The second century followers of the gnostic Carpocrates believed that human souls must go through every possible earthly experience before they are released and return to god’s side in heaven.
For most ordinary people, this means reincarnation after reincarnation as they labour through tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich, poor, beggar, thief. But the Carpocratians tried to pack everything — absolutely everything — into a single lifetime.
I know how they feel.
Thighs of Steel is an undertaking of Carpocratian magnitude and the last month has seen a total of 48 cyclists riding 2611km from Glasgow to Milan.
Over a hundred kilometres a day, packed into twenty-five heatdawn, overdrawn days.
So please accept my sincere apologies for not writing to you the last couple of weeks.
I am now taking a break from cycling while the ride continues from Milan to Dubrovnik without me.
This break will be amply — even excessively — filled with the frantic gathering of thoughts as I seek to process what on earth has happened over the past month.
I’m writing today from a farmhouse near Garlasco, a quiet town in a quiet corner of Lombardy, totally unremarkable to the locals, but nevertheless subject to a constant stream of remarks from me and my British companions, evenly split by topic between the heavenly pizza and the hellish mosquitoes.
Since I last wrote, our fundraising cyclists have covered every inch of the road (and sometimes gravel) between Bristol and Milan.
The change in scenery has been mildly dramatic:
Putting those two photos side by side gives an impression of distinct and dramatic movement. One moment your eyes are on the downs, the next on the Alps.
It looks like a clear and obvious turning point: that moment in a story where everything changes forever.
But that’s in stories.
On a bike ride, change is infinitesimal and incremental and our wheels are always turning.
Between that first and second photograph, we got up out of our tents, ate breakfast, did some cycling, ate some food, did some more cycling, drank our water bottles, refilled our water bottles, did more cycling, put on sun cream, did more cycling, ate dinner, went to sleep, woke up, got up out of our tents, ate breakfast, did some cycling, ate some food…
For two weeks.
There are no turning points — except those we choose to recognise after the fact for the purpose of understanding our lives, for telling our story.
Making sense of our experiences is one of the reasons I love writing to you and why it’s a shame in a way that the past three weeks have been so full of life.
I wonder if the Carpocratians allowed themselves any time to process, or whether ‘storyteller’ fell outside their definition of earthly experience.
Writing gives us a moment to put down a marker, recognise some turning point in experience or learning, and help us understand how what we’re doing fits into the universe at this moment in space/time.
So here are four turning points from this journey, one for each week of the ride so far.
Glasgow to Bristol: A Short Ride Across Town
The two months before this ride began were stressful.
In the manic weeks in the run-up to our departure, I wrote myself (and you) letters about the electromagnetism of responsibility and the need to replace control with trust, but I still arrived in Glasgow with a sneeze-cold.
Thirty blood tests, five Covid tests and two courses of antibiotics did nothing to alleviate the stress I felt, nor resolve the question uppermost in my mind: forget the century of cyclists signed up to ride, would I be able to take care of myself over the next 5,000km?
I needed, or thought I needed, a holiday.
Then, before we were anywhere near ready, it was already time to cycle across town to meet the first week’s cyclists at Glasgow youth hostel.
Spinning wheels, one, two, three kilometres. Friday rushhour, Clyde summer sunshine, giddy core team.
This short ride turned inertia to momentum, old questions to new, and blind doubt to blind faith.
By the time we crossed into Dumfries and Galloway, the stress was gone. The sneezes followed stress into the wind the next day.
Bristol to Paris: Cheese On Toast
That first week was tough. Thighs of Steel had never ridden so far in a week before: 754km with an Everest of climbing. In a heatwave.
But we had done it.
Together we had done it — and we had raised a lot of money in solidarity with refugees in the process. Most of the cyclists on the Glasgow to Bristol leg raised over £1,000 each.
In the heat of the struggle, the cycling had taken every ounce of our strength, while daily disasters had taken every ounce of our ingenuity and saying goodbye to fast firm friendships had taken every ounce of our social emotional energy.
And now we had to do it all over again, with ten complete strangers.
The turning point of this second week was relearning how quickly we humans can go from utterly depleted to utterly repleted.
Hunger draining our legs. Heat draining our minds. Off-road gravel draining bashed bikes. Then a smashed GPS screen.
We freewheel downhill to a cafe marked as ‘open’ on the map. Desperation for water-fillers and stomach-fillers.
Back up the hill, in silence.
They only serve cheese on toast.
No matter: water at least, tea at least, shade at least.
But wait. This isn’t cheese. This is Cheese. This isn’t a cafe, this is The Milk Churn, home of Sussex Charmer.
Fifteen cyclists tucked well in. Even the vegans. Powered all the way to Lovebrook.
Turning point: there is nothing that can’t be fixed by comfort food. (Except perhaps smashed GPS computer screens: for that you’ll need Laka cycle insurance.)
It’s not inconceivable that the success of the first week from Glasgow to Bristol was a fluke. But Bristol to Paris showed us that the Thighs method works.
Fresh croissants at dawn, demi-bottles of lunchtime wine, massage circles at sundown.
Something in the alchemy of the way Thighs of Steel was founded attracts people with not only a strong, positive and collaborative work ethic, but one that’s paired with equal parts joy.
Paris to Lyon: Pineapple Chess
Sometimes the most signficant turning points are scarcely more than a dramatic inflection, an almost imperceptible change of emphasis, but one that leaves an important, lasting impression on our experience.
Paris to Lyon was exactly that, for me at least. It was fun, actual fun, cycling with friends old and new for a week through Comté, Beaujolais and Tour de France country.
Days in the hot saddle chatting shit, inventing songs, playing games: ‘I’ve got a business’, one word stories, Pineapple Chess. Nights wild camping under stars, nuzzled by donkeys, rescue piglets and other tame animals.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t a tough week. But when you’re having fun, things just flow, right?
It’s a virtuous circle of energy: other people love to gather around fun and, when people gather together, problems get solved easily, almost before anyone’s noticed there was ever a problem.
That was the turning point of Paris to Lyon. And, if you want the rules to Pineapple Chess, you’ll have to donate 😂
Lyon to Milan: No Ikaría
I was worried about crossing the Alps on my bicycle.
The Scottish Lowlands, the Lake District and Hay Bluff are one thing: the French and Italian Alps are quite another. Not helped by the realisation that I hadn’t even taken a dump on a serious mountain range since, ooh… 1990.
Now: I’ve always been proud of my heavyweight cruiser of a bicycle, but with some of the others riding carbon, I was a little nervous to be giving away an eight kilo handicap before we even left the start line.
I was so worried, in fact, that my bowels occupied the first 24 hours of the week unavoidably voiding themselves and I was forced to spend the first long, hot, flat day in the van.
But early the next morning, sitting in the Alpine garden of our hosts Pierre and Pascal (found through slow travel hosting site Welcome To My Garden), madly trying to swallow down the prospect of more than 2,000m of climbing in the day, I decided to seek inspiration from all the other tough rides I’ve ever done.
As I shoveled soothing porridge into my belly, I searched Strava, where I record most of my ride data, by elevation climbed.
I was pleasantly surprised. The rides I did last year through Cornwall and Devon were similar total elevation and, in fact, steeper climbs.
But nothing in the Alps — nothing — could be tougher, or even be close to being as tough as the ride I’d done three years ago on the Greek island of Ikaria: nearly 3,000m of steep climbing, in hot summer sun, increasingly off road.
The Alps, I decided, with their smooth roads and steady switchbacks, would be a cinch.
And so it proved.
Okay, so ‘cinch’ might sound like an overstatement, but when you’re riding in a generous community, always ready with a joke, a song or a word of encouragement, the metres and miles dissolve into the road.
And, besides, even in the toughest moments, there’s always the scenery.
It’s fair to say that I started out on this journey pretty worried. As an organiser, worried about all the things that could go wrong with the ride, but also increasingly worried about whether I personally would have the strength to see it through.
The last time I was part of the Thighs of Steel core team, back in 2019, I was also worried — and amazed, amazed to discover that, rather than being depleted, exhausting day by exhausting day, sleepless night by sleepless night, my strength only grew over the weeks, until I was fit to burst as we rode into Athens.
But 2019 was a long time ago. Much has changed. Would those wells run so deep?
As we rolled on and on, I was relieved. They do.
Humans are amazingly adaptable animals and even our relentless routine — early starts, big climbs, late nights — has become quotidian, tapping into fathomless reservoirs of energy that my daily life never needs.
And I’m not special. This isn’t something unique that my brainbody does.
As we sweated and strained our way up to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, dominating in gold and glass the skyline of Lyon, one of the cyclists remarked: ‘I can’t wait to go on more adventures like this — now I know what I’m capable of!’
Because I’m an irritating contrarian, I had to disagree with her.
‘No you don’t. That’s the whole point. You’ve cycled 600km in six days, in a heatwave, and you still haven’t hit the wall. You have no idea what you’re capable of.’
And learning that is one hell of a turning point.
What must terrify us most as humans is not how little can be done, not how powerless or puny our lives are, but rather how great and signficant, especially when we join together and reach for limits out of reach.
Have you hit the wall? Have you reached your limit?
I don’t believe you.