Thursday, 20 October 2011

So long Summer and thanks for the memories

October 2011 - last of the cycling challenges completed, feet back under the desk, now a chance to reflect… what a year!!!
It all started back on a clear cool late February morning and the first bike challenge of the year. Yes! the outdoor cycling adventure season had started, Spring was in the air and we were taking our first Adventure Cafe clients of 2011 out on a single day 100 mile ride around the Cotswolds… good riddance winter! - life is good!
From that first February event I’ve been fortunate to have been released from my (office) shackles to assist and support on cycling events from the outer reaches of Scotland to the high Cols of the Alps.
After February came a bit of a break for me before I was out again but it was worth the wait. A charity challenge for Nestlé fundraising for Alzheimers Society and Scotland would be by next port of call – Girvan to be precise. Not the prettiest town but we were here for the riding and the stunning Galloway scenery did not disappoint. From here our path was Carlisle, Newcastle, Darlington, York then Halifax before continuing onto London - but I was on this to Halifax. Five days of excellent riding through the Border country and the North of England made all the better by humour only the Scots, Geordies and Yorkshire folk know how to deliver – thankyou.
Soon after, an event that I had my eye on all through the winter as it was the first overseas and The Alps! Beginning in Geneva our destination was the lakeside town, Como, 30 miles north of Milan - 310 miles and 5 monster cols to conquer. The Alps were truly stunning at this time of year (late Spring) and after ascending/descending name places normally allied to the Tour de France – Col de la Colombiere, Col de Aravis, Cormet de Roselend, Col du Petit Saint-Bernard, it was all over too quickly before making passage to Como and return home.
Then came my first appearance on one of our many London To Paris challenges this year. This event cannot not be bigged up enough! Starting from Royal Greenwich Observatory – probably the most iconic start point for any adventure in the world down to the historic Dover port - this event just gets better and better with every mile - riding the coastline from Calais to Abbeville before entering the wheat and sunflower fields of Picardie and before you know it you’re riding along the Seine, around the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysees – FANTASTIC! This has to be by far the best event for anyone from the UK considering their first EU cycle tour.

Another great EU cycle tour beginning from London is the London To Brussels and I was lucky to support this event this year and discover another great city on-route – Bruges. Also known as the 3 Cities Ride it’s fairly easy riding over the northern reaches of Belgium and the Flanders region but none-the-less spectacular in it’s own right. Bruges has to be right up there as one of the coolest cities in Europe with a an old town that’s not too big and full of life. Entering Brussels was an unexpected adventure in itself by discovering the route took us through the Moroccan quarter of the city and witnessing a little crazyness more familiar to a street scene in Marakesh.
Finally, by a course of serendipitous events I found myself on the hugely anticipated cycle event of the year of 2011 – The Dubrovnik To Thessaloniki (Bike East) Challenge. Departing from where we left off 12 months earlier in Dubrovnik our challenge was to navigate a path out of Croatia through Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia to our final destination in Greece. The weather was perfect, the scenery stunning and for a while the roads were smooth and fast. Day 1 saw us leaving Croatia before swinging inland and circumnavigating the stunning inshore waters of Montenegro’s indented coastline. After a brief ice-cream stop at the ancient walled city of Kotor we move on and arrive back at the Med for a night over in the coast town of Budva complete with jet-set Marina and walled old town – stunning. Moving on from Budva around the Azure coast, day 2, we catch a glimpse of the Queen of Montenegro Hotel immortalized by 007’s Casino Royale before moving towards the border and the much anticipated 2 days riding through Albania, but first one last dip in the sea at Bar before waving goodbye to the Mediterranean until we re-join at Thessaloniki. 20 miles onward and border control, you could sense the anticipation in the air… nobody was sure quite what to expect from this mysterious country tucked away and often forgotten about, and now we were here! A few miles in and everything seems fairly normal, infact we’re greeted with inquisitive smiles and waving hands – I guess it’s not everyday a group of strange looking MAMIL’s come to town. Our first night in Albania was at the town of Shkoder 10 miles across the border and had very much the feel of an untamed frontier town – a bit shabby, a bit wild and a little sense of chaos in the air… Mos Eisley eat your heart out. That night the braver members of our group seeking a night out were disappointed only to find the bar of a 5 star hotel the only discernible watering hole within safe walking distance from our hotel… no Mos Eisley Cantina and the Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes to be found here sadly. Our destination for day 3 was the Capital of Albania, Tirana, and the relative flatlands to the capital offering high speed riding. Well, nearly, all was good for the first 30 miles before we come to our first complication – a motorway. Indeed, closer inspection of the map did show the road becoming major but according to the locals (and the boy on the bicycle in front of us who rode onward) it was quite normal to ride your bike down the motorway – even our Croation guide, Zeljko, suggested we were better off staying on the motorway than riding other roads!? We peeled off the motorway and I soon began to understand the advice being given to us - donkeys, stray dogs, sheep on the road but worst was the manholes with no covers – all this combined with the constant threat of a moments random driving by local road users (which covered a wide range of jalopy’s) – things were becoming interesting. We were now forced to use minor back roads for the next 30 miles… luckily we already had lunch stowed on board the support van. Just to spice things up, the (only) road we had available to us was undergoing major resurfacing works, which left us in places with no option than to walk stretches of asphalt free road – I mean crushed boulders in places - even the MTB guys had to get off at one point! The funniest thing is though the locals were still driving along like there was nothing wrong and that actually we were just being a bit precious.
It was a bit random to say the least with no sign of any workmen or traffic control – how long could this go on for? 16 miles later we made it back to our old friend asphalt and huge sighs of relief and after counting our spokes we set off for the last leg to Tirana city and our accommodation, the Prince Hotel, lets hope it lives up to it’s stately name. Phew, The Prince Hotel was perfect and after a hearty meal and a good nights sleep, day 4 saw us set off for the high country and the first day of hill riding – big hill riding. First there was the small task of navigating Tirana city centre – our hotel was on the exact opposite side to our road out – everybody made it safely. It was clear Albania is undergoing some form of redevelopment and an effort is being made to encourage more visitors & investment from abroad, however, it’s still a little bit crazy and there is a little part of me that kind of enjoyed the edgy excitement while being there and I hope that actually it stays that way. 10 miles out of Tirana we meet the first of the days 2 climbs. 5 miles and nearly 700m of climbing later we’re rewarded with fantastic views looking down on either side of the ridge to the valley floors on either side of us- awesome! Feeling a little cooler up here and distinctly greener the scenery is spectacular. As we progress it’s not long before we are presented with one of the more unexpected scenes of the tour… from high on the hill we are able to look down on to our path and before us the industrial scene of gigantic steel works, Kombinati Metalurgjik, appearing to be mostly deserted and resembling a scene of some post-apocalyptic event this was a blot on the landscape of gargantuan magnitude. Fortunately our road avoids getting too close the works before entering the industrial town of Elbasan. One imagines in it’s hey-day, the town of Elbasan once serviced the mighty steel works and that this was a town thriving on hard cash earned by hard men. We pass through Elbasan quietly and continue on the road for the border and Macedonia. Before crossing into Macedonia we pass through one last Mos Eisley-esque town, Përrenjas and just as we arrived, we are given a similar send-off of waves and smiles and it was goodbye Albania.
We cross the border at close to 1000m above sea level before swooping down to our overnight town, Struga (690m asl), on the north shores of the huge Ohrid lake. Another excellent night at a fine hotel in Struga and we’re feeling good for the ride to Greece but first the small matter of a 600m climb to the towns of Resen, Capari then Bitola. For approximately 30 miles we’re riding at an average altitude of 1000m and up here the scenery is distinctly greener – a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Mediterranean scrub. From Bitola we begin our gradual descent to the coast but not before crossing the border into Greece and stopping at our overnight stay in the town of Amyntaio. Another great hotel and restaurant ensures we are nicely set up for the final days riding to our final destination, Thessaloniki. The roads are longer and straighter and after a mornings ride we’ve made good progress and we’re at the historic town of Edessa. Perched dramatically on the edge of the high ground we find ourselves plunging dramatically down to 100m above sea level and then it’s a race across the fertile plains apparent in this corner of Greece through the arable farmland and cotton fields before finally reaching Greece’s northern most metropolis, Thessaloniki and a welcome return to the Mediterranean. After photographs at the White Tower right on the sea front, the last remains of the old city fortifications, we head for our final resting place and a well earnt night out. Take a look at a few photographs of the challenge at our Adventure Café Facebook Group now for some great images of this amazing event.
Roll on 2012 and stage six of the Bike East Adventure – Thessaloniki To Istanbul. You can join us on this exciting journey by calling 01460 249191 or email … see you there!Adventure Cafe

Friday, 20 May 2011

Riding the Trans Europe Express - Munich to Venice!

So three years ago now, a motley pair of Adventure Cafe leaders were en route from completing a Paris to Munich ride, to the start of an Alpine trek from the Col de la Bonnette to Nice through the
Alpes Maritimes. Purely by chance we opted for the Brenner Pass, and then into the Adige Valley.
Initially it was the most direct over the Alps that encouraged us through this conduit. Soon however, our eye wandered across the wider area on the page of the map. I certainly for one hadn't realised the proximity of Lake Garda to the Brenner Pass, or indeed just how close Verona and Venice were to Lake Garda. And so as we travelled, the plan came together for this stunning, classic European ride. We jotted down a few details, and excitedly then put the plans together back at Adventure Cafe HQ two weeks later. A further 9 months on, and the trailblazing first team were pushing out from Munich Airport, out into the Bavarian countryside with a keen sense of adventure!

We of course knew about the 'big' highlights on the ride, but what soon became apparent was that this ride is very special. Even between the main 'attractions' there are gems aplenty waiting to be uncovered by riders on this event. Wolratshausen town, nestling beside the tumbling, bubbling Loisach River, and its pretty high street, well provided for with Gelataria and Pattisseries, is our first firm favourite! From here our route continues South towards the mountains, passing through the sparkling Spa town of Bad Tolz before starting to climb up towards the Austrian Border. Well before lunch, and we are at the border, and crossing the first ridge of the pre-Alps, and riding beside deep glacial lakes, in warm sunshine. Then we enjoy our first fast descent down into the Inn Valley, now faced by the full force and grandeur of the Alps proper. We have a brief respite as we ride down the flat valley bottom, working together to cheat the valley wind. At Innsbruck we have a brief flirtation with busier roads, but we also take in the historic city centre, bumping down small flights of steps through romantic medieval stone archways, and down cobbled narrow alleyways.
On the other side of Innsbruck, day 2 has a real sting in the tail, which of course all riders are well aware of; the mighty Brenner Pass!

More Details!
 We break the climb into two on this ride - climbing up to the town of Steinach am Brenner, we pause briefly just for some essential fuel (ie cakes and sweets!) in Matrei, to help us up the last few km. Arriving at the Gasthof, we are all well and truly spent, and ready for a cool fresh Austrian Beer, and some hearty mountain fare. Fortunately, our host Herr Klotz is a jolly fellow, and looks after our team magnificently, with a good meal of Wiener Schnitzel and a traditional broth to start! His final offering of a couple of rounds of his local Schnapps / Firewater, is not to my taste, but is gobbled down by the team!
Fit with our energy reserves replenished, the route continues to climb to the top of the Brenner, where we celebrate with photos on the Italian Border. With just over a day in Austria behind us, we wave goodbye, and enter our third country of the trip. Starting with an enormous and joyous descent we ride on down into the Sud Tirol, and down into the wonderful Adige Valley. The scenery builds through the day - and from time to time we are fortunate enough to pick up parts of the Adige Valley Cycle trail. Mid afternoon we ride through the sublime and fascinating Tirol town of Bolzano, or Bosen - the town with a split nationality, part Austrian, part Italian, part Sauerkraut and Wiener Schnitzel, part Chianti and Tortelloni, but topped off with beautiful architecture and stunning mountain views direct from the city centre!

More Details!

A hop and a skip outside Bolzano and the towering dolomitic limestone cliffs start towering above us on both sides, as we drop down for the final gentle ride in the glacier scoured valley bottom, bound for the perfect village of Rovereto. Dinner and a couple of Moretti Pilsners later, and it's time to sleep!
Day 4 dawns, and the team think "surely this ride can't keep up the wonders we have witnessed on days one, two and three?", but as we start down the heart of the Adige Valley on another sundrenched clear morning, the anticipation for Lake Garda builds. A smooth fast ride down the valley brings us
down to Mori - where the cycle path helps us up and away from the valley bottom and the Adige River. A short stiff climb ensues, and then we whizz down a winding path and series of small lanes, to behold the most amazing view (probably!) of the whole journey as we crest the hill, and stare in awe, down the entire length of Lake Garda. And even better than this view, and the tasty Italian lunch by the lake, and the swim in the fresh clear water, is that our route now rocks on down beside the lake for an amazing 48km, without doubt, one of the rides of your life!
Wearily the team make the final ride over the small set of hills to reach Verona, and tired but elated, we take the final turns of the pedals into this most amazing of cities, taking in the amazing views of the old city stacked up along the banks of the Adige Valley.

The final morning of the trip starts gently, and at a low tempo. The essence of the first part of this, the final day is making the final stage of the journey over towards the Adriatic Sea, our journey's end. We see the hills tumbling down into the wine town of Soave off to the side of our ride, but we plough on, with the end in sight. The morning is hot work, crossing the plains to reach the wondefully historic city of Padova, where we break for lunch, and ready ourselves for the final hurrah. In the afternoon, we soon start to feel the Venetian influence, and we ride fast and smooth as a team, along one of the feeder Canals that criss-cross the hinterland of the Veneto. The characteristic barbers pole mooring points for the watercraft on the canal start to creep in, and the waterside properties get ever larger, and more extravagant. Just the last few kilometres and we reach our overnight hotel, and it's a big hurrah as we come into Mestre. It's not quite the end of the road though, as this amazing journey has just one last incredible experience to reward us for our perseverence. From Mestre, the last town on the mainland, in the dying embers of a warm sunny evening, we ride out and across the amazing 2.5 mile long manmade causeway that connects the mainland to the historic island of Venice.
More Details!

At the end of the road, despite Venice itself being out of bounds for cyclists, we sneek on to the first bridge in the pedestrianised entrance area on to the island. We made it - through Bavaria, over the Alps, down the Adige Valley, beside Lake Garda, through Verona, across the Veneto to the most unusual city in the world - the proud completers of the Trans Europe Express!

The Next Trans Europe Express departs platform 4, Munich Hauptbahnhof on 28th September 2011, Get On Board! Let's Ride!

Thursday, 31 March 2011

I'm Craving Caving!

So it was Adventure Café’s office day out last Thursday – and our adventure destination was Goatchurch Cavern…and we were going caving! I had been looking forward to this day for a while, and as we arrived at the entrance to the cave, the adrenaline started pumping (I love that adrenaline rush!). We started by squeezing our way through a small crack and our first challenge was upon us – a vertical descent into the cave. We tied the ropes and made our way in. That was it then for the next 1.5 hours – no daylight whatsoever, our Headtorches were our only source of light. Armed with maps, and a rope we headed further into the cave, and were met with the option of several small holes and tight squeezes to choose from, which would decide in which direction we would head. We had already decided it would probably be best to steer clear of ‘Hellish Tight’ and ‘Drainpipe’ – especially for our first time in the caves! The prospect of getting ourselves into a compromising position and being stuck there for…well, who knows how long, did not appeal to us somehow! What a completely different world though! From the bright skies and fresh air outside, to now be in pitch black, damp caves was surreal – but I was loving every minute! The tighter and smaller the gap was, the better! And not knowing what would be the other side…if I made it through. The highlight for me I think, was the ‘Boulder Chamber’ – a large opening full of…yes…boulders! Which then, through another rather tight squeeze, led to ‘The Grotto’ (sounds lovely doesn’t it?) And it was! I think for other members of staff, the highlight might just well have been the glimpse of daylight we saw as we were coming to the end of the adventure! Personally, that was the worst part for me – and all I wanted to do was turn around and explore some more! I could not recommend caving highly enough – so if you can’t get hold of me at the office, well, you know where I might be :)

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Spring is in the air.... Time for adventure!

So the weather has finally taken a turn for the better, and I'm pleased to report that we have made a positive start! Jason has taken to the hills on his new Saracen mountain bike, Kirsty is looking forward to our team meeting in the caves beneath the Mendip Hills! And I am busily getting excited about where the summer will take me on adventures new.

But if ever there was a time for seizing the moment and feeling energised by the world, it is the spring! A time surely of new possibilities, for imagining the possibilities that lie ahead for the summer, and a time to embrace a world which, contrary to popular media is actually full of wonder and endless awesome experiences.

Although we tend to spend most of our time thinking about and doing physical challenges, in fact our view of the world does roam slightly wider, and our deep down philosophy at Adventure Cafe is more tuned towards simply 'getting stuck in'. We are passionate about getting passionate. In whatever area you may be interested, get amongst it. Knighted, gardeners, diy-ers, motor bikers, gymnasts, painters, bird spotters, and even outdoors adventure freaks! all of us, lets look forward to the summer, let's plan our conquests for the forthcoming season, don't miss the boat, just get in there, and let's get it started! Richard.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Back-to-back weekends in the bag - is it really only February?

Well done to the guys from Waitrose for persevering through arctic conditions on Kinder Scout in February. It's not often you see Nordic skiers in The Peak, and after an hour in white-out traversing Brown Knoll, huskies and sled weren't too far-fetched. Low cloud unfortunately limited the views, but the wind-sculpted gritstones of The Woolpacks look their best when the sky's forbidding.

The following weekend brought better weather, a trip to Avebury (and a sprained ankle, more on that later) and the Adventure Cafe Century Bike Challenge from Oxford. Now, I always swore I'd never become a MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man in Lycra), but the urge to get stuck in trumps my sartorial alarm bells every time. So in padded lycra and silly (albeit necessary) helmet I heroically took one for the team by giving up my bike after 45km to endure the discomfort of the support vehicle to Banbury. Hats off to all who took part, the rain seemed to keep finding an extra gear. Regardless, cycling is the best way to enjoy the Cotswolds and I can think of no better way to take in the site of the opening battle of the civil war and the birth places of such luminaries as William Shakespeare, Plastikman and, er, Gary Glitter.

The legacy of these events has been a hamstring strain and the aforementioned sprained ankle. Rest is paramount to any fitness regime, but I've always struggled to do nothing. A day without taking some form of exercise is anathema to me and always leaves me restless and tetchy. Why? IT JUST DOES, OK!! So, with one leg extended and the other on ice, I commend to you a new book by Ian Vince called The Lie of The Land, a brilliantly readable 'under the field' guide to the geology of Britain. We may not have the highest peaks, the longest rivers or the most boring salt flats, but if you want to see rocks from virtually every period in Earth's history in one place, then Britain's that place.

I may have made a screeching, Nick Clegg-esque U-turn on lycra, but I swear:

I'll never buy a caravan.

Shoot me if I do.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Gotta be Startin' Something!

So what is the essence of Adventure? Ironically for an Adventure Leader, leading Adventure Challenges can lead them into the repeating of events many times over, thus for the leader meaning that whilst their occupation seems adventurous, it can at times be far from it. However, a good adventure leader never stops moving on. There is always a new activity, or a new challenge to be sought out. To be honest, if we want to be able to empathise with our challenge participants, it is crucial that we push ourselves outside our comfort zones.

And so, last weekend, I took my next step into the unknown, and ambarked on a journey into the unknown, and into Goatchurch Cavern on the Mendip Hills. I had been for a climb outdoors, in Cheddar Gorge, but to be brutally honest, it was a nightmare! Cold hands, slippery rock, and a biting wind, combined to make a less than attractive proposition. So after a brief VDiff lead, off we popped up the Gorge, and across the tops and dipped down into Burrington Combe. Here we picked up our static rope, helmets and headtorches, and off we trudged up the hill to the uninspiringly named 'Tradesmans Entrance'! Now, I have actually caved three times properly in the Mendips, but in recent times I have taken to venturing into the beginnings of Goatchurch under my own steam (with my daughter a couple of times) ... the only thing is, that entering the normal entrance of Goatchurch, one can walk easily around 30 - 40 metres into the cavern, but then things change dramatically and one has to struggle dramatically into what looks like a tiny hole. So, we have said 'no-thanks' we'll turn round, and head home!

That was until last weekend, when we started down into the steep slithery 'Tradesmans Entrance'. Once again, as we entered the cavern, I have to admit to a certain sense of trepidation, but in hindsight, this was laced with the unmistakeable frisson of excitement of true adventure. This is the great feel of putting one's best foot forward into the unknown, without really knowing what one will find around the corner. Truly the essence of adventure is the feast for the senses that ensues when one has to push physically, to dare, and as a reward, the intrepid are treated to sights, sounds and experiences new and fresh!

Our adventure took us down, and down, through a fascinating series of squeezes, tunnels and caverns. Using our 40 metre rope we were able to give ourselves a clear trail back out of the cavern. But then of course, the rope ran out, and so we found ourselves pushing off into the real unknown.

Once off the end of the rope, we only explored very tentatively, a few minutes off in either direction, exploring small caverns, and tasting the excitement of a hidden undiscovered underground world... Best of all, we turned back whilst we were enjoying our adventure, in the knowledge that we can return again soon to explore further, we haen't completed our journey, we have only just started... great!