Three is the magic number

Norway, Sweden and now Denmark – a cyclist’s paradise of flat, quiet roads and a well signed route.  Norway vs Sweden felt “same, same but different” – words recognisable but spelt slightly differently, canary yellow Alpine style architecture rather than ochre red and conifer forests abundant – dark impenetrable worlds lining the road.  Country number three on my route South feels far more Anglophile with deciduous trees, small villages and more densely populated. 

Denmark is a land of wide open farmland with huge, endless wheat and barley fields stretching as far as the eye can see.  It has a reputation of cycle touring nirvana but everything isn’t always as it seems and Denmark has thrown a couple of curve balls my way which I wasn’t expecting. Pancake flat it is not.  After following the coast for a day I headed inland for a change of scene to unexpectedly encounter endless undulating hills like waves across the countryside.  This in itself wouldn’t be such a problem after the mountains of Norway, but with nothing to stop it the wind is a force to be reckoned with. Like a boxer it seems to always be blocking in front of you and pre empt every direction so that legs feel powerless and you drift everywhere but in a direct line. 

This energy sapping, disillusioning, and constant force has been counter balanced by roads which have little to no traffic and feels like they are specially reserved for me to roll along to my next destination.  And on the seemingly few occasions I had a tailwind it felt like gliding effortlessly with an invisible hand pushing behind me. 

But then my second curve ball suddenly appears.  The gravel track.  Unlike Norway these are loose rocky gravel paths that slip and slide from underneath my wheels and like the road runner cartoon character realising his legs are turning but there is nothing underneath him, there is always a split second where my legs keep on peddling but my bike has stopped and I fall sideways still spinning. Thankfully, cushioned by pannier bags, I have just collected a few bruises, a lot of bad language and a couple of dust downs before I’m back on my bike.  It is the only time (so far) that I have got off my steady steed and walked. 

Denmark embraces cyclists with a warm hug and segregated well signed bike routes.  Route three is my magic number that has directed me through the small lanes, along bigger roads and in and out of towns and villages.  It is a little bit like playing Where’s Wally.  Just when you think that you don’t know where to go a little blue sign with a red number will tell you exactly which direction to take.  Bliss. 

Denmark also actively encourages everyone to experience nature through its enormous 1000 plus strong network of shelters in out of the way places.  These consist of bunk houses, compost loos, a fire pit and sometimes running water and have been my home for a couple of nights. 

After nearly six weeks on the road with one day off a week and no more than two nights in the same place I have a few days of normal life in Copenhagen and have had a weekend break with my wonderful friend Claire. I was feeling mentally and physically exhausted by the time I got here and to be in a hotel with a bed, drinking wine in trendy cafes and absorbing the atmosphere of a cosmopolitan city is like a restorative tonic which will stand me in good stead for the next 4000 kms of road. 

The road is long… but flat and just for me!

Endless wheat,barley and oat fields

My bunker home for the night

a burial mound for viking king gorm and his son bluetooth (i’m not making this up)

not all roads are beautiful

Goodbye Norway, Hello Sweden 

Norway gave me a final send off with ominous grey clouds and a breath -catching hill. Leaving it feels like a landmark in the trip. 

I knew I was jumping into the deep end when I decided to cast myself into the wilderness of the most northern point in Europe. And when I arrived it felt like I’d landed on the moon. It’s been a month of extremes -I won’t miss the super sized mosquitoes, dark cold tunnels; days of clouds so low you can almost touch them, and playing chicken with ferocious logging trucks. But I will miss the vast landscape and spotting herds of reindeer; mountains dropping vertically into the sea; and the purple, pink, blue and yellow kaleidoscope of wild flowers on the road verges.

I had never camped on my own before let alone miles from the nearest sign of civilisation, and I have discovered the liberation of being totally self sufficient with the three elements of survival – food, water and shelter on the back of my bike. Living the feral life has been both rewarding and challenging. There is a simplicity and immense satisfaction to washing in rivers and lakes, cooking one pot food, and finding the perfect pitch. And a feeling of smugness when grabbing free wifi in supermarkets to download podcasts and even going round the back and scavenging for thrown out food – a trick given to me by a Norwegian student who I cycled with for a couple of hours. He said it wasn’t illegal but I suspect it wasn’t legal either but when an avocado costs £6 forbidden fruit has never tasted so good!

I was welcomed into Sweden with a heatwave and a country that is very much in the full swing of holiday mode.  I cycled down the coast which does not share the same wild nature of its neighbour. It is more like Cornwall in the height of Summer with the same amount of melting ice creams and traffic. A little detour took me to the Koster islands – a sunny, traffic free Truman Show like version of the Scilly Isles with everyone coasting around on bikes with ice creams and smiles. It couldn’t have been more opposite to what I have experienced in the last month. 
As I head away from wilderness and into more densely populated countries there will be new and different challenges. I am apprehensive of laden roads and navigating a myriad of criss crossing ways so I feel like I’m entering a different phase. But if I had been asked a couple of days into the trip whether I thought I’d get this far I would have quickly answered no. That in itself is a good feeling and therefore it feels like an appropriate time to promote the two charities I’m fundraising for. Both of whom do amazing work – one through adventure and one through bikes – two causes close to my heart… for obvious reasons.

Any support you can give is very much appreciated. 

one down, six to go

porridge and foraged wild raspberries for breakfast

Swedens coast

one down, six to go

The Perfect Pitch

Norway’s “Allemansratten” or the right to roam has been one of the many joys of being in this country. It has allowed me to camp freely in forests, by the sea, by rushing rivers and by lakes. And when a piece of grass in a campsite can cost up to £25 it feels even sweeter. But there is an art to finding the perfect place. It has to be off the beaten track, on flat ground, preferably near water, sheltered from wind, and easy access for a bicycle. About an hour before I feel like stopping I have a quick look at the map to see where I think might be a good place and then the scouting begins. It is a mixture of guesswork, estimation, sometimes a recommendation from a local if there happens to be someone I can ask and of course.. luck. When I find it, I put up my tent and call that little piece of grass my home for the night. My dad (a farmer) always maintained that he was just a guardian of the land and welcomed people to enjoy it as much as he did. How wonderful that an entire country has the same attitude. 

From Trondheim I headed inland, away from the tourist cavalcade by the coast with the armchair cruising mobile homes, the roaring motor bikes and the speeding lorries. These smaller roads have sometimes ended up being little more than a gravel forest track but on the whole I have enjoyed the road less travelled. It has also flattened out… that is “Norwegian flat” which can still proffer some challenging hills. 

Both on and off the road I have met some wonderful people – Thorlief in Roros who gave me the keys to his cottage in the heart of the row of old copper miners houses street so I stayed in the best seat in the Unesco World Heritage House. Then Roar, the 80 year old cyclist who wore jeans and a hoodie and wellies and was cycling and wild camping round Southern Norway and bought me lunch 2 days in a row. And then Roar and Ellen Marie who gave me a home from home with a bed, shower, home cooked food, a guided tour and sandwiches to see me on my way. So even on the days when I wake up and it’s raining and I’m tired and I don’t feel like getting back in my bike, I remind myself that round the next bend or over the next brow of a hill there are always unexpected surprises. 

A perfect place to write my blog

Roar and Ellen Marie – my new Norwegian friends

Roar the octagenarian cyclist

A room with a view

My swimming pool at the end of the day

The Tarmac snake

The lofty mountains of the Lofoten are behind me and the road continues through a more agricultural landscape.  The rugged vistas and dramatic glacial valleys have been replaced by bumpy forested hills stretching like a line of molehills with dairy farms and vibrant shimmering green fields of barley.  Even in the most wild of places the Norwegians seem to have immaculate well kept gardens and a healthy love of a lawnmower.  Perhaps it is down to a human desire to place a sense of order when everything surrounding is wild and untamed.  Houses are painted largely in a traditional red ochre and perch precariously above the road.  

It has been nice to have some company on the road.  It can be a lonely place when there is just a never ending stretch of grey snaking through the landscape.  The roller coaster can be mental and physical – and the highs and lows equally as exhilarating or exhausting. When the going gets tough music is my saviour.  Headphones in and the legs power away to the beat.  So I will be forever grateful for new Spotify playlists to keep me going! (Philcox2).  From time to time there will be a point where nothing hurts, the legs just turn, the breath even and unfaltering, the mind wandering from the aesthetic to the existential to the practical and before I know it another 10kms have been clocked. 

I have left my German friends behind.  They have been true gentlemen of the road – helping me with bike problems, chaperoning me through some terrifying tunnels and sharing the joys and challenges of the road.  After this rest day in Trondheim I head inland.   For some reason I am apprehensive of this next stage.  Maybe because there are many routes and my GPS packed up a week ago.  For anyone that knows me well, navigation has never been my strongpoint (or left and right for that matter).  But perhaps such a lack of reliance on technology will be good for me..Or at the very least an enforced reason to let go and see where the road takes me. 

a rewarding view after a 350m climb

with lother the 75 yr old legend

outside Trondheim cathedral being a true pilgrim

attempting the bike elevator in Trondheim. i got 2 metres up and fell off

Life on the road in Lofoten 

As each day passes the unfamiliar is becoming familiar.  A routine of a different kind is asserting itself.  The faffing in pannier bags is becoming a little less arduous as I remember what goes where.  Stove, tools and water – front pannier left, food and waterproofs – front pannier right, sleeping bag and mat – back pannier left, clothes – back pannier right. Tent on top. My current worldly possessions in 45 kilos on 2 wheels. 

Whereas before the road ahead seemed impossibly long , it was when I got to Tromso that I was able to see a small dint in the tarmac down to Spain and I could feel myself relaxing into this new life on the road. 

The Lofoten islands are heralded as one of the jewels in Norway’s crown. A string of islands off the West coast that provide dramatic unrivalled Tolkeinesque style landscape.  Huge towering mountains drop straight into the sea, like a mouth of jagged teeth with the last few vestiges of snow clinging on like plaque in the losing battle against Summer sun.  

The weather has been somewhat erratic.  I can start a day with full waterproofs and head down into the rain but finish in glorious sunlight.  The wind can feel like an invisible hand against my helmet so that even going downhill I feel cheated. But when the sun shines Norway sparkles – it is like everything is in glorious high definition technicolour .. On steroids. 

After the undulating Lofoten islands, I am now on the mainland again following the Kystriksveien – a winding, hilly coastal road which is interspersed with ferries, bridges and tunnels.  I take my hat off to Norwegian engineering – today I went through 4 tunnels – all of which were over 3km long.  

Having spent most of my time here cycling on my own I have been joined by a couple of Germans for a few days – Roland and Lother. I’m in good company – Roland has written books on how to pack light for cycle touring and Lother is 75, has cycled most of Europe and speeds ahead of both of us. There’s hope for me yet!