On midsummer's eve, in a run down part of Leeds at 5:45 am, I was propositioned by a young female standing at the end of the street where I'd stayed the previous night. At the time, and this to my mind made the whole situation completely bizarre, I was riding my push-bike, moreover a push bike heavily laden with fully packed panniers. I have been wondering ever since just what would have happened had I taken up her offer. Would I have had to give her a crossbar to her place of abode? Or did she expect me to stash my bike behind the nearest privet hedge?
I regret now that I did not at least discuss the logistics of our possible tryst together. Dearly I would have loved to have known whether there would have been a cup of tea in it, and if so whether it would have been aperitif or apre? But I had a bus to catch so all I could utter, lamely, was: "It's a bit early, isn't it?" She gave a wan smile and I continued to freewheel into the centre of Leeds.
The bus I was to catch was rather special; it was to take me all the way to Basel in Switzerland and it was designed especially to take cyclists, or at least it had a large trailer on the back on which cyclists could stack their bikes. The bus starts in Middlesbrough and then motors all the way down to Dover picking up passengers on the way, either at service stations or slip roads off the motorway; Leeds is the one exception - the only city it actually diverts into.
The bus' final destination is Cavalino on the Italian Adriatic. Basel is the first point cyclists may disembark, other points being Como and Verona. The round trip, Middlesbrough to Cavalino, is over 2,500 miles and takes 60 hours to complete. The coach has three drivers and two couriers who, like the passengers, have to sleep on board while the coach is moving. You would think just one trip a week like this, involving two nights of far from perfect rest, would be enough for anyone, but most of the crew do two such runs a week, as the company which operates the service has two other routes to the continent. One to the French Basque country and the other to Catalonia. It is possible in fact to go out on one route and come back on another.
My biggest surprise on boarding the coach was finding I was near to being the youngest cyclist aboard even at the age of 51. I'd been expecting a coach full of youngsters; instead they seemed more like pensioners, though very active ones of course.
The journey was a lot easier than I anticipated; there was a lot of leg room in the seats and there was opportunity to get drinks and food on board plus. The journey was also, of course, broken up with a sea voyage across the Channel. It was in fact easier than traveling on a plane - it was just a lot longer. It only became painful when darkness fell and it was no longer possible to see outside.
At three in the morning we arrived in Basel, or at least Basel airport which is actually in France and about thirteen of us disembarked. Most had the sense to check in to a nearby Formula 1 Hotel, one of a strange chain of hotels that seem to be built out giant lego blocks, but at least are cheap. I however began to pedal.
What followed was a miraculous feat of nocturnal navigation on my part and the weirdest journey I have ever made by bike. First I cycled into St. Louis, the French town which abuts Basel. Down its main street I progressed through the centre of the town and then, square in the middle of the road, I came upon a customs post. It was manned but I got a simple nod from the official to pass through. (And that's how it was whenever I came to a border in my two weeks on the continent. If a customs official noticed me at all it was simply to nod me through.) I was now in Basel, and Basel is a city that never sleeps. Not on a sultry summer's night anyway. Cafe's were open, pubs were open. I never saw a street devoid of pedestrians or empty of cars. It was almost as lively at 4 am on a Sunday morn as when I saw it again two weeks later at eight on a Sunday evening.
Crossing a bridge that spanned the Rhine, I was struck by just how wide it was. Then I got vaguely lost but knew if I veered to my right I must come back to the Rhine again - which I did. And thus I came to another customs post. Another nod and I was in Germany. And thud! all was as quiet as the grave, no midnight carousing here. Within an hour's nocturnal cycling I had visited three separate countries.
I cycled on into Germany and into the dawn. As the sky lightened it did strange things to my vision, for when I looked from the lightened sky back to the darkened road, my vision would flicker. I was surprised that I still had the energy to cycle. But the road was level and what else could I do?
By six it was truly daylight and the sensation of really being abroad was beginning to register as I took in the hedgeless nature of the countryside and the decidedly un-English nature of the crops, such as maize, growing in it. Then, at the corner of country lane, I came across a bench. There was no question of what I would next do. I propped my bike against the back of the bench, stretched out on it and drifted into sleep.
Back in Leeds, I suppose, the waif was back at her stance on that street corner I'd passed barely twenty-four hours before, ready to accost any unsuspecting cyclist that came along. Ahead of me I had a continent to explore - well at least Baden-Württemberg.