Nearly 26 months ago I threw caution to the wind and walked out of a perfectly good job. In these days of austerity I attach a certain amount of guilt to that decision as I’m well aware that there’s a nation of individuals who will never find themselves in such a position. My decision was driven by a single objective. A book that I needed to write that had been nagging at me for years.
Many people aspire to write “a” book and get it published. I’ve met a few who have no idea of what that book actually is, they just want to write one. I get that completely as writing a book is still status worthy in this modern world where most things are within reach of the chequebook. Climbing Everest no longer exhibits your prowess as a mountaineer, it simply highlights the fact that you once owned a large savings account but now you don’t. There’s a fiscal option for just about every other challenge that you could possible ever contemplate. From shooting lions with big guns, to riding a bike across multiple countries. Out there somewhere is a company who will carry your bags, mark your trail and sell you some high resolution photos at the end.
Bars across the country are full of mid-life-crisis-drones banging on about the latest “challenge” they’ve completed and how next year they’re aiming to push it to another level by leaving the BMW behind. It is obviously completely disingenuous of me to sneer at them from my corner of the room. But having come full circle in my journey to attempt to become an author I now feel qualified to cough loudly and interrupt the conversation. You want a challenge that will tear you into pieces, deliver you from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair, subject you to humiliation/self loathing/physical pain whilst systematically dribbling money out of your account? Then my advice is to forego the entry for “Tough Guy 2013” and set out to write a book.
This is not the blog entry I thought I’d end up scribing as my journey came to a conclusion. On resigning from my job I had clear visions of future TV appearances and packed book signings as an adoring public raved about the latest new talent that had burst into the written world. Being a positive sort of chap all I could see was the upside. Days spent cycling in perfect sunshine, evenings on the veranda laptop in one hand red wine in the other cicadas chirping in the background. I’d not properly understood the real graft that goes into creating a book that people might actually want to buy. It all seems to easy on the face of it. Get yourself on the dole, find a nice cafe, write a load of fantasy about teenagers that hide under clothing (reality in our household) then very quickly move to a net worth of over 100 million.
My expectations were oh, so simple. I thought that I could do the whole job myself. From gathering content to publishing and marketing the end product. It seemed so easy given that software or services exist for most steps of the journey. This expectation took a severe dent after I self published Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder. The book was crafted as an experiment and taught me loads about the whole publishing process. The single most valuable lesson being that I was clearly slightly capable of creating the content, but my proofing, checking and layout expertise firmly sits in the filing cabinet labelled “Hampton”.
This caused some concern in the Barter shed as I cogitated the next steps for the completion of my “magnum opus”, Great British Bike Rides. It was clear that there was absolutely no chance of a solo completion of this product to a quality standard of anything other than Ratners. In the preface to the book, I had laid out my vision for the guide:-
My vision was a road cycling route guide that would cover all of Great Britain. A set of aspirational routes that were tough enough to gain bragging rights yet within the reach of any committed cyclist. These routes would showcase the greatest climbs and best roads the country has to offer while providing rides that could be completed within a day.
This just would not work if the content was let down by the delivery. Despite many months spent tangling with Indesign, Photoshop and various other software packages I was unable to instil the discipline of a proper graphic designed within my limited capability set. I had a clear vision of what I wanted to achieve but it had become apparent that I wasn’t capable of realising it solo. The meeting with John Coefield at Vertebrate changed all of that. As a publisher he quickly bought into the project and came armed with the skillset required to compensate from the ever widening gaps in my own personal pavement. The task then appeared to become manageable, I provide Vertebrate with the content. They then manage the rest of the process from there.
The only catch, “the content”. When I met John the book was about 3/4 complete. The last 1/4 consisted of a few rides, 10 sets of photos and all of the graphics to highlight the various climbs, route statistics and overview maps. We created a sample chapter and passed it round a few friendly roadie friends. Feedback was mostly very positive, but a common question popped out “Where are the directions?”. I personally never use route directions, I plot a ride on a digital map and download it to the GPS. Job done and it’s only failed me once when I found myself 40 miles from home with a dead Garmin and no map. It turns out that others are not quite so careless, so we had to construct a set of directions for the forty routes within the guide to augment the overview maps I’d created.
Thus we waved goodbye to many a merry evening as Helen and I worked between us to construct these directions. Some of them took longer than the bike rides themselves including one particularly nasty set that headed through central London. I nearly lost half my head of hair as I scratched it furiously when my notes didn’t agree with the map. At times I was ready to travel back in time and deliver myself a dictafone enema. Google Streetview came to the rescue apart from one comedy Welsh junction where the camera appeared to be in a tree and a bird’s nest was obscuring the road sign.
The evenings got even shorter as further questions came in from John and his team. Was I sure that I’d cycled through a town called Ohfuckinghell? Where were all the lakes on the maps? Why was this section of climb graded extreme when it was clearly downhill? The turn left on route three takes you into a bus station? Are you sure that Snowdon is the largest climb in the Lake District? Should we really include the picture of a grown man holding an inner tube and crying?
My stress was compounded by the fact that I now had a working day. Nautoguide began to gather momentum and I had somehow landed the role of Sales Director. The job description basically consists of travelling around the country with a computer, being nice to strange people and begging at every opportunity. Many weeks and weekends were spent searching for the briefest moment where a small bike ride or meal could be fitted in. I became a fleeting nocturnal presence within our household who traipsed up the path from the shed late at night and scavenged the kitchen for leftovers.
At the lowest point I found myself actively hating the project. Why had I left a decent salary and the working time directive to commit myself to a task that nobody had asked for? Why hadn’t I written a novel instead? Fiction doesn’t need facts checking. Set the book fifty years in the future, chuck in a few words like nano, prefix everything with “i” and you can write what you like.
Then something strange happened. I began to realise that I felt like this on nearly every hard bike ride I’ve ever done. That feeling of “what’s the point?, It’s too hard, I wish I could give up now and just be at home in the warm” It arrives at the second to last hard hill. The one that I hadn’t spotted on the map yet seems to go on for ever. It’s usually twenty miles from home and just within the zone of “can’t call Helen I’m nearly there”. I fucking hate that hill. But it’s the one that gives me the fondest memory when the ride is done and I’m sat in the warm being shouted at for dripping on the sofa. Because after that hill there’s always a minor miracle, a final spurt for home that seems to liberate energy from impossible bodily places, maybe the soles of my feet or the ear lobes, I’ve no idea.
And here I was in a similar place trying to finish my book. A few days of mental grimacing saw me over it. The grey clouds of near depression parted and I could see home. We’d nearly got the thing done. This literary ride home really did gather pace as new milestones passed by. Submission of the last photos, completion of the final bits of copy, signing off the final set of route instructions, proofing the first draft and then an emotional moment when I sent John the last email answering his final set of queries. Through this period I worked equally hard to squeeze work,book,smiling at strangers and keeping sane into twenty four hours. But this was the final hill and my thoughts of baling out were rapidly dissolving.
One Sunday in February I turned to Helen and announced that I was done. This (f**king) book was actually going to be printed. On the Monday John sent it to the printers. I’ve got a three week wait until the final product arrives. Then we move onto the next mountain of worry, how well will it be received? have I pitched it right? is this something that road cyclists actually want? will anyone notice Andy’s arse on page 14? will Mr J Shackford consider it to be “Dreadful dreary and boringly sad”?
We shall see. But for once, I’m quietly confident. OCCD taught me that there are many other cyclists out there that think along the same lines as me, and a few that don’t (yes, you Mr J Shackford). Many of us like a challenge and that’s exactly what this book has to offer in spades. It’s very different than OCCD, it contains a fair amount of useful information, the occasional good photograph and the ratio of sensible route advice to swearing is very high indeed. More importantly it lays out a set of road routes that are hard, in fact most of them are very hard and I doubt that anyone else apart from me will be able to complete them. That last sentence was designed for cyclists. The vast majority of them will immediately have the hump and begin sharpening their thighs in umbrage ready to show this skinny whippersnapper that he’s not the only one capable of riding a bike.
However, this was not the prime motivation behind the book. It was truly driven by my passion for cycling in Great Britain. I’ve ticked off my fair share of continents and done plenty of riding in the sun. I’ve nipped over Alps, crossed deserts on a mountain bike and ridden above crystal clear Mediterranean seas. I’m sure there are plenty more perfect places to ride in but despite the weather, despite the cars, despite the appalling road surfaces and despite the farmers who smear them with mud, I love riding here more than anywhere else.
British cycling is like the beer crafted by our independent brewers. It’s steeped in tradition yet unassuming, comes in the widest possible flavours and strengths and more often than not will fuck you up badly if you over indulge. The worst thing is that many of its residents have lost their taste for it and scurry abroad to feast upon weak lager instead. Great British Bike Rides is my attempt to reacquaint them with the flavours and textures of riding back home.
This is the challenge I set myself in 2010 and 26 months later it’s entering its final stage. It’s also the single most important piece of advice I’d give anyone setting out to write a book. I’d talk them through the ups and downs, the need to grow a tough skin, the days spent looking at an empty page, the self doubt, the glazed eyes of friends as you bang on about it, the complete and utter lack of fiscal reward and then I’d brush over the lot. I was driven by what I wanted to say and a belief that someone needed to say it. It’s that which has kept me going and that which has emptied our bank account. Without it I’d have given up years ago. If you’re going to write a book, you’ve got to have a deep throbbing passion for the subject and the endurance to maintain that passion for a very long time during which many people may well not share it and you definitely will not be paid for it.
This is why I salute every single author who’s made it thus far. Everest climbers the lot of them. Even E L James who probably has a much harder time explaining her works to her Gran than I would. It’s without doubt the single hardest challenge I’ve faced to date. As they lower me into the ground I don’t want flowers, just a copy of this book casually pitched in after me. The vicar can mumble a few prayers and end it all with the epitaph “At least he managed to finish something”. I’ll subsequently ascend up to the pearly gates only to be met by St Peter resplendent in his Rapha Sky Team kit. “Ah, you’re the bloke who suggested the Fred Whitton loop should start with The Struggle”, he’ll quip. “My friend Nick would like a word with you, off you go”.
11th March 2013