4 pairs of socks ? Hmm no that's too much, even though i'll be seeing some people (so i have to be able to look clean) 3 should be more than enough. Dark ones, they'll give the illusion of being clean even if they're not ! A second warm top or not ? Nah if i get cold i'll just put on more layers of clothes, it should be fine... What about the food ? How much should i bring, can't i just buy some on the way ? And the water ?
Such were the questions in my mind during the whole day of friday the 15th. On the next day i was going to leave from my home in Tours to travel on my bicycle to Milan in Italy, more than 1000 km through forests and mountains for the longest bike journey i have ever done so far !
I have planned to first head full East to Besançon, close to the Swiss border because i know someone there, and then a bit north to Basel to see Steve, an excellent traceur and friend. From there, i'll go South to Milan. It's really not the shortest route to Milan but it'll be fun to meet up with friends on my way !
On the morning of the 16th, i double check everything, i feel stressed and even a little bit sad. The stress is normal before something like this, but why don't i feel happy ? I'm finally leaving for this trip i've been thinking about for so long, i should be full of joy !
Anyway, around 11 in the morning, i hop on my bike and head for the end of the street. I take a right, and i'm off.
I still feel down, and the weather is not going to help : it's either very cloudy or rainy.
A lot of questions go through my mind. I'm doubting a lot about me, about this trip :
"_What are you doing here Thomas, you could be in your comfortable home watching a good film and eating some good food, but you're here, riding all day under this stupid rain... Have you made a mistake ? After all, it's not too late to turn back, you can just say to everyone that you had something important to do, you can create any kind of excuse and it'll be fine...
_But if you do this, maybe everyone will believe you, but you Thomas, you'll know the truth, and it makes all the difference, you'll know you just quit because you didn't feel strong enough to finish what you started... Didn't you promise to yourself you wouldn't ever quit anything anymore, that you would do what it takes to succeed ? So just shut up and keep going ! The best things in life often take time to be recognised as such, you're going to do it because you've decided it, because you know it's the best thing for you, because it's part of your personal evolution, don't forget who you are and what you dream of. You want to reach the stars ? Then it starts right here, right now, on this bike under this damn rain. Just think of how worse it could be... "
After a while, i start feeling better. A phone call from Cisco -one of my best friends- cheers me up even more. On the third day, all my negativity is gone, probably blown away with the black rainy clouds, it is sunny in every way !
In the afternoon, i discover, on the side of a road, a big rock that i decide to climb for fun. I take my camera to the top, and try to tie it to a branch to make a photo (i don't even have a tripod with me). But as i turn around to place myself for the photo, the camera decides to do some parkour of it's own and jumps down 10 meters lower (lens open and out) onto a big stone, bounces off, and lands with an awkward roll. From the sound of it, it wasn't very controlled... I rush down to the site of the crash, push back the memory card into it's socket, wipe off the dirt and realise that surprisingly, except for a few bumps and bruises, it's working just fine ! Why does every beginner always start with big jumps ?
I get back on my bike, reflecting about the superiority of cameras compared to human beings...
The next day, Steve calls me, he has things to do and must leave his home, so i can't come anymore. Ah ! I was looking forward so much to seeing him ! Well, at least it'll make my trip shorter since i can go full South just after Besançon. It'll also allow me to go through Château d'Oex, the town of Mike Horn (simply one of the greatest adventurers of all time and one of the men -dead included- for whom i have the most respect in this world !). I've been exchanging a few emails with Cathy, his wife, and even though i heard he'll be away when i get there, it should be nice anyway to travel through his town.
I arrive in Besançon on the evening of the 4th day after a total of 500km and i meet up with Maï, a friend from school that i hadn't seen in years. I've finished the first half of my trip, the easy half, since so far i almost didn't have any uphill riding to do. The real challenge, hovering over my mind, is still ahead : the Alps !
Maï kindly invites me to stay at her place. I'll spend 2 nights there, resting, taking showers, and of course chatting and spending time with her and her friends.
I get rid of some of my stuff, to be as light as possible (even after doing this, i'll later realise that i still have several useless things...) and around 4pm, on the 21st, i leave from Besançon in the direction of Switzerland.
I managed, although I left very late, to cover 70km on that day and in the evening, it's very close to the border that i set my tent. Tomorrow morning, i'll be in Switzerland, and it will be the first time in my life that i travel on a bike in another country, it's very exciting !
The next morning, i pass a deserted border on top of a big hill, not even a "Welcome to Switzerland" sign... It seems they just don't care that people come and go into their country.
Cottages, mountains and cows, with no doubt i'm in Switzerland ! I'm very excited, the road, the signs, the background... all of this is no longer France, it's so motivating to feel far from home ! I take a picture of the first swiss person that i see (an old guy on a tractor) and i'm off on my first swiss hill. Many will follow, in the land of mountains.
As i travel, the hills start to look more and more seriously high. At first, riding uphill nearly all day long can be a bit depressing : you move at 5 or 6 km/h (which is about the speed of someone walking) and you never seem to be reaching the top, but you are always rewarded with a long downhill road, and sometimes a beautiful view too !
Once you start to understand that anyway, no matter how fast or slow you are, you're not going to see the end of this damn road before a long time, and there's always going to be another hill or mountain after the one you're riding on, you just keep on riding calmly and patiently, no matter how long and hard it gets. Sooner or later you'll see the end of it...
Saturday 23rd of June, such a beautiful day ! I wake up in the little barn that i chose as my camping ground for the night, near the town of Gruyère, and after around 20km, i reach Château d'Oex. The last email from Mike Horn's wife (Cathy) that i had received mentioned a hotel, used also as Mike's "office" for the preparation of his expeditions, so that's where i went immediately. Maybe i would meet Cathy and have a chat with her.
As i search for the entrance, a man rushes out towards his car, i can't believe it, it's Mike ! I introduce myself and after parking his car, he invites me in, he's just in the middle of packing for a trip, there's stuff everywhere over the floor : dehydrated food, cereals, clothes, climbing equipement, rucksacks, headlamps, etc. !
I know he's a very nice man, but he's very busy and the last thing i want is to disturb him, so i refrain myself from asking him the tons of questions that i have and i remain very silent, helping out at moments as i can. I feel so lucky just to be here !
I am introduced to Cathy and to two very nice people working closely with Mike : Caroline, and David a photographer/journalist/traveller with whom i chat a lot.
I stay the whole afternoon, eating cereal, drinking coffee, and listening to the bits of experience that Mike shares with us as he gets on with the packing. Some of these objects on the floor have been used during his past expeditions, i am fascinated to see them there, with the marks caused by the situations they've been through, each one telling a story of its own.
It's only in the end of the afternoon that i get back on my way. This time spent with these people was really good. Although they were all very busy they welcomed me very kindly, gave me some of their time and made me feel comfortable, i can only have respect for them.
Mike is a very modest man, yet aware of his capabilities and capable of a lot, those are the characteristics of a strong man according to me.
Motivated by this event, i could now face the main difficulty of my trip, the Sanetsch-pass at 2250m of altitude. The only way to reach it is to follow a footpath streaming along the mountain. I reach the path in the evening and start pushing my bike (it's quite impossible to ride it here) during an hour and a half before setting my tent for the night. In the morning, i get back to work, pushing and carrying my bike and my equipment on this steep stoney path. It's quite a slow and exhausting process but at the end of the morning, i finally reach the top. On the other side, there is a road so things get back to normal, i'm done with my pushing !
I'm almost finished with the mountains and with Switzerland, the road i'm now following is between two huge mountains but remains surprisingly flat. The last serious obstacle before Italy will be the Simplon-pass at 2000m. There's a road going there so no problem about that, but it's a long uphill road of around 20km. Just like with the Sanetsch-pass, i start climbing it in the evening, and after sleeping under some sort of bridge during the night, i get back on my way, and again, it takes the whole morning to reach the top. I'm finally done with the mountains !
Just a long nice downhill ride and YOOHOO, Sono in Italia !
I pass the border, and the very first thing i do in Italy is to stop in a bar and ask for a hot chocolate. There's nothing as good as a real italian hot chocolate covered with whipped cream (la pana), i could drink one every hour, it's so creamy that you drink it with the spoon !
I expect to be in Milan on the next day so i take my time as i ride on the roads of Italia. Around 2pm, i pass in front of a sign : "Milano 120km" and something tilts in my head. I tell myself that if i hurry and if the roads remain flat until Milan, i can be there in the evening ! So i suddenly start rushing at an average speed of 25km/h, sometimes 30. I don't want to stop anymore, i give all the energy that's left in my legs. I take the wrong road twice but i keep on rushing and Milan gets closer and closer. The last kilometers never seem to end but at last, around 10pm on the 25th of June, i reach the Duomo (the big cathedral in the center) of Milan. I'm thirsty, hungry and completely exhausted ! In this single day i've done 213 km (some of them being in the mountain in the morning) and i have reached my final goal. I did it, and it wasn't so hard !
Travelling in unknown places and sleeping wherever i am when i get tired are things that i find very pleasant. The first two days of my trip were just, i suppose, the necessary time of adaptation to a different way of living. I enjoy being on the move, each day being different than the last. Meeting different people, discovering different places, living different experiences, being in perpetual unexpectedness, dealing with problems as they come and always adapting to situations...
I realise that when some unpleasant event happens, it often makes way for a pleasant one, as long as i do my best to adapt and to see my new possibilities. I think that this is not very usual in most people's mind, we often build an image of what we want and try to change our reality by making long-term plans until our reality fits this image. If at some point, something goes wrong in our plans (which is always very likely to happen), we get depressed because we feel that our goal is compromised.
But things don't go wrong, they just happen, taking and giving possibilities all the time. I know that if i open my eyes to the new possibilities i can probably find a way to keep on moving towards my goal, and maybe it'll be in a way that i had never imagined before.
"If life gives you lemons, make lemonade" as they say !
When i arrived in Milan, i was a bit sad, not only that i didn't have anyone there to host me (i was going to spend a sleepless night in the street), but also that it was already the end, i was tempted to keep on going, not for the love of cycling (i don't like it that much actually) but for the way of life that i was starting to get really used to. During the night, i roamed around for hours in the empty streets of Milan, it's interesting how cities reveal a completely different face during the night : overcrowded places become human deserts, people act strangely (it's impressive to see how many people go out cycling at 3 in the morning !). When the sun started rising, i went to the train station and started my trip back to France.
My "adventure" was over but something was telling me that it was just a start...
New ideas of adventure are popping into my mind now, i know i'm capable of going for more difficult challenges. But not here, not in Europe. I'm attracted by wild, far-away places and i feel an urgent need to leave, like a natural impulse waking up violently after years of sleep. I know that so many experiences, so much adventure is out there, and every second that i spend here doing nothing is a portion of time, of life, lost forever...
It's definitely true what Mike told me just after we shook hands : "Life is so boring if you don't challenge yourself " !