Earlier this year, Bicycle Touring Pro awarded its annual scholarship, a financial boost for young people heading out on their first bicycle tour, to 24 year old Polish-Canadian cyclist Kasia Szewczyk. Kasia’s plan was to cycle across Europe, from Barcelona, Spain to Istanbul in Turkey, combining her first ever bike tour with a fund raising project – that of raising $10,000 CAD for Canadian charity “World Literacy Canada”.
Now, after completing the ride, Kasia shares her stories and experiences with BTP, in a 3-part series of articles centered around cycling, fund raising and life lessons gained on the road.
Cycling Tales from Europe
What & When : cycling from May 15th – July 20th (67 days in total); total mileage : 4,295 km (2,669 mi)
Where : Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey; using road-maps and choosing secondary roads + the occasional bike path
Why : personal challenge + for charity (World Literacy Canada)
How : fully self-sustained touring; traveling with all necessary gear to eat, sleep, navigate and travel independently
Who : Kasia (solo tour)
Kasia : “I was a dedicated commuter cyclist and in love with biking, but prior to the “Ride to Read” I had never traversed so many kilometers in one go nor cycled for so long a time. It would not be easy – I would have to constantly adapt to new countries, languages, cultures and currencies. All the while I would be learning from my mistakes, perfecting my art of bicycle travel, and working intensely on the fund raising part of the project. I had done a lot of research, prepared myself, my gear and my life accordingly and, most importantly, I was aware that I couldn’t know it all beforehand – I would need a lot of help, luck and improvisation to get me, and the Ride to Read to Istanbul!
The Physical Challenge
The first few weeks of travel were physically very tough. The build up to May 15th was so intense and busy that on my very first day leaving Barcelona I was already tired. More sleep deprivation ensued, and on the second day I had a nervous breakdown. On the sidewalk of a residential neighborhood near Girona (Spain) I crumpled down in tears and exhaustion. Kind strangers took me in to their home, showed me to the guest bedroom, and I finally got a good night’s sleep.
The next few days were filled with more near disasters and minor miracles. I met up with a friend in Portbou, the last Spanish town right near the French border. It was a grueling day of riding, initially very up and down along the Spanish coast to Portbou and then, joining Philippe en route, we cycled the several hours of non-stop uphill as we crossed the Pyrenees mountains into France. Exhaustion had resurfaced, so we were forced to take a bus, a 20km ride to get to Philippe’s place, in a small town near Perpignan. There, a quick shower and an unfortunately necessary dose of anti-inflammatory pills; my every muscle hurt and I was on the threshold of fever. I couldn’t allow myself to get sick only 4 days into the trip!
During the next several weeks my body slowly got used to continuous physical exertion. As I continued along the coast of France, I encountered some nasty weather – rain, cold and, worst of all, very strong winds. A few stops were made to buy water-proof shoe covers and a windbreaker jacket. I kept having to take busy roads which turned into exhausting struggles to keep myself and the bike upright as the onslaught of wind created dangerous air pockets between the traffic, and especially the larger trucks, and myself.
With time, the muscle pain decreased with stretching, fluids and better quality sleep. It was quickly replaced; however, with knee pain. This I successfully combated with even more stretching, tensor bandages and numerous applications of the cooling Tiger Balm ointment. Some more anti-inflammatories and I was almost feeling well again, if not for the lion-like cough I had developed on the third day of the trip, which would persist for the following 3 weeks. I felt OK otherwise, so I just kept coughing and cycling, paying even closer attention to getting quality food and rest on the road. About 3-4 weeks into the journey, the cough disappeared and I was feeling better than I had ever felt before, and capable (if not able due to administrative work related to the fundraiser) of cycling from dawn to dusk.
The Mental Challenge
Travelers experience mental fatigue when the balance between known and unknown factors shifts significantly in favor of the unknown. There is so much to grasp in a new place: a few phrases in the local language, where and what time you can get food, how to find lodging and a viable Internet connection… just to name a few. I planned my trip in such a way that I would move from the more familiar to the less familiar, from countries which I know well and can communicate in the local language (Spain, France and Italy) progressively increasing the level of unfamiliarity as I cycled into previously uncharted lands (Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey). It was an immensely enjoyable and eye-opening experience, but stressful due to the fast pace of the ride. Because the Ride to Read was a fundraiser I didn’t want my supporters to think that their donation dollars were sustaining a lazy-Sunday-cycle-through-the-park tour. There was no stopping to visit galleries and sip lattés in the shade… no, not this time. I was there to cycle, and to cycle hard.
Biking solo was at times immensely rewarding and meditative, and at times quite lonely. I met up with a few friends on the trip, but in my case I was on my own for 9 out of 10 weeks of the journey. Several affirmations got me all the way to Istanbul, including “Kasia, if you can do this, you can do anything!” and the old stand-by “everything is temporary“. I experienced moments of immense elation and happiness and hit some deep lows as well. I made sure to reach out to family and friends if the going got very tough; it’s amazing what a quick Skype call or email could do to give me new strength. Several encounters on the road and Warm Showers hosts that I stayed with offered lifted my spirits too.
Strangely enough, the second half of the trip was the most challenging mentally while being the least grueling physically. It seemed that just when I had gotten the hang of bike traveling, and finally felt great, is exactly when the frustration and annoyance at the little things would get the better of me. On the one hand everything was a grand adventure – I was a nomad, and my home was the world. I drew attention to myself and inspired many people… once they accepted that a young woman traveling alone on a bicycle is, in fact, possible. Yet on the other hand, I remember petty feelings of annoyance with the daily search for campsites, lack of showering and continuously cooking my own plain meals, over and over again. The constant forward motion exhilarated and depressed me; I rarely had the opportunity to visit a place, I just flew through it and navigated to the next town. I’d take a quick break and eat alone. To a great extent the fund raising work and chronicling my adventures saw me through, as I tried valiantly to keep my travel blog current so that all those virtually following the trip could experience it with me. New experiences, such as filming the official Ride to Read video while in Hungary and appearing as a guest on a Bulgarian radio show, also kept me excited and positive.
To navigate, I used regional road maps, buying them for the 5-6 Euros they go for after crossing the border into any new country. The scales would vary, but I found that anywhere from a 1cm:8km scale and more detailed served me well. A quick glance and I knew exactly where I wouldn’t cycle (thick, straight yellow or red lines denoting the Autobahn, i.e. the freeways), instead peering at the thinner, zigzag lines that go through the little towns, the quiet and scenic secondary roads that are a touring cyclists dream come true.
For the most part, I avoided the big cities, since they take a long time to cycle in to and out of. With the exceptions of Montpellier (France), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Sofia (Bulgaria) and my final destination, Istanbul (Turkey), I flew through many tiny towns, as well as discovering several captivating mid-sized cities such as Pacienza, Verona and Padova (Italy), Szeged (Hungary) and Vršac (Serbia).
Of bike paths there is not much to relate. I would catch snippets of them here and there, some 20-odd kilometers along the coast of the Mediterranean in Italy, and a day spent riding the EuroVelo no. 6 trail along the Danube river in Serbia. It was a nice respite from car traffic, but since the general route I had chosen didn’t lend itself to existing bike paths (or perhaps I didn’t know how to find them), I stuck to the secondary roads. In general these were well-paved, with few cars and the occasional forest which helped to cope with the intense summer heat. The hypnotizing view, and smell, of sunflower fields in Hungary and the frequent horse-drawn buggies in Bulgaria offered glimmers of local culture impossible to fully appreciate from the freeway, or from the car at all, for that matter.