Mountains On the Road to the Ashes

Oli Broom tells us about his adventure cycling to Australia to watch a series of cricket matches between England and Australia.

A few years ago I decided to cycle to Australia to watch a series of cricket matches between England and Australia. It was the first long bike ride I’d ever been on and took me 14 months to complete. I still cycle a lot for work so I often get the sense of achievement from completing a tough day in the saddle. But I will always remember the first mountain I climbed on my way to Australia – the first I had ever climbed on a bike–on a day that ended in the monochrome Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

I reached the wooded foothills of the Stara Planina above the town of Montana at dawn on the morning of 2 December, the meandering valleys of the Danube and its tributaries long forgotten. I paused to take in the scale of what lay ahead. Carrying 50 kilos of luggage, I estimated the climb would take all morning and most of the afternoon. Almost 2,000 vertical metres were decorated with the same hairpin bends Patrick Leigh Fermor described as ‘unfurling like a gypsy’s ribbon’ when he first caught sight of them on his walk to Constantinople in 1933.

The air temperature hovered around freezing and the wind-chill was brutal. The hours passed: one… two… three… Each corner disguised itself as the summit. A car passed and I waved and smiled. In return I received a middle finger and a dollop of phlegm. I retreated inwards, suddenly aware of my vulnerability perched on the side of a mountain in a strange place, far from home. The road could be a lonely place.

Slowly my mood improved. The majority of drivers slowed as they neared me, shouting words of support before speeding off tooting their horns. They will never know how much they helped me. In that bleak, wintry corner of the Balkans my fellow road-users were the closest I had to friends and their camaraderie was like a shot of adrenalin.

Now I sang Morrissey songs as I climbed, unaware until then of the uplifting qualities of The Smiths. They helped me find a rhythm, punctured bicycles and desolate hillsides mimicking my ride. I was out of the saddle, pounding the pedals and singing freely to Herman Dune, Josh Ritter, The Band, Fanfarlo. Feel-good tunes for an increasingly feel-good climb.

The summit. Anyone who has climbed a mountain on a bicycle will know how I felt as the road levelled and my lungs heaved for the last time. Pain in my legs, in my arms, in my lungs dissolved. Hours of climbing should have rendered my legs useless, but they felt lighter and younger than when I’d got out of bed that morning, fuelled and strengthened by intensity, exercise and achievement.

I turned my bicycle, leaned on handlebars and looked back at the valley floor and Montana, now a toy town with miniature cars driving miniature streets. It didn’t matter that snow began to fall as I started my descent because I had scaled my first mountain and nothing else mattered. It felt magical.

Oli Broom is the author of Cycling to the Ashes, which Stephen Fry called ‘marvellous,’ and the Founder & Managing Director of The Slow Cyclist. www.theslowcyclist.co.uk