Via Francigena, day 1 (30/Jul): From Canterbury to Alembon

Greetings EyeCycled Friends,

Have you ever been a pilgrim?

Yes? Then skip to the next paragraph as I don’t need to preach for the choir.

No? OK, then 1-0-1 on being a pilgrim… expect the unexpected!

Every thing was going according to plan this morning. I woke up quite early (around 6:30am), even though I had the alarm set for 7:00am. After the “body necessities” and the shower, I was number 2 in line for breakfast which in the Canterbury Youth Hostel (YHA) starts being served at 7:30am.

All going according to plan so far.

After finishing my wonderful breakfast, I brought 3 of the 6 bags I am carrying downstairs and ask for the bike shed key. Most, if not all, YHAs have a bike shed, hence the reason I like staying with them.

Btw, let me do a little detour before I continue with the account of the morning… Met a German cyclist there, who is currently living in Paris. He told me he had to travel to New Castle for work and decided to bring his bicycle on the train with him and then go back to Paris by bike. He was staying in the same room as me was heading to Newhaven to get the ferry to Dieppe, which I have also done already.

Back to my account of the morning… The key to the bike shed. Reception told me they had given the key to a lady hours before and she had not returned it. Now, where is this lady, you may ask? No one knows, of course. Eventually they found her, but that had introduced a 45 min delay in my schedule and I was late already because of the packing. Those that had traveled with me before, know I am slow on these things. Long story short, didn’t leave the YHA until 9:45am, when I wanted to be at the Cathedral by 9:00am.

Went to the Cathedral anyway, got my stamp, took pictures of me, the cathedral (inside and out), did a prayer asking for God to bless and protect me in this journey and by the time I started to ride it was almost 10:30am. Remember my post from a few weeks back in which I rode from Canterbury to Dover on the National Cycle Route 16? That took us almost 3h, but I didn’t have 3h until the ferry was due to depart.

So I took the decision to ride to Dover on the A2. I normally avoid busy roads or highways like this, but today shortness of time forced me to do it. The A2 is an almost straight line from Canterbury to Dover and very few hills. Would be a great ride if it wasn’t for the intense traffic, especially that of big articulated trucks going to the Dover docks and then into Europe. The Eastern European truck drivers are the worst of all. A truck from Romania drove literally a few inches by me, at a speed I would estimate at 70 miles/h (120 Km/h). The air dislocation almost brought me under the truck. Why do so many drivers have so little value for human life when they sit behind the steering wheel of their vehicles? Other people, especially cyclists, become just an obstacle, like road side debris which are worth the risk of hitting for the sake of saving their vehicles momentum and not having to slow down for a moment.

My thoughts while cycling to Dover were focused on how stupid the system we created is. The A2 is a very smooth and direct route that cyclists are encouraged not to use because of their it’s traffic (it’s not illegal to cycle in an A road, just in a motorway, as far as I know) so they become an exclusivity for the people protected by the metal frame of their cars, sitting down in their air conditioned cockpits, listening music in their in-car entertainment system. They are so self-absorbed in their own life and importance that they make a huge deal of having to slow down or ever take a different route that could potentially delay them just a few minutes, while the cyclists, as vulnerable as they are, not only to the road conditions be all weather as well, have to take poorly surfaced cycling lanes or minor roads full of potholes. Don’t tell me we are a civilized society, because that is NOT true. A society whose individuals are totally focused on wild consumption and the protection of exclusive use of resources paid by all. Why do we accept that cycling routes can be of any less quality than those cars use? Why those who choose to travel in low environmental impact styles are penalized by poor infrastructure. Shouldn’t they be rewarded for not damaging the environment? Makes me mad to be human…

Rant over!

Anyway, if you are cycling from Canterbury to Dover, don’t do what I did. Stick on the Cycle routes, they are longer, hilly, poorly paved, but safer…

Change of subject… Weather wasn’t good all day with some scattered light showers along the way, but some 5 Km before arriving in Dover, weather turned really nasty and started to rain quite heavily. I got completely soaked. As I arrived in the ferry terminal I was surprised to find a huge party of young cyclists in front of me, mostly teenagers. They appeared to be part of a scout group heading into Europe. There must have been at least 50 of them.

Also met a couple that was on a weekend cycling trip to Calais. The ferry was packed with passengers today. Lots of buses with Asian (Chinese?) tourists.

Once we disembarked I headed into Calais’ town centre following the signs, looked for the Tourist Information office and after I got a stamp in my pilgrim’s credentials (3 stamps already on the 1st day) I went to a shop to buy a French SIM card. At the tourist information office they highlighted a few places who, according to them, offered discount rates to Via Francigena pilgrims. Among them was this family run farm B&B in Alembon, which was a bit further than what I wanted to ride, but for some reason I was attracted to it. I was expecting to get here and just have a discount, but when I got here the only room the lady had available was her daughter’s who wasn’t here today. To my surprise when I asked how much the room was for the night, the lady said, “as much as you want to pay”. I said are 10 Euros OK? She answered “sure!”. Good to know there are still people not entirely driven by financial gain in this world, although I think she would only do that for pilgrims.

Not only I am sleeping in a comfortable bed tonight, but she has also fed me some very simple but wonderful food. She even asked me if I wanted beer or wine, but I declined. Just water today. A tomato salad wonderfully prepared, 3 different types of cheeses, ham, bread and butter. For desert I had, what I think was the best plum I ate in my entire life. There was a bowl full of them at the other end of a long table and I could smell them sitting from where I was.

They have a large, simple and unsophisticated, but wonderful fire place and on some tables at the wall she sells their home made compotes, which I would definitely buy, if I wasn’t riding a bicycle.

This is it for the day… almost 60 Km today not counting the time spent waiting to board the ferry and the channel crossing. I am really happy to have found this place in Alembon after a somewhat stressful start and all the heavy rain. Tomorrow is another day of full of the wonderful and unexpected I am sure. I also managed to hand-wash the clothes I was wearing today, so if they dry overnight, I might be able to wear the same clothes again, keeping the spare ones I brought clean in the panniers. If this repeats itself too often, I think I may have brought too much with me… time will tell.

If you read the entire text, I hope some of the pictures below are self-explanatory.

To finish today’s post, have you already made your contribution to Mind UK? You are reading this right? Common, open your wallet… it’s for a good cause.

God bless you all and thank you for your contribution.

Canterbury, the start of my Via Francigena

Greetings EyeCycled friends,

As I write these lines, I am sitting in the Youth Hostel’s lounge area enjoying their WiFi after a 3h drive on a congested M25 motorway. To be fair it wasn’t as bad as it can be for a Friday evening.

After checking-in my friend, my son and I had a walk around town and some wonderful juicy burgers… hey, I can afford it! I’ll be burning about 2500 CAL a day for the next 40 days.

We had quite a bit of rain on the way here, but weather is supposed to be OK tomorrow.

So, tomorrow the plan is to wake up around 7am for breakfast which is served from 7:30am onwards. Then pack everything in the bike and ride to the Cathedral, which is just over a mile or 2 Km from here.

Quick stop at the cathedral for a prayer and some photos then off to Dover. My ferry leaves at 12:55pm, but I need to be there at least 45 min before for the check-in procedures. Since I never crossed from Dover to Calais on a bicycle that will be new experience for me. It’s not the 1st time I crossed the channel on a ferry with a bicycle though, as I rode to Paris in 2014 and did the crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe with a bicycle.

The crossing should take 1.5h so that means I’ll arrive in Calais at around 3:30pm local time… say 30 min to disembark, we are looking at 4:00pm before I start riding in French soil.

My plan it to ride for 1.5h to the town of Guines and then find a place to stay for the night. So let’s see how it goes. If the place I am staying tomorrow has free WiFi then I’ll tell you about it.

For now, there are some of the pictures I took today as we were departing from my home and during our short walk in Canterbury’s town centre.

Hope you all have a wonderful evening and stayed tuned!

… and if you have not had the chance to make your donation yet for Mind UK through my Virgin Money Giving page, please don’t let me stop you… 🙂

Via Francigena Prep and "post by email test"

Greetings EyeCycled friends,

Browsing through WordPress the other day I discovered it is possible to configure it to post by email, in other words, I write an email, send it to the blog and WordPress publishes it as a blog post. I believe that would be ideal for when I am on the road, so decided to give it a try and this is my 1st “post by email” blog post. If it doesn’t look good, don’t blame me… 🙂

Last Sunday I did my first fully loaded test ride to Windsor. Packed in the panniers and rack everything I think I need to take with me and rode to Windsor and back, an approx. 42 Km round trip. The way to Windsor took 1h and 11 min which wasn’t bad, but the route to Windsor is quite flat. Will be a very different type of ride when crossing the Alps.

I used a bathroom scale to measure myself and the loaded bike and the weight of the bike + cargo is just over 50 Kg. The bike itself weighs about 15 Kg, so 35 Kg is load, which is probably too much. As usual, I “think” I am taking with me everything I “think” I am going to use along the ride, incl. all camping equipment and gear plus a small kitchen, clothing for 2 seasons (it can be rather cold in the Alps at the evening, even in summer), bike tools, etc.

I’ll try to reduce the weight by 10 to 15% before I leave.

I have also setup camp in my own back garden to test the new Alpkit Ordos 2 tent I bought especially for this occasion. I must confess I am way too used to the comfort of my bed and it wasn’t a good night sleep, but I am hoping that after a long day of cycling, sleeping at night won’t be an issue.

I am not exactly sure how pictures are displayed in a post, when the post is generated by an email, but I’ll attach some pictures in the hope they will look more or less self-explaining.

Just 3 days from my departure, there is still lots to be done. I have contacted several Warmshowers and Couchsurfing hosts, but the time of the year means a lot of people are themselves not home as they are traveling on holidays.

Well, as this is just a test to determine how this “WordPress Post by Email” feature works, I think that is it. If it works well, I may use it to post more often from the road as it looks like a really convenient method to post.

Stay tuned and if you can, please donate to my charity of choice, Mind UK, which link you can find in my previous blog post.

Thank you!

Via Francigena Charity Bike Ride, in aid of Mind UK.

Greetings EyeCycled friends.

Logo Via Francigena
Logo Via Francigena

Please read the blog post below and if you feel inclined to do so, donate generously to my charity of choice through the Virgin Money Giving link below:

If you have been following my blog or Facebook page, you will know that I am soon going to be undertaking my biggest bike ride yet, a 2,000 Km long (approx.) bike ride from Canterbury in UK to Rome in Italy, on an ancient pilgrimage route known as Via Francigena.

Via Francigena Route
Via Francigena Route

My motivations for doing this bike ride are many, some of which are quite obvious and some are not. On the obvious side, you may have followed my series of blog posts about the Camino de Santiago last year. The Via Francigena is a natural step up from that as it is 2x as long and not as well structured as the Camino (what I mean is that there aren’t as many pilgrims’ accommodations along the way and the route is not well sign posted, especially in France).

As for the non-obvious reasons, I feel strong enough now to share at least one with you all. Since the very unfriendly break-up of my marriage, some 15 months ago, I’ve been battling on and off with depression. I took antidepressants for a few months and gone through therapies.

Depression is an odd kind of illness… Due to sheer ignorance, like many I had a very stigmatized view of it. To be honest, of any type of mental illnesses, actually.

I truly thought it was sort of a rich people’s sickness. An illness that affected only those people who had too much free time on their hands. Life has a funny way of teaching you things sometimes.

So, imagine my surprise when I started to notice very physical symptoms caused by anxiety and my general mental state. Among others where teeth-grinding (also known as Bruxism), sleeplessness, difficulty to breath and more. Life hadn’t stopped, of course, and there were still bills to be paid and things to be done, which at times, associated with loneliness gave me the real feeling I wouldn’t be able to coupe anymore.

Went to the GP several times and he confirmed the diagnosis of clinical depression. It was somewhat interesting to understand how your mental state can have such a powerful impact on your physical condition and I am not talking here about normal day to day worries most people have with their children, their financial affairs, their jobs, etc. This is not a learning experience I wish anyone to go through, but it is generally hard to choose not to be depressed when you’re affected by certain life circumstances, which can vary of importance from person to person, especially when there is so much negative going on in the world these days. Depression is usually a package.

In extreme cases, for some the easy way out appears to become the only solution (even though it is clearly not) and it may surprise you to know that suicide remains the leading cause of death for men between 20 and 34 in England and Wales, representing 24% of all deaths in 2013, and for men aged 35-49, at 13% of deaths (source: The Guardian).

Thankfully the ultimate act was never an option for me… not that I didn’t occasionally think about it, but I’ve always considered it a very unlikely outcome for me in particular. I value my life and the life of others way too much and I personally don’t think ending your physical existence ends the mental problems you might be facing (I believe in “life” after death).

Needless to say this condition had an impact not only on my personal life, but on my professional one too. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a person can fully compartmentalized his personal and professional lives. An unbalance in one, will have repercussions in the other.

The drug I was taking didn’t appear to be making much of a change, although it did help me sleep at night (helped even a bit too much at times as it made it a lot harder to jump out of bed in the morning as well), and when my GP suggested the prescription of a more powerful drug I took the decision upon myself to try to beat this thing without chemicals (or artificial ones, at least).

Cycling has been “my thing” for quite a few years now and it was only natural for me to turn to cycling as a means to combat my depression. Convincing my bosses to give me a 42 days holiday was a tough sell, but I manage to do it and here I am, just a few weeks from starting my cycling pilgrimage.

I am no expert, but I believe that for most there can be a drug-free way to find balance in life again. Some may find it through meditation, others through physical exercise, others by drastically changing their life-styles and so on. I do believe in drug-free treatments are not always possible and that the ultimate word has to remain with the medical or psychological experts treating each case, but I personally don’t think emotions are just a chemical unbalance that can be corrected through drugs. If that was true it would be possible to “correct” love and hate the same way. But even if drugs are the answer, I still believe there are ways for our bodies to produce some of these chemicals naturally such as Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, regarded by some researchers as a chemical that is responsible for maintaining mood balance, and that often link a deficit of serotonin to depression. No doubt, you can take drugs that will aid to increase Serotonin levels in the brain, but according to the Psychology Today Blog, “In numerous studies exercise has been shown to increase both serotonin production and release. In particular, aerobic exercises, like running and biking, are the most likely to boost serotonin.

So, what I am trying to prove to you, in case you don’t already know, is that, if you know someone who suffers from a mental illness (or if you experience or have experienced it yourself) a drug-free treatment through physical activity can be a powerful boost to your well-being, not to mention a big reduction of  the cost to businesses and society overall, given that antidepressant use has doubled in England over the past 10 years (source NewScientist). Most concerning is that the number of children prescribed with antidepressants have increased by 50% in 7 years (source: The Independent).

A US study has estimated that about 300 million work days are lost to sickness every year with 56% of employees reporting depression and anxiety as a cause. Not even the most cold-hearted business person can ignore these stats.

In Aid of Mind, for better mental health.That is why I converted my solo bike ride to Rome into a charity event and have partnered with Mind UK, one of the UK’s leading Mental Health charities, on this enterprise and am here asking for you to donate some of your hard earned cash to this cause. I know how hard it is to try to get out of a bad situation alone and sometimes you need someone that can provide you with an independent perspective about your situation.

Every pound (or dollar, or Euro… whatever) you donate makes a difference. For example:

  • £8.70 gives a lifeline to someone in desperate need of support
  • £30 helps Mind work with the government to promote mental health needs and improve services
  • £150 could fund a local support group
  • £250 could fund equipment for an art therapy group
  • £500 can keep Mind’s legal advice service open for a day helping people understand their rights and receive practical legal advice on mental health issues.
What Mind has achieved in 2015
What Mind has achieved in 2015. Click on the image to read MInd’s annual review document for 2014-2015 (PDF reader required).

I believe the best thing to combat depression is to try to live life to the fullest. What that means changes from person to person. To live life to it’s full potential will likely be related to finding a job or work that is fulfilling, having a loving family relation, good friends, include hobbies and physical activities and help those you can, through volunteering or other social efforts in benefit of those in need.

During a recent well-being course, I was shown how to graphically represent life as a boat. If you divide your boat only between work and family chances are that if one of them isn’t going well your boat will have more trouble to stay afloat than if you are able to divide your life’s boat in more compartments.

Which boat do you think is more likely to stay afloat?
Which one do you think is more likely to stay afloat?

Cycling has been one of these compartments for me… it’s a low impact form of exercise providing an increased cardiovascular fitness as well as a good muscle workout, as it uses all the major muscle groups as you pedal. It is excellent in reducing obesity and controlling weight and while you are on your bike your stress levels seem to fall dramatically even when you are thinking about your problems which automatically leads to a reduction in anxiety and depression. But if cycling is not your thing, just pick something else… There is plenty to choose from.

The important thing is that you don’t give up.

If you allow me to suggest a strategy, rather than choosing something cheap and easy just to “try it out first, to see how it goes”, go the full mile. Choose something you think you will like (inform yourself) and go buy the gear for it.

Do not buy the cheapest!

If you can afford to buy expensive things, buy, for example, the best running shoes you can afford, if you decide to run, or the best bicycle, if you decide to cycle, or the best tennis or water sports gear if you go for those… that way you are making not only a personal commitment, but a financial investment also and this has 2 advantages:

  1. Generally speaking people don’t like to waste money.
  2. Generally speaking, you get what you paid for. Buying good quality gear will enhance your experience and help you transition into it more easily, with less efforts and pain.

Of course, this is not for everyone, but keep in mind managing limited resources are very much a question of priorities. If you are ill, getting healthy should be one. As Mr Spock would say, it is illogical to want to remain sick!

To contribute to this cause, please click on the Virgin Money Giving page below (just in case, nothing of your contribution is given to me).

Virgin Money Giving Logo

If you have contributed, but still feel generous, you could also consider to pay me a coffee to help me keep up with the Blog costs and as an incentive for me to keep doing this sort of thing and blogging about it…

(suggested amount = £2.00 or USD $3.00 or 2.50€).

EyeCycled the Swinley Forest RED Mountain Bike Trail

Start of the RED Mountain Bike Trail, Swinley Forest, Bracknell
Start of the RED Mountain Bike Trail, Swinley Forest, Bracknell

Hello EyeCycled friends!

Life has been busy and somewhat complicated especially now that I am so close to leave on my 2,000 Km pilgrimage to Rome on the 30th of June.

Yet, as part of my training I’ve been trying to ride my bike as much as my free time allows and this week I rode all the way from Bracknell to Camberley through the Swinley Forest. On my way back, the weather was so nice I decided to ride the entire length of the RED trail as this was the one I did not record when I posted my first Swinley Forest MTB Trails post back in August 2015. I’ve been wanting to record this trail since then, which is much more technically challenging than the BLUE one.

First time with a GoPRO Chest Strap... Feeling a bit like a fool.
First time with a GoPRO Chest Strap… Feeling a bit like a fool.

I have also tried something new… a GoPRO chest strap mount. I’ve seen quite a few riders using it and always wanted to give it a try. I don’t think it is something I will be using often as I found it to be a bit uncomfortable, but it is always an option. I found that is does help reducing the shakiness of the picture, however, the RED trail was not a good place to test it properly as the trail is really bumpy.

Anyway, I’ve got 2 options for you:

  1. A 59 min long full length video of the entire trail with my voice commentary only i.e. no music, no video acceleration where you can, hopefully, see the entire trail in detail.
  2. A 10min 51sec, accelerated video (6x normal speed) with some nice music, but quite difficult to watch at places because there is only so much shaking that video stabilization can deal with. If you don’t have time (or patience) to watch the full length video, this may be an option. You may also want to watch the shorter, accelerated version first and then focus only on the parts you find more interesting on the full length video (tip: if you are watching the accelerated video at 3 min and want to see that part in greater detail, just multiple by 6 and jump to the full length video at around 18 min).

Always good to have options, isn’t it?

But before I give you the videos, here goes the stats of the RED trail as recorded by my Garmin Edge 810 and according to a 51 years old amateur rider 🙂

  • Length / Distance: 11 Km or 6.83 miles (In the information totem pole, the length given is 13 Km / 8 miles, but there were several diversions in place).
  • Time: According to my Garmin, 59 min in total or 53 min of moving time.
  • Average Speed: 11.1 Kph (Km/h)
  • Max Speed: 33.8 Kph (Km/h)
  • Elevation Gain / Loss: 202m / 206m
  • Max / Min Elevation: 3m / -43m
  • Average Heart Rate: 169 bpm
  • Max. Heart Rate: 192 bpm
  • Calories: 746 CAL

RED MTB Trail: Full length Video (59 min)

RED MTB Trail compressed / accelerated video (10 min 51s)

Thank you for your time.

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