Outdoors

Cycling journey proves challenge of will, patience

Posted Jan. 22, 2010, at 5:34 p.m.

Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have finished their 9,500-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges has returned to Maine and will be filing a few final installments for the BDN about his trip’s completion.

From the window in my room, one can see for miles. The clear windowpane reveals a small Portuguese fishing village below composed of white-washed dwellings that flank a sandy beach along the Atlantic Ocean. Lying in bed, rays of sunlight stream through the window and illuminate the rumpled comforters atop my body in blond light. Outside, the early morning sun hangs above the sea like a juicy peach dangling from a branch.

I rise and peek out the window. For years, I have lived near the Atlantic Ocean in Maine. The sight of our coast, with its calm waters lapping against the rocky shores of bays and tidal inlets, is like the face of an old friend, familiar and recognizable. On stony Maine beaches, I have often stood in awe while trying to comprehend the fact that the tranquil shores before me really lead thousands of miles away to Europe.

This morning, I stare out at the Atlantic from the window of my hotel in Portugal. Huge breakers roll across the sea and crash upon the shore. These aren’t the placid waters I know. The Atlantic here is unrecognizable.

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Lure of the unknown

More than seven years ago, I began studying at Alfred University, a small liberal arts college in western New York. In the student dormitory where I lived, I met a guy named Ellery Althaus. We had both taken a year off to travel before starting school. Our common interests made us fast friends.

We soon began talking about embarking on a lengthy trip together. Beneath the fluorescent lights of a stuffy college dorm room, we hatched out a host of eccentric travel schemes. Eventually, one idea stuck: riding a bicycle across Asia and Europe by going through Russia, the world’s largest country.

The plan seemed preposterous and impossible. But that, of course, was the initial allure.

Gazing at a Siberian map, an enormous expanse of land meets your eyes that inspires a sense of pure incomprehensibility. Chita, Omsk, Tomsk and Tyumen — the odd names of cities and towns that appear on a map of Central Asia — sound fictitious. They wordlessly encourage you to travel there just to prove that they really exist.

Three years ago, Ellery and I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago hiking trail across Spain. After finishing the trek, we began thinking that a roughly 10,000-mile bicycle trip might actually be possible. We worked for two years to save money for the venture and flew to Vladivostok, Russia, which is on the coast of the Sea of Japan. There, on an icy cold morning in early April 2009, we dipped the rear tires of our brand-new Kona touring bicycles into the Pacific Ocean and left on the adventure of a lifetime across Eurasia.

More than eight months and 9,500 miles later, we arrived on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in Porto, Portugal, a bedraggled and exhausted mess with one injured rider and a broken bicycle.

The hardest parts

Cycling through a snowstorm in northern Spain or fixing flat tires, the challenges of this expedition seemed neverending. Oftentimes, during difficult moments, I wondered how I would answer my friends’ and family’s questions when I returned home.

I always imagined them posing the simple query, “How was it?”

In the beginning of our journey, cycling on dirt roads between small villages in remote sections of Siberia, I decided it would be too melodramatic to reply, “it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” But, after months on the road, the daily challenges of riding in bad weather, maintaining the bikes to keep them going and searching for food added together and strained my patience. One afternoon in Poland, changing a flat tire in a rainstorm, I realized what I would say.

“It was hard. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

As months passed, I refined my response.

“The bike riding was easy,” I decided to tell them. “Anyone can cycle across two continents. After just several weeks, you develop the new muscles needed to ride 50 miles or more each day. The hardest parts occur off the bicycle.”

In Siberia, amenities like running water and Internet signals are almost nonexistent. Six hundred miles of rural countryside separates major cities where one can find bike shops and Internet cafes. We only arrived in cities several times a month, and would invariably spend the entire first day searching for bike shops, and often never even find special parts, like the right-sized tire, we needed.

I would pass the second day in an Internet cafe filing columns for the BDN. By the third day, it was time to get back on the road. The days off were more exhausting than the days riding. I never felt well rested.

By the trip’s end, the process of moving each day became tiresome. In France, we spent most days riding in freezing rain. Cycling fast, rarely stopping for a break, you could continue all day without becoming cold. But as soon as you stopped, one had to quickly get inside and change out of wet clothes before your extremities went numb or somebody risked hypothermia.

The problem was, we had no place to go. Traveling on a limited budget, we would search for a hotel we could afford, and often spend a half-hour or more shivering with our hands turning blue going from hotel to hotel in search of a good deal.

After eight months of spending the night somewhere new each day, I began to sleep poorly. It didn’t matter how comfortable the bed was, my body began craving a more routine sense of living that I simply couldn’t attain.

Why bike trips are great

The best aspects of a bike trip are often closely related to the worst parts. The feeling of going somewhere new each day and stepping out of your old, routine life gives one a marvelous sense of freedom.

And as challenging as riding in the cold, freezing rain and snow for hours each day is, there is something wonderful about embracing the elements. Spending countless days outside in the rain, feeling water whip against your face, and having that feel normal.

One day in France, I cycled past a young woman during a pouring rainstorm. Suddenly, a strong wind gust blew her umbrella inside out. She screamed as torrents of rain washed upon her. I cruised by, soaking wet, and realized how different my perception of normalcy had become. How comfortable I felt outside in the rain. Get-ting wet.

Ultimately, the best part of a bicycle trip was the people. We studied Russian for two months before beginning the journey and, throughout the former Soviet Union, our language skills allowed us to communicate with locals who continually offered us food, shelter and smiles of encouragement. Each day in Siberia, we knew that we could stop at a small village cafe or home, knock on someone’s door and would always be invited to sleep inside or camp nearby. We could depend on the fact people would be kind to us.

People often ask me if I felt threatened in Siberia. And the short answer is no. I have found that while traveling, if one throws himself into a potentially dangerous situation, like cycling across Siberia, kind people often offer to help you long before bad ones find you.

You learn, while riding a bicycle across the earth, one of the world’s best-kept secrets: Humans are generally good, caring, wonderful people.

At rest on the Atlantic

If I could do this trip again, I would have gone slower. Trying to ride the world’s longest, most northerly bicycle trip, the fear of winter always propelled us farther, faster. It would have been great to have moved slowly across Europe during winter. Stopping and waiting for the snows to pass. But we simply didn’t have the money to do this. I often found myself considering how having more money would have made this trip easier. But a bike trip isn’t supposed to be comfortable or easy. That’s what makes it an adventure. And what makes you grow as a person because of it.

After finishing this amazing journey, I feel overwhelmingly fortunate that we met so many wonderful people and nobody was seriously hurt. I’m eternally grateful to everyone who supported us and read about our trip. Thank you. Perhaps the most rewarding part was using outlets like the BDN to share this experience with others.

Staring out the window from my room in Portugal, I see an ocean with huge swells that doesn’t resemble the Atlantic I know. Nevertheless, I know that my family home near the Maine coast is somewhere on the other side of this sea.

“I would like to see some familiar sights,” I think. “I’m ready to go home now.”

bdnsports@bangordailynews.net

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