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16 December 2014

To Switzerland on a 1951 Raleigh Sports.

Matt Cartney recently got in touch via our Share a story page.  His story is about a good old-fashioned adventure in the 21st century by bicycle.

“You can have the old Raleigh in the back of the garage, if you want.” My Dad’s offer took me by surprise. I had no idea such a bicycle existed. I was looking for a project – a vintage bicycle to restore while I was recovering from an operation – and had mentioned my plan to him.
“I bought it from a friend of mine,” he said, “oh… about forty years ago. It was a good bike for a good price, but it’s actually a little small for me, so I didn’t ride it much.”
So the bicycle had been sitting at the back of the garage all my life, and I’d somehow failed to notice its existence.
“He rode it to Switzerland when he was a student.” He concluded, saving the best till last.

That would have been in the 1960s. I was intrigued. I’ve been a keen traveller all my life, and I’m especially fond of overland adventures. I grew up reading all manner of adventure stories and it was the tales that came out of the post war period that interested me most. For the first time, ordinary men and women could afford to travel abroad and see the world. Often using that most egalitarian of conveyances – the bicycle.
As I restored the old Raleigh I realised that, despite the rust and a thick layer of dust, it was actually in very good condition. I was reassembling the bottom bracket when the light bulb came on. Could I ride this bike to Switzerland just like my Dad’s friend? Could I recreate that experience? Perhaps I could only use equipment that would have been available in the 1950s? No Gore-tex or GPS or mobile phones. Just maps, compass and waxed cotton. Could I have a good old-fashioned adventure in the 21st century?

Eighteen months later I set out. I got the train to Dover, the ferry to Calais and from there I set out across the battlefields of Northern France. I pedalled in a straight line for the Swiss border, creating a trail of memories through the countryside.

Solemn war graves in the early morning mist, empty villages and old 2CVs. Picnics of crusty bread and pungent camembert in sun-soaked fields and long rides through avenues of trees. That day through the Ardennes that I thought would never end. Steak Tartare in Besancon and takeaway pizza in the garden of a deserted chateau. Epic climbs over the Jura and coffee after coffee in a string of pavement cafes. Then on into Switzerland and its green, green fields. The noise of cowbells and the mighty Alps rising snow-capped into the azure blue sky. And, of course, the 1951 Raleigh Sports, rolling along faultlessly, brilliantly, without a murmur of complaint, for a thousand kilometres.

Did I succeed in having a ‘good old-fashioned adventure’ in the 21st century? I certainly had many experiences that those post-war adventurers would recognise: fumbling with map and brass compass on a sunken road in the bocage, fine rustic food in the calm French countryside, the endless joy of a good Brooks saddle and the eye-popping exertion of climbing into the Alps on a three speed Sturmey-Archer.

 Although we can never completely relive the experiences of previous generations, I think I can safely say “Yes, I had a good old-fashioned adventure!”

Matt Cartney is the author of the ‘Danny Lansing Adventures’, a series of ‘good old-fashioned’ children’s adventure stories. You can find out more at www.danny-lansing.com

If you would like to have a story just like Matt's published here, then just get in contact via the share your story page.