My Forty Second Week as a Budding Author
Have a look at these two photos. They contain pictures of two very different people. At first sight this may not seem so obvious as both pictures depict me holding my bike near signposts. But I can assure you that the individual in the second picture has undergone some considerable change both physically and mentally.
I’ve spent the past twelve days riding from Lands End to John O’Groats. This wasn’t for charity, wasn’t for personal whim, it was a quest to vindicate my belief that a perfect cycling route exists between the two points. It had to be ridden in October for logistical and family reasons and it had to be done unsupported to prove that my route would “go” without the need to camp or sleep in bus shelters.
When planning the ride I set myself a tough schedule, 90-100 miles most days. I visualised myself riding in an untroubled manner through sunshine on perfectly surfaced roads. I imagined the idyllic tea shop stops and leisurely evenings spent kicking back in bed and breakfasts. What could go wrong? This is the UK we’re talking about and October is always sunny isn’t it? Our Indian summer was due and I’d be having a wail of a time with 12 continuous days of the most scenic cycling ever.
Things began to go awry as I travelled down to Penzance on the train. The heating in my carriage was not working well so I donned all of my cycling gear. I was still freezing. I whiled away the time looking at weather forecasts on my smartphone. It was going to be sunny in Kent, everywhere else could expect wind and drizzle. Disembarking I spotted another fellow pushing a laden bike. We chatted briefly, and discovered that both of us shared a destination in John O’Groats. In fact we were due to arrive on the same day via different routes. The steady rain falling on the station route curtailed our conversation. We both faffed with waterproofs and bade each other a hasty “Good Luck”.
And so I set off. Twelve days later I finished.
When I did English O Level at school, the précis was a major part of the test. Mr Nesbitt would hound us until we had got the plot of Macbeth down to 200 words. So he’d be very proud of the last paragraph given that the drama contained within my twelve days equates to a Macbeth, two King Lears with a dash of Hamlet and some Merchant of Venice thrown in for good measure.
The full story will be saved for another day as I need to do proper justice to the ride but I’ll give you a few edited highlights.
First let’s start with the Devon pub under new management who gave me a room that clearly hadn’t been slept in for years. Flies and bugs crawled out of cracks in the wall, the smell of damp pervaded everything and the only tea available was Earl Grey. I could have coped if the jukebox in the bar below hadn’t malfunctioned and randomly played hits of the seventies throughout the night. I will never ever be able to listen to the Doors without smashing something to smithereens.
Then there’s the posh hotel in the Hebrides with the room door that jammed after I closed it. I was blissfully unaware of this as I slept through the night and only found out once dressed and ready to ride to a ferry. It was 7.30am, my ferry left at 9.15 and reception would not answer the phone. My window looked out onto a glass conservatory, there was no alternative means of escape. I eventually broke out of the room using two spoons to unjam the lock only to find that the room containing my bike was locked as well. Like a scene from the Shining I ran through hotel corridors in search of help, eventually scaring the shit out of a polish chambermaid who I found in the kitchens. My crazed eyes and furious watch based gesticulations persuaded her to free my bike and unleash the country’s most scenic time trial as I sprinted for the ferry through a beautiful Scottish glen.
I mustn’t forget all of the lovely B&B owners as well. Karen from the Farr Bay Inn who let me a room even though they’d returned from holiday at midnight the night before. The owners of the Crown Inn in Tarbolton who dried my clothes, offered to cook me dinner (even though they don’t do food) and tried to undercharge me. Kath from the Clark Farm House in Lancashire who tried to give me money back and made me the most wonderful breakfast. Also the lovely owners of Troutbeck Cottage near Carlisle and Maeve and Weavel from Dingwall who took a real interest in my ride and drove me to dinner in the evening.
I have grown a real affection for UK Bed and Breakfast accommodation. All of the owners I met were fantastic and especially keen to aid the cyclist. It may be coincidence, but the further north I came, the lower the price and greater the welcome.
Up until the Lake district it was mostly going well. Devon had been full of drizzle, but the other days had been mostly dry with a following wind. Then I set out from Carlisle, crossed into Scotland and rode into the worst weather I have ever encountered in all my years of cycling. The pain began with a gale force northwesterly head wind. I’d used up all of my gears on the flat and saw my average speed drop to “armadillo”. Progress was measured by counting fence posts and praying for farm buildings to get in the way of the wind. Then it rained. Actually it didn’t rain, some mysterious entity followed me pouring full buckets of water down my neck at thirty second intervals. At one point I stopped pedaling and travelled a section of road by osmosis alone. The water entered everything, me, my clothes, my luggage, my protective plastic bags and finally my expensive compact camera killing it quickly.
I somehow became accustomed to this mode of suffering and managed to plod onwards towards that day’s destination. But Scotland wasn’t having that, it turned down the temperature scale and switched the rain to hail. This was the absolute low point of my ride. I crouched beside the A79 desperately trying to hide from the falling ice. The agony and despair is something I hope never to suffer again. If there had been an option to pack and go home I would have taken it without question. Unfortunately I was on my own and forced to struggle on. Lorries and cars honked horns in disbelief at this idiot cyclist struggling along a flooded main road in the near dark. And this was proper flooding, at one point I rode into water that flowed over my bottom bracket which will now need to be replaced.
That day was 103 miles of riding without a single moment of pleasure. Writing this it still does not seem real that I made it and I’m sure the nightmares will replace the usual recurring theme of having to take my maths degree again.
The wind and rain continued for days with a terrible pattern emerging of a soaking at the beginning and ending of rides with sunshine only appearing as I stopped for lunch or a trip on the ferry. I properly lost it on a number of occasions. I’ve realised that I need to find religion so I can have someone to blame for my predicament. As it was I shook my fist at Scotland and pleaded with it to make it stop. I cursed at the injustice of the headwinds and shouted at nothing to make the rain go away. I even tried to cry a few times but the tears would not come.
Eventually I developed a mantra that went “At some point today, all of this will stop”. I used it to get through the bad spells but at times felt like the mythological Greek bloke who pushes that rock up a hill.
The bike and equipment
You’ll be suprised to know that most of my gear choices were sound and the bike survived relatively unscathed. Well, it is covered in shit, has no brake pads left at all and is in desperate need of some lube and much adjustment. I suffered three punctures and some annoying brake rub which is pretty damned good given the terrible state of many of the roads and it also being hedge cutting season.
The one set of clothes I carried now stinks. Twelve days in the same set of pants is not ideal and my single shirt is covered in food and splatters of drink. I’m so glad I carried the Kindle to while away nights lain on a bed with nothing but crap on the telly. Sadly it died on day eleven with a failed screen, probably due to a poorly packed bar bag or nasty bump in the road.
Physically I seemed to hold up quite well. I found the heavier bike a frustration and constantly wondered why I was riding so slow. Climbing was a chore as well. It was like I’d suddenly become fat as I huffed and gurned my way up the slightest of hills. Cornwall and Devon destroyed my climbing legs further and I never seemed to recover properly from the damage done. But each day I was able to bang out the miles at a seemingly constant rate. Eating and drinking well aided this and I stuck to a regime of nosebag every twenty miles which seemed to do the job.
I’ve eaten such crap though. A full fry up each day, four bottles of Lucozade sport, three to four flapjacks, crappy sandwiches for lunch, a Snickers, cans of coke and inevitably something+chips for tea. It’s not stopped me losing weight, 3-4 pounds I reckon, weight I just don’t have to lose in the first place.
Mentally, I’ve learnt a lot about myself. The main thing being that when I’m on my own I moan like a baby. Constantly feeling sorry for myself and asking “why, why me?”. Several times I came close to cracking and packing it all in. Luckily the options weren’t there as these occasions usually coincided with wilderness and a lack of phone signal. I’m nowhere near as strong mentally as I thought I would be. I now have myself down as a “self-indulgent-whiny-plodder” and have to clearly recognise the moment where I start to slide in to personal despair and distract myself away.
It’s no mean feat to ride 1100 miles in 12 days through spells of disastrous weather. The real achievement is to free yourself to enjoy it instead of adding to the burden with unnecessary stress.
This is why I set out in the first place and to be frank this is where I feel the greatest sense of achievement. The route is sublime. From the north coast of Cornwall through the back roads of Devon and over the Severn into the best bits of the Welsh borders. Over the Long Mynd, into the Lancastrian hills and onto a major Lake District pass. Some of the best of Ayrshire followed by the Hebrides then Sutherland..it’s a cyclists dream. I can only remember a few miles of tedium in the thousands ridden. In fact there are only two really shit bits of the route, one’s Lands End and the other is John O’Groats, two pieces of Great Britain that need ripping up and starting again.
I’m really proud of the route I’ve designed. I’m sure that out there someone will have ridden it before and will claim a first ascent. I couldn’t give a toss. I genuinely sat at a computer for a week and followed the most interesting lines on the map. This needed ferries to achieve in Scotland. Have I cheated? I couldn’t care less. Without the ferries the route just wouldn’t work and to me it felt like a well planned orchestral movement leading to the crescendo of the day riding in Sutherland. This is the day that I slowed down for fear of it passing too quick. The day that laughter replaced guttural despair as I thanked circumstance for placing me on two wheels in this wonderful wild wilderness. I even forgave the knobhead encased in the latest German engineering who passed too close on the road round Loch Naven.
Anyway it’s done now and I’m safely ensconced in the van enjoying my birthday with Helen, Jake and Holly. They did a magnificent job in driving a huge distance to scoop me up from Wick, hose me down and coax me back to normality. I must also doff a grateful cap to friends and family who supported me along the way. Chris, your text was a powerful piece of medicine on a day when things weren’t looking so good. The twitter messages helped enormously but the top motivational prize goes to the cafe owner in Kyle of Lochash who offered to give me cash there and then for a copy of the book. I didn’t take the money, I just banked the sentiment instead. Lady, I’m getting this f**ker published just so that I can rock up at your door and take you to your word.
23rd October 2011