Is the cycling equivalent of the Buddhist philosophical conundrum “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This is the question I have been asking myself for a while, a mental discussion triggered by the relatively recent discovery that I … Continue reading →
I can write about the nice coastal towns of Zeeland, the excellent food and the pleasure of a trip to the seaside. I could even mention the amazing cycle routes once again. But there was only one subject for yesterday’s … Continue reading →
Recently my colleagues who manage the wonderful international EuroVelo cycle route network asked us all in the ECF office if we had some EuroVelo memories or trips we could share as part of an occasional series on their web site. … Continue reading →
I don’t get round to doing many book reviews from my cycling library but I feel Andy Sykes latest offering is well worth a few words, probably because I just like Andy’s attitude to cycle touring which is a triumph of curiosity and enthusiasm overcoming his self-declared naivety about the more mundane processes of cycling such as how to pump up a tyre!
As the blurb says this is his self-published account of his summer 9 week trip from the southern tip of Greece right across Europe to the Atlantic coast of Portugal, nearly 6000km and 10 countries. He loosely follows the route of Eurovelo 8, the Mediterranean Route but very much creates his own itinerary and diversions, not least to the legendary Mont Ventoux, cycling’s “Giant of Provence”.
It is a sequel to his 2010 trip “Riding across Europe on a Bike called Reggie” where we first met an even less prepared Andy and Reggie cycling from the UK to Brindisi in southern Italy along Eurovelo 5.* I enjoyed the first book a lot, there were some highly amusing moments all along the way so I was looking forward to book 2 when I heard Andy was off for more in the summer of 2013.
The cycle touring book has a long tradition going back almost to the invention of the bicycle. Some of them are voyages of discovery, some epic endurance adventures. The ones I enjoy most are the ones where the personality of the writer comes through and Andy certainly wins on that front. His writing is strongest where he addresses his own feelings – sometimes curious, sometimes anxious, even at times a bit nervous about hills, main roads, the state of the local campsites and arriving in Portugal in his allotted nine weeks. And then the other Andy takes over and just does it, delighted by the small pleasure of cycling travel like wonderful views, chance meetings, yet another coffee in a town square, a day completed. Occasionally he even lets an inner epic cyclist come out and like his day cycling over 200km to Valencia and he is drawn to master the incredible Ventoux, a legendary mountain of the Tour de France. I think the book is best in the first half when he has the time and relaxation to potter about and take side diversions in countries like Greece, Albania and the states of former Yugoslavia including Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia.
Both books make an excellent introduction to these long distance routes and the concept of using a bike to have an epic adventure. Andy is also the first cycling writer I have discovered from what I can only call the “on line” generation. He may hardly have a functional map of most of his route but he has got an I-Phone strapped to his handlebars, a solar charger on the back to keep it powered, an I-Pad in the pannier, hotels booked during the day by the internet, guest homes from the cyclists hospitality web site Warm Showers and he has kept his on line community in contact with his travels by Facebook, blog and Twitter. I think many tentative cycle tourists could be encouraged and inspired to take even a short adventure by Andy’s travels across Europe with limited preparation but confidence in his resources. If you know someone who needs a push to try a bit of a cycling adventure but loves their electronic toys this could be the perfect Christmas gift, but of course they would download it as an e-book! I am trying to be this relaxed about my touring, I think a bit of the Andy Sykes approach is starting to rub off.
You can find links to the books and the various points of sale on Andy’s lively web site cyclingeurope.org which also has his blog and lots of other content.
If you like this you’ll probably also like “One Man and his Bike” by Mike Carter and “French Revolutions” by Tim Moore, both mentioned in my library page
(*Declaration of interest here, the wonderful 70,000km Eurovelo network with its amazing long distance cycle routes is a product of the European Cyclists’ Federation who I work for in Brussels. Thanks to Andy for some enthusiastic promotion of the network, even if he does frustrate some of our colleagues by “not sticking to the proper route”. Personally, that’s what I would do, use the routes for inspiration and then make my own way, so no problem here!)
I have written before about how much I love being by the Danube with its promise of travels through history. However on this trip we saw another side of the great river, a treacherous beast only just held in check by mankind.
The recurring nightmare running up to our trip to Bratislava was that the city might be flooded by the surge of rainwater heading down after torrential rains right across central Europe. We were due to arrive Friday night and the peak flood waters were due just 24 hours earlier.
Consider that this is June. A month’s rainfall fell in two days across the high ground that feeds many of Europe’s great rivers, ground already saturated from the wet spring. Anyone who has been watching the Giro d’Italia bike race knows that it has been an appalling month across much of the Alps. Quickly the news showed the German town of Passau flooded by the Danube and its confluence with the Inn and Liz rivers. Then Prague was swamped by the Vltava River and all along the Danube and the Elbe communities were waiting for the surge.
Vienna itself was almost untouched because it has some of the most extensive flood relief systems in Europe, but now it was heading for Bratislava and Budapest. This was a particularly difficult time because after massive floods in 2002 the new flood defences in Bratislava were only a few years old and had never been tested.
During the week running up to the ECF AGM a planned cycle tour from Bratislava to Vienna was cancelled as the Eurovelo routes became impassable and nobody knew what condition they might be in when the waters dropped.
On Saturday morning we couldn’t resist a bit of voyeurism by walking down to the banks of the river in Bratislava. I was an extraordinarily impressive sight and one that made me realise just how precariously we try to control such massive bodies of water. According to reliable sources (our taxi driver) the river was carrying five times its normal volume of water.
One day after the peak we could look across the giant expanse rushing powerfully by the city centre, almost on our eye level behind the flood barriers. It was clear from the lines on the side of the temporary flood barriers that this must have been a very near miss.
Ship traffic was banned because of the levels so there were working boats moored all along the banks, but most striking were the floating hotels, keeling over to one side because their entrances were moored below water level. Police were patrolling the banks to stop idiocy – people climbing onto the barriers or trying to get across to the boats I guess.
And it was all such a contrast to the scene behind the barriers. All along the banks are extensive cycle paths and there was an excellent foot and pedestrian bridge slung underneath the main car bridge into the city.
In the stunning warm weather we were among hundreds of people all out for what would have been family and friends bike rides around the river bank. However it was apparent that almost everyone just needed to linger that bit longer to take in the power of the river, and maybe to contemplate just how close they had been to another serious flood.
I cannot believe two weeks have gone by since I was enjoying the sunshine of Budapest – it has a sort of “last summer” feel already with the mini-winter that has hit Belgium.
I realised that while I was musing on the Danube and food I didn’t finish my post about the cycling, which is somewhat of an oversight for a cycling blog. I thought I should complete the process because Budapest is such an important milestone in the Danube Cycle Route and a major part of Eurovelo6, the rivers route linking the Loire, the Rhine and the Danube so it may be of interest to fellow travellers. And I want to thank the campaigners at the Hungarian Cycling Club (Magyar Kerekparosklub) for their hospitality.
Whenever a league table of European cycling levels is published many people are surprised to see Hungary competing with Denmark in second or third place. In fact when I showed the graph to some Hungarians in Budapest they were surprised too.
This is because there are still really high levels of cycling in the rural areas of Hungary, largely driven by economic circumstances. But Budapest itself followed the trajectory of most of the Eastern European capitals after the Iron Curtain came down by embracing the car with enthusiasm. Not long later they had the joys of congestion and cars had overwhelmed residual levels of cycling. Unfortunately this rush to the car was also supported by the economic engine of the EU which financed a whole load of so called improvements in the form of new roads.
When I was first in Budapest in the winter of 2008 with the ECF board we were taken on several bike rides around the city which showed the first signs of a counter-revolution. There were lots of plans to improve the infrastructure and particularly to create attractive riverside routes for the Danube Cycle Route.
However back then it was very hard to imagine because what was in place was disconnected and dysfunctional.
Five years later you can see the benefits of that investment. It’s not a wholesale transformation of the whole city but it is clear that there is a really big change, especially along the river. OK, there is a heck of a difference between freezing December and sunny March too but there were also a lot more cyclists everywhere I walked and cycled. The confidence of the bike industry seems to be up too, the cycle show Bringaexpo which was hosting my visit has just moved to a bigger venue.
And credit to the EU funding programme too, from previous spending on “roads to nowhere” a significant proportion of the EU infrastructure subsidy to Hungary has now started going on cycling facilities, especially where it can boost tourism. It means the job can be done properly, for example the Margit Bridge is a protected heritage structure so this tunnel through the bridge footings cost around 3 million Euros so the EU share meant it could be done safely and in keeping the integrity of the structure. There were also wide paths across other bridges, cyclists shared with pedestrians but with plenty of space for both.
In the city areas there were fewer segregated facilities but the on-carriageway routes were wide, direct and seemed to be respected by the drivers.
Once we got further east towards the exhibition centre there was a nice ride through parkland which is symbolically important to the advocacy community here because it is the final point of the Budapest Critical Mass. This amazing gathering is not the underground movement of other cities, at its peak it had over 80,000 participants and was joined by significant politicians. Interestingly 2013 will see the last ever CM here because the leaders feel it has achieved as much as it can as a protest movement and it is now joining forces and trying to bring its energy to the broader cyclists groups. It was great to be at a meeting with them and see the injection of passion that comes from that direct action side of campaigning. Diary date 20th April if you happen to be able to get to Budapest – should be a good party.
As a visitor who really appreciates the Danube and as someone who has always loved cycling and walking by water I can perhaps permit myself one moan. Like so many countries and cities the waterway is a corridor for other modes of transport.
In the really bold cities like Paris we see city administrations trying to claim that space back for people. I think the authorities here have bottled it in places, for example south of Margit Bridge they have let fast roads keep the river bank and pushed
pedestrians and cyclists up onto a raised embankment. This means the views are nice enough but distanced from the calm of the water. Just look at these two photos. Stunning view of the Parliament building – then pull back the lens to see what the actual view shows.
t isn’t like this all the way along, but I can’t help but feel that was an opportunity lost.
However if you are planning a ride down Eurovelo 6 or even just a short stretch of the Danube Cycle Route can I recommend you include the Budapest stretch and do take a few diversions across the bridges and out to areas like Hero Square, it is becoming a good place to ride a bike again. See my earlier post for just taste of the architecture and history in Budapest and from what I heard the ride round Lake Balaton is a treat for future occasions..
And credit to the cyclists organisations and their friends and supporters. The movement is relatively small and underfunded compared to many in Western Europe however they have lots of creativity, bags of energy and a real willingness to work together to go forward. And they do some rather amusing campaigning, always good to see advocacy with a smile.
I look forward to more chances to visit them too, it really feels that I am among friends