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Ricci Guilhem’s 35 Days

The traditional concept of travel involves reaching a distant destination as quickly as possible and then staying there for a long time. But in April 2021, I decided to make the journey the real destination, to be tackled with a light, comfortable and efficient, yet well-equipped bicycle.

A choice that implicitly frees one from the unpleasant feeling of having concluded a journey just by reaching a destination. Indeed, choosing a bicycle brings the assumption that every kilometer traveled will be an experience worth living, because there are no two identical roads in the world.

It means merging with the landscape, moving along the ground, experiencing all the elements on your skin, letting your soul resonate and feeling at one with what surrounds you.

Of course, setting up such a path requires planning. Relief is needed, for nothing like slope allows one to experience movement, the vital need to move forward. Even before that, however, having a perspective is essential, then one has to decide whether to head east or north. In April going north means choosing rain, so better to proceed east.

At this point, you need to schedule, define whether it will be a one-way trip and how to organize the return. There is so much to plan that sometimes you have to simply give up, choose a point on the map and follow it.

So I started thinking: will Georgia be my destination? It is a route that will take me far, still remaining within reach. After that there is Iran, but it is a more unlikely prospect.

Now listen: going east and then crossing the Alps implies first of all going south. Before leaving, I did not imagine that I would find snow along the way, except in the Alps. A matter of lack of preparation, but a source of future adventures.

Finally the departure, first stop Dignes, home of Alexandra David-Néel. Then a stop in Saou, followed by a bivouac among the wolves. Southbound, arrival in Nice, then the border crossing at Menton. I reach Finale Ligure with a 35 km/h headwind and here I make an important decision. It is 2021, restaurants in Italy have just reopened, while in France they are all still closed.

The Apennines, of which we know nothing in France, is a formidable chain of forests and villages, and among these forests there is the Passo del Bocco. Despite being a modest pass at 956 meters, it leads into another world. From there, a long flat road and then the train to Ancona. An easy descent, the thrill of the ride. At least, that’s what I thought, as I didn’t take into account the downpours that caught me between Parma and Faenza: I wished to merge with the landscape, but instead the sky literally fell on me.

A brief stop to rest (or rather, dry off) then back on road, with the wind in my face to discover Rimini and Senigallia (I will always remember their Roman bridge) and finally I take the ferry on the Adriatic. It took seven days and 1,000 km total to reach Ancona.

On the Olympic Champion I finally have some time to relax, thanks to the 36-hour crossing to Patras. I say goodbye to Ithaca along the way and here I am in Greece. The few hours of delay don’t discourage me from pedaling until twilight, making me break the first rule I had imposed on myself: don’t drive too much at night. But rules are made to be broken, right? I enjoy the calm spring night and pass the Corinth Canal before I find myself in the nightmare of entering Athens: the climb, the miles spent at the mercy of trucks, the dogs guarding the wreckage chasing me repeatedly. Compared to this, the dangers of cars are small potatoes.

In Athens I meet Sylvain and Erica, who have recently moved to the city. We decide to go together to Kalymnos, where I will stay three days to rest my legs, which feel like they are turning to stone. In addition, the body has lost its traditional verticality, and three days will not be enough to restore it. Is this the reason I have come to Kalymnos? Probably not. I set off, determined, happy to be back on the track again, eager to feel the relief from the top of my saddle.

But I’m too excited, my mind is too distracted by the feelings Kalymnos evokes, to the point that I barely feel the rain. And there, suddenly, the fall! I get up and check my body and the bike. Or rather, I examine the bike first and then the body, because I have a feeling that the latter will recover. I am more concerned about being forced to cut my trip short in case the bike is out of commission. But everything is fine: just a few scratches as a reminder of what happened.

I reach Rhodes and Fethiye by boat, to face the first day in Turkey. This ride already provides an overview of the landscapes that will follow over the next 17 days: dirt roads, out of modernity, but dense with civilization. Huge kangals make me panic, forcing me to learn a few words in Turkish, the essentials to signal my presence to the shepherds and underline that I care deeply about my calves. Crazy climbs, that remind me how nothing is better than finding the right pace to overcome them.

I arrive in Demre where, with immense pleasure, I visit an important archaeological site and the church of Saint Nicolas, strictly alone and at sunset, as recommended by 19th-century travelogues. To visit them an entrance fee is required, but given the rate of devaluation of the Turkish lira, it is not much.

In Antalya I find a condensation of the best and worst of the city, with the old town stubbornly resisting the advance of mass tourism and its centers: the tour-operator hotels. I enjoy this moment of civilization before moving on to the wild ecosystem of the steppe. In two days I will kick off the crossing of the Tauern mountain range.

On May 6, I wake up early in the morning: a long day and nearly 4,000 meters of elevation gain await me. The night went well, although I stayed up late talking to the local police in order to set up my bivouac. The climb is tiring, while the chorba at the Gondogmus restaurant is much better. At one point the paved road is interrupted by a left turn, revealing a path surrounded by orchards. I check the track on the GPS. The descent is short, giving way almost immediately to the climb, first sheltered from the wind and then completely exposed. The climb continues even once I pass the last village.

There is a fork and here the path to the left suggests the beginning of a descent, but the GPS inexorably marks to go right. The headwind and 17 percent gradient forced me to put my foot down. If up to this point the landscape has been impressive, now the force of the wind makes it sublime.

I reach the pass that actually leads to a plateau. Here I am greeted by an expanse of snow as far as the eye can see. What should I do at this point? Proceed or turn back? I can’t ride on snow, but such a journey doesn’t allow a change of mind, so I push the bike over the snow for an hour, following the line of telephone poles protruding from the white immensity. Here and there a piece of road pops up, and once again, at one of those forks where I wish the GPS would point one way, I am directed to the other.

It is 5 p.m., I am at an altitude of 2,200 meters, the wind is blowing, everything around me is white except for an alpine hamlet. As the landscape darkens, I decide to pitch my tent for shelter. I have five slices of gingerbread, a piece of bread and two handfuls of pistachios left.

I get up early and set off again, continuing to push the bicycle. The GPS indicates that I am still at an altitude of between 2,000 and 2,200 meters and that it is only a short distance away, but there are no descents in sight. In the meantime I reach 2,400 meters, so the road should start descending from here on. Alpine hamlets can be seen in the distance, suggesting that someone lives in this area during the year.

Finally, a road pops up on the horizon, but it’s ochre color makes me suspicious. Could I ride along it? Of course not, snow is followed by mud, which is far worse because it blocks the wheels, making the bike difficult to push. After another two hours of walking through the mud, I spot a group of shepherds in the distance. I awkwardly approach and their look says it all. They point the path I have just taken and, of their words, I can only make out one: “kar”, “snow.” I’ll have to read Pamuk’s novel sooner or later.

I arrive in Bozkir, where I stay in a non-smoking room with no heating, but I could not ask for better. I leave again for Konya, followed by Capadocia, where every guidebook recommends spending at least a week. However I only stay there for two days: I need to pedal. A need that has nothing to do with an obligation: it is a deeper, unstoppable urgency. There is no hurry, just the desire to be part of the landscape again.

After a stop in Kayseri to repair the derailleur, I ride 200 km all in one go to Sivas. All sorts of things happen along the lanes of Turkey’s main roads: vehicles of all kinds pass by, picnics are arranged and people rest.

I cross the Geminbeli pass from 2,000 meters, where there is no trace of snow. I still have two days before arriving in Bayburt: these are two stop-overs on the way, but it will be necessary to hurry, because bad weather is about to reach the Pont mountain chain. I ride for 175 kilometers between 1,300 and 1,700 meters in altitude, before reaching a city at the end of the world, tired from the day of headwinds.

On May 18 I set off on the D915, described by motorcycle guidebooks as the “road of death.” 20 kilometers after departure I am stopped by a Turkish Telecom vehicle: I can’t go forward. They direct me towards an alternative route that, although not as sensational, will be okay. On the way back I pass a couple of German motorcyclists and warn them to make a U-turn: they wish me a safe journey and give me an appointment in Tbilisi for a beer.

Meanwhile, I have arrived near the Black Sea. I cross another pass at 2,600 meters, where I find snow again: I fear it, but pass anyway. Luckily the road is clear and I have 40 kilometers of descent ahead of me, from high peaks to tea plantations. I ride along the shores of the Black Sea. The sky is cloudy, but for the moment it spares me another shower of water.

There are only two or three days left between me and Georgia. I leave Rize in the pouring rain, and although a stop in the city of Erdogan was not in my plans, I have no choice but to stop. I am too cold. During my last day in Turkey I travel between the busy coastal road and tea plantations, in the midst of which I get lost, more than certain that I have found an alternative route not marked by the GPS.

Here, however, the roads do not contemplate such explorations: I have to return to the main road where the license plates of the trucks open up new fantasies for me. The Silk Road passes this way, and on May 20 I cross the Turkish-Georgian border.

My first impression of Georgia is that the drivers here are more unpredictable than ever, so one has to be careful. Fortunately, the next day I leave the main roads behind and head for Akhatsikhe, towards the Adjaris valley and along a road under construction, sometimes unpaved, sometimes bumpy. It is a long, muddy, majestic stage from the shores of the Black Sea to 2,000 meters above sea level, where I find the snow again. At 6 p.m. I reach Goderdzi Pass and here I pass a closed ski resort, wondering if its closure is seasonal or permanent. Two turns away is a brand new hotel. At this point I take it or leave it, because I have nothing to eat. The arrival crowned with trout, beer and khatchapouri is nothing short of glorious!

I am two days from Tblisi. I ride down from Borjomi and take the road to Gori under increasingly threatening skies. The pouring rain bursts just in time to celebrate my first puncture after scraping together a ride on the highway.

On May 24 I arrive in Tbilisi, 35 days after my departure from Lyon, for a total of 29 days and 3,500 kilometers traveled by bicycle. A faithful, fast and light vehicle that supported the ten kilos of luggage excellently along bumpy roads.

An ode to titanium. It will go fast and far, that’s for sure.

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