Riding the European divide

7600km across Europe

It's the story of two buddies who set off for a week-long bike trip three years ago. Everything changes with a phone call in the middle of winter, stirring up the desire for a more significant project on sunnier days: "Why not go on a long journey?"

Ideas abound: the Silk Road, the US, Patagonia. But quickly, in a period of post-COVID sobriety, we agreed that the best for us is to rediscover Europe. The project was born, and we decided to follow the European Divide Trail, 7600km of gravel trails linking the northeastern point of Europe to the most southwestern point, from Grense Jakobselv, Norway, to Cape Saint-Vincent, Portugal.

A few months of preparation went into choosing our equipment: bikes, camping gear, clothing, panniers, the "gapette" (an inside joke for the cycling cap), etc.

map of Europe

July 2023, it's the big departure. We arrive on a beautiful evening of the midnight sun at Kirkenes airport. It's 6 degrees Celsius, and we're searching for our luggage on the conveyor belt. First moments of panic: Julien's bike box tore apart in the rain during the layover in Oslo, scattering his belongings throughout the plane's cargo hold. Eventually the airport staff managed to gather all the items.

We load our Marin Headlands 2 bikes with all our gear, hop on the saddle, and discover our respective cockpits for the coming weeks. The loaded bikes weigh 25kg each and are light for a three-month journey. Julien will be tasked with photos and videos, while Nicolas will take care of navigation and wield a pen for a journal of our adventures.

Marin headlands bike

We take advantage of the midnight sun, the cool temperatures, and the silence these marshy landscapes offer to rack up the kilometers. During the first few days, we ride over 140km per day with big smiles on our faces. However, our knees and backs ask us to dial it down a bit. A lengthy discussion between our body's aches and pains and our brains begins.

We quickly leave Norway for Finland. The mosquitoes are as numerous as they are voracious. We quickly discover the trick of keeping moving, as it's the only way to be spared. At the slightest photo break, we donate our blood to about fifty mosquitoes. We eat most of the meals inside the tent.

The lakes are countless. We'll remember Inari (the second-largest lake in Finland), where we skirted under the rain, and other lesser-known lakes where we pitched our tent and took care of some basic hygiene.

In Sweden, we're starting to settle into our routine. We aim to ride for six to eight hours a day, with the rest of the time dedicated to finding where to eat, eating, and sleeping. That's already plenty.

boat by lake

The bivouac spots are varied: idyllic settings by the lakeside, amidst forests, on the side of the road. Each night is different, often cool, sometimes tranquil, other times accompanied by animals, wind, and rain.

There's a feeling of being two souls on earth amidst an endless forest, accompanied by reindeer.

Arriving in Gothenburg is a clash of civilizations. We encounter a globalized, densely populated city with its abundance of cafes and bars, which do us a world of good. Encounters were rare in Sweden but all the more precious. In 21 days of cycling, we covered over 2800 kilometers and met 24 other cyclists, almost all heading in the opposite direction.

The North, in a few words: kilometers upon kilometers of gravel tracks, encounters, lakes, silence and trees, few showers, too many mosquitoes, and excellent memories.

We take the ferry to begin the second part of the journey in Frederikshavn, Denmark. Not surprisingly, it's quite flat, with numerous bike paths; it's an excellent place to make progress and rest. The culture of shelters, mostly small cabins, is highly developed; you can easily find hundreds of them. Two friends joined us in sharing the road for a few days. They're motivated after a 36-hour train journey to Silkeborg, Denmark.

The first night is ideal at a self-managed campground, where we can shower and enjoy the French Beaufort sausage brought by one of them around the fire.

The following night leaves unforgettable memories in our minds: it's pitch black, and the rain is pouring down as we ride towards a shelter in a forest we found on local apps. Upon arrival, we discover it's full. We set up our tents under buckets of water, and just as we're about to bid each other good night, we hear our two friends bailing out their tents.

We then traverse the German countryside amidst wind turbines and pass through the beautiful cities of Hanover, Hamelin, and Cologne.

man on bike

We set off again as a duo towards the Vosges, fingers crossed for better weather and dreaming of a butter croissant, maybe two. Returning to France warms the heart; we become aware of the journey we've already made and the beauty of our country.

The combination of the Vosges and the Jura is demanding, with technical terrain. We encounter a few hikers on the trails, and you can read in their eyes, "What an idea."

A wave of nostalgia washes over us as we arrive in the Jura; we reminisce about the grand traverse of this massif with our friends. Just like a few years ago, we took a dip in Lake Lamoura and recalled Raymonde asking us, "Have you ever done Lamoura-Mouthe?" The answer is yes and no (French joke).

The night at Crêt aux Merles turns out to be an exceptional bivouac. After pitching the tent and starting dinner, we realize we're in the middle of grazing land, and about fifteen cows surround the tent. We don't have the courage to move the camp. We hear them grazing, chewing cud, and doing their business just a meter or less from the tent. Eventually, the sound of their bells lulls us to sleep.

Man on Marin bike

The Jura adventure concludes with the ascent of the Grand Colombier and the well-deserved combo of crepe and Coca-Cola at the top.

We descend into the heat, with temperatures between 34 and 42 degrees Celsius, and face another challenging period around Valence before discovering the sweetness of the Ardèche and its gorges. Leaving Aude and entering Hérault, temperatures become more agreeable again. We plan a well-deserved rest in Perpignan.

Spain was truly awe-inspiring. We weren't entirely sure what to expect, but the spectacle exceeded our expectations. After crossing the Pyrenees, we discover a verdant Catalonia where every village is animated by a café brimming with authenticity. Life is gentle there; we sip coffee, cañas, and sangria with some tapas under the birdsong. Then, the landscapes change to resemble Mongolia or the Moroccan Atlas.

We encounter wild boars and deer in very remote areas of Spain. We traverse several natural parks, Sierra de Cazorla, Sierra de Hornachuelos, and Sierra Morena, where we encounter a few tourists being driven around in jeeps and coming to photograph the local wildlife. They wave at us enthusiastically and look at us as if we were strange creatures, but they can see in our eyes how free and happy we feel.

The last few days were tough. A new heatwave has hit us hard, and the desire to find a bit of comfort has become evident. As we gather around the cookware, we do some quick calculations; if we keep riding for eight hours a day for another five days, we should be able to finish.

The passage through Portugal is very brief. The shepherd dogs are poorly trained and aggressive, and we have experienced several episodes of being chased uphill and downhill. But fortunately, we managed to keep each other's calves intact.

Showers are scarce in Spain, but we manage to find some campgrounds or negotiate with soccer clubs to use local facilities. We highly recommend the eco-camping in Cazorla; it's a must-visit.

Arriving on the Portuguese coast amidst the surfer vans and the sunset is a unique moment. Here we are, taking the time to reflect on everything we've accomplished and Europe's diversity. We're lucky to have had the opportunity to undertake such a long journey. We found pleasure in the difficulty. It wasn't a leisurely stroll or a marathon but a tremendous bikepacking adventure among friends.

tent in woods