This cycling tour posting is from one of our Denver Bicycle Cafe regulars, avid cyclist and great all around person, Corey Baughman from a personal cycle tour through Turkey and Italy in the summer of last year.
Albanian kids testing my bike
I like to travel in an unscripted way because the best things in life for me are those I don’t control — the extemporaneous, unpredictable things; the interesting people and special events; but also, moving through others’ lives with all their experiences from exotic to mundane. I’d never taken a solo international bike trip before last summer, but it won’t be the last time if I can help it. I had a few weeks to burn before an engagement in Italy and I found that plane tickets to Istanbul were half the cost of those to Bologna… Could I fly to Istanbul and use the money saved on the flight to ride my bike to Italy? I was bored. I was in a stagnant period of life and I couldn’t shake the thought of that adventure. So, I pulled the trigger on the tickets to Turkey. I ordered some maps and saw so many possibilities… the route could go entirely through Greece… or it could snake any number of roads and paths through the Balkans. I had been to Greece and it was lovely and hospitable, but it was a known quantity—not what I was looking for. So, I decided to wing it, to seek the unknown places and just let the path dictate how I got to my destination. I booked the cheapest Airbnb I could find in Istanbul so I would have a sure place to start, but made no other plans or reservations.
I found myself staying in the home of an Egyptian woman who had left the chaos of Egypt for opportunity in Turkey. I shared that humble place with a Muslim girl from Singapore on pilgrimage to sacred sights, a Japanese couple, and a young German tourist. My bike was lost for a few days so I explored the ancient city, connected with an old Turkish friend from my college rowing team, and tracked down one of the few cycling kits to be had in that town (I had forgotten mine!)
The Turkish flag lapel and the unknown to me sponsors on the outfit seemed a nice souvenir of a laughable mistake. It never occurred to me at the time that those clothes would affect my experience of people for the next three weeks.
After an unavoidable two-hour sprint down a chaotic interstate with no shoulder during rush hour, I found myself riding through fields of grain near the Sea of Marmara, riding the adrenaline rush of feeling fortunate to be alive after the traffic, coupled with the dawning reality of the adventure I was now fully committed to. I stayed the first night in Tekirdag (the Hamptons of Istanbul) and woke planning to ride the highway directly into Greece.
Trying to get my bearings on the side of the road, I heard someone yelling in Turkish and tried to ignore him. Finally, the man crossed the street to me and as I looked up I noted his surprise in seeing my confused face. I mumbled something in English and after a moment, he replied in my tongue, explaining that my jersey was from his private high school “the best in Istanbul”. He invited me to join him and a few of his friends at the café across the road. They were rare cyclists in that area who were fueling on caffeine and pastries for a long mountain bike ride. One of them was also in the military and as a vet myself with a lot of time in Europe and the middle east, we shared stories, talked politics and NATO for a bit while they fed me and asked about my journey and route for the day. “If you have time, get off the highway and travel along the Sea of Marmara” they all agreed. I decided to take a chance and make time for the detour. I was not disappointed.
The road they described led along a coast not unlike US-101 in California, but without any traffic to speak of. It climbed high on scenic cliffs and dropped to quiet beaches, dotted by a few villages along the way. I shared tea with fisherman for lunch and was presented with fruit by kids and adults in the small towns. I passed my phone back and forth over and over to translate conversations with my curious hosts. I was told to make sure I ate the pit of a small green fruit I didn’t recognize and felt an energy boost a few miles down the road when I did. The cliffs gave way to expansive green fields and then to a windblown marsh. I felt euphoric, connected to humanity, to my own body, and to the sights, sounds, and smells I was silently gliding through. I was exposed and vulnerable to the people of that place and they responded to it with the best side of humanity.
That day set the tone for the rest of my trip. I stopped to talk with heckling teens in Greece which led to a fascinating conversation with a chain-smoking mariner turned orthodox priest. A poor old Turkish-Greek man insisted on buying me coffee at a gas station deep in the Rhodope Mountains before I helped him balance old car tires precariously on his lap for the drive home on his taped together scooter. Exhausted and running out of daylight, I stumbled on an old Roman bath, quaint lodging, and a home cooked meal in the middle of nowhere while looking for a border crossing to Bulgaria that locals said didn’t exist (it did). A Macedonian man bought me a beer and a cappucino when he couldn’t figure out which one I wanted — then he talked to me in German for an hour as I tried to decipher the story of his migrant labor in Germany, followed by lonely retirement while his kids worked abroad. Further on, I had a dark discussion about life and politics with a persecuted protestor of the corrupt politics of that place. I was welcomed by people of Turkish descent all along the route – seeing my jersey and honking, cheering, stopping to talk, inviting me to eat with them.
Those three weeks could have easily disappeared into the haze of forgettable days that make up most of life as I waited for my time in Italy, but I saw a crazy opportunity and took a risk (thanks to a little encouragement from a friend!). The experience was profound and the hospitality of people on the journey renewed my faith in humanity even while politics played their exasperating games in the background.*
*There was a terrorist attack on the Istanbul airport between my arrival and departure, and the coup attempt shut down the airport two days after I left.
We hope to have more stories from his amazing trip last summer to Turkey, Italy and beyond. It is stories like this that fuel our passion for cycling and a big part of what makes Denver Bicycle Cafe such an amazing place to hang out, make friends, drink great coffee or beer all while getting great service on your bike or just picking up an accessory or part you need to make your cycling experience even more enjoyable. Thanks Corey!
Are you interested in cycle touring? We have great contacts with touring companies like Revolucion Rides who offer guided tours in Latin America.
Are you looking for advice on what kind of bicycle you might need for a cycle touring experience of your own. You can do your own research on the Denver Bicycle Cafe Bike Shop pages on our website, or come in and talk to our expert sales and service staff at the Denver Bicycle Cafe, many of whom have their own amazing stories of cycle tours, racing, or just commuting around town.