Bike Touring to Istanbul - Interview with Simon Weeks

Bike Touring to Istanbul - Interview with Simon Weeks

June 18, 2015

Simon Weeks has spent much of his life living by the phrase "wherever I lay my hat..." Moving around the UK with work, Europe playing Ultimate Frisbee, Africa volunteering with the charity Transaid and attempting to visit every country in the world in his spare time.

In recent years Simon has taken to the saddle for a new perspective on travelling; undertaking long distance cycle touring adventures.

Simon on a bike statue when bike packing to Istanbul

Glower had the chance to ask Simon, who currently lives in the giant outdoor playground that is New Zealand, about his first trip, raising £2826.76 for Transaid along the way.

So tell us about deciding on your first long distance cycle trip

My first real long distance trip was cycling from my home in Manchester to Istanbul. I never really used to cycle a bike. Back in 2010 I bumped into a guy in a hostel in Tallinn in Estonia. We had the usual "Where are you from, where are you headed?" conversation. He was a Brit, he was on his bike, he'd cycled from the UK and was heading for Turkey, Istanbul.

So I asked him "Why Istanbul." He said he thought it'd be fun to cycle all the way out of Europe and I thought that was great. It struck a chord with me and I figured one day I'd love to do that but to be honest I never really thought it’d happen. Like I said; I never even rode a bike at that point. Until a friend bullied me into giving me a bike. He’s always trying to convince people that "cycling’s a way of life" and when he got a new bike he gave me his old one and I started cycling to work.

Istanbul sign bikepacking

Shortly after that I was made redundant and thought "You know what, I'm just gonna do this".

What kind of things did you plan in advance?

A route - I vaguely wanted to have a route planned to make sure it wasn't just endurance. It was a bit of a holiday so I planned the route around catching up with people along the way and tried to make sure I never did more than a week without having something to look forward to.

I managed to cobble together a route that took me from being best man at a wedding, to catching up with friends in Bavaria, staying with family acquaintances in Vienna, seeing Frisbee players in Bratislava, and visiting another friend in Bucharest. I caught up with the same friends from Bratislava who were on holiday in Bulgaria and eventually I went on to Istanbul.

Did you do much research into the bike and equipment?

I did quite a lot of reading around all the kit. I was actually going to ride my existing bike and buy a touring bike afterwards if I decided to get into it. That was until a friend pointed out I was about to cycle 4500 kilometres and saying "if I decided to get into it" was a bit stupid, adding "buy yourself a bloody decent bike".

So having bought all my kit based on my existing bike, about 2 weeks before I was leaving I suddenly decided to buy myself a proper touring bike. It arrived 8 days before I left for the trip.

Si on the bike reaching Belgian border by bike

So you didn't know a lot about bikes and got yourself a brand new bike. Did you do research into maintenance?

I did a 1 day bike maintenance course. Along the trip I only had 3 punctures and I snapped my chain once and even then I was 500m from a bike shop when it happened! When I walked into the bike shop asking if they had a chain for my bike, the guy replied "Do you like Ice cream?". A bit confused I said "Yeah. Of course I like ice cream". And he said "well, there’s a lovely little ice cream shop just on the corner. Leave me your bike, come back in half an hour and I’ll have the new chain put on for you."

So I didn't even have to replace my own chain. You make your own luck!

What training did you do in preparation?

I did zero training. Absolutely nothing. I cycled to work most days which was a massive 5km each way. I did 1 practice ride the weekend before but that wasn't really for fitness, it was just to check that my bike worked, that all the stuff fitted on the bike, that it didn't rattle and nothing fell off.

"My view on cycling was that however far you want to travel
just means more time in the saddle."

I thought I would get fitter as the ride went on and I would take it easy to begin with and gradually get stronger. But being fairly optimistic and fairly stubborn; on my 3rd day I cycled 138km from Rotterdam to Nijlen in Belgium, making it one of the longest days of my entire trip!

My view on cycling was that however far you want to travel just means more time in the saddle. If you're going at cycle touring pace it's never particularly hard. It's much more of a mental game to keeping going, like the day I cycled 185km. Having done 90km by lunch time and feeling really good about myself, you then realise there is still another 95km to go and it's going to be really hard going. But you just keep pedalling and you get there.

How did it feel at the start when you left your house in Manchester?

Pretty exciting really. I'd spent months looking into it. It feels fairly surreal when you're looking at all this stuff and it's this idea but is it really real?

Si on the bike and a sign to Bukarest

Then finally setting off was pretty exciting. I stopped after my first 20 or 30km and I remember just sitting there and going "holy shit I'm actually doing this" which gave me a real buzz. That feeling kept going for most of the trip really.

"Guys, this is really quite easy. I'm just on holiday really. I just cycle a lot."

I remember getting to Vienna, the half-way point on the trip, and people were saying well done and that it was so awesome. And I felt a little embarrassed. I was like "guys, this is really quite easy. I'm just on holiday really. I just cycle a lot."

Mountain range bike packing to Istanbul

The second half through Eastern Europe was much harder where there were fewer facilities, less places to stop for coffee, the roads were narrower, and the traffic on the roads was pretty scary at times. It was also much more undulating with more mountains and hills. The second half to be fair was a bit more of a physical challenge.

Was there ever a time you wanted to stop?

No, there was no time I wanted to stop. There were some low points when you're cycling into the wind relentlessly for the whole day and it ended up taking an hour and a half longer than perhaps I'd planned; that was mentally very tough.

One evening I got caught in a massive thunder storm 3km from where I was due to finish and just got absolutely drowned which was thoroughly depressing. Everything was soaking wet and then I had to find somewhere to stay - I couldn't stay at the campsite as it was soaking wet. I wouldn't have been able to put my tent up.

Then there was the day I ran out of energy completely. I totally underestimated food intake and ended up sitting on the side of the road with no food left just sitting there shaking and in real trouble. I rested for a bit and then carried on really slowly and eventually came to a bar, went in and ordered a coke: I just downed it in one and said "yes, and another one please." I'd just completely lost all my energy. I then ate two ice creams and carried on!

Is it ever lonely on the road?

At times, yeah, and that's why I'm not truly a solo person. That’s why I tried to plan the route so that I was always catching up with an old friend or meeting up with people every week or so.

But I didn't find it perhaps as lonely as I would have expected. There was always a task at hand, there was always 100km to be cycled and there was always the next stop to keep you motivated. 20kms and I get a coffee. 20kms and I get second breakfast. 20kms I get lunch...

And just keeping in touch with people via Facebook and Twitter with mobile technology makes you feel less alone than perhaps you would doing this 10 or 15 years ago.

Overall, was there any particular part of the trip that stood out?

I think going over the passes was always a highlight for me. One pass in Bulgaria was 1400m and it was just 3 hours of up, up, up. Lots of switch backs in the heat and you know you've got to keep going and that you're going to get there but it's tough and horrible spending the whole time going up thinking "this is not worth it, this is not worth it".

But when you reach the top and look out at the great view you feel really proud of yourself; and then you get to cycle down the other side. Going as fast as you possibly dare. Then you just spend the whole way down going "IT WAS SO WORTH IT, IT WAS SO WORTH IT."

Consumption Stats Cycling Stats Geography Stats
142 beers
91 cokes
70 coffees
42 portions of chips
30 kebabs
21 ice creams
7 complimentary shots of alcohol
21 bakeries
Distance: 4486 kms
Total Hours Cycling: 426 hours

Max. day: 174 kms
Max. speed: 75 kph
Max. altitude: 1326m

Cyclists Overtaken by me: 438
Cyclists who Overtook Me: 241
12 Border Crossings
10 Countries
9 Languages
6 Currencies
3 Seas
2 Continents

At the end of the trip how did you feel when it was over?

I think just a little bit flat. I'd been building it up and thinking about it for so long. It would have been nice if the streets had been lined with people and everyone had been cheering as I cycled into Istanbul, but as it was I arrived at the Blue Mosque, I took a few photos, hands aloft, and then it was "Oh right. That's it. Done".

Simon bikepacking camping and reaching Istanbul

I don't mean to say I was disappointed but when there isn't a big chequered flag being waved in the air or people screaming and cheering it's kind of like "Oh. OK. Right. What's next…"

So what makes you keep doing cycle touring?

It's a combination of the fact that I love travelling, I love exploring, but I also love that sense of achievement.

"Part of the experience is the journey, it's not just
about visiting lots of different places."

I went travelling 15 years ago straight out of university and people call it travelling but it's really just an extended holiday on a low budget. That's what travelling is really. Whereas when you do it under your own steam there’s an undoubted sense of achievement in actually completing that journey and it does become a little bit more about the fact that part of the experience is the journey, it's not just about visiting lots of different places.

At each beautiful place you reach you somehow feel a little bit more deserved of seeing it than when you jump on an aeroplane or see it driving in a car or sitting on a bus. You feel like you've really earned the good stuff that you see.

What one piece of advice would you give someone who's doing it for the first time?

I think I'd say just do it. You don't need much, just get a bike, get a couple of bags on the back and go for it. You can figure it out as you go. You can get fit as you go. If you've forgotten something you need you can buy it as you go. Just get on your bike and just start peddling and see where it takes you.

Si arriving home after his bike packign trip to Istanbul

You can follow Simon on twitter @theboyweeks – though he's pretty quiet when not on an adventure. 

Find out more about Transaid, the charity Simon supports. Simon says: "It's a transport charity that works in developing countries to provide basic transport solutions to help people in remote areas get access to medicines or transporting people to local health facilities. It's always trying to use sustainable solutions such as a bicycle ambulance where they put a trailer on the back of a bicycle which can be used to get someone 10-15km to a local facility when they have no vehicles."

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