I’ve found it really strange to be back in Europe, cycling in the ‘first world’ for the first time in two years. It’s always interesting to come back to a familiar place after a long time away – knowing somewhere very well means that you are acutely aware of any changes since your last visit– both in the place and also in yourself. Returning to Europe has been an odd experience. So much that I’ve grown used to while travelling through Africa and South America just doesn’t apply in Europe. Supermarkets are astonishingly well stocked and the amount of choice on offer is staggering. In Europe, if I want a specific piece of equipment, I can easily get it. In Africa trying to get hold of a replacement part was usually a serious undertaking, involving complicated organisation and timing. Usually, I just had to make do with whatever I could find locally. There is so much here that I used to take for granted.
Bikepacking in Europe has also been strange. The number of possible route choices is mind-blowing – for much of the last two years, I’ve had barely a handful of options and usually once I selected a route I was committed for at least a few hundred kilometres, sometimes for many more. Europe is a vast labyrinth of roads, tracks, trails and cycle routes; the possibilities are overwhelming. Resupply is so easy too – aside from making sure I stock up on Saturdays to see me through the supermarket-closed Sundays I never really need to carry food for more than one day. What a contrast to Patagonia where I once carried food for almost three weeks!
The safety net in Europe is huge too – I know that if I have any problems I’ll never be far from a town or railway station, and probably not far from a bike shop. Help is never far away. Comfort too – in Europe there seem to be benches and water fountains everywhere; cycling feels so easy and hassle-free. Safety is another consideration – I’d become so used to being security conscious, always being aware of the people around me and always keeping my bike within sight. Not that most of the parts of Africa and South America through which I’ve cycled have been exceptionally dangerous, but nevertheless security was a factor which just doesn’t come into play in most of Western Europe.
Another thing I’ve found strange has been the sheer number of other cyclists I’ve seen. Not just roadies, mountain bikers or people cycling down to the shops, but the number of cycle tourers I’ve passed on the road has blown me away. I’m very used to being the only tourist around, often the only person around, and almost certainly the only cycle traveller. In Europe cycle tourists are everywhere. In Africa if I bumped into another touring cyclist it made for a noteworthy experience – I would always stop and we would have a good long chat about our respective rides. But in Europe if I stopped for every tourer I saw I would never get anywhere; I have seen hundreds in the space of only a few weeks. Not to mention the number of e-bikers I’ve passed on the road lately. The amount of cycle-traffic is remarkable.
I think it’s fantastic that so many people are getting out and discovering more of the world on bicycles. The popularity of cycle touring is soaring, which I think is overall a really good thing. And in a way, it’s nice how easy and carefree bikepacking through the Alps has been. Europe is the perfect place to get started with cycle touring or bikepacking. Everything is so easy and straightforward.
That said, as relaxed and beautiful as my ride through Europe has been, I feel the experience has been missing something. As great as Europe is, it just hasn’t really like an adventure to me any more in the same way that it did a few years ago. I suspect that one of the pitfalls to pushing further and further out of your comfort zone is that it becomes harder and harder to find something that still challenges you. I have become used to riding in extremely wild, remote and rugged places, without the comfort of a safety net. Europe is so safe and polished, so densely populated and well set up, that it all just feels a little too easy now.
I don’t say any of this to criticise or to complain. I’m still having an amazing time in Europe and am loving the riding I’ve been doing. It’s just interesting that I feel the way that I do; that Europe just isn’t quite doing it for me any more in terms of adventure, at least in the same way that Patagonia did. I have become spoiled by my time on the road. Beauty alone does not seem to be enough – for indeed the Alps are breathtakingly beautiful, ridiculously spectacular in fact. A match for anywhere in the world. But still somehow too easy. Too safe.
I have no complaints. Europe is an amazing place to explore, rich with incredible landscapes and cultures. And right now there is nowhere else I would rather be. But it’s been another learning experience. Just as I learned when going through Africa that I just don’t especially enjoy bikepacking in places that are extremely densely populated, coming back to Europe has taught me that wilderness and remoteness are just as important to me as scenic beauty. Perhaps I’ve just been travelling too long; I’m becoming increasingly picky about the kinds of places I want to discover. Or perhaps it's just that Europe feels too familiar - I have after all now spent almost a full year cycling around this continent.
Anyway, that, I think, is enough rambling for now. I feel incredibly positive and am loving life back on the road. Although I was sad to leave Argentina, I definitely feel it was the right choice and am full of happiness to be moving again. Though I don’t feel that my riding in Europe has been as much of an adventure as I am normally used to, I have been having an amazing time nevertheless and it has also been a joy to catch up with a number of old friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen in years.
I don’t know for how much longer I will be cruising carefree around Europe; probably just until some time in October. My expectation is still that the Covid numbers will continue to rise sharply as summer comes to an end, and my plan remains to stop somewhere in Europe and work my way through the winter. Next year my intention remains to fly out to Alaska at the start of the summer to begin riding south back towards Patagonia. And in Alaska, and the Canadian North, I will have all the wilderness, remoteness and sense of adventure I could ask for. That time will come. Until then I’m very happy to be enjoying the relaxed miles and easy smiles in Europe.