Constanta to Istanbul

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.

image

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.

image

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).

image

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.

image

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.

image

Setting off, first steps, first pedal

The days leading up to my departure were as hectic as they come. No matter how many trips I go on, I don’t seem to be able to escape the near panicked last minute packing and remembering of important things. It’s reassuring though when you reach a point where the last minute things you start remembering are tiny things like ‘needle and thread’ as you know things like that are easily sorted once you’re there.

image

By the time you’re at the airport then you know it’s going to be OK, because short of you not bringing your passport, you’re going, and will just have to deal with it on the road.

image

So began this trip, a dragging of bags to the tube station and a furtive push of the bike through the barrier, then a long ride to the airport. The mundane tube turned into a transport of adventure!

My arrival into Bucharest was unspectacular, and after a night slept in the airport, it was a taxi to the station, then a train to Constanta. This is the Black Sea resort town where my Eurovelo 6 bicycle trip had finished with two wheels in the Black Sea itself. Building a strange cargo bike on the platform of a Romanian train station is definitely not recommended for the shy of dispositions though, so after the assembled crowd had parted, it was a relief to pedal away from the station and towards the view point from which our victory photo had been taken last time.

image

Surreal to be back there again, this time without five other cyclists though, and with a lot of unanswered questions about if the bike I was riding, and if I myself, was up to this 6500km journey.

With a wobble and the odd foot down on the road though I was off. Quickly leaving Constanta behind me and into the Romanian countryside once more, south this time, with Istanbul the twinkle in my eye.

You are never really ready for adventure

It’s three week until I board a plane bound for Romania to begin my bicycle journey to China, and one thing I know for sure, is that I’m not ready. There are in-fact many ways in which I’m not ready. The visas I need for the trip are still not processed, the equipment I need for the trip has not all been purchased, and perhaps most crucially, I still haven’t finished building the bicycle that I’m going to be riding there. What’s perhaps surprising about all of this though, is that accepting that you are not being ready is not a bad thing.

The primary concern in my mind at the moment is getting my bicycle finished, as without that the whole ‘bicycle trip to China’ aspect is going to be a lot harder. This is quite a big challenge as not only am I building a prototype of a new design of bicycle, it’s also the first bicycle I’ve ever built. Things are ticking over on this, and the pile of cut, bent, and mitred tubing on my workbench is reaching a satisfying height and lining up neatly with the drawings and plans. The ultimate welding together of it all will only take a day, so unfortunately until that point I’ve got to accept it’s going to keep looking like a big pile of tubes.

SONY DSC

The route I’m taking is also becoming ever more fine tuned, with distances and number-of-days per leg getting mapped out. This isn’t even something I want to worry about, but the spectre of the stack of visas I’m going to need to cross nine international borders requires quite a bit of thought and paperwork. Uzbekistan and Iran are currently topping my list of difficult places to get a visa from, as I’ve found I’ve been delayed by the Iranian new year in my process for an application number. Once I get this, it still won’t be until I arrive in Istanbul that I can finally get the stamp that will allow me to cross into Iran.

SONY DSC

What’s fortunate about this process, is that I know this is fine. That’s not to say that I’m sure I’ll get all the visa stamps in time, or that the bicycle construction will continue rolling on smoothly. What it means is that in order for me to have this adventure, there will be these unknown factors in there. You could try to plan a trip like this, for months or even years, but you would still reach a point where something happens unexpectedly and you must simply deal with it. The more you begin your journey with that attitude, the less stressful it will be when the time comes to do some problem solving.

Now I’m not saying that you could do a trip like this without planning it. The intricacies of the visa timings have needed some careful calculation and endless reference to other bicycle touring blogs about their experiences. Collecting those shared stories is very helpful, as it’s referencing similar situations that makes handling the unexpected more manageable. For example having completed several cycling tours already, the challenges of distance, finding food, finding shelter, and getting lost, also worry me less. Now having read the tales of people who have cycled similar journeys equally Iran has turned from bogeyman to an expected land of helpful hospitality.
002_2

With a journey like this, you’re always stepping into the unknown. If you weren’t, then your journey would be more a package holiday, carefully curated and guided, not necessarily worse, just absolutely different. We live in an age where we now have access to enough information about the world to pre-plan and research nearly every aspect of expeditions and journeys, but if you over-indulge in your research you not only kill the spontaneity and unexpected pleasures of your trip, you also harden yourself against being flexible and accommodating enough that when things don’t go to plan, you can change what you’re doing and roll with the punches.

Research and planning is great, but you must just accept that you’re never really, absolutely, completely ready for adventure.

 

Quitting the day job to chase dreams, explore world.

Today was the first Thursday in a pretty long time where I’ve woken up without being buzzed by an alarm and then without a single look at my phone, rolled over to the cold side of the pillow and gone back to sleep. Today I had remembered, was not a day for going to the office.

It’s an obviously strange experience when for the last few years Monday to Friday mornings have been an orchestrated daily performance of hastily finished cups of coffee, smoothing down of crumpled shirts, and flitted checks of the clock making sure you’ll reach your desk in time for emails, calendar invites, and your second cup of coffee.

Watch check and coffee

The key to my new found restfulness it turns out had been an almost disappointingly short email I had sent a few days previously; ‘…I Lawrence Brand would like to give notice that I will be leaving this role…’. After a long time in a job, it feels strange that all those daily interactions with your office friends, those plans made, goals set, and meetings held, feel so easily dismissed. I wanted it to be more dramatic, and to feel more hard-won. In reality though I, just like so many others before me, had quit their job to explore the world and in the context of a steady 9-5 that feels less about succeeding and lot more like dropping out.

The company had been good to me, once I’d explained that I was leaving to build a bicycle in the corner of my apartment and then ride it from Romania to China, and once they had smiled and nodded their heads sympathetically, I’d been allowed to not work my notice. So I now had a month free to feverishly finalize my project, but what I was immediately haunted by was a sensation of how quickly the meaning and importance of that office work you’d been frowning over last week seemed to have evaporated, or that perhaps you’d deceived yourself into ever assigning it too great a value.

Don’t get me wrong though, I do feel lucky, not only that I now have the luxury of this free time to build my bicycle, but also that I had a clear, strong, and encompassing plan to fill my world up again with. Making bicycles had been my long term goal for years by this point, and I’d been only vaguely successful in trying to squeeze it into weekends and after dinner time since I had moved to London in 2012. So to wake up today with the immediacy that I must work on this now is a fantastically energizing feeling.

Roller bender for bicycle tubing

Feeling that empty space where the office job used to be is actually something positive then, because I know that building this bicycle and riding it 6000km across 10 countries is going to be more than enough to fill it.

There’s also no sense in which I am as ready as I ever thought I’d need to be, I don’t have my visas organized, I don’t have a finalized route, I haven’t even made a bicycle yet. I’d previously imagined I’d slip away from the office to a beautiful and neatly arranged Porterlight bicycle workshop where my touring prepared cargo bike would await, but we all know life is far more scrappy than that. What I have instead is a near joyful feeling of under-preparedness.

What I’ve done then is make the plunge. I’ve jumped in at the deep end, and am now planning to flail my arms and legs until I learn enough about swimming to keep my head above water. In a reassuring way the metaphorical life jacket I’m wearing is this: I know I’ve made the right decision. Having dreamed about this for so long, to find myself sitting here at home on a grey Thursday morning, with bikes parts strewn around me and maps pinned to the wall, without a completely solid plan, and with a hundred tasks and thousands of questions left to answer, I am truly happy.

If you’re reading this then I presume you’re also teetering on the brink of your day job. My only advice can be this: chase your dreams, take the plunge.

Lawrence Brand Porterlight Bicycles

Lawrence

History Lesson

1006211_10201400711961528_987826434_n

I’ll accept that ‘manufacturing a bicycle in the corner of my apartment in London then riding it from Romania to China’ isn’t the most obvious thing to do. It probably doesn’t feature on the top-ten-things-to-do lists of many people, it didn’t even feature on mine until a couple of months before my departure date for that exact trip.

However a few similar things had been swirling through that great big list of ‘things to do’ for years though; that big list that you rack and assemble on idle bus journeys and in the minutes between the first alarm clock call and the impending snoozed reminder. There was ‘make my own bicycle’ for a start.

The entire idea had been born working on-and-off as a bicycle mechanic. I’d started on teenage Saturdays in a physical bike shop, tinkering, repairing, and inspiring me to learn ever-more. Eventually going it alone as an on-demand bicycle repairs guy in Sweden, I lived some kind-of student dream, fixing rusty broken bikes for beer money and snacks.

.

All forms of payment were accepted
All forms of payment were accepted

Knowing how the bits go together still isn’t quite the same as building your own bike though, so back in Britain I took on a course in welding, and started to cover my apartment in metal filings and dust. Not great for being a popular housemate, but all good for making a bicycle.

But years then went by, without a deadline, and with some typical distractions, I started new jobs, quit jobs, went travelling, moved country, moved back, cycled across Europe, started living in a warehouse in London, basically everything foot-loose and care-free that being young allows but perhaps isn’t great for getting on with bicycle manufacture.

Arriving into Romania on a 2011 bicycle trip across Europe
Arriving into Romania on a 2011 bicycle trip across Europe following Eurovelo route 6

As 2014 arrives, it was something of a now-or-never moment. Until then those international bike trips had been purely fun  journeys of adventure and exploration, but now I wanted to combine another leg of that big round-the-world-bit-by-bit cycling project I had started with the cycle trip across Europe with the beginnings of making bicycles professionally and living the metaphorical ‘ride off into the sunset’ dream.

So that brings you up to date with the trip. I gave in my notice at work, stopped putting off working on the bike, realized I basically had 8 weeks to finish it, and started to knuckle down for real. I was going to finally make my own bicycle, and then take it on an epic test ride. 6000km from Romania to China.

I honestly cannot wait!

Lawrence