My enthusiasm for riding – from perspectives we all share as parents, offspring and siblings – and my confidence in you, the reader’s, sympathetic indulgence of my personal sentiments and subjective reflections, imbues me with the necessary motivation to tap away at this Spanish keyboard well into the night. While I cannot describe more than but the tip of an iceberg, my large snouted (nobly so) perceptions will be delivered from my own handlebar view of that wonderful bike-world we engage in. For non Ride and Seek Fideli, if you find this recount engaging, I will have managed to strike a chord of empathy amongst the ever growing peloton of bicycle adventurers. I am but one of the dynamic crew who experienced the first Napoleon epic; and I sincerely hope my recollections cover some of what we all lived together, for those glorious, bike filled seconds – all 3,888,000 of them – on Napoleon’s inaugural ReCycle from Paris to Moscow!
Many times during this grand adventure, we would ponder and discuss the fate of the million or so souls who were lost during the 1812-13 Napoleonic carnage! Unlike the original soldiering journeymen who force-marched this multi-country campaign, the odds were stacked much more in favour of our success! In the two centuries that have passed since the incredible warring epic took place, those who have since attempted to replicate the journey under their own steam are but a select few, not all of whom succeeded! Being a part of a group of cyclists to have the opportunity to do this was a privileged experience that time will never diminish, for until our team passed that ephemeral tape into Red Square, completion was a dream without apparent precedent and certainly with no guarantee of success!
Replacing the magnificent 40,000 strong equine fleet of 1812, was a selection of the world’s finest twist-strengthened titanium, hollowed carbon and high tensile steel, combined with top line kinesthetic physics and inventive mobile mechanics; all of which increased our individual and group chances of completion. As well as our flyweight techno equipment, the mono directional advantage and seasonal selection for this adventure, excluded us from the factor that led to more carnage than wrought by any of the Napoleonic battles – cruel mother-nature – who for us, could not have been a more kindly influence!
On July 17th, with the words of renowned historian and author David Markham freshly ringing in our ears from the previous night’s gourmet Napoleon launch, we set off. We were almost three score, leaving as one from the symbol of Napoleon´s greatness, the iconic “Arc de Triomphe”, to retrace one of history’s greatest human tragedies, by bike! On that crisp Parisian morning, the excitement was barely containable as we exited from the famous city landmark and set off on ´Rue Wagram´ through the city’s sleeping underbelly and out towards the peaceful Paris canals, which soon delivered our adrenaline-gorged, fiercely-spinning legs into the great expanse of continental Europe. Thereafter our feet and knees would continue to spin for 45 days, with one day of rest a week – covering some 4300 km by revolving an estimated 20 million collective peddle strokes – before we toasted our arrival in Moscow atop the Ritz Carlton’s extraordinary 02 bar which overlooks the ancient citadel that had risen emphatically from the ash pile of 1812 /13.
To be part of a group who were as culturally and socially dynamic as they were physically motivated, was a pleasure that accompanies adventures of such magnitude. During the course of our six and a half week navigation, mutual respect flowered into admiration, friendship and an interdependence that superseded any previous sporting event I have been involved in. On a personal level, my enjoyment was multiplied by the presence of Ride and Seek Fideli (with whom I had previously ridden on the foundational Hannibal epic), a guiding and support team of exceptional cycling and guiding ability led by Sam ´RLA’ Wood along with ´Velovation´ Mark, whose legendary lead-outs were as sublime as Simone – the ´Sardinian sorcerers´- more savory administrations; and most importantly, by the presence of family and close friends. By the time we reached our destination, the nuclear, Napoleonic family was as snug a fit as our sparkling custom made ´Paris to Moscow´ Danny Shane tartan kit.
On that memorable first day, as we rolled through the voluptuous vineyards of the famous champagne region en route to the first of many a magnificent chateau, much of the bike banter was inevitably focused on the magnitude of the journey. But with the hunt for Russia underway, the trepidations of the task ahead soon became but ephemeral vibrations, which thereafter dissipated along with the symbolic sprinkling of post lunch rain. Unfortunately for me (it wouldn’t be a story without a prang – but the first day!), the precipitation was to be my personal warning knell, which just as fortunately did not sound again for the remainder of the trip!
As I farewelled the group of well-wishers who had ridden with us to our first lunch spot on the outskirts of Europe’s ‘cultural centre’, I dallied further to converse with an interested local, before setting off to catch our fervent flotilla. As I rounded the top of the first real climb and began descending in pursuit of that dare-devilry inherent in every downhill enthusiast, I was simply too excited to adhere appropriately to the tenets of wet weather cycling, especially when gravity is your wonderful assistant and I duly paid the price; schoolboy error! An oil-slicked bend, rendered doubly hazardous by the sprinkle of rain, and that was both sharper and longer than I had judged, became my beating stick. As I floated horizontally for that infamous split second of painless and timeless reflection, I wrenchingly felt my dream shatter, along with the images of fractured bones and tarmac-smitten flesh!
The latter was unavoidable as I skidded across the greasy surface and into the guard rail, which halted my slide with a metallic punch to the left buttock. However, that immediate fear that I had caused myself some grievous bodily harm did not materialise! I remember bouncing back to the upright like a pop-ball, at the same time patting my body furiously all over in the typical, post-stack-stance, just waiting for that deep ache that would groan of a bone out of sorts! I have had my fair share of bike crashes but at that moment I almost cried with the relief that I had not ruined my part in the epic journey before it had even begun! While I would make the repayments to my body for the impact damage until well into the third week of the campaign, I was whole and able, and I willingly paid homage to the guardian who had protected both me, and the majestic Lynskey, from more serious damage. As I checked over my titanium Pegasus, I marvelled again at my luck on falling on the non-drive side, the only damage being some ripped handlebar tape on slightly skewed bars. I actually chuckled with relief at the rising haematoma on my thigh and shoulder as I remounted, to peddle, gingerly and very steadily towards the celebrations awaiting our party on that first crepuscular Champagne evening.
As we settled into our individual rhythmic styles, the days rolled on as languidly as our obedient quads through the stunning countryside of agricultural France, from the postcard landscapes that segued from the verdant and vine-trellised hills, to the undulating wheat belt and its many sequestered riverside villages, our senses were constantly piqued. On those languorous miles, our muscles hardened to the continual grind in preparation for the German mountains ahead, our party rode on and on, in a constant state of flux, chewing the fat on every subject as we crunched the kms. By the end of the first stage it felt as though we had been riding for a month, not a week. For me, the stage ended with a bang as I took a turn at accompanying the aptly named Bob Berg on his amazing steel tandem, giving his wife Sandy a much needed break (from Bob, not the bike!). I hopped on that peerless blue machine, with one of the world´s top septuagenarian cyclists and stiffly tumbled off a couple of hours later with a whole new respect for the art of tandem-cycling and the veritable masters of the art!
The diversity of professions and life experiences within a group that ranged in age from the thirties to the seventies never left one wanting; and today more so than ever, that is the glorious benefit of modern cycling, as we access equalizing technology and equipment, that allows us to make excursions into the great unknown world of cycling possibilities, with our parents, children and all manner of interesting binary-rolling folk in an age-group that ranges across decades of like-minded cyclists who refuse to hang up their bibs!
As we crossed our first international border and entered a world richer in fantasy than a story by ‘The Brothers Grimm’, the undulating topography of the mighty Rhine, gave rise to the mountainous terrain of olden day Prussia. Having the inspiring ruins of ‘Frankenstein’s castle’ as the stage two warm up ride, did little to detract from the notion that we were cycling through a parallel world; where fantasies and fables lurked within the fathomless forests. The spectacular view east from atop the aforementioned castle was as close to a Tolkein vista as can be imagined and I was not the only one who felt slightly dwarfed by the expanse of forest and church-spire’d villages that lay along our path towards the rising sun still some three thousand odd kms distant! Somewhere beyond the Saxony horizon was the medieval town of Bautzen, where awaited another rider, Bailsy, an old mate from Sydney Uni. Here after known as ‘Bavarian Bails’, he kept us enraptured by his antics, both on and off the bicycle (including a tip over a fence that should, like my first day tumble, have had much greater consequences for both body and bike!).
If the dank smells in those beautiful forest surrounds did not heighten one’s sense of the surreal, the cuisine of pork knuckles and sauerkraut, washed down with delightful quaffs from the timeless and bottomless ale barrels, certainly helped (those who ride hard, play hard, no?)! Whether served by Monks in habit or penguin-tailed waiters with plentiful cheese platters, the gastronomy that awaited us each night was nothing short of Hestonian in taste and presentation; and indeed we deserved such pleasures, for the back road climbing was exacting its toll – with one Garmin kicking in just over 180kms after a few investigative diversions! But with a stage of strength behind us, we powered merrily along as the hilarious German guide and photographer ‘ Dirk -The Giggler-’, kept our spirits high. Local interest and support, meanwhile took on Germanic proportions, culminating in an appreciative spread in a national paper as a reminder of the type of adventure upon which we had embarked! With the 200 year celebrations being held, it seemed the whole of Europe was still buzzing with Napoleonic fervor and our kits and their significance was missed by few!
I felt both relieved and sad when we saluted farewell to those spectacular mountains, and descended into the immense water-logged basin of Poland, where the riding once more adopted a rhythmic and almost soporific grind. In the ‘Grand Duchy of Warsaw’, as it used to be named, we found the folk and their palatial accommodations to be of exceptional quality. From Ziggy’s imperial mansion- where we were treated to an intensely delivered account of his war encumbered nation along with the finest of foods in that palatial heaven!, to the ramparts of Rezel castle, it was as if the nostalgic pace had suddenly picked up, along with the raw passion of this historically warring zone, in comparison to their ‘chilled continental neighbours’. The German media was topped by a Polish news crew turning up to film our morning ritual as we departed one of Poland’s finest mansion restorations ‘Wiechlice’. And as our wattage output rose into the red zone, the lunchtime picnics portrayed a plethora of lycra-clad ‘MAMWILS’ frolicking upon the pulchritudinous shorelines painted a glorious, yet taste specific appreciation! In the Herbarium spas along that prolifically pelagic place, we felt nothing short of monarchical, as we wallowed bodily and spiritually in those hedonistic havens. If riding 150km day after day was our stimulant, bathing in the lakes and sauna facilities was our salve for creaking joints and complaining muscles.
Upon reaching one of the world’s most frequently fought over ports, Gdansk (formerly Danzig), my very personal journey was about to be bolstered by the arrival of more of the essential elements previously alluded to as catalyzing forces in my bicycling world. Stepping from the overnight ferry were two gentlemen of my own lineage, a Swedish first cousin, Gaza, and my other boyhood hero, my father Bob. Two more opposite characters would be hard to find! The old man – a life-long bike addict and inaugural Hannibalist, who is as unorthodox as he is effective – and my eldest Cuz – an infant in the cycling realm (whose only previous cycling experience was mounted upon the generic Scandinavian unisex single speed city bikes), who had only taken up the challenge of bike riding in 2015 after deciding that he too, would be a part of the inaugural Napoleon epic after his own maiden, murderous hit out with the ‘Kingsvale’ night lappers – the hyper-intense and dedicated ‘Cherry Capital crew’. He thereafter took to the sport like a brain surgeon, dissecting the art and applying his mind and body in ways that defied the doubters! To add to the growing fervour, was another old friend, the Colossus Willo, whose counter-wit and multi-linguistic personality, was the perfect accompaniment to the growing cacophony. We let our emotions run free upon reaching Vilnius as it was the point at which our tour diverged from the direct Napoleon route, in order to take in the beautiful Baltic and the original imperial capital of St Petersburg; dropbox snapshots tell their own story of that evening of release on the banks of the Vistula as we reached the zone of prime fitness and began the long, but now diminishing km descent with gusto!
Accompanying one’s extended family on such adventures is of an unassailable eminence in my classification of cycling glory: Witnessing the birth of a brand new bike baby and his Strava progress over a gruelling six month training program was inspirational for all who bore witness, while the feeling inherent in participating with one’s dad on such a journey is simply ´priceless’. An anecdote from the 2012 inaugural Hannibal, when one of English football’s most decorated captains, ´Ash’, referred to my old man as ‘white Mr. T’ when he passed him half way up a 20km ascent, best sums up such sentiments; I recall the tears of pride and laughter that flowed that day, as the thick and furry Hull accent hilariously cursed my dad’s back wheel as we pondered the phenomenon who brought me into this world and who did indeed sport a reverse B.A. Baracus (grey sides, bald top!) hair-do, quality!
I could keep tapping away to tell of the monster 30 km Tractor chase – but it is better on YouTube, super go pro-videoing ‘Fox’ (for that is what he does), or of the 76 year old ex-marine who was attempting to reach Russia to donate 100 bicycles to Kenya; or the grieving mother, whose cathartic journey, along with her amazing cycle support team won all our hearts, but such things are without description. We – who love bikes no more – are immersed in an amazing world, with amazing folk with an endless supply of the incredible stories that are shared. Our story did end, however, as hoped – sipping cocktails from the top of the world and looking out onto the Russian capital’s skyline – Paris to Moscow complete; we number but in the tens but my gut feeling is that one day we will count many more!
As an enthusiast, I have lived with my bike – as a necessity mostly – for my entire life and have never forgotten why it became such a guiding force. As a father, my bike is now a tool for my offspring’s, as well as my own and my partner’s, enjoyment and escapism; and while we miss our families extraordinarily whilst engaging in such epic adventures, we are drawn magnetically and rhythmically to them. I hope that we will continue to replicate my father/son (strictly non-generic as my four sisters all share the same bond) cycle relationship! As a now 40 year old son, my dad and I are still proudly riding together, just as we did on the way to school some three and a half decades ago. As a brother and friend to my cycling siblings (Strava inclusive), especially the twin towers of Ride and Seek (Sam and Dylan), who have made all of the above possible, I send a huge bear hug of thanks to each and every one of you for being part of one of the greatest experiences a bike lover could wish to have! I look forward to seeing you all again, somewhere upon the riding and seeking roads of cycling bohemia!
Ciao pescao, Max;)