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  • Writer's pictureTom Blower

How to slow down: lessons in pace from Eastern Europe

Coming to a halt. Lipcani, Moldova

I met Joke and Björn resting in the shade of some large umbrellas as I pulled into the forecourt of the petrol station in Sighetu Martei, Romania. For the fourth day in a row since starting from Chișinău, Moldova, I had clocked over 90 miles since my usual early start, and was nearly a full day ahead of my planned schedule, having decided to make the most of passing my intended rest day location – Yasinya, Ukraine – and letting gravity carry me an additional 50 miles back into the EU. What stopped me was my initially mistaken impression of seeing two fellow touring cyclists with heavily-laden bikes resting against one another, but as I drew nearer I saw instead a four-wheeled cart laden with boxes and bags, and in the shade of the umbrellas lay three tired-looking dogs, panting in the late afternoon heat. Joke and Björn introduced themselves: a Belgian couple who had quit their jobs nearly a year ago and started mushing their cart, along with their dogs, in a vaguely eastward direction, with no real plan in mind. They had just been refused entry to Ukraine, and were taking stock, deciding where to go next.

We sat talking in the shade for just over an hour, and what struck me as truly incredible was their speed; or more precisely, their lack of it. Their daily progress was only around 12-18 miles per day. While this shouldn’t really have been a surprise given the size of their five-member team and the amount of supplies their cart was required to carry to support it, I was taken aback. I had been averaging 92 miles a day, and certainly anything less than the target distance for the day – preascertained and tabulated in a Google Sheet on my phone – would have been nothing short of maddening. The idea of moving so slowly seemed an alien and nightmarish amount of physical progress to be making on a daily basis. I couldn’t help but expressing my admiration of their patience and commitment to this way of travel.

Björn responded, explaining that at first, he had begun with motorbike touring, then devolving slowly to bicycle touring, and eventually reaching this particular form of travel, reasoning that “even at this speed, we are still going too fast to see everything!” He raised the ever-interesting conundrum: that of attaining the right balance between the ‘amount’ and the ‘quality’ of experiences. Personally, I feel that cycling normally manages to achieve this balance rather well – there’s enough time to stop and smell/take pictures of the roses, but enough urgency to strive to smell/take pictures of other slightly different-looking roses elsewhere. I’ll admit that I’m an itchy-footed person: the very thought of staying more than one night in the same place averted me from taking a rest day amid the mountains of Ukraine, heading downstream along the Tisa river toward Romania’s lower-lying climes. But I could appreciate where Björn was coming from. The eye in a split second can capture something that a camera simply cannot (something more than just a visual experience), and to slow down the process of seeing is, arguably, a richer way of experiencing the presence you are inhabiting. That said, however, I’m not sure many of the people of some of the less-developed countries I passed through would necessarily agree. I hardly saw a single bicycle in all the Moldovan countryside I passed through, and I wondered what the myriad people moving slowly on foot or by horse-drawn cart between villages under the beating midday sun would have made of the idea of making a conscious effort to ‘slow down’. The paces of our everyday lives, it seemed, were two worlds apart.

Speeds of the old world and of the new. Číž, Slovakia

The Choice

Yet this raises the question: is ‘slowing down’ only a pleasure – a luxury, even – if it is by choice? The notion churned over in my mind as I struggled through Hungary, a country with miles upon miles of immaculate roads dissecting shady forests and waving seas of sunflowers and barley. The problem with many of these roads was that they were illegal to cycle upon. Having passed through the border with Romania – ironically the longest border crossing despite being within the EU – I had been hoping to make quick progress in a manner that wouldn’t murder my perineum, but was dismayed to get less than 500 metres from the crossing to discover a sign with a bicycle struck through on what looked like the only main road between myself and my camp for the night. Ignoring it, I pedaled onward, and hadn’t gone another 10 miles when I was stopped by two Hungarian police officers, seemingly not to chastise me for cycling illegally on the road but to take down my passport details before waving me on with a thumbs-up after seeing my entry dates for Moldova and Ukraine.

Almost without exception, upon reaching a town I would be forced onto a ‘cycleway’, which ranged from a segregated and marked stretch of tarmac separate from other road users to poorly-signed and bone-shaking stretches of pavement shared with pedestrians, very slow cyclists, and enough gravel to start your own bloody aggregate company. I could, to an extent, appreciate that to local people these might have some use, evinced by the increase in bike users – especially the elderly – I saw in these towns, but to a cyclist with literally thousands of miles of road experience (and the only one wearing a helmet from my experience), this constant on-off road malarkey was enough to explain why I only saw one other person on a sports bike in Hungary. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the realisation that there was no way to get around the city of Miskolc without adding at least 50% onto my planned distance. Project management training teaches that risks can be avoided, reduced, transferred, or accepted. With a “Fuck this” through gritted teeth, I accepted the risks of being run over, detained by the police, or both, and gunned the next few miles along angelically smooth tarmac, my ears burning.

Though I may indeed have strayed from my point, it is this: that slowing down, or indeed taking on any kind of obstacles, is only a fun challenge when it is by choice, not when put upon by the powers that be; be they the weather, the border police, or by sadistically ‘helpful’ Hungarian infrastructure planners. Until life gets all too fast for me, I’m happy to stick to two wheels.

Done for the day. Baktaloranthaza, Hungary

When to stop

After six days’ uninterrupted cycling, and of patting myself on the back for getting so far ahead of myself, things started to unravel. Two consecutive days of over 100 miles – the second being 115.82 miles, just about my longest day ever – began to take their toll on what had been feeling a reasonably resilient body. My burned skin began to bubble in sweat blisters on my upper arms; the tendon of my right knee began to ache with every pedal stroke; and having set up my tent for the night, I blacked out and awoke to find myself collapsed in a heap on the floor.

A night of heavy rain and further knee pain the following morning as I struggled slowly up the mildest of slopes helped me to make up my mind. It was time to throw in the towel. Having learned from the disappointment of not being able to keep to my original – and overly ambitious – plans in the Balkans in 2016, I reflected back on the past week’s cycle as I stood on a train from Lučenec to Zvolen. Despite having failed to achieve my original goal of cycling unaided from Chișinău to Katowice, I had cycled over 600 miles in six days, covering five countries and taking in mountain passes, endless fields, and winding rivers. I’d be damned if I let my failure to get another paltry 200 done to prove a point at the expense of my health and happiness detract from that.

A few days later my girlfriend reminded me as I sat, pondering this bittersweet achievement, of the Japanese concept of マイペース (mai peesu). The world moves at its pace, and you at yours. Its measurements of you and your achievements matter not: you are your sole prospector, your perception the architect of your happiness or dissatisfaction.

It is taking time for me to let go of the disappointment that comes from not sticking to a plan, especially when it comes to cycling. But I think I am getting there. Hold in the mind’s eye a set of scales, balancing the happiness of getting so far against the disappointment of not getting far enough. Then take a breath and let go. The scales disappear, and the two weights dissolve into one rich, textured memory. The images of the countryside bob past at a cyclist’s pace. My pace. And to honour the spirit of this newer, slower pace, I’m finishing this now, seven months late.

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