The end of Europe

Last week I finally crashed into Istanbul, burning out the very last of my energy in one glorious blaze. I’d been struggling for days. Ever since I was ill, a couple of weeks ago, my energy and motivation have been almost non-existent, even after long strings of rest days (three in Veliko Tarnovo; three more in Varna), and I’ve been feeling permanently tired, wondering if this is just an effect of lethargy, pushing myself to ride harder, and then feeling even more tired. Some nights I’d sleep for twelve hours and it didn’t seem to make a difference. During the day I’d push myself unwillingly along, every pedal stroke an effort, constantly wanting to stop, and often giving in to this urge. I’d take long lunchbreaks, even though this was a waste of precious daylight, and look forward eagerly to sunset, when I’d have an excuse to stop riding and put up my tent. I got too lazy to eat properly, which probably only exacerbated matters.

(And eventually I stopped beating myself up for being lazy. After all, I’m usually brimming with energy and could go on all night. So if I’ve suddenly become lazy, then something must be wrong, be it exhaustion or illness or hormones or hibernation instincts. Or all of the above.)

So, because of this sudden loss of interest in cycling, and despite the very generous deadline before a planned rendezvous with a friend in Istanbul, I ended up plodding morosely down the Black Sea coast, wasting time, and foolishly leaving things to the last minute, so that I found myself faced with about 130 miles to ride on the last day, if I was to make it to the Bosphorus in time.

I’ve ridden that far a couple of times before. But then I was well trained and rested, with no luggage to carry and a warm bed and a hot shower at either end, and without having just ridden across most of Europe. It seemed unlikely I’d have it in me. And there was, I reasoned, always the option of riding as far as I could, camping somewhere, and then racing to meet her at the airport in the morning.

I didn’t really believe I could do it. But at the same time, I insisted to myself that I WOULD. I hate admitting defeat and failing to achieve something I’ve publicly (or privately) set out to do, and that’s already happened a couple of times on this trip, at Bled and at Shipka (though each time admitting defeat meant I made a new friend, so maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing).

So I set out at 7am, from Kirklareli, where I’d camped for the night in a restaurant car park (and been plied with tea and cigarettes by the waiter, because everyone in Turkey is lovely). The first few hours of the day were cold and so misty that I could only see a few metres in front of me, and the surrounding countryside was a mystery. All that I was aware of was my body, the bike, and the narrow white line I was following off into the mist.

But my motivation picked up slightly, helped in no small way by a van driver of about my own age, who loomed out of the mist, flagged me down and handed me two cartons of yoghurt out of his window. And the same man was waiting for me at a service station a few miles down the road, where he insisted I join him for coffee, even though we had absolutely no language in common and our conversation consisted entirely of unintelligible questions from him and lots of embarrassed laughter from me. (You see? Everyone in Turkey is lovely.)

At around lunchtime I suddenly rode out of the mist, and could see the world in colour once again. And my mood lifted a little bit more. It’s amazing, though not entirely surprising, how closely my spirits are affected by the weather. I was speeding along by now, although I could still feel the tiredness sitting deep within my bones, and my nostrils were sore from my constant sniffing (if you’re a cyclist then the winter plight of the Niagara nose will be familiar to you), and stung from the occasional drops of sweat I inadvertently inhaled.

One of the difficulties of riding long distances is the sheer amount of time it takes – the hours and hours of sitting in the saddle, of pushing the pedals, of counting the miles down, of following long and winding trains of thought, to and fro, or of desperately chasing one or two fragments around your empty mind, trying to stave off the boredom, or to distract yourself from the discomfort of pedalling your heavy bike up yet another hill, sweaty and clammy under your three layers of clothing, yet unable to take them off, because you know it’ll be freezing on the descent.

I knew the ride would take a long time – and that I’d be finishing it in the dark, since the sun sets at about 5pm these days. Well into the afternoon the signposts to Istanbul were still in triple figures, and the only way to make all those kilometres disappear was to keep riding. I’d get there eventually, I knew it. I’ve ridden big distances before. You just have to keep going, and at some point it will be over.

As the sun began to sink I was feeling increasingly ragged, and the road had begun to dip up and down – long, slow, straight climbs that I hauled myself up in lower and lower gears, and swift descents that I sped down as fast as I dared, my face burning in the wind and my arms shaking with exhaustion as I braked, the traffic rushing past me, and yet another hill rearing up ahead of me. A couple of miles to my right I could see the flat horizon of the Marmara Sea, shining under a hazy lilac and apricot sunset.

I began to stop for breaks at petrol stations with increasing regularity – and every time, one of the pump attendants would hurry off to make me a cup of tea. (Once again proving my thesis that everyone in Turkey is lovely.) They seemed not to be disgusted by my flushed, salty, sweaty face, and my wildly matted hair. On the contrary, I think they pitied me.

Soon it was completely dark, and as I neared the city the road, which had been reasonably quiet till now, began to fill with traffic – and the generous hard shoulder I’d been riding on all day disappeared, leaving me uncomfortably close to hundreds of thundering lorries, and fervently hoping that my tiny little flashing lights and reflective strips would show up among all the other chaos at the road’s edge.

I passed a sign telling me it was only 40 more kilometres to Istanbul, and started to relax and rejoice. That was still a couple of hours’ cycling, but it was only about 5pm, and I suspected that the urban sprawl I was now riding through was probably the very beginnings of the city. I stopped and emailed the friend-of-a-colleague-of-my-sister who’d offered me a bed for the night, telling him I should be there before 8. And as I crested each new hill, I wondered if I’d suddenly see the floodlit minarets of the Istanbul skyline spread out before me.

But for a long time I just saw more and more rolling hills, covered in anonymous lights, with the motorway glowing ahead of me like a river. More and more roads joined mine, and the motorway began to remind me of the roads I’d known in Delhi – crumbling away at the edges into a mess of pavements, side roads, stalls, pedestrians, motorcycles, rubble, potholes you could lose half a bike in and clattering old buses that stopped and started in front of me, forcing me either to brake suddenly and wait for them to unload their passengers, or to swing out into the traffic to overtake them.

I was half afraid (this traffic was fast, busy and unpredictable, and my limbs were beginning to tremble with exhaustion), half reassured – after all, riding in traffic is one of those things that I’ve spent so much time doing that I probably could do it in my sleep. I frequently have done it when so drunk I couldn’t walk straight. In some strange way, I felt very much at home.

But after a few more miles the road narrowed again. Now there were only three lanes of traffic with crash barriers on either side, and I crept along in the inner lane, unsure of whether to hug the barrier so as to be out of the way of the traffic, or to ride out in the middle of the lane so that at least it could see me.

It was no fun, so when I saw a sliproad branching off to the south I followed it, reasoning that I could almost certainly muddle my way through the back streets, as long as I kept in mind which direction was east. It’s usually quite easy to find your way to a city centre, after all. After a few streets the temperature dropped, the lights to my right disappeared, and I found I was riding along beside the sea.

Perfect! Istanbul centres around the Bosphorous Strait, and I knew I had to cross a bridge to get to my host’s house, so if I just followed the shoreline east, I’d be bound to find my way eventually. It would take longer than the main road, but it would be safer and quieter, and probably more interesting as well.

For several miles I whirred through affluent seaside neighbourhoods, quiet waterside parks and the occasional parade of restaurants. I knew I must have well over 100 miles under  my belt, but for now my body seemed to have risen above ıts tiredness, and I floated along in a sort of trance, my muscles feeling as lıquid as the cool night air and the freezing black sea. Every time I came around a headland I’d catch my breath, hoping to see the Bosphorous ahead of me, but for a couple of hours all I saw to my right were a few brightly lit ferries, going who knows where. A cycle path appeared, and I followed it through a narrow strip of scruffy parkland, cursing whoever had seen fit to dig a drainage channel across it every few metres, and becoming more and more annoyed wıth the perpetual bouncing and rattling of my panniers as I sped over them.

It was getting late as I finally approached the city centre, and I debated stopping to email my host again, reluctant to waste even more time when all I wanted was to finish the ride. arrive at my destination, and begin the familiar process of glowing and eating and sleeping. I gave the floodlit minarets of Sultanahmet a cursory glance, unable to muster any of the awe I’d expected to feel, even through my exhaustion, and crawled up the coast towards the enormous suspension bridge I could see in the distance, twinkling with tiny coloured lights and signalling my journey’s end; once I’d crossed it, my host lived just a few minutes away.

The streets were bright and clean and busy, and I elbowed my way wearily through throngs of promenading tourists, smartly dressed locals, elderly fishermen, smarmy restauranteurs, small boys rushing nimbly from shop to shop with glasses of tea, and innumerable cats, following the main road along behind the elegant waterfront palaces of Beyoğlu, keeping the bridge in my sights as I crawled up the coast towards it.

And then, finally, there it was, soaring above my head on massive concrete stilts, glittering like a fairytale, headlights sweeping across it as hundreds of cars made their way from Europe into Asia. I admired it for a second, and then set about finding out how to get up onto it from sea level.

A couple of streets back from the waterfront I found a steep ramp, rising sharply up towards the bridge, took a deep breath, clicked down into a generously low gear, and laborıously hauled my heavy bike up to bridge level. But – to my surprise and annoyance – this ramp didn’t join the bridge after all. Instead it dipped underneath it, and then carried on going up.

I struggled up it for a few more minutes, hoping that perhaps it would curve round and join the bridge further along, but instead it uncooperatively led me further up the hill and further away from the bridge, so that eventually I found myself high above the city, surrounded by rich people’s flats, looking down on the main road that flowed through Istanbul for miles and miles, studded evenly with lights, and perched high above the ground on its 50-metre concrete pillars. As far as I could see, there was no road joining it at all.

But this bridge was my only way of getting across to the other side of the Bosphorous, where my dinner and a warm bed were waiting. So I optimistically – or desperately – began scouring the neighbourhood for any road that might lead onto the bridge. And I quickly discovered that this neighbourhood was arranged over a series of very steep hills. Descending a particularly steep one, which must have been over 20%, I became frightened that the bike would tip over forwards and send me somersaulting down the road. Shortly afterwards I turned a corner and was faced with an upward slope so steep that for the first time since I left Wales I was forced to get off and walk, barely able to support the weight of my bike as my cycling shoes skidded and slipped on the tarmac. A few bored security guards eyed me from their kiosks as I stumbled past. No one offered to help.

Eventually I realized that I wasn’t going to find a way over the bridge. I stood for a few desolate moments, staring over at the lights on the far shore of the Bosphorous – where I should have been tucked up in bed long ago – and wondered whether I was going to give in and cry.

And then I rolled (carefully) back down the hill to sea level, backtracked a couple of miles to the hostel where I was meeting my friend the following day, and booked myself into their last spare bed. The girl on reception gave me a funny look as I was checking in,
and I realized that I was shivering with tiredness. My voice sounded hoarse and thick and dull. It took me much longer than usual to wrestle my passport out of my bag, and I was glad there was no form to fill in, because I probably couldn’t have held a pen. And once I’d dragged all my bags up to the dorm and locked myself in the bathroom, the face in the mirror was pale, chapped, salty and sore, with huge dark circles under the eyes.

It was nearly 1am by the time I collapsed into bed, too tired to think about dinner, even though all I’d eaten all day was a couple of packets of biscuits, and I gratefully gave myself up to five or six hours of broken sleep, knowing that, after pushing my body so hard, I probably couldn’t expect much more. The warm, euphoric glow that normally hits me once I’ve reached warmth and safety after a hard ride (and usually the harder the ride the warmer the glow) was entirely absent, and wouldn’t surface until almost 24 hours later, when my friend arrived and started feeding me baklava.

But I made it to Istanbul. And ever since then I’ve been resting and eating, just like everyone told me to. And yesterday the headache and runny nose and sore throat finally subsided, and I started to feel a flicker of interest in cycling again. And tomorrow I’ll be back on the road.

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