Bike for Europe: Thessaloniki to Vienna
Bike for Europe is a cross-border cycling tour which aims to promote the bicycle as a sustainable and active means of transportation, physical activity in general, as well as international co-operation between European countries, with a special focus on the social inclusion through sport.
Two teams of cyclists cycled across Europe, starting separately on September 1st, 2018 from Drenthe in the Netherlands and from Thessaloniki, Greece. The tour finished on September 22nd in Vienna, Austria, which is hosting the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. A ceremony was held as part of the official opening of the European Week of Sport 2018.
The tour was joined by citizens from 11 different countries. Several side-events have being organized, not only along the route but also in cities off the route. Examples of these activities were cycling workshops for migrants, touristic sightseeing tours on the bicycle and sports events and material support for minorities or disadvantaged social groups, as for example the homeless. Traffic education at schools and donating bicycles to orphanages were also part of the activities organized.
The southern team, of which Seçil and Alexios were a part on their SANTOS Double Travel, proceeded through Northern Greece to cross Bulgaria and thence to Serbia, southern Romania, southwest Hungary, Slovakia and, finally, Austria, a distance of 1.302km an all.
At first they had to negotiate their way through the rough Balkan terrain, under the heat of the summer sun -yes, it was still summer in September, with temperatures reaching up to 37ºC! The rest of the team were on electric bicycles, which initially made Seçil and Alexios a bit stressed, would they be able to keep up? As it turned out, not only were they able to keep up, but on flat roads and downhills they were in general faster than the electrics! One of the big advantages of riding a tandem is that you have double the power for almost half the weight. The uphill parts were a different story though, gravity takes its toll and there they had to go along with the wise touring adage of go slowly and patiently up and you will be rewarded with the downhill part that follows. Even though in the Balkans at some points there seemed to be mainly uphill parts, when the Danube river was eventually reached, everything started, well…, flowing! The sheer exhilaration of riding fast along the river, brought to mind the quip by Robin Williams, “it is the closest you can get to flying”! Needless to say, water consumption was particularly high at these temperatures and speed.
The thing that made the deepest impression, is how the bicycle can bring people together. When you arrive in a place by bicycle, people that otherwise would not speak to you (after all they see others arriving by car / train /plane every day) come to you and curiously inquire about your trip, where you came from, where you are going, etc. Often this ends up with an invitation to eat together and sometimes they will even insist on taking you in for the night!
People in Serbia were especially willing to ride together with the team and show them the beauty of the countryside. Apart from being a very beautiful ride around Pirot indeed, this is also connected to their desire to formally be a part of Europe, a development that recent modern history and politics has until now denied them. Cycling with a European team made them feel a little closer to this dream.
Still, the welcome was universal in all the countries that the team passed through, with people sometimes going out of their way to arrange the best for them. It is also typical when touring like this, that one will see things normal “tourists” do not get to see or experience. The magnificent goulash soup from a really really big cauldron on a log fire in Veliko Gradište in Serbia, or the (slightly illegal…) ride at high speed at sunset along the Donauradweg near Vienna, that was damaged in the 2013 floods and is actually closed to riders, are one or two things that will stay as beautiful memories.
The beautiful buildings by organic architect Imre Makovecz in Makό, Hungary, the old houses and citadel of Pirot, Serbia, the lake and castle in Tata, Hungary, the Donauinsel in Vienna, Austria, the tranquil riverside cycling paths in the early morning silence are some more impressions that the team had the privilege to experience.
Even more, it was the people along the way, that made this trip unforgettable and worth the small and ultimately insignificant inconveniences that may inevitably have came up. This is the essence of cyclotouring anyway, to see places and connect to the people living there – something that can really very well accomplished if one travels by bicycle.