Beauty on a razor’s edge: cycling the Alps for Thighs of Steel

This isn’t really a post about the brilliant, life-affirming collective that is Thighs of Steel. If you’d like know more about life on the road and how it feels David Charles has written a great piece here. This piece is more a weaving together of a few strands of thought that stayed with me on the journey — with apologies for its focus on my framing of the journey (as an activist and a historian) rather than on the collective experience. If you like it — and want to support Khora — can you still chip in here.

Last year I cycled from Paris to Lyon with a group of cyclists raising money to support Khora , a grassroots refugee centre in Athens (Thighs of Steel). I wrote about my experiences here . This year I upped the stakes by taking on a harder leg — a full 5 stars of difficulty instead of 3. The aim was to cycle 880km over the Alps from Stuttgart to Ljubljana, including over 15,000m of climbing. Everything I wrote last year holds true for this year too, with the far greater physical challenge adding to the intensity of some of the bonds that form. The nature of the challenge also meant that my fellow cyclists were all far more experienced; nobody was doing a multi-day ride for the first time, even if some of us were breaking personal records every day (the furthest I’ve ever cycled in day — 193km — followed by the highest, and then the highest again the very next day) and this time it was me pushing at my physical and mental limits. There were mountains I couldn’t have got up — or safely down — without all the love and support around me and I was humbled by it.

There were some other changes this year too. For the first few days we were accompanied by Mahmoud, a refugee from Syria, now going through the resettlement process in Germany and who had got to know some of the core Thighs of Steel team during his own time in Athens. Mahmoud formed a key part of the support team, documenting our journey for social media, cooking dinner for the hungry arrivals and helping us all feel welcome. I didn’t have much opportunity to chat to him personally (a disadvantage of the long distances was that evenings were short, I was exhausted and also much more preoccupied with my own physical wellbeing than last year). But he did share his reflections every day at ‘circle time’ — a nightly ritual where we are all encouraged to share what’s on our mind, and often to express gratitude for all the support we’d received. As a consequence this year my thoughts turned more often to the bigger picture, and the reasons for our journey.

On our second day, and our first in the Alps proper, we climbed out of the German valleys up to Garmisch-Partenkirchen and then, after a respite in the high meadows, we began to climb again, over the Austrian border to prepare to descend towards Innsbruck. Just as we arrived at the top, a treacherous (and possibly illegal) descent before us, the sky darkened and a heavy thunder storm broke. A group of us took shelter briefly in what we though was a building site, only to discover that a family was living in the half-finished home. A young couple with two small children opened their doors to six dripping wet, cold cyclists, fed us fruit tea and dark bread and thankfully pointed us in the direction of the train down the mountain. This kind of hospitality is typical of the kind of happy serendipity Thighs of Steel seems to provoke (one group even found themelves enjoying slices of Viennetta in an old German lady’s garden) and it also brought to my mind the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘Shelter from the Storm’. It’s an obvious link, but over the week other lines from this enigmatic narrative resonated more and and more strongly with me. Three themes emerged.

Whilst recognising the effort we were putting in, both physically and in terms of fund-raising, Mahmoud was clear; our good fortune knows no bounds. We are free to cross borders at will and to work, love and live in any one of twenty-eight peaceful countries. Over the course of six days I traversed six countries. It is hard not to feel both bitter and angry towards my fellow citizens who voted to jeopardise a right that many would and have died for. In years to come I fear I will look back on this journey with great sadness, recalling the days when crossing national borders could be done so easily. In addition to French I still speak reassuringly good German, and can also communicate in basic Italian and it was pure joy to reignite those neural-linguistic connections in my brain as we progressed. Several of us in our group had experience of living in different European countries, and one day we played a rolling game of Euro-utopia; which characteristics would you take from the different places you’ve lived? (Dutch cycling culture, obviously, Italian warmth, French respect for quality ingredients etc.).

Yet I also observed with interest how often people expressed surprise that borders were completely unstaffed, and that there was no requirement to produce a passport at the frontier. I wonder if we are collectively so conditionned by our island mentality in the UK that we have failed to appreciate that European national borders are in the great majority no more material than the line between England and Wales, for example. It helps to explain why the Irish issue was so invisible in the Brexit referendum debate; many citizens, even the well travelled ones, simply hadn’t grasped the basic everyday simplicity of the European project (and therefore the vital role of EU membership in the peace process). And why the Irish issue is so impossible to solve; there is no form of border that can be as invisible as no border at all. Along the way I was also reading Philippe Sands’s ‘East-West Street’ (review); he too expresses his bewilderment and despair at the willingness of the British people to relinquish a set of arrangements that have kept us peaceful, safe and protected in law since the cataclysms that destroyed his family in the 1930s and 40s.

Roll on through.

I’d never visited the Italian Alps before, and before reaching the galleried hairpins and steep ravines of the Austro-Italian border I was fantasising about a mythical world of strong expresso, pizza twice a day and a Campagnolo-savvy mechanic in every village. There is certainly a deep-rooted culture of the bicycle in Italy and it was uncanny to have the sense that my bike had somehow taken over and brought me back home (all the moving parts of my bike I realised were made in Italy, and others assembled by Italian mechanics in London). But these reveries were punctured by the sight of small clusters of graves by the road side. My mind quickly turned to the only personal narrative I’m familiar with: the experience of Vera Brittain’s brother Edward, as described in a ‘Testament of Youth’, who lost his life in the high mountains almost exactly 100 years ago, having survived the best part of three years in the trenches of Flanders. But my understanding was only vague, and in search of more depth I stumbled across this article from the Smithsonian magazine. I still cannot comprehend the scale of the loss, or the terrifying nature of the conflict in this vertical setting. The mild discomforts of suffering on a bike feel almost shameful in the shadow of such intense anguish — an experience made all the more surreal by the staggering beauty of the views and the peacefulness of the road. This corner of the Alps felt remote and isolated; only 100 years on, the young, strong, healthy bodies that were sacrificed here have already slipped out of our collective memory. This year has brought many of the experiences of 1918 into fresh view — the first victory of the suffragettes for example — and I welcomed the opportunity quietly to take in this small patch of toil and blood.

Imagine trench (tunnel) warfare here, in the snow, in winter.

At the same time, the Alps of 1918 would have looked very different from today’s mountains. Temperatures in the Alps are rising twice as fast as the European average increase, with severe impacts for glacial melt. An episode of ‘Costing the Earth’ recorded last winter and aired in May spoke of the risk of rivers running dry and knock-on impacts for water supply across much of southern Europe. These predictions have become a reality. Waterfalls were marked only by stony outcrops and we camped beside a lake that was around 20m lower than its usual height. Trees were under obvious stress, with deciduous leaves already turning, presumably from drought. It is another privilege of cycling to experience so much landscape at just the right pace to take it in; on the last night I spoke about our collective responsibility to observe and document what we see, to note how glacial erosion is changing the skyline, just how hot it was even in the high peaks (at 1200m we could still sleep out overnight without tents, for example), and to share with our friends and families not just how beautiful the Alps are, but how very vulnerable, even in their apparent immutability. But often I feel that what my experiences of activism and policy-making have trained me to see in the landscape is invisible to many (hence the futile horn)- and none of us can see the biodiversity loss or the steady retreat of the ice with only one data point. And so, heads down, our fellow lycra-clad heroes push on up the hills, scattering their gel wrappers behind them (by far the most common form of litter along side the roads), oblivious to everything but their own personal struggle and their Strava segments.

These themes are deeply inter-related. A rapidly changing climate can only accelerate the displacement of populations. Just as the mini ice-age of the mid 19th century pushed many traditional Alpine dwellers out of their grazing lands, so a booming population in a rapidly warming world will continue to drive conflict and force people to make journeys fraught with risk. In our uniquely privileged position in the rich, temperate climes of western Europe there is an onus on us to find new ways to accommodate the populations that our own rapacious demand for resources is already displacing. To find new ways to open our homes and our lives in a spirit of partnership and equality. Mahmoud’s account of Khora as a place run on principles of equality and respect (“it gives you back your dignity”) makes me proud to have found a small way to play my part, and increase awareness amongst my friends and family of the vital work taking place on Europe’s borders.

Those are glaciers over there.

At the same time the dominant emotion during the hours in a saddle was a feeling of wonder. The Alpine landscape is breath-taking and remains sublime — in the Romantic sense of the word — meaning that it induces a turbulent mix of awe and terror. And cycling accentuates this, creating an encounter at a scale that allows the mountains to retain their power (scaling the hairpins is seriously hard and they demand respect — it’s not like hopping in a cable car) whilst also putting them in context (the ground covered enables you to see mountains not just as a single summit, but as a range, a set of folds in the brittle earth). Our landscape and habitats, our societies, our bodies are all amazing — and fragile. Beauty everywhere walks a razor’s edge.

On top of the world — but feeling very low. I’m a fragile thing.

Climate, sustainability, nurturing community and self. Cycling comes into it a lot. I often use this blog to take the long view, or a sideways look.

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