Setting off on a 6500km journey on a bike that’s barely been ridden around the block yet, and especially one that you’ve just built yourself from a pile of tubes, is definitely asking for trouble.
So as I pushed away from the train station in Constanta, Romania where I’d just spent a diligent thirty minutes reassembling my bike from its airplane proof cocoon, it’s fair to say my nerves were running pretty high. This bike is the culmination of years of dreaming about making my own bicycle, and the outcome of months of sweating away with metal saws and welding torches.
With a wobble left, and oversteer right, a swerve left, and a hurried glance over my shoulder at the Romanian city traffic pounding past. I kicked it down a few gears and started accelerating up to speed. The wobbles reduce into a shimmy, down to a mild oscillation, before finally I’m cruising steadily along the hot tarmac with just a gentle meander left and right as I get to grips with having my front wheel a good metre in front of me.
Any sense of relief or exhilaration would come much later though. For now all that I could think about was analysing every sensation coming off the bike, every sound and every bump. This would be my default state for the next couple of days as I cycled down the Romanian coast and into Bulgaria.
I pedalled through the town taking the main road to the beach, the same road my friends and I had cycled several years ago making this same pilgrimage to the sea. It’s a leafy, tree lined boulevard, that winds along to that keyhole moment where between two buildings the void of the sky beyond suddenly appears. A blue square cut out from the wall of buildings. As you approach the view gets wider, showing you also the sea, the sand, a few wheeling birds, and finally as you pass through the gap itself, the whole view stitches together.
I only paused looking out over the water for a few minutes, again the worries of setting off on this trip making me want to cycle off and see whether this bike was about to fold in half or not! So I swung a leg over the saddle and pedalled back through town taking the road south along the coast towards the Bulgarian border.
The crossing of that border actually came very quickly though, less than 24 hours after landing in Romania, the rolling fields and isolated farm houses were interrupted by the stark authoritarian archway that let’s you know you’ve reached a border. Passport please. No photos. OK you go.
With that I had entered Bulgaria having covered only 60km of road so far. Everything felt like it had slotted into place though, the familiar feeling of being a cyclist on tour. Pedaling through little villages and hamlets, pausing for sips of water and puzzling over my map. A strange sense of excitement seeing a Lidl to pop into for some groceries and a rummage through their cycling accessories (picking up some needed cycling gloves).
My first night in Bulgaria was spent tucked behind a hedge in my bivvy bag, looking out at the sunset over a field of wheat. The coming nights wouldn’t be so pastoral however, starting soaked with rain and generally being continued in a hotel room. The rain lasted a good 36 hours, leaving no choice but for me and George a Czech cyclist I had already bumped into on the road, to push on through the rain up the hills and towards the Turkish border.
We entered Turkey in thick fog giving the border post a very surreal feeling. Much to our disappointment the long slog up hill top the border didn’t translate into a blasting downhill, but the beginning of the infamous rolling Turkish hills that would continue all the way to Istanbul and beyond. Long grinds uphill followed by a few minutes of glorious speed and flying downhill. And repeat.
Three more overnight stops in the tent brought Istanbul onto the day’s itinerary and with it a sense of the dread of trying to cycle into a mega city. I cannot blame them for the fact that no city planner had ever planned for the arrival of cycle tourists. The day was spent dodging a thousand gravel trucks building the world’s future largest airport outside town, crawling along the hard shoulder of a surprisingly motorway like B road. Eventually the flyovers became traffic lights and the trees to skyscrapers. Eight days after setting off, I’d arrived once more in Istanbul.