It’s one thing cycling to work every day, quite another planning an epic 7,500 kilometre trip from the Tarifa in the south of Spain to Nordkapp in Norway.
But, experienced cyclist and secondary school teacher Andrew Sykes had no doubts that he could do it. After all, he’d already cycled a total of 9,000 kilometres across Europe during two previous expeditions.
The only difference this time was the South/North journey would take so long – over three-and-a-half months – that he would need to give up his job.
And so Andrew, now 47 and living in Stainland, handed in his notice at the Oxfordshire school where he was teaching French, and departed for Spain, where he’d signed up for a fast-track language course, and made his preparations.
That was back in the summer of 2015. Today, Andrew is back in his native Calderdale, teaching part-time at his alma mater, Brooksbank School, and promoting copies of the newly-published book that he wrote about his adventures, Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie. He’s also giving some thought as to what his next cycling project will be. New Zealand or Japan are on the cards. He risks becoming the Bill Bryson of the bike world.
Given that 7,500k is a long way, it might be safe to assume that Andrew is super-fit, super-cyclist. There were days when he cycled up to 160k with four panniers attached to his bike. But he insists that he’s far from being a Lycra-clad roadster. “You need to be used to cycling,” he says, “but you don’t need to be super-fit. I’ve always cycled and had a bike. In my 20s I never bought a car, I cycled everywhere. But I’ve never been one of those elite cyclists.”
However, it’s definitely safe to say that Andrew has caught the long-distance travelling-by-bike bug.
His first foreign expedition in 2010 took him 4,000 kilometres from the South of England to Brindisi in Southern Italy (where he visited friends) and resulted in a self-published book entitled Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie. Giving his bike a name, he says, created a companion he could easily refer to and helped in the writing.
He’d tested his stamina by ‘doing’ the Pennine Cycleway from Berwick to Derby – around 200 miles – a feat inspired by watching the televised cycling events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “It gave me the confidence I needed to plan a longer trip,” he said. It also prompted him to become a volunteer for the 2012 London Olympics.
Andrew never intended to become a travel book writer but was a regular blogger and is the editor of a cycling website CyclingEurope.org. A friend suggested he turn his blogs into a book and the first volume sold 13,000 copies, which is not bad at all for a self-published volume.
Encouraged by his literary success, Andrew decided that he’d also write a book about his second epic trip in 2013, from Cape Sounion at the Southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula in Greece to Cape St Vincent in Portugal, the Westernmost point of Europe. This time he faced a 5,000k journey, resulting in Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie, also self-published.
However, his latest book found a publisher and should, he hopes, appeal to those who enjoy travelogues as well as cyclists thinking about planning their own trips. It is, he says, much more than simply a record of where he went and how he got there because once back in England he spent some time reflecting on the experience. He wanted to make his books insightful, entertaining and informative. They are suffused with a gentle humour and self-deprecating style.
Andrew says he has enjoyed the writing process almost as much as the travelling. “I wrote in my notebook while I was away, but when you get back you can fill in all the gaps and do the research. It’s a really interesting process. For example, Napoleon crops up wherever you go in Europe but you don’t find out the full story when you’re actually visiting Waterloo or Trafalgar, you find that out when you get home,” he explained.
His journey from Spain to Nordkapp – the Northernmost point of Europe – took him through eight countries. Having sampled so many cultures, languages and landscapes, Andrew says Norway emerged as his favourite place. He explains why: “Although the weather was a bit dodgy; when the sun was out you had the mountains on one side and the sea on the other and it was quite spectacular. The scenery is fantastic.”
Although the bare bones of his trips were mapped out, Andrew says he made no detailed plans and stopped off where he wanted. He simply used the internet to find places to camp or stay, as and when he needed them. He pitched up in low-cost campsites, hostels and, occasionally, hotels. Very occasionally he was offered accommodation by cycling enthusiasts through the website WarmShowers. For those who would like to follow in his bike tracks he estimates that the expeditions probably cost around £40 to £50 a day, excluding the costs of travelling to Tarifa and back home from Nordkapp.
Travelling alone didn’t worry Andrew and when he did meet other people he discovered wanted to know about his mission. He said: “When you are on a bike people are interested in what you are doing. I thought I might be lonely, but the trips have taught me that there’s always somebody who wanted to talk to me. I craved solitude more than company.
“And if you have a notebook with you, you are never stuck for something to do on your own.”
Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie by Andrew P Sykes is published by Summersdale at £9.99 in paperback.