A group gathered at Canterbury Cathedral to pray for John as he set off on his journey. It was a beautiful send off from a place where so many other pilgrims have begun their journeys. Within a few hours he was in France! Two days later he had made it to the South of Cambrai, already having had an encounter with the law… A gesticulating gendarme was leaning out of his van, clearly telling John to do something different from what he was doing. He drove on, leaving John wondering if he was cycling on roads that he shouldn’t be, but they seemed fine for the time being so he carried onto Arras!
By Day 4, John had already cycled 350 miles. His preference to cycle at night meant for a peaceful, clear ride. “It feels so fast on a bike at night and the tarmac is as smooth as marble.” Despite a migraine and sleeping on a roundabout, he found his way to Reimes easily. Unfortunately, it was more of a task finding his way out! Lost in Reimes, John came across a major running event in town and found himself riding along a prohibited road to the finish line. “There was the bunting, there were the barriers and overhead, the big finishing arch with a stop clock ready to show your time! But there was no one there…but me…crossing the line at night…the winner!” 6 locals and 3 gendarmes later, John found his way.
John made it to Dijon on Day 6. His update came at midnight after his longest day yet. He was up in the hills and found the night absolutely pitch black, silent and still with no light pollution anywhere on the horizon. The sky was just a massive dome of stars.
Cycling through Dijon, he passed lots of bikes for sale in garish colours. Suddenly John realised he was cycling on the route of La Tour! “The lone cyclist, taking pole position again!” Along this route, John met another cyclist, Don (Don La Mancha thought John…). Don was a social worker who had been to see the refugees at the camps in Calais. Don said he was hallucinating from a lack of sleep due to a close encounter with a wild boar the night before… John was glad he had steered clear of the forest on his night under the starry dome.
Another long day and John arrived in Mervans. However his day was far from over. “I found a place to camp...rather hurriedly, but it looked ok. Started to unpack when a car drove by slowly reversed and came back. I put down my stuff and walking into the headlights, I promptly fell straight into the ditch I'd avoided on the way in. (I'm sure that doesn't happen in the movies!) "Monsieur?" I said, trying to look positive. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but he kept putting his hands together on his cheek and tipping his head sideways and then pointing ahead. I said "Can I stay...just one night?" I couldn't really grasp what he was saying until his wife came out with one word... "snake?" She said.
“I found a lovely spot a mile down the road.”
On the night of Day 9, John made it to Italy! It was a beautiful morning and John had the delight of cycling the length of Lac du Buorget with the backdrop of the mountains, all the way down to Chambery.
“I have to say, that cycling, you are right up close to everything going around you. Sounds, smells, ridges on the road, folds of warm and cold air on your skin.” Riding along, John could see something up ahead in the road, auburn brown hair… John feared it might be a bear! But up close he saw the ears and a snout. “Don la Mancha had not been hallucinating, it was in fact a huge wild boar!”
John found himself at the foot of the Col du Mont Cenis rising to nearly 7000ft, the highest of the Alpen passes. “This is what I had to face to get to Susa and a bed for the night and it was already getting dark.” John began his treacherous accent with unrelenting hairpin bends, long twisting climbs, the thinning air and freezing winds, with no barriers between the path and a vertical drop. Thankfully, John’s friends Simona and Diego were on their way to see him safely over the top and 15km of sheer descent to Susa where they would spend the night. They were his “angels in disguise”.
Day 11 saw John just over half way to Rome. Simona went ahead in the car and John and Diego set off on their bikes at midday. A strong wind was blowing, thankfully in the direction of their ride! “Gusts must have exceeded in excess of 50mph because at times Diego and I were going flat in top gear and we were being overtaken by the dry leaves being blown along with us!”
“Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next. You could not make this up. I had camped on a roundabout, beside a motorway, in the hollows, high in the hills....protected by all. Instead of staying the night at Diego’s, I might have chosen to camp in the trees on the bone dry slopes above Susa. But as we left the town a crisis in the mountainside, a forest fire... raging out of control.
“Diego assured me no one lived up there.....it was just the smoke that would be a danger to the village that lay down wind.” Turning to back to the road they headed again for Turino, fanned by the wind.
The next day Diego escorted John from Turino on his bike about 20km to pick up the main route to Asti and John said good bye with many thanks for their amazing hospitality. That night was a chilly one so John donned every item of clothing he had with him! When he got up to make a move at 4.30am there was ice on the inside of the tent.
It took a while to become light, but it began to warm up and the layers came off slowly. John stopped in Alexandria at a supermarket to stock up with food for the next two days. The weather was great so John just carried on cycling. Diego had suggested it could be more tricky wild camping in Italy compared to France as there is much less space for people to spread out.
It was getting cold again and John had been cycling 12 hrs with hardly any breaks. It was really getting cold, yet as he set off after supper, a sign flashed that it was 14° in Genova which wasn’t that far away. John reached the top of a pass and began his descent, whizzing along through strange little Mexican style towns. Everyone was around and everything was open! "It was like Las Vegas compared to Frances El Passo!" Suddenly John found himself in the city of Genova. It was 17° and the place was buzzing! John’s wife Jaki had been following John's progress on the GPS tracker and helped him come to the decision that he should stay in a hotel on this one occasion. Very posh compared to camping on the roadside! Especially with breakfast included!
On Day 14 John reached the Mediterranean Sea! The coast road was so up and down it was amazing to have to climb so steeply and high and then plunge down to the next town nestled in a river valley by the sea. After an unexpected hill to climb and struggling to find his next hotel (kindly booked by Jaki at home!), John finally found his place to stay for the night at 1am.
The next day offered a lovely flat ride along the Mediterranean coast, with posh houses and bars and restaurants lining the road. “It was like Sunset Strip or the Golden Mile (after mile) on the classic Costa del Whatsit!” He made it to Viareggio with Pisa just around the corner!
In Pisa, after an arduous search for the hotel, John finally found the BBC, Christian Bed and Breakfast. It was on the fifth floor of an old Italian building, stairs spiralled round an ancient lift with a cage and wires and weights like a mine shaft. He found the correct floor and the concierge, who appeared quite fierce, showed him a room. Each room opened onto the reception area and none had a room number on. John had left his bike at the entrance at the bottom of the stairs. He mentioned this to the concierge who pointed to the lift. “Fine, not a problem I decided! I wish you had been there to share the fun of trying to wrestle my bike into a lift designed for a maximum of 4 people! Whichever way I tried it wasn’t going in! NOT A PROBLEM!! thought I and began climbing the stairs struggling up after a long day. Suddenly, all the lights went out and I was plunged into complete darkness. I stumbled on banging into the walls....bike lights I thought, bike lights!...NOT A PROBLEM!!! I convinced myself!!
“I had the keys to my room and went to the door. But it wouldn’t open. I tried each key. "Stop, stop!" the little concierge lady called "Shhh!" We both fell about laughing… I was trying to break into someone else’s room!! No door numbers. It was Alice in Blunderland again. Very funny.”
Finally John had his room. Eventually sleep, then the morning came.
“Now, where’s this Leaning Tower!!”
After 18 days on the Rome John finally arrived in Rome; "And d'you know, what a moment, unrepeatable, I’d made it to Rome in the time available , bloomin' amazing!!"
"It’s been a fantastic journey and I have felt the care and prayers of all thinking about me and very much taking and being part of this wonderful opportunity."
If you would like to support John and make a donation to the work of Hope Ride, you can find out more here. Thank you!