Last night I went to the second ever edition of Professional Amateur Story Time, hosted by The New Forest Off Road Club.
The principle of the PAST Adventure Series is simple: three women stand up and tell stories of adventure to a rapt audience at a local bike shop.
We heard about the Adventure Queen Mother’s pre-Google adventures in Iceland and Nic’s wonderfully naive and frankly insane experience of the 2021 Women’s Torino-Nice Rally (ten Alpine passes in eight days WHAT).
But I was really struck by something that the first speaker, Emma, shared during her re-telling of a Christmas adventure on the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia.
The Carretera Austral is a 1240km road that runs dead south through one of the most wild and remote places on the planet, with the Andes mountain range to the east and the Pacific ocean to the west, in a region populated by fewer than one person per square kilometre on average.
It’s a forbidding road to cycle alone: hundreds of kilometres of undulating hills, with scarcely any of the demographic distraction of towns or villages — or even any opportunity to make a turn left or right.
When, in the distance, Emma saw a sign that said 18km to her campspot for the night, she rejoiced. When, close up, she saw that the sign read 48km, she despaired.
But the relentlessness of the ride worked over her psyche in the way that only physical exercise can. Her mental landscape gradually turned with the wheels she pushed.
The road is here. The hills are here. I am here.
I chose — and I choose — to be here.
In such a situation, dread for the road ahead is, well, pretty absurd.
636km in Winter
On Wednesday night, I fell asleep in Inverness and woke up in London.
(Full marks, incidentally, to the Caledonian Sleeper — cheaper and far more convivial than a day train.)
I was on my way back from completing the sixth stage of my second tour around Britain, covering 636km from Edinburgh to Inverness across nine days.
Last week I wrote about how we should rebrand November as Yes-vember and shift our wintertime adventuring mindset away from ‘cold, miserable’ to ‘crisp, magical’.
(For those of you wondering: nope, I never solved the problem of cold feet. Not even the mysterious air-activated chemical foot warmers that G kindly bought me did the job. Next time: get sponsored by a heated sock company?)
What I heinously failed to mention last week was my dread.
Without really meaning to, I might have given the impression that I decided to go cycling in Scotland at the end of November and then that’s what I went and did.
It wasn’t that simple.
In the run-up to the ride, I wasn’t feeling my best and I went through the motions of preparation on autopilot.
Mechanically, I filled pannier bags with sleeping kit and warm clothes and fitted Martin (my bike) with water bottles, snack bags, tool kits and all the other accoutrements of cycle touring.
I did just enough work to get myself into a position where I could still go up to Scotland.
But even as I was driving crosscountry to meet G, who kindly offered to give me a lift up to Glasgow, I was still not convinced that I would go — that I should go, even.
Who cycles around Scotland in the frosted tip of November? Shouldn’t I rather stay at home, bed down for winter and work? Wouldn’t I rather take saunas and watch the World Cup?
At This Point…
Huge thanks are in order to G, without whose logistical and psychological support I wouldn’t have had the gumption alone to get my ass up north.
Somehow, she made adventure the path of least resistance.
We all need allies like that: thank you!
But Still: Dread
Even after we’d arrived in Glasgow, even after a day of rest and recovery, I was still hesitant to catch a train to Edinburgh and begin the ride.
Breaking inertia is always the hardest part of doing anything. Going from zero to one: The Doorstep Mile, as Alastair Humphreys calls it.
Why not stay in the warmth and maybe leave tomorrow?
Or, actually, there’s no need to push myself to ride at all.
I could find somewhere to work from Glasgow and enjoy the company of my friends up here for a week of warmth instead of cycling alone around the cold coastline.
In the end, I was decided by the gentle persuasion of my own preparations, bolstered by memories of past experience with inertia and a growing sense of expectation from those around me that I was here to ride.
And the weather forecast signed rain for tomorrow.
Best would be to start today, now, this evening, with a few hours of night-riding to camp, across the water from Edinburgh on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth.
There was nothing left to do but get moving. And with decisive action, dread dissolved to thrill.
The road is here. The hills are here. The cold is here.
I chose — and I choose — to be here.
Fortune Favours, Erm, Me Sometimes
As you can hopefully see from my photos, my choice was paired with fantastical fortune.
Aside from two hours of drizzle through the morning of my first full day’s ride and a hail squall near Carnoustie, the weather was clear sunshine, unbroken but for the long nights, which were filled by the light of more distant stars and an otherworldly crescent moon.
Such fortune went untarnished by yet another snapped chain — I wonder what I’m doing wrong? Probably just cycling too much.
My nine days of sunshine and stars couldn’t have been in more extreme contrast to the experience of a fellow tourer I met on that sleeper train from Inverness.
Nurul had cycled from the west instead of the east. Her ride had been a battle of winds and rain, off road or main road, through the central highlands.
Originally from Malaysia, Nurul is one of those ordinary humans going about doing extraordinary things while the rest of us are writing emails and washing duvet covers.
Her ride began when she woke up one summer morning to the realisation that she was vanishingly alone in the world: no ancestors, no descendents. Everyone who had ever cared for her was dead.
So Nurul quit her job and flew to Amsterdam, determined to start connecting with some of the other seven billion humans on this planet.
I’m lucky that one of them was me.
Fuelled by a dim memory of how much she loved the freedom of cycling when she was a kid, Nurul’s original plan was to spend a couple of weeks riding from Amsterdam to Hamburg.
But a chance meeting with some Danes led her further on, and, once in Denmark, why not keep going?
Eventually, in the long light of Sweden, she met a Dutch guy who was cycling back home to Amsterdam.
‘But this is Sweden! How do you get to Amsterdam from here?’
By the time Nurul got back to Amsterdam, she realised with a shock that she only had four days left on her 90-day EU visa — too much of a scramble to get her bike packed up and a flight home.
So she cycled across the Netherlands and hopped onto a ferry to Harwich.
(I’d never considered how handy Britain’s exit from the EU is for long distance cycle tourers!)
Nurul’s plan was to take a few days in London to sort her travel back to Malaysia, without the pressure of a four-day deadline.
But you’re getting a good idea of what happens when Nurul makes plans…
Yep: she cycled a thousand kilometres up country to Inverness.
Nurul still hasn’t learned her lesson, though. Worried, perhaps dreading, the onset of winter, she now, finally, plans to fly home.
I get it: Malaysia is a tropical country. Even if it wasn’t, hell, I myself was dreading the prospect of cycling in the UK in November.
I wouldn’t blame Nurul for returning home. But that didn’t stop me, as we said goodbye at Euston station, from beseeching her to tilt her handlebars southwest.
Midwinter in Cornwall is no worse than Scotland in November, I told her, certainly not the November she’d experienced, with its freezing hail and sub-zero temperatures.
Come stay with me, come ride with me. There is so much more to see, so many more of the seven billion here to meet.
Three Shifts: Statistical, Logistical, Psychological
Since 2020, when I left home to cycle the first stage of my second round Britain ride, I’ve cycled a total of 5,109km over 73 days.
The biggest statistical shift between this multi-year, staged journey and the first time I cycled around Britain is how far I travel each day.
In 2011, I averaged 50km per day more than I am cycling this second time round. Madness.
The biggest logistical shift is from doing the whole thing in one 58-day sprint in the summer of 2011 to splitting the ride into nine stages, spread over five years.
Half a decade. Wonderful.
But the biggest shift between this journey and the first is the shift in my internal and external outlook, from isolation to connection.
First time around Britain, I scarcely spoke to a soul. I did barely anything but eat, sleep and cycle (in the words of fellow round Britian cyclist Anna Hughes).
Although I had a wonderful two-month adventure, at times I felt vanishingly alone.
Of course, as Nurul well knows, I was never alone: I was alone in my mentality. I chose isolation and dread over connection and courage.
Nine, ten and eleven years on, everything I do for this bike ride is about overcoming dread and finding the courage to connect.
Connection between body and bike, between bike and road, and between myself and enlightened, enthused, inspired people like Nurul.
And it’s not just the bike ride. Cycling around Britain is a cypher for everything I do.
In one of my favourite of his essays, George Orwell wrote:
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.
Now I cannibalise his words:
Every line of serious work that I have written since 2015 has been written, directly or indirectly, against disconnection and for connection, as I understand it.
At the top of this email, I said that I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better.
And the throughline of understanding is connection.
To cannibalise another great writer:
Postscript: Connection, Reconnection
After writing today’s story, I received an instant lesson in the principles of always connect.
Half an hour ago, I was sitting in my post-work sauna, when two women, one in her twenties, one in her fifties, walked in.
‘Hello, how’s it going?’ I asked, as I always ask — trying for a connection.
They were down from Oxford and Birmingham on a little pre-Christmas mother and daughter break.
‘Oh, I grew up in South Oxfordshire,’ I said.
It turned out that I was sitting next to Jane, my pre-school babysitter.
Always connect. Who knows — it might turn out to be reconnection.