Most Countries Visited by Bicycle in 7 Days: Diary
After travelling out to the Dutch/Belgian border the previous day, I woke at 6am to pack up my kit and start bothering the B&B owner and his guests about signing my witness book for the record criteria. This would have been made all the more entertaining to any bystanders as I proceeded to get in muddle with what language they spoke there – where they stop speaking French and start speaking Dutch is always a mystery to me (hint: it’s not at the border). I had run into similar trouble the previous night where my embarrassing British tourism etiquette was on full display, mumbling in French to a Flemish-speaking waitress, before a local took pity on me and came over, translating the entire menu. Somehow I still ended up with the or some obscure meat. The meal only got worse when I suffered what was to be the most concerning of injuries on this journey, when I badly cut the inside of my mouth on an aggressively-shaped chip. This was real Bear Grylls type stuff.
Anyway, soldiering on through the crippling chip catastrophe, Day 1 started with approaching a bemused group of Dutch builders, asking them to sign my witness book. After playing the confused young tourist card, Jos and Jaan signed the document and I began to follow the sunrise east towards Germany and Luxembourg. It’s weird placing your bottom on a bike saddle , and feeling the need to apologise to your unsuspecting undercarriage for the battering it’s about to take over the next 7 days, 10-14hours a day. Helpfully though, Guinness World Records ask you to film two minutes of every hour of your journey, which meant that I could regularly document the progressive soreness, and such long days were nicely broken down to 60 minute chunks. The hourly juggle of a GoPro and a point-and-shoot camera was quiet the ordeal, but relatively the other 58 minutes of cycling seemed relaxing.
I travelled through small Belgian villages, passing parallel to the Spa-Francorchamps Forumla One circuit before reaching the Belgian border. The misty autumnal chill had lifted by the time I crossed into Luxembourg and the only major incident had been evading the capture of a couple of dogs that had decided I was riding too close to their driveway. They gave up their chase pretty quickly but it was a useful little adrenaline spike.
Crossing the north east of Luxembourg was quite a battle though. The seemingly endless rolling mountains (probably just hills, but I was tired after 110miles / 175k and it sounds more dramatic this way) finally gave way to the Moselle river that splits Luxembourg from Germany. Stopping only briefly to irritate a hotel owner and assault one of his guests with my witness book, I followed the river down to France.
As the sun set and I looked at my bike computer, I gave a wry smile, ticking over into 130miles for the day. From there on I would be into new territory – I’d never cycled that far in a day before. I needed that boost because my accommodation was much further than I’d anticipated.
Rolling past 10 hours and 150 miles, the kind face of my host for the evening appeared out of the fading light. He’d been tracking me online and had come out to meet me. I had found him and his wife online - like couch-surfing but for cyclists. They were such a kind couple. They’d prepared dinner for me, and had delayed their own meal just to eat with me, even though I was arriving well after dark. They waited for me to shower and unpack a few things before giving me license to devour large quantities of food they’d prepared for me. They told me all about their cycling adventures: about going to the most northerly point of Europe, about hitting 87kph (54mph) on the Col D’Izoard on a tandem bike, and how they’d been knocked off their bikes in a car accident in Syria. Such a cool couple – if you’re reading this Laurent and Corinne, then thanks – you were awesome. After awkwardly clearing a bottle of juice from the table in a feeble attempt at trying to repay them for their hospitality, I quickly fell asleep, getting ready for another 10 hours on the bike the next day.
Waking to find a mist had descended upon Northern France, I set off for Germany and the Black Forest. I ploughed through anonymous French farmland for the first four hours, and the less than spectacular scenery did very little to distract me from the developing pains from the saddle. I knew the first couple of days were going to be hard, recalibrating my mind into just putting one foot in front of the other for 10 hours. I’ve found though that after the first couple of days mind and body tend to adjust to the new reality, but I needed help pushing through that part of rural France. I sought refuge in an audiobook, and that helped me reach the first objective of the day: finding the Marne-Rhine Canal, that would see me safely through the Vosges Mountains to Strasbourg.
The relief of finding that flat, smooth, traffic-free canal a couple of years ago whilst cycling to Rome echoed in my mind as I joined it again on this trip. Clawing back mileage and picking up speed I pushed on to the next village for lunch. Coincidentally it was the same village I had previously stopped at with my younger brother on that Rome trip, not that he recognised any photos I showed him. He’s normally too busy singing his way across Europe to notice the trivial changes in surroundings like cities, traffic signals or border crossings. It was quite different without his soundtrack alongside me.
I jumped back on the bike after a short lunch break where I’d bemused the two bakery attendants with my request for a signature whilst purchasing sandwiches. It’s not the type of thing your French lessons at school prepare you for – I could tell them what pets I had, and the contents of my pencil case but struggled to explain to them the nature of my current endeavour and why I was asking for their email addresses as a side order to a ham sandwich. Jambon – I knew the translation of that.
A few hours and a number of European Union puns later as I passed the European Parliament building in Strasbourg ('see eu later France' being my favourite), I hit Germany and began to slowly climb up to the small village of Hornberg. Riding up the valley was simply beautiful as my shadow began to stretch out in front of me, before eventually disappearing when I rolled over 140miles for the day and the sun disappeared. Successfully locating my host’s wifi network to aid pinpointing the exact location of my host’s apartment drew Day 2 to a close, purchasing the most calorific and most unhealthy looking pizza I could at the supermarket across the street. Cycle. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
Day 3 started slowly, quickly visiting the bakery to grab breakfast and another opportunity to exhibit my fine language skills. I literally said two words, in my best German, and the woman proceeded to serve me in English. Do Brits really stand out that much abroad, or is it just me?
A long climb greeted me that morning, and the serene the combination of mountains, forest and morning mist was spectacular. Beaming, I reached the high point of the day after averaging just 8mph for the first 90minutes. It was now progressively downhill to Lake Constance and Switzerland. Despite making good progress on the superb German bike paths, I decided to abort my planned route that cut south, instead heading south-east on a more direct path to the lake. A short detour along a farm track, a hiking trail and passed a couple of disapproving loggers in the woods, led me to the conclusion that I should have stayed on the main roads.
Eventually, after what had become a slow morning, I made it Konstanz where I needed to get another signature for the witness book. The two girls at the bakery were less than impressed with the Google translate job I had done with a pre-prepared request for a signature. After laughing at me for an extended period of time, I turned up the charm and left with a phone number and email address. Who said you couldn’t get a girl’s number in lycra? I mean I guess it was technically for the record evidence, but it still counts, right?
An afternoon following the lake shore made for slow progress, mesmerised by the beauty of a scene marrying the growing mountains on the horizon to the stillness of the waters. It made for a late finish in the Rhine Valley, at the the intersection of Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein, but it was worth it. The excitement of cycling in the Alps again was building.
Day 4 started with questioning in a petrol station by a man confused as to why I’d be wearing shorts in October. Little did he know the conversation he just entered into. I proceeded to give my now familiar spiel about needing signatures, invading this man’s privacy collecting emails and phone numbers. Happily though he obliged, and actually bought me coffee – a great chap. From there it was over the Rhine river for the final time, into Austria and down into Liechtenstein - country number seven. A quick scrabble around for two signatures, and it was back into Austria for a 100mile drag up to the Arlberg Pass, and then down the valley to Innsbruck.
As dawn grew into another glorious day, the scenery rolled by. However, the joy of flying along the valley floor quickly ended when the road began to rise to the first real mountain pass, and my gear cable decided it would rather become two cables, snapping in half. This meant I was stuck in a high gear for the climbs. After an hour of trying to bodge the rear mech, I finally embarked on the series of switchbacks of the Arlberg pass. To illustrate how hard this was I'll inform you that normally on a bike you'd average about 70-90 pedal strokes a minute, but on this pass with the busted gear cable, I was now pedalling at 25-30, Keeping the bike upright and getting over that pass was one of the toughest moments I’ve had on a bike. However, blocking out the sound of the frustrated Austrian traffic behind me, the sense of achievement I felt as I crested the top of the 1800m pass was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had cycling.
The sense of achievement evolved to exhilaration as I flew down into a new valley, where a setting sun cast a looming shadow of the mountains. The shadows meant the return of dusk, reminding me of the fact that I still had another three hours of riding before I was to reach the overnight stop. Riding down the valley was beautiful though, and being joined by silent shadow riding partner again I made quick progress, despite the mechanical issues.
Arriving in Innsbruck and tripping over the vast tram network that plagues the city - like tram plagues most European cities - I eventually found my hosts for the evening. I don’t like trams. After a 2 person pile-up in Milan where my brother and I fell down the tracks with our narrow bike wheels, they’ve held a special place alongside cobbled streets on a list of things I dislike about cycling in European cities.
Anyway, my hosts: they were a lovely young couple who were keen to hear about my adventures and to share theirs. I feel as though I disappointed them slightly by turning up with a Big Mac meal plus an additional cheeseburger and fries, when they expected me to on a strict athlete’s diet in order to be riding the mileage I had been doing that week. Whilst getting particular meals would be ideal, when you’re abroad and simply in need of calories, I’ve found that convenience food that I know does the trick. Well that’s my justification anyway. In fact, on one bike tour, I’m pretty sure we tested every single McDonald’s between London and Florence – quite proud of that one actually.
An evening passed swiftly, discussing the result of the recent Austrian election and discussing the Japanese cyclist they’d recently hosted who was cycling to across Europe on a whim, having never cycled more than 10km before. Some people really are crazy. A quick sleep and it was onto the day that had been lurking in the corner of my mind all trip – 160 miles over more mountain passes. Let’s see if I can crack that.
Starting early, and too early for any bike shop to be open to repair the bike, I set off up the valley to find Italy. Due to mudslides, the road I had intended to follow was closed, and I had to divert to a road that was supposedly only open to locals. Pre-emptively I rehearsed my best German for ‘I live in the next town’, but luckily passed through without questioning from the local authorities. The battle up the climbs was tough though. Still restricted to a high gear, the repeated throwing of the bike from side to side to try and generate any sort of forward momentum was so close to wrecking the already stressed muscles in my lower back – a brutal way to start off the toughest day yet. Happily though, the sunrise over the mountains gently brushed the morning mist away as I crested the first climb. Descending into the village I was greeted with a bike store, like an oasis in the desert. An hour of repairs later, and after another coffee and apple strudel in the store opposite, Italy awaited.
I can’t explain the joy of spinning up the next climb up to the border: having a fully functioning bike again, being able to focus on the rising road, the flowing streams and the clear blue skies. It was brilliant. Italy came and a swift descent into the newest valley led me along to the town of Bruneck. Pestering the town’s people for some witness signatures, and smashing down a few Mars bars, I had a quick lunch before setting off on the long bike bath that should have led me all the way to Slovenia. However, after a predominantly gravel path was making for slow progress, I headed back to the roads. The lakes and the mountains in this part of the world were absolutely stunning. It made for slow cycling, but it was truly incredible. The Austrian border eventually came upon me, but as the sun disappeared behind the mountains and I checked the map, I could see that I still had another 70 miles to go. I was in for a long evening.
The red glow of dusk faded to blackness as the valley stretched out ahead of me. Pushing on into the night, my focus was rudely interrupted by on-coming flashing blue lights. Not suspecting this sleepy valley in the Alps to be the location of a bank robbery or car-chase, I sat up on my bike, a little perplexed as I couldn’t see much traffic around. Innocently however, I pedalled on, only to see the now recognisable police car pull into the verge on the other side of the road. This was when a man leapt out and proceeded to yell at me in German. I stopped, turned, and found a large spotlight pointed at me by a pair of gesturing Austrian rozzers. It turned out that I’d been cycling on the main highway for the last few miles. They called me over - which in light of the offence I was apparently committing, seemed odd. ‘This bike is too dangerous on the highway, we’ll get him to do a U-turn across said highway and talk to him on the roadside. That seems much safer’.
They eventually directed me to a bike path up in the hills – most grateful for that – where I gazed up, and for the first time in my life I could properly make out the plane of our Milky Way galaxy. I stopped and turned off my lights to get a better picture. I marvelled at the beauty. Perfectly alone in the dark, gazing into the depths of space. It was so quiet. Suddenly, I heard an almighty thundering of hoofs surrounding me, and a whipping wind blow straight across my face. I quickly flicked on my head-torch so make-out the last few stragglers from a herd of deer that had just blown across the path all around me. Edel shot straight out of my Weiss, if you catch my drift. I’ve never been so scared in my life.
Using this adrenaline shot I crawled the last few miles to arrive at the overnight stop just past 11pm, and dragged myself into bed after 164miles and 12,000ft of climbing. I’d done it – the hardest day of the trip. All downhill from here!
Another majestic sunrise revealed itself ahead of me as my journey headed east and out of the Alps. A simple day on paper, with no real mountain passes. I think I’d made this day seem much easier in my head as the 155miles seemed to take forever. The beauty of the lakes continued though, and I made great progress in the isolation of the quiet valley. There’s actually something quite hilariously liberating about flying down an empty Austrian backroad, singing ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ by Taylor Swift, with just the mountains as your auditorium and cowbells for accompanying instruments. More people should try it.
The river was my riding partner today and I was to follow it from the overnight stop all the way to Ptuj, (Puh-too-ee…..yeah, I have no idea either), in Slovenia. The river path threw up a few surprises though. One being a rickety old suspension bridge with cracked wooden panels so wide apart it did make me question whether this was in fact the main Austria-Slovenia tourist route. The other, more inconvenient surprise, was the downturn in bike-truck relations as soon as I entered Slovenia. The pleasant truck etiquette I grown accustom to was replaced with truckers now simply me giving a long blast on the horn. This wasn’t to alert me that they wanted to overtake, but to inform me that they were coming through at full speed, whether there was space or not. My role in this recurring episode only became clear after the first couple of trucks shaved my handlebars with their Pirelli’s. Lesson quickly learned, I had to make a couple of late dives to the verge as Ivan and his truck were late for his deliveries.
Night fell as the river wound on, the mountains falling away almost as quickly as they had risen up from the horizon a few days earlier. Pulling up in Ptuj, and gazing up at the medieval castle on the hill top, Jess Glynne’s ‘Ain’t Got Far To Go’ fittingly came over my headphones. One day left!
Starting the final day confusing the locals by requesting signatures, in what was now customary style, I set off for the world record. A cold, thick mist hung over the fields of southern Slovenia, but I soon reached the Croatian border. Having not had to show my passport since leaving London 10 countries ago, I was slightly bemused myself to have my passport stamped. I had completely forgotten Croatia wasn’t in the Schengen agreement that permits almost border-less travel in much of Europe. The 20 minutes I spent in Croatia were lovely – I can definitely recommend holidaying there as the three people I spoke to were very helpful. The first person, a shopkeeper, was very clear in her gesturing that she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about whilst I waved my witness book. The other two people were at a pub down the street and were even nicer witnessing my presence in Croatia before I let them get back to their 10am Thursday-morning drinks.
Getting in 90 miles before lunch, and after a short meet up just over the Hungarian border with a couple I’d contacted online about getting a witness signature (they also gave me snacks and invited me for breakfast – thanks Janez & Doris), I continued northwards through my twelfth country. Whilst the official record stood at 11 countries in 7 days, I had read about another dude doing 12 countries just a month before I departed, so I couldn’t quite order an Uber to the airport just yet. Everything was going so well though I was considering how difficult it would be to make it to 14 countries, with the Czech Republic just 40-50miles (65-80k) from Bratislava, my proposed finish point in Slovakia.
However, focusing on just getting to Bratislava, I pushed through more anonymous farmland. This is where my afternoon became much more difficult. Turning a corner on a descent entering a forest, my front wheel buried itself in a deep patch of seed spilled by a local farmer, and the bike wiped out from underneath me. I quickly jumped back up to move my bike out of the way of traffic and gestured to a slowing car that I was okay. As I waved him on, blood streamed from my gesturing hand onto the bike and began a small pool on my shoes. The cut was surprisingly deep, but nothing appeared to be broken – on me or the bike. My phone screen had smashed, my handlebars were now bent and scratched, but everything worked. Using a little of my valuable water resources, I cleaned the cut as best I could and climbed back on the bike. It was then that I noticed the blood dripping from me knee too. I cycled on one-handed hoping the wind would help dry out the cut, planning to seek proper attention in Bratislava, about 100 miles away. The cycling was doable, but it was braking that was near impossible. I thought about how much worse the crash could have been, as I should have been going 20-25mph, but instead had been slowing down for a natural break at the time I hit the dumped seed.
Nevertheless, the next milestone was scaring a Hungarian woman in a post-office with my bloodied state, on way to getting a witness signature. Thinking back on the trail of confusion/entertainment I must have left across Europe does amuse me. Soon after the final signature, I crossed into Austria for a quick cut through on the way to Bratislava. It was here that I accidentally cycled up someone’s driveway, mistaking it for a bike path. Frustrated with my hand now periodically getting stuck to the handlebars as the blood clotted, I peered over the front gate and opportunistically asked the woman sat in her front garden if she had a bandage. Little did I know the state of panic I was about to ignite when she saw the state of my hand. She invited me in and had me interrupt what may possibly have been her one-year old’s birthday party. I remember seeing several mums, and lots of inquisitive toddlers looking up at me - an intruder into their little world. Denying the woman’s offer to get the local vet over to look at my hand in absence of a hospital, I jumped on the bike with a fully wrapped hand. She was pretty disapproving of my insistence to head another 80 miles to Bratislava, but I appreciated her help – thank you, Austrian lady!
The last few hours were a case of breaking the cycling into small chunks: doing the next half an hour, getting over the next hill. In my narrow focus I had crossed into Hungary, and back to Austria again without noticing. It was hours before Slovakia finally revealed itself. The border was a welcome sight as I was running low on food, having just finished my 4th mega pack of Haribo Goldbears in the last 4 days, and a fog had started to descend from the hills to the west. Arriving on the Danube in the centre of Bratislava, I had all but made the decision to not push on further to the Czech Republic, and settle for 13 countries. I had just hit 204 miles for the day, and although I technically had 8 hours before my seven days were up, the fog and the unknown roads made my decision for me. It was too risky with fading bike lights, and the busier roads around the city. I pulled up my host’s apartment, found my bed and fell asleep in my cycling kit. I was without a shower or dinner, but I’d done it – a new world record! Both absolutely grim and beautiful at the same time. Mainly grim though – I still had dried blood everywhere.