‘Tell you what,’ said the red-haired girl behind the bar, ‘I’ll give you these three on the house. And then the rest … well, you can decide for yourselves.’
We were perched upon barstools, Andy to my left, Mark to my right. Thick dark liquid began sliding into the second glass, tilted expertly to allow a steady build-up of foam atop the beer. The result looked like a pint of Guinness in an oversize wine glass: we were about to take our first sip of the famous Belgian Trappist ale.
‘Mmm … that’s delicious!’ Andy took a sip from the first glass; a golden brew with a warm sweetness and a touch of fizz.
‘You like ale, yes?’ the lady asked Mark, putting the second glass in front of me.
‘OK – wait.’ She paused, raising a finger. ‘I have something special for you.’ She turned and headed purposefully in the direction of the fridges at the back of the bar.
‘She’s going to open the vault!’ joked Mark as she rummaged amongst clinking bottles and returned with a dusty-looking specimen.
‘This,’ she announced, parading the label in front of us, ‘is really one of the strongest. You see,’ – she pointed out the wording – ‘this one is a “double”. There’s a “triple” here, too. It’s, like … seven percent.’ And she reached for the bottle-opener.
I raised my glass victoriously: another long day of riding into stiff winds had been conquered, and country number three had rewarded us with friendly people and a place to sleep, as well as the most welcome free beers ever dispensed! We toasted to the day: to the simple joy of celebrating the end of a hard slog with a couple of good mates.
Andy grinned. ‘Why bother eating when you can drink beer?!’
We hadn’t even seen a signpost to announce our arrival into Belgium, another small step in our mission to cycle the globe. Lost in the early-evening drizzle and with nowhere to sleep, we’d flagged down a trundling motorist and asked sheepishly if he had any idea where we might spend the night. The elderly man had shrugged off decades in an instant, hopping back into the driver’s seat as if finding accommodation for three foreign cyclists were his very raison d’être. And so, having desperately chased the born-again boy racer through the suburbs of Maastricht, we’d arrived at a countryside park visitors’ centre where the kindly manager, on hearing of our quest, had set us up on a patch of grass outside the kitchen door – and was now treating us to a well-earned drink.
Mark took a small sip, replaced the glass on the bar counter, closed his eyes, clasped his hands on top of his head and leaned back. A smile widened into a laugh. Perhaps it was the hunger and the tiredness of a full day on the road. Or perhaps it was that Belgian monks really did brew the world’s finest ale.
‘I’m going to order some food,’ he said shortly, opening his eyes. ‘Anyone care to join me on that?’
I looked at Andy, who was sat to my left in his matching sponsored T‑shirt. ‘What do you reckon?’
‘Erm … we could have a look at the menu?’ he said.
‘Mmm,’ I mused. ‘Depends on the price, really.’
Mark passed over the menu. It was filled with descriptions of food that made my salivary glands ache. But giving in to temptation would set a precedent – one which could easily leak funds away and sabotage our carefully planned budget, which was to spend as little as physically possible.
‘Basically,’ I said, unable to look up from the menu, ‘I really can’t afford to do this while I’ve got perfectly good food in my panniers.’
‘I’m sure we could afford this kind of thing occasionally?’ suggested Andy. Mark sat quietly, admiring his glass of beer.
‘Well, go for it, then,’ I replied, closing the menu and putting it back on the bar. ‘But I reckon I’m going to cook something back at the tents.’
‘Right … so what about the food budget? I mean, we’ve all paid for that food, too,’ said Andy.
‘I dunno, mate. But I can’t afford to splash out every time Mark wants to eat in a restaurant.’
Andy had brought up a difficult point, which was that we’d pooled our cash to cover our basic costs. This had been averaging just under five euros a day for each of us, which had required dedication and effort to stick to. We’d been sleeping rough since Amsterdam, picnicking daily on supermarket groceries and boiling up variations on the theme of ‘pasta with sauce’ in the evenings. But if I cooked and ate alone from this shared food store, I’d be eating a meal that the others had subsidised. And if Mark used the shared money to buy a restaurant meal for himself, then we’d be subsiding that. Unless we stuck to a regime, attempting to share our cash would cause more problems than it solved. And each of us feeding ourselves alone would take three times as long, and put the group dynamic strangely off-balance.
‘Well – what are we supposed to do, then?’ I asked, half-rhetorically. The others were silent. This was frustrating. Andy was clearly quite happy to shell out for a home-cooked lasagne. Or a massive burger. Or a juicy steak. Or a delicious pizza. Or a big bowl of soup.
‘Look, guys,’ sighed Mark. ‘I’m going to eat here. I’m not on as much of a budget as you two. So I can happily afford a blow-out meal every now and them. If you want to go back to the tents and eat what’s there, that’s cool … I’m quite happy sitting here. I’ve got my book …’
‘Right, well I’ll eat with Tom, then,’ sighed Andy. ‘But I want to finish my beer first.’
‘Yeah … of course! I honestly don’t –’
‘Fine, OK,’ I interrupted. ‘Well, I’m going to start cooking before I get too pissed to walk straight!’
‘See you in a minute, then,’ said Andy, watching me as I got up.
Since I couldn’t remember how to get round to the bikes, I took a shortcut through the kitchen where Mark’s dinner was being prepared. Stepping out into the failing dusk and hunting amongst the bags, I discovered that our gas stove was buried at the bottom of Mark’s giant cargo sack. Finally, after arranging all of the ingredients and cooking apparatus in a neat little circle, I sat down by the light of my head-torch to open a tin of tuna and realised that we’d brought along one of those multi-purpose penknives with a built-in can-opener, yet I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to use it.
We grew stronger as summer matured. It was a tangible, measurable feeling of strength; a growing confidence in the capability of our bodies to handle hours of exercise every day. Our regime, and that of every other cycle tourist on the road, would have had personal trainers the world over up in arms, bemoaning the complete absence of recovery time, of stretching routines, of cross-training, of good nutrition, and all the other things that the exercise industry proclaims to be right and proper. Instead, we were hacking our bodies, bludgeoning them into performing the task at hand, learning the effect of calories eaten upon energy levels, the relationship between hydration and general wellbeing, exertion and rest, clothing and climate; things which could not be taught but which gradually came to be understood through observing the effects of our experiments upon our bodies.
Belgium morphed into France, and a happy routine emerged of long mornings in the saddle, games of ‘who’s got the biggest baguette’ at lunchtime, two-hour siestas in the sun, and relaxed afternoons among the charms of rural Alsace-Lorraine, where the French land still retained hints of its German past, memorials littering the hills and valleys as a reminder of how that particular disagreement had been resolved. Only the frequent appearance of rain threatened to dampen our spirits, and these hours were whiled away in village lavoirs – ancient stone bath-houses – where Andy experimented with the camera he’d bought for the journey, I filled jars with jam I’d cooked from scavenged fruit, and Mark practised his juggling routines.
‘Basically, I wanted to ride to Spain, and then Gibraltar,’ Mark was explaining into the video camera, ‘because – er – I’d been to Greece in the past, and I wanted to go somewhere that was also similarly sandy and beautiful, and find lonely mountain retreats, and fish.’
We’d been on the road for three weeks, reaching the alpine foothills of the Jura in eastern France. Spain, it had to be said, still felt a long way off.
‘But the last couple of weeks, we’ve just been meeting loads of really interesting people from different walks of life,’ he continued as I thrust the camera in his face. Like all of us, he was still uncomfortable before the lens. Thoughts which would be freely expressed amongst friends flattened out into dry exposition as soon as a camera was introduced. We’d never realised what a challenge this would be: presenting ourselves and our journey as we would like them to appear to an anonymous audience.
‘And I think that if we … head east,’ continued Mark, trying hard to loosen up, ‘we’re more likely to go to a number of different countries that I know nothing about – I’ll know nothing about the people, their way of life, or what they eat. And there’ll be more of an opportunity to find out about the world.’
The delivery was stilted, but the idea itself was interesting. Heading east, as Mark had indicated, would be a radical change of tack, and in my mind’s eye I saw weeks of route-planning disappearing into thin air. I expected to feel a pang of regret. Instead, it was almost a liberation to watch the hard-line itinerary dissolving away.
We hadn’t been able to follow the plan closely, anyway. On several occasions we’d attempted to head off-road through the hills – attempts that had invariably ended in failure. One particular afternoon, the two stronger bikers had bitten into a particularly rough climb with gusto, leaving me to drag my bike up the track on foot. Fuming about having been left behind, I’d found them waiting for me about ten minutes’ walk up the trail.
‘This is completely and utterly pointless!’ I shouted from a distance, feeling a nice big argument coming on.
‘We’re here now, aren’t we?’
‘Well, I can’t ride. I’m going back.’
‘What the hell?’
‘If you hadn’t buggered off I’d have told you that ten minutes ago!’
‘This was your idea, Tom!’ shouted Andy.
‘What do you mean, my idea?’
‘Well, I never decided to turn off that road and follow these blue triangles!’
‘I thought you didn’t know the route!’
‘I did know the route! It carried on along that road back there!’
‘Erm … so what do we want to do … ?’ enquired Mark, trying to bring some diplomacy to the exchange.
‘If we’re supposed to be on the road,’ I continued, ignoring him, ‘then why the hell aren’t we on the road?’
‘Because you said, “Follow the blue triangles!”’ shouted Andy.
‘No, I said that the tourist office said that the mountain-biking routes were marked with blue triangles!’
‘Fucking hell! What a dick!’ muttered Andy, loud enough for me to hear it, wheeling his bike round to face me. ‘So why did we suddenly start following them?!?’
‘Because there was no-one telling me that there was any other bloody route to go!’ I raged.
‘Well, we don’t normally just randomly turn off the road onto a track, do we? Why put a random route into the equation?’
‘Because nobody said we were going any other way!!!’
It was the kind of verbal brawl that felt immediately pointless. Andy and I found ourselves sheepishly apologising to each other on the roadside. It wasn’t the first time; nor would it be the last. But through discovering the limits of our off-road abilities, we’d found that it was possible to travel more quickly – and to meet more interesting people – by stitching together a new route on minor roads and cycleways. Given that, maybe a change of tack wasn’t such a bad idea.
I wandered over to Andy, who’d been listening to Mark’s monologue into the video camera, sitting in the sun on some wooden steps that led up the hillside.
‘I’ve been wanting to head east most of the time anyway!’ he said, flashing a wry grin in Mark’s direction. He’d been suggesting this since Amsterdam, and now, I grudgingly conceded, it seemed that he might have been right all along. Heading east now would lift all the pressure of having to circumnavigate Spain and be back in Central Europe before autumn. It would mean that we really could relax into the journey instead of feeling constantly in debt to this big detour we’d promised to make.
‘I wasn’t going to get in anyone’s face,’ insisted Mark. ‘I’m not really like that! I’m a pretty flexible soul …’
‘I was hoping Mark was going to go to Spain, though, because he’s starting to annoy me,’ smirked Andy into the camera.
Mark looked on with obvious amusement. ‘You two would die without me! You’d be fighting the first night!’
Which was almost definitely true.
The decision had been unexpectedly amicable. It was probably the encounters of the previous weeks that had made notions of route and direction seem less of a concern. The ups and downs had depended far more on attitude than altitude. Gibraltar, then, was off the map, and a new target drifted into view: Istanbul. Though always part of the plan, it sounded so foreign, now; so impossibly far away.
Mark hefted his bike upright and began to pedal slowly up the long incline. Andy was already disappearing out of sight behind the shoulder of the hill. Tomorrow, then, we would pass into Switzerland and begin to pedal east. I would contact my friends near Geneva and let them know that we’d be dropping by rather earlier than originally planned.
Billowing grey clouds were forming intricate landscapes of their own above the valleys of the Jura, hinting at the nearing of the Alps. The ground where we’d rested was cast into shade, the western horizon growing orange and brooding in the late afternoon, a band of pure colour cutting across the sky. Amid darkening lands a few wooded hilltops still glowed, touched by shafts of illuminating sunlight – too far away to make them out in detail, yet carrying some strange hint of promise.