Tag Archives: bicycleTouring

So I biked some miles in Europe

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Two months ago I left San Francisco with a bike and a trailer. I landed in Amsterdam with a trailer and no bike. While I waited for the airline to find my wheels I spent my time warding off my family’s ridiculous worries and took long walks to alleviate the annoyance with said worries. Being without a ride on a bikepacking trip sucked big time. Sure I didn’t have the most auspicious start. But this is life, it throws you curve balls. You have to be ready to catch.

I wheelbarrowed my luggage in my trailer through the Dutch countryside. I opened myself to being ridiculous, unlucky, afraid. I was a bag lady in Germany fighting rain with plastic. I was an American in The Netherlands wearing a helmet on the bike. I made myself comfortable in solitude in Denmark. I dared to bike in Romania, and lived.

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My odometer 2 months ago showed 278 miles. Today it shows 1644 miles. In nearly 1400 miles of sunny, muddy, rainy togetherness my blue Motobecane’s become my best friend. This bike’s wheels have combed through forest paths, muddy and gnarly roads, bridges, tunnels, beaches. Together we’ve met friendly Dutch farmers who are in tune with nature and groom it, make it hospitable. We conversed – albeit one-sided – with cows, sheep, goats, ducks, deer, foxes, even a few llamas and a notorious kangaroo.

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What I’ve wanted out of this trip was to be amazed. In all honesty, I was. My last campsite was the most magical yet, a green corner by the water, where I shared some snacks and evening thoughts with a fleet of ducks. I was alone again, as I was when I got here.

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As I biked towards the airport this morning, with the 5am sun rising slowly behind me, I thought it best to not say goodbye to The Netherlands, for fear of being corny or trite. Instead, to dispel the building sadness, I started planning my next biking trip, and resolved to fly out of Schipol on a cheerful note, returning the positivity that this country’s gifted me with.

Netherlands, it’s been great to know ya.

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When I grow up I want to be a Dutch tree hugger

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“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” said John Muir. I don’t know if I’ve tapped into any secrets of the Universe cycling through the forests of The Netherlands, but I can definitely say it’s one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done here.

Our Southern cycling route is now looping towards its terminus point, and after covering another 100 miles or so North we’re again going straight West, towards Amsterdam – the city where things start and end this summer for me. We’ve had a few days of nagging rain and forests, the latter making the former more bearable.

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If you like trees, the national park De Hoge Veluwe is a beautiful place to visit. It’s very large, spanning over 50 square km, and it features a mixture of lush forests sand dunes in alternating fashion, a landscape formed during the Ice Age. Oddities keep things interesting right? In this park you can cycle or hike for miles and miles and not meet a single road or house.

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This time we didn’t actually go through the park but covered quite a bit of distance cycling around it, alongside forests which are just as beautiful as those in the park. We camped for the night at a lovely nature campground in Otterlo, where I promptly setup a clothesline and hung my various belongings to dry, plastic bags and all. That gypsy lifestyle!

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We’re now in Utrecht, where we took a day off to give our asses a chance to recover from the saddle brutalities. And now that I’m finally standing still I can think about how incredible it is that we actually made it here. Yesterday was without a doubt the windiest day I’ve lived in this country. A short 40 miles from the Veluwe park to Utrecht should have been a breeze, but instead it was as if we’d raised the wrath of the grumpiest wind gods. Cold air hit from all directions, and even in our lowest gears we were barely crawling at 9mph. Occasional maverick rain would remind us from time to time that it could, in fact, be worse.

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The wind was something extra. When we finally got to our campground, located on a charming farm outside of Utrecht, we setup the tent with zombie motions and considered calling it a day. But the city was so close! I managed to pull Jim out of his defeated state and we bravely biked into Utrecht for some beers.

Well, one beer turned into 3, and then some bitterballen were consumed, and then some ice cream. Finally, close to midnight we got back on the bikes and rolled into the night, through the partying city of Utrecht, over tall bridges and dark, silent cornfields, back to our farm campground. We agreed it was a good decision to go out after all. To beer or not to beer? The answer is obvious.

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Old castles, the Black Sea and a bike: bicycle touring in Romania

“I come to Romania for adventure!” the German cyclist on the train said in reply to my quizzical appraisal of his touring setup: mountain bike with suspension (a must for any life-loving cyclist of Eastern Europe), beat up pair of panniers, thick coat of dust. Sounds about right.

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Having been born here, I’d often wondered what brings tourists to Romania. But curiosity presses, and landing here after rolling in the unmotorized nirvana of Northwestern Europe, I had to try it for myself: bicycle touring in Romania. I sweet-talked a doesn’t-know-what-he’s-getting-himself-into friend and followed this well documented guide to cover the 110 miles (180 km) from Tulcea to Constanta along the Black Sea in 3 days.

The worst part? The 35℃ (95℉) heat and the barbarous mosquitoes. The best part? Well, of course: adventure.

Tulcea is an old harbor city in Eastern Romania, perched on seven hills by the Saint George branch of the Danube. Lovely place, if not for the scorching heat which nearly peeled the paint off my bike. To make for a relaxed first day, after getting off the train here from Bucharest, we decided to cycle just 20 miles South and camp at Zorile Albe, a charming campground in the border village of Sarichioi.

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This campground was unique in a number of ways. It featured cats, curious chickens and a fleet of remarkable organized ducks. Most interestingly, it was just a dude’s backyard. A sociable dude who came down and chatted with us and the other campers, and then proceeded to prepare an incredible meal of carp brine with polenta, a traditional fishermen’s dish from the Danube.

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Located right on the shore of Lake Razelm, this campground had one of the most show-offy sunrises I’ve ever seen. Nice, I guess, if you like that whole sun-reflection-water-boat-whatever stuff. Not me though, not me.

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The second day was grueling. But we knew it was going to be. Waking up at 5 am to get a head start on the already building heat, we aimed to cycle about 80 miles (120 km) South to Vadu, a beautiful wild beach where camping isn’t officially allowed but, like in the rest of Romania, done by many.

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We got to the first stop, Enisala fortress, around 8 am – perfect time for breakfast with a view. After a steep climb to the castle, we feasted on tomatoes and yellow sheep cheese by the old walls, amidst piles of trash, which sadly are everywhere in Romania.

Enisala looks straight from a movie, a 14-century fortress built by the Genovese on the grounds of an older Byzantine construction. This fortress somehow survived the long-standing pissing contest between the Russian and Ottoman empires and didn’t get blown up. It’s the only medieval fortress that remains in Eastern Romania.

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15 miles later, in Jurilovca, we got off the paved road and cycled towards the coast onto a gravel road, then a dirt road, then a single track, then a heinous single track with boulders, which climbed steeply then descended abruptly right along the coast, making us wobble with the loaded bikes and count our blessings as the cliff fell sharply to the left. We wanted adventure, right?

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Here we found Argamum, an old Greek fortress from the 7th century BC which sits on the tallest point of the Romanian Black Sea coast. This thing is old! The on-the-brim positioning and the history of the place impressed us, but the unforgiving sun and the trash which garnished the place as per usual made us want to get out of there as soon as possible. So we did.

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In summary, the journey to Vadu included: near-death experience cycling along a major two-lane highway with fast traffic (this is Romania, so no other roads!), tall poplar trees, endless fields of corn and sunflowers. But the morale was kept high by the friendly countryside people: cyclists wave, old people say hello, kids pedal alongside you till they run out of steam, drivers cheerlead you with friendly honks. Balkan people 🙂

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Approaching Vadu beach, there was so much trash and the road was so dilapidated that I dreamt of being back in Denmark on butter-smooth delimited bike paths, and almost cried. But camping on this wild, quiet beach after cycling all those miles, was a spiritual experience. Worth it – even though I took home some 200 mosquito bites as memento.

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On the last day of the Romanian seaside cycling adventure, we ruefully awoke to a blasting 5 am sun, and freshly sweaty proceeded to pack up the tent and make a hasty exit off the roasting, insect-infested beach.

The final stretch took us 25 miles (40 km) South to the city of Constanta, where we took the train to Bucharest. I don’t have a lot to say about this part, as it took us into the touristy part of the seaside where hordes of flabby, sunburned people gaped around and stuffed their faces in the sweltering heat by the beaches where last-year’s-finest music blasted from the speakers. Not my favorite landscape.

Most memorable part: fixing a flat on the train like a boss.

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It surprised me to see more touring cyclists on this short trip than in Scandinavia. All but one of the 6 groups I spotted were foreign. Most seemed to not know what they were getting themselves into. I felt for them. I was born here and still I was way out of my comfort zone as a cyclist, and as a human. Which really presses the question: why do tourists come to Romania?

Some lessons I took home: don’t come in the summer, just don’t do this to yourself. Come on mountain bike; no hybrids, no racers. Take hand sanitizer everywhere. And you’ll have to find a way to get used to seeing and smelling trash, because it’s there everywhere you go.

A lot of things don’t make sense in Romania but if you’re not a pansy and really, really want adventure, this is probably an experience that’ll quench the thirst.

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Chapter 0: why are you doing this?

My family’s been trying vehemently to make me quit the notion of traveling alone by bike. “Why” comes up a lot in my talks with them and with well-meaning friends.

Well I’ve done the easy part, this blog. It’s for people who care to know I’m alive, what I’m seeing, what I’m thinking about, and really for my mom to have hard proof to say “I told you so.”

Someone else already did the harder part in this clip: answering the why.