In March 2020, I was cycling up a windy valley in Bavaria. Cold, alone, tired, and needing a break, I pulled over behind a stack of wood outside a farmhouse.
I heard a window open, and a woman call out: “What are you doing outside? The police will stop you! Don’t you know about the virus?” She continued: “Are you cold? Come in and drink coffee with us!”
Over the time it took to empty a mug of coffee, I realised the main purpose of the ride – to meet new people – would be impossible. It was decided I would return to the UK – the next morning.
My journey of a lifetime was over.
Let’s go back a step. In June 2018, I had tests on my left shoulder, which had been aching for months. Weeks later, I was told by doctors I had a very rare and aggressive cancer, and it had already spread to my lungs. I didn’t expect to see Christmas.
I tried to come to terms with the horror of my imminent death, as I grappled with how my life – which had previously gone more or less according to plan – could have fallen apart so suddenly and completely. I immediately started treatment and kept as active as possible to get through chemotherapy, cycling my bike in the ward and going for long walks around the harbourside in Bristol’s city centre.
The doctors later told me they thought the exercise had significantly improved my outcomes. But during this time, I realised that more important than the number of days I had left was how I used them. My previous priorities – climb the career ladder, buy a house and have a family – became radically less important, and in their place a goal that had lain dormant for years emerged: cycle round the world. After a year of treatment and six months of planning I set off from Bristol for Beijing on New Year’s Day 2020.
I didn’t exactly choose the best year. In late March, after three months on the road, all it took was a cup of coffee to send me back to the UK and enter lockdown alongside everyone else.
During the next five months I set up the Bristol2Beijing podcast and wrote about my experiences of treatment, but by August I realised there would never be a good time to restart my expedition.
It was tempting to put it off for some post-pandemic year, but that was not an option I felt I had. I live from scan to scan, and I never know if the next one will send me back to hospital. Thus, despite all the uncertainties and risks, I restarted my ride last August – from that same Bavarian valley, now verdant and beamingly sunny.
The world had changed in ways big and small since I’d last been cycling. People wore masks – in the shops and cities at least – and I was no longer greeted with handshakes and hugs. But I was surprised and relieved that people still invited me to stay with them – and although we kept a “safe” distance I did wonder if, after a night in the same space, that was somewhat missing the point.
One thing I’ve learned from cycling during Covid is that disruption, even extreme and repeated, can bring new and exciting opportunities, if one can be flexible and open-minded. . I’d been cycling for less than a month when Hungary closed its borders, cutting off my planned route along the River Danube. I could have stopped and waited, or decided this was going to keep happening (it did) and the ride was too difficult. Instead I thought about other routes I could take to head east. If I went through Austria, Slovenia and Croatia, it would add 300 miles to my route, but it would also take me to new countries and people.
Across my travels so far, I have observed that different communities have different values regarding behaviour around Covid. In the UK during the pandemic, human interaction has been limited with the aim of preserving life. However not everyone shares this as their highest priority.
One evening I was riding the tandem with a friend, Michelle, through a village in Croatia. With a loud bang, the front tyre exploded. By the time we had finished the repair it was quite dark. A car pulled up behind us, bathing us in bright white light as three tall men got out. One of the men came right up to me and asked: “Do you need somewhere to stay? It’s late!”.
We gratefully accepted Marian’s offer and were soon in a wooden cabin. The door opened and in came two, four, five people carrying beer, boar kolbasa and crisps. The room soon hummed with bonhomie as drinks and conversation flowed, and I noticed how casually Marian and his family and friends interacted – so unlike the cautiousness I experienced in the UK.
I came to realise that they valued human interaction and connection very highly, and for them, such gatherings were worth the increased risk from Covid. They felt that life was there to be lived and enjoyed, and that preservation of life was not enough.
I’ve also seen first-hand how little consistency there is in how different countries have handled Covid – and no consistency between people. Life in Ukraine, for example, appeared to continue almost as normal, the streets of Odessa thronged with people quaffing mulled wine and munching waffles in the brightly lit Christmas market overlooking the Black Sea. Only when in a supermarket and entering (not exiting) a restaurant did people wear masks.
But, as I slogged across Ukraine, battling a 20mph headwind for 400 miles, I was alone. Grinding along at almost walking pace, this was a time I would have loved to have had a second person cycling the tandem with me. But as it was, despite Ukraine’s day-to-day openness, no one wanted to join me.
After hitting a closed border with Russia, I took a ferry to Istanbul. In comparison to Ukraine, there was a heavy police presence: roadblocks and plenty of policemen walking the streets, ensuring the 9pm curfew was upheld. Everyone wore masks, and it felt tense and muted, and I consigned myself to another lonely stint on the road.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was joined on the back of the tandem by Turkish cyclists for over 600 miles, including five days with Anil, a 29-year-old art teacher from Ankara, who managed to combine impressive cycling power with a pack of cigarettes a day. We joyfully sped along, with a strong February sun warming our bodies. Despite the government Covid restrictions, Turkey was one of the most welcoming and friendly countries I have been through.
So, having ridden 6,000 miles through 20 different countries during a pandemic, what have I learned? Firstly, that on a cycle trip – and in life – when the situation changes, it is important to be flexible with goals. Some things might no longer be possible, whether it’s crossing a border or the threshold of a restaurant, but that leaves you with a question: what can you do instead which will also be interesting and take you in an exciting direction?
Secondly, I’ve learned there is no universal response to Covid. Countries’ official responses differ by size, density, economic strength, population demographic, strength of government and more. Yet time and again I’ve seen that individual choice prevails. I have met some people in a KN-95 mask, apron, gloves and hairnet, and at others who have pulled me in for a hug before I have even realised what’s happening.
Third, I have seen that people’s priorities through the pandemic vary widely. In some countries and communities, preservation of life is paramount: socialising is highly limited and the lives of the vulnerable are prioritised. In others, people value living itself more highly, and prefer to make the most of now, filling it with hugs and laughter and joy, and acknowledging – or ignoring – that doing so comes with increased risks, which for them are worth it.
The endurance of this desire for connection gives me hope. Millions of us have been shut away with limited human contact, and the outside world can seem like a scary place.
And yes, it can be. But I can promise you there are millions of other people also waiting to connect and fill life, once again, with laughter, clinking glasses and hugs. The things that make us human.
Luke Grenfell-Shaw is a freelance writer and podcaster and is sharing his experiences of living with cancer and cycling from Bristol to Beijing on his website Bristol2Beijing.org. For more information, or to donate, visit the website here
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