Inspired to ride, MY FIRST 1000KM’S Bikepacking the Balkans

Inspired to ride, MY FIRST 1000KM’S Bikepacking the Balkans

Posted by James Hablutzel on

Martin and Chrystal Freyer, the power-couple.
In April 2023, the Freyers began their bikepacking journey in Namibia with a 6-day journey across the country. In May, they set off to bikepack through Europe. Chrystal shares her reflections on her first 1000kms on the road through the Balkan Peninsula while they bikepack their way through Asia.

I got introduced to cycling when Martin (CV: Martin Freyer - Namibian National Cyclist, 2018 Namibian Road Champion, ridden multiple African Champs, African and Commonwealth Games, Winner of the 1000km Munga 2022), and I started dating back in our UCT days, so naturally it has been part of my life since then. A lot of times have felt I had more bikes than years of experience, at times having 8 or 9 bikes in our garage at a time.

I remember a few months into dating, Martin got me my very own bibs and jersey, I can still recall the magic of opening the CIOVITA pouch and being mesmerised by the ‘poshness’ of the fabric (the classic Corsa bib and racing jersey were the perfect combination for starting up a cycling wardrobe). A few weeks later I was put on a “medical block” in George as part of our university studies. George being a cycling haven I called my mum to box up and send through my dad’s ‘vintage’ Hikali mountain bike. It had what must be one of the original Shimano drive chains, over 25 years old, but still had “out of the box” grease on it having only been on an indoor trainer all these years. I still have screenshots of Martin trying to help me put the bike together over video call – safe to say when I rode it to the bike shop later that day the guy said I was lucky to be alive, him not sure how I managed to ride the bike to the shop. The mechanical side of things isn’t really my strong suite.

Our supervisor at the hospital happened to see my WhatsApp profile picture, me wearing one of Martins cycling jackets, assuming I’m a cyclist he didn’t hesitate to invite me for some trail rides in the George mountains with some of the other doctors. It was here that I truly got to experience, what I call “the heart of cycling”, the part I love most: the fact that cycling is a community through and through. It brings people together in the most amazing way.

Fast forward a few years and here we are, Chiang Rai Thailand, reflecting on my first 1000km’s on the bike. One would wonder where the kilometers were the years prior - having lived and worked on the coast of Namibia, with one very straight road in and one very straight road out, the motivations were low and the excuses high. At times I would join Martin on a ride or two in the winelands or the trails in Windhoek but never more than 50 or 60km at a time, never clocking anything close to tally a century or more.

Following some heavy months of burn-out resultant from working in the ICU throughout the duration of Covid-19 we decided to pack up our things and hit the road. Long story short of getting to this point was a visit we had from a fellow bikepacker, Algirdas, when making his way through Namibia. He shared how when he had started his Cairo-to-Cape journey that he had to YouTube how to fix his tire when he got his first flat in Egypt. Turned out he had not been on a bike for over 17 years. This made the penny drop for me, I realised that one doesn’t have to reach a certain ‘level’ of cycling before taking on a bikepacking trip of any length of time. You just have to start. (You can figure the rest our along the way)

Our journey started on the wide-open plains of Namibia - a six-day trip through the valley of a thousand hills to the dunes of the Skeleton Coast. It was a combination of heat, dust, and fear. The looming question “will I be able to do this?” As I have found that the best way to take on something that scares me was to not give myself any other choice. Having already resigned from our jobs, packed up our lives and said goodbye to our friends for the indefinite future was my ‘no way out’ approach. So, tackling my first ever ride with cleats going down the Gamsberg pass seemed like the appropriate way to start. My hope was to build some grit, get comfortable with the uncomfortable and see what my body was capable of.

So how was the first 1000km?
For starters, as can be expected, the first thing I get asked when phoning friends over the first few hundred kilometers was “How’s your bum??” Much to my, very pleasant surprise - it was great! The entire thousand kilometers were, mostly, pain free and not a single saddle sore in sight. What felt like a divine blessing from the cycling gods, probably for putting up with all of Martins crazy adventures and hours of training, could quite simply be put down to a winning recipe of two things: Firstly, a good saddle and secondly a great shammie.

The saddle I ended up riding, SQ Lab 614 ERGOWAVE® active, was pretty much by chance. We happened to run into a buddy of Martin’s, Till Drobisch, at a cycling festival in Freiburg, Germany. He had been working at SQ labs and after doing a sit test (measuring distance between ischial tuberosities) mainly because I was curious, and chatting to him about our trip he handed me a ‘test’ saddle. He said I can give it a go and if it didn’t work then I could toss it. Turned out to be ‘love at first ride’ and my bum couldn’t be happier, even now 4500 km’s later.

When deciding on our kit for the trip I couldn’t resist the seamless design, and colours of CIOVITA’s Apex bibs. Packing black, olive  and rust. To say they have treated me well would be an understatement. I would say three is the perfect number for long term touring: three days of riding in clean bibs, at the start of our trip usually having a rest day around day 4 made for perfect timing for a wash day. Maybe the third secret to saving my bum was my golden rule, which may come as a bit of surprise for the seasoned riders. I never, yes never, ride in a dirty shammie. Not one day. Even now later down the line with fewer rest days. Every night after a long day in the saddle I scrub it through in the shower and dry it out overnight. Say what you may, blessings from the cycling gods or just good habits and the right kit, but my sore-free-bum speaks for itself.

The first 1000km’s didn’t come as easy as the pain free saddle situation – at times I had to dig deep, grit teeth and just see the day through. When your “day at the office” is cycling through the Balkans there are days you wake up and just “don’t feel it”, or your body is just a bit ‘blah’. But you get up, drink your coffee, and get on the bike anyway. Covering just over 1600 km’s and 103 hours our first month, with over 10 900 meters of elevation.

We started in Albania, thinking it would be a scenic trip south down the coast, which it was a beautiful hilly, mountainous Albanian coast. A 20-30kg bike set up with camping kit and all, made for some heavy days on the legs. Some 17% + gradients really asking the most. It wasn’t rare to find Martin’s hand on my back for some, or most of these passes. Haribo’s, bananas and 2-rand packet croissants becoming daily MVP’s (most valued players - from early days Martin has always taught me that by the time you get hungry, it’s too late.) 

It was still early in the summer season, with mornings having a bit of a chill and beanies making an appearance in the evening. I very quickly learned the power, and beauty, of layering. Sweating in the 30-odd degree heat going at under 10km/hour up a 1000m mountain pass only to descend back down to sea level at the other side meant I was ear-buffed, wind breakered and winter gloved up in the heat of summer many days. Freezing comes very quickly at 50km/h switch-backing your way down a mountain after dripping sweat on the way up.

*A super tip for long days while listening to podcasts descending mountain passes - most cyclists know when descending the wind is super loud and you can’t really hear much with earphones anyway. Tip: “Hood up”. I found that with the hood of the Pachetto waterproof jacket hugging tight over your helmet, even at descending speeds was great to block out the noise and I could listen on without issues. When cycling is quite literally a lifestyle, like when bikepacking, it comes down to the small things. Yes, you could stop and listen again later but when you descend a few times a day, day after day, you just want to stay in the flow of things. This was a real game changer for me not having to fuss to start and stop things throughout the day.

Upon entering Greece and leaving Corfu Island it was a mutual decision that ‘the training wheels’ would come off and I refused any further assistance up the climbs. Having been on the road just over a week I trusted my body would have adapted somewhat and would just need to “get with it” over the long haul. What followed over the next number of weeks was something special. Getting more comfortable in my riding and day after day, climb after climb feeling my body get stronger. It was great fun getting to race Mart up some climbs, still having the ‘false top’ get the better of me and misjudging my efforts on occasion, Mart flying past. However, by the last month being able to recover enough before the actual top to reach it side by side with him.

A mix of grit, grace, and the right kit made the first 1000km’s something to cherish. Forming my own habits and ‘rituals’ - a lot of times breaking many cycling rules like riding with my socks at ankle height trying to avoid the unavoidable tan lines of the European summer. Often still feeling like a bit of an outsider to the cycling world, I often feel the rules are there to be broken. Cycling to me was more than the Cycling Bible. It was about the places you could go and the people you could meet, the things to see and experience along the way. It was in the small moments of being invited into homes, sharing a meal without speaking the same languages and having a drink with a gentleman who allowed us to camp on the beach in front of his bar.

So, when reflecting on my first 1000km’s, I can simply summarise it like this: getting inspired to ride, grabbing your bike and hitting the road – you’ll never know until you Go.

Chrystal Freyer

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