Conquering the Alps

Thirteen days, 950ish miles and very sore bums. Two best friends and I completed our “Europa Challenge”, starting from where we live in Greenwich, London, down to Dover, ferry to Calais, through Eastern France, getting into Switzerland and the dreaded task of scaling the alps, down into beautiful Italy and across to Venice. This was our first cycle touring experience, apart from Chris who had previously cycled to Barcelona and it was him who somehow managed to convince me and Rob to undertake this new venture. Our training regime consisted of a weekend trip to Eastbourne, where we loaded up all our panniers and camping equipment and gave it all a test run for one night. After realising you also need to take washing up liquid and a sponge when you cook on a camping stove, we were ready to go!

With the bungees stretched to the limit we set off with our 10kg extra weight each (some a little less, not naming any names, Chris). First stop was Dover, and with what we thought was ample time to make the desired ferry crossing, we soon realised that the combination of everything but the kitchen sink on the back of our bikes and what seemed like the worst roads in Britain, we missed it, and then the next one, and the next one. We did eventually arrive with a nice welcome from a group of German’s who wanted to take our photo. The language barrier prevented us from learning the reason for this but we lapped up the new celebrity status and finally boarded the ferry.

Across the channel and we hit France, Calais to be precise. This was 2014 and if you can remember that far back, getting internet coverage abroad when you are out in the open isn’t very easy without an extortionate price tag, it was with this discovery that we instantly regretted not bringing a map. After our chief navigator Chris (not an enviable job) managed to sort out some daily coverage, we started heading (mostly in the right direction) on the long road ahead. It wasn’t long before we admitted defeat on our initial target of an 100 mile day and called it quits at about 80 with the hope that we would easily make the distance back up in the subsequent days.

What started as a very long process trying to find the best place for us to pitch a tent, somewhere secluded and quiet, somewhere flat, somewhere without animal excrement, soon became an incredibly quick process as the days went on and our patience grew thin, the phrase “This will do” was muttered at any spot that pretty much wasn’t a busy motorway. The quality of location would usually depend on how tired we were at that given moment and how much we could actually see with a couple of bike lights in the pitch black dark of the night. It was on more than one occasion that we went to sleep thinking we were camped in complete wilderness and woke realising we were in someone’s front garden or on a roundabout. Luckily we always had to get up and out early to maximize the cooler temperatures of the day and therefore avoided any awkward encounters.

After six days of this repeat process, which we had down to a “T” by then, we reached our halfway point in Basel, Switzerland where we had thankfully booked ourselves a “treat” night in a lovely hotel to get a good night sleep and shower for the first time since we left (baby wipes really don’t cut it). This night of what felt like absolute luxury, was more than enough to have us offload our camping equipment at the next possible opportunity and book ourselves into cheap hotels on every night for the remainder of our trip.

Things got much easier from then onwards when we now had a hot shower at the end of every day and a full nights sleep which was very much needed as we had now reached the base of the alps and for the next two days it was nothing but up. Being planned well, we had less mileage to complete on these days to compensate for the relentless elevation but this stage in our journey was not for the faint hearted. After what felt like 30 thousand feet and a dramatic change in temperature, we reached the peak at St. Gotthards Pass with a big sense of achievement and relief. We now had only one thing on our minds, the way down. This thought had been the only saving grace for quite a lot of miles leading up to this moment. But cruelly, it was not to be the enjoyable experience that we had all hoped for, the heavens opened and temperature dropped and the entire journey down was with freezing hands and faces and spent cautiously on the brakes due to the slippery conditions. Oh well!

Once at the bottom and back to sunny skies, our disappointment soon turned to excitement as the finish line suddenly seemed within reach. We now only had a few days of fairly flat terrain through northern Italy and some truly stunning scenery to make it into Venice. The saddle sores had reached their worst at this point and getting back on the bike each morning was not a pleasurable experience, however we persevered knowing we had not long left. And on the thirteenth day at about lunch time we made it to our booked hotel in Venice with the amazing surprise of our friend Dan standing in the doorway with a pint of beer to congratulate us on the journey.

So after nearly a fortnight of constant cycling, we had made it. It was a roller coaster of a journey. We had some really tough long days to make up distance when we had fallen behind and had to cycle long into the night, we went well into double figures on punctures and my tyres completely fell apart somewhere in France which I had to carefully nurse about 40 miles to the next bike shop. But we also saw some pretty amazing scenery at nearly every corner, met some very kind people along the way and overall had a great time. London to Venice, Done!

See below more photos from the trip and the route we took.

Countries Visited: 59 / 195
Continents Visited: 6 / 7