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Cycling without borders - A summer trip from London to Istanbul, part 1

Benjamin McEldowney works as an Assistant with the EuroVelo team at the European Cyclists' Federation’s headquarters in Brussels. This summer he and travelling companion Edmund Luke set off on their dream cycling trip – 4,600 km across the European continent from London to Istanbul. They followed EuroVelo all the way to Turkey, passing through 14 countries and taking in routes 5, 15, 6 and 13. This is the first in a series of Ben's articles for eurovelo.com about the journey.
Cycling without borders - A summer trip from London to Istanbul, part 1

Taking it easy on Eurovelo 6

The sun rises over the Danube, on the ferry between Romania and Bulgaria. Photo - Benjamin McEldowney.

 

The idea to cycle across Europe came from Ed sometime last June, when we were both studying for final exams. I received this text message while cooped up in a library:,

 

"Birmingham to Istanbul – 2000 miles and 10 different countries. The bikes must be at least 20 years old and cost under £50. A month long tour sampling the various varieties of refreshment on offer along the way. May/June 2013, thoughts?"


I just had to say yes, and although plans changed somewhat in the year that followed, in August 2013 we had maps, panniers, two old bikes, and were ready to ride.  We found out more about the EuroVelo network, which I had first come across on a cycling holiday in France a few years before, and decided to give it a go. Flat, safe, and well paved routes which would wind their way to northern Turkey in just over four thousand kilometres, or six weeks’ steady riding: what could go wrong?

 

The Route, before detours!

The itinerary followed EuroVelo 5 from London to Strasbourg, EuroVelo 15 to Lake Constance, EuroVelo 6 into Romania, and the newest route 13 in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Image - Google Maps Engine


I converted a 100 euro second-hand mountain bike by adding a leather saddle, baggage rack, and ‘bullet proof’ tyres. Ed found a very British Bargain on eBay – a 200 euro Dawes tourer which was exactly 20 years old. We were set to go, with some money left in our pockets, and we arrived in London on the 10th of August with two months free to explore the continent.
Cycling is without a doubt in our minds the best way of enjoying this freedom. For two months we slept wild in beautiful locations, using just our sleeping bags and lightweight waterproof ‘bivouac’ covers. Riding between the port of Calais and the border between southern Hungary and Croatia we didn’t have to produce our passports once, enjoying the lack of border controls in the Schengen zone to the fullest. The contrast with the past was especially stark when we crossed the former ‘Iron Curtain’ for the first time between Austria and Slovakia.


The structure of the EuroVelo routes also gave us a great deal of freedom in our travel. In the most developed regions for cycle tourism – Switzerland, Germany and Austria – EuroVelo routes form a backbone for a whole network of other, shorter national routes, just as well adapted for tourists. We travelled slowly, and relished these opportunities to change direction at any moment, with our route map at the end of the trip looking rather different from the one we sketched out two months previously.

 

We would also be surprised with the camaraderie that formed between the different groups of touring cyclists, walkers and pilgrims we met along the way. After Budapest there were fewer fellow tourists to encounter, but those that we did were always friendly and talkative, and with those travelling in the same direction towards the Black Sea, we would have many different encounters, sometimes several days apart. Rumours quickly spread among this disparate but connected community, and we heard about two walkers from France several days before we finally met them.  Every group had their own targets and personal goals, and a similar determination to see them through. With our fixation on the Bosphorous and the end of Europe we were no different – there was no question that we would get there – but it became more and more difficult to imagine life once the target was reached.

 

A peloton of touring cyclists winding its way throught the Iron Gates, Serbia. Photo - Benjamin McEldowney.

 

Next week Ben will feature some of Europe’s hidden gems – and some classic tourist sights best experienced by bike.

 

You can read from Ben and Ed on their blog or twitter.