My heart raced as I pushed forward and forward, my lungs stretched further than I knew that they could on an uphill sprint. And my soul thrilled as I sped downwards, splattered through mud, found myself alone besides pristine waters and felt the warm-throated glow of achievement and heavy muscles as I reached my hotel at the end of each day.
For those of you who don’t know, I set on this cycling spree as part of a #30ActiveDays challenge to, among other things, whip myself into shape as well as find a new way to explore a destination.
I knew from walking along the Amalfi Coast and through the utterly unappreciated Alentejo Coast that relying on your own steam allows you to see things you’d otherwise miss: local eateries, local wildlife, local silence, local cats.
And so I set out on the 10 day Austrian Lakes Cycling Route offered by Headwater, minus the rest days, just, I don’t know, for fun.
Headwater works in an interesting way: it’s independent travel in that you start and finish when you like and spend however long you like at different places en route. But Headwater book the accommodation for you, provide maps and map notes and, perhaps most crucially, provide the gear and shift your luggage from hotel to hotel for you.
I met local reps Colin and Jill at the airport, to pick up my gear and begin my solo bike trip. Many reps are locally born and bred but these guys hailed from back home, which helped when it came to language barriers and running through the puncture repair drill.
They provided the bike, the handy map holder and some sturdy panniers plus a bike lock. We chatted about local attractions (the church from the Sound of Music, for example) and local necessities (shops close on Sundays; the emergency batphone number.)
With a slight saddle wiggle and adjust, I was on my way.
And what a way it was.
I hadn’t entirely been sure what to expect when I signed up to this. In fear of a hefty slog up and down mountains that looked exactly as grey as one another, I’d made every effort to cycle whenever I could in the month or so before so as not to embarrass myself.
However, that month (like many) involved plenty of travel – and training had been difficult.
I mean, not that difficult, really.
I managed to take in the stunning Stanley Park in Vancouver and accidentally end up careering towards a highway.
And I learned how pure fear improves performance when I heard suspicious rustling in a bear and jaguar-infested area. (I also learned, subsequently, that both can outrun cyclists, no matter how scared the cyclist may be. This was one scenario where textbook learning definitely trumped on the ground personal experience.)
Happily, training wise, I needn’t have worried.
I began my Austrian adventure around a unfairly blue, glittering lake in Mondsee. I climbed every mountain, forded every stream, followed every rainbow…until I accidentally yodelled about the lonely goatherd while whooshing around a corner to see a very un-goatherd looking man preparing a barbecue and looking at me with a mix of surprise and something verging on terror.
For the sake of the good people of Austria, from now on in I would only be singing on the inside.
The terrain was a mix. There were some tough, challenging uphill sections that pushed me harder than I thought I could manage…only for me to, well, manage.
As I stood, heart pounding, chest heaving, sunshine glinting through my water bottle and throwing diamonds across the sky, I felt a euphoria I hadn’t in years.
This was the buzz of exercise, the thrill of endorphin release that I’d been denying myself for too long.
This was the fun bit, not the regulated, cautious approach to fitness (and life?) that I’d slowly slipped and slid my way into.
After several rounds of surgery and a battering of grief, I realised that bit by bit, piece by piece, I’d stopped pushing myself so hard.
I’d exercised, yes, but I’d always held back. I’d challenged myself, but only within the realms of knowing that I’d succeed.
Which, let’s face it, is not a challenge, now is it?
There was something about this solo bike trip that linked back to being a child – and again in a truly good way.
Children don’t “mete out” their energy nor their enthusiasm. They don’t temper what they’re doing now with what they need to be doing at the end of the day. They have adults to look after all that.
Cycling with Headwater gave me that permission – and that freedom again to really let go.
I had the safety net of a back up car and of pre-tested road routes. But I had freedom, absolute utter freedom in between.
I had no one cycling faster than me, making me feel like a hindrance, that I was slowing everyone else down.
I had no one cycling slower than me, letting my legs seize up and my muscles grow cold.
Heck, I even had no one looking at me, all fluorescent jacket, bike helmet and mud smudged salty-sweat glow.
It was just me and my bike. And we became great friends.
I missed company in the evenings and at the odd mealtime, but my job kept me busy enough that most of the time I barely noticed.
The hills may have been alive with more heavy breathing than music – but they also brimmed with my unmistakeable joy.
I realised that despite my surgical setbacks, I don’t have to live in the shadows, subdued, in half measures.
I don’t have to accept that the best of life is behind me, that I’m worth less than I once thought I was.
Yes, there are things I can no longer do, or no longer have, but that’s nothing compared to all the things I can still do.
I can still let loose and rely on myself. I can still feel alive. And I can hop on a bike and show the odd Salzkammergut lake and mountain region who’s boss every once in a while.
So, what next? What now that I’ve rediscovered how much fun I can have in the great outdoors? And, in fact, how much fun I can have out there in the world full stop?
I’m not entirely sure yet.
I just know that I’m excited to find out. And that I hope that you’ll follow along.
Thanks, as ever, for reading,
I travelled with Headwater Holidays as part of the #30ActiveDays project. As ever, as always, I keep the right to write what I like here on Inside the Travel Lab.
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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