In 1983 my mom rode her bike from England to Istanbul. To do this she had to cross the Iron Curtain and cycle into eastern bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. I'm not as brave or adventurous as her, but I wanted to do something similar during my last summer of freedom before beginning my PhD program. Paris was chosen as the starting and ending point because it was the only airport where I could find direct flights with ample leg room. When you're 6'9" (206 cm to my friends I met on the trip), leg room on a ten hour flight is a matter of life and death. If only I had planned the start of my tour with the same attention to detail I had bought my tickets with. I had a vague idea that once I landed in Paris I would ride to France's northern coast and then head east to eventually reach Scandinavia. From there I thought I might wander up north to the Arctic Circle in Norway and catch a glimpse of the midnight sun. As you can see from the map above, it didn't quite work out that way.
The black pin on the map is Paris and my journey started on the teal line heading west (teal for cycling, red for trains/ferries). Due to a combination of disorientation and jet lag, I ended up sleeping on a park bench on my first night in France. Things didn't improve much from there. After awaking at 4:00 am, I tried to use the river Seine as my guide to reach the coast. Obviously a river flows to the ocean right? So all I have to do is keep it on my right hand side and it'll take me straight to where I want to go! Well it turns out that Paris has two rivers going through it (???). This resulted in me riding around in circles all morning. Nearby to the park where I slept I noticed a statue of Gandhi in a town square. Two hours later I came upon a statue of Gandhi again and thought to myself, "Wow, the French must really love this guy." Turns out it was the same exact statue. Two hours of riding later.
Clearly I needed to sort out my navigation issues. But how could I do this without cellular-data-fueled Google Maps to guide me?
All McDonald's in the world (*except Germany) have WiFi! So if I could find one of those, now I could pre-load routes onto my phone, and use the GPS capability to make sure I was following them! McDonald's also conveniently solved some problems with language anxiety I was feeling at the time. Ordering food in a foreign language was daunting for me throughout the trip, but I had seen Pulp Fiction enough times to know that the magic words at any French McDonald's were "Royale with Cheese". In retrospect I ate way too much McDonald's food when I should have been enjoying the local food...
It probably says something about my addiction to the internet that McDonald's became my oases. They were social media sanctuaries in what was otherwise an Airplane-mode desert. Even upon returning to the US, whenever I notice a McDonald's along the road my brain gets a little tingle of endorphin-fueled anticipation. But I don't expect I'll ever eat at one again.
From one McDonald's to the next I leapfrogged my way around France and into Belgium. The bike infrastructure improved dramatically once I crossed the Belgian border and it was a real joy to ride on.
Dutch Daydream or Netherlands Nightmare?
On the sixth day of the journey I rode into the Netherlands, aka the Mecca of cycling. What could be better than a country that is completely flat, picturesque, and is carpeted in protected bike lanes? In fact, it appears to be possible to ride from one end of the Netherlands to the other without ever leaving a bike path or bike lane. What should have been easy, stress-free, riding for a few days, however, turned into one of the most harrowing experiences of my whole trip.
My mistake was in not planning a sleeping spot for my first day in Holland. I had easily wild camped one time in France already, so I figured I could find similar spots here. Or, failing that, I would come upon a cheap hotel or hostel to stay at on my way north from the southern border of Holland to Amsterdam. I cycled for hours and hours but could not find any accommodations that met either criteria. The countryside was too developed with farmlands or suburbs to wild camp (the ideal locations for setting up an illegal tent are in secluded wooded areas), and every hotel I passed in southern Holland was far too bougie for a disheveled and sweat-drenched cyclist like myself. At about 11:00 PM I gave up and tried to rest on a bench beside the Rotterdam harbor for a few hours. In keeping with my bad luck from earlier, it began to pour rain at 3:00 AM and I had no choice but to pack up and continue riding in the dark and in the rain.
Without my carefully planned out McDonald's network, I cycled in a general northward direction—towards what I thought was the city glow of Amsterdam far off in the distance. When I found out that the glow was actually from the very bright lights of an artificially-lit greenhouse, I nearly lost all hope. Somehow I meandered into Amsterdam at around 4:00 PM and immediately checked into a cheap hotel to escape the persistent rain. The upside to being confined inside my room was that it gave me plenty of time to plan out my next several nights of accommodation—as well as expand my crucial McDonald's map network.
Do I Even Like This?
I spent the next week or so riding through Germany, then taking a ferry to Denmark, riding up the coast to Copenhagen, taking another ferry across to Sweden, and then riding up the western coast of Sweden on my way to Gothenburg. At this point in the trip I was finally settling into the routine. McDonald's in Germany don't provide WiFi for some reason, so I had to adapt and plan my routes out further than normal. I also became better at wild camping and found great spots to sleep in Germany and Sweden. The actual cycling became easier as well, as my physical fitness improved. My longest day in terms of mileage (130 miles in about 13 hours of riding) was during my second day in Germany when the weather finally became pleasant again.
While I enjoyed certain aspects of the trip—for example, Copenhagen was a beautiful city and was a wondrous display of proper urban biking infrastructure—the interminability of the trip began to weigh down hard. At every prior stage of the trip I had thought to myself "I might not be loving this at the moment but as soon as I get to X, everything is going to be awesome!" (Replace X with "the French coast", "the great bike paths in the Netherlands/Denmark", or "the rugged natural beauty of Scandinavia in Sweden"). About halfway up the coast of Sweden it finally hit me that there wasn't going to be a dramatic improvement in anywhere I went, and that this was basically it in terms of the day-to-day experience of cycling across Europe. This depressing realization was enough to get me to hop off my bike and grab the next train north to Gothenburg (see red section in Sweden on map above).
It was only towards the end of my whole trip that I realized the error in my "it'll get better once I reach X" mentality. If, instead of killing myself cycling 100+ mile days in the hopes of reaching a particular country or region faster, I had taken my time and simply enjoyed wherever I might be, the first few weeks of the trip would have been much more enjoyable. My main piece of advice to anyone thinking of doing a similar long-distance bike tour would be to forcibly impose leisure upon yourself. Stop at a proper campground early in the afternoon and enjoy wandering around the nearby town. Don't do what I did and cycle all day until just before dark (usually around 9:30 or 10:00 PM) and then desperately search around for wild camping locations.
Gothenburg was a major turning point in the trip. The two days I spent there reinvigorated my excitement for the trip and raised my spirits considerably. This was probably due to a few reasons. First, the fact that Sweden and Norway permitted wild camping basically anywhere that wasn't explicitly private land took a ton of stress out of each day. Because these countries were so wooded, I knew I'd always be able to find a great place to sleep every night. Second, the natural splendor of the Scandinavian scenery kept increasing as I rode north. I realized that this was the sort of outdoors I really enjoyed—not the bucolic fields of France and Germany. And thirdly, I began listening to the fantastic audio book version of The Lord of the Rings during this time. The rugged scenery matched the events in the book perfectly and I began to strongly identify with the hobbits Frodo and Sam. Like them, I was lost and out of my element, and all I wanted was to be at home with a proper warm-cooked meal.
I found Oslo to be a miserable city (poor biking infrastructure, super crowded, and 40% of the downtown was under construction at the time I was there), but that was only a minor hiccup during my growing contentment while cycling through Norway. Mile after mile of riding alongside fjords, with steep green slopes to my right and crystal blue water to my left, made for a perfect journey. Even when I had to finally climb up and out of the valleys (covering 3000 feet of elevation gain in about 10 miles of distance) I had nothing to complain about. But the further north I traveled, the more I had to ride alongside busy highways packed with holiday-makers in their RV's. Scandinavian drivers are usually extremely courteous towards cyclists, but by the time I reached Trondheim I had reached my limit in terms of cars zooming away inches from me as they passed.
Trondheim would prove to be the northernmost point I'd reach on the trip (217 miles south of the Arctic Circle). I decided to turn towards the southeast at this point because it looked like I would be cycling alongside busy highways if I wanted to go any further north in Norway. One downside of the beautiful Norwegian fjords and mountains is that all vehicle traffic is then increasingly concentrated in just a few roads. So I took a train just over the border back to Sweden and planned to continue my trip south to Stockholm. This phase of the trip in Sweden turned out to be a lot better than the last time I'd been there. As I coasted down the mountains on my way towards the Baltic Sea, my spirits were considerably higher than those of my friends on their way to Mordor.
Cruising Through the Baltics
I had been cycling for over a month by the time I left Stockholm on August 7th. You'd think I would've lost some weight during that time, but if I did, it wasn't noticeable. Evidently it is possible to offset the burning of 5000+ calories a day if you subsist on mostly croissants, donuts, and candy bars. I also consumed about a week's worth of food on the overnight ferry I took from Stockholm to Tallinn. Having six plates at a buffet make the 30 euro price to eat worth it!
My route through the Baltics took me south from Tallinn, in the north of Estonia, through Riga in Latvia, and then to Vilnius in Lithuania. Despite noticeably worse cycling infrastructure in these countries (what would have been smooth paved farm roads in Western Europe were generally bumpy gravel here in the East), my week in the Baltics was great. Coming from Scandinavia, whose countries have some of the highest standards of living in the world, Eastern Europe was incredibly cheap. Food seemed to cost about 60% of the Scandinavian prices and I could find beds in hostels for under $10 a night. I want to give a particular shout-out to Vilnius. This beautiful city in a remote corner of Europe was probably my favorite place to stay on the whole trip. You saw old Soviet architecture mixed with modern sleek high-rises, all surrounding a gorgeous medieval downtown. After Vilnius I cycled another two days over the Polish border and officially ended my cycling journey in the town of Augustow.
The Last Phase:
From Augustow I took trains back westward. I stopped for a night in Warsaw, Berlin, and Cologne along the way. And then I completed one last mini tour from Cologne to Brussels, via Masstricht in the Netherlands, on my bike. The flat, paved bike paths of Western Europe that I had grown so bored with during the first half of my trip were a welcome joy after dealing with the Scandinavian and Baltic wildernesses for the past three weeks. I finally felt like this might be something I would want to do again.
If I were to take another bike tour, I'd do several things different. The first would be riding a more heavy-duty bike with wider tires. Unless you only plan to ride around the Netherlands and Belgium, you're going to have to go off-road at some point on your trip. There were extended periods of riding on dirt roads in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and it would have even helped with the annoying cobblestones they have everywhere in France and Germany. Next, I would absolutely get a SIM card and European data plan. The reliance on intermittent WiFi for my navigation led to so much stress and frustration during the early days of the trip. As we have seen, relying on McDonald's is tempting fate. Lastly, like I mentioned earlier, if I were to go on a long bike trip again I would pace myself much more conservatively. It sounds obvious in retrospect, but the whole point of traveling is to enjoy your surroundings. To do this you have to stop pedaling every once and a while.