TWELVE months ago a friend asked me how on earth my Queensland blood would cope while camping and cycling through a harsh European winter.
At the time I let rip the laugh of the naive while claiming I’d be as tough as nails by then “and don’t worry, it’s all been done before anyway”.
So here I am, five months into a world cycle tour, arguably fatter than before I left, and lying in the gutter of a Swiss backwater with a scraped elbow, a bruised ego and a severe case of the shivers. Two minutes earlier I took a graceless dive from my bike in the effort to avoid a truck and while the only thing broken is my confidence it’s hard to decide what hurts worse: the scraped arms and legs or the bloody foul weather.
It turns out to be the bloody foul weather and an empathetic Scott (who deserves 10 points for not laughing) helps me back onto the bike to again tackle the winding and gloomy roads to Montreux.
The theory is if we keep moving we won’t get cold but the temperature’s plummeted to -2 degrees celcius and while this is child’s play for northern hemisphere locals I’m half convinced my feet have turned blue.
Five minutes later the golden arches rise up from the fog and we ditch our bikes and sprint for the plastic booths in a bid to thaw out and chug down a steaming cup of tea in the process.
It takes 10 minutes for my extremities to start tingling and almost an hour for them to feel warm but meanwhile my bleeding elbow is throbbing while steel storm clouds swirl outside.
We have to keep moving (it’s now 2pm and Montreux’s still 30km away) but the thought of facing the cold seems brutally unfair.
In the end we suck it up, throw on another layer, and charge out. There’s icicles hanging off our panniers and the heavy humidity means everything’s not just bloody cold, but bloody wet.
I throw my waterproof booties on over my cycling shoes in an effort to keep the wind out before putting my head down and peddling on. But the harsh truth is this: I don’t feel tough, I don’t feel determined and I sure as hell don’t feel warm.
We left Fribourg just a few hours earlier where we’d spent two days in the company of action packed pair Cindy and Nicholas.
It had been four months since we’d bumped into the Swiss French couple in an Irish camp ground but they served up the kind of hospitality and generosity typical of life long friends, giving us an apartment to sleep in, food to fatten our already widening bellies and an inside scoop on life in their neck of the woods.
Fribourg sits on the border of French and German Switzerland meaning half the city speaks one language, half the other and a weird mix of the two swirls around somewhere in the middle. The town also sits at the foot of the “pre Alps” (the real Alps are in the the not to far distance) making for some unreal skiing spots right on their doorstep in winter, and top mountain biking and running tracks in summer.
We’d arrived from Bern a day earlier and within seconds I was hauled into the multi-level home and given prime spot on the chair next to the heater by Nicholas’s father. He spoke almost no English but it turns out you don’t need words to watch Curling (a Swiss favourite) or drink tea and wine (often at the same time).
It was a slice of heaven and a wonderful respite but as I pushed my frozen bike on to Montreux the memories of just a few hours ago seemed to make the current reality even harder.
The sun was close to setting when we flew down a steep descent to Vevey (close to Montreux but cheaper) where we’d found a basic hostel for two nights.
The plan was to explore the oh so classy region (dubbed the Swiss Riviera) the following day before peddling the length of the lake to Geneva.
We rolled out of bed late and jumped on a free bus to Montreux where Christmas wasn’t just in the air, but on every street corner, in every shop and in the very smells that permeated the icy atmosphere.
Wooden stalls covered in lights, fake snow and tinsel lined the lakeside walkways serving up hot chocolate, vin chaud (hot red wine) and glittering Christmas gifts while nearby an enormous undercover market offered a smorgasbord of hot foods. Raclette, fondue, goulash, soups and more combined in mouth watering magnificence and I realised it was truly the smell of Christmas.
A few hours later we caught a bus back to Vevey where a smiling young local served us free cups of hot wine (hooray for Switzerland).
Late that night a painful headache descended and the following morning it had become a migraine. It felt like trucks had battered into me and I wondered if it was a delayed reaction from my small stack or some kind of strange flu.
I scarcely left my bed all day and the next morning I felt just as rotten.
There seemed no point in pushing on when giants where playing volleyball in my brain so we sucked it up and booked another night.
Two days in bed made it excruciatingly hard to get back on the bike but with the Swiss Franks bleeding us dry we had little choice but to vacate and make for Geneva.
The international border between France and Switzerland seems to lie somewhere in the middle of the lake and with Swiss prices driving us close to destitution we opted to peddle around to the other side and save some cash en route to our last Switzerland stop.
It seemed to be a faultless plan but the minute we crossed the unseen border everything changed. The roads got worse, the bicycle lanes vanished and angry traffic whizzed by dangerously close as we chugged up and down hills.
And to top it all off I was having one of THOSE days … let me explain:
They begin shortly after you start peddling and are generally accompanied by the realisation that someone’s placed an extra 50kg in your bags. It feels like your pushing a tractor through mud (despite the fact the road’s as flat as a pancake) and you soon become utterly convinced that one, if not both, tyres are flat and your back breaks are probably rubbing too.
You start swearing worse than a sailor out for the long haul and after checking your tyres, breaks and panniers (for any sneaky extra weight) the truth comes crashing down. It’s not everything else, it’s just you.
By this point your partner’s riding a good 500 metres ahead of you after he too has had a blinding realisation (the one where his partner’s been abducted by a foul-mouthed alien who’ll take down anyone dumb enough to get in her abuse radius).
He’s also peddling slowly further away after the last “where the hell is your GPS taking us Scott? Everest!”) and he’s turning on his selective hearing to boot.
To cut a long story short it was a trying day for both of us (perhaps Scott more than me) and by 4pm we’d peddled just 50km.
Not even a night in a reasonably comfortable bed could shake the mood and the following morning my incredible cycling apathy and black rage geared up for day two. Scott was thrilled.
The only upside was a measly 36km (according to Google Maps) lay between us and Geneva meaning we could technically make it to the city before lunchtime if we pulled our fingers out and peddled a little quicker.
Three hours later we were 15 kilometres out of Thonon (where we’d started that morning) on a muddy road with a huge fence right in front of us.
We were lost, spectacularly bloody lost, and to rub salt in the wound we’d have to backtrack a good five kilometres to figure out where we went wrong. What we didn’t account for was getting lost yet again while we were backtracking.
More than fifty kilometres (and some nasty hills) later Geneva came blissfully into view and we peddled through 90km winds to get to the cheapest backpackers this pricy city provided (at a whopping 80 Franks a night).
It didn’t matter that the room was smaller (and less furnished) than your average prison cell, because it was clean, warm and most importantly, not a bike.
I shouldn’t have been so knackered but sleep hit me like a tonne of bricks in the rickety old bunk beds and I didn’t open my eyes until 8.30am the following morning.
Geneva’s not just one of Europe’s most expensive cities, but one of its most culturally diverse (think the Geneva Convention) making it a visibly exciting place to site see.
For some reason unknown to me Tripadvisor lists its giant water spurt thing as a top attraction (which meant Scott dragged us all the way to look at it for all of two minutes) but truth be told its the soaring old buildings and sheer diversity that sells it.
We wandered through Christmas markets, streets stalls and across windy bridges before taking the free tram back to the hostel while feeling impressed at this pretty and reputably safe city.
Perhaps we should have spent more time seeing its sites but as we attempted to pack up the panniers scattered across our prison cell later that evening our minds were already on France – where we’d likely spend the next few weeks peddling down before reaching Spain.
It meant I’d have a French birthday and we’d have a French Christmas and New Years and we couldn’t have been happier with that twist of fate.
But before than the next stop would be Grenoble where we’d reunite with the other half of our Irish cycling team – Pauline and Mael!