Tour of Europe, epilogue.

Even though it was only a month, my Tour of Europe required a certain amount of research, planning and preparation on my part.

Equipment, no doubt, plays a very important part in any cycle tour. But more important than even the best equipment a cycle tourer can possess is fortitude – both mental and physical. In fact, it’s a pre-requisite – before the rubber meets the road.

Obviously, the physical demands come from the daily chalking up of mileage. But that’s mostly because the bike is fully loaded. Every incline is felt, some more acutely than others, and when it keeps going up and down incessantly, your legs will remind you of your physical limitations.

And that’s not even taking into account the sun, the wind and the cold.

Worse, there’ll be times when all around you seems such a desolate place devoid of civilisation. Then, you’d begin to question your own sanity and wonder why you’re subjecting yourself to such torture. At such times, you’ll feel miserable, lonely, and you begin to pine for the warmth and comfort of home. That’s when mental strength helps, the ability to ride through any situation and knowing that everything seems more promising in the morning.

On some days however, when the wind is behind your back, the sun is gloriously warm, and the scenery that unfolds before you enthralls you to no end, you just wish that it would never end. Everything is in place – every pedal stroke in perfect metronomic rhythm with your breathing, and everyone you meet on the road has a smile and an encouraging word for you. Honestly, on days like these, you feel invincible, you feel like you can take on anything.

However, one must never forget that there is a difference between calculated bravado and plain foolhardiness; because somewhere in between is where the real fun begins.

As for the destination, it matters not where you are heading – 10,000 kms from home, or just a 100 km round trip to the next town and back. It can all go very well, or it can go awry, usually in the most unexpected of circumstances. And yes, sometimes the thought does cross my mind – a fleeting, morbid thought that I could be mowed down indiscriminately somewhere by some careless driver on the road. But hey, what is risk-free in this world?

So far, touch wood, I have been fortunate, suffering only minor incidents and uncomplicated mechanical mishaps, nothing that a little quick-thinking and some McGuyver ingenuity won’t help save the day. And on days when you happen to meet some not-so-nice people, it pays to be like a duck — just let the bad stuff that seem to spew out so easily from their mouths slide off your feathers … and just continue on your way.

Ever heard it said that one should hope for the best, but plan for the worst? Well, you can’t be more pragmatic than that. And more so on a cycle tour.

Here’s a list of my equipment that took me through 5 countries in Europe, and back. Some worked better than others and some I’d probably drop from the list on such future tours:

The bike.


My Surly was a delight to ride. As a purpose-built tourer, it performed admirably. Its robust steel frame, its relaxed geometry; all contributed to a very smooth, confident ride; even when fully loaded. Handling and steering a fully loaded bike takes a bit of getting used to but when you’ve got it dialled in, it’s no different from handling any other bike.

– Handlebar

Sometimes called trekking bar, or butterfly bar; but one thing is for sure – it contributed greatly to the ride comfort throughout my tour. It’s very versatile, and can be used in almost any position. In fact, I angled it up as high as the cables allowed. Being upright means less strain on the triceps as well as the lower back.

Saddle
What else can I say about a Brooks saddle that hasn’t been said already? Mine is already broken in so throughout the entire 1300kms, I never once felt discomfort or pain in the butt. The other great thing about Brooks is you don’t have to wear padded pants. You do have to set it up properly though, but once that’s done, you’re good to go … and go, and go, and go. Notice that mine has its nose pointing a little higher than normal? Well, it works for me.

Wheel/Tyre
All Surlys under the 55 cm size sport 26-inch wheels. I had actually intended to change my tyres to Schwalbe Marathons when I landed in Germany, but somehow, I just never got round to it. I guess knowing that bike shops can be easily found practically anywhere in Europe made it a less-than-urgent issue. The back tyre is a new Kenda, while the front is a 3-year old WTB All-Terrainosaurus (with a patched tube inside :). Both made it back without a single puncture. Unlike 700c wheels, these 26-inchers also mean that you’ll never worry about finding a replacement tyre – anywhere in the world.

Bike stand

A heavyweight in every sense, the very solid Swiss-made Pletscher tips the scales at 600gms. To me, it performs best when the bike is fully loaded. It's also great for quick repairs, acting as as a bike-repair stand. When not in use, the 2 legs fold up neatly to one side. My ony complaint is that it tends to come loose so every once in a while I had to tighten the bolt. I didn't dare to overtighten it, as it might just damage the chainstays.

Folded and neatly out of the way. On the chainstay just above the words 'Fatties Fit Fine' is a holder for 2 spokes -- very handy.

The rest of the equipment on the Surly:

Front and rear derailleurs, shifters – Shimano XT

Brakes – XT V-brakes paired with Avid levers

Crankset – Race Face mountain bike crank, triple-ring with a 22 granny.

Cogset – 11-34. The 34 cog is a lifesaver when the incline gets really steep.

Pannier

Ortliebs are the panniers of choice for many a tourer. Mine is the Sport Packer Plus model.They’re simple, strong and most importantly, waterproof (if you don’t submerge it in water, that is). The front panniers are smaller in size and come with slings that can be attached to the sides so you can conveniently carry it off the bike. For short trips, front panniers are all you need (on the rear rack, of course).

Another indispensable piece of equipment is the handlebar bag – great for small (and important) stuff like passport, money, camera, snacks etc... and is easily removed in a flash when you pop into a store to buy something. Here, I'm cycling and popping grapes into my mouth at the same time.

Racks

This cheap, alloy rear rack took me served me well throughout the whole trip (as well as in Vietnam and Laos last year) but unfortunately, on the return flight from London, I made a mistake of not removing it totally from the bike; instead, I unbolted it from the bosses just at the top of the seat stays and kept it bolted on the back of rear triangle, which resulted in the rack being bent … not much, but enough to probably weaken it for future use. The box had likely been standing on the wrong end at some point in the flight, never mind that it was screaming 'Fragile' all over the box. I had intended to replace it with a Tubus in Germany, but since the shop where I bought the front pannier and front Tubus Ergo rack didn't accept credit cards, I decided not to use up more of my cash hoard than necessary. Lesson learnt here? Dump the cheap racks and spend some serious money on a good one.

The front Tubus Ergo is made of cromoly steel and is very well-made. It keeps the weight of the front panniers low for better displacement of the centre-of-gravity. Not cheap, but it should last me for many, many years of happy touring. Steel is actually the best material for racks because it can be easily welded should it suffer a serious knock, even in the most third-world of third-world countries.

Tent

I bought this 2-man, 2.5kg Wild Country Duolite Tourer specifically for this tour. It's a semi-geodesic tent designed for motorcyle and bicycle tourers, it packs up small enough to fit into a pannier. After a few times, I could set it up in under 10 minutes. The design is such that it sets up fly-sheet first, as the inner tent is already attached to the fly-sheet (this means that if I have to, I can set up this tent in the rain without the inner getting wet).

The ultra light-weight aluminum DAC poles are great to work with as well, and clipping the whole set takes less than a minute. Also, the covered porch area allows me to store stuff which I wouldn't want inside the tent – things like my stove (which smells of petrol), shoes, cookset etc. Not cheap at £127 but well worth the money spent. ( I bought this tent off eBay UK from an outdoor store and had it shipped to a relative in Leeds then brought back to KL, thus saving me on shipping)

Gloves

In cold weather, these Sealzkin gloves are an absolute necessity. Waterproof, windproof and breathable, they kept my fingers warm and dry, especially when the wind was really cold. They cost £28 a pair but they were worth every penny.

Sleeping bag
I would probably have frozen to death if I had used the sleeping bag that I had brought with me to Europe. Luckily, when I stayed with Eva in Geisenheim, she made me take one of theirs instead which kept me warm and snug on nights when the temperature dipped below 10 degrees. It was a bit bulky but that was the last thing on my mind during cold mornings when I was snug and warm in it. Lesson learnt here? Find out what the actual temperature range is wherever you’re visiting, especially if you’re camping, and bring a sleeping bag rated for that temperature.

Self-inflatable mattress

Self-inflatable mats are crucial when you’re camping in the outdoors and sleeping on the ground where the cold from below can literally freeze you. Sleeping bags are great for keeping you warm, but the bottom part is always compressed from the weight of your body, making it inefficient at trapping the warmth of your body. Enter the self-inflatable mattress — with it, warmth from the body is now trapped inside, forming a thermal layer to keep you snug. I never once felt the cold from the ground when sleeping on it. Instead of the expensive Thermarest brand, I bought this Thai-made Karana mattress in Thailand for about one-third the price. It packs into a neat little roll weighing only 800gms when not in use.

Cooking Stove

I got this off eBay after reading about it in a forum. The eBayer was from Hong Kong and got his stock direct from the factory in China, and costs less than one-third the price of a similar MSR Whisperlite. This particular model turns out to be very similar to the Primus Gosystem from UK. Considering that just about everything is made in China these days, I’m quite sure this is the factory that’s making it for them,

This stove is very easy to use and served me well throughout my tour.  After a quick priming, it fires up in a jiffy and boil times are amazing – a litre of water takes only 4 minutes. For fuel, I used unleaded petrol, which is cheap and easily available anywhere. The other great thing about this stove is that it also runs on methylated spirits, alcohol, and even diesel. A windshield is essential when using this stove. Mine was cut and folded from a piece of stiff aluminum used on kitchen stoves to prevent oil from spattering too far from a wok.

GPS

Garmin 60CX, considered the best all-rounder GPS from Garmin. With this I was able to track (aka laying digital crumbs as a record) my entire tour.Very robust too, weather-proof, water-resistant, shock-proof ...

My indispensable Leatherman ... I never leave home without it. It has saved the day in more ways than I care to count. My only gripe? I wish they'd include a cork-screw for opening wine bottles.

Computer

My nifty little Asus Eepc with a 7″ screen. I used it for journalling, photo management (using Picasa), watching movies, uploading and downloading tracks and waypoints to my GPS, and Skyping and surfing the net whenever there was free wifi. It came pre-installed with Linux but I had that removed and installed a  stripped-down version of Windows XP instead. Worth its weight in gold, but not for short-hauls.

Camera

All the photos from this trip were captured on this little camera — a Panasonic LX3. Some of the great features that I liked about this camera include the excellent Leica lens (with a bright f-ratio of f2.0-2.8), an impressive 24mm wide angle, an optional 16:9 format, and a small form-factor. I also carried an after-market fish-eye lens which I used to capture some alternative shots. Last year, I brought my Canon EOS 40D to Vietnam and Laos but the weight/bulk was an issue so I wised up and got this instead. All in all, a great little compact that allowed me more creative freedom than most point-and-shoots.

Other miscellaneous stuff :

Ziplocs bags — Light and takes up almost no space at all, they’re very useful for keeping food, small stuff that might otherwise get lost, and even to eat off it; eg: I used a small ziploc to prepack some oatmeal and raisins which I then poured fresh milk into, zip it close, let stand for 15 minutes and then open and eat. After which, just throw away without having to bother with washing.

Duct-tape — Another useful thing to carry around. I only carry half a roll which I then flatten for easier packing.

Cable-ties —I always carry an assortment. Great as fasteners and to hold things together in a jiffy.

Waterless hand-sanitiser — Great for cleaning hands on the go, especially when handling food.

Rain-gear — Aside from the usual rain-gear, I added a pair of rain-booties that motor cyclists use — cheap and effective. To accommodate clipless pedals, I simply cut a small hole where the shoes clip onto the pedals.

Cutlery — high tensile plastic cutlery designed for hiking works best. Light, strong and can withstand high temps.

Cookset — The one I had was a compact set and comprised a pot, a cover/plate and 2 cups. Next time, I will get a pot that can cook at least 2 packets of instant noodles easily.

Mini coffee press — I need my caffeine first thing in the morning, and with this, I enjoyed freshly brewed coffee at a fraction of the cost of a typical espresso in Europe.

First-aid kit — the usual: assorted bandages, Panadol, Lomotil, rehydration salts, disinfectant, my favourite Opsite spray-on waterproof dressing/bandage, Stingose for nasty insect bites etc etc

LED lights — I used the Cateye bike light as one of my multi-purpose lights, plus an LED headlight for hands-free illumination. I also used the Cateye as my tent lighting; simply by attaching it with a rubber band to the top of the tent and pointing it to the centre. LED lights are very economical to run and last for many hours on one set of batteries.

Clothing — The trick to staying warm (or cool) is layering. When done properly, you only need to peel off the layers as the temperature dips, or rises. Fleece is my favourite material as it’s soft and comfy, and when worn over a couple t-shirt and long sleeve jerseys, you’re snug and warm. I only brought with me a pair of Vaude long pants (which is light and dry up amazingly fast) that could quickly zip off to become shorts. Unfortunately, I lost the legs somewhere in Belgium. Other items I had with me: a windproof/waterproof Gelert jacket, winter long johns, quick-dry t-shirts, cycling jerseys, cashmere wool socks (for nice toasty toes when sleeping). I didn’t bother with cycling shorts as the Brooks saddle is comfortable without it. Another of my favourite is a Buff headgear, great for protecting the face from the sun and dust. I’d also borrowed a pair of winter cycling pants which is lightly padded in the front to protect the legs  from freezing when riding against a cold wind, but I only had occasion to use it a couple of times.

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This is by no means a complete list. And, depending on the destination and climate, one would have to adjust accordingly. But it pays to research thoroughly, as neither overpacking nor underpacking works to your advantage. On the other hand, don’t be too obsessed with compiling the perfect packing list — it doesn’t exist. As you rack up the miles, so will your experience. And nothing beats experience.

As intrepid adventurer Bear Grylls of Man vs Wild fame would say:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving in an attractive and well-preserved body but rather to skid in sideways, covered in scars, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming yahoo, what a ride!”


Happy touring, and keep it rubber side down 🙂

The Wheelosopher.

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Days 22-26, Sep 27-30, Exploring London Pt 2, and home.

London commuters seem to have a fondness for foldies, those little 2-wheelers that often takes less than 30 seconds to fold into a neat little package which they then carry into the subway train, and thence to the office, without a crease out of place on their suits.

This was, after all, the home of the Brompton, Britain’s celebrated folding bike that boasts quite a following around the world. I would see many commuters, some in full suits zipping past, many of them just out of the tube from Kings Cross station across the road.

This was a real find -- a rare 1986 Bridgestone Grandtech folding bike. Here, the owner has removed the seat as an extra step to discourage theft

This is what it actually looks like ...

... and when folded.

I'm very sure that if one is so inclined, one could simply go around collecting 'spare parts' such as these and simply build up a bike for nothing.

Near London Bridge, I chanced upon this bike shop that was housed in a beautifully restored pre-war building.

Very impressive inventory, too.

A fixie in typically garish colour

Some of these fixies sported a dual-cog wheel, one that can be quickly flipped around when a smaller gear is needed.

Oldies. Classics never go out of style.

Foldies. There was a pretty good range on display.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………

I was finally at tour’s end and one of the things I had to do was pack my bike for the flight home. Unlike a foldy, I had to dismantle a few things to fit it into a bike box, for which I had to thank Evan Somu, fellow Malaysian biker who recently uprooted himself and family to work in London. He found one for me early on when I was still in Germany and had kept it for me until I arrived in London.

Thanks, dude. You’re the best!

Evan with the bike box atop his Volkswagon.

On the day of my departure, I decided to hire a taxi to take me to Stansted instead of my original (and cheaper) plan of taking a the Stansted Express from Liverpool St station. But with a big bike box, 2 smaller boxes containing my tent, sleeping bag, mat and 2 front panniers, while I hand-carried 2 big panniers and a handlebar bag, it would have been a logistical nightmare getting to the airport. But with this van, although it set me back £50, it was a breeze.

My precious took up the whole backseat.

At Stansted, I had to suffer AirAsia's incompetence -- 2 hours delay. But still, the thought of going home and having Mee Goreng and Teh Tarik tomorrow made it a little less frustrating.

Well, 26 days and 1300kms later, I was about to leave England for home. As I sat in the boarding lounge, I had plenty of time (thanks to the delay) to think about the whole trip. It was with mostly mixed feelings that I contemplated the days I had spent on the road. It had been a tremendously fun trip, and I  would not hesitate to do it all over again, albeit little less ambitious with the route planning. I was happy and sad at the same time — happy that I would be seeing my family again, and sad that tomorrow, I will not be waking up with the anticipation of seeing, and experiencing, new things.

Well, at least it had been a dream realised. And when I’m old and rickety, I won’t have to regretfully say ‘Darn, I wish I had toured Europe’.

So, my friends, if you’re reading this, remember … don’t let your dreams remain dreams. Set your mind on seeing it come true and the rest will fall into place.

There will never be a perfect time to make it happen, but there is time … while you still have it 🙂

Next: A rundown of what worked and what didn’t in my packing list.

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Days 22-26, Sep 27-30, Exploring London Pt 1.

Musty, dank and smelling a little of mildew, the family room that I stayed in for the night wasn’t quite what I expected but at least it was clean. Then again, at only £35 a night, and located in the centre of London, one can’t complain.

Julian’s House Hotel, and the rest of the hotels on the same street, were typical of old English town houses — tall, narrow and deep, and even going below street level to maximise the space, and that was where the room I was given for the night was located.

It was quite a task negotiating my way down the narrow stairwell, especially when I had 4 panniers, a handlebar bag, a tent, a sleeping bag, the thermarest and, my Surly, which Yamar, the manager was kind enough to allow me to bring into the room.

It was just as well that I wouldn’t have to lug my bike up and down the staircase; I was pretty much done with serious cycling for the trip. Rather, I was looking forward to exploring the city by that most endearing of London’s transportation icons — the red double-decker bus. I mean, what’s more fun than sitting on the top deck of a double-decker bus taking in the sights as it makes its way across the Monopoly streets of London?

Yamar was in more chirpy mood this morning. Another colleague of his, Munir, was just as friendly. In between cups of coffee from a machine in the reception, I asked them the usual questions tourists asked and they were very kind to give me maps, advice and instructions on how best to get around.

Yamar then told me that if I wanted to stay on, he would only charge me £30 instead, and after tonight, he would move me to the Globe Hotel down the street (which turned out to be a much nicer room, one with a nice view as well), and at the same rate.

Well, everything was turning out great. So it was time to explore London.

Note: If you’re in London, the Argyll St area is a very strategic place to stay, especially if Paris is in your plans. Eurostar trains to and from Paris depart and arrive at St Pancras station which is just a few minutes walk away. As well, King’s Cross station is just opposite St Pancras.

The family room where I stayed in for 2 nights.

At Globe, I stayed at the 2nd floor, with a view of greenery and the street below

The simple but clean room at Globe. My bike is in the corner on the right.

From the window, I could see St Pancras station

St Pancras is somewhat of an icon

As my first stop, I decided to visit another famous London icon, Trafalgar Square. There were plenty of bus options from Kings Cross

To retain some old-world charm, more likely for tourists, old double-deckers are still in service

.. as well as charming old conductors (this one was rather effeminate) who have to swipe Oyster Cards and season tickets the good old fashioned way. New buses only have one driver, and passengers are supposed to be honest and swipe their cards themselves. I did see some dishonest Londoners who pretended to swipe their cards but when the driver wasn't looking, they would keep their cards instead.

Britain's greatest war hero, Lord Horatio Nelson, stands high and proud ... immortalised on this column in Trafalgar Square overlooking the city, and the country he defended with his life. But today, it is a totally different scene below.

It was the London Week of Peace, and a talentime, among other activities, was being held.

Today, the ubiquitous pigeons had to roost elsewhere ...

... in a deserted corner. Birds of a feather do flock together after all, like these ones here. The homeless vagrant and his displaced feathered friends finding solace in each other.

Nearby, there were stalls selling stuff related to the theme and I was particularly drawn to this one -- young black kids from the London ghettos who took things into their own hands, urging other kids to better themselves. I bought 2 of their T-shirts in support. They were definitely more worthwhile souvenirs than the ones that proclaimed the wearer's love for London.

After I bought the T-shirts, they insisted I took a picture with them. Nice kids.

Another must-photograph icon, but I decided I wanted an altogether different way of capturing Big Ben 🙂

The London Eye was just nearby and it was doing roaring business.

The august Westminster building where the country's lawmakers meet.

A short distance away was 10 Downing St. I'd always thought it was a very approachable place...until I saw the extreme security measures that went into protecting the Prime Minister.

But today, he was fair game for the press which took potshots at him for his party's dismal performance of late. Nothing is sacred to the British press...not even their own PM

As I made my way along the streets of London, I came across this theatre promoting the other famous Queen of England. It was a musical portraying the colourful leader of the band -- Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury.

I loved Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid, so when I came across Baker St, I was surprised to find that there really is a 221B address, where according to the stories, was where he lived. It turned to be more of a tourist attraction although the furnishings do depict the Victorian era very faithfully.

Oxford St, shoppers paradise.

The biggest disappointment for me ... after years of singing about a certain bridge in London that kept falling down, one would have thought it looked more romantic. Nope, this was it; a bland-looking structure across the Thames. I'd have walked by without a second glance if I didn't know better.

The buildings nearby were more interesting, including this one where it was used as a bomb shelter in WW2 and now reconstructed as a tourist attraction.

Now that's what I call a bridge -- Tower Bridge, where heads used to roll at the whim and fancy of the King. It is also reputed that should the crows in the tower, which are pampered to no end, ever desert it, the kingdom would fall. And these 'ang mohs' laugh at us for our silly superstitions?

London has many great (and free) museums. The Tate is one such place. An absolute gem for its art exhibition.

The other freebie -- the British Museum. You need a week to fully appreciate its contents.

An anomaly (or not, depending on how you look at it) in the British Museum -- all the male statues were missing a very important appendage ... well, almost all.

Outside the museum, I decided to take a break and have a go at London's pride -- Fuller's London Pride to be exact, an 'outstanding premium ale' fresh off the tap.

I have to admit it was outstanding for an ale.

No, I'm not filled with too much London Pride, just a self-shot pic while I was talking to an American couple next to me. I can never not talk to people in such conducive surroundings. In any case, at £2.50 a pint, I couldn't afford to enjoy too many.

Hyde Park. A huge green lung in the city. Actually, the main reason I came here was to visit Malaysia Hall which was located nearby. I was dying for some curry rice and teh tarik, a taste of home after almost a month on the road. I was not disappointed ...

One of Hyde Park's idyllic lakes filled with majestic swans.

At the edge of Hyde Park is Kensington Palace, ex-abode of their royal highnesses, Princess Diana (until her death), the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Princess Michael of Kent etc etc and other luminaries. I couldn't bring myself to part with £8 to look at some rich person's home so I just walked around its impressive gardens. I made friends with one of the many squirrels scampering around the garden. Very friendly fellows.

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Day 21, Sep 26. Dieppe to London – England ho!

My tent was sweating profusely. Gazing up from where I was lying, comfortably ensconced in my sleeping bag, I could see the inside wall of the fly-sheet awash with droplets of dew. It must have been due to the humid air that blew in from the sea.

Camp Vitamin was a quiet place. I had only seen one other tent last night and they had left early this morning. I remembered the couple — American cycle tourers. I remembered because I had asked them if they had a wine-opener, but no luck.

On the way to the campsite, I had stopped by a supermarket to stock up on some groceries and, since it was my last day of cycling on the European continent, I thought I might have a bit of a hurrah, and celebrate the occasion with a 5 Euro bottle of 2007 Malesan Bordeaux, the very same one that I toasted with the Rovens at their home in Marines.

Well, the wine got to age an extra day, and I toasted the night with water instead. Everything in town was also closed by then, so I might as well tuck in early.

The tent may have been damp but the weather certainly looked very promising, even though the early morning wind chilled me to the bone the moment I stepped out of the tent.

My little corner in the sun ... might as well make it laundry day today.

Breakfast was a grand affair -- yogurt to start off the meal, baguette with a choice of camembert, jam, butter and pate, and hot freshly brewed coffee -- a veritable feast, even by a cycle-tourer's camping standards.

The ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven on the Sussex coast only sailed twice a day — 5am and 6pm. Both weren’t the best of options. One was too early, and the other was too late and, if I went with the 6pm option, the 4-hr crossing would mean arriving at night. I had no intention of cycling around looking for the campsite and then setting up tent in the cold and in the dark.

I opted for the 5am ferry, which meant I would have to stay another night in Dieppe … well, almost. The ferry required passengers to check in at least an hour before it sailed, and I wasn’t eager to wake up in the freezing cold of the night, pack up the tent, then ride down to the terminal.

I decided to stay in camp until 10pm, pack up at leisure and then sleep in the terminal until boarding time. But I hadn’t bargained for the evening dew that descended upon my tent like a shower the moment the sun went down over the horizon.

By the time I was ready to start packing, the tent’s flysheet was once again drenched to the seams. Oh well, damp or otherwise, and as much as I hated it packing a wet tent, I packed up and headed for the ferry terminal.

At the first bridge that spanned the bay, I was jarred out of the reverie of my casual ride. Where the heck was the bridge? I could only see a barrier and a ‘route barree’ sign. The bridge, which turned out to be a movable one,was on the other side, and was probably undergoing maintenance of some kind. No choice then but to take a long detour.

At the ferry terminal, I checked in early and headed for the waiting area. Among the pool tables and empty chairs, I unpacked my Thermarest, laid it on the floor and tried to get a few hours sleep.

At 4.50 am, the friendly officer who checked me in told me to get ready to board the ferry. It was still dark and there was a freezing wind blowing outside. The kind man had waited until the last minute ‘so that you won’t freeze to death in the cold wind’.

He was right. Even with a jacket on, I shivered as I made my way across the 200 metres or so to the yawning belly of the ship’s vehicle hold. I was the only cyclist so I was told to ‘park anywhere you like’.

Where'd the bridge go??? On the other side of course.

The waiting area of the ferry terminal. I slept on the floor where I parked my bike.

The ferry looked more like a hotel to me...lots of wood panelling and comfortable chairs to lounge around

The ship's reception.

Passengers can choose to sit anywhere

Another seating area ..this one had a big LCD but only French programmes

There were even distractions of the lucky kind, but it seemed the authorities had sealed the machines.

The cafe, where very expensive breakfasts were sold.

Out on the deck, the wind was refreshingy cold.

One of the most spectacular sun rises I had ever seen -- a clear horizon, and a golden orb that slowly made its way up the sky.

Au revoir, France. You can just barely see France in the distance

Nearing England, with the white cliffs off the Sussex coast coming into view.

At Newhaven, I was the first vehicle off the ferry.

It felt great to be finally in England...and switching to the 'right' side of the road.

Oh, the joy of finally reading signs in English.

Just out of Newhaven, I was passed by one fast cyclist after another. It turned out to be some kind of race going on. But there weren't too many 'hellos' as they passed by. It was so different from the other countries in Europe.

Brer Rabbit was once faster than the cyclists who passed me ... now just a sad roadkill.

About 5 kms out of Newhaven, my stomach alerted me to this promising sign by the roadside

It was just after 9, and they had just opened for business.

but I was very warmly welcomed. We even had a conversation we could both understand, including ordering my breakfast.

Naturally, I went for the biggie ... a full English breakfast -- fried potato wedges, fried bangers, fried bacon, grilled tomato, fried egg, fried mushrooms, plus toast and butter .. all complemented by a pot of English tea served in blue china. It was nothing short of a cheerful cholesterol catastrophe in the making, but who cares? Life should be so good....

Good thing I didn't bring out my own food as well.

Some mornings are just meant to be lazy, what more with the sun shining brightly through a clear blue sky, and the air crisp, cool and laced with unmistakeably English farm fragrances. All I wanted to do was sit in the sun and drink more English tea and eat more oily English food but … London beckoned …

And so, with the contents of a full English breakfast making its way down the digestive system, I headed out of the farm, passing a pig and a goat incarcerated in a pen going at each other head to head. It was fascinating to watch.

The meadows that I had read about as a kid, and seen so much of on tv, were stretched out on both sides of the road before me. There didn’t seem to be any really flat elevation anywhere, and the roads followed the same. All around, the scenery was as rustic as English countrysides could be. Now I knew how and where the author and illustrator of ‘The wind in the willows’ drew their inspiration from.

Maps I had none, but I had downloaded GPS tracks that would lead me all the way from Newhaven to The Thames river in London. As I rode along, I realised the author of these tracks chose to follow quiet country lanes as much as possible, avoiding the busy secondary roads, which was fine by me. In fact, at one point, I was actually riding on a dirt path through a chicken farm!

Rolling meadows ... and so were the road elevations

Autumn was beginning to make its presence felt

Rustic English cottages...very Enid Blyton too.

Somewhere, underneath all that ivy is a home...I think.

Some cottages had perfectly manicured hedges and lawns ...

while others, like this free-range chicken farm, had electrified ones.

Every lane, cottage and farm that I passed seem to have a name, every single one of them …

Some were more 'cheerful' than others. This one boasted of a rare windmill in the vicinity

Some of the lanes I rode through were really narrow...

...so narrow that only 1 car could pass through at a time.

These 3 little girls were farmkids, selling some produce outside their farm by the roadside.

At a small village called Ardingly, I decided to stop for lunch at this pub. Unfortunately, the owner had a slight racist streak to her demeanor. I didn't pay it no mind and still gave her my custom in spite of it. Must be a supporter of the British National Party 🙂

Meal #2 of the day -- English fish and chips, and that isn't a piece of Vietnamese catfish usually passed off as Dory.

The pub owner's compatriots, nice friendly customers that they were, hailed from the other extreme. They were fascinated with my travels and invited me to sit with them and chat over lunch. English pride redeemed.

I came across many other pubs today. Well, this is pub country after all.

I'd never seen such a sign before, so I slowed down to avoid reducing the local frog population crossing the road. But there were none to be seen.

After climbing a particularly long and strenuous hill, on a road aptly named Hilltop Lane, I came upon Farthing Downs. Now, I knew what downs looked like. Actually, this one was nothing more than an ridge on top of a hill, running straight for some 200 metres with thick grass growing on both sides of the road that ran through the ridge. It was quite unique in its own way, though.

The top of Farthing Downs

After Farthing Downs, I came into the outskirts of greater London, and frankly, I wasn't prepared to see how scrappy it was.

As I made my way through the suburbs, this little boy came up alongside me and asked inquisitive questions like any normal inquisitive kid, at one point even riding hands-free.

As I neared the Thames, cycle path signages came into view but unlike in Europe, these weren't very helpful. I got lost ...

and had to ask for help from passing cyclists, who never turn you away...

A little later, I had to stop this couple who even went to the extent of consulting Googlemaps on their iPhone to help me find my destination in London.

Finally, with the Thames on my right, I rode the final kms to London.

It was fast becoming dusk, and I still couldn’t find the hostel. When I finally found it, I was still out of luck. It was full. I headed back the way I came into the busiest part of the city and tried another hostel. It was also full. I even tried the Indian YMCA, looking thoroughly out of place walking into the reception (think busy Mumbai).

Apparently, it was a busy Saturday night and all the hostels were full. I was advised to try hotels instead.

I was lucking out big time. I had wandered into Argyll street, near St Pancras and King’s Cross, and which was mostly occupied by budget hotels and yet I was being turned away one after another.

It was already dark and I was at wits end. I was tired, hungry and frustrated to be in such a situation at tour’s end. I decided to knock on one more door which had a ‘vacancy’ sign, failing which, I was going to head out of the city and look for a campsite I knew existed some 16km away. Not the best option but …

I guess my faith was being tested 🙂

At Julian’s House Hotel, I rang the doorbell and a surly-looking middle-eastern fellow opened the door …

‘Hi, do you have a room?’

‘Sorry, no room’

‘But your sign says vacancy’ I reminded him.

‘It’s a family room, I can’t give that to you’ (Actually, what he meant was that he couldn’t let me have the room at single-occupancy rate)

I decided that I was going to be firm and stand my ground….so I put on my most pathetic look and implored him with ‘Please, I only need it for tonight’.

He blinked first. I went for the kill.

‘The family room is £45’ (single was 29)

‘Errr… what about £35?’

He was wavering. I decided to look even more pathetic.

‘Ok’ he finally agreed. ‘But only for tonight’, he added as a last word.

His name was Yamar, and he turned out to be a splendid fellow instead. I ended up staying not 1 but 4 nights…the second 2 nights at the nicer Globe Hotel (also owned by them) just a little down the street.

What a day it had been. Tomorow, I explore London.

Distance today: 131km
Distance to date: 1300km (also the trip total)

Playback today’s ride on Garmin Connnect

Check out the 360 view of Argyll St, courtesy of Google Maps Street View:


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Day 20, 24 Sep, Marines to Dieppe on the French coast.

After getting used to nights in campsites, I was a little surprised that the temperature in the room was more than bearable, and made for a very good night’s sleep. Perhaps it was the fact that the windows all sported double-layered glass, which made a difference in keeping out the cold. The stone floor was another matter altogether, but nothing that woolen socks can’t handle.

Sebastien and Alex were up early at about 7 – one to the lecture hall and the other to Paris for an audition. I would have dearly loved another 2 hours of blissful sleep in a quiet French village … but it would have been more polite to wake up and bid goodbye to my host before he left for the day.

After they left, I started packing. This was one of the few times I didn’t have to spend an hour or so packing in the tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag … which usually took up the most time.

Grandpa Pierre was already waiting for me in the day-dining room, one that had translucent ceiling to let in the light while keeping the cold wind out. I sat down to enjoy the 2 croissants that Grandpa had promised, accompanied by a mug of hot chocolate. The croissants were delicious even when eaten plain. At the rate my system was burning fuel, the 2 croissants barely filled my stomach but … it was enough to start off the day.

It was a cold, cloudy morning and a light mist was in the air. I was a bit reluctant to hit the road today. It would have been fun to spend the whole day with Grandpa Pierre but, a grand tour had to be completed, and today, I had to cover at least 120km to reach Dieppe.

Leaving the town of Marines

It was cold enough that I had to put on my Sealskinz gloves to prevent my fingers from freezing. When you’re moving, you’re not only exposed to the wind, the cold feels colder, and cold really gets you down. I knew the sun would soon chase away the clouds and break through once again with its glorious, cheery warmth but for now I was making slow progress. As well, there were still remnants of  stubborn lactic acid in my legs.

Once out of Marines, the scenery was mostly bald, sun-parched harvested fields interspersed with one charming village after another, with names that were a challenge to pronounce – names like ...

... Gournay en Bray, Jouy la Grange, Chamboucy, Les Chesnay. Some took just 1 minute to pass through while others begged to be explored, and others like the town of Meru could easily confuse a Malaysian into thinking he was somewhere near Klang, which boasted its namesake, same spelling and all.

Rustic villages continued to appear and, just as quickly, disappear from view ...

X marks the spot where I took a quick break; name of village unknown

I made a few pit-stops too, taking on necessary fuel – a few croissants here, an espresso there and, at one slightly biggish village called St Germer en Bray, I stopped to replenish my larder at a marche – Camembert cheese, some pate, a 4-pack yogurt — all for only 6 Euros.

Down the street from the marche, I saw a boulangerie, and as usual, I was never one to pass it by without a cursory look at least, but this one I ended up with a demi baguette (that’s half a baguette, simply because a whole baguette couldn’t fit into my pannier) and  some little sugar-coated puff balls that never made it more than 5 feet past the door … it was that good.

This little wayside bar was warm and cosy inside. A quick espresso helped as well.

Baguettes of every kind and size. Check out the whopper on the counter.

These little sugar coated puff balls were just the thing I needed to spike my blood sugar....they were delectable.

..

Pretty soon, the sun burst through the depressing clouds and its golden rays lifted up my spirits, as did the sight of Jesus on the cross simply appearing out of nowhere.

I was almost at the end of the first part of today’s ride and I was looking forward to riding the final 40kms through Avenue Verte, a disused railway line that was now paved over and open only to cyclists and pedestrians. It ran all the way to today’s final destination, the port town of Dieppe on the French coast. Wonderful. But first …

More food.


At the town of Forges Les Eaux, I stepped into a boulangerie and the nice lady inside explained to me what the 3 kinds of crudités (sandwiches) that I was interested in, had for fillings. ‘No parlay fon say’, I pointed out to her about my lack of verbal French skills, but either she didn’t understand, or couldn’t care less; she just went on and on in French and in the end, acting like I knew what she was saying, I confidently pointed to ‘Jambon Crudite’, hoping that it was edible.

French bakeries are always warma and homely,

... including the owners. Must be the yeast in the air.

Actually, it was more than edible, it was a delicious jumbo sandwich – a 2-foot long monster of a whole baguette filled with egg, tomato, ham, lettuce and some other things and, best of all, it was only 3 Euros! I could hardly believe it. That’s what I loved about small towns – the prices were sometimes surprising small as well.

I'd also bought myself a piece of dessert, a Flan Mature. With my lunch in hand, I headed for the town square (which was just opposite the shop), sat down on a bench and proceeded to attack the sandwich with gusto. Halfway through, I had to give my stomach a rest. There was no way I could finish this super sandwich in one sitting, so I simply wrapped it up for later. It was beginning to get cold, too, sitting still in one place, so I hurried up and moved on.

At the next town of Sergueux, I had to circle around a bit to look for the opening to Avenue Verte. Finally after asking some boys on their way home from school, I found it. It looked promising but more importantly, it looked like the elevation was zero for as far as I could see. Just what my tired legs were begging for.

The start of Avenue Verte, 40 km of blissfully traffic free cycle-path. Not even motorcycles can ride on it.

Avenue Verte runs almost all the way to the coastal town of Dieppe

On the Avenue Verte, the going was much faster than I had hoped for, averaging around 20 kph. Along the way, I had to slow down at numerous (formerly railway) crossings, like the one here.

Typically scenery along the Avenue Verte

All the old stations were now converted into homes

At one of these crossings, I noticed a familiar fruit growing on the brush fringing the path -- framboise -- or raspberries. Of course, I stopped to have some. It's not everyday that one gets to eat fresh raspberries off the branch.

In the old days, all railway crossings were manually controlled and the person in charge usually lived next to it. Today, they're all converted into lovely homes. It was here that I met Christophe ...

Christophe, a teacher at a vocational school housed in a 400-yr old castle nearby (see pic below). He was on his way home from work and as we cycled along, he enlightened me with Avenue Verte trivia.

Castle Mesnieres en Bray

The old railway line was decommissioned 12 years ago, and the cycle track came into being not too long after that. The original plan was to run it all the way from London to Paris but so they seemed to have stopped at only 40 km of the almost 300 or so kms needed to connect both cities.

Christophe very kindly invited me to his home for a drink (which was located just 50m from a crossing nearby) but I had to decline the tempting offer of visiting yet another French home, as I still had some 20km or so to go … and the sun was already beginning its downward arc. I wondered if he would have asked me to stay the night if I had gone with him ….

Dieppe

Finally I reached the end of Avenue Verte, and after another 10 km or so, I reached the picturesque seaside town of Dieppe. But it was the seagulls that really got my attention. Their cawing reminded me of countless movies and TV shows that featured the seaside and although it was always in the background, here they were everywhere, in their unmistakable white and grey colours and webbed feet. I stopped to absorbed it all in, with white cliffs nearby completing the scenery (click to enlarge pic)

I went straight to the port to sort out the ferry ticket immediately rather than wait until the morning. Then I went looking for Camping Vitamin, which was located about 5 km out of the town centre. That’s not too bad, I thought, not knowing that a massive hill awaited me as I turned the last corner out of the busiest part of Dieppe.

So there it was, a long steep climb of about 1 km. It can really demoralise you when you think you’re done for the day, and your legs have more or less switched off its spinning mode and you’re just riding on at less than casual speed. Well, there was nothing else to do except climb it.

It was just after dark when I got to camp. The office was already closed, but I rang the bell anyway. A little later, a woman came downstairs and proceeded to show me to the campsite. This time, however, I was asked to camp in the space meant for mobile homes, fenced in by hedges. A whole pitch to myself…nice.

Why the campsite was called Camping Vitamin, I will never know. It never even crossed my mind to ask the owner how the name came about.

Distance today:: 135 km
Distance todate:: 1175 km

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Day 19, 23 Sep, Paris to Marines.

Since it would take me at least 4 days to reach London, I decided to cut short my Paris stay by 1 day and leave for Dieppe today instead. (Dieppe is on the French coast and one of the ports from where one can take a ferry to England)

It would take me 2 days of riding to reach Dieppe, stay in Dieppe for a day because of the ferry schedule, and another 1 day to ride to London.

I always dread getting out of an unfamiliar city and Paris was no different. But this time I was prepared. I had found, and downloaded ready GPS tracks for Paris to Dieppe, and from Newhaven on the English coast to London from bikely.com and mapmyride.com, and it was now ready for use with my Garmin.

The campsite was already on the outskirts of the city so that was less one problem. 10 minutes later, I encountered the first discrepancy – the original 2-yr old tracks were actually from Dieppe to Paris, and I was simply following it in reverse. The first waypoint was for a pedestrian/cyclist bridge to cross the Seine to get to St. Cloud on the other side.

Problem was, they’d closed the gangway for cyclists to ride, or push up, and across the bridge. Now, you could only walk up the stairs. A fully loaded tourer was definitely out of the question so I had to ride further down the road until I finally found a proper bridge.

As I entered the district of St. Cloud (say Saint Clood), I ascended the first uphill of the day. Little did I know that from here on it would wind up and down all the way to Dieppe; not severe (except for 1 little nasty hill at Triel sur Seine) – just gently rolling inclines … but it was bad enough, considering my load. France, it would seem, is not as flat as the other countries I’ve visited; it’s a country of rolling-meadows terrain.

Looking for another way to St Cloud on the other side of the Seine.

The first hill of the day, in St Cloud. You can just make out Eiffel Tower in the foggy distance.

The first detour of the day was a pleasant surprise – the St.Cloud park – the leaves of the magnificent trees were all turning a warm amber colour.

It was a serene piece of painting that made you slow down just to enjoy nature’s handiwork.

Coming out at the other end of the park.

...and through these doors into the town of ...

...Marnes la Coquette

From here, I would ride through some secluded woods

I stopped for a break among a stack of cut timber and took a shot of the Surly against this unique background.

As the day wore on, I passed through countless villages, but those with charming old houses were the best, like this ivy-covered house. They were exactly what I’d imagined it would be when I was following the live coverage of Tour de France, seeing them from the helicopter’s point of view. And now I was here cycling through them, on my very own Tour de France. It felt great.

I would even ride under quaint little tunnels that barely allowed a car to pass through without scraping the roof off.

Nope, I hadn't taken a wrong turn and ended up in Sumatra, it's still France.

Country roads meant that traffic was light.

Crossing the Seine towards the town of Triel Sur Seine (Triel on the Seine)

I didn't know it then but this quaint turn off from the town of Triel sur Seine that began through a short tunnel under a building would turn out to be a monster of a climb -- 2 km of very steep uphill.

A few km out of Trier Sur Seine, the road flattened out, to my relief. From here on, farmland would feature very prominently in the landscape.

You could easily be forgiven for reading the sign as 'US Marines'. It's not. It actually indicating the town of 'Us' and 'Marines'

I’d begun to notice that there weren’t many bicycles on the road. France is unlike Germany, Netherlands and Belgium where people cycle just about anywhere. I guess the terrain has something to do with that. As well, you don’t find too many dedicated cycle paths that connected villages, towns and cities in these countries.

I was making painfully slow progress … I needed to cover at least 90 km of the total 189 km to Dieppe today. Having got lost a few times (in spite of the GPS tracks), and slowed down by the never-ending gentle up-and-down roads, I knew I would be in deficit by the end of the day.

At best, I reckoned I should be able to make the town (actually a village) of Marines and hunker down for the night somewhere. I had no idea if it actually offered any kind of lodging at all.

As the sun began to dip into the horizon (as did the temperature), I felt a little apprehensive. This was really off the beaten track and there were very little cars, let alone bicycles. As was my usual practice, I did the next best thing —  pray. I felt no worry at all. At worst, I would just stealth-camp somewhere behind a copse of trees, and there were plenty dotting the landscape.

30 seconds later, a young man on an antiquated racer rode up from behind and wished me a pleasant ‘Bon Jour’. I bon joured back and he asked me where I was going. I asked if Marines was near and he replied yes, only about 4 km. Great, I thought. ‘Are there any campsites or B&Bs there?’ I asked hopefully.

His reply took me completely by surprise. ‘You can stay with me if you like’ he said cheerfully. ‘If I like?’ Are you kidding me? Of course, I mucho like, and all I could say was ‘Hallelujah, thank you Lord!’

On the way to Marines where he lived with his Grandpa, Sebastien told me a little about himself. He had cycled across US, Mexico and a few countries in South America and he was constantly a recipient of many a stranger’s hospitality.

He said he knew exactly how I felt and when he offered me a place to stay for the night, he was simply paying it back. How magnificent, I thought and, a prayer answered. It never ceases to amaze me how people would just stop to help you when you need it most.

Sebastien, my wayside saviour.

Outside Sebastien's home in Marines.

As we reached his home (actually it was 2 houses on the same piece of land, fenced in by a 7 foot high concrete wall), I was  quite pleased that I would finally see the inside of a French home.

His friend Alex, was visiting him and was staying the night, and he would be going to Paris on Friday to audition for a part in a Moliere play. (I didn’t miss the fact that this was my 2nd encounter with an aspiring artiste, the other being the Spanish girl I met in a Bonn hostel)

I was to learn later that Grandpa too, ‘traveled the world’ — on Google Earth; he would mark each and every single place that Sebastien visits. (Later, he would make me show him where I lived and he proceeded to mark it as well…how charming)

It was only the 2 of them living in these 2 houses. Grandma had passed away a year ago and Sebastien had decided to come back from his travels and keep him company, staying in the smaller house that belonged to his father. He’d also just started studying law at the local university about 15km away.

Grandpa Pierre's house, and his beautifully tended garden.

Sebastien was usually the chef but today, Alex would be the assistant chef and today, his claim to culinary fame a dish of baked béchamel sauce and bacon. Sebastien also slapped on 2 pieces of steaks on the grill and told me ‘You’re gonna eat a lot tonight’. Well, frankly, I could eat a whole cow tonight.

Grandpa Pierre was a splendid fellow. He made me feel so welcome. By now he was quite used to Sebastien bringing home stray cycle tourers he met on the road. I was no different and he treated me with such warmth.

While his dish was in the oven, Alex would take the opportunity to practice his lines, even allowing me to video him... check it out below:

The warm and homely living/dining room of the Rovens residence.

Appetizers -- sweet melon

'Dinner is served' ... steaks, rice-like grain, and bacon in bechamel sauce ... a tad salty but who cares, I loved it. Anyway, my body was craving for salt.

Sebastien was ever the clown, making me feel at ease and at home.

After dinner, grandpa brought out a whole array of cheese and even opened another bottle of red. I was beginning to feel like a VIP.

I went from nearly camping in the rough to cheering the night with some seriously jolly good fellows. This was the life …this was one of the little priceless perks that came with cycle touring.

Grandpa Pierre insisted that I keep my bike in the shed and personally wheeled it in for me. I was so touched. It was obvious that we shared that special bond only bikers had with each other ...

His old bikes were testament to his love for cycling, and empathy for another biker, especially one who was 10,000km away from home.

Before we tucked in for the night, Sebastien said he had to leave early for classes but that I should take my time so Grandpa then said that I should have breakfast with him before I went off the next day. Brilliant. What more could I ask for?

As laid my tired body down on the futon bed in Sebastien’s father’s big master bedroom, I was still feeling warm and fuzzy. What a great day this had been As I dozed off, I thought how nice if everyday on the road was like this, but that would be asking a bit too much. Still, one can hope, can’t one?

Distance to day:80
Distance to date: 982

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Day 18, 22 Sep, Meeting more ‘old’ friends in Paris.

It’s hard to imagine that Paris has a campsite located within minutes of the city; actually, make that 2 — one on the western side and the other on the eastern fringe about 20 minutes from Disneyland Paris. I was at Bois du Bologne, located next to the Bois du Boulogne park, on the edge of the Seine, on the western side. It’s a well-run and very organised campsite and caters primarily to mobile homes. This was also the most expensive of all the campsites I had stayed in.

The reception of Camp Bois de Boulogne

My little cosy corner

Other campers

Most of the campers were young student-looking types but today I would come across a trio of interesting cycle-tourers who hailed from the Ukraine. They weren’t young but their spirits were, and I had nothing but admiration for them.

Every piece of equipment they had in their possession were old, very well-used and had seen better days … probably from the last world war too. Their mess tins were the kidney-shaped type, thoroughly blackened from cooking countless meals.

But what really impressed me was their attitude. Despite their advancing age and their lack of equipment, did they care? Of course not. They never said it but I knew … and it was also a maxim that I subscribe to …

It’s not the about the bike, it’s about the RIDE.

Unfortunately, Alex was the only one who could speak any English at all, and even then we had a hard time trying to understand each other. But it didn’t matter … here we were, 4 kindred spirits living out our own separate dreams. But take a closer look at their faces — these are guys who have truly ‘been there, done that’ … and then some.

I yearned to learn more about them but I had to settle for very sketchy biographies instead. War veterans, all of them … and proud of it. But gone were the glory days, they were just 3 bosom buddies hitting the road to wherever their fancies took them.

The 3 Russian war veterans/cycle-tourers who arrived late in the night. Naturally, I made friends with them the minute I saw them. Here, I'm having a cuppa with them. The picnic table is provided by the camp.

Vasay, 72, and Alex, 71 years of age. Ancient, venerable and dignified.

The oldest boy of the three -- Genady, 74. Take a close look at his bike -- the gearing, the rear rack, the chain, the saddle, the frame -- they were all due for change about 20 years ago.

Old but still going strong ...like their owners.

That the saddle is about to disintegrate to bits doesn't bother Genady, the owner. Check out the other bike's water bottle holder on the seat post.

Alex's rear rack

Alex takes the grand prize for innovation and resourcefulness -- something I believe was borne out of necessity and the lack of roubles. This gem of a rear rack is made out of a discarded seat from the very same type of picnic table we were all sitting on. Go back and take a look again. It was held together by nothing more than cable-ties, pieces of scrap metal, and a lot of faith ... (click to enlarge photo to examine the handiwork)

Alex the proud owner demonstrating how the 'rear rack' unfolds.

Well, what can one say but ...

... sheer genius! Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Lesson to be learned here? Never say 'cannot'. I was so humbled by this experience.

Alex was also quite proud of his home-made metal pannier -- 'It a box for carrying food, and it can also double as a chair' he explained in his halting English.

Admiring a very lucky-to-have-it-all cycle-tourer's bike.

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Today, there is one more very important task I have to complete. It is one of the reasons I came to Paris — to ride the last few kilometres of the Tour de France bike race. Where? Along the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde — a full loop that would see me riding among Parisian traffic 6 cars deep. Suicidal is one of the words to describe this adventure but as usual, good sense never prevails when this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is right here and now. So off we go …

On the way to the Arc de Triomphe

Naturally, I had to stop and had a picture of myself taken...again.

Round the Arc de Triomphe and heading towards Place de la Concorde ...

...where the obstrusive Egyptian obelisk stands. In the real Tour de France, the racers would repeat this going-around for quite a few laps before finally peeling off to a riotous finale at the finish line some distance away from here.

At the Arc de Triomphe, I decided to video my own little Tour de France. Camera in one hand, steadying the bike with the other, I had to stay close to the pavement that ringed the monument so as to avoid being a Parisian roadkill, which I was perilously close to being one, thanks to a bus.

 

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Day 17, 21 Sep, Un temps merveilleux à Paris

‘A wonderful time in Paris’ … that’s what it means in French, not that I speak French, but it seemed appropriate to title it as such (thanks to Google Translate). After all, we are talking about Paris — the City of Romance, where at almost every corner you can see couples locked in passionate embrace, oblivious to the world around them.

I love Paris, and I am certain I will walk its streets again one day. The people are beautiful, although a bit pompous and arrogant at times, but, that’s Paris for you. Love it or loathe it, Paris never lets you go without a twinge of regret.

There are so many are things about Paris (and France) that I love — the cheese,  the wines (which, litre for litre, is cheaper than Coke), even by our standards. I particularly enjoyed sitting on a bench in the park munching on a piece of bread and some cheese while a cold wind blows boisterously. Occasionally, the sun would break out from the clouds and warm up the day, and one’s heart.

I love cycling the streets of Paris, with the sound of my wheels chattering a duet with the cobble-stones. At times, I would be weaving between the neat rows of trees with its golden hued leaves rustling in the autumn breeze, some already carpeting the ground with a honeyed, caramel-coloured layer, reminding one that the seasons are changing.

And wherever you turn, like much of Europe, elegantly crafted Parisian buildings make you stop and wonder at their bourgeoisie-ness, clearly reflected in the ornate embellishments that adorn much of their facades.

Am I waxing too lyrical? Well, I suppose it’s because I’ve allowed myself to be enchanted by it. But words can only say so much … let the pictures paint an even more beautiful story ……

Cycle paths among the golden-leaved trees

The bridge that leads to The Invalides, and where Napoleon is buried

One of numerous crossings on the Seine

Strictly for pedestrians, these walkways by the Seine are perfect for romantic walks

Architectural excess, or art?

Love is everywhere in Paris

The classy neighbourhood of Parsy where I had to pass through to get to the centre of Paris.

Of course, I had to get myself in some of these photos as well….but not too obstrusive, I hope. It’s a crime to be in the centre of every photo that’s shot during a holiday…you know the type 🙂

Tourist poseur shot at The Lourve

This Filipino couple on their honeymoon (who asked me to take their picture) were so impressed with my adventure that they insisted I took a photo with them. Nice people.

Tourist poseur shot #2

Posing with a couple of cool cats busking by the Seine.

The Seine seems to attract all kinds of buskers and entrepreneurs, like this guy. Sure its free for 10 minutes, but would you time your massage down to the last free second and get up immediately? Very clever, these frenchies.

Le Quartier du Pain is one of Paris' foremost boulangeries, famous for their award-winning baguettes.

How good was their baguette? Well, I finished this Baguette Campagne in one sitting...it's that good.

I wanted to visit this swanky LV store but they wouldn't allow me to bring my precious bicycle in. Too bad, they lost some business that day 🙂

The recumbent is alive and well in Paris; this one is for hire. Very cool. Notice how aerodynamic the roof is.

Not so alive and well for this bicycle.

A visit to Paris would not be complete without a pilgrimage to Notre Dame

The intricate stonework on the entrance of Notre Dame's main entrance.

I didn't bother with going up to the tower, not with a queue this long. Notre Dame is after all, a must-see for tourists.

The imposing interior

inside notre dame

(Click to enlarge pic)

eiffel night

Close-up of Eiffel Tower by night (click to enlarge)

Enchanting Paris by night

Enchanting Paris by night (click to enlarge)

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