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Conquering The First 500 Miles [London To Istanbul By Bicycle]

The North Downs [Cycling London to Istanbul]

It’s been exactly two weeks since I left London to cycle to Istanbul. As of yesterday, I made it to Besancon, a beautiful town in eastern France, from which I’m writing this post in a cute cafe.

These first two weeks have been difficult at times — nowhere near as physically difficult as I had anticipated, but more of a mental challenge. I have to confess that I felt lonely after my dad left for home. He accompanied me for the first 10 days or so, but after that, I went several days without having a verbal conversation with anyone beyond shop assistants and campsite receptionists. I rarely struggle with loneliness while travelling solo, so it was a shock to experience these feelings.

This loneliness has since passed, though. It’s a common side effect of solo travel and doesn’t usually last long. I think the reality of the fact that I’m cycling solo across the entirety of Europe hit me pretty hard once I was left to my own devices. But I’ve now settled into a nice routine, the weather here is beautiful, and I’m in good spirits. And so I should be, as I’ve completed my first 500 miles!

Over these past two weeks, I’ve eaten too many croissants, had too few showers, and have had several arguments with my tent. Oh, and would you believe that I haven’t even done any laundry yet? It’s difficult to wash your clothes when you move to a different location each day.

Nonetheless, it’s been a fabulous experience so far, and I’m excited for the next leg of my journey. In the meantime, here’s a lowdown of what’s happened over the past two weeks.

Leaving home and getting to Dover

At 9 am on May 22nd, my dad and I had our bikes packed up and ready to go.

We needed to cross the English Channel to get to France. I am not the most elite of cyclists, so I decided to complete the cycle from my home in Romford to the ferry port at Dover in 2 days. Google Maps reckons it takes 8 hours, so you could easily complete the journey in a day if you’re a competent cyclist.

As Romford is situated on the outskirts of northeast London, we had to cross the river Thames via a large bridge called The Dartford Crossing. To get across the Dartford Crossing by bicycle, you must get to a “crossing RVP.” Bicycles are not allowed on the Dartford Crossing (although my father did try it once and was promptly escorted over by crossing control). Once you arrive at the crossing RVP, you can use the phone there to call for crossing control, who will show up with a van, put your bike in, and drive you across to the RVP on the other side.

Because we had a ferry to catch in Dover, we had to make it by a certain time. As such, we opted to mostly jump on the A roads and get down to Dover as quickly as possible. This is not the most scenic route. The most pleasant route, and the route recommended by Google Maps, uses the National Cycle Network. This takes you along National Cycle Route 1 from Greenwich to Canterbury, and then Regional Route 16 from Canterbury to Dover. Using this route, you could start in Greenwich, right by the famous Cutty Sark, and enjoy the countryside of Rochester and beyond.

I hadn’t planned for the cycle down to Dover to be particularly notable, but on day 2, we opted for quieter country roads and were graced with the beautiful scenery of Kent’s North Downs. Living just outside of London, I rarely have to climb hills on my bicycle. Finding hills to train on was difficult in itself. Due to lack of training, I am currently quite allergic to hills (particularly uphills), so found the challenge of tackling the rolling hills of the North Downs to be quite difficult in the unseasonably warm weather.

The North Downs [Cycling London to Istanbul]
Sheep in the countryside near Dover

Arriving in France

We awoke early on day 3 and caught our ferry across to Calais. I felt quite relieved as I waved goodbye to the shores of England. The first 2 days had been difficult — the rolling hills of the North Downs, coupled with my lack of experience in long-distance cycling had left my body (particularly my thighs, bum and wrists) a little sore and tired. However, it was not enough to dampen my spirits or allow me to doubt myself.

At the check-in for the ferry with DFDS, the guy behind the desk asked where we were going. My dad replied, “well, I’m going to eastern France, but Lauren here is cycling to Istanbul.” He seemed quite gobsmacked and kindly gave us a free upgrade to the premium lounge. This meant comfy sofas and unlimited free coffee, juice, pastries and sweet treats! I won’t be experiencing much luxury over the coming months, so this was hugely appreciated.

Lauren Pears on DFDS Ferry

Arriving in Calais, I felt a sense of achievement. While not a particularly remarkable feat, I still felt proud that I had made it to Dover and across the sea to continental Europe. This cycle tour had officially become international!

Pedalling through Northern France

To be honest, Northern France isn’t the most exciting place on earth. It does have some nice villages, but I wasn’t expecting it to be the most inspiring leg of my journey. As such, nothing too noteworthy happened. We did have a minor mishap due to a punctured tyre on my dad’s bike, but it was resolved fairly quickly.

Richard Pears with a punctured tyre while cycling in Northern France

Regardless of Nothern France’s kind of boring landscapes, I enjoyed the cycling and had a nice time with my father. We visited some British war memorials, which are beautifully maintained by the French. We had coffee in the square in Arras and explored the medieval town of Laon. Laon was quite characterful, actually, it had a gorgeous cathedral and a quirky street decorated with colourful umbrellas.

As the days went by, I was surprised to see how quickly my speed and strength improved. The initial aches and pains of getting used to long-distance cycling were gone by day 5, and now, I can easily pedal up hills that I would have given into just 2 weeks ago.

British war memorial in Bethune
British war memorial in Bethune
Lauren Pears at the square in Arras
The town square in Arras
Laon Cathedral
The cathedral in Laon

Battling with loneliness

My dad had accompanied me for the first 10 days of my cycle journey, before catching the train back to the UK from the city of Reims. As soon as we parted ways, I felt quite the rollercoaster of emotions. I think the realisation of the task I was to be taking on — cycling across an entire continent solo — hit me pretty hard. It took me a long time to get back on my bike and set off towards my next destination. I remember checking my map, re-checking it, having some water, checking my map again, and so on. After I finally got going, I found myself on a very busy road, and a huge wave of anxiety and loneliness washed over me.

I pulled off the road and tried to recompose myself. Nothing has changed, except you’re now on your own. You know how to read a map, Google Maps is working perfectly, and there’s nothing going wrong in your current situation. I eventually found an alternate route that made me feel much better, and pushed on in the heat towards my destination of Vitry-le-Francois. I felt fine for most of the day, but once I set up my camp and sat down to relax, I burst into tears. Real tears. I suddenly felt so lonely. Honestly, camping on your own can feel a little shitty.

I expected to wake up the next morning feeling fine, but the negative feelings persisted. I tried to ignore it, and despondently packed up my tent and set off. I’d been told by another cyclist that I could follow the canal all the way to St-Dizier — a town I needed to cycle through. This perked me up a little, as I hadn’t been looking forward to joining another busy road. And so I followed the canal along a flat towpath; other cyclists would say “bonjour” as I cycled past, the river was beautiful and the sun was shining. But as I pedalled, all I could think was, “this would be so much better if I could share this experience with someone else.”

Thankfully, though, I arrived in Saint-Dizier feeling a whole lot better. It was a pretty town, and there was an event on in the main square which made the place seem quite lively. I think this lifted my spirits a little. My spirits were lifted even more when, upon exploring Saint-Dizier, I came upon this sign:

Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne from St-Dizier

Joinville, Chaumont and Langres. All 3 were destinations I needed to cycle through on my way to Besancon, and all 3 were on this canal-side cycle route. La Voie Verte du Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne, a.k.a. The Greenway of the Canal Between Champagne and Burgundy. This cycle route followed the Marne River for over 200 kilometres.

And so, for the next couple of days, I followed the beautiful Marne River all the way from Vitry-le-Francois to Langres and began to enjoy myself again.

The Marne River, France
Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne from St-Dizier
Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne

What’s next?

Now that I’m in Besancon, I can join the EuroVelo 6 cycle route, which will take me all the way to Romania. I’m very excited to start cycling along the EuroVelo 6, as it means I’ll have dedicated bike paths to follow. It’s supposed to be an absolutely beautiful route, following some of Europe’s best cycle paths and most beautiful rivers. I’m going to be spending the rest of the week and this weekend here in Besancon to enjoy a well-deserved break for my birthday, and will start pedalling east again on Monday.

I’m hoping to meet other cycle tourists along the way. EuroVelo 6 is a pretty popular route for cyclists, so I’m hoping the chance to meet others will enrich my journey.

Au revoir!

Thank you for reading! If you found this post useful, I’d be grateful if you would consider using the affiliate links below when planning your travels. I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you. This will help me to keep this blog running. Thanks for your support – Lauren.

Hotels – Booking.com
Hostels – Hostelworld
Cheap flights – Skyscanner
Travel insurance – World Nomads
Outdoor gear – Decathlon / GO Outdoors
Cycling gear – Chain Reaction Cycles

Alternatively, you could buy me a coffee to say thanks!

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  1. Hi Lauren! I’m stalking old posts — thanks so much for sharing this. I’m a solo gal on day 6 of the EuroVelo 6 and the loneliness has just hit me. I really relate to your quote, “this would be so much better if I could share this experience with someone else”.

    I’m in my 20s — seemingly the youngest cyclist here by around 40 years — and, like you, have a partner back home whom I miss. Do you have any tips on pushing through?

    Cheers again, so appreciate your work and kindness.

    1. Hi Asia,

      That’s great that you’re doing the EV6 — it’s such a wonderful route and you’re going to have the best time!

      Loneliness can be an unfortunate side effect of solo travel, particularly when travelling outside of our comfort zone. As you can see from this article, I definitely struggled with it in the beginning.

      The good news is that the loneliness will go away. You just have to persevere and be kind to yourself. It took me quite a few days, but I promise the feelings won’t last forever. Don’t try to suppress them, but just accept this is a natural reaction to doing something like this solo 🙂

      Keep yourself properly fed and watered — low energy and dehydration will only make negative feelings worse.

      Are you staying at campsites with other cyclists around? I recommend talking to people as much as you can, even if it feels a little awkward at first. Meeting people and having conversations will really help you to feel less alone.

      I also found that regrouping in cafes helped me a lot. Coffee, comfy sofas and a warm environment went a long way for me.

      Best of luck!

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