The Spam Challenge!

Si and Geoff

I’m still struggling with time to write the blog so I’m re-publishing a story of a cycle trip made a few years ago which tested friendship and endurance…

A good friend and customer of Mountainfeet, Geoff Eldridge was intrigued to read of Adventure Travel Magazines SPAM Challenge and devised a testing trip by bike within the challenge stipulations. The plan would be to cross the Channel at Dover and cycle to Germany and back, taking in France, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg for a total of five countries in five days. The twist to this challenge was that it had to be completed on on £70 each – including the ferry crossing! Not surprisingly, he struggled to find anyone daft enough to accompany him and mentioned the fact to me at the shop. His account of turning an idea into reality and how we covered nearly 600 miles by bicycle follows…

Day One – Sunday 21st April – Dover to Oudegem
04.15 Si Taylor, owner of Mountainfeet in Oldham, and I took an early hours P and O ferry to Calais. It cost £18 one way and the clock moved on an hour as soon as we landed at sunrise. As it turned out, we needed that hour more than the money!


07:15 We were on the road in the chilly morning air and trying every damn road to find a way out of Calais that allowed bikes! Once on the right road we were moving quickly at over 18 mph and heading for the Belgium border. Sadly, there wasn’t much to see yet and it was flat so we dug in and focused on the cycling.

08:30 We crossed gleefully into Belgium near Adinkerke and took the first cheesy ‘border photo’, pleased we were cracking on at so fast a pace.

09:35 Breakfast in Veurne with 45 miles tucked away and we were on a high. An amiable lady in a patisserie freely parted with some bread and pastries at the mere sight of us. Perhaps refugees from the UK are more common than one would have expected. Was this a good omen?

10:30 to 19:00 I now embarked on a journey into a mixture of memories and misery. Lack of sleep and calories was to take its toll on me more than Si. For the trip to stand a chance, we had to get beyond Brussels that night and we were gutted to be short of our target by 30 miles when by necessity we stopped near Dendermonde. We crashed out on the back lawn of a Belgium couples house who were so kind that they gave us a couple of beers that night and a picnic lunch for the next day. There were now 120 miles on the clock – the furthest Si had ever biked in one day and although he had never tried cycle camping before this trip he was clearly going to be the stronger of us. Crippled twice in one day by an ‘energy bonk’ all I could do was try and hang as close to his back wheel as possible and worry about the pain in the arse – literally. He’s 15 years younger than me okay!!!

Day 2 – Monday 22nd April – Oudegem to Vaals
07:30 The crazy cycle rush hour around Dendermonde is a very fond memory of mine.  Everyone gave way to us, as unlike the UK, Belgium embraces cyclists. Motorists and pedestrians alike are cycle conscious and make allowances generally unheard of in the UK. This was cycling heaven and the weather was playing a part too with cloudless skies and temperatures into the mid twenties.

16:20 We both liked Belgium but were not sorry to get out of it and pass in to our third country – Holland near Maastricht, where we admired the efficient waterway system criss-crossing the Low Countries and providing a welcome visual break from miles and miles of fields.

18:45 Just short of the German border at Vaals we checked into a campsite with 231 miles behind us. We had started to find some hills – oh and by the way that was two scorching hot days done. We were scrounging water as we went along to save euros for food so we had to just hope it was good stuff as you need an awful lot of it. This was the first campsite we had seen since leaving Calais and I didn’t want to relinquish it without a struggle. While I put the tent up, Si rode the few extra miles over the border into Germany as a recce for the morning. I suppose with hindsight we should have done another two or three hours and made up some of the lost time. Anyway, we feasted that night on Si’s patent Pasta splodge washed down with a surprisingly decent cheap bottle of Cote de Rhone (1.65 euros)

Day 3 – Tuesday 23rd April – Vaals to Houffalize
07:30 We hit the road again blinking back the sleep and not fully recovered from the previous day.

07:45 Into Germany at Aachen (Tick the box – 4th Country done – I felt like an American tourist!)

08:00 Return to Holland again but with hills this time! Oh no…

08:45 Back into Belgium near Gemmenich.  Another sweltering day and lots of hills. Big hills in big heat. If it was not for Si, the 5 day target would have been blown right then and there because in Malmedy at lunch time I would have quit. This crazy pace was no way to see such a beautiful country. I wanted to sit outside the café and drink beer and chill out with everyone else. (To rub it in my colleagues back in the UK would have been suffering the monthly team meeting!) So did Si but his resolve was way stronger than mine. It was the five countries in five days that was more important. We had publicly said we were going to do it so we were committed. That’s all there was to it…

It was the seating arrangements of the trip that were going to become critical! As keen outdoor sport enthusiasts, the legs and lungs were pretty good after two and a half days but I would recommend that anyone thinking of trying this kind of endeavour to get the right saddle first. Even consider taking a gel cover – ironically, I had two at home! We were also burning more calories than we were taking on so that didn’t help, which meant we were having to dip into our dwindling supply of power bars.

14:35 We’d packed for cold, wet conditions and yet each day was scorching hot! We had to get rid of some weight. The tin of Black Pepper Spam met its end at Vielsalm just short of the Luxembourg border, although son of Spam (Si’s can of Spam Lite) lived on and survived the purge!

The Spam was a feast in itself and a more worthy sacrifice could not have been wished upon it. The spot has been duly marked on the map for posterity!

15:30 The Luxembourg border was finally crossed near Deiffelt. At last, 5 countries visited and all we had to do was get home. (If only it was that simple!) But the heat and hills stretched before us into the Ardennes for an awfully long way.

Cycling is a cheap, healthy and a wonderful way to travel. You see things for free that the motorist misses.  You hear the wildlife and can exchange greetings with other cyclists and the residents of the numerous villages. Just don’t bite off more than you can chew mileage-wise!!!

17:00ish Back into familiar Belgium. I was so whacked that I don’t even remember crossing the border again, somewhere near Wilwerdange. All I could do was turn the pedals and dream of sleep…

19:40 Finally done for the day and trying to make the money grabbing campsite owner understand that we wanted to spend our limited budget on a cheap bottle of plonk and not on his bloody shower. With 316 miles done we were now about 40 miles behind our intended target and as you cannot buy anything in Houffalize after 1900 we had to make do a beer from the bar. It had been a very long hard day…

Day 4 – Wednesday 24th April – Houffalize to Virginal Samme
07:00 A beautiful morning cycling the lush hills, valleys, forest and pastures of the Ardennes. Which included Si spotting a wildcat crossing the road in front of him! (Felis silvestris). We also paused in La Roche en Ardenne to take the obligatory ‘sitting on WWII tank’ photo!

13:30 I ‘hit the wall’ as they say, under the midday sun near the top of another long climb around Haversin.  The liquid intake was phenomenal but the need to expel it nonexistent! We lunched on Baguette, Beef Tomato and Camembert in the shade of some trees and enjoyed a conversation with half a dozen curious cows. Can life get any better than that?

14:00 We hit the road to Namur following the River Meuse. The heat was debilitating at 28°C° – even in the shade. It was a pity there wasn’t any! It was flat by the river and should have been easy but I was spent and a headwind made it even worse.

16:00 Namur was full of commuters exhaust fumes and surprisingly hilly to get out of. On the edge of town I slept on a shady grass bank on the side of the road because, according to some people we asked, we had passed the last shop. So Si went all the way back into town. What a hero! When he came back we stoked up on fresh orange juice, Baguette and more Camembert (It’s dead cheap at 0.80 euro). I was then a man reborn. I couldn’t believe the new lease of life and we powered on, rather than just rode, for another 4 hours.

20:00ish  We found a deserted campsite in Virginal Samme where more Pasta splodge and budget Cote De Rhone were enjoyed. The hills were now done with – along with 420 miles.  There were just 140 miles between us and our goal of Calais where our trip would end.

Day 5 – Thursday 25th April Virginal Samme to Calais
07:00 We now began the hardest day’s cycling of my entire misspent life. Literally all the problems were in the arse end of the trip. That’s mine – not the country. Si faired little better in the pain department and my sores were now complaining even when I wasn’t sitting down. However around midday we entered the very sobering region of the First World War battlefields near Ypres.

13:00 Hill 62. My first experience of a wartime graveyard was Sanctuary Wood Cemetery. Nearly 2000 soldiers lay there and only 686 of them were named. When I originally conceived this idea I was hoping to be at one of these cemeteries at 11 o’clock on 11th November. I had thought it might have served as a poignant reminder that I have been lucky to have lived in a relatively peaceful time where I was unlikely to die young and had the chance to travel and experience life. (Mind you if I had tried this in November I would probably have joined them!)  Where we now stood, it was sunny and peaceful, yet 90 years ago the cemetery area itself had been obliterated by shellfire!

For the rest of the afternoon signpost after signpost pointed us to one cemetery or another but we had to ride. On another trip, a day spent checking this area out properly would not be a waste of time for anyone. Leastwise it would be of much more use to the soul than spending money on anti-wrinkle cream or designer jeans.

16:00 The nightmare 30mph headwind began with sixty miles still to go. At least it took the heat out of our fifth cloudless day but now this became the cycling journey from hell. Ironically we were on the same retreat as the WW2 soldiers trying to get back to Dunkerque so maybe we were lucky after all.

21:25 Tremendous! We had finally finished in the dark and were buying our tickets for the ferry with the remains of our seventy quid. We were shattered and cold to the bone but our spirits were starting to lift with the pride of completing a difficult personal challenge.

22:30 Back to reality with a crash! We were waiting to board our ferry, which was late, and were back in the company of loudmouth English scallies who were swearing noisily. We had cycled 560 miles without any of it!  Maybe we should have ridden on. For 5 days there had been no such reminders of what we so often run away from here in the UK.

01:00   Back in the UK at Dover and 3 hours inside our challenge target time.  Tired, cold, and unbelievably hungry, the job was done…

Budget for the SPAM Challenge was £70 each. We came in well under budget with £62.20 spent as follows

  • Ferry fares per head £36.
  • Camping £9.20 per head (They never collected the fees for the third site) 
  • Food and wine exactly £17 per head (Receipts for proof if necessary). We lived on Baguettes, Camembert, fruit and pasta supplemented with an emergency stock of Powerbars and gel sachets
Distance travelled was 560 miles and the countries visited were FranceBelgiumHollandGermany (– Holland – Belgium) – Luxemburg – (Belgium – France).

Summing up the trip
As a trip it was a fantastic taster of what is so easy and cheap just across the Channel and as a personal challenge it fitted the creed,  ‘if it’s worth having then it will be hard fought for.’ Neither of us are experienced cycle tourers and although we made it up as we went along, we would heartily recommend it as a holiday for anyone and I am sure there is expert advice available out there if you look for it.

We have both said we will go back but at a more sensible pace and budget. Si will take his wife Liz because she is probably a lot better company than me – but he may lose out on the shower versus wine argument if it ever became an issue.  I am normally a bit of a loner (it’s the snoring!) who is easily distracted and I know I would have blown both the budget and target without Si’s focus because I wanted to check out the cycle routes, the walks, the canals, the wildlife, the cafes, the battlefields, as well as getting back into the Ardennes to just disappear for while.  (To cook up another daft idea perhaps!)

Geoff Eldridge
 

Footnote:

The importance of the 5 day ceiling was that we had gone public with it and intended using the trip to not just enhance our own life experience but to use it to help raise funds for those that are not as lucky as ourselves.  To that end we had to succeed and we were lucky enough to raise over £1,200 for Cancer Research, a charity both Si and I have strong links to…