Monthly Archives: February 2013

Panniers or Trailers?

Bush camping in the Kimberley region in Western Australia – copyright R. Ian Lloyd

Bush camping in the Kimberley region in Western Australia – copyright R. Ian Lloyd

Here’s a photo of a much younger me camping in the bush on my ‘round Australia adventure back in 1996. When I left Sydney I did so well kitted out with just about anything I imagined I might need in the 10,000 miles that lay ahead. I had all of these things stuffed into front and rear panniers and my handlebar bag.

Over the next nine months, as I pedalled through mountains and desert and across vast stretches of spinifex scrub I learned a lot about what I did and did not need to bring on a long expedition. I also learned a lot about how best to carry these things – or I suppose I should say what worked best for me. In the years since then I have tried out a few variations, such as backpacks and trailers, but have always come back to using good old fashioned panniers.

On the surface, a trailer would seem to be a good idea – you can carry plenty of gear for a long expedition and still keep your bicycle unencumbered. But that seeming advantage is also it’s undoing in my experience. The fact that you can carry plenty of gear is too often an invitation to do so; it becomes tempting to add things to the load ‘just in case’, because it’ll fit, and before you know it you are fitting things in and carrying five, ten, maybe even more pounds of additional gear plus of course the weight of the trailer itself (let’s not forget that!)

This is not to say that trailers have no uses for cyclists – they do, just not for touring. For example, I lived for a while in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, without a car, and used a trailer to bring home the shopping. It was simplicity itself. Far easier than using panniers. But this was for relatively short rides and for a specific purpose, rather than an open ended ride of weeks or months. And surely, unless you are going to be on the road for a great length of time there can be no need (that I can see) to carry the amount of gear that would make a trailer, and its extra weight, necessary or desirable.

An exception to this might be family touring. I saw this years ago along the Danube Bicycle Path where families would be touring together, Mum and Dad and the kids, quite small kids sometimes, pedalling their bikes along the riverside with Mum and Dad often towing quite hefty looking trailers to carry all the gear necessary for family holidays and travelling with children. A trailer there would be indispensible.

Otherwise, I can’t really see the need. Panniers balance the load quite nicely, if they are packed well. They typically would weight less than a trailer and the demands a set of panniers put on what you can and cannot carry will force you to make some critical weight and bulk decisions before you ever leave home. At that, unless you are setting off for the four corners of the globe, or like to bring along the creature comforts when you camp along the road, there is seldom much need for front panniers – a rear rack and a good set of rear panniers will generally see you through for most trips, if you pack smart and light.

And if you are just going for a week or so, and especially if you planning to stay in B&B or hostels, a set of rear panniers will do you just fine. A trailer in such circumstances would be a burden.

Ditto a knapsack, although I can understand how someone who is just trying out touring may not want to spring for a set of panniers – especially when a good medium-sized knapsack, which they may already have, would handily carry their gear for the duration of their experimental ride. And it may well also be the easy option if your bicycle does not have  eyelets or bosses for attaching racks (more on this conundrum in a later post) and of course if you are doing much of-road touring, where squeezes along narrow trails may be tight, a good trim backpack may simply be the only feasible option.

In general though, a backpack can make you sweaty and, if it is heavy enough and not thoughtfully packed, it can affect your balance on the bike as well. When I am touring I prefer to keep myself as free and unencumbered as possibly, both physically and metaphorically and for that nothing beats the old-fashioned pannier or saddlebag.

Chapter 17 – Through Darkest Hungary

Tabula Hungariae - 1528

Tabula Hungariae – 1528

I gobbled a late lunch in Sárvár, a rather pretty castle town along the River Rába in Vás, and ate it in the shade of an old churchyard. Pleasant though this was, I didn’t linger but pushed on, eager now to make distance and embark on my new change of plan.  I was following the Rába upstream and south, towards a very wild, mountainous and remote region in Hungary called the Orseg. It wasn’t a bad day for riding, warm and sultry, and God knows these rural Hungarian backroads were quiet enough, but for some reason the miles didn’t flow as sweetly or swiftly as those along the Donau Radveg.  If they had I probably wouldn’t have been tempted by the shortcut I seized upon later that afternoon when I first began to sense that my goal of reaching Slovenia that night might be slipping away from me.

By then I had come into the Orseg proper, its hills and dark woods reminding me more than a little of the Ardennes.  Few roads run through here, and as I looked over the ones that did, during my lunch break in Sárvár, I saw where I could trim a few miles off my route by quitting the main road and following a series of obscure back country tracks along a minor tributary of the Rába River, which rises in the heights along the Slovenian border.  The only worrisome bit was between the villages of Nagymáfka and Döröske where the road was marked as an indistinct dotted line.

Dotted lines on a map can mean anything – a forestry track, a country lane the authorities don’t bother to maintain anymore but which local farmers drive every day, a four wheel drive path fishermen use to gain access to their favourite holes along the river, a hiking trail, anything.  I decided, with an optimism born of impatience, that this one was perfectly navigable for bicycles.

And so off I went.  I passed through Nagymáfka on a deeply rural backroad where scrawny chickens clucked and squawked and scuttled out of my way, and huge fearsome dogs snarled at the ends of chains in front of Tobacco Road shacks.   Just about where I imagined the dotted line segment on my map must be starting, the bitumen faded away and the road became a narrow, leafy dirt lane, and continued into the forest, woodsy and picturesque with humid sunshine dripping through the branches.

Around the next bend it grew narrower still, the trees huddling close and shaggy.  Sentinel shoots of grass and wildflowers appeared in the middle of the track.  Soon it tapered to a hiking path, and a rather muddy one at that, thanks to the recent rains.  It also began to climb.  I shifted into an easy gear and pedalled onward and upward, obliged to dismount every now and then to ease my loaded tourer through the tight spots between the trees.  The need to do this grew steadily more frequent as the trail wound higher.

However slow going it might have been, it sure was pretty in there.  The forest was deep and solemn, with occasional shafts of pale yellow sunlight filtering through the leaves and illuminating all sort of beautiful still-life vignettes: a glistening bank of ferns along the path; a rush of pink wildflowers set against the hard green of summer foliage; the rich chestnut tones of a rotted trunk, covered with moss and lichens and brightly coloured toadstools.

I paused to soak it all in, take a few bracing sips from my water bottle, and seek a bit of reassurance from my map.  It looked right.  There hadn’t been any ambiguous turn-offs or other possibilities, and in any event it couldn’t be any more than a couple of miles to Döröske, and I’d already covered some of that distance.

I capped my flask and pushed on.  Once the path stopped climbing, the ground became marshy and waterlogged, dense with undergrowth and ankle deep in mud.  The trail here was no more than a chain of muddy puddles.  Riding became impossible; even pushing the bike through this wasn’t easy: wet ferns tangled themselves in the spokes, and vines snagged on derailleur cables. There was more and more water.  Puddles grew wider and longer, harder to circumvent, until finally the path seemed to vanish altogether, the way the channel of a river loses itself in a vast marshy delta.  Ahead was nothing but a silvery sheen of water, bunch grass, swampy shrubs and the trunks of tall solemn pillar-like trees. I’d found my way to the middle of a swamp.

I paused to absorb all this, noticing now more than ever the vast conspiratorial hush of the forest, an eerie spell of silence that was accented rather than broken by distant gurgle of water, and the lonely twittering of an unseen bird.  I reckoned I could still find my way out the way I came in, but turning around and giving up now would mean having to back-pedal all the way to Vasvár and then pretty much starting over; no Slovenia tonight.  All this thrashing about would have been for nought.

I studied the map some more.  It couldn’t be that much further.  If I kept on a straight bearing I should be fine.  I’d come out on a road, either at Döröske or just below there.  But that’s assuming I could navigate a straight line through three-quarters of a mile of dense, marshy wood without a compass; it is not for nothing that sort of thing is known as ‘dead’ reckoning. A few degrees off, even a longer stride with your left leg than your right, and you can find yourself tromping around in endless circles.

The idea of giving up and turning around was even less appealing. I sploshed on through the muck and moss in as straight a line as I could manage, picking my way from tree to tree, shoving aside branches, wrestling my bulky tourer through the openings and barking my shins repeatedly on its pedals.  Another pause, a couple hundred yards deeper into the marsh, another grand unfolding of the map. A vision came to me of an imagined gilt-framed oil painting hanging in the Royal Geographic Society: an intrepid traveller from London standing beside his bicycle, deep in a marshy Balkan forest, consulting his map as though it were the Times and wearing a perplexed frown.  The title, engraved on a small brass plate affixed to the frame, reads: Lost on the Way to Istanbul.

As I was picturing this, the fans of sunlight that had been filtering down through the trees faded away, as swiftly and completely as if  someone had turned down a dimmer switch.  The gods had evidently lost interest in this little game and were going home now.  Hand in hand with the sombre lighting, and gathering sense of abandonment, came a low growl of thunder.

I decided I wished I hadn’t come this way.

On the bright side, if I ended up having to camp out tonight, at least I had a decent stock of food with me and water was certainly plentiful, and God knows these woods were secluded.  No chance at all of anybody coming by in the night and disturbing your slumbers. Nothing human, that is.  I wondered if they had wolves here.

That unsettling possibility, and another theatrical rumble of thunder, put me in mind of a tale by ‘Saki’ from a collection of adventure stories I used to read as a child.  It was called The Interlopers and was about two sworn enemies who encounter each other in a lonely Balkan wood – not unlike this one, I imagined – and just as they are squaring off to kill each other a gust blows over a huge tree which pins both men, breaking their legs and arms and rendering them helpless.  As the hours pass, they realise how futile and silly their feud has been, begin to see the humanity in each other, and in a heart-warming exchange agree not only to forgive each other and end their quarrel but to pledge lifelong friendship – and so it might have been, if only a pack of hungry wolves hadn’t just then trotted into the scene.

That cheerful train of thought reminded me that nobody in the world had the least idea of where I was at the moment, or where to start looking in the event that I never turned up in Istanbul.  My stated intention when I left Vienna, as scribbled on several postcards, had been to follow the Danube as far as Budapest and from there journey eastward to Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains. It is there that friends and loved ones would have believed I went.  And there is where they’d instruct the searchers to start searching, not down here in this wilderness along the Slovenian border.

This was no time to break an ankle. “Believed to have vanished in the Carpathian Mountains” might have wonderful cachet as a traveller’s obituary, but when it comes to picking one for myself, I much prefer Freya Stark’s: “Died peacefully in bed, aged 100”.

 

Happily the Lost Traveller in that painting I had been picturing on the walls of the RGS managed to pick up the trail again, although not without a great deal more thrashing and scraping and squelching through mud, and no small measure of luck.  My wanderings led me through the marshy thickets to the base of a high steep bluff, slippery with leaves, which I managed to scale, hand over hand, stumbling and cursing, with my bicycle slung awkwardly over my shoulders.

There at the top I was rewarded with a glimpse of a pond, its silvery expanse visible through the leaves, with a couple of chalets on the other side and the homely spectacle of two men fishing from a canoe out in the middle.  Better still, closer to hand, was a clearing in the forest.  I could see the sunlight and the bright green of blackberry brambles, and when I made my way over there was delighted to find the trace of what appeared to be an old fisherman’s path.  Relieved now, I scrambled back down the bluff to retrieve my saddlebags, brought them up, reloaded the bike, and set off once more.  It was a lucky break but I wasn’t out of the woods yet.

The path firmed up nicely, no question about it, broadening to a well-worn track that led, alas, not to a public road but squarely into somebody’s backyard.  I slowed as the house hove into view, a sense of unease creeping over me.  So many of the houses I’d passed that day had had huge, nasty-looking guard dogs patrolling their yards; it seemed to be the done thing here in rural Hungary.  And while they’d invariably snarled at me as I pedalled by, hurling themselves at their fences and lunging to the ends of their chains, none of them were ever loose; I’d been perfectly safe out there on the road.  But now I was not on the road.  I was intruding, an intruder, not a willing one, to be sure, but an intruder nonetheless.

If one of those things charged me now I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on, legally and probably literally as well.  I peeked cautiously around, like a deer poised for flight.  Nothing dozed in the shade.  No doghouses were visible.  No gnawed human ribcages or thighbones lay scattered about.  The coast, or rather, the yard looked clear.  With a sigh of relief I emerged from the shrubbery, and stepped light and lively across the lawn, making for the side gate that led around to the front, where there would be a driveway and the prospect of a clean swift getaway.  I moved with celerity and purpose, affecting an abstracted, miffed, slighted irritated air; the innocent wayfarer who’d lost his way and was blinking his astonishment at finding himself in this strange backyard – all this for the benefit of any as yet unseen observers who might be inside, holding leashes.

So absorbed was I in affecting this air and in looking around and appreciating this wonderfully dog-less backyard, that I wasn’t paying fullest attention to what was in front of me, and so when I ambled around the side of the house it was to bump my front tyre into the ample rear end of the homeowner who was at that moment bent over, working on the engine of a battered blue Trabant parked in his drive.

It startled him.  Startled me, too.  We both jumped.  Fortunately for me I had nothing but empty sky over my head, whereas he had the bonnet of a Trabant a scant few inches above his.  He hit it with a nasty sounding clunk.  He snarled out something brisk in Hungarian and whirled around, obviously surprised to see me and not particularly happy about it.  He rubbed the back of his skull with a grease-stained hand and with narrowed eyes took my measure, his expression one of suspicion and immense distaste.

I took his measure too.  It was worth taking.  He was big, but no bigger than, say, your average international Rugby forward.  He was in his late twenties, wearing cut-offs and a torn blue singlet that showed off his biceps, triceps and latissimus dorsi to splendid effect, no doubt for the benefit of his pretty, blond, halter-topped girlfriend who had been standing admiringly by with a bottle of beer while he tinkered with the Trabant.  I could see why they didn’t have a dog; they didn’t need one.  There was more than a touch of pit bull about his eyes.  They were not smiling.

It was I who broke the ice.  “Hi there!  Sorry to disturb you.  I … uh…seem to have taken a wrong turn somewhere.  You see, I was coming along this little dirt lane a ways back there at a place called Nagy-something and…well …” I gestured towards the hills behind the house “… it just sort of faded away in the woods and well, here I am.  I hope I didn’t startle you.”

I had no way of knowing whether or not either of them understood English, but hoped that a light, breezy nice-doggie tone and a touch of the old bonhomie would butter the wheels of understanding and convey the idea that I meant no harm.

My new friend with the bump on his noggin scowled and stepped forward, placing his spanner down on the fender, carefully, gently, but in a manner that suggested it could be picked up again, swiftly, and used on something other than the Trabant.  “That is not a road back there,” he pointed out in a dead flat monotone and not-so-bad English.  He put his hands on his hips: what had I to say to that?

I gave a fragile laugh and agreed it with; it was unseemly the way it petered out like that.  I would have thought my sorry state – the scratched up legs, skinned knees, torn shirt and the tendrils of blackberry vine still tangled in my spokes would have been eloquent of the truth of my tale.  Perhaps it was; he continued to scowl but he didn’t pick up the spanner.

It occurred to me it might be wisest now to shift the focus of our conversation forward in time, away from the uncertainties about my character and how I’d come to be in their backyard, and towards the altogether brighter prospect of my departure.  “So – how do I get from here to…uh… Dos…Dos…Dos”

“Döröske?”  the girl spoke up.

“That’s the one.”  Under the strain of the moment, the name had escaped me.  I’d been going to say Dostoyevsky but I knew that wasn’t right.

“You’re in Döröske.”  She pointed down the road.  “That’s the village over there.”

“Ah, yes, of course.  Splendid.  Thanks.  I’ll…uh… I’ll just be getting along now.  People expecting me.  Don’t want to worry them.  Sorry to have disturbed you.”

I eased myself politely past his elbows, a Cheshire smile pinned to my face, then mounted up and pushed off, not so briskly as to imply guilt and the need for a hasty getaway, but not exactly lingering, either.  “Have a nice day.”

I could feel their eyes on my shoulder blades all the way down the road to that first blessed bend which swept me from view.  God, what a relief it was to have smooth hard bitumen under my tyres again, to press down the pedals and feel that old liberating sense of movement, of escape. The afternoon was pretty far gone by then, my shortcut through the woods having cost me the better part of three hours.  I didn’t make into Slovenia that evening, but camped a few miles short of the border in the woods near Oriszentpeter.

 

 

Greetings (and advice) from the Caribbean

BWIA AirwaysApologies for my seeming neglect these past couple of days but between the packing and the making ready to travel to the Caribbean and the actual hours spent in the air in getting here I have been unable to devote much time to preparing a post. But now I am here in Tortola, all bright skies and bougainvillea, looking out to sea with a view of Virgin Gorda in the violet distance, and with the sails of a couple of yachts providing visual interest in the middle ground.

It all feels a world away from the cold and drear of February in East Sussex, as indeed it is. But as is often said of travelling, you invariably bring your own little problems with you; travelling merely provides you with a change of backdrop. In my case, one of those troubles I have carried with me is the messed up shoulder from my spill a couple of weeks ago. The damage turned out to have been a bit worse than I had initially thought and it appears I may be off the bike rather longer than I had expected.

One of the things I did (belatedly) just before hopping on the flight was to pay a visit to an osteopath, something I should have done some time ago – say, the day I wiped out. I am fortunate that I do have a very good osteopath in the neighbourhood. I should make better use of him although at thirty quid a visit I am rather (naturally, but in my case foolishly) reluctant to do so.

But then again I’ve always had this unshakeable belief in my own native resiliency and an optimism that everything, no matter how debilitating, will heal up in a day or two of its own accord. It is an outlook I dare say that I  share with a lot of males and one that goes a long way towards explaining why those of us of the Y-chromosome persuasion tend to have higher insurance premiums and lower life expectancies.

At any rate, my osteopath congratulated me on the very thorough job I did of inflicting a great deal of soft tissue damage to my right shoulder and suggested that my achy ribs are the result of multiple greenstick fractures and some additional cartilage damage as well. Six to eight weeks he tells me, and possibly longer before I am fully well again although I might be able to be back in the saddle before that if I take care of myself. He had wanted to see me again fairly soon for another session but since I had left my visit to the last moment that was not possible. A pity, since the manipulations he did on my shoulder worked minor but immediate wonders. Extra sessions might not have shortened the overall healing time but I feel certain they would have reduced the amount of discomfort by quite a bit. Alas. Another of life’s bitter lessons.

So now I sit in the sunshine doing my prescribed shoulder exercises and feeling inspired to spread the word among my fellow Y-chromosome-burdened cyclists that getting treatment from a good osteopath is a very good investment when you’ve gone base-over-apex on your bike, even if it isn’t covered on the NHS. On the cycling side of things I hear there is quite a road cycling fraternity here in the British Virgin Islands and my brother has put me in contact with the president of the local club. So although I might not be riding much in paradise myself these next few weeks, I can at least get a flavour of what it must be like and hopefully some nice images to post on the site.

 

 

The Bridge of Dreams

BVI Airlines IAll this fine weather and not only am I off the bike but packing to go overseas as well, for a month this time, to the Caribbean. I am going to Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands.

I am going there for work but this time it’ll be a different sort of work.  For once I will not at the beck and call of a magazine editor, or following any pre-ordained script. I will be working on a start-up project with my brother, who owns a small but profitable airline out there, based in Tortola and servicing Dominica, St Maarten and, as of next month, Antigua and Anguilla as well.  Over the next year he’ll be adding a few more islands to the network and as part of the expansion our families will be working together to build and launch a new website for the airline, as well as a Caribbean travel website and on-line magazine covering events and happenings on the islands, plus publishing on-line travel guides for Dominica and the BVI (for starters).

We have had some encouraging interest so far and hopefully we can make this a profitable venture, both in terms of promoting the airline and as a publishing project in its own right. At the very least, it ought to be interesting. Between the two of us, Luke and I, we cover a lot of ground – air, in his case. He has been a pilot for about 35 years, has logged something like 18,000 hours in all sorts of aircraft, from vintage flying boats to Boeing 777s.

Neither of us have exactly been company men, climbing corporate ladders and fitting into moulds.  While I have spent my career freelancing for various magazines, and seeing much of the world on somebody else’s nickel, he has crowded in a lot of interesting living in the skies – everything from doing flying scenes for Miami Vice to delivering relief supplies into Haiti after the earthquake to delivering Lake Amphibian seaplanes to the Iraqi Air Force back in the mid-80s. He is a lively raconteur and as for coverage of our chosen area, there is virtually nowhere in the Caribbean he hasn’t been. I’ve got a good handle on the writing game, know my way around a camera and Lightroom and have even written a hefty sized guidebook in the past – National Geographic’s travel guide to Australia. Hopefully we can combine our talents to make a worthwhile product. I believe we can.

I have written in an earlier post (here) about our cycling adventures back when we were kids in New Hampshire; riding our Schwinn ten-speeds over to the Bearcamp River to go fishing and chatting along the way about our dreams and plans for someday. He was always going to be a pilot; I was always going to trot the globe writing stories and taking pictures.

There was one afternoon in particular when we laid it all out as we sat beneath a bridge. Over the past few months, as we talked over our plans to launch this publishing/marketing project in the Caribbean, we have often referenced that afternoon under the ‘steel bridge’ as we used to call it – to distinguish it from the wooden bridges that characterised the backroads of Carroll County in those days. So many of the hopes and ambitions we laid out in the cool summer shade of that bridge have come to pass, not always in the way we might perhaps have expected, and not always with the results we might have hoped for, but enough to create a pleasant sense of retrospection and satisfaction.

We like to think that this forthcoming partnership of ours in the Caribbean will be a brotherly drawing together of these childhood dreams made under that bridge all those years ago. Time will tell, but for now it will be an interesting adventure.

 

Need For The Bike

In my dreams...

In my dreams…

Need For The Bike – now there there’s a title that speaks to me these days as I hang around the kitchen of a morning, nose pressed to the window pane, looking out at the rosy dawns that have characterised these past few days. No doubt the hard men of the Belgian spring classics would have been back in the saddle some days ago, spinning over the cobbles at speed and sneering at the discomfort their cracked ribs and twanging shoulder tendons were giving them. But not I.

I have resolutely been staying indoors,  a sensitive, injured, middle-aged writer not at all into the glory through suffering thing that wins races, carves legends and earns one cachet amongst the readers of Rouleur. I am not training for anything and therefore no need to suffer.

On the contrary, I like my bike rides to be breezy and fun, the actual riding an almost subliminal act – a fusion of man and bike, spinning along the lanes in an effortless continuum, enjoying that sense of aerial liberation that comes with riding a bicycle purely for pleasure. It is hard to do that with a lot of searing, white-hot distractions.

And so I wait and recuperate, seeking my daily doses of escapism in books and in writing until I am feeling up to riding again – notice I am not saying ‘hitting the road’.  I do not care to hit the road ever again.

In the meanwhile have found time to re-read Paul Fournel’s elegantly written Need for the Bike. It is a lovely little book – a genuine piece of literature as opposed to the usual sporty cycling memoir, although it fills that role as well. It is a book that defies easy description, being a sort of montage of thoughts, recollections, anecdotes and dry humour written by an urbane French avant garde writer, poet, publisher, former cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Cairo, now the cultural attaché in London. It is a delight to read, a book you can dip into wherever you like and find a clever thought or story. Highly recommended.

 

Chapter 16 – The Big Bend at Bratislava

Bratislava 2As good as it felt to be on the road again, a kind of out-of-season loneliness began to take hold of me once I put Vienna astern. Call it  a sense of anticlimax, of having lingered on after the party was over. For just about everybody travelling the Donau Radveg that summer, Vienna was the end of the line. Without ever meaning to, over the past six hundred miles I had bought into that idea too – Vienna as grand finale.

It wasn’t of course, not for me, nor for the Donau Radveg which, in name at least, stretched on as far as Budapest. Nevertheless there was nobody riding it that morning except me and as the lonely miles unwound beneath cool grey autunal skies, I found myself feeling out of sorts, unable to muster up the old open road enthusiasm.

I made brisk time despite my moodiness, passing through a sombre wood where some deer were gambolling about in the leafy gloom and then through an old castle town called Hainburg. Soon afterwards a line of grey, gloomy looking tenements came into view, a legacy of Communism’s love of concrete, and I realised I must be drawing close to the Slovakian border.

For once there were passport formalities, exits stamps from the Austrians and entry ones from the Slovakians. I pedalled away from the multi-lane customs booth and the mass of trucks awaiting clearance with a sense of having travelled, arrived at someplace new – a sense that was helped along by the spectacle of a giant billboard for McDonalds welcoming me to Slovakia. My inner ironist appreciated it. Here at last, after weeks of pedalling I could begin to feel the romance of distance: where else but in the rump of the old Soviet Bloc could you see such wholesale embrasure of Western consumerism?

From the border crossing the bicycle path left the highway and wound its way back down to the river again through a weedy no-man’s-land, vaguely industrial in feel, dotted with pylons and criss-crossed with high tension with power lines.  It was mighty slow going through here, partly because of the strong chilly quartering winds that gusted across the path, but mainly because of the endless series of stiles and speed humps that blighted this stretch of the path. They were brutal little things, made of sharply angled heavy gauge steel – pleats from the iron curtain? – that forced me to dismount every hundred metres or so and ease my bicycle over them.   I wondered what all this was in aid of: obstructionism for the sheer glorious hell of it, by the look of things.

Their pointlessness amplified and cast into sharper relief the overall sense of pointlessness that had come over me since I left Vienna that morning. It was an moody and introspective cyclist that found his way into the heart of Bratislava, which was revealed to be a smaller and rather shabbier version of Vienna; baroque gone broke.

I crossed the river on a bridge dedicated to the Soviet Navy’s efforts along the Danube during World War II, rode along a wall covered with spray-painted graffiti of the skinhead variety, then rolled into a cobbled square in the mediaeval part of town, not far from the castle, where a half dozen pavement cafes were doing brisk trade serving up schnitzel and beer to an early lunchtime crowd.

There wasn’t much to pick between them.  They all had the same fin-de-siecle facades, and the same dark, wiry, bow-tied waiters wending between the same tightly packed tables, and the same refreshingly budget prices after the eye-watering ones in Vienna.  The only overt difference was the brands of Western cigarettes being advertised on their umbrellas.  I spotted a bureau de change down a sidestreet, swapped my leftover Austrian shillings for Slovakian crowns, then came back and picked out a table at the Café Marlboro.

I ordered and while I waited for my schnitzel and beer to arrive I had a quiet ponder about the future direction of my journey. My present course was going to take me on to Budapest. Beautiful and evocative though Budapest might have been, and probably was, it was hard for me to imagine it’s topping the arrival in Vienna and that delightful almost symphonic ride through the Wachau Valley – in the cheerful company of so many fellow travellers – I had made to get there. At best, at the very best, it would be a repetition – another two hundred mile ride along the banks of the river and into another, and probably shabbier, Habsburg capital.

As my thoughts ranged from Bratislava to Budapest and further on down the road to the imagined concrete of Bucharest, in Romania, a sudden restlessness came over me. I’d had enough of dark woods and big old rivers, heavy baroque architecture and moody grey skies that rained on me every five minutes. Where were the hot yellow landscapes? The fig trees and olives groves, the miles of sleepy sun-drenched strade bianche flanked with cypress trees?

They’d been part of the vision, too, when I’d pedalled away from home, bound for The Continent.  I wasn’t going to find any of that in musty old Budapest, let alone in the dripping forests of Transylvania or the Carpathian Mountains, however magic their names.  A change was what I needed.

Snap. The moment I realised it, the metaphorical clouds under which I’d been riding all morning dispelled – even if the real ones remained and growled with thunder. I decided to declare the Danube complete and open a fresh page, start a new chapter, by heading somewhere else, away from the river, towards those hot yellow landscapes of my imagination. Exercise the glorious freedom of a touring cyclist – the ability to steer your own course, change your mind, and do it on a whim.

 

From Bratislava, where I sat, I had a choice. I could either turn around and ride back to Vienna, buy myself a new set of maps to cover the grand southerly sweep I was contemplating, or I could press on into Hungary and take a change of bearings there. Retracing my steps to Vienna didn’t appeal, even though it was only about forty miles. I decided to ride on into Hungary, buy some new maps there and head for Trieste.

And so I set out from Bratislava in a much brighter frame of mind than I had ridden into it, following the wild, marshy and lonely Slovakian bank of the Danube. Having made up my mind, settled on a course of action, I was suddenly happy and upbeat, and kind of grateful for this quiet grey afternoon all alone on the riverbank – a last farewell to the big friendly old river that had been my travelling companion for the past six hundred-odd miles.

I met no other cyclists, wentthrough no villages; it was the loneliest stretch of the river I had yet run along. The only traffic I saw was out on the water, way out mid-stream: tugboats pulling long trains of barges, their flags – German, Austrian, Slovak, Hungarian – aflutter in breezes I couldn’t feel in the shelter along the shore.

I slept in the woods that night, in a copse of hardwood near the bank.  The dusk hummed with mosquitoes, and a chorus of crickets and frogs.  It felt a world away from the night sounds of Vienna I’d grown used to, ninety miles back.  The river shone like pewter in the dull afterglow of the sunset, and although the skies had been cloudy all day a few faint stars were now sifting out of the gloom.  To complement them, a scattering of lights twinkled to life in villages over on the Hungarian side of the river.

I pitched my tarp against a sapling, made dinner out of the grab-bag of groceries I’d bought on my way out of Bratislava, and sat up watching the river, saying my goodbyes and thinking ahead to how I would find my way down to Trieste, the venerable old Italian seaport at the head of the Adriatic.

From there it would be a matter of heading down the Dalmatian Coast, through Croatia and Montenegro, Albania and all the way to Greece.  As visions arose of myself pedalling my tourer along sun-drenched corniches, through one romantic travel poster scene after another of hot blue skies and flowers and crumbly antique towns, and with the azure sea sparkling beside me, I found myself marvelling I hadn’t thought of this sooner.  And delighted I’d thought of it now. Tomorrowwas the first day of the rest of my journey.

Eager now as a kid on Christmas Eve, I turned in and woke the next morning to silvery skies and warm hazy sunshine.  Half an hour’s pleasurable riding along the river bank brought me to Komarno where an antique iron bridge crossed the river.  I pedalled over it, showed my passport and was stamped into Hungary.  Then I went off to hunt up some breakfast and buy myself a new map and a fresh start.

 

 

I found the very thing for a hundred forints in a musty stationer’s shop and twenty minutes later, over a steamy latte and slice of poppy seed cake in an old dark-wood café, I was plotting my way through the unpronounceable villages in the Hungarian hinterland, south by west towards the hills along the Slovenian border.  A glance at a bigger-picture map of Europe, when I was back in the shop, suggested that I was probably no more than five hundred kilometres from Italy and Trieste.  Three long days in the saddle should see me there.  I set myself a goal of getting as far as Slovenia by nightfall, a hundred and twenty miles perhaps.  After my big ride along the Danube the other day, coming across Austria, I fancied my chances.  Eager to be away, off to the sunny Adriatic, I finished my coffee, forked up the last crumbs of poppy seed cake, and started shifting the scenery.

It was considerably slower and hillier on these Hungarian backroads than it had been when I was cruising along the Austrian reaches of the Danube, and the scenery was nowhere near as grand, being more like Magyar version of Appalachia, shabby villages with piglets rooting around in front yards, chickens pecking in the dust and even the odd bit of horse-cart traffic.  The few cars that sputtered by were mostly decrepit Trabants which left a filmy blue stink of exhaust in their wakes that hung in the air long after the rattling of the engine had died away in the distance.

For a while I found myself riding behind a man in a flat cap who was transporting a bouquet of red roses clipped to the rack of his ancient utility bike.  He set a cracking pace on such a rickety old thing, clearly putting in some heartfelt effort into delivering those flowers.  I wondered who they were for.  As the miles passed, up hill and down, through one gloomy stretch of forest after another, that solid hundred yards or so always remaining between us, I found myself becoming more and more intrigued and wondering what the story was here: The shy courtship? The loving anniversary? The craven apology – he just lost the Trabant in a crap game?

Alas I’ll never know.  He swung down a side track, and rattled away out of view, still pedalling vigorously, while I continued along the main road towards a town called Sarvar, the next of my way points to the Slovenian border and on to Trieste.

 

Cabin Fever

Darkest Belgium I-1It sounds a little odd, I suppose, to tell someone that you woke up at four o’clock in the morning, crawled out of bed and trundled downstairs to the sounds of wind and rain outside, look out the windows into the cold and dark and feel a sense of wistfulness and regret that both you and your bicycle are still out of commission and therefore can’t go for a ride. But that’s what it was like this morning. It has been a week now since I went for my little sprawl on the pavement and cabin fever has well and truly set in.

When I came downstairs, opened the side door to the kitchen and stood listening to the sizzling sounds of the rain on the concrete I found myself thinking of the pleasures of a long bike ride in the rain; that wonderful self-contained feeling of being cocooned in your waterproofs and spinning along under your own steam, a host in yourself.  I would love to have gone out this morning, but since I couldn’t I did the next best thing – I put the kettle on, brewed up a pot of my favourite Ethiopian coffee, turn on the laptop and settle in to do a bit of writing.

I like to write. I like writing nearly as much as I like riding my bike. Both are contemplative exercises, and both are creative – a nice stretch of the imagination. I suppose I should qualify this love of writing by saying that I like writing what I like to write – not to a brief or to try to match someone else’s expectations, although of course I do this to earn my living, but simply to play with words, and thoughts and narrative structure, tell a story.

In this regard my pleasure writing is not a whole lot different than the pleasure rides I take on my bicycle. Both are nice bits of escapism. In my case this morning, it was a jaunt back in time to the 1920s, and to a steamy and wholly fictitious East African backwater, where the opening scenes to a comic novel I am writing unfold. It is a story that has been growing on me over the past few years, and with which I have amused myself on many a long bike ride, and over drinks on many an even longer international flight. I like my characters. I like their antics. I love being them vicariously, although I don’t think I would dare hang around such people if I knew them in real life.  All in all I enjoyed my three-hour excursion this morning, and as I do when I wheel my bicycle back into the shed after a really good ride, felt a twinge of loss that it couldn’t have been longer.

On Pixel Peeping

Dream Bicycle-1When I launched this blog a bit over a year ago it was with the idea, in part at least, of rekindling my love of writing which had waned a bit over the years as a result of my nearly always having to write to other people’s specifications and expectations. Along the way though I rediscovered my old and long buried love of photography, something I had put away and nearly forgotten about years ago for reasons that now aren’t clear to me at all.

It has been like an awakening. I have really enjoyed getting back behind the lens, creating images, using light, getting back in touch with my artistic side and meeting (or trying to meet) the challenges of being both subject and photographer as I record aspects of my daily rides. As I began to find my old skills, visual imagination and ability to see, I have felt myself constantly wanting to expand, improve, do more and better.

I have been investing. A few months ago I picked up a Canon G1X – a rather pricy pro-quality compact with which I have been using and enjoying greatly, revelling in its improved high ISO capabilities, bigger sensor, near DSLR quality images yet still in a convenient, nearly pocket-sized package.  Satisfied though I was with my G1X (review to come eventually) the momentum continued to gather.

This week I made the big splash and acquired a full-frame DSLR, a big capable Canon 5D Mark III – in part to generate some (hopefully) nicer images for my blog (and how frustrating it is to be laid up right now!) but also to let me pursue some new and interesting professional leads that have opened up as a result of my re-launched photographic career.

I love the new camera. I still have a couple of excellent L-series lenses left over from before, but to cover a focal length gap in my collection I also bought a Zeiss 35mm f2 prime – a lovely piece of glass.  It is manual focus, of course; all Zeiss lenses are. I don’t mind the seemingly retrograde step. I am old enough to have learned on manual focus lenses (as I learned to ride bicycles with toe-clips). Furthermore in tinkering around in my living room – my battered shoulder doesn’t allow for my doing much more – I have been pleasantly surprised at how well the auto focus assist works with manual focus lenses, beeping softly and a green dot lighting up to tell me when focus has been nailed.

One of the things that intrigued me most about buying this beautiful manual focus lens, and indeed in buying the new camera body as well – one whose technical capabilities far, far exceeds that of my old DSLR – has been reading the reviews of other buyers, and long threads on photography forums where aficionados debate the relative merits of various types of lenses and bodies. In reading all these critiques, test reports, reviews and comparative analyses I found myself thinking that somewhere along the line, while I have been away, art has been subsumed by technology.

In shopping for a lens I found myself reading – surprisingly often – that manual focus is simply impractical, or even impossible, if one is going to be serious about photography in anything other than a tripod-in-the-studio set-up; certainly that for of action, sport or street photography manual focus is out of the question.  It makes me wonder how pictures ever got taken in the old days.

And on the optics and sensor front I found myself reading – and this despairingly often – about the urgent, desperate necessity for Canon or Nikon (fill in the blank) to address their woeful shortcomings on noise, dynamic range, resolution and the sharpness of their lenses in the corner of the frame. Pixel peeping is the term for this particular form of nit-picking and if one was to take seriously some of the jeremiads I’ve seen in photography forums, you would be left with the impression that even my spiffy new Canon 5DIII, or the unaffordable 14 frame-per-second 1DX (a sports or wildlife shooter’s camera) or Nikon’s near medium-format-quality D800 were little more advanced than the cameras Matthew Brady was using during the U.S. Civil War.

There seems to be this insatiable demand out there for more and better, and as quickly as possible, together with swift scorn for yesterday’s breakthrough. Twenty-two megapixels, pin-sharp, at ISO6400? That’s so five minutes ago. Forget the matter of how they used to take pictures in the bad old days of manual focus, one is left with wondering why they even bothered.  And, my God, what sized prints do these reviewers and forum posters imagine they are going to be making with their ultra-high resolution 70 megapixel cameras with 24-stops of dynamic range they dream about and expect to have in ten years time?

The one positive thing about all this was that it prompted me to take a couple of hours off the other day and do a reality check: look over some of the work of some of the great photographers of the 20th century – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Frank Hurley etc. – and also to look over the old pictures in a book I contributed to for National Geographic some years ago about the history of photography in the magazine (The Photographs: Then and Now).

My goodness. All those people muddling through with their manual focus lenses (and in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s case pretty much the same old boring 50mm focal length) and their grainy old film. Funnily enough, despite the passage of years and yes, often the graininess of their prints, none of their photos have lost their power to fascinate and involve.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the technology that we have today. I am not longing for the days of film. When was the last time you shot nice sharp usable stuff at ISO6400 on film?) It is just that when you are shopping around for lenses and bodies it becomes so easy to be swept away by technology and clinical test results that you lose perspective and forget it is the person behind the camera, and the composition that makes the biggest difference of all.

 

Chapter 15 – A Million Mozarts From Home

Austria IIIt’s a little over two hundred miles from Passau to Vienna and the only hard words you could say about them was that they pass too quickly.  The sheer loveliness of the scenery drew you into it, while the seductive simplicity of the Danube bicycle path made it awfully easy to cover ground.  One long pleasurable day in the saddle, stretching my legs as it were after riding in company these past few days, from Vohlburg to Passau, saw me cover nearly the whole of it in a single bound, and without really meaning to.  Almost before I knew it I found myself approaching the outskirts of Vienna, the greater part of the Austrian Danube having spooled by in a kind of cinematic blur.

It was my first century ride of the journey, and I made it a big one – a hundred and forty miles, maybe a hundred and fifty; hard to say since I don’t have an odometer.  The river was magnificent the whole way, the fertile valleys through which it flowed were rich with vineyards and terraced orchards.  Castles sat atop just about every crag that commanded a view.  And where there weren’t castles to marvel at there were beautiful old churches and Benedictine monasteries, their copper-domed spires rising above the treetops or reflecting in the water.

The weather started out fine in the morning and mainly stayed that way, segueing into a warm and sultry afternoon, with frescoed skies and occasional growls of thunder in the distance.  The thunder grew nearer as the hours passed and late in the afternoon, or perhaps by then you could say early evening, a monumental summer storm caught up with me in the woods not far from Tulln.

With the kind of sleekness and surety that seemed to characterise everything that day, I’d rolled up to a large sheltered picnic area just before it broke and waited out the storm in the company of at least thirty other cyclists, Germans mainly, but Dutch and Swiss as well, young couples and solo trekkers like me, and families on holiday, the kids on scaled-down tourers, Mum on a city hybrid, Dad towing a trailer laden with camping gear and toys.

It was a jovial gathering, with snacks and dinners broken out, shared laughter among strangers, and boisterous shouts of the drenched latecomers who raced up to the shelter rattling down the trail in the pouring rain.

I shared a picnic table with a German family: father, mother, three kids and a portly old grandfather with a bright blue eyes, red cheeks and bushy white beard who looked like a woodcarver from a storybook or Santa Claus in mufti.  After they’d eaten their sausage-and-cheese lunch, and with the operatic storm showing no sign of abating, the old man calmly unrolled an oilskin pouch containing a selection of carved, large-bowled pipes and selected the one he felt most suited the occasion.  With relaxed deliberation, a man with all the time in the world, he charged it with tobacco from a dilapidated leather pouch, lit it with an old-fashioned flint lighter and puffed fragrant clouds of smoke toward the roof and the sound of rain.

There was something homey about it all this – the self-contained little world of life along the well-catered-to Donau Radveg – that I was going to miss when I reached Vienna, which I realised with a start was only twenty miles away.  I didn’t cover them that evening, but feeling suddenly tuckered out after my long ride, and frankly, not really wanting to arive in Vienna and bring this Donau Radveg chapter of my journey to a close, I took a room at a guesthouse in Klosterneuberg.  The next morning I rode into the city.

 

 

I’ve read somewhere that a cultured man is one who can listen to Rossini’s William Tell Overture from beginning to end without once thinking of the Lone Ranger.  I am not a cultured man.  And so I should have guessed that Vienna and I were going to be at sixes and sevens, for this is not a city to let culture pass you by – far from it; here in Vienna it is always at your side, tapping you on the shoulder, clutching at your lapels, wheedling, reminding, beseeching.

I rolled into St Stephansplatz not long after lunchtime, having dawdled away the morning in the Viennese woods, and straight away I was accosted by Mozart, or rather a man pretending to be Mozart, in powdered wig, silk stockings and brocaded coat.  He was very insistent that I see that evening’s performance of The Magic Flute at the Stats Opera, and to that end produced a clipboard with a seating plan of the opera house and began to point out the various possibilities that were open to me.

I respectfully declined and edged past him, but before I could push my bicycle more than a few paces through the crowd, another voice chirped up at my elbow – a young girl Mozart this time, her peruke absurdly askew on a mane of strawberry blond curls.  Did I wish to take in tonight’s performance of The Magic FluteDon Giovanni, perhaps?  A concert?  A symphony? Listen to a man play the spoons?

I begged off, turned away, and ran straight into the welcoming arms of a heavy-set middle-aged Mozart in crimson brocade and that old hale and hearty encyclopaedia salesman smile.  Sensing what a lover of the arts I must be he offered me excellent seats at the State Opera that evening, and at a great prices too – if he said so himself, which he did, and often.  I explained that, sadly, I’d have to pass on this occasion, that I was utterly Baroque and out of Monet, a feeble attempt at humour that passed him by.

No sooner did I escape his spiel (and he, mine) than I was hearing another, this time from a green liveried Mozart, and after that a Mozart in peacock blue and Buddy Holly horn-rimmed glasses.  And on it went.  There were thin Mozarts and chubby ones, black Mozarts and Mozarts who looked like they might be Turkish, Mozarts who addressed me in Spanish, Mozarts who spoke English with broad American accents, and French speaking Mozarts wearing Bolle sunglasses and Nike trainers.  It was like Graceland on Elvis’ birthday, but with a Habsburgian twist.  They all carried clipboards, had racetrack demeanours and were anxious to see me comfortably settled with good seats at the Stats Opera or Concert Hall that evening, or the next, or the one after that, or just about anytime between the next five minutes and the Second Coming.

It was flattering, I suppose, to think that anyone could look at me just then, wet and weatherworn from a thousand miles on the road, most of them in rain, pushing a pack mule of a bicycle through the square, and immediately think to themselves: now there’s a chap who’ll scrub up well and who’ll no doubt be wanting a box at the opera this fine evening; probably has a Henry Poole dinner jacket and black tie rolled up in those oilskins, and a pair of opera glasses in the bar bag.

 

Alas, they missed the real me: the garlic and onions saddle tramp who wanted nothing more than a cheap hotel and a bath.  After picking my way through the gauntlet of Mozarts I found my way to the tourist office on Kartnerstrasse and asked the woman behind the counter there if she had anything suitable.  She must have had a shrewder eye than the culture vultures walking the streets for she wasted no time regaling me with the merits of the Hotel Sacher but instead promptly showed me a list of eligible two-star flops in the northwest corner of town, outside the fashionable Ringstrasse but still, as she gamely pointed out – one never knew – happily within cooee of the State Opera.  I asked if The Third Man was showing anywhere in town, but she didn’t know; Harry Lime wasn’t a flavour the Viennese tourist board was promoting that month.

While she was sorting my hotel booking, and I was opening my wallet and watching the moths flutter out, a man whom I took to be the office manager, a tall suave ruthless-looking individual in a dark suit, strode out of his cubicle and demanded to know whose bicycle that was leaning against the wall in his foyer.  He spoke rapidly, in German, but I recognised the word “fahrad” – bicycle – and raised a timid hand.

He fixed me with a glare that must have stuck a yard out my back and was about to follow it up with something unpleasant when his eyes lit upon the pale blue thousand-shilling notes in my cautiously raised hand, the cash I had been in the process of handing over in exchange for several nights’ accommodation in his town.

I won’t say his eyes melted and became puppyish – it wasn’t that much money – but obviously the sight of large denomination bills had a soothing effect on him, that and the consoling thought that since we had evidently reached the paying stage I would soon be gone anyway.  After a few seconds of frosty silence, he drew himself up with a deep, shuddering, anger-managing sigh, whirled sharply, clicked his heels, and returned to his office, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Actually he didn’t really click his heels.  It just seemed like he did.  He ought to have; it would have suited him.  I stared at his closed door feeling as though a cuckoo had just poked its head out of a carved clock and blown a raspberry at me.  The girl behind the counter smiled as she handed me my change.  “Enjoy your stay.”

 

 

Voucher in hand and with my free fold-out city map, I set off to find my hotel, grateful now for those years I’d spend cycling to work in Melbourne and pleased to find that I still possessed the old knack of negotiating slithery tram tracks on a bicycle.  There are a lot of those in Vienna, particular along the Ringstrasse, and the trams move much faster than those in Melbourne, but I slipped through them unscathed and found my way to the address on the card.

It turned out to be a great old mausoleum of a place, built of concrete and tucked away in a shabby neighbourhood of migrants and students and low-rent travellers such as myself.  It was grey and soulless, as dreary as a wet week and had the general appearance of having been designed by a Warsaw Pact architect who’d defected back in the Sixties and later suffered a fit of homesickness.  The lobby was dead quiet.  A redolence of cabbage and gravy and bad coffee came from the adjoining cafeteria.  I checked in, arranged to store my bike in the basement and then took the slow, creaky, manually operated lift six floors up to my room.

It was bigger than the lift, but not by much, and exuded the same sort of charm.  The bed sagged like a hammock, and the sandbag the hotel was pleased to call a pillow smelled strongly of mildew. Still, it was fairly clean and what’s more, it was dry, which was more than anybody was going to be able to say for the streets of Vienna in another few minutes.  In a reprise of the previous day’s storm on the outskirts of Tulln, a mass of purplish-black cloud had crept in and was menacing the city.  Lightning cracked in the foothills and when I opened the window the air outside had the familiar foretaste of rain.  I leaned against the sill, and gazed down on the street six floors below, revelling in my immunity.  Backstreet sounds carried eerily in the pre-storm calm – voices, a radio playing somewhere, a dog barked.  A man in an old army jacket crawled beneath a broken down van by the corner.  Directly below a bratwurst wagon in front of the hotel churned out its smells of grease and fried onions.

The storm broke while I watched.  I didn’t bother closing the window.  The air wafting in was fresh, and I liked the immediacy of the sizzling rain and crashing thunder, particularly since I didn’t have to be out in it, pedalling along some dripping forest track wondering where I’d bed down for the night.

It was dark by the time the rain slackened enough for me to want to venture out and pick up something to eat.  I found a grocery store a few blocks away, bought a few things then started back.  Instead of turning in at the hotel though I wandered on, drawn by the pleasant intrigue of walking the streets of a foreign city on a rainy Friday night.

I’ve no idea where all I wandered – down long dark silent streets, and up bright and busy ones, bustling with shoppers and smart restaurants; there were rubbish strewn alleys and neon-lit café streets noisy with live music; neighbourhoods of big old houses and now-shabby office blocks that had been built sometime back in the Twenties and looked as though they might have amounted to something once, with their elaborate window arches and Beaux Arts curlicues.

I walked for about two hours, plastic grocery bags dangling in my hands.  It was late when I got back to the hotel, or rather it felt late to me who was used to crashing at nine; it wasn’t late for that neighbourhood, certainly not on a Friday night.  The red-and-white bratwurst wagon, parked out front, was all lit up and open and, on impulse I bought a sausage, smothered it with brown mustard and devoured it as I rode the juddering lift back up to my room.  Its greasy warmth was delicious.  As I stepped out of the lift I even found myself wishing I’d bought two, and toyed with the idea of going back down and buying another one, but the thought of having to work that agonisingly slow lift again made it seem like too much bother.  Instead when I got in I opened a packet of ginger snaps, sat down beside the window and listened to the far off serenade of the city; no Mozart at the Stats Opera for me thanks, just a little night music.

 

*          *          *          *          *          *

 

I idled away the next few days in Vienna, playing tourist and indulging in Sacher Tortes and Turkish coffee in sumptuous Art Nouveau cafés, and generally basking in a sense of arrival, compensating in a way, I suppose, for what might be considered too rushed a journey along the Austrian reaches of the Danube.

The fact is though I’d enjoyed those free-flowing miles, perhaps the most of any of the thousand or so I’d ridden thus far, particularly that stretch coming up through the Wachau Valley, each bend revealing a scene more achingly beautiful than the last, and always with the promise of Vienna waiting just over the horizon.  I rode them greedily, and for all the must-dos I’d missed, and the imagined chidings of travel guide authors as I passed them by, I couldn’t bring myself to regret it, not really.  I travel for travel’s sake; the great affair is to move, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it, and he was travelling by donkey at the time, not astride an elegant black-and-cream tourer as I was, revelling in that aerial sense of liberation you feel when you are whizzing over the ground on two skinny wheels and under your own steam.

And so I did my obeisance to the guidebook gods and after an appropriate interval, and with nicely rested legs, set off once more, picking my way down to the river one cool grey morning five days later, and riding out of town through the Prater, past the old Ferris wheel, towards Bratislava and points east.

 

Colour Me Blue

Colour Blue-1One of the most curious things about my tumbled yesterday has been the nature of the glumness I have been feeling about my incapacitated bicycle. It isn’t the cost of the repairs – saddle, possibly a new derailleur and certainly a new derailleur hanger – that troubles me (although I’m not thrilled by it) or even the fact that, by golly, it just had to be my pride-and-joy that took the hit, my first in 16 years.

I just hate having any of my bicycles broken down and incapacitated. My bicycles are personal to me, always have been. They represent something, many things, and to see one of them with its saddle badly askew on its bent rails and the derailleur dangling crookedly makes me feel as though my wings have been clipped – and that hurts, above and beyond the physical battering from the pavement; the insult added to injury. The fact that I am fortunate to have two other bikes, both of which are in good working order, mitigates this sense of deprivation, but can’t entirely dispel it. I love all my bicycles. Each of the three represents something special – the rugged Thorn eXp expedition tourer that can carry me to the farthest ends of the earth, if I choose; the beautifully responsive Pegoretti that allows me to soar up hills as though I had wings; the elegant Enigma randonneur, in beauty and design my Platonic ideal of a bicycle. Together they make a kind of whole. Not to have them all in working order is troubling.

Thankfully I am already moving much more fluidly and feeing better that I did yesterday – I was very lucky, and am very grateful – but I know that I will feel much, much better still once the new saddle is mounted and the derailleur is hanging in perfect alignment and I know that I can just go out and take it for a spin whenever I please. That’ll complete the cure. I hate having the broken bike hanging over me. But putting this whole thing behind me could take a while yet for I am supposed to be going overseas again fairly soon, week after next, and given everything else on my plate between now and then I doubt I’ll be able to order everything I need and find the time to fix the noble steed before I go. But I’ll sure be happy to be on it again when I get back.