Berlin to Budapest: 8 steps to riding 5 countries solo

In Berlin, Cycle routes by Claire

I cycled from Berlin to Budapest this summer, which was interesting because I’d never cycled for more than a day by myself before. It is 1000km and goes through five countries. I did it by myself. My general style of riding, I’ve found, is to see if things fit in my bag the night before, sing to loud bad music as I ride, eat my weight in spaghetti, hope for the best and know that everything will be basically fine. It normally works out well. It wasn’t that complicated – here’s what I did before I went.

Step 1: Find a terrifyingly exciting idea that would be impossible not to do

Timing: About 3 months/12 weeks before

I am sounding-out thoughts about bike rides with a friend, having had a bit of a stale day at the end of a stale week, and knowing the solution to that is normally to plan something excellent and kind of terrifying. A week or two before this I rode my first 200km ride and it got my brain whirring.

I feel like I’m exploding whenever I think about it. Which is exactly how things should be.

It was a toss-up of dreams between going from Berlin to the Black Sea on the other side of Romania or cycling across Spain. For logical and gut-based reasons, staying closer to Eastern Europe was winning out: When I moved to Berlin last year, the way that moving shifts the view of the world map in your head was fascinating and I was suddenly way more interested in Eastern Europe. I started to know where certain countries actually were on the map. I like the idea of starting from home and not flying out to somewhere. And then at the end, I could hop on the train and come straight home again.

Aside from it being a kinda crazy headfuck because I’ve never done more than a day’s riding, on the more practical side of things, it came down to the amount of holiday I could take.

“Does it have to be to the Black Sea?” she said. I thought about it.

And I thought that Berlin to Budapest was enough – still stupid-terrifying-good. I stuck two points into Google and saw that it’s about 1000km. Budapest seems awesome, one of those places that grabs you to visit, and having been looking at something nearly twice the distance minutes before, it seemed alarmingly doable.

The switch in my head between something being an idea and knowing it’s got to happen because it’s too exciting not to flicks, and some lightbulb is on. For the next few weeks I feel like I’m exploding whenever I think about it. Which is exactly how things should be.

Step 2: Plan a vague route and find rad things between point A and B

Timing: Same night as step 1. Stay up late excitedly after deciding on it.

I plot my route based on the cities I want to see. It breaks it down into five main chunks from Berlin to Dresden, Prague, Brno, Bratislava and Budapest. I want to spend a day in each place and actually see them – I know that much. The route between Prague and Brno is the only consecutive two day trip because it goes across most of the Czech Republic over the ominously named “Highlands” which I mostly avoid googling because no good can come of that.

It’ll be my first time seeing each of these cities. I love cities. I love leaving them for silence, to come back to the excitement and different culture. I book some spare rooms on airbnb along the route (because staying with locals feels more normal than a weird hotel, because cost and because they’re often nicer about letting bikes places). I know that I want to meet a couple of people who know the cities, go on some rides in them and maybe do the odd interview about cycling culture.

So, I know roughly where I’m going. It’s going to start with a couple of 200km days, which should make it feel like good progress is being made and ease nerves, get the alarming distances out of the way, buy me some head space, and let me chill out a little towards the end. That’s the idea anyway.

This is about as complex as my planning goes:

Day 1: Berlin to Dresden (Germany)
Day 2: Chill in Dresden (Germany)
Day 3: Dresden to Prague (Czech Republic)
Day 4: Chill in Prague
Day 5: As before
Day 6: Prague to Polná (Hungary, a pit-stop halfway across the Czech Republic)
Day 7: Polná to Brno (Czech Republic)
Day 8: Chill in Brno
Day 9: Brno to Bratislava (Slovakia)
Day 10: Chill in Bratislava
Day 11: Bratislava to Győr (Hungary – Győr is a halfway stop to Budapest)
Day 12: Győr to Budapest
Day 13: Gleeful chilling in Budapest
Day 14: Gleeful chilling in Budapest
Day 15: Train home

As simple as this.

Step 3: Talk to people who know more than you (who are also positive realists)

Timing: Same night as step 1. Stay up late excitedly after deciding on it.

I email MJ, who knows about bikes far more than I do. He gets about one email about once a year that begins with ‘I’ve thought of an idea…’ I send a very rough Strava route that plugged in point A and B and shows that there’s at the very least, some kind of connection road.

“This is an elevation graph. I do not understand it. It seems like a big number,” I say, and share my rough map with point A and point B. “And I want to check with you if that graph is as mad as I think it is. I think the answer is yes. I still want to do it. But I want to understand it better.”

His reply is exactly what I hope for. It is is a yes that I definitely should do it and it comes with some practical advice too, which is pretty much the only practical advice I leave for my bike ride with.

“At first glance that route looks a) amazing and b) hard. In that there are a couple of standout savage climbs in there. Anything over 10% is hard and you will have to work hard if it stays that way for a significant length of time. 22% will feel like a sheer cliff face, but if thats only a few hundred metres long you’ll be ok. What bike are you planning on doing it on? What gearing? I would recommend a compact — 50/34 with 11/28 on the back. 60 miles a day is definitely doable on a road bike, an average of 3,000ft a day will sap your strength cumulatively so you might want to allow a bit more time towards the end. Definitely do it. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to recover each day and definitely have the right gearing.”

Step 4: Do a couple of confidence rides

Timing: between 11 weeks out and 4 weeks out

I do a couple of rides for fun – they also double as confidence rides. A check-in with my legs and head. One is to Szczecin in Poland by myself. Another is 100km, going around Berlin’s different lakes just outside the city. I don’t do anything particularly different, but do keep an eye out for longer rides and pay attention to how I feel during them. A casual test. I’d probably have done them anyway. They’re on my fixed gear, so when I do the actual trip on a road bike it’s easier.

Step 5: Discuss the need for a swag bike

Timing: Think about it 8 weeks before, pick up old bike 2 weeks before

I debate the virtues of buying a fancy bike for it. But I only really like buying bikes when I’ve fallen in love with them.

After a few trips to bike shops that feel a bit too much like dates without a spark (too much of they’re ‘lovely but’), I decide to ride my first steel road bike that’s currently living in London under my friend Naomi’s stairs. It’s a pink Giant from the 1980s. It’s a lovely bike. A kinda heavy one (learning: don’t hang out with friends with aluminium bikes). It has space for touring racks if I wanted them (which I don’t) and, despite being a little heavy compared to, say, a £1000 Ritte, it’s what I’ve done all my other rides on (like London to Paris in a day) so I know it. I know it works well, and I know the reasons that I will be cross at it in advance and that I am okay with these reasons.

My friends are lovely, and in London my friend Chris drops it off at Isambard’s Cycles who do a cracking job of looking after it. Isambard’s email me back and forth about new wraps colours and other trivial things that they understand aren’t really trivial.

Isambards also talk about more important things like the fact that my crankset won’t take a smaller gear as it is, so we stick a ridiculously large gear on the back instead and give the freewheel one of the world’s easiest gears. We switch the current 13-28 to a new 13-34 (with a really big jump to the 34), which combined with the existing 38 on the front, gives a nice low gear. My legs spin around when I try it. Perfect.

I have a weekend back in London to pick it up and have a ride to Margate with my friend Cynthia that I’ve been meaning to do for far too long (and moving country has made me a little better at doing the things I’ve been meaning to). The ride is a lovely gruelling test ride in the heat, during which I nearly throw up, get a dodgy red tan and nearly fight the replacement bus service to get our bikes home again. Although we barely have time to see it, the sea is nice. The bike works.

It me, grinning with my bike in London, picking it up

I really like how normal my bike is, really

Going to the airport, my friend Alex turns up with an office’s worth of parcel tape and a huge bike box he’s found for me. My friends have spoilt me. The first and last time I took a bike on a plane was shortly after I’d got out of hospital in Paris and was wandering around the airport with blood on my shoes and a huge cardboard bike box. So this is far more fun. The little and not-so-little favours, manoeuvring my belongings around the city from so far away, have made everything so much easier.

Step 6: Plan out the actual route and be a bit more specific

Timing: 1 week before

Plan a specific route, if you like. I did like. I had enough to think about already.

I finally plot out the actual route. The first stop is Dresden, which I’ve ridden to before, and Mo from Keirin recommends a new route. Longer, slightly more winding, but more beautiful and it takes in the river. After that, I decide not head over the mountains or highlands that the elevation graph has pointed out. If they are too steep, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? It would be stupid to cop-out without even seeing them.

Step 7: Quickly sort out kit the day before

Timing: 1-3 days before

The days before, I pick up an Apidura from a shop in Berlin a couple of days before. The night before before I am running around finding charger cables and a Garmin holder, which my friend Timo who’s working at Bike Punk lends me just before he shuts up shop. Cutting it a bit fine.

Kit list:
Bag: 17L Apidura (it was perfect size)
Clothes: bike shoes, vans, two tshirts, flannel type shirt thing, bike shorts, human shorts, leggings, waterproof jacket, cap, watch, gloves, sports bras, socks
Bike stuff: helmet, lock, pump, tyre levers, allan keys, garmin, lights, battery pack, cables, chamois cream, two water bottles, musguard mudguard (rolls up), Keirin stickers.
Life things: toothbrush,, headphones, book, money, deodorant, inhaler, train ticket home
Food: Lots of bananas.
What I wish I’d taken: sun cream, bug repellent

Step 8: “Remember to enjoy it”

And so, here I am. The morning of the ride, finding out if everything fits into my bag. It does. We’re good. I’m going.

“Remember to enjoy it” MJ and Mo both say, somewhat ominously.

ClaireBerlin to Budapest: 8 steps to riding 5 countries solo