1000 km, 10 days & 4 countries

I’ve cycled over 1,000 km in the past 10 days! Here is my route:

I landed early in the morning in Gothenburg, Sweden. I pulled my bike out of its box in the airport and put it together. To my dismay, my hand pump had given up. I walked my bike with flat-as-flat-gets tires with only the front panniers attached. The backpack, food sack and the heavier rear panniers I somehow managed to carry on my back. Every step they swung and punched the back of my legs. It was 6:00AM. I walked to the first gas station on a freeway. No air. I walked another kilometre. Air, but only for a car tire valve. Good enough, that got me to a bike pumping station. I stayed with a woman in downtown Gothenburg who, with her partner, had cycled from Gothenburg, Sweden to Bangkok, Thailand in 2013. She made me way too much delicious food and I slept in a little loft they had built – my very own little cave. I spent the day eating (found a cinnamon bun bigger than my head), walking around Gothenburg and nearly tearing up at the sight of trees, big horses and living green plants since I had seen none of these things in nearly five weeks.

Then I cycled south via a mixture of paved bike paths, narrow roads and dirt paths through forest, farmland, industrial land and small towns. The complexity of the route was a rude shock compared to my Icelandic venture but thanks to excellent signage and Maps.Me (phone app, get it. Now) I did not take a single wrong turn. And while I was thankful that I had escaped the jaws of Icelandic wind (I went through Swedish headwind like a hot knife through butter) and the biting freezing temperatures, in Sweden’s early summer of 15-25°C, I felt like I was melting. My first night south I camped on a beach. My own private white sand beach, quite nice.

It turns out that one kilometre in Iceland takes about the same effort as two or three in Europe and as a result, I went fast. I arrived in Helsingborg ahead of “schedule” and camped a couple hundred metres from an IKEA. The next day was a ferry ride to Denmark and an easy ride down the coast to Copenhagen where I stayed with one of my friends from high school and finally found a decent hamburger.

My original “plan” had been to take a bike-friendly night train straight from Copenhagen to Amsterdam, however this particular route had been suspended last December. My Plan B was to take a train from Copenhagen to Hamburg and then cycle another 330 km to Giethoorn (north of Amsterdam). But, being ahead of schedule, I decided that a fun way to pass the time would be to conduct a little race against myself in those two parallel universes: cycle 700 km and arrive the same day I would have if I took a train. It gave me 6 days. Here was my first lunch spot.

Just south of Copenhagen, near Køge, I crashed. A woman on a road bike appeared completely unannounced on my left (I had no chance to move over), sneaking past my rear panniers. She cut in too close as she passed by in front and her cassette hooked onto my front pannier’s clips, which started tugging my front wheel to the left. This happened over the course of about three seconds. I could have tried going faster than her to unhook myself, but I was trying to brake in preparation to crash at a speed slower than my current 25-30 kph. My front wheel finally sprang to the left as I abandoned ship and I went over the handlebars. The next thing I remember is the woman and a man standing over me half shouting in Danish. Breaths were coming in huge shuddering gulps and I finally got out, “English”. I watched as the man walked over to my bike and tried to pick it up, before dropping it (!!!!!?!?!), readjusting his feet and stating, surprised, “This is heavy”. They’d satisfied themselves that I wasn’t dying so off they went. I got back on my bike with a couple blood and tear stains, determined to stay on pace, but my race mentality had dissolved into nausea. I took off my helmet 85 km later and looked at it, trying to figure out what was wrong with me: it was dented at the back and cracked the whole way through. Concussion, thank you Denmark! I made it to Veldingborg and camped in a field that quite conceivably could have been fully illegal but an actual campsite was another 5 km and my legs had given up 20 km before. My head was screaming at me and I woke up with a flu.

The next day I cycled another 115 km, crossing the border on a ferry to Germany. Funnily, once I had strapped my bike in on the ferry, the ICE train rolled in right beside me, which I took as a challenge: parallel-universe-Steph was on that train and I was racing her. I set up in a tiny patch of forest. I was just falling asleep when I felt something wiggle under my hand. I jolted. Ewewewewwhatisthis?! A frog. I had pitched my tent on a poor little frog. I could see it frantically trying to free itself underneath my tent footprint. I was so tired that I didn’t even help it escape. I just watched it pathetically struggle as I fell asleep.

The next few days were a blur. In Hamburg I bought a new helmet and stayed at a hostel. In Bremen I stayed at an overpriced campsite and was eaten alive by mosquitoes. I met two 18 year olds cycling the opposite direction and the nicest old Dutch man who spoke five languages and had travelled the world in the military by boat (“It’s not that interesting, it’s only water”). I inhaled calories by the thousands. Have you ever bought a pint of ice cream and sat right outside the discount store you bought it at and eaten the entire thing in 8 minutes? I have. Three times actually. Is that frowned upon? Don’t care, it was delicious and I’ll probably do it again. By the time I reached Dörpen, near the border of The Netherlands, my legs were so sore that the only movement they were capable of was pedalling. My hamstrings nearly felt like I’d pulled them. Walking was a nightmarish hell. On the sixth day I crossed the border in the morning. Whoever the sadistic person is who put cobble stone streets on bike routes on Google Maps deserves a kick: being in the saddle for 8-10 hours a day is painful enough on smooth asphalt, I don’t need cobble stones, thank you.

I love Europe. I’ve only ever been here during the summer time, but the attitude here (in my opinion, anyway) somehow always seems happier than at home. Outdoor cafés, coffee done right, bikes. Bikes everywhere. Biking in dresses is perfectly acceptable. Biking on dates is perfectly acceptable. People whistle while they cycle. After following a canal for 40 km, finally finally finally there were signs to Giethoorn, my stopping point.

There are no roads in this town, only canals, little bridges and pathways. The path was paved and narrow and bustling with people trying to get to dinner. On the left was a larger canal about 10m wide and on both sides were houses with little thatched roofs. Every hundred metres or so, the pathway went over a tiny offshoot canal on an extremely narrow plank bridge (picture below). There was about six inches of clearance on either side of my bags and if something fell off it was going straight in the water. Sometimes the pathway crossed the “main” canal on a bridge that had a steep slope that I could barely push my bike up. The deeper I went into this canal labyrinth, the cuter it got. They call this “The Venice of the North” – there are no cars here, no scooters. Just bikes, boats, little cafés, restaurants and now, a very happy Steph.

I know people will ask me why I raced through big fancy famous cities like Copenhagen and Hamburg. Those cities are famous for a good reason, have very interesting histories, have all the beautiful architecture and museums to keep a tourist nut running around for a week at the very least and still feel like they’ve missed something crucial. Yes, I saw the Little Mermaid, a brief glimpse under the people that were all taking turns climbing on top of it brandishing selfie sticks like swords. Copenhagen was a nuisance to bike through because it was like UBC: the entire city seemed like it was under construction and I got rerouted at least four times. Hamburg was packed, busy and full of people walking blindly into bike lanes. The best part of traveling for me really isn’t the fancy cities.

I liked flying down deserted paved bike paths in the forests of Sweden, dappled with sunshine, music going in one ear. I liked running all over that white sand beach near Køge in Denmark on a Nutella sugar high. I liked watching all the frogs run away from my tent as I was packing it up in that little patch of forest near Grömitz in Germany. I savoured every sporkful of ice cream I shovelled into my mouth while sitting on curbs outside Danish, German and Dutch supermarkets. I quite enjoyed watching Game of Thrones episodes snuggled in my tent in Bremen while mosquitoes whined against my little mesh window. I loved it when the train track crossings closed and I had to stand there, not cycling, for five minutes while I watched a high-speed train fly by. I like how sometimes, the roads are so straight and flat and tree-lined that the end of it fades into a blueish dark green mist. The coffee and soup I had at a completely empty café in Assen on a Sunday made my entire day because their napkins had bike prints on them. It’s the small simple things – it doesn’t take much but the little in-between places of Europe do it all right.

Cheers from Giethoorn, The Netherlands.

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