2 big screens showing the race, a few mercy stands, food vendors, sponsor displays, kids rides, but hardly anyone there. Maybe once the start was over (with the weather looking gloomy) most people decided to move on. I wandered around, watched the race for a bit, then decided to move on too. Finding my way back to Leeds was pretty easy. With a mixture of off-road cycle paths, deviations passing through villages and quiet country roads I followed the general direction of the York Road. Once back in Leeds, I made my way over to Grandma’s house. When I arrived the race was only a few minutes away from the end, so Grandma and I watched the finish together: the moment when Nibali stepped up to stamp his authority on the race with a stage win.

As soon as the race was over, I said goodbye to Grandma and left for my Auntie Val and Uncle Martin’s place in Pudsey, where I was staying for the night. Earlier in the day Joanna contacted me say I’d left my light at her place, so she would come down to her mum’s place and give it back to me. Although it wasn’t a deliberate ploy, it was a nice excuse to see her again. However, she had to leave at 6PM so I couldn’t be late. Despite taking a route through the village which took my up some pretty decent hills, my phone battery dying (along with the directions I was following) and having to stop to ask directions from some girls with horses I made it on time. We had a lovely home cooked meal together and in the end Joanna didn’t leave until 8! Val and Martin had been following the tour around too. Martin showed me some brilliant footage that he got of the riders coming through Addingham along with some of the entertainment that the town had put on for the event. Tomorrow the tour would leave Yorkshire and so would I, but it was great to see everyone get behind it with such enthusiasm and it was amazing to be a part of it.

I knew there would be massive crowds at the start in Leeds so I got there about 7:30AM to find a spot near the front. I parked my bike, locking it to the fence outside the gallery got a good spot on the Headrow about 100m before the start line. Already there were people lining the barriers on both sides of the course. There was a woman with her teenage son sitting on little stools right near the barrier so I stood behind them and we waited. It was a really good atmosphere with everybody excited about the race. Most of the people around me were locals, just thrilled that the Tour de France had come to their city, but had no idea about cycling. I had fun explaining to them how it all works and what would happen over the next 4 hours. Yes. 4 hours. It sounds like a long time but with the sponsors moving up and down the crowd handing out freebies, the big screen, the music, the building crowds, the banter with one another, the time passed really quickly. It was a bit of a novelty that I had travelled from Australia and the people around me made a bit of a fuss. The TV crews did too. First itv came along and interviewed me. Asking me all the usual questions, “You have come all the way from Australia for the race?”, “Do you like cycling?”, “What do you think of Leeds?”… next it was Sky Sports who wanted an interview… then BFMTV… I felt like a real celebrity but unfortunately, I have scoured the Internet and I don’t think I made the final cut.

The caravan came through at 9:20AM, then the rider sign-on started at 10AM. The atmosphere was building along with the crowds. People filled every space, lining the streets, looking on from balconies, rooftops, office windows. Finally about 11AM the riders came through to their starting position. I spotted Gerrans in the bunch, wearing the colours of the national champion and called out to him. Then came Jens Voigt, pushing his way through the peloton to get to the front. I wonder if he was already planning at that point to go on the attack and lead the race for most of the day. Then the countdown. 3, 2, 1, Go! They were off. The 2014 Tour de France, the 100th edition, had officially begun.

I made my way through the crowds to find my bike. A woman was standing by it, with her young son sitting on the fence using the rack as a foot rest. I was glad to see it was ok, and I thanked them for looking after it for me. There were still people everywhere and a procession of vehicles on the course. I got chatting to some other riders who had ridden from Bolton that morning for the start and were now heading to Harrogate. We waited about 15 minutes for the road to open, but in the end, with all the traffic, decided to find another way around it. The four of us headed off in the general direction of the A61 that would take us from Leeds to Harrogate. We came to the barriers just out out of town, where the road was closed for the course, asked the marshals if were could go through and we were on the course. Riding on closed roads is bliss. Having the streets lined with people having street parties with decorations everywhere just takes the cake. Everyone we passed was cheering, kids were giving us high 5s… The road was full of bikes and riders of every shape and size, young and old, everyone out just to celebrate cycling on the day the world’s biggest cycling race came to town.

There was no need to hurry, we had many hours before the riders were due at the finish, so I rode at a leisurely pace through the undulating hills of the lovely Yorkshire countryside. As I came into Harrogate, there were massive crowds. I found the team buses and went around to take some pictures. Then, leaving my bike locked up outside, I headed into the Stray where a massive fan park was set up. There were food vendors, sponsor tents, live bands, competitions and 3 or 4 big screens showing the race. I joined the long queue for a Scotch Angus Beef burger, but it was worth the 30 minute wait. Then, burger in hand, I found a spot in front of one of the big screens to enjoy the race. I spent the next few hours wandering around the park, finding a spot in the sun to watch the race between naps. For the first time in my life I got to watch the Tour live in the sunshine! Jens put in a very entertaining performance, but he was never going to go all the way. He had done enough to make an impact and stamp his authority. Then came the business end. I started to make my out of the park to go to the finish, but an announcement was made that they were at capacity, so I would have been turned away. Also, the Stray was now also at capacity, with a queue of people waiting to get in, so if I left I wouldn’t get back in. So, for the last few minutes of the race I made sure I had prime position in front of one of the screens and soaked up the atmosphere. Every time the helicopter camera showed the Stray we all gave a massive cheer.

I was there when Spartacus blew the race apart in the last km. I think I was the only one in crowd that cheered. I was there when Gerrans started to wind it up. I was there when the tragedy struck. Cav leaning in just that little bit too hard and bringing Gerrans down. It was awful. The Cav home crowd was shocked and devastated. Kittel went on to a good finish, but it was overshadowed by the crash. Not the ending that anyone had hoped for.

I made my way to the Green Edge team bus afterwards to assess the damage. I asked one of the soigneurs if Simon was ok and they said he was. I could see him through the window of the bus getting changed, but he wasn’t going to come out to face the media or the fans. His bike, still on the roof of the team car was clearly smashed up with the rear derailleur bent upwards into the wheel. At least he would be fit to ride, more than could be said for Cavendish.

The ride back to Leeds was pleasant, even though the roads were open again. There were so many cyclists on the road I would ride with a bunch, then hop to the next, then pass a few on the climb… great fun. I headed straight for Grandma’s place, easier to find this time, then grabbed a bag with a change of clothes, said a quick hello/goodbye, then rode down to the train station and hopped on the train to Hull for the next leg of my journey. The Tour de France had lived up to every expectation: atmosphere, excitement, tragedy and a whole lot of fun!

Le Tour de Yorkshire

After breakfast I said farewell to the Beggs and made my way to the station. It had been a flying visit but I would see them again at England camp in a few weeks time. The night before I had used Google Maps and my own (very limited) navigational skills to make my way from the station to the village, mostly on the off-road cycle paths. This time, however I followed the directions along the roads through Marholm, a nearby village, and found my way to the station much easier. I arrived comfortably before the train was due. Unable to get a direct train to Leeds with a cycle reservation, I had to first go to York, make a platform change, then continue to Leeds. Unfortunately, the train was running late so I missed the connection at York but I was still able to jump onto the next Leeds train without a reservation.

When I arrived into Leeds station my Grandma was there waiting for me. She was confident she would spot me with the bike, but with the Tour de France in town, there were people with bikes everywhere! I spotted her first as I came through the turnstiles so waved to get her attention. It was great to see my Grandma again and she was really happy to see me too. We caught a maxi taxi back to her place, which is very close to the city centre. As we drove out from the city it was clear to see Leeds was in the grip of tour fever. There were decorations everywhere, yellow bikes, posters, yellow jerseys on statues, painted phone boxes. It was clear that everyone was getting behind it.

When we got to my Grandma’s place, my cousin Matthew was there. I had seen him briefly on my last visit, but it was really good to catch up again. We had a cup of tea together and Grandma made us some sandwiches. We hadn’t been there long before my Auntie Linda also dropped in, so I had the chance to see her too. It was a real Bickerdike family reunion! Once Matthew left, I unpacked a few things, then grabbed my bike and cycled back into the city centre to get involved with the festivities. Grandma’s place was a short pedal into the city, mostly on bike paths. I found my way to the City Square where I got a photo with the iconic inflated yellow bike. Then going down the Headrow I saw the ceremonial start line for the big race. It was a real festival atmosphere of street stalls, music, street performers with people (and bikes) everywhere. The sun was shining and everyone was making the most of it.

I headed into the town hall to check out the Yorkshire Bike Show. There were lots of cool exhibitions from local artists, tool makers, clothes designers, bike companies and brilliant custom made bikes. One of my favourites (who actually won best in show) was Field bikes from Sheffield who make steel frames (of course). Not only were the bikes beautiful, but the guy I spoke to showed me a frame badge that, in co-operation with Sheffield University, had been 3D printed in steel. So cool. There was another frame that had been painted with a camouflage pattern using a process that some how prints the pattern onto a film into which the frame is then dipped. Totally crazy stuff. Another guy had custom built a 36er. Yes. Forget 29ers, a 36 inch wheel bike! There was also an impressive display of over 20 vintage bicycles, all owned by the same guy.

After a bite to eat, I made my way over to the Leeds City Museum where there was a photo exhibition of cycling culture in Leeds called Bicyclism. It was really well done showing a great diversity of bikes, riders and riding. Underpinning that cycling is not just about the lycra-clad bunch, not that there is anything wrong with that, but it so much more. After the museum I checked out the gallery, then some of the street performers. One bloke, an Aussie actually, calling his act Pucture Kit was playing a drum kit made out of a bike. It sounded brilliant and looked awesome. Then there was a group of crazy frenchies performing bike ballet. It was hilarious to watch and very impressive to see what they were able to do on a fixie.

You can’t count on the weather in England. Inevitably as the afternoon wore on it took a turn for the worse. I headed back into the town hall for more bike show goodness and take shelter. I sat down to hear a talk from a guy who has followed the tour for years riding every major climb and now written a book about them all rating them out of 10. He had some great tips about being a spectator at the Tour like how to get the free stuff from the caravan or how to get on TV. It was a fun and entertaining talk. Somehow, during questions from the audience we got on to discussing the Chris Froome/Bradley Wiggins controversy. I asked him whether he thought Wiggo would ride for Green Edge next season, as I certainly hope he will. He agreed that there was a strong possibility and would be great for both parties. Later on I found a competition was running with track bikes on rollers. A 500m sprint head-to-head. When a girl with a clipboard approached me about, it looked like a bit of fun, so I signed up. I actually ended up the 3rd fastest time of the day! Maybe all this riding around is doing me some good after all 😉 However, more impressive than that was the 84 year old bloke that stepped up to give it a crack. I hope I’m still riding everyday when I get to his age.

As the afternoon wore on I kept sticking my head out the door to check on the weather. The rain was still coming down and I had (quite optimistically) left without a jacket. Hoping it would eventually improve I procrastinated by watching a mountain bike video on the big screen called Life Cycles. I don’t know who made it, how old it is or where you can get it, but it is one of the best bike films I have seen. Really beautiful cinematography, a good narrative and some really cool riding of course. After the movie, it was after 5PM so I sent my Grandma a message and decided to brave the weather back to her house. Unfortunately, when my phone battery died, my lack of navigation came out to bite me on the bum again. The trip into the city had seemed so easy, but I ended up going in circles around the city until I found my way back to Grandma’s. By that time I was drenched from head to toe. I was very glad to have a shower and put on some dry clothes. My Grandma even went out (in the rain) to get me a Chinese takeaway for dinner. I felt totally spoilt. Grandma and I watched the Brazil v Colombia World Cup match for a while, but at 2-0 I was nearly falling asleep, so decided it was time for bed. Ironically it seems just after I made that decision Colombia scored and Neymar got injured! Just goes to show you should never leave the game early, but I needed my rest. Tomorrow was the first day of the Tour de France, the start of the Tour de Yorkshire and I was here to see it. Ey up! In’t it grand?

Rapha and an unexpected visit

The first thing I noticed as I landed back in London was the difference in temperature. It wasn’t cold, but the morning was certainly fresher than Malta. Even wearing my jeans, which I tend to do when I fly, I felt quite comfortable. I headed through passport control, managing to explain satisfactorily my complex trip and how long I would be in the country. Then I headed over to the baggage claim, hoping that my plastic wrapped Surly was still in one piece. It was a bit of an anxious wait for 15 minutes until the carousel start turning. I spotted my bag pretty quickly and pulled it off. Everything seemed to be in order, despite the zip being busted and the whole thing being held together with bungees. A few minutes late a baggage handler came in holding my bike. I was relieved. I then set out about unwrapping the bike and putting everything back together. It took a while to realign the handlebars, replace the pedals, pump up the tyres and attached all the panniers. I was ready to go. I rolled the bike out, following the signs to the train ticket desk. The station was a few miles from the airport, so I bought my ticket to St Pancras and rode down there. When the train arrived, there was no space for a bike, so I just stood with it for the journey into the city.

At St Pancras, I found a spot for an early lunch and free WiFi. I got in touch with my cousin, Joanna, originally planning to head up to her place, but since she and her husband Steve were working, it made more sense to see them on the weekend. The free WiFi was pretty rubbish, so after lunch I went to the Vodafone shop to get a SIM. They hooked me up with a £10 deal that included lots of calls, unlimited text and unlimited data. Bargain! Once I had my SIM I got in touch with my Grandma in Leeds, to let her know I had arrived and was heading up there. I went to buy a ticket to Leeds and was horrified that the cheapest ticket was £100. That was excessive. Leeds was quite a distance, so riding wasn’t an option, but I noticed that the train to Leeds passed through Peterborough. Maybe if I got a train to Peterborough, I could visit the assembly there before heading to Leeds. I contacted Cathy in Zimbabwe who gave me her parents details and I got in touch with the Beggs. They were surprised to hear from me but said they would be glad to see me. It would only be a flying visit, but at least I would get to see them. So the plan was set. Peterborough tonight then Leeds tomorrow.

Having my travel plans organised including bike reservations, I then set off in search of the Rapha store. I had been looking forward to this since I knew I was coming to London. I wasn’t sure when I would be able to fit it in, but being in London for the day, with no particular plans, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Riding through the London traffic was lots of fun. London is becoming pretty popular with bikes with the Boris bike scheme and many commuters. The shared bus/cycle lanes are a good way to get around. Arriving at Rapha, I accosted the nearest person I could find and asked them to take a photo for me as I posed, grinning in front of the iconic store. There was a notice outside requesting customers to bring their bikes into the store and lock them up there. I headed inside carrying the Surly down the steps. I had to remove a few panniers, but found a hook to hang it on, then went to explore the store. Vintage bikes, portraits of cycling legends, classic quotes and of course the very best in cycling apparel. I was so excited. I wandered around for a few minutes just soaking it in before I was approached by Kirsty the Scottish shop assistant. I was determined not to leave empty handed, but with all the awesome gear, I wasn’t sure what to get. Kirsty encouraged me that it didn’t cost anything to try it on (something you can’t do when shopping on line) so I went for it. I tried everything. Going in and out of the Rapha van change room for at least an hour. In the end I had a ‘Yes’ pile, a ‘Maybe’ pile and a couple of things in the ‘No’ category. When Kirsty added it all up, it was a significant total. I tried haggling, but that wasn’t going to fly. I convinced myself that I hadn’t bought clothes for ages and this was Rapha IN London. So I got the lot. Jeans, shirts, trousers, shorts and some ridiculously awesome white gloves. Then Kirsty asked if I wanted to claim by VAT back. Of course! It meant that I basically got the shorts for free. Woohoo!

Panniers bulging with all my new kit, I pedalled back across town to Kings Cross station to catch the train to Peterborough. By the time I arrived it was 4:40PM and the station staff told me I couldn’t take a bike on the train between 4PM and 7PM because of the rush hour. Doh! I contacted the Beggs and let them know I would be arriving late. Then I went for another ride around London, finding a little Turkish cafe where they fixed me a fresh juice. Having a bit of time to kill, I got my laptop out and tried connecting it to my phone. No dice. I found myself in a loop on the Vodafone website with no indication of how to set up the hotspot. So I went back to the store I bought it from where they told me I couldn’t set up a hotspot on a pre-paid SIM. Great. It sounded too good to be true. I found something for dinner, then watched the boards for the trains to Peterborough. I managed to get onto the 7:10PM and I was off.

The train was running late and didn’t arrive into Peterborough until about 8:30PM. I sent the Beggs a message to let them know, then headed off on the 10 mile journey to their place in the village. It was a nice ride through the countryside following the cycle path. I got a bit confused at times and when my phone battery died I stopped to ask for some directions. The village where the Beggs live is like a postcard of the English countryside. Rolling hills, dry stone walls, it was really picturesque. It was after 9PM when I eventually arrived. It was great to see them, and they were so hospitable. We stayed up for a few hours talking before retiring to bed. My train to Leeds was leaving at 8:15AM so I had to be up early tomorrow for the ride to the station. I was really glad I didn’t get that train direct to Leeds now. I wasn’t sure whether I would make it Peterborough, and although it was only one night, I’m so glad I did.

A little island paradise

I had such a great time in Malta I have fallen behind with my updates, so I have decided to write single post that covers my time there…

On the Saturday morning we went to the Blue Grotto, a beautiful picture postcard place (like many others in Malta). The Farrugias were also visiting with Adam, Simone and the kids from Geelong. I didn’t realise they would be there at the same time as me, so there was quite a number of us. I also met Lil who came down to the beach to meet us. We got started early, about 8AM before the morning heat had set in. The water was warm and a crystal clear blue as we climbed up and jumped off the rocks. When we first arrived it was nearly empty, but slowly the crowds began to build. Locals jumping into the water, people scuba diving, streams of tourists piling into the little boats for the journey around the caves. Mr Farrugia bought us a ticket for the boat to head out to the spectacular Blue Grotto caves. I was amazed at the clear blue water, the unusual rock formations and the brilliant colours that lay just below the water line. After the beach we went to see some of the megalithic temples, older than the Pyramids in Egypt, that archaeologists are still not sure who built them or how.

That night we met up in Buggiba (I think that’s how you spell it!) near the apartment where the Farrugia family were staying. It was a really vibrant little place, especially because Brazil were playing in the World Cup many of the restaurants had TV screens to follow the game. We went to a Thai restaurant where the food was really nice and abundant! I think we probably ordered too much. It was great to meet Mary-Jane for the first time at dinner too. Mary-Jane was backing Italy in the World Cup, who were out by now of course, but also didn’t like Brazil. Lil on the other hand was cheering for Brazil so during dinner we would be periodically checking in on the match for updates. When we had finished eating, the match was nearing the end with the penalty shoot out looming, so we wandered into the square to find a TV and follow the action. After every shot there was a cheer from one group of supporters. Malta, being neutral, seemed to have fans for either side equally represented so it made for a tense and exciting atmosphere. In the end, Neymar did it for Brazil. Lil was happy, and Mary-Jane not so much. After gelato, we wandered down the waterfront through the hive of activity. The Maltese tend to be nocturnal creatures and the place really comes alive at night.

On Sunday morning at the assembly meeting I met Sergio, Valeria and their two year old, Thomas. Sergio and Valeria were originally from Sicily but now live in the same street as Warrick and Dayna. After the meeting we had lunch together and Sergio was a great hit with the kids making balloon animals and flowers. Unfortunately, Thomas took an interest in my bike that was in the hallway, managing to get black grease from the chain everywhere. Sergio did a good job of scrubbing him clean but I think he ruined his white shorts. Later in the afternoon we went down to the beach again, this time another spot with rock pools where I managed to get so comfortable I fell asleep.

Monday we took the ferry across to the island of Gozo, a very short trip. On the way I discovered a wonderful local snack, pastitsi which is flaky pastry filled with vegetables and ricotta cheese. Deadly delicious and super cheap. I ate two on the ferry trip there, had another two for lunch once we got there and another on the way back. They were pretty yummy. When we arrived on the bus at the ferry terminal we were set upon by people in green shirts for tickets to the sightseeing bus. My initial reaction is always to be reluctant to these sorts of offers, but I listened to the guy and he gave us a pretty good deal. It was actually a great way to get around and see everything. We went to the Gganjhi temples, which are apparently the oldest freestanding temples in the world! I also jumped off the bus to go to the citadel in Victoria to explore the old prison, the archaeological museum, the folklore museum and the citadel itself. I then met up with the others again for a quick swim at Xlendi beach before heading back on the ferry. Warrick had to work, but was there to pick us up at the ferry port. We finished the night off with some authentic turkish kebabs.

Having brought my bike to Malta, I hadn’t actually ridden it yet, so on Tuesday morning I set out on two wheels to explore. I started from Warrick and Dayna’s house in Marsaxlokk and went to Valletta. Valletta feels like a classic European city, just on a small scale, but being right on the coast and surrounded by walls gives it a very unique aesthetic. I cycled around the city bumping over cobbles, visited the archaeological museum (yes, another one!), the war museum, the palace, the armoury… It was great to get acquainted with more of Malta’s fascinating history over the past 7000 years (or so). From Valletta I headed west to the ‘silent city’ of Mdina. This is a really cool place, again set up on a hill surrounded by city walls it has only very narrow streets, so cars can’t really travel inside, only horse and cart (or bikes of course!) Since I had spent so long in Valletta, it was getting too late to visit any of the museums, so I spent about half an hour just rolling around the city streets. Definitely one of my favourite places in Malta and I’d love to spend more time there. From Mdina I continued west (and north) to a lovely little spot on the coast called Gininja Bay. This is where I met everyone else and we had an assembly BBQ on the beach. More of a locals hangout than a tourist spot it was a very relaxed setting as we watched the sun set over the water.

In preparation for my first flight since arriving in London, I decided to cull some weight from my luggage. Having been through France and Italy, there was no use for my guidebooks anymore or the wad of maps, brochures and guides I had picked up along the way. So on Wednesday morning I walked with Dayna and the girls to the town with the nearest post office so I could post it home. I was quite a decent trek, probably 30 minutes in each direction. We set off pretty early, but it started to heat up. The girls did very well I thought, with hardly any complaints and were rewarded with an ice cream and a cold drink when we reached our destination. When we got home the girls and I watched Despicable Me 2 until Warrick came home from work for lunch. Warrick and I then went for a drive to the ‘3 cities’ where we wandered around for a bit and admired the billionaire yachts parked in harbour. We caught a water taxi across to Valletta and had this funny conversation with the boat owner, who seemed to think we were from one of the yacht crews. We thought he was joking when he asked which one was ours, so we played along for a bit until Warrick explained he actually lived in Marsaxlokk. After a walk around Valletta we stopped for a delicious handmade gelato (the best in Malta) and bought some amazing cakes for supper that night. Following the Wednesday night meeting, everyone stayed for supper, which gave me a final chance to say good bye. We over catered on the cakes, but they were delicious.

It was 5:30AM the following morning, as I gathered my things with Warrick and loaded up the car. I had weighed my luggage and it was happily well under my 20kg checked allowance. The bike was all bagged and taped ready to go on the plane. This was another big test, since the bike had never travelled like this before I was a little nervous about it. I said good bye at the airport to Warrick. It had been such a perfect time to relax in Malta and a joy to see Warrick and his family, along with meeting the others for the first time. At the check-in I cautiously handed over my precious cargo, entrusting it to the care of the Ryanair crew and airport baggage handlers. I had a quick breakfast at the airport cafe then it was time to board the plane and bid farewell to Malta. So London ‘ere we come, eh?

So long Sicily…

By the time I got going on the road out of Catania it was about 8AM. I found the signage quite confusing, but after a short detour into an industrial estate I came across a little village where I could get some cash out and buy a few basic things from the supermarket. There were no satisfactory breakfast options there so I pressed on to try and find the main road that would lead me along the east coast heading south. I ended up on a busy road that took me around the airport, and I felt like I was going in circles. At a place not far from the airport there was a traditional Italian bakery, buzzing with activity so I stopped for some breakfast. I locked my bike to a fence out the front, then proceeded into the shop to order some baked savoury thing and a cream croissant (cornetto). The best thing about cycle touring is you can really load up on breakfast. I decided not to sit, because of the legendary table service charges in Italy, so thought it best to keep moving. The pastry was exquisite, easily the best I had in Italy, so it was not hard to see why it was so busy. I stood for a few minutes munching away, then reached into my pocket for the key to my bike. It wasn’t in my regular pocket, so I tried the others. Nope. A wave of panic struck me as I meticulously emptied my pockets, checked every flap and fold in my wallet, then started scanning the ground around me. Oh no. What was I going to do now. I paced up and down inside the shop scanning the floor among the crowds of people, so see if I could spot the key anywhere, then looking up to the counter I saw the man who had served me waving to get my attention. He reached into the glass pastry cabinet and produced my key with a grin. He said something in Italian as he handed it to me, and I just smiled saying “Thank you so much”. Relieved, I headed back to my bike and I was on my way again.

Finishing my breakfast on the bike, as I pedalled away from Catania, I started second guessing my directions. The GPS was telling me my bearing was South West, when really, if I wanted to follow the coast it should be more like South East. Seeing there was no other real option I pressed on, eventually heading due South, but still nowhere in sight of the coast. It seems the road was busier and more inland than the map had indicated, so as the day started to heat up, it became a weary grind along a major road with no interesting scenery to enjoy as trucks whipped past me at speed. Occasionally the variation in terrain led me through some undulating hills, with a glance of the water way over to my left. I could see villages near the coast, but was afraid if I took one of the rough, unsealed roads in that direction I would reach a dead end and have to come back out again anyway.

The time passed slowly until I came to brown coloured sign indicating a left turn towards the coast. I had a good feeling about it, so I got off the main road and followed my intuition. I rode for about 15 minutes down this rough, narrow road until I rounded the corner to find this little oasis. Some small shacks adorned the rocky coast with boats tied up in the water nearby. To the left of the rocks, there was a sandy beach stretching out as far as the eye could see with me people sunning themselves and swimming in the shallows. Eureka! After the monotony of the morning ride, this was bliss. I parked my bike up near a small kiosk, quickly donned my swimming shorts and ran down to the water. The sand was coarse under my feet, but the water was wonderfully refreshing. I paddled around in the small waves for a few minutes, looking back onto the beach and thinking how happy I was to find this secret hideaway. I got out of the water, rinsed off in the shower then sat down at the kiosk to enjoy a lemonade. It was getting into the late morning so I decided to press on.

I got back onto the main road and shortly found myself nearing Augusta. I really didn’t know anything about the place, but it had a regular train service down to Syracusa, then Pozzallo so I picked it out as good destination to stop on the coast. Entering the town, I could see it was more of an industrial place, but also home to some sort of military base. Deciding I’d had enough of cycling on the main road I found the train station, bought a ticket to Syracusa on the next train leaving in an hour so, then went exploring. The main street had a series of small shops leading down to the water where a bridge crossed to the Castello. Always up for checking out a Castello, I followed the signs through an arch in the wall and up the hill. In the area surrounding the Castello, there were a few narrow streets that must have been the old town, but it had seen better days. It was quiet and not much was going on. From this point I had a pretty good view of the surrounding area. I was running low on water, so I stopped at a fountain where an old man was filling bottles. I filled my bidon, and took a sip but it had an odd taste. I thought I’d keep it in case I got desperate. I made a lap around the Castello, which was closed to the public and had a military helicopter displayed out the front. I could see battleships in the harbour from here too, so I figured it may still be used as an operational military building. It was getting onto lunch time, so I rolled back down the hill into town. I came to a fruit and veggie store where I bought the smallest watermelon I could find, still about 3kg! I sat down in the shade of the bus stop, cutting up the fruit into large chunks and devouring it. I managed to eat half, before I felt completely full. It was a perfectly delicious way to take on some extra fluids. I wrapped the remainder and precariously strapped it to rack on the back of my bike under the towel that was spread out still drying from morning swim, then pedalled back to the station.

When I hopped on the train, the two spaces allocated to bikes were already occupied, so the conductor indicated for me to lean my bike up against the wall of the carriage. It was a short trip down to Syracusa, and as we pulled in a German couple, owners of the two touring bikes got up to sort out their luggage. The guy smiled when he saw my bike, and guessed that I was Australian. They were from Munich cycling and camping around Sicily. I told him I had cycled from Catania to Augusta today, but the road was not very good. He had read that, which is way they opted for the train. They were not staying in Syracusa long, but riding out from there to Avolva where they would camp. We said goodbye at the station, wished each other luck and I headed off into Syracusa. For once the station platform led out of the station, onto the street without having to negotiate any stairs!

Syracusa was a nice coastal town. Had I not been sick, I probably could have spent some more time there, but as it was I grabbed a map from the tourist info point and quickly did a circuit around the waterfront, through the town, then back to the station. I managed to find a proper bike shop, probably the first I had seen in Italy, with Bianchi frames displayed proudly in the window. With my makeshift repair to my brake cable, I still had the excess tucked under my pannier bag, so I went in to see if they could cut it for me and put on a cable end. The old man didn’t speak a word of English, but could see what needed to be done. He shuffled off, grabbed his wire cutters and crimp, then fixed it up. Somewhere along the line (on the way to Pompeii I think), I managed to lose one of my gloves, my favourite Roeckl fingerless gloves with gel padding, so I asked him if he had any gloves. Having helped me with the cable, I thought it would be nice to be able to buy something at the shop too. He led me into a back room with several tubs full of gloves, socks and other sundry items. I had a quick rummage through and even though I thought a pair of Bianchi gloves would make a nice souvenir, it’s hard to replace Roeckls, so I passed. In the end, he didn’t ask anything for cutting the cable, he just smiled and gave me a pat on the back.

The train trip to Pozzallo was interesting, as there was no space for my bike (despite me having a ticket for it). I had to pull all the pannier bags off and the conductor found a spot for it in his little private area of the carriage. It was a short trip, but long enough for me to fall asleep and then jump out of my skin when the conductor came through announcing the station. I grabbed all my bags, threw them on the platform, then went back for my bike. The watermelon I had been carrying had now slipped off the back of the rack and was dangling in the towel like a sack. Once everything was back in order I pedalled out of the station in search of the ferry port. I tried booking a ticket on the website, but it crashed so decided to take my chances and buy one when I got there. Signs to the ferry port were in the Italian tradition, vague, but I did manage to find my way without too much trouble. By the time I approached the ticket desk it was about 7:10PM. Plenty of time I thought to get my ticket, then go and find some dinner. The guy at the desk said go to the first window at 7:30PM and if there is space, we will sell you a ticket. Huh? I stood there, gobsmacked for a minute and then saw the other 2 or 3 people hovering around the first window. I told him that their website was broken, but he just repeated the same instruction. This is where I met Nigel. He had been on my train to Pozzallo, although we hadn’t spoken. He was an English guy on a short break to Milan, Rome, Sicily and now Malta. We got chatting and shared our surprise at the ticket sale situation. Nigel already had a reservation, but still needed a ticket apparently. Finally the first window opened, with a face that looked remarkably familiar 😉 We got our tickets, but were told boarding would start in 10 minutes. Lucky I arrived over 2 hours before the ferry was scheduled to leave, rather than getting food first! Despite their warnings, we chanced it and walked over to the only kiosk in sight. The only thing on offer that resembled food was some basic prosciutto or salami sandwiches. Nigel was reluctant, but I decided better eat something now or who knows when I will get to eat again. In the end, he also decided to play it safe. We had a good chat about many things on the ferry, travel, politics, work. It was an enjoyable way to pass the time, and we had a bit of time to pass. The ferry left late, then arrived late, with no explanation why. Nigel said his taxi driver would probably be angry, and I was thinking of poor Warrick waiting to meet me in Valletta now almost an hour late. Still we eventually arrived. I said good bye to Nigel, and spotted Warrick waiting for me. I was very happy to see him, and apologetic for the delays. Even around midnight the air was still warm, but I had made it to Malta. It was a short trip back to Warrick’s place, where I left my bike with the luggage in the hallway, crept up the stairs to the spare room and flopped into bed.

The emergency room

I had only been asleep for a few hours, when I woke up in a sweat feeling like i was going to be sick. I rushed out of bed and to the bathroom. I’ll spare you the details but by the time I crawled back into bed there was nothing of dinner left in my stomach. That was 20 euros down the toilet (literally) I thought to myself. I tried drinking some water, then getting some sleep, but in the hot night air, I couldn’t get comfortable so I sat up on the balcony outside in the wee hours of the morning. I eventually managed some sleep but at about 6am, headache throbbing, guts aching, I headed downstairs to the vending machine to buy some lemonade. I didn’t even manage to put a coin in the slot before I was forced to rush across the street where I was sick again, despite having nothing left to throw up. It had been warm all night, and now with the sun out the day was already heating up. After a few minutes, my body settled down enough to manage a bottle of lemonade, followed by a bottle of water. I’ve had symptoms like this before, although never this severe, when doing 24 hour mountain bike races, so I suspected it was probably heat exhaustion and dehydration. I went back to bed for a few more hours and when everybody was up, I explained to Joe how I was feeling. We had planned to go out together that day, but I told him to go on without me, while I got the hostel to arrange a taxi to take me to the hospital. Knowing I still had a long journey ahead of me I really didn’t want to take any chances.

There was some confusion with the taxi driver, who spoke very little English, when I asked him to take me to the hospital. He wanted to know ‘which’ hospital as there were several in Catania, and I couldn’t communicate that ‘any’ or the ‘closest/nearest’ was where I needed to go. Finally he called one of his colleagues that I was able to get across I was sick and just needed to see a doctor. This caused me to consider what will I do if I get there and no one speaks English? I got to the hospital and spotted a sign for triage. That sounded like the right place so I went inside. There was a waiting room full of people with various ailments with a desk at the back where a nurse stood behind a glass panel. A queue of people where jostling around the desk so I walked up and joined them. As I was waiting the doors flung open where two young guys came in carrying another young guy who was banged up, obviously from a motorcycle accident. The nurse jumped out from behind the desk and shuffled them into a back room, through which I could see many more people with injuries being treated. After some time, with a few people pushing in ahead of me, I managed to get the attention of the nurse behind the desk. Feeling a little like a reanimated corpse, I did my best to say “I’m sick. I need to see a doctor.” She looked at me blankly, helplessly saying “No English”. I thought the situation was hopeless when I remembered the Google translate app I had downloaded to my phone. I grabbed my phone out of my pocket and frantically typed in “I’m sick. I need to see a doctor please” and held up my phone with the Italian translation on the screen to the window. He nodded, then got the attention of one of her male colleagues who came out and ushered me to follow him into another building. He spoke a few words of English, enough to understand I was Australian and feeling ill. Almost immediately, he took me in to see a doctor, who also spoke no English. I typed in “I think I may be dehydrated. I feel weak. headache. I’ve had vomiting.” I have no idea how good the translation was, but he seemed to understand. The first guy left me with the doctor who told me to take my shirt off, lie down, then started examining my stomach. After this he told me to sit up and prepared an injection for me. My immediate thought was a jab in the arm, but no, he gestured for me to drop my pants and bend over. Oh boy. I winced as the needle went straight into the left butt cheek. I pull my trousers back up and gingerly sat down again leaning on my right. Then he went for another one. Stand up, bend over, right cheek. Ouch. With my glutes throbbing I certainly wouldn’t be riding a bike today. He told me to lay down on the bed, and I was soon drifting off to sleep. I don’t know how much time had passed but I woke with a start, to see the first guy standing by the bed calling out “Mister!” The doctor was laughing and pointed to my head, to enquire if my headache had subsided. I was feeling very groggy, but better than before. I typed into my phone “I think I’m feeling better now. maybe I just need some more rest?” I showed the doctor my passport, who took down my details, then I thanked him and the first guy lead me out of the building into the court yard. I showed him the card for the hostel and he called me a taxi. As he waited with me, he told me to stay in the shade and said the Sicilian sun should come with a warning!!

I spent the next few hours sleeping it off at the hostel. In the early afternoon, Joe came back to ask how I was getting on. Feeling much better, I decided I would get up to see some of Catania. It was inevitable that I would need to spend another night here, so I may as well see some of the place, hoping that I would be well enough in the morning to move on. After a quick shower, Joe and I headed across the road to the Castello Museum. It was a short walk and indoors so seemed like a good option. The Castello was a very cool 13th century medieval structure surrounded by a moat, that at one time was filled with lava! The museum itself was quite an eclectic collection of items from all over the region, including roman artefacts, sculptures, paintings, armour and some really interesting early Christian wall paintings that had been excavated for display in the museum.

Passing my first test feeling fine, we ventured further afield and wandered into the city centre. Catania is quite a nice old city when you get into the middle of it. There may be some shabby areas surrounding it, but the main piazza with it’s fountain and surrounding buildings is impressive. We explored a few places before sitting down at a cafe for a gelato. We managed to find the Roman theatre too, similar to the ones I had seen in Pompeii, albeit in poorer condition. Bizarrely the surrounding terrace houses that had been constructed in the centuries after the theatre, were build right on top of it, so that they were integrated into the structure. One of the houses, dating back to the 18th century I think, had been restored and was furnished according to the period.

We returned to the hostel, briefly and then headed out to dinner with a couple of the girls from the hostel, April and Yuen. April is from Hong Kong, but has been studying humanities in Denmark. Yuen is from China, but has been studying Greek in Greece. They met on a previous trip and were now holidaying together for a week in Sicily. We wandered up and down the main streets of Catania, until we settled on a little place for dinner offering a range of traditional Sicilian cuisine. The waiter did a pretty good job explaining the menu to us in English and for once I was confident that I knew exactly what I was getting when I ordered. However, when the meals came I still ended up with the fish instead of risotto! It didn’t matter though, it was still delicious and I traded part of my fish for a taste of April’s risotto anyway. We finished off with a beautiful pistachio gelato, then walked back to hostel. As Joe was getting up early to catch the early ferry to Malta and I was planning to make an early start on the bike, we said our goodbyes and turned in for the night. After the drama of the night before, it was hard to believe I had still managed to pack in a fun filled day feeling fine, but I had learned my lesson not to push myself too hard. Tomorrow I would be back on the bike to explore more of Sicily as I headed south for the ferry to Malta.