How the Kindness of Strangers Saved my 6,000km Cycle Tour
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Summary: The prospect of cycling 6,000km from Norway to Azerbaijan was daunting at first. With the intense physical challenge, the isolation, and my lack of experience, I considered quitting and coming home every day for the first few weeks of the cycle tour. But the Kindness of Norwegian strangers soon flipped the entire experience on it’s head…
The end of day one, and panic was setting in. 65km… 11-and-a-half hours… That’s an average of less than 6kmph. I sat on the edge of a bed, stunned at the extent to which I’d underestimated how hard this was going to be. 6kmph?! How was I supposed to make it 6,000km travelling slower than an amateur race-walker? Maybe I could ditch the bike? Take a train? Sneak home on the Hurtigruten without anyone noticing and pretend this never happened? Oh God, what had I got myself into?
I put on a brave face for a moment, talking to my camera and laughing about how disastrous that first day had been; setting off from Tromsø at midday, watching the kilometres tick by agonisingly slowly on my phone until arriving at my uncle’s house in Malangen just before midnight, and desperately knocking on a random local woman’s home at 9.30, trembling and close to passing out after running out of food. It turns out all the shops in rural Norway are closed on Sundays. Who’d’ve thought? Everyone apart from me, apparently. I cursed the arrogance and naivety of past Tieran; “No, I don’t think I need to train, I’ll learn how to cycle tour and get fit on the road.” The camera was off again, and I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling, thinking of ways I could explain to my friends and family back at home that I’d decided to give up after 24 hours on my “Arctic to Asia” cycle tour. I could just disappear into the mountains and live as a hermit; that would save the embarrassment.
Reaching the top of a 6km climb on my way towards Nesna in Norway.
The Arctic to Asia Cycle Tour
A day earlier, I’d been in the comfort of a warm flat in Tromsø, rewatching Goodfellas with a grease-soaked pizza on the sofa and savouring a few, precious moments of comfort before I set off on what would be a 6,000km journey from the Norwegian Arctic to Central Asia and the shores of the Caspian Sea. Already, that felt like a lifetime ago.
I’d been set on this idea for months; cycle touring through 13 countries with no previous cycling experience and interviewing the locals I met on the way. I’d spent weeks building a website, thinking of stories I might tell, and imagining the people I’d stumble across… doing everything but training. “Jump in at the deep end” had been my approach. A nasty bike accident at the age of 9 resulted in a torn-up lower lip and my two front incisors taking an unplanned trip across some tarmac (top tip, by the way: if you ever knock your teeth out, DO NOT wash them with water; instead put them in cold milk and take them to a dentist, or stick them back in yourself if you’re more than 30 minutes away. Firstly, you’ll impress the dentist and, secondly, they’re much more likely to survive… the teeth, that is, not the dentist). That experience left me 9 years of dental surgery, 6 of them without front teeth until the age of 18. The idea to me, back then, that I’d one day attempt to cross a continent on a bicycle would have been laughable. Not having teeth for most of my adolescence had knocked my confidence and put me off bikes. I’d steered well clear of them for the past 10 years, and I’d worried that trying to get back into cycling before I’d flown to Norway would put me off the idea entirely. But once I was there, there would be no turning back; I’d have to cycle. And that would force me to get used to it. So, with nothing but a couple of short rides under my belt, I’d booked a ticket with a now-ex-girlfriend, Miriam, to Norway, and gone in clueless, but hoping for the best.
A glimpse of the midnight sun in Vassdalsvik, Norway, after a three-day storm.
Midnight Sun and the Endless Day
A damaged break pad squealed as I rocketed down a mountainside on Senja, and my cheeks stung as biting air rushed against my face. Rays of the midnight sun spilled between the mountains on the other side of the fjord, bouncing off the water below. I smiled to myself; how many people get the opportunity to do something like this? I felt lucky.
It was closing in on 1am, but time had lost all meaning. It’s hard to imagine the effects of 24 hour sunlight until you’ve experienced them. Your body’s rhythm is thrown off and your concept of “the end of the day” begins to warp; I met a cyclist who was waking up at 6pm, cycling until 6am, and then going to sleep. The endless days were disorientating at first, but soon I’d felt liberated from the constraints of limited daylight hours. I’d experienced it before, as well as the opposite during winter, on visits to my relatives up here, but not for this long. Routine went out of the window. Wake up whenever you want. Set off whenever you want. Cycle until you feel like stopping. Stop until you feel like cycling. It was freeing. The sun bounced like a ball, rotating around us and dipping towards the horizon, only to rise again, and again, and again. The only sign that it was “nighttime” was a decrease in what little traffic there was in the day, and the “Stengt (closed)” signs outside restaurants and shops. As we basked in constant light, I couldn’t help but think of what the colder months were like for people who actually lived here, when they’re cast into an endless night.
Wild camping on a beach in Senja at 1am.
Psychological or Physical?
The rain hammered against a window as it shook under the force of a gust of wind. Our gear lay soaked, stretched across some wooden benches. It wouldn’t dry by morning, but at least it wouldn’t still be dripping. We were lying on the tiled floor of a ferry “venterom” – a waiting room – still damp from the wet footprints and tyre tracks that we’d brought in with us. It was a blessing that these small, heated shelters were open for 24 hours, and we’d end up hopping from one to another for eight nights as we made our way South. Prices in Norway meant hotels were often out of the question – in the first few weeks of my trip I burned through 25% of the savings I had to last me a year-and-a-half on the road – so we’d wild camped as much as possible, bought cheap food, and stayed in accommodation only when there was no other option. But skimping out on food was starting to have an impact; I was losing weight, and the lack of adequate nutrition after exerting so much energy left me irritable, and meant it was easy for my mind to slip into a world of worry.
Cycling along the edge of a fjord in Senja, Northern Norway.
The last few weeks had been a rollercoaster ride. In a heartbeat, I could snap from feelings of euphoria as I savoured the once-in-a-lifetime adventure, to a sense of dread. As I rolled onto my side, and back again, struggling to find a comfortable position, the monumental scale of the journey ahead of me was setting in. I opened maps on my phone, and stared in horror at how close the blue marker was to where we’d started. Surely we’d gone further than that? The familiar sense of panic returned. Had I made a terrible mistake? Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. Miriam was only accompanying me for the start of the trip, and what then? If I can barely handle this with company, what will it be like alone? The panic was like a train picking up speed; once it gained momentum, it was next to impossible to stop. Whenever I started feeling like this, the stunning fjords, mountains, and forests began to feel like walls. I felt trapped, and more isolated than I ever had done. Without realising, I was fighting back tears.
Most people assume the challenge of a long distance cycle tour is a physical one; that it’s all about burning thighs, aching backs, and breathless climbs. Those things certainly effected me during the first few days of cycling. But, as the trip drew on, I began to realise that far more of the hurdles would be faced in my mind. I’d rarely been homesick before, but I felt it now; an urge for home comforts, for dinners with my family, a comfortable bed, Netflix and showers… God, SHOWERS. I’d been washing in sinks, rivers and streams. When my spirits were high, “showering” (a generous term for what it was) with a view of snow-capped mountaintops that dropped straight into the sea was an incredible experience. But when they weren’t, it was a different story, and I found myself focusing on the cold, my exhaustion, and the incessant whine of mosquitos… thousands of them; a price Norway pays for its watery landscape. I felt myself wearing down. So far, I’d thought about giving up and coming home every day. On each occasion, I told myself to give it time. But the harder I tried to not think about the days, weeks and months ahead, the more I found myself dwelling on them; this was, without a doubt, going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Sitting on the edge of a cliff with a view of a fjord near Stokkvågen, Norway.
The Kindness of Strangers
I hurtled along a winding mountain road, descending from 2,100 feet at Dombås, in Dovre. This was glorious; 10km downhill… no pedalling, no breathlessness, just effortless gliding. Last night had been another 10 hours spent on the floor of a waiting room, woken up every hour-or-so by the rumble of trucks rolling off the ferry at the mouth of a fjord. But despite the tiredness, my spirits were up. We’d hitched a ride on a “bobil” – a campervan – with a couple, Gunhild and Svein-Olav, driving along the coast. They’d saved us a 60km detour inland, and squeezed all our gear into the back of their vehicle before driving us through a tunnel that didn’t allow cyclists, and taking us out for a pizza.
Our first experience with the kindness of strangers; Gunhild and Svein Olav took us through a tunnel near Molde in their camper van, on a hike to some caves, and out for pizza!
The road levelled out, and we reached a valley floor. It was getting late, and I was beginning to wonder how we’d be able to cook our food; an intense drought and a high risk of forest fires meant open flames were forbidden, and that included my camping stove. Still on a high after our encounter, I felt emboldened. Abandoning my inhibitions, I decided to try knocking on a door to see if we could could find someone willing to let us use their stove. Door number one; no answer. Maybe I was being overly optimistic. Who would let two random cyclists in for dinner? Give it another go? No, not the next house, it looked… unfriendly – assigning inanimate objects personalities becomes routine when you’re on a trip like this. Maybe the one after.
Door number two swung open, and a man with a surprised and perplexed expression greeted me. Who could blame him? I’d be confused too. I did my best to explain the situation with my limited Norwegian, before he laughed and allowed us in, and we began to talk. He introduced himself as Svein – another Svein! There must be something about Sveins and hospitality – along with his Wife and daughter, Berit and Amalia, and we clicked immediately. We chatted for hours and, just as we were about to leave in search of a place to camp, the couple invited us to stay in a cabin in their garden.
The kindness of strangers strikes again! Dinner with Svein, Berit, and Amalia in Dovre, Norway.
We got on so well with the Berg family that one night turned to two… and then three. Our eventual goodbye was emotional, but it wouldn’t be the last we saw of them; weeks later we’d be invited to their surprise joint 50th birthday party by their daughters, Amalie and Anna. I’m writing this two years later and, just a few days ago Svein and I were messaging, discussing meeting up next time I visit Norway.
If I had to pick out one day from those 18 months of cycling when things started to change for the better, a catalyst that flipped the entire adventure on its head, this would be it. It shaped the experience more than anything else, and for that I will be forever grateful to the Bergs. In an increasingly divided world, people assume the worst about strangers’ intentions. But since visiting Dovre, I’ve done my best to let go of that, and have stayed with dozens of local people. It unlocked a door that opened to a world of new experiences; I met people I’d never otherwise have crossed paths with, and formed memories that’ll be with me forever. Yes, one or two of my hosts in a year-and-a-half of cycle touring were a bit wacky, but all were friendly, and meeting them showed me a side of travel that relatively few people get to see. It was hospitality in its purest form. Nobody had anything to gain by inviting me to stay with them; some were curious, and wanted to learn about the absurdity of my journey, others felt like ambassadors showing a foreigner the best side of their countries, and some just wanted to help a guy who looked tired. When I look back at the highlights of my trip, it is them that I picture: the friendly faces gesturing for me to stop at the roadside, the families I sat down for tea with, and the people who welcomed me with open arms into their worlds for a chat, a meal, or a bed for the night.
So, why cycle?
When you take a bus, train, or car somewhere, there’s a near-instant shift in surroundings. Hop on a plane in England, get off in Germany; nothing in between. People often think of culture as binary; you either are Norwegian or you aren’t. But this ignores the world’s diversity; it’s painting by numbers. Instead, I prefer to think of it as a spectrum, and a cycle tour takes you on a journey from one end to another, and everything in between. On the bike, I watched cultures slowly morph into hybrids of one another close to borders, before drifting apart and becoming more distinct again as I pedalled onwards. I saw how the landscape shaped cultural flow, languages, and history, and how groups with their own identities thrived in pockets within broader communities. I spent enough time in each of the regions I cycled through to start to understand them, and staying with countless local people allowed me to learn about their backgrounds and cultures from them rather than a guidebook.
Whenever times were tough, morale was low, or I found myself yearning to be home, I turned to that for motivation. As the journey went on, the hard days became less and less frequent, and that’s all because the people I’d met, and was going to meet, and their stories, kept me going.
And if all that doesn’t convince you; it’s cheap, eco-friendly, and swaps sweaty bus/plain/train journeys for the great outdoors.
Cycling across Andøya, one of the most beautiful stretches of my journey.
I’ll be the first to admit I was woefully unprepared for my journey. It was easy to let myself to slip into a mental fog of loneliness, frustration, and worry, and at times it was near-impossible to see how I’d make it down to Germany, let alone cycle solo through Eastern Europe, across Turkey and into the Caucasus. That feeling wore me down over time, and I spent night-after-night wide awake, my stomach in knots as I came to terms with my new routine. And a lot of days, I felt beaten. To be honest, if I hadn’t been in the middle of nowhere, with no option but to keep going in those early days, I probably wouldn’t be here, writing this right now. I’d have returned home, broken by just a month of cycle touring. After a few weeks of getting used to my new routine, when I eventually emerged on the other side of that, it was as though I’d been shattered into a million pieces, and slowly put back together again. Adjusting to travelling solo would be another hurdle, but I’d cross that bridge in the future. For now, I was starting to learn that a cycle tour is as lonely and isolating as you choose to make it. And, while the landscape we cycled through was spectacular, it was the people we crossed paths with that made the experience truly unforgettable.
Me with my Trek mountain bike, which weighed over 75kg.