Before the sun rose on the 18th September 2014 a small band of three woke blurry eyed to an early alarm call. For one minute, with alarm snoozed, I imagine I’m about to cycle 100+ miles today. For the first time. Followed by 2 more days in the saddle. I must be dreaming. However, that is what we’ve arranged. A cycle trip over 3 full days, from South West London to Antwerp.
"It’s an unusual yet exciting feeling leaving your front door by bike, knowing you’re not coming back for days."
So, the reasons? Mainly just for fun. To be out in the fresh air for three days with the simple aim of powering ourselves from one place to another. To see and hear new sites and sounds. To spend time with friends and family and to check off a mini adventure from our bucket list. So with bags already packed on board our “support vehicle”, we set off with nothing more than water, food, the clothes on our backs, and of course the bikes. It’s an unusual yet exciting feeling leaving your front door by bike, knowing you’re not coming back for days.
Our first real stop is at 100km (62 miles) for a pub lunch in Frant, Kent. The countdown to this point, including climbs with gradients ranging roughly between 7-22%, remind some of us that it is as much a mental game as a physical challenge. Time to restock our supplies, stuff down some food and reflect on the morning milestones through the pretty, hilly Surrey and Kent countryside.
The afternoon, taking us to 190km (118 miles), is – only one way to put this – long. Folkestone’s arrival is later than hoped, in the dark, thinking of sleep. Our hosts are wonderfully welcoming with food ready and waiting for us on the table. Beers are quickly offered and opened and some energy to eat, drink and chat seems to come from nowhere. Buzzing with fresh adrenaline, we are relieved having made it through the longest day of our trip unscathed and with a warm feeling of satisfaction in the achievement.
While still dark, day 2 starts with a quick 17km to Dover to catch the ferry, plus various attempts to get comfortable on the suddenly bone-piercing saddle. Downhill all the way – what could possibly go wrong? We give ourselves 1h15 mins for the distance to be "super safe". However, a heavy storm overnight scattered debris all over the small country lanes and a thick fog slows progress.
"Downhill all the way – what could possibly go wrong?"
Only 7 km in and we get a puncture, though we hold back the panic while a quick inner tube replacement settles the nerves. Relax, we’ve still got time. Wheel back on and we get another puncture. The option of calling the support car is discussed as we replace the second inner tube, slightly more frantic than the first. Fully inflated, we check the clock; it’ll be very tight. We fly down into Dover and onto the main roads for speed, passing a blur of signs pointing our way to the Ferry. We made it, with 5 minutes to spare, hearts & calves pounding.
The ferry allows us to unwind and when touching land in Duinkerke, a warm, sparkling sun boosts our confidence and leads us nicely into a 130km (80 miles) cycle through France and into Belgium. The route is perfect, quiet and beautiful – although we see a lot more of each other’s behinds during some drafting - and it takes us all the way into the city of Gent where we are to stay with friends.
Again our hosts are perfect. Well trained cyclists (know any other Belgians?) at their own Bike Courier Business, they empathise and immediately give us food, drinks and a comfortable sofa to sit on, followed by mountains of pasta (and some Belgian beer) getting us ready for the final leg.
Day 3 is a shorter 90km trip from Gent to Antwerp. With energy bursting from the kilometres we’ve left behind us, this feels like a breeze. Much of it along canals; with the interesting bonus of a free ferry crossing the canal. Way more memorable than a bridge.
"No searching for entertainment or things to see and do. You don’t have to go looking for adventure, adventure finds you."
The route is completely flat but occasional cobbles keep you on your toes, and our trinity grows to a more experienced 4 as we’re joined by one of our final hosts (An's Dad) for the last 45km.
For 435km (270 miles) from the undulating hills of the South East of England, across the water to the pan flat landscape of the West of Flanders, the whole trip has been tiring, but incredibly rewarding.
With a trip like this things are so simple. You have a start and a finish and you let the rest happen. No searching for entertainment or things to see and do. You don’t have to go looking for adventure, adventure finds you.
With so much to describe a post like this can’t do the whole experience justice. Though this, I hope, was the first of many. Next year we’ll take on the lessons learnt and, with a few more cycle enthusiasts on board, we’ll head to the continent for more excellent Belgian hospitality and polders.
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If like us, you’ve always toyed with the idea of integrating vanlife into your regular travels and bike adventures, let us share with you our first experience of the rolling home. Guaranteed, it won’t be long until we’ve convinced you to ditch your car.
With Christmas just around the corner it's time to turn to the web for some gift ideas! We've put together this handy guide full of suggestions for presents for the female mountain biker in your life!
We've collated 10 ideas under £100, so regardless of your budget you've got plenty to choose from to combine or select one of the pricier ones.