The first three weeks…

In a woodland glade

I’ve made it to Istanbul on schedule: 2237 miles without a day off from Hyde Park where I set off from three weeks ago. Its been a long journey already and if you want to catch up on the route so far, please do get addicted to www.whereintheworldisjames.com. It uses GPS data sent every ten minutes from a SPOT device on my bike to draw my route on a world map. You can see where I am and with the photostream you can view pictures that I’ve taken along the way too.
Europe is behind me now; I’ve been on a whistlestop tour of France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey! Phew. My impression of each country has been coloured somewhat by cycling conditions and my day-to-day mental state, so if I say I didn’t really enjoy Romania it’s not because it’s not a lovely country full of beautiful landscapes and interesting people, but because I had a headwind that cut my speed by more than half (for two whole days) and nearly had me weeping into my sleeve. I’ve learned that the wind often drops at night in the bread basket of Europe and that if you’re trying to navigate across a city it’s best to ask someone at a petrol station. While we’re talking about petrol stations, from Poland to Turkey they all had pump attendants who are more than happy to watch your bike whilst you go to the toilet and buy snacks. And in Turkey they’ll offer you tea, too.

I’ve mostly been stealth camping which either involves camping in the woods where no one can see you or next to a road so late at night, leaving so early in morning that no one notices or cares. My tiny little Golite tent has served me well and I’m now a dab hand at getting it up in the dark. I have had the pleasure of staying in some of Europe’s lesser-known hotels and can recommend the Hotel George in L’Viv; giant rooms, ancient plumbing and a doorman who might be from the European branch of the Addams Family. The best way to find a cheap hotel in a strange city is to go in to the most expensive hotel and ask how much the rooms are. Upon receipt of this information, put on a concerned face and ask the concierge for his advice on the best cheap hotel in the city centre. This is especially effective if you have a heavily laden, very dirty bike in tow.

I only speak GCSE French and Spanish, and a bit of English, but I think it’s useful and courteous to know how to say ‘hello’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ wherever you’re going. As a tip, I can say that friendly border guards are good people for a quick language lesson. NB, don’t ask the guy who checks your passport, looking you dead in the eye. Ask the guard that comes next; they’re much friendlier. A balanced diet has been difficult to source at times, partly due to my limited language skills. There’s been little on the trip to match the joy I felt on finding a mobile purveyor of roast chicken at the roadside in Ukraine. When I do find a restaurant on the road (not that often) I have sometimes had to play ‘menu lottery’. The shortest straw was drawn in Germany (some kind of Schnitzel with a LOT of nasty sauce) and the longest was in Bulgaria (chicken and chips! Back of the net!)

Because the first three weeks are really part of the training, I’ve had to do very long days to get the mileage done, sometimes spending up to 14 hours a day in the saddle. Had a few teething problems with knees (to mix my metaphors) and tendonitis in my heels but it all seems to have calmed down now, thanks in large part to the fine fitting service provided by MSG Bikes. It’s not just the body that has played up, of course; on the first day I had some loose connections on my (home-made) charging system, which I use to power my phone, camera, lights and spare batteries. I fixed it all by the end of the first full day (Monday 30 March) – I was relieved to be back in touch with family, friends and my rock solid support team (hello James R, James G, Tom T, Tom B and Lucy! And everyone else…)

The bike itself (a Santos Travelmaster, fact-fans) has been remarkable for its total absence of problems. I have had to tighten up one bolt on the pannier rack… And that’s it. The belt-drive is a complete revelation; no oiling, no cleaning and no noise. The Rohloff hub is also amazing; if I stop on a hill in the wrong gear I can change down while stationary, which is a boon on a fully loaded bike, and on the flat it’s a mile-eater. Not wishing to tempt fate, but I’ve had no punctures so far; the Schwalbe Extremes living up to their name. My Brooks saddle isn’t anything new or fancy (I took it off my last bike) but it’s doing a great job and now carries perfect indentations of my sit bones.

I decided not to use padded shorts from London to Istanbul. This might seem like a strange decision (lots of people told me I was mad) but I now have a pair of padded undershorts for the next leg AND a psychological edge. I did the first three weeks without a break for a similar reason; I’ll have a rest day every about every two weeks from now on. It’s a big advantage to know that the longest unbroken stint is behind me. If any of you have seen The Princess Bride, it’s a lot like the sword fight at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity. But on wheels.

Someone asked me before I left whether I considered myself an athlete. I was a bit confused at the time and had to look up what the word meant. I learned that ‘athletes’ compete against each other for prizes. I am going for a world record but if I break it I’ll only ever keep my time; a prize you always keep. I’m doing this to raise money for and awareness of a Parkinson’s Disease research charity (www.whatsdrivingparkinsons.net). Breaking the record is important to me because a challenge like this, in some small way, reflects the challenge of undertaking groundbreaking medical research on a shoestring budget. It’s thoughts like these that keep me going, not the idea of a medal at the end…

By James Bowthorpe

My name is James Bowthorpe. On the 29th March 2009 I set out from London to break the round the world cycling record. I am doing this to raise 1.8 million pounds for much needed research into the cause of Parkinson’s Disease. I have been preparing for this challenge for the last 6 months and now I’m on my way! You can follow my progress and see photos, on my blog.

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