LIKE many good ideas, a cycling odyssey which has become an annual undertaking for a group of pals began with a random pub conversation.
Geraint Rowlands met up with A Level college friend Gareth King over a beer when they were in their mid-20s and talked about bikes, among other things.
Mr Rowlands, originally from north Wales, was living in Cardiff and commuting to work on two wheels.
The duo decided to cycle from south Wales to Dolgellau, where they had studied, to attend a music festival. A few beers later, a return leg from Holyhead, Anglesey, to Cardiff seemed a good idea. Off they went – unprepared on all fronts, but the long-distance bug nevertheless bit.
Since then they have cycled some 6,700 miles on the European continent, taking in 30 countries. Friends have joined in, and nearly £50,000 has been raised for charity.
Each year they travel to the city where last year’s trip ended and cycle for a week – averaging around 100 miles a day – in the process stitching an unbroken line around the continent. Wives sometimes join them at the end of each trip to take in the sights and sounds of wherever they have finished.
“And it all stems from two guys in a pub,” said Mr Rowlands, 41, who now lives near Maesteg.
Reflecting on the seminal Holyhead to Cardiff trip in 2009, he said: “We were totally ill-prepared – we didn’t know what equipment, spares, food to take.”
He recalled eating and then regretting “a whopping big” Sunday lunch in Brecon when the hills of the Brecon Beacons confronted them shortly after.
They have cycled through or in France, Italy, Southern Ireland, Bosnia, Albania, Greece, Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway, among others.
Paper maps have been replaced by satellite navigation technology, equipment has improved and cycling in general has stepped out of the shadows.
The touring group has witnessed poverty as well as some of Europe’s wealthiest cities.
“The human stories are what it’s all about,” said Mr Rowlands. People generally, he said, had gone out of their way to help them.
He recalled a man in Serbia closing his shop in order to fetch a replacement bike part from a neighbouring town, and a truck driver in Bosnia taking them across to the different side of a mountain because the road had been dug up. Conditions were freezing, and they passed through fields with pegs denoting land mines.
Mr Rowlands said on that trip they also went through Bosnian villages which had been ethnically-cleansed in not-too-distant wars. “Houses were were still empty and burned-out,” he said.
He described Albania, which the tourers visited in 2015, as “absolutely bizarre”.
He said: “There were horses and carts everywhere, and people collecting hay by hand. It was a massive culture shift. The poverty near the capital, Tirana, Albania, was extreme. The rivers were an opaque colour and they stank.”
Mr Rowlands said poverty was also noticeable in Macedonia and Bulgaria, but that this was no judgement on the people. Far from it.
“Ninety nine per cent of the time human beings are intrigued, generous and kind,” he said.
The group stays in simple accommodation en route. Mr Rowlands said good route-planning was key, as well as getting enough calories each day as the cycling can be very tough.
“There were times this year, on the third and fourth day, when you’re in bits,” he said. “It’s raining, you’ve got another three hours on the bike and a headwind pops up. You’ve just got to get your head down and get the job done.”
Mr Rowlands, who is married to Catrin – the couple have a young son, Rhun, and daughter Mari – thanked everyone who has helped them raise money for Blood Cancer UK. He was diagnosed with leukaemia aged 15, and a close school friend died a while back from lymphoma – a type of cancer.
Huw Evans, of Loughor, Swansea, has joined the group on its recent annual adventures. He was asked to get involved by one of its participants, whose children attended the same school as his.
“I always said ‘no’ as I’m 10 or 12 years older than them,” said Mr Evans. “Then I joined up, and made sure I was very fit.”
The 52-year, who is Swansea Council’s head of of democratic services, said he’s loved the trips he’s done. “You really get into the different cultures,” he said.
Mr Evans recalled stopping in a remote part of Latvia and trying to gesture to a shopkeeper what he wanted, as all the goods were kept behind the counter. Eventually she just opened it up, and in he went.
Meals in St Petersburg, Russia, came with a vodka, he said, even breakfast.
Mr Evans said staying in a “fabulous” converted monastery in Mink, Belarus, where the pound went a long way, was a highlight. In Scandinavia, especially Norway – where a glass of beer was £12 – the budget was tight.
Mr Evans has completed Wales Ironman and cycled up the Alpe d’Huez – which has a ski resort – while on holiday in France this summer with his wife Lisa and their daughter Branwen and son Gruff. Branwen, 15, joined him on the ride.
For Mr Rowlands the aim is to cycle through more of Europe, finishing in the south of Portugal, with potentially onward trips across North Africa.
He said: “South America does get banded around a lot.”
He added: “In a car or on a train you go through communities – a bike is a fantastic way to see the world.”