AUSTRIA - ESCAPING ROUTINE
The road is deserted and the mountains ahead loom tall and imposing, silhouetted black against the sky by a brilliant three-quarter moon. The silence is broken only by the rhythmic hum of my pedal strokes as my legs go up and down, bringing me slowly but surely to the top of the pass. It is 10pm and I have been riding by the light of my head torch since the sun set more than five hours ago. The temperature is well below freezing but the exertion of the steep climb has me in a warm sweat and my breath is illuminated in the torchlight ahead, the air cold and crisp against my skin. I have been in Austria for only a little over 24 hours but already I am more than halfway through the country. Last night I crossed the border over the mountains from Slovenia and today I have cycled another hundred miles, riding long into the night. This is my second mountain pass of the day and I am relishing the physical challenge and incredible scale of the landscape around me.
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of movement. The last few months, actually. In the 10 days since I left Istanbul I have ridden through six countries and by tomorrow night I will have passed on again into Germany. I am nearing the end of my headlong dash through Asia and Europe which started just six weeks ago when I decided to cycle the remaining 7000km home; from Uzbekistan to England, in just two months in order to surprise my family for Christmas - a family that still thinks I am on my way through Azerbaijan and Georgia. The last few countries have been a blur. Bulgaria I remember for weather and wine; a bottle of homemade Red gifted to me by a kindly old man in a village shop which helped get me through an all-day snowstorm taking me in to Sofia. Serbia I remember mainly as being bitterly cold, whilst my straight-line route through Croatia was largely forgettable. Slovenia marked the start of the Alps, the last real obstacle between me and England.
Although I am tired by my rapid ride across Eurasia, I am close enough to the end now that I am starting to savour the time I have left. I will be back in England for at least a year, working to save up enough money for another few years on the road. I know that I will miss my life on the bike, the variety of never knowing what each day will bring and the wild freedom of life in the saddle. Soon my days will start to blur into one, controlled by the alarm clock, the commute; the work week. All of those things which are so normal to so many people but which now seem so alien to me.
Yet in a way I have to admit that I am looking forward to a break, to some time to recharge and rediscover my wanderlust. I think that most long distance bicycle travellers are at some point forced to reconcile a potential flaw in their mindsets. A big part of why I started cycle touring was that I wanted to escape the routine of a 9-5 life; living for the weekends, every day being the same. I wanted excitement, the unknown, and the unexpected. My last year on the bike has certainly given me this and more, but over time even my life of adventure has started to slip into repetition. The long days of riding, the daily search for water and hidden camp sites; I have become so comfortable with everything that much of what used to thrill me now seems perfectly normal, my search for an escape ironically leading me from one routine onto another.
As I plod slowly along it occurs to me that this dilemma of routine might be exactly why I have been pushing myself so hard to make it home for Christmas; the challenge giving spice to a journey that was becoming bland, leaving me toiling up Alpine passes by moonlight in an effort to find adventure once again. Perhaps when I get home it will be time to stop; to accept the inevitability of routine and settle down into a nice comfortable life. Maybe the road has now given me all it can.
Approaching the head of the pass the mountains around me start to open up and I realise that there must be a ski resort at the top. The snowy slopes shine white in the moonlight and I can make out the ski lifts stretching into the distance. There is an orange glow ahead of me and I overtake dozens of people walking up from outlying hotels to the centre of the village. As I draw closer I can hear the sound of drums and see huge crowds lining the streets. Pulling up to ask what is going on I am told that I have arrived in the middle of a festival that takes place once a year: 'Krampusparty'.
I stand back to watch the parade as hundreds of men wearing devil costumes stalk menacingly past; lit by flaming torches and carrying wicker baskets on their backs, they swipe ferociously at people’s legs with wooden broomsticks as they pass. Krampus is the anti-Santa, a dark demonic figure from folklore said to punish naughty children who have misbehaved. For the holidaymakers here, it is a great excuse for a party. My sudden appearance on a bicycle at the top of a mountain causes something of a stir and it is not long before a group of young Austrians take it upon themselves to get me drunk. I am plied with cup after cup of delicious mulled wine, and the next few hours are blurred and lost to memory.
Eventually I decide that I will have to move on for I still have another hundred miles to ride tomorrow and already suspect I will have a nasty hangover to face in the morning. I thank everyone for the glüwein, say my goodbyes and make good my escape. I am swaying hilariously on my bicycle and swerving from one side of the road to another as I leave the party behind, but fortunately I retain enough good sense to know I am in no fit state for a long steep descent on icy roads, so I quickly wheel my bike to one side and drunkenly put up my tent on the snow, falling asleep with a spinning head and a smile on my face.
The next morning I freewheel down the steep pass and continue on towards Germany, reflecting on the surprise adventures of the night before. To suddenly run into a festival on a mountaintop, on the one day of the year on which it takes place, purely by chance. Excitement, the unknown, and the unexpected - perhaps the road still has more in store for me after all.