Right as you may or may not be aware this summer I drove one of the support vehicles on the Jane Tomlinson Appeal Istanbul to Leeds charity bike ride.
I had previously driven support on the Appeal’s last ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End. Basically driving support means driving a big van, full of bike stuff around after a group of cyclists trying to ensure they don’t get lost and have enough food and drink and the like. I soon realised that the last ride was relatively straight forward, for a start we stayed in hotels each night whereas this year we would be camping not to mention the language and cultural differences that we would encounter whilst travelling through 10 countries.
It all started for me when I picked up the van from Rothwell in Leeds. John (the chap who was sharing the van-driving with me) and I met up with Al, Dave and Nigel who would between them be driving out the other two vehicles, a car and an RV. We didn’t have anything you could really call a ‘route’ planned although we knew the rough general direction we would be heading in, so off we went.
Despite me forgetting my wallet (idiot) the journey down to Folkestone was pretty straight forward, as was the journey as whole until we got to Austria (bar John forgetting which side of the road to drive on in France and turning into oncoming traffic…a minor hiccup). We had decided we would only be making 2 short (4 hour) stops for sleep on the way out as otherwise we’d be in danger of not getting there in time. The first stop was slightly enforced, a massive lightening storm broke over us as we entered Austria, it was nighttime and I was absolutely knackered so it seemed like a good time to stop. I slept in the van, John, Al and Dave shared the RV and Nige had the car. 4 hours later we were back on our way. The heat became noticeable as we entered Hungary and I seem to remember a sign in Budapest telling us it was 38 degrees (at about 10am) and I soon descended into a disgusting sweaty mess (the van didn’t have air conditioning).
The real cultural differences didn’t become obvious until we entered Romania, but when they did come they were pretty clear. The roads immediately deteriorated and the traffic became a mix of knackered Ladas and dusty HGVs. At one point we passed what looked like a nuclear power station being dismantled (or just falling apart), next to it was the saddest street market I have ever seen simply selling rubbish wooden carvings and giant garden gnomes – very odd. Now I’m sure Romania has some nice parts, however we didn’t see any of them. We saw the bad roads, poverty, buildings falling down, many stray dogs, prostitutes everywhere (even outside McDonalds) and numerous other things that I have since tried to forget. After Romania, Bulgaria was a blesséd relief with friendly people, less scary dogs, no obvious ladies of the night and what, at first, seemed like good roads.
However. Al and Dave had, throughout the trip to that point, unswervingly followed their sat nav – a tactic not to be mocked as it hadn’t lead us wrong until then. They suddenly decided to turn off the nice, smooth motorway that we were on and that seemed to go all the way to where we needed to be. The road we turned onto went through a forest, we were the only vehicles, or people, for miles around and this road was one of the most potholed pieces of tarmac i’ve seen in my entire life. It was more pothole than road for long stretches. Our average speed dropped to about 6mph as we crawled along being shaken from side to side by these gargantuan craters. Then we had a bit of an incident, the RV stopped. It’s hazard lights came on and Dave stepped out to sum up the situation, “it’s buggered”. Cue a couple of hours spent trying to find shade in the scorching Bulgarian sun whilst on the phone to the AA, the RAC and the company we’d hired the RV from. It eventually turned out that due to the amount of potholes the RV thought it had been in an accident and had turned itself off as a ‘safety feature’. Luckily there was a simple reset button and we were on our way again.
The rest of Bulgaria passed fairly uneventfully until we reach the Bulgaria-Turkey border. This border was pretty ramshackle and isolated and I think the guards must’ve been bored, or at least that’s the conclusion i’ve come to explain why we spent the next 5 hours there. A long story for another day but a word of warning, if your hire company says you don’t need printouts of your vehicle documents because ‘everything is done electronically these days’ then don’t assume that’ll actually mean anything to bored and slightly irritable border guards in the arse end of nowhere.
The final story of note on the journey out there (and there are a million other stories i hope to get around to retelling at some point) involves the drivers of Turkey. Now I loved Turkey, the people were amazing. But bloody hell, they’re absolutely mental drivers. I’ve no idea how we managed to make it into Istanbul and to our hotel in one piece, i involved avoiding some of the most ridiculous driving i’ve ever seen, and yes, i’ve been to India! The drivers, combined with it being at night and only about 6 hours sleep in the previous 72 meant that the last part of the journey passed in a weird dreamlike state. Probably not very safe.
But we got there, 2500 miles, 3 days, 9 countries, 1 van. Istanbul to Leeds. I’ll write up a bit of a summary of what happened on the bike ride when I get some time to gather my thoughts, it was quite an experience!