How do you sum up two weeks of doing almost nothing but cycling and refuelling?
We’ve cycled from Ljubljana in Slovenia, through the hills of Croatia, the plains of Hungary and the free ice creams of Romania to Sofia in Bulgaria. That’s about 80 miles a day for 12 days, with one day off in the middle to stumble around Timisoara in a daze and eat.
Sitting here now, in the cool of the shade of a fig tree, it’s time to wonder what will stay with me. Memories being what they are, what I write in the next 20 minutes may very well come to define my whole experience. So strap on your safety goggles and let’s see what comes.
Thighs of Steel are an extraordinary collection of people. As their tagline says, they cycle really far and for good reason. The first half of that sentence should not be underestimated and the second cannot be overstated.
Even with my experience long distance touring – when cycling around Britain I averaged over 70 miles a day for two months straight – this trip was tough. The days are relentless: from dawn to dusk we were solely focussed on delivering 100-140km of safe group riding.
Together we cycled 1,400km and climbed 14,000m of elevation over the course of about 78 hours in the saddle. No one was left behind and, thankfully (almost incredibly), there were no serious accidents.
We faced 34 degree heat (hello heat stroke) and rabid dogs (only one bite) as well as thunderstorms and sandstorms. Every day was a ride into the unknown and every wild camp spot was found with crossed fingers.
But it worked. And it didn’t just work, it worked with good humour, patience and enormous generosity. Not only on the part of the indomitable core Thighs of Steel team and our fellow cyclists, but also from all the people we rode past along the way.
The Romanian kids who spent their pocket money to buy us all ice creams, the old woman in Hungary who passed us a huge bag of fresh plums, the countless doors that were opened so we could fill our bottomless water bottles, the man who gave us a watermelon, the mineral water factory owner who gave us free samples, the mayors who gave us permission to camp on football fields and on the grounds of a holy spring, the Slovenian family who let us pitch in their garden and welcomed us with a basket of fruit, the Bulgarians who taught us the words for ‘water’ and ‘please’.
A journey like Thighs of Steel cannot possibly happen without stunning hospitality from those whose land we cycle through. After the third consecutive day of gifts of ice cream in rural Romania, we made a vow. Be more like them.
As for the good reason, collectively the Thighs of Steel riders raise £50-80,000 to pay the rent and bills of Khora, a refugee community centre in Athens. No one wants to fundraise for a building: where’s the glamour in that?
But without Thighs of Steel, Khora couldn’t exist in bricks and mortar or serve with dignity a community of hundreds of refugees every day of the year.
That word, dignity, is important. One small example is the Khora policy that no one should have to queue for anything. At the cafe, refugees are seated, as they would be in a restaurant, and their meal is brought to their table. At the Free Shop, refugees make an appointment so they can pick up what they need in peace with only a few other ‘customers’.
It doesn’t sound like much, but for people who are used to interminable waits, it means a lot.
Thank you for your support and I look forward to finding new ways to share this with you all in the near future.