If you’d like to listen to me telling stories about that unique intersection between a) cycling really far, b) migrant solidarity and c) bugling on the beach, then — snakes alive! — you are in luck.
I did my first ever guest spot on a podcast this week, chatting to Saoirse at Bikepacking Buds, a rad community that aims to create a network of bikepackers across the UK.
Listen on Spotify (you don’t need an account) and hear about cycling Britain on a £50 auction bike, riding to Athens four times, how to fix broken brakes with duct tape, doing laps of Dartmoor for the sake of GPS artwork, and, of course, the spirit badger origin of my touring bugle.
I’ve spent the last six months working my ass off behind a computer screen to help make Thighs of Steel 2022 a sweat-n-spokes reality.
Now it’s time for the easy bit: cycling 5,000km from Glasgow to Athens.
Oh yes. I’ll be part of the core team for six of the eight weeks: from Glasgow to Milan (yep — over the Alps) and then again from Dubrovnik to Athens, through Albania and Macedonia.
Being core team means I’ll cycle about two thirds of the way and drive Mama Calypso the other third, supporting ninety pedal-pushing, wild-camping, fundraising cyclists through the biggest physical challenge of their lives.
And I won’t sleep for two months.
Together, we’re aiming to raise at least £60,000 for MASS Action, a volunteer-led charity that support grassroots projects like Khora, a social kitchen, asylum support centre and free shop for displaced people in Athens.
Our aim is to empower dignified and sustainable initiatives for migrants and asylum seekers in the UK and Greece. 💪
If you’d like to listen to me telling stories about that unique intersection between a) cycling really far, b) migrant solidarity and c) bugling on the beach, then — snakes alive! — you are in luck.
I did my first ever guest spot on a podcast this week, chatting to Saoirse at Bikepacking Buds, a rad community that aims to create a network of bikepackers across the UK.
Listen on Spotify (you don’t need an account) and hear about cycling Britain on a £50 auction bike, riding to Athens four times, how to fix broken brakes with duct tape, doing laps of Dartmoor for the sake of GPS artwork, and, of course, the spirit badger origin of my touring bugle.
So what has this got to do with my birthday?
Next Friday, I’ll turn 40.
That seems like a nice round number and, when nice round numbers come along, it’s not unusual in our culture for people to mark the occasion with generous gifts.
I’m going to make this easy for you.
Instead of going to the hassle of wrapping up and posting me one of your old DVDs, subscribe to this newsletter between now and my birthday next Friday, and I’ll donate the entirety of your subscription fee (£30) to the fundraiser on your behalf.
What my impending sleeplessness also means is that, from mid-July to mid-September, these newsletters will inevitably become spontaneously irregular.
They’ll also, more likely than not, be obsessively focussed on cycling, cycling, cycling and, as you’ve already glimpsed, amplifying our message of international solidarity and maximising the impact of our and your financial contributions.
I hope that I’ll find time for one or two more thoughtful emails, but please don’t expect a whole lot more than a cache of images and word-images captured on the freewheel.
Nothing propinks like propinquity ~ Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever
Propinquity is the property of nearness.
On an archaeological dig, the closer together artefacts are found, the more similar their likely provenance. These artefacts are said to have high propinquity and, most likely, nearness in space equals nearness in time.
If beads from a lapis lazuli necklace are found in the dust around the bleached bones of a Neolithic hunter, then it’s fair to assume that they were both buried at the same time.
If the burial was uncovered in Orkney, then — bloody hell — you’ve found evidence that Neolithic Orkadian hunters had trade links with ancient Afghanistan.
That’s the law of propinquity in archaeology.
In social psychology, propinquity is one of the main factors in personal attraction.
Nearness in time and space, together with the regular frequency of encounters, explains why so many romances begin at work.
Work-based lovers are said to have high propinquity and are doomed to spend the rest of their days sharing long looks over a PowerPoint, sneaking a fumble at the fax machine and studiously pretending not to notice each other at the office party.
Propinquity can also be used to capture other, non-physical, similarities between people. We feel closer to those who share our political and religious beliefs, upbringing, education or sense of humour.
Even totally coincidental match-ups like sharing a first name can raise our sense of propinquity with another human. Davids are the best.
Why the heck am I going on about this?
The way most of us experience reality is linear. We feel bounded by time and space. Because of that, propinquity — hereness, nowness — is everything to us humans.
Stand by for a bold statement:
Your physical environment (space) is the most immediately relevant factor dictating the course of your life in that moment (time).
Because we’re such social beings, what this means is that the most important person in our lives is always the person closest to us in physical space at that moment.
Think about this grisly scenario next time you’re crossing the street and a car comes fast round the bend.
Who’s most important to you right now — the driver, with his steering wheel and brake pedal, or your dearly beloved waiting for you to get back from the shops?
The brakes fail. You get hit.
Who’s most important to you right now — a passing grandma with an enthusiastic, but terrifyingly shaky memory of a first aid course she did sixty years ago, or the world’s greatest trauma surgeon twiddling her thumbs in a hospital in Basingstoke?
The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis
This macabre thought experiment is what I call The Cataclysmic Event Hypothesis.
The idea made its first appearance back in 2008, when I thought I was going to become An Important Writer and wrote a 44-page manuscript modesty titled The Meaning Of Life.
If there is a cataclysmic event right now, I am going to be relying for my life upon those people in closest proximity to me.
Obviously, a cataclysmic event like being involved in a car crash is an extreme example, but isn’t this hypothesis exactly what we’ve learned during the pandemic?
Our nearest becoming, truly, our dearest.
Life made worthwhile again by the boy next door, the girl upstairs, neighbourhood support groups and a smile across the shared garden.
As I pompously wrote back in 2008:
[…] People talk even today of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’: catastrophic events tend to bring the best out in human beings. But why restrict our best behaviour to only after such a disaster?
[…] The most important things to you in any one moment are the things immediately around you: make things better for them and things will become better for you as well, because they are your environment and you are all part of one organism, the society.
As we’ve also discovered during the pandemic, virtual propinquity has changed the rules — but only somewhat.
Telephones, the Internet, social media and video conferencing help us maintain a sense of high propinquity with people far away, if not physically, then at least psychologically.
Equally, however — as many people have found during long periods of isolation and as that morbid thought experiment suggests — virtual propinquity is, when the chips are really down, an illusion.
No: we are entirely dependent, or rather interdependent with the people with whom we share our immediate physical environment, right now.
No — I should be boring you with an endless slideshow of what I done on my holidays.
Alright then, here you go:
Well, besides being a generally interesting new concept that might completely transform the way you interact with everything and everybody in the world around you, forever until you lie stone cold dead in the ground, allow me to paraphrase Ian Fleming:
Nothing propinks like cycle touring
Sunday Afternoon: A Hill On A Tight Corner, In The Middle Of Nowhere, Scotland
I am 25km into an 85km bike ride and, crucially, 30km from the nearest bike shop. This is crucial because, two seconds ago, my chain snapped.
I have pushed my bike to the grassy verge and am now staring in disbelief at the metal snake lazily basking on the hot asphalt of the country lane.
It’s at this point that I have a flashback to a scene in my kitchen the week before, confidently fitting a new chain with all the smug satisfaction of an amateur who knows too much.
After ascertaining the above-mentioned crucial information, I have no choice but to attempt a roadside recovery.
Luckily (deliberately, to be fair) I have the necessary tools at my disposal. But fitting a chain is a pain in the ass (unless you have a thing called a ‘master link’) and, above all, a mess in the ass (especially if, only ten minutes prior, you heroically squirted a full litre of lubricant over the entire transmission, chain, sprockets, cogs and all).
Half an hour later, having used any excess bike oil to paint some pretty nifty body art, the chain is back on, the snake back in its bed.
I am mildly pleased with my handiwork, but not so proud that I don’t walk up the rest of this agonisingly steep hill.
Back on the flat, I test the chain with a few turns of the pedals. Despite the heat, every creak and twang sends cold shivers down the back of my neck.
I pull over and ponder my options: cycle back the way I came to the nearest bike shop thattaway (30km) or press gingerly on ahead, trusting my mechanical knowhow until the next town thattaway (45km).
It’s at that precise moment, oily fingers stroking oily beard, that another cyclist whizzes past me — gone, flying down the hill into the hazy distance, before I can blurt out the words, ‘Excuse me, you haven’t got any expertise in on-the-road chain repair, have you?’
Happily for me, cruising behind this bomber biker, is her husband, who sees my ponderous look and asks if anything’s up.
Propinquity And The Port Sunlight Wheelers
Iain pulls to a stop beside me and the exchange that follows is remarkable.
It’s not remarkable because he’s wearing an anglepoise mirror attached to his sunglasses so that he can keep an eye on his wife when she stops to chat to strangers.
It’s not even remarkable because he generously bequeaths me his own spare master link in case my chain snaps again later down the road.
It’s remarkable simply because he stopped.
About five cars passed while I struggled to tie my chain up in knots on the roadside. Hot-and-bothered people with places to go and children to feed, no doubt.
But Iain stopped. He alone acknowledged our high propinquity and he alone offered the words of comfort that gave me the strength to ride on ahead:
The exact same thing happened to me and the wife on Islay, ten years ago. On a tandem. With a kiddy trailer. Exactly the same: we were going up a steep hill and — crack — the chain snaps.
So I took out a link, same as you, and rivetted it back up, same as you — and it worked. It’s the exact same link that’s on the bike now, ten years later.
Get back on the bike and have some confidence in your work, lad.
Stepping back on the pedals with an oily handshake and a smile, Iain did indeed leave me full of confidence.
Utterly misplaced, of course — the chain snapped again not 15km later — but that’s not the point.
The point is that all the friends, all the money, all the power, all the joy and happiness in the world couldn’t help me out of my predicament in that moment.
The only entities that could possibly help me were those with whom I shared high propinquity.
In 58 days over the summer of 2011, I cycled 4,110 miles around the coast of Britain.
A decade later, in the foreshortened world of 2020, what better time was there to set out on a journey I’d always promised myself I would one day retrace?
But now, ten years older and wiser, instead of cycling over 70 miles a day for two months straight, I’m covering 40 miles a day in bursts spread over four years.
My 460 mile ride from Kings Lynn to Edinburgh was part four of what will become an eight-legged journey and my arrival into the Athens of the North marked my fifty-eighth day on the road.
Following Southern England in 2020 and Wales in 2021, I’m now about 60 percent of the way around the island…
… Or am I?
Looking at the gaps in the journey already — the northeastern tip of East Anglia, the north coast of Devon and Cornwall, the Black Country, the Welsh heartland, and, not least, Grimsby — I’m wondering: shall this ride ever be complete?
Putting aside even the geographical lacunae, I feel the flux of the universe as my feet touch the pedals, every atom in the stream growing, flowing and dying on, even as I race down the road in pursuit.
Not wanting to get too deep on you, but the only thing holding this ride together (and perhaps my whole being) is the weak bond of memory — or at least the illusion of such a memory.
Building The House Of Illusion And Memory
As hard as my leg muscles have worked, my memory works six-fold, constructing from the basement to the attic, storeys upon storeys, as it traces back and forth between 2011 and the 2020s.
Despite the passage of a decade, I’m amazed to find that I recognise many of the places I travel through.
Not exclusively the remarkable places either: I vividly remember cycling out of Middlesborough on a hot day in 2011. The broken concrete of a disused airfield, the abrupt silence of the birds and a sandy track between trees.
This time around, I knew what turns to take, running ahead of my GPS, marvelling at all the little blue Sustrans signs that were then my only guide.
The circumstances of my nan’s death that led to my leaving on that cycle around Britain eleven years ago and what has become of me since that first journey.
Comedy writer, uncle, outdoor instructor, cyclist-at-large, skateboarder and surfer.
All shared with friends and loved ones, some here for good, others passing through.
In 2011, I stayed in Newcastle with an old friend from childhood.
John taught me a lot about comfortable cycle touring: padded shorts for my long-suffering behind, glucosamine for my knees, handlebar ‘bull horns’ for hill climbing and to ease the ache on my shoulders.
This time around, John rode with me for 12 miles either side of his new home in Whitley Bay. Now it was my turn to share a decade’s worth of tea and cake touring experience with him.
Vivid memories of emotionally charged events. Like crossing the border into Scotland on 29 July 2011:
I cover the two and a half miles to the border with all the vigour of a man who’s just eaten an entire packet of Jaffa Cakes.
My overwhelming feeling at leaving England is elation.
For a hundred yards, I am in no man’s land. Ahead is a sign that reads, Welcome to Scotland; behind me a sign says, Welcome to England.
I scan the foxglove hedgerows for some Scottish significance, in roadside flora, fauna or filth: none.
The significance I seek is on the inside: I feel the spreading butterflies of adventure.
I am a stranger here, in a strange land. The harder I smile, the harder the sun shines.
Even the familiar motor skills required for climbing onto a fully loaded touring bike and pushing the pedals is a function of memory, laid down since childhood.
Every element of touring now is a rhyme from a decade of adventure. Pack up your bike, put up your tent, McGuinn. You ain’t going nowhere.
Interdependent and embedded among our personal memories are collective memories of our political, social and cultural milieu.
In 2011, it was impossible to escape the political landscape of scandal and austerity. War in Syria, Tony Blair on trial and police murder in Tottenham.
In 2020, of course, every interaction was marbled with the course grain of the pandemic.
This year, I lost count of the number of gardens, fences, windows, walls, rooftops that flew the flag of Ukraine.
As the muscle fibres in my legs stretch, break, grow and wither, the greatest survivor of this never-ending adventure is memory, creating meaning and character in every episode that I commit to words.
Thank you for reading and sharing these memories. Special thanks to the Shearers for their help in making them in the first place — have a wonderful dino-wedding!
Resuming where I left off two years ago, today I rode from Kings Lynn to a canalside camp just the other side of the lovely market town of Boston.
I’m dressed for Bournemouth, where it’s already summer, and today I froze in a biting northerly wind. Tomorrow I might see about replacing my sandals for shoes…
Big plus of riding in spring: cherry, hawthorn blossom and horse chestnut candles to cheer me!
Day 2: Boston to Cottingham (139km, maybe a touch more)
Lincolnshire knocked out in a day. Not too shabby! (It is very flat, to be fair…)
Some delightful off road sections and canal paths. Also wind.
Frozen toes somewhat comforted by the acquisition of overshoes from the Aladdin’s Cave of F&J Cycles in Lincoln.
Day 3: Cottingham to Ravenscar (107km)
Through the Yorkshire Wolds, including both the ‘capital’, Driffield (shout out to The Bike Cave vegan chocolate orange cake dipped in oat milk turmeric latte), and the ‘gateway’, Hunmanby (shout out to the ‘now very few’ members of the Hunmanby In Bloom committee who made my short stay there so peaceful).
This makes it sound like I had a nice time today. Well, I did. So there. Cycling doesn’t have to be a sufferfest.
This ride to Edinburgh is all part of my training for six weeks of Thighs of Steel this summer (including the Alps, which not even the Yorkshire Wolds can prepare me for!)
I’m currently sitting in Sanders Yard Bistro, hidden away in a historic potted plant courtyard, a sharp cobbled descent down the looming cliff of Whitby Abbey.
It’s been more than 300km since I rode out of Kings Lynn, picking up from where I left off in 2020.
This is the fourth leg of my recapitulation of my 2011 ride around the entire coast of Britain.
Being now eleven years wiser, I am taking my time, and expect another three stages and two summers of touring before I have finished.
I ride and I write to make authentic connections, something I struggled with back in 2011.
(Believing, with unfounded mystery, that everyone hated people who wore socks with sandals, and that it was not only the vampires who were out to get me.)
On the first three days of this nine-day stage, my deepest connection has been with the spring.
I’ve not done much touring in April before and I’ve been taken aback by how much is going on, everywhere I look, all the time.
Riotous nesting birds. Bluebells in the dappled woods. The first whiffs of cow parsley on the verges. Hens, geese, ducks, pheasants, fowl all busy with their own life admin, my passing only a clucking nuisance in theirs.
And, above all, the shocking silence of the blossoms.
There is never a dull moment, scanning the trees and the hedgerows for apple, cherry, hawthorn and the first candles of the chestnut.
There’s so much colour in our countryside that it’s frustratingly impossible for me to pin a name to the dozens of other pinks, whites, yellows and purples that I’ve marvelled on.
When I get home, I’ll consult a big book of blossoms and give these magnificent displays the quiet attention they deserve. I hear that’s a thing in Japan.
Human connection, perhaps because of the cold weather, has been less apparent than on my summer rides.
Positive, friendly, supportive, people and place, but nothing to fix a story in the memory.
Until this morning, when who should bring me breakfast and tea, but James Astin’s aunt.
James Astin’s aunt
There’s no reason for you to have heard of James Astin, and that’s kind of the point.
James Astin, his aunt confided, left one day from the bandstand right here in Whitby and cycled all around Europe, then into Russia, across China, south through Indonesia to Australia and then across to Alaska and all the way down through the Americas.
Quite the ride – but what struck me were the three stories that his aunt chose to divulge:
Once, cycling through China, James battled along 92km of a four lane motorway, only to be stopped by the authorities and transported right back to where he began.
The number of times he had to light a fire in his tent because of how cold it was. And the number of times he set fire to said tent.
James had to break his trip halfway around to fly home for a wedding (not his own).
What this tells me is that the worst experiences make the best stories. Also weddings.
Something to remember next time things are going south.
One day, maybe, however terrible things are now, this’ll be something your proud aunt will tell a stranger in a cafe.
The last time I was here I was desperately searching, with the help of my dad (long suffering telephonist for round Britain cyclist) for Ravenscar youth hostel.
As darkness, rain and sea all closed in on the cliffs below me, I despaired, and threw my bike, my bivvy bag and myself under a bush for shelter.
Shame that the bush was a gorse.
I’m sure I can do better this time.
As the cold drops colder with the fading sunlight, I find myself surrounded by an abundance of excellent camping spots and frankly astounded that my younger self managed to get it so horribly wrong all those years ago.
I’m in the abandoned quarries for the Peak Alum Works on the edge of Fylingdales Moor.
The industry has left the ground nicely levelled out, a quiet copse of trees sheltering a cinder-soft, gorse, thistle, branble and nettle-free clearing.
Tucked away from the path, but still in earshot of the waves swooshing against the rocks below, the silver birch form a merry band, their leader volunteering to snuggle up with Martin II (AKA King Duncan I) for the night.
It’s so perfect, in fact, that I sleep until nearly 8am, a full ten hours.
For anyone wondering: yes, camp sleep can be that good.
The unfavourable juxtaposition of my two experiences at Ravenscar illustrates two developments in my wild camping strategy.
Three if you include the inspired suggestion (by a dog walker on the Isle of Wight in 2020) that I use poo bags, but I’ll save that discussion for a time less close to lunch.
1. OS Maps
Smartphones are a double edged sword for the general population and no more so than for the wild camper.
But what I risk losing in disconnection – that sense of always being elsewhere, of app-watching, media monitoring, and even just listening to the radio of an evening – I gain in knowledge.
OS Maps are a boon, not for touring navigation, but for quickly finding likely spots for wild camping.
Yesterday, for example, I cycled straight past the perfect wild camping spot. On the coast, in full view of the ocean, a short trundle off the path, but with easy access, a clutch of picturesque ruins for shelter and a drystone wall to shield me from view.
As hard as it was to drag myself away, I refused the lure. From OS Maps I could see that this was private land, on a likely busy footpath.
I couldn’t be bothered to cycle a circuitous route to the farmhouse to ask permission, so I looked further ahead on my route and pinpointed an area of flat open access land right on my route: the abandoned quarry.
But, looking out over the landscape, I was even more reluctant to move on. To me, it looked like a mess of woods, gullies and gorges. But I decided to trust the map. And was rewarded.
Funnily enough, I think I camped only yards away from the gorse that I threw myself under 11 years ago.
The difference between these two camping experiences, of course, is daylight and confidence built on a foundation of years of experience.
There is nothing like the unexpected discovery of the perfect camping spot, but on long tiring days, OS Maps has become an invaluable tool.
2. A warm mattress
This could be broadened to include the whole sleep kit, but the mattress is so often overlooked and, in cold temperatures like last night, often the most important element of a warm sleep kit.
Most of your heat will be lost to the ground, not to the air.
Did you know that your sleeping bag is only as good as your mattress? And that camping mattresses have temperature ratings exactly like sleeping bags?
Nope, nor did I until a couple of years ago and now I won’t shut up about it.
There’s something very relaxing about not being able to type. In my case, not being able to type means not being able to work, at least not in the hyper-productive sense. It means more slow time for things like organising one’s map shelf. (You do have a map shelf, don’t you?)
When I did exactly that earlier this week, I found the old map of Northern Scotland, much tattered, which I’d used when cycling around Britain back in 2011. (Did you know you can read the book of the ride?)
You can see where, at the end of every day, tucked up against the trunk of a tree, I inked in my anticlockwise route. If you look very closely, you can also see where I camped every night — X marks the spot. If you look with a magnifying glass, you can even see where I had to double back to Alness to fix a tyre that exploded with shotgun terror on the Black Isle.
It’s all very well having our memories of adventure saved forever and ever amen in the databases of apps like Komoot or Strava, but there’s something exquisite about unfolding the worn creases of a long forgotten map and following, again, the inky lines where my pen once traced the turning of my wheels.
The Happening: Britain to Bordeaux, 2009
While planning the 2022 edition of Thighs of Steel’s London to Athens adventure, I had reason to go even further back in time, to 2009 and the diaries I wrote on my very first cycle tour: transporting my friend’s Halfords Apollo from our childhold home in Oxfordshire to his new home in Bordeaux.
So I loaded up, told my parents I was going some place and cycled out of the garage. They waved and took photos, did all those nice things, and then closed the garage door behind me. I turned left, then left again…
Mercifully, the rest of the diaries aren’t a turn-by-turn account. Re-reading them today, as a seasoned cycle tourer, I recognise all the aches, pains and unpleasantnesses of days on the road.
By day four, I’d already suffered a broken rack, brake failure (which, knowing nothing about bike mechanics, I ‘fixed’ with tape) and the hell that is Basingstoke.
Also: knee pain, stomach cramps, lips chapped like the ‘crust of an old baguette’, a bed-stricken fever and a sore neck that meant I couldn’t turn my head past 10.30 and 1.30 on the clockface.
The experience of being unable to raise one’s royal behind from the throne without excruciating agony gave me an insight into old age that I do not wish to experience again until a more appropriate age, when I shall have had the foresight to install some sort of pulley system, ramp or catapult.
It’s a wonder that I ever went back to bikes. But the diaries also show glimpses of my first ecstasies of unbounded exercise:
On the road, no one can hear you scream, shout, sing, snort. Storming fury, shouting defiance. Leaving the trapdoor of emotions far behind on the road.
As well as more pleasant postcard images, the ones all cycle tourers collect as they roll through strangers’ lives:
A group of elderly Frenchmen playing petanque, one of them wearing a stripy jumper. I feel like I’ve won the lottery in a game of I-Spy
The final day’s ride, from Saintes to Bordeaux, was spectacular in that it featured a solid eight hours of rain:
Steady streaming hissing rattling rain, seeping, steaming through the grey wall, piercing, prodding, poking as I ride, going left some, going right some, but mostly going right on ahead, into the misty wet, hopelessly putting one foot forward, the other chasing it endlessly. And all I pass are closed patisseries.
By this point, I’d got the brakes more or less working — in the dry, that is:
My brakes deteriorate so quickly in all this rain that I can only shake my head and shout ‘no!’ when a car pulls across my path.
Needless to say, I didn’t become another statistic for the mortuary (although my friend nearly did after I removed my brake tape fix without telling him). Somehow, I fell enough in love with cycle touring for it to be the least worst option for getting around Britain a couple of years later.
The clue for why is found in the diary too:
Too long waiting, too long waiting for something to happen. It’s only when something does finally happen that you realise how it was happening all along, just outside your front door, only you didn’t know how to see it, didn’t know how to feel it, didn’t know where to put your feet — didn’t know how to become the happen.
I discovered that, besides chapped lips, riding a bicycle along an open road also gifts us a euphoric sense of optimistic opportunity. Less than ten miles into the unknown of a 547 mile journey, I wrote this:
The Sun was starting to win, the grass was filling my nose and that open green lane was rolling out under my wheels. There was just something about it, something that said: ‘Yes. This is going to happen.’
A Road Poem
My first three long bike trips were all done alone and I would entertain myself by building poems over the rhythm of the pedal strokes. Here’s one from the Bordeaux diary, sung to the tune of ‘I Once Swallowed Three Hatpins’:
I once caught a bluebottle
Right between my teeth
When I tried to unlodge it with my tongue
It buzzed right underneath
Now I’m sick with fever
And I’m sure the fly’s to blame
But I’ve tried every medicine going
And my stomach just isn’t the same
It wouldn’t be much of a problem
But cycling over a bridge
I wish I’d paid more attention
When invaded my nostril a midge
So listen to this little poem
And remember my tale of woes
Wear a mask when you’re cycling the country
Cos if it isn’t the mouth, it’s the nose!
After 1,905km and 24,118m of climbing elevation, this is what we’ve got so far:
If a picture speaks a thousand words, then each one of those letters yells a poem.
Where Refugees was all about doing the distance and spreading the word, Welco has been all about other people, other cyclists and other fundraisers.
Georgie and I have been thrust into the background, supporting artists of an all-star ensemble cast. Humble van drivers, camp strikers, porridge stirrers.
We’ve hosted 27 cyclists so far, with another 27 to join us on the M and the final E. The energy of all those humans makes everything and anything possible. Whether that’s quite literally climbing Steep Hill…
Or dealing with the aftermath of an ominous popping sound when changing lanes on a dual carriageway…
This was first thing on Monday morning, ten minutes after waving off the ‘O’ cyclists at Falmer Station. I was hungry and needed the toilet, but felt like the first thing I should do is report the incident to the RAC.
I barely had enough time to find a toilet and buy a cuppa before Mark rattled up in his roadside recovery vehicle.
Mark’s ‘little trick’ involving a ball of steel wire didn’t do the job, so he towed Calypso to the inestimable PJE Automotive. But, as I watched Calypso and all our camping kit vanish into the pale distance, six hungry mouths were cycling inexorably towards a forest camp, expecting tents, clothes and a birthday dinner.
I walked back to Kemptown, where Thighs Core Team stalwart Bobby lived in a former Pupil Referral Unit. Bobby lent us a backup backup van (Harold) and he quickly talked me through its vagaries — the fuel pump, the shoulder shove to unlock the back, the steering wheel lock.
As I was pulling out of the Pupil Referral Unit, Bobby added one final warning: ‘Don’t panic if Turkish Delight falls out of the sky. A friend of ours hid thousands of them in every nook and cranny of the van and they have a habit of appearing unexpectedly.’
I screeched off into the Brighton traffic, only realising halfway into a snarl up that I hadn’t eaten lunch and it was almost four o’clock. At that very moment, braking into the red lights, a packet of Turkish Delight fell from the overhead mirrors.
I made it to PJE Automotive about half an hour before closing. Calypso was already being worked on. Three mechanics swarmed her undercarriage in a flurry of fixingness.
This was a heartening sight, bar one minor detail: Calypso was three metres up and I needed, not only everyone’s tents and bags, but also two cooking rings, an incredibly heavy gas canister, the crockery and cutlery and three crates of food, including a surprise Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake for Georgie.
So began an impressive recovery operation of an altogether different kind. As I shouted vague instructions from ground level, a tottering mechanic on an extendable ladder liberated as much of our kit as he could get his hands on.
It would have to do. I threw almost everyone’s tents, practically all of their bags and pretty much most of the cooking stuff into the back of Harold and, finally, headed for the forest.
A couple of hours later, Georgie was blowing the candles off Clive the Caterpillar (IT WAS A FAKE!) among a circle of friends — many of whom were at least partially dressed in their own clothes — as if this was exactly how we’d planned it all along.
This is what Thighs of Steel is all about: the collective pushing those pedals. Doing things that we never thought we could.
The clutch now moves ‘like butter’. I can hear the sound of chopping knives from the kitchen. Bobby has lit a fire on the beach. We’re ready for the last rides of the summer.
On Wednesday, we stayed with the wonderful Christine and Hayden in Alton (home of Sweet FA). We shovelled down a spectacular dinner in double quick time: Christine had invited a circle of friends to listen to our stories from the road.
I hadn’t prepared a Powerpoint, so instead I gave a impromptu bugle recital and a depressing speech about the Nationality and Borders Bill.
One of the high points of this bike trip is having conversations about immigration and asylum with the people we meet.
It’s great that everyone knows at least vaguely what’s going on in Afghanistan at the moment, but not so many people understand how our government is ripping up the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.
So here’s my bullet point digest for you to share with friends:
The new Nationality and Borders Bill is in direct contravention of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. This strikes me as a bit of a shame, given that the UK was one of only ten original signatories of this landmark document.
The new Bill creates a two-tiered asylum system that distinguishes claims based on the means of entry to the UK rather than by whether the human being entering is actually in need of asylum. This prejudice is explicitly forbidden by Article 31 of the 1951 Convention.
The UK currently stands in nineteenth place in the European league table of asylum applications per capita of population, below Greece, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria, Malta, Italy, Finland… You get the point.
Even if the government’s resettlement promises can be trusted — which they manifestly can’t — the new Bill would send the UK spiralling even further down the list of safe nations for those fleeing war.
Furthermore, under the new Bill, those who enter the UK ‘irregularly’ — i.e. without a passport and visa — will have their asylum cases deemed ‘inadmissable’ and the government will try to deport them.
If you are a refugee, it is essentially impossible to enter the UK with a passport and visa. Do you imagine those fleeing Afghanistan had time to apply for a visa on their way out? The result: the asylum claim of every refugee coming to this country under their own steam will be ‘inadmissable’.
If the government simply can’t get rid of them (because their freakin homes are on fire!), then these people will be allowed to apply for asylum… but…
Even if these irregular arrivals are ultimately awarded refugee status, they will never be given the right to settle here and will be regularly reassessed for removal. Again: this prejudice is explicitly forbidden by the 1951 Convention because it’s manifestly unfair.
The British were very successful at promulgating the myth that their Empire was founded on good will and fair play. This was always a gargantuan lie, but it’s a lie that this government seems particularly eager to expose with the extraordinary cruelty and arbitrary injustice of its Nationality and Borders Bill.
Every time we stop the GPS for a bike break — lunch wraps, punctures, bedtime — we need to get our logbook signed off by a member of the public. This means that we talk to a lot of people about what we’re doing.
At the beginning of the trip, we were both a bit worried about discussing refugees with any old stranger on the street.
The anti-immigration, anti-asylum right wing press is the most popular in the country and, naturally, we thought that these newspapers would reflect the views of their readers. Not only that, but the elected government of this country is run by a man that the BBC can, without fear of slander, describe as ‘a liar and a racist’.
Therefore, basic probability told us that a good chunk of our unsuspecting witnesses would hold strong, negative views on the right of refugees to claim asylum in this country.
Approaching a stranger to ask for their signature and contact details is pretty daunting when you think there’s a 50/50 chance that they’ll hate everything about what you’re doing.
As the trip has gone on, however, we’ve come to the heartening conclusion that The Daily Mail and the Conservative Party can’t possibly reflect the real views of the people of this country.
We’ve not done a survey, but it’s statistically fantastic that zero of the 114 people in our witness book neither read the country’s most popular newspapers nor vote for the most popular political party.
Yet the vast majority of people we’ve met on this bike ride show great compassion towards those forced to flee their homes. Indeed: most people tell us that they think the government should be doing more to help.
This government, and the billionaire-owned press that goads them on, are not only heartlessly vindictive, but they foment a social atmosphere that divides us and makes us scared to share our true political beliefs with each other.
This trip has not only given me the strength to approach strangers and open up political conversations, but also the confidence that they won’t rip my head off. Far from it.
I can’t technically say that we’ve broken the world record because the ride isn’t over yet (nor the record verified), but Thighs of Steel have definitely surpassed the previous record and, with every day that passes, the world’s biggest bike-powered GPS drawing gets even bigger.
Since I last wrote, we have rounded off the ‘f’ in Exmoor, cycled the Jurassic Coast of the ‘u’ and passed the world record distance out on the Somerset Levels of the ‘g’.
As we crossed into Glastonbury, Mayor Jon Cousins met us to sign the logbook and mark this momentous occasion with a nice cup of tea. Georgie had Guinness — what else?
Speaking of tea: if you ever have the fortune to be cycling across Exmoor, make a stop at the Poltimore Arms to meet publican, politician and raconteur Steve Cotten. He looks and sounds a lot like comedian Bill Bailey.
Georgie had only stopped at the top of the hill to wait for me to catch up, but we were soon sitting down for a hot drink with Steve and the pub cat, Frederick Albert Hitler.
‘I never charge for tea or coffee,’ Steve told us. ‘Some call it bad business, I call it good manners.’
As we arrived, Steve had just received a parcel containing white jodhpurs and a pair of leather riding boots.
‘They won’t let me drive — I’m half blind — so I got myself a crazy horse,’ he explained. ‘Everyone says that horse will be the death of me, but I know all the local elite dressage trainers so I’m going to learn dressage and win Olympic gold at the next Paralympics.’
He must have seen the doubt in our eyes because the next thing he said was: ‘I’m serious. People don’t believe me, but they didn’t believe me when I said I was going to run for parliament and see what happened there.’
He points behind us to a massive canvas poster of Steve on the campaign trail: ‘A vote for Steve Cotten is a vote for North Devon’.
‘I set out to fail,’ he said, ‘and I nearly ended up winning.’
I’ll restrict myself to three other highlights of the past week: homemade tiramisú, campfires and unbridled generosity. These recurred with pleasing regularity along the ride — or all together at once in the case of one memorable evening with Laura and Jon at Bulstone Springs.
Open hearted generosity is a feature of cycle touring. Not only from our wonderful hosts who welcome us into their homes, but also from many of the people we meet along the way.
Yesterday, six friends-we-hadn’t-yet-met donated in cash quids, fivers, tenners and even twenties. This makes Wiltshire by far and away the most generous county we’ve cycled through and it’s inspired me to spend my day off making a donations bucket to strap to the front of the bike.
I’d better get cracking actually — my bike suffered a mechanical yesterday and I don’t fancy testing the limits of my frayed gear cabling on the White Horse hills. With fair winds and good fortune, the next time I write, we will have finished writing ‘Refugees’.
We are now 4 days into our 27 day bike-powered GPS drawing of Refugees Welcome and it’s no coincidence that all the roads around here incorporate the word ‘Hill’.
Copstone Hill, Cuckoo Hill, Polson Hill, Beech Hill Cross, North Hill Lane. (There’s also a Cockrattle Lane, but that’s a different story.)
Since our departure from St Austell on Tuesday, we’ve climbed over 6400m: coast to coast to coast through Cornwall, followed by a loop-the-loop of Dartmoor.
For those of you catching up, Thighs of Steel (of which I am a mere cog) are attempting to create the world’s largest bike-powered GPS art by riding a serpentine route around the south of England that spells out the words ‘Refugees Welcome’.
If we are successful, it will break the current world record by a completely unnecessary 1500km.
These first four days (we hope) will be the toughest of the whole tour, certainly in terms of distance and elevation, and I would be lying if I said that, at times, I have not reflected unfavourably upon my life choices.
Such as on Wednesday, when we cranked our way up two irrelevant hills to form the inlet of the ‘R’, only to return over the same exact same hills to finish off the tail.
And these are not hills in the sense that you might imagine if you live in the Home Counties, East Anglia, or even Scotland. These are Devonshire and Cornish hills. Road builders here seem to delight in driving you perpendicular to the contour lines. Not a zig-zag in sight, just a sheer wall of asphalt.
But the consolation in those absurd moments of repeated routing is not what we are doing, but why.
At the end of our hill reps on Wednesday, in the very butt of the R, a man called Ray Christmas signed our logbook. Ray Christmas!
Wait – the logbook? Ah, yes, the logbook! Every World Record Attempter’s nightmare – literally.
I swear, two nights ago, I dreamt that Philip Schofield agreed to sign our logbook in exchange for sexual favours.
Schofield, aside, the logbook is the evidence Guinness need to verify our record. Every time we stop, we have to write that information into the logbook: date, time, distance travelled, location – and get that information signed off by an independent witness.
It’s a lot of admin. Stop the GPS, check the time, check the distance, enter the time, enter the distance, add up today’s distance to yesterday’s total distance, eat half a flapjack, cast around for a human being who looks like not-a-dick.
Then we launch into The Spiel – ‘Sorrytobotheryoudoyoumindmeaskingafavourwearetryingtobreakaworldrecord’ – all the while gauging their eyes and frown lines for signs of curiosity and generosity or suspicion and derision.
No, this logbook is more than admin – it’s a total ballache.
But, I confess, these witness signing ceremonies are often the highlight of our day.
The vicar of Holy Trinity, St Austell, who prayed for our steely thighs.
Luke and David at Bodmin steam railway, who donated £5 and a Thomas the Tank Engine flag.
The family in the wind and rain who donated halloumi fresh from their barbecue.
The woman wearing the Choose Love t-shirt in Boscastle – how could we not stop her?
The inestimable Janet Downes who carted us from R to E and donated homemade cheesy flapjacks.
Margitta and Nick and Lee and Laura and Pippa and Rolf and Bri and Penny who have hosted and roasted us in their warm homes.
Ian the accordian player from Of Stone And Earth in Chagford.
Debbie and Rob from the village shop in South Brent, who insisted on doing a Facebook Live with us and donated £10 and a bag of dark chocolate gooseberries.
The volunteers at Spreyton community shop who donated two pieces of Bakewell Tart.
Wait, what? Yes – TV celeb chef Gordon Ramsey. Spotted by Naomi out on a bike trail, enjoying a quiet cup of tea. At least he was enjoying a quiet cup of tea until Naomi fell off her bike in shock and I went up to him shouting ‘Are you Gordon Ramsey?’
To be fair, he took it pretty well – better than I would have done if someone had come up to me and shouted ‘Are you Gordon Ramsey?’
He signed our logbook, wished us well and gave me a fistbump. What more can you ask?
So, the logbook: yes, it’s a chore, but it’s also given us the moments that make this bike ride like no other bike ride.
This experience has made me want to make a logbook, a sort of a guestbook, for all my future rides too. How wonderful to make these connections as we pass through these villages and towns, how lucky.
I suppose it’s all about how you look at the world, isn’t it? My feelings about this baleful world record lurch, moment to moment, from admin to admiration.
Make of that what you will, but, of the remaining British cities, only Manchester and Edinburgh made it into the top forty.
After all, with its literary riverside, leafy parks and leftie communities, it’s not impossible that Liverpool is a less stressful place to live than Amsterdam, Sydney and Lisbon. The Beatles certainly seemed like a cheerful bunch of lads.
Talking of the Fab Four (plus a few more), this morning I visited Penny Lane. Mainly because it was on the way back from the charity shop where I’d bought a much-needed pair of brown corduroy flares to make myself respectable around town.
I know that this is Liverpool and that, fashion wise (more than one person has remarked), anything goes. But my blue checkered Speedos – somewhat appropriate for the beach after a hot day’s cycle – were beginning to make me feel a little self-conscious around town.
Penny Lane itself is an unprepossessing street elevated to such lofty legend that its old painted sign has to be put behind protective perspex.
I spent a happy hour listening to the stories of Julie Gornell at the Penny Lane Development Trust, which was set up to save a derelict corner of the lane from developers. Now there’s a garden, a memorabilia shop, a mural called the ‘wonder wall’ and – what else? – the original yellow submarine.
Note 1: The name ‘wonder wall’ has nothing to do with Oasis. It was a 1960s psychedelic film for which George Harrison wrote the score.
Note 2: The original yellow submarine was built in 1966 as a functioning submersible by Arthur Johnson of Grimsby for his daughter. Nothing to do with the Paul McCartney song of the same name. Wild.
Note 3: Penny Lane is not (or definitely is) named for James Penny, a man who, in 1788, vehemently defended the Atlantic slave trade to Parliament with the astonishing claim that, on his ships at least, the slaves were not only ‘amused with Instruments of Music’, but also rubbed down and given cordial whenever the weather got a bit sweaty.
Note 4: Peaking at number two, McCartney’s Penny Lane (alongside its psychedelic twin, Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever) has the honour of being the song that broke The Beatles’ run of ten consecutive chart-topping singles in the UK.
Talking of strawberries: I’m eating one.
Welcome, after two weeks of camping, 1,181km of cycling and 13,106m of climbing, to Liverpool.
Note 5: That’s the same distance as London to Poznan and the height of one and a half Everests. If only all fortnights were this productive.
Working backwards, I took lunch today with three bike touring friends. In this Olympic year, I’m passing on the torch: as I finish, they begin, cycling off on full stomachs and their own ‘rolling equipment’.
Ghandi Manning is probably in the top two most-prepared cycle tourers I have ever met. He packed light for this Shropshire ride: only his hammock instead of a tent and none of his drone photography kit. But he still found room for a Swedish numberplate, a curved handle walking stick and, of course, Meg the Leg.
Meg the Leg is a leg that is also a lamp. What more do you need?
Suddenly, my stylishly eccentric bugle (which, I may add, brought a lot of pleasure to tourists on the Mersey Ferry yesterday) looks like the lightweight affectation of someone yet to fully commit to Saddle Life. I have much to learn about packing for pleasure.
Note 6: Ghandi is beaten into second place by a man we once encountered on the Danube whose bike was so fully-laden that he had to walk alongside, pushing.
As touring cyclists, we measure our days in meals, and breakfast was shared with two new friends I made out on the road yesterday.
Swept along on a tailwind from Abergele to Birkenhead, I gave Dan and Jonah the benefit of my GPS navigation. In Liverpool, Dan and Jonah gave me beer and a place to sleep.
This didn’t seem like a fair exchange, so I footed the bill for three rounds of eggs, avocado, beans and mushrooms on sourdough, which set them on their way home to Halifax.
Scrolling back through my timeline of the past week, I see more of these flashes of light.
There’s Mike, the Connah’s Quay cafe and heritage centre chef who sells egg baps for £1.50, grows tomatoes in raised beds on the harbourside and can feel the presence of three resident ghosts.
A Napoleonic-era sea captain marches up and down the museum in his three-cornered hat, disappearing through walls and the like. Mike often hears the laughter of a good-natured little girl ghost, who’s got one side of her face burnt off. But woe betide you if you cross an evil spirit who lives upstairs, pinches bottoms and tells you to fuck off when disturbed.
Back in the realm of the living, there’s Richard, hipster patisserie chef and owner of the last working windmill on Anglesey, who saved his cafe staff’s jobs over lockdown by pivoting to the production of chocolate, gin and Mônuts – doughnuts so popular that the queue starts an hour before opening (not that I’m bitter I missed out).
There’s another Mike, of Dolgellau Bikes, who – you might remember – once spun me around and set me back on the right way round Britain. Now his business is all hire bikes and, when I called in, ten years after that first visit, he looked hot and harried with twenty plus bikes out back, waiting for Covid disinfection. He dreams of retirement and more time for his true love: windsurfing.
There’s Dylan and Joy, who have retired, to the quiet foothills of the Rhinogydd, a steep climb east from Harlech (the steepest climb in the world until the Guinness Book of World Records had a rethink). They chose this remote location because, they told me, neither are people people.
These non-people people welcomed me in for tea on their hayloft balcony overlooking the blue mountains of the Llyn, filled my water bottles, invited me for breakfast and told me how they volunteer as part of the community rescue team that has saved Harlech swimming pool from shutdown. My kind of non-people people.
There’s James the fundraising canyoneer, Ffi the marbling postie, and Dafydd the trig-chasing wifi engineer: all Warmshowers hosts who took care of me when I needed a friendly face and a dunk in the hot, soapy stuff.
My ride, I realised somewhere on the mountain road between Machynlleth and Dolgellau, isn’t about me. It’s as if my bicycle is fitted with a lamp that illuminates brief moments in the lives of others.
It’s up to me, if I can, if I dare, to make sense of the images that flicker first here, now there, before moving on without interpretation to the next un-narrated scene.
There are lessons, I’m sure, in the memories like shards lodged in my brain: the van driver who silently raised his fist as he drove down and I rode up the Llyn; the white-haired woman who tooted her horn and shouted thank you as I pulled over to let her past on Anglesey; even the one-hand-on-the-wheel lorry driver whooshing by too close, whose spare claw was more gainfully employed in digging out his left nostril.
CYCLIST DIES, MAN CLEARS BOGEY
Even that headline is an image churned into the whole of what has already been pasturised and labelled: Round Wales 2021 (on both Komoot and Strava).
Waking up this morning, on a saggy mattress in a bare room in a dusty musty student house emptied out for the summer, I couldn’t help but grin.
What about? Finishing the ride – is that it? I looked around for some sign, some image that I could interpret, that would sum up in a moment the whole of the last two weeks.
A framed poster had fallen from the ex-student’s wall and smashed: MISTAKES ARE PROOF THAT YOU ARE TRYING.
That line doesn’t work as an epitaph for this bike ride. Here’s another that doesn’t work either, spoken to me by the guy whose house I’m staying in tonight:
You’re the first adventurer we’ve had stay. Most people just come here, get pissed one night and go home.
We try to make sense of the scenes illuminated in our lamplight, but really there’s nothing out there but an unbroken string of stories, some told by me, some told by you.
I’m writing this from the west coast of Wales, as the wind picks up its suitcase and prepares to shake out the contents onto the bed of land that I ride through. Storm’s a-coming.
Talking of inclement weather, and continuing the Bob Dylan theme of the past couple of newsletters, today’s letter is inspired by A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.
Dylan once said that every line in that apocalyptic song was just the first line of a whole other song that he worried he’d never get around to writing before music itself was wasted by nuclear winter. Take these lines from the first verse:
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
It’s evidence of the density of the writing and the concision that we’re sometimes forced into by the sheer fact that to write it all would be to fill six volumes – and who has time for that?
So, without wanting to stand my scribblings shoulder to shoulder with Dylan’s Nobel Prize winning catalogue, imagine that behind every sentence there are stories that I don’t have time, space or skill to expand right now. Just like the weather, the last week has been thick.
We cycled too far and forced stops in the churchyard stocks, following the hay trucks billowing dust in the wheat-gold afternoon.
We walked into a welcome as warm as the sundown, plated up salad, that coleslaw, barbeque and hair-dryer damaged paddling pool.
We ate stacks of Rogue Welsh Cakes: stacked and loaded with ice cream, before lying in the shade of an ancient Cypress that’d seen a hundred summers like this one.
We sought out the most southerly point of Wales, slipped our feet into the sea, and watched two women carry home two huge bags of rubbish, left by campers in the nature reserve built up around a former lime works.
We played Uno. We played rummey. We looked into the night and watched as the moon grew full and fat.
We ate melted flapjack on the cliff edge, while overheating sheep sheltered behind a dry stone wall.
In Bridgend, I replaced cycle shorts that had grown obscenely thin in the decaying tropical miasma.
We collapsed from the heat at the top of a deer park, the smoke stacks of Port Talbot pluming on the horizon, and slept in secluded splendour.
We sat in the shadow of Lidl, one of us breakfasting on salad with pomegranate and cashews, the other trying to make a meal of cold frankfurters and smokey cheddar slices. We will always have Lidl.
Swansea came and went in a slow afternoon of tea and company, piecing together tired muscles, sea swims punctuating the hills and rocks of Mumbles and the Gower.
We stayed with a UFC fighter and his family of seven dogs, wife and young baby, lying in the hot bed while he built up flat-pack garden furniture outside.
We rode the coastline fast, baking our backs in the desert sands, while 4x4s make like Jesus in the shallow water.
We wade out to sea and dip our heads before one last climb together, bicycles being now the instrument of our purpose.
At Carmarthen, heart hurting under cool canopy of oak, I cycle on alone.
That Wales ends; this Wales begins. Tens of metres become hundreds; hundreds become thousands: climbing, always climbing. Then coasting, always coasting.
The flying ants burst from the ground. One insect draws blood. A sheep runs out into the road. I chase it back to the flock.
Distant memories return, of a flick comb souvenier, bought at a gift shop in Tenby thirty years ago. I drink tea served by a woman whose legs are cut off below the knee.
I meet Ana, a cyclist from Ukraine who once rode from Luton to John O’Groats with no money, spending two months on the hospitality of strangers.
At St David’s I meet a woman who, in the 1990s, cycled 3,500km over the Andes on a £90 mountain bike.
I watch the glow of the dying sun through the ruined wheel window of St Davids Bishops Palace. I remember this moment from ten years before.
I climb and keep climbing. A man sitting in his garden leaps to his feet to applaud at the top of the hill: ‘Not many make it,’ he says, ‘but you’re past the worst now.’ I tell him that seems unlikely, as I’m bound for Snowdonia.
I collapse into a field of hospitality, exchanged for three barrowfuls of soil, and watch the red sun burn up into the Irish Sea. I sleep long and wake to fresh winds and tea and cereal from a new-found friend.
Too much more to come, but now it’s time to ride again, up towards Aberaeron, where I hear legend of an ice cream shop not to be missed.
A couple of weeks ago, I thought I needed a whole new bike—or at least a whole new bike frame. The Dunx chassis that I’d driven a ridiculous distance to collect came out bigger than my old Marin and I worried that my pedal position was more torture rack than action settee on a thousand-mile ride.
Knowing the knee-clicking importance of a well-fitted bike, I was fully prepared to drop another undisclosable sum of money into the laps of the aluminium founders.
But first, fearful of returning to square zero, I needed confidence on exactly what size of metal triangle would best accommodate my thorax, levers and abdomen. So I booked a professional fitting with Neil of Fit To Ride, Poole.
The upshot of my visit, on a hot June day, to Neil’s upstairs studio was spending a penny to save a pound. Or spending £110 to save at least £500. Reader: I needed not a larger frame. I needed data.
I perched astride Martin, fixed in place to a roller with a fan blowing hot air into my hair, distracted by a motionless wall-sized panorama of the Alps; Neil tinkered around me with plumb lines, rulers and protractors.
He’s used to tuning up road bikes for max power. I warned him not to laugh.
The most important thing I learned from Neil, however, was that frame size is much less important than I thought. In the hands of a professional, dramatic micro-adjustments of the seat post, saddle rails, handlebar stem, angle and rise can admit even the most monstrous of riding positions.
I ride upright—a position so unaerodynamic that I must be at least twice as fit as Mark Cavendish. I had managed to achieve my absurdly erect posture by cranking an adjustable handlebar stem way past its vertical limit for the utmost rise and utleast reach.
The effect was, in Neil’s words, cramped and hunched; in my words, relaxed and comfortable. Although, now he mentioned it, a folk memory arose from tours past: a shooting stiffness in the shoulders that only hypodermic massage could relieve.
After raising the seat post an inch and shuffling the saddle back a few mill, Neil proved his point with a protractor. My lower back was indeed of the military persuasion, but my handlebars were so close to my belly that, from the fourth thoracic north, my vertebrae had no choice but to volte-face, kink and plunge.
The results of such a posture are not only painful in the neck, but also, Neil assured me, inefficient in the muscle groups engaged in forward propulsion.
Neil’s response was to exchange my over-wrought stem for one that did the diametric opposite, one that pushed my fingers far over the front wheel. The knock-on effect was to straighten my back and edge the angle between spine and shoulder closer to its biomechanical sweet spot.
I’ve been riding with this new setup for the past couple of weeks, but Neil warned me that it could take five hundred miles before my body works out its new muscle memories. I haven’t had knee pain while cycling for many years: any change to my pedal practise, even change dictated by protractor, is a gamble.
Tomorrow, I leave for a thousand kilometre ride around Wales. Soon I will learn whether the gamble has paid off.
Of cockpits and cash
As anyone who owns a bicycle well knows, the goddess of the highway giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. The money I hypothetically ‘saved’ by not buying a whole new frame, was spent with thrilling liquidity on an array of instruments for what Neil persisted in calling my ‘cockpit’.
Ever since I’d been struck dumb in Romania by the enviable cockpit of a moustachioed Steely called Bertie, I have wanted aerodynamic tri bars on my touring bicycle. Goaded on by Neil—‘All the long distance cyclists have got them these days’—I have finally taken the swallow dive.
As the owner of a flat-bar touring bike, my life has already been transformed once by the addition of end bars (credit to John in Newcastle for that innovation). Could it be transformed a second time with these sleek arm rests? Time shall tell.
But that is not the only new member of my cockpit crew. I have also succumbed to bikepacking fashion and acquired a handlebar bag—supposedly of ten litres, but I’m not about to waste perfectly good drinking water checking that. In my case, this handlebar bag is nothing more than a robust dry bag zip tied to my bars.
The pièce de résistance of my pimped up cockpit is a brand new GPS computer—the admirably typo-ridden Wahoo Elemnt Bolt. This frighteningly loseable piece of hardware is a tiny, yet incredibly detailed world atlas, onto which I can superimpose the turn-by-turn instructions for my intended route.
Through Harlech, with its men, to Barmouth, where I cross the mouth of Afon Mawddach. Happily swishing through the fields and woods of the hills, I’m expecting to hit the seaside again soon. I’m constantly looking ahead, around this bend, over this hill, through this wood, soon I’ll hear the swish of the sea, soon.
Then I hit a town that shouldn’t be there. I cycle along vaguely, bewildered by my map. It’s a pleasant enough town, with grey slate and flint buildings and a few people enjoying the gap between rainstorms. It’s just that none of it should be here. Eventually, after dawdling through the town, trying to find a comprehensible road sign that might indicate where the hell I am, I find a bike shop. I tie up and go inside.
‘Excuse me,’ I ask the vigorously tanned bike mechanic. ‘You couldn’t tell me where I am, could you?’
In fairness to him, he would be well within his rights to look at me now as if I’m insane. But he doesn’t. He just says something like: ‘Dththgththaye.’
A look of panic flickers over my face. I check my map. ‘Erm, where?’
‘Dththgththaye,’ he repeats, patiently.
I panic again. He takes pity, turns the page on my road map and points: Dolgellau. There is no way we can be there.
‘Are you sure?’ I ask before I can stop myself.
Now he is looking at me as if I am insane. Somehow I have managed to cycle north-east, when I should have been going south-west. For eight miles. After all my anxiety about avoiding Anglesey and other diversions, I feel strangely liberated from the tyranny of Knowing. Not Knowing, I’m not worried about where I am, where I’m going or how fast I’m going wherever it is that I’m going.
That was then, but how now will I suffer this year, at the mercy of the all-knowing Wahoo? A Wahoo that, all being well, shall, by the end of the summer, be a world record holder, no less. Will I pass muster? Or will I long for the days of unknowing?
If you’d like to donate, then go ahead and click here (put your solidarity archetype into the comments!). Your money will go straight to grassroots organisations offering refugees the warm welcome that our whiffy government withholds.
🍲 £10 could pay for culturally appropriate food supplies (including fresh fruit and veg) for a family of 4 for a week
🚌 £50 could pay for destitution support for an asylum seeker, helping with essential costs like food, sanitary products, bus tickets and a phone top-up
⚖️ £250 could pay to run a drop-in centre for a day, providing vital, free legal support to asylum seekers
🧸 £500 could contribute to the salary of an expert caseworker supporting unaccompanied children as they start to rebuild their lives in the UK
It is with some pride that I announce that Martin, my 2011 Marin San Anselmo touring bike, has finally met his match. At some point in the last few months, the chain stay of his frame cracked and snapped in two.
The fact that neither I nor a professional bike mechanic noticed anything wrong apart from a strange skipping in the chain is testament to how amazing bikes are. Martin was literally snapped in half and I was still more or less happily pootling around.
It’s impossible to say how far Martin and I have travelled together since I bought him in 2011, but a rough estimate using data from various bike computers suggests somewhere in the region of 18,200 miles—more than enough to qualify as a ride around the world.
Martin: A timeline of adventure
Note: if you’re not at all interested in bike touring or my holiday snaps, then feel free to skip ahead to the next subtitle…
A year later, we repeated the trick in Tunisia, cycling through olive and palm groves, between salt lakes, past Roman ruins, and through two different kinds of desert to the sand seas of the Sahara.
In the wet summer of 2016, Martin (now officially christened Martin) rode in duet with a vintage racer called Joy from London to Vienna. We matched tracks from the South Downs to the Bavarian Plateau, from the banks of the River Thames to the vineyard sprawl of the Danube. Our accommodation, still wild, upgraded to hilltop castles and monasteries.
More recently, Martin found true companionship in the community of bikes that is Thighs of Steel. In 2018 and 2019, we covered over 2,000 miles together across Europe, discovering new countries, new friends and new talents. Martin got himself a chainring downgrade which helped us over the mountains. In Athens, he even got himself a blue tattoo, of which he is still very proud.
Finally, in our swansong year, Martin learnt the healthy pleasures of daily rides during a catastrophic pandemic, playing his part in the incredible Around the World project that raised over £130,000 for refugees. And, of course, in the lockdown-lifted summer, Martin came full circle: imprinting the south coast with his tyre tracks exactly nine years after he last toured Britain.
Consumerism gives stuff a bad rep
I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: we’re living through a pandemic. My old bike is broken. I’ll get another one. It’s no big deal. But I’ve never had nearly as much fun with any other object as I’ve had with Martin.
When I flipped him over and saw the thick black crack against his mud and sand-flecked white skin, I felt like I’d slipped into an alternate universe.
A broken frame was nothing more than we deserved: nine years of high-impact, heavyweight touring caught up with the partnership. It was bound to happen one day or another. I was lucky that it didn’t happen while I was out touring—although, on reflection, maybe it did.
Throwaway consumerism has, I think, dirtied the purity of possession. Many people, myself included, have hankered after ascetic minimalism: a glorious rejection of the waste and want that modern capitalism has brought us.
But it’s worth remembering why certain convivial objects are precious to their owners—and perhaps to hold all our purchases to a similar standard of value.
What did Martin ever do for us?
A bicycle extends our human frailties. We become bionic, able to move many times faster and further than we ever could on foot, and much more efficiently. I have done things with Martin that would have been unimaginable without him.
I’m thinking, of course, of the life-altering adventures I mentioned earlier, but I’m also thinking of our day-to-day. Martin made it possible for me to live an expansive twenty-first century lifestyle without ever needing a car or taking an aeroplane flight.
Every week, without complaint, Martin lugs my heavy shopping bags five kilometres across town. Together we’ve visiting sixteen different countries, excluding England, Scotland and Wales. Every day he teaches me something about perseverance, self-reliance and community.
Martin’s made me oodles of new friends and ridden me to work, school and social events—especially during my years in London, where the cost and patchy provision of transport makes travel in the city such an unequal battle. (Hence why The Bike Project gives free bikes to refugees.)
But at what cost?
You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve run the numbers… 🤓 The original Marin San Anselmo cost me £488.99—still the most I’ve ever spent on a single item. But I’ve spent many times more on maintenance and spare parts over the years. To be precise, over his entire lifetime, owning and maintaining Martin has cost me £3,323.
That, to me, is incredible value. There aren’t many other possession that have given me so much. Certainly some of my books, my Alphasmart Neo2 typewriter, yoga mat, guitar, teapot, plants and running shoes. Not much else that I can think of.
What about you? What possessions bring outsized value into your life? I’d love to hear from you—especially if you hold all your purchases to this standard.
On the naming of things
It is only right that we celebrate our most highly prized possessions—and, yes, give them petnames. I never loved Martin so much as when he was baptized Martin and grew a personality. My girlfriend at the time misread the brand name ‘Marin’ and contrasted his blocky functionality with the sleek lines of her own vintage racer.
Giving names to inanimate objects might sound silly, but I think it helps combat throwaway consumerism. A name and a personality is the beginning of a story and, when we tell stories about our favourite possessions, we honour, not only their service, but also the ingenuity, engineering and natural resources that went into their construction.
And this ingenuity and engineering is what’s so beautiful about the design of a bicycle. When Martin’s chain stay snapped, what did I lose, exactly? Why didn’t I feel this way after the rear mech sheared off, or all those times my chain snapped or wore out?
Indeed: what is left of that 2011 Marin San Anselmo that I bought from the Cycle Surgery in Camden Town nine years ago? Nothing more than the handlebars, forks, frame and rack. Everything else has been replaced—even the name.
Stuff has a soul
This reminds me of the ancient philosophical conundrum known as the Ship of Theseus: if you replace, one by one, all the planks of a ship until there are none left of the original, is it still the same ship?
But as well as posing an insoluble philosphical question about the persistence of identity over time, the Ship of Theseus prompts us to think about what happens at the end of our stuff’s life.
Aristotle decided that the fully-replaced ship was indeed still Theseus’s. And if a yes is good enough for one of the more practical ancient philosophers then it’s good enough for me.
A great ship is a great ship forever. A great axe is a great axe forever. A great bike is a great bike forever, even as the parts are replaced one by one. Because well-designed stuff has something about it that endures. We could call it a soul.
So I’ll keep what I have of Martin—the original handlebars, forks and rack, as well as all the other components I’ve bought more recently—and replace the broken frame as I have replaced bent wheels, snapped chains and worn brake blocks.
The bike is gone, long live the bike!
What now for Martin Jnr?
Thankfully, a friend has very generously leant me her spare bike to ride (thanks GC!) until I’ve found a new frame for Martin Jnr. One of the more alluring options is the idea of spending this lockdown building my own bamboo bike frame.
I first came across the Bamboo Bicycle Club ten years ago, when I had neither the money nor the cycling experience to justify investing £300 in a wooden bike. But now… Now they do ‘home build kits’—surely it’s meant to be!
Huge thanks to everyone who is helping to make this ride feel even remotely possible. Special thanks to A.C. for the ideas and company, The Tim Traveller for disturbing Youtube AUDIENCE advice, the Thighs of Steel family for oodles of inspiration and for the Wahoo, Documentally for my birthday microphone, and, of course, thanks to the Charles Family for the sense of home to which I will return. Insha’allah.
Huge thank you to everyone who has made the last week such a friendly place. Especially to Yes Tribe Michelle, Rob Wills and Annette Coppin for heartful hospitality in Brighton and Hastings.
Thank you, thank you, thank you this week to my hosts and hospitable friends, old and new: Tom and Claire, Anna, Thom and Anna, Claire, Naomi, Ben, Annie and Poppy, Fern and Beth and Lucy.
Major major thanks to Anna Hughes, who not only guided me to a peaceful sleeping spot in Epping Forest, but also took the time to record a great interview about Flight Free UK—only for me to mess up the recording. Sorry!
Huge thanks to the hospitable friends and strangers who have made the last seven days such a delight: Pandora, the Wickers family, Sarah and Chloe, John the ferryman, Lesley the artist, Debbie and Steve, Duncan of the incredible Dunx Cycles, Peter Langford the world record holder, and the extraordinary, expecting Matt and Lisa.
Thank you also to all the patient woodland creatures who put up with me wild camping in their homes. Even the ants.
But I reserve extra extra special thanks for my final hosts on this tour of southeast England: Documentally and his wonderfully generous family. Camping in a friend’s back garden was a celebratory end to this part of my journey and I was overwhelmed with too many kindnesses to mention.
Part 2: The Southwest
Huge thanks this week to: David and Margaret, esteemed parents of The Tim Traveller, for a lovely cup of tea – only nine years delayed. David, a retired Anglican vicar, told me how Covid-inspired Zoom services are now spreading The Word to people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a church. In every crisis, an opportunity.
Thanks to Will and Daryl, the two tourers from Lincoln, who brightened my day with enthusiasm for life on the road. And then slagged off Exeter cathedral: ‘It’s not fit to wash Lincoln’s boots!’
Mighty, mighty thanks to Exeter Paul, a truly generous host who saved me from a thunderstorm and revealed the true meanings behind what I called ‘the racist elephant’.
Thanks also to the many other people who have shared fleeting wisdom and encouragement along the track. You enrich my days.
Finally, and above all, to the family Charles for a mid-cycling holiday in the heat.
Enormo-thanks this week to Andy and family for hosting me in Mevagissey and for keeping me company on an eventful ride to Helston: two ferries and a change of tyre.
Gigantic thanks also to the Granvilles of Helston for two nights of warmth and record-breaking hospitality. As ever.
Thanks also to the highways and byways of this southwest corner of Britain. We’ve been safe together so far – long may it continue!
A short list of deep gratitude to the people who were inordinately kind to a lost and bedraggled stranger:
Ricky the first-day-back otherwise-empty bus driver who took me and a very sorry-state Martin from Chew Magna to Keynsham.
Paul and Annie (and the two dogs) for goose-field camping, nettle wine, a pick-n-mix feast, with cups of tea looking out into cloudbursts. I found this loving home on Warmshowers.org—a community of legends who open up their doors to touring cyclists all over the world.
Peter and family (and two further dogs) overlooking the stormy Somerset Levels, who shared their medieval banquet and gave me a night’s dominion over their piano room and airing cupboard.
The wondrous people of Tudor Road in Bristol who warmed my cockles and combed my hair when all was tangled.
Storm Francis also made me feel welcome, blowing me all the way up the north west of the country to refuge. Bus shelters, cafe awnings and spreading oaks became dear friends.
Final thanks to the Granvilles, who teach me more about philoxenia every time I bugle my way into their presence. Big love.
On Tuesday, I kind of rolled into Bristol, after cycling 1,012 kilometres around the southwest of the country. That means that, since the easing of lockdown, I’ve pedalled the whole of the south of England: from Britain’s most easterly point at Ness Point in Lowestoft to its joint-most photographed signpost at Land’s End.
Combined, the two halves of the tour—southeast and southwest—have gobbled up 2,210 kilometres’ worth of tyre tracks. But one statistic is suggestive of the difference in my cycling experience. In the east of the country, my thousand-plus kilometres involved a little over 6,000 metres of climbing. In the west, my thousand kilometres dragged me up over 10,000 metres.
Update: Strava data puts my southeast ride at 7,742m of elevation and the southwest at 15,444m—almost exactly double the climbing over a slightly shorter distance. This data is much closer to my felt experience, but then I would say that!
The take home message is tourers beware! Komoot, Strava and RideWithGPS each appear to use very different maps to calculate elevation data, with variations of up to 50 percent in some parts of the world. That’s huge. This StackExchange post from 2013 concludes that Strava was the most trustworthy of those apps tested—but that might well depend on where you’re riding.
Devon and Cornwall are hilly: 10,000 metres is a Ben Nevis on top of a Mount Everest. But the statistics don’t really tell the full story either: these hills are sharp, up to 33 percent in places, on narrow, winding roads, with descents too dangerous to build momentum for the next.
Hence my twin fascinations this week with a) proper bike gears and b) everything happening for a reason. Hopefully the promise of b) will keep you reading even if a) makes your eyes twitch with boredom.
Why me, why now?
Eighteen kilometres from the finish line, riding in merriment along the shore of Chew Valley Lake. I was making good time—a friend called to ask would I be in Bristol for lunch?—and the rain, hard on my heels, flogged and foaming at the head of Storm Francis, was for now holding off.
The road alongside the lake had recently been resurfaced and there was a temporary 20mph speed limit to stop the loose gravel spitting out of car wheels and giving pedestrians and cyclists brain damage.
A car passed me at forty. I had scarcely finished my impotent admonishments, when my chain locked up. This wasn’t a mere clumsy shift: my cranks could spin neither clockwise nor anticlockwise. I skittered to a stop, looked down and saw a pretty pickle:
At this point—so near and yet so far—it’d be easy to curse the heavens. I hadn’t cycled 1,000 kilometres over the past two weeks to finish like this!
But what if this frankly tour-ending disaster was all happening for me, not to me?
After all, I was lucky. This could have happened an hour ago, as I aquaplaned through rocky off-road puddles in the Mendips, a soggy trog from all civilisation. But it has happened here: around the corner from a cafe. I could eat some chips, call some friends and find a solution.
The cafe was closed.
But the toilets were open. Swings and roundabouts. I laughed. Then called some friends. We found a solution: I could unmount the rear mech, break the chain, remove half a dozen links and turn my bike into a fixie: a one gear wonder.
I laughed again: the wind whipped the sound up into the hills. Over the summer I’ve met a lot of people more or less new to cycling. These gentlefolk are often the beneficiaries of a forceful rant about the witless cupidity of bicycle manufacturers.
A forceful rant
As far as I’m concerned, any cyclist who wants to preserve their knees-up-Mother-Brown talents absolutely must have a bike with gears. Many gears, yes, but more importantly the right gears.
Gears are at least half of the miracle of cycling. When they were first invented, gears were banned at the Tour de France. They made the race too easy in the sadistic eyes of the demented organiser.
But most of us, our yellow jerseys faded in the wash, want cycling to be as damn easy as possible—and that means getting the most out of the genius of gears: a tiny front chainring and a decent spread at the back.
These are the kind of gears designed so that even the steepest hill can be tackled in the saddle, giving you and I about another twenty years of squatting potential before knee surgery.
But these are precisely the kind of gears that the big bike builders ignore in favour of a set that suits the show-off accelerate downhill suicide slalom brigade. Who will pay more for their wheels.
And the lack of education around gear mechanics means that your everyday common or garden cyclist also ends up chasing the wrong metric when buying a bike. Instead of thinking hard about the physics of bicycle locomotion, people are eased in the direction of a simpler rubric: kilograms.
Almost understandably, bicyclists believe that a lighter bike will be easier to ride. It might be, but the difference will be scarcely noticeable and cost a lot of money. Ease is in the gears.
It’s frustrating when friends ask me about spending hundreds and thousands (not the cake topping) on lighter frames when all they need to do is switch to a smaller chainring. Shaving a couple of kilos from your bike’s waistline is nice, but won’t give you the massive mechanical advantage that better gearing will.
If you’re not a cyclist, do yourself a favour: learn more about gears. When you realise how easy cycling can be on all topography and terrain, maybe you’ll come around.
If you are a cyclist, do yourself a favour: learn more about gears. Hill climbing is no harder than cycling on the flat—slower, maybe, but not harder—so long as you have the right gears and know how to use them.
In Exeter, I did a quick hill-climbing test with a friend of mine, comparing the gearing on his bike with the gearing on mine. We found a short, sharp incline outside his house and I got him to ride up on his bike in the lowest gear.
‘Actually, this is pretty easy,’ he said as I watched his legs push hard down through the pedals.
‘Try mine,’ I replied, shifting it into the lowest gear. He swung himself onto the saddle, eased his feet down onto the pedals—and nearly fell off.
The gear ratio on my bike was so extreme that the cranks turned with barely any pressure: my friend had never dreamed that such mechanical advantage could make hills so comfortable.
Seriously: Alee Denham on Cycling About has a fantastic series of articles on the subject. Read them all.
Back to the story
As I pulled the ugly twisted metal that used to be Martin’s rear mech away from the hanger, I realised that it was still attached to the frame by the (new) shifter cable. I had no wire cutters and my teeth aren’t what they used to be. I inspected the scissors and wood saw options on my penknife. My penknife hid itself at the bottom of my bag and tried to look busy.
Then a man pulled up in a small white van: he was down here from pest control in south Wales to check on the toilets. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ I blurted at him, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a pair of wire cutters or pliers, have you?’
Smiling like the Mona Lisa, the workman ducked into the back of his van and rattled around among his miscellanea. A pair of wire cutters appeared in the palm of his hand. ‘Take them,’ he said. I laughed: this was going to work.
All set to go, I washed my hands in the conveniently located toilets, and wobbled triumphantly back past the Chewy ducks.
Getting in a fix with a fixie
The problem with building a fixie bike, I discovered, is that the chain needs to fit perfectly: neither too tight, nor too loose. This is hard to achieve on the road: I don’t even know if it’s possible.
My fixed chain was on the loose side. When I arrogantly decided to shift up to a larger chainring, the chain pulled taut over the cogs, the limber flex vanished and every turn of the pedals became a grinding tug of war.
My bike was, to put it politely, fucked. But the unlikely fix had held the couple of kilometres to Chew Magna and I rolled gently to a stop outside the Cooperative Food supermarket.
I knelt down and got my hands oily. A man, on his way to an eat-out to help out pub lunch with his girls, leant over my shoulder: ‘You alright? What’s the problem?’
The man lived over the road and offered me tools and spare parts; his two talkative young girls eagerly me a deathmatch game of Dobble.
I thanked them and decided that what I really needed was a peanut butter sandwich.
On my knees outside St Andrew’s Church, a rotating cast of onlookers sympathised with my plight. An hour’s worth of oil under my fingernails, busted chain links scattered on the holy ground, and I was ready to ride again.
Two hundred metres onward, my second technically incompetent foray into bike mechanics auto-aborted and the chain snapped. This time there were no conveniently located toilets.
Swings: Storm Francis loomed over the horizon.
Roundabouts: so too did the number 683 bus to Keynsham.
And this is how I met Ricky.
Ricky: Everything happens for a reason (or: you can’t deny that everything happens, so you might as well look for any reason that makes sense of it all)
‘It’s my first day back on the job since February,’ was Ricky’s opening line after taking my fare. For the twenty years before lockdown he’d worked as a coach driver, taking kids out on school trips mostly. Of course all that work has evaporated, like a skein of summer rain on his widescreen windscreen.
Now. I’ve spent the vast majority of my time cycle touring engaged in a battle of curses with other road users. That’s a horrible exaggeration, of course, but remember those Devonian and Cornwallian hill roads? They’re steep, narrow and windy—in both its whine-dy and win-dy phonemic forms.
Definitively not the kind of roads happily shared by both fossil fuelled and peanut-butter-sandwich fuelled modes of transport.
To be fair, most drivers are as considerate as can be given the anti-convivial infrastructure. There are plenty of passing places where either the on-rushing driver or the on-panicking cyclist can pull over. Waves, thanks and thumbs ups can then be cordially exchanged and both parties can put their feet to their respective pedals and hasten onward to their doom.
But some drivers…
Climbing up from a ravine beach in the sleeting sideways rain, up a 33 percent gradient, I was confronted head-on by the broad beam of an expensive Land Rover.
For context, a 33 percent gradient is about as tough a climb as a human-powered bike can manage. Climbs at the Tour de France rarely peak at such a steep incline. And those riders aren’t encumbered with an extra twenty kilos of camping kit (they don’t even carry their own peanut butter).
As I sweated up the incline, salty rivulets on my handlebars, the Land Rover ahead resolutely budged not. Something of a stand-off, except we were both sitting down—albeit at slightly unequal degrees of comfort.
There was no bike-sized gap on either side of the vehicle’s wing mirrors, which poked into the nettle-strewn hedge. But I’d be a poltroon of the highest order if I was going to turn around and cycle back down this Eiger impersonation so that this climate-controlled tourist could save himself the hassle of reversing thirty metres to the passing place behind him.
So I stopped and waited, catching my breath, until the man reversed and we could all get on with our tiny lives.
Now, though, I was on the other side of the glass, listening to Ricky talking about carting schoolkids round down the back lanes of the West Country.
‘Some cyclists,’ he started, ‘not you, like, but some of them…
‘I was behind this one cyclist, on a straight main road—and he had every right to be there, course he did—but there was about a mile of traffic backed up behind me. I could hear them beeping at him to move over, right?
‘A coach takes a long time to build up speed, see. I need a long straight to accelerate enough to overtake, right? But this road had double white lines down the middle. I can’t legally cross those white lines to overtake. Not with forty kids in the back, I can’t—I simply can’t do it.
‘So there I am, crawling along at ten, twenty miles an hour, and we come to a lay-by—a proper long lay-by, mind you, good surface and all—easy for this cyclist to pull over and let me and this mile of traffic behind me pass.
‘You know what? He carried right on cycling.
‘Course he had every right, every right to do that,’ Ricky finishes, ‘but that’s why some drivers get upset.’
So this is why I’m here. What would I have learnt from another eighteen cycling kilometres on top of over two thousand? Chances are, I’d only have got stressed out fighting through the kind of city limits traffic I’ve fought hundreds of times before.
But on this otherwise empty number 683 bus to Keynsham, Ricky’s passed on something worth passing on. And it wouldn’t have happened at all if something shit hadn’t happened to me and my bike eighteen kilometres from home.
‘I’ll tell you what, mind,’ Ricky adds, ‘white vans are the worst. I don’t lose my rag and tell them to eff-off—I leave that to my schoolkids!’
Welcome to Wadebridge, pride of the Camel Trail – a former railway line that’s been converted into a busy cycle path, following the gentle curves of the estuary from Padstow. It’s most glorious for families pulling trailers of toddlers and for tired tourers who win respite from the havoc of the Cornish verticals.
While sitting here, a father and son duo pulled up on their laden touring bikes (father carrying double his coffee-deprived son). We swapped the usual news: they are heading back the way I’ve come, along the Camel Trail to Padstow and then climbing up to Newquay, St Ives and, in a couple of days, Land’s End.
They aren’t from this country and are only here because America is closed. ‘So we will have to spend some more time in your country,’ says the father.
‘But we weren’t expecting so many hills,’ he adds, ‘and they are so steep. We are doing Devon and Cornwall so everything else after this will be easy!’
Tackling the slopes alone – with only the occasional ‘that looks hard’ or thumbs up from a passing road user – it’s gratifying to halve my efforts with another tourer.
Especially with these two. Where are they from? Switzerland.
Having said all that, earlier today, like Robert Frost, I came to where two roads diverged. Both were marked on-road cycle paths, both bore a sign to Padstow, which pointed the way to my second breakfast (the first taken under a bus shelter during a downpour).
But one sign said Padstow 4 miles, the other Padstow 7 miles.
‘Long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth’.
Making the most of technology unavailable to Robert Frost, I even checked the contour lines on the OS Map on my phone. Naturally, the longer route also afforded me another climb or two.
But the longer I tarried, the clearer it became to me: as the poet took the road less travelled, so I should take the road more difficult.
Any hesitation, really, is a clue. Adventure doesn’t happen on the straightest line from A to B.
What would have become of the Hobbits if there’d been a motorway or a flyover, taking them across the mountains of Mordor without stopping to admire the scenery or mingle with the locals?
Adventure occurs in the margins, in the moments I take to pause in a place – like my greetings of the Swiss – or in the detours.
It doesn’t mean anything to arrive (besides a sit down and a cup of tea), so take the harder, longer road. There will always be one moment that makes me agree that was all worthwhile – if only because, as Robert Frost puts it:
‘knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back’
Upon my arrival, I become the sum of all those momentary decisions of which cycle path to take (or which ‘ego tunnel’ to explore). Future me would rather that I’d taken the longer, the harder road, the road less travelled.
Looking back on these moments of decision, the left turns of life that we take for no good reason, we see that it’s the detours that make ‘all the difference’.
Indeed, this has been a week of detours. Here are two videos, one from a detour to Dartmoor and one from a detour to Land’s End.
Once I’ve recovered a faculty or two, I’ll be cycling across Dartmoor to a wild camp spot at Foggintor Quarries, following the trail of two awesome tourers I met/accosted in Exeter.
Will and Daryl have cycled the opposite way to me, down from Liverpool, around Wales and through Devon and Cornwall. It was a real joy to share stories and compare insect bites while they drank coffee and I ate a spectacular kimchi and tofu sandwich from The Exploding Bakery Cafe.
The past three days of riding have exhausted not only my sweat glands, but also my supply of adjectives. East Devon is not a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty for the purposes of a practical joke.
In this case, both words and photography are inadequate to the task of inserting you into the scene, but hopefully they might cement you in your budding opinion that, yes, you will leave your house and step outside to feel the rivers, glades, and pastures that quietly surround you.
In the absurdly pictogenic village of Branscombe, a strip of thatched cottages and rose petals that conspire before a cobblestone church, sits a garden that unrolls into the valley. From the top, you can see carefully tended beds and meditative benches and a sign that says: ‘Doreen’s Garden, open to visitors all year round’.
I didn’t meet Doreen, but I put a pound into the collection bucket for the Devon Air Ambulance with a prayer that Doreen is merely the spade-head of a new movement to open up ‘private’ space to public enjoyment.
As someone ‘wild’ camping around England, a place where such guerilla accommodation is technically illegal without the permission of the landowner, the concept of public and private space is very important to me.
I’m reassured by the old folks I meet on the road, the salt-of-the-earth types who have lived round these parts for years. They say things like, ‘Don’t worry about the No Camping signs – they’re only there in case a whole hoard of people move in and won’t shift.’
Despite this reassurance, wouldn’t it be nice if the default legal position was that leave-no-trace, short term camping is permitted so long as it doesn’t disturb livestock, wildlife or agriculture. Why not?
And you don’t have to look far for that legal structure. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code protects the right to camp responsibly: in small numbers, for two or three nights in one place, avoiding enclosed fields of crops or farm animals as well as buildings, roads and historic monuments.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the law and the perceived attitude to wild camping are very different. But I’ve been open about my accommodation choices and have met no one who has opposed them or even expressed disapproval.
So perhaps the public perception of wild camping is ahead of the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Perhaps that means we can change it. Perhaps it is already changing.
Maybe because of its long association with the military, the right to wild camp is protected on Dartmoor (very convenient because that’s the direction I’m heading).
In the Lake District National Park, the National Trust now ask that people avoid lowland areas and head to the higher fells – and of course to leave no trace.
The spirit of leave no trace is absolutely non-negotiable.
Leaving anything but an impression in the grass will have an adverse effect on the wildlife – and reduce the chances that wild camping, legal or illegal, will be tolerated in the future.
The pandemic has brought millions of people out into the countryside – a glorious rediscovery of the natural beauty and medicine of this island – but an unfortunate minority have conservation-shaped holes in their outdoors education.
Recently, the Guardian reported that a throwaway ‘festival’ culture has been brought into certain popular wild camping spots and the damage caused means that local rangers are having to clamp down on all overnighters.
Of course, clamping down is not the solution: the problem doesn’t seem to exist in Scotland, with its long history of outdoor access. Because it’s part of their birthright, Scottish campers also inherit an inkling of how to camp responsibly.
In England, it’s as if we’ve only just discovered an enormous lake of ice cream and we’ve jumped straight in, boots and all, without regard for spoiling the dessert that we share. Education, beginning with leave no trace, is the spoon that everyone should be given, long before their stomachs start rumbling.
We need a change in the law. And we need more spoons.
Every single day I’m on my bike there are moments when I think: ‘I could have been killed there.’
Cars passing at speed too closely is the most common one. Yet, every now and again, I come across a horse and rider enjoying the same country lanes as me and watch in awe as these same lethal cars slow right down, pull over to one side or stop until the horse has passed.
I wish that our nation’s car drivers understood that cyclists are as vulnerable (and as unpredictable) as horse riders. We sometimes swerve to avoid potholes that you can’t see; we sometimes are blown around by wind that you can’t feel. And our flesh tears as easily as any horse’s, I promise you.
While riding, I daydreamed of starting a cycle-protection campaign: Bikes are horses too!
Then I learnt that the government are currently consulting on a raft of changes to the Highway Code that would recognise the vulnerability of cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders to inadequate or inattentive drivers.
Finally, if you see someone driving dangerously then please (when safe) make a note of the vehicle’s registration, colour, make and model (a quick photograph works well) and report the incident to the police on their non-emergency number 101. It takes a few minutes and your phone call could save lives. The AA has more information on how to make a report.
I don’t know why drivers think they can get away with dangerous overtaking manoeuvres when their numberplate identifies them so conspicuously. It’s like a bankrobber politely presenting their passport to the teller before pulling out an uzi and screaming, ‘Open up the safe, bitch!’
If only attendance at the Ogmios School of Zen Motoring was compulsory…
Sunday evening. It was getting late to find a camp spot. I’d run out of water and I only had rice cakes in my panniers for dinner. Southwold was full, with queues for chips snaking down one-way street pavements.
My last hope for an open shop was a rumoured ‘filling station’ in Wrentham. I rolled to a stop in the empty village. A woman was picking weeds from her driveway. Debbie.
After some hand-wringing over the likelihood of an open shop on a Sunday evening in the Suffolk countryside, I spilled: ‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘I’m running a little low on water.’
Debbie looked surprised: ‘Well, I can fill up your water bottles!’ She led me around to the gate before adding, ‘Are you okay with dogs?’
In Coviddy Britain I don’t like to ask people for favours that might put them under uncomfortable pressure to accept. And filling my water bottles is a fairly intimate act unless there’s a hosepipe in the garden.
After ushering me through a remarkable garden living room (with a barbeque made from a North Sea pipeline!) and setting the kitchen tap running, Debbie invited me in. She leaned on the back of a chair and looked at me over her full moon glasses: ‘I wish I had more to offer you, but there’s nothing in the fridge.’
Then she had a revelation: ‘Would you like a hot shower?’
Debbie’s kindness was part of a noble tradition of hospitality for passing travellers. Over the past few years, I’ve met this generosity countless times, cycling through Europe with Thighs of Steel.
In Albania last year, for example, every single day at least one cafe owner would refuse payment for coffees, give us free chocolate bars or flag us down on the street to offer us a cold drink.
The concept has a rich history in Ancient Greek mythology—the famous Trojan War was triggered by an abuse of hospitality when Trojan Paris stole Menalaus’ wife Helen while staying with the Greek. Not cool.
Modern Greeks still have a word for this tradition: philoxenia, unquestioning kindness to strangers.
This bike trip has been a lesson that philoxenia is alive and flourishing in Britain too.
After inviting her husband Steve to join the gathering, Debbie offered me a plastic garden chair and the three of us shared a local ale.
Facing a barrage of relentless hospitality, I finally accepted a cheese and pickle sandwich that Debbie wrapped in tin foil for later. She put a Diet Pepsi on the table too.
As they told stories, it became clear that this was far from the first time Debbie and Steve had opened their hearts, minds and doors to strangers.
One night, not long ago, Steve met a trio of ex-army lads in the pub. They were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and were on a therapeutic camp trip to work out some of their problems. One of the party was hyper, another was withdrawn. So Steve invited them over to the house for breakfast the next morning. When they didn’t show up, Steve drove out to the campsite and dragged them back for their egg and sausages.
As I stowed my water bottles for departure, thanking her again and again for her kindnesses, Debbie insisted that it wasn’t anything unusual.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘A few bottles of water and the end of loaf of bread!’
‘When you put it like that,’ I replied, ‘it doesn’t sound like much. But it’s not about the water. Most people wouldn’t give up their time so readily to strangers.’
I can imagine multiple scenarios that could have played out when I first approached Debbie outside her house. She could have been sympathetic and wished me luck finding a shop. She could have brought out water so that I could fill them from her driveway. She could have invited me in to fill the water bottles and then bid me safe travels.
And those are the positive scenarios. We’re living through a global pandemic for heaven’s sake—strangers are dangerous.
I imagined precisely zero scenarios where I left her house with a cheese sandwich, a Diet Pepsi, a bellyful of ale, a head full of stories and a heart full of tenderness.
‘Maybe this crisis has changed the way people think about others,’ Debbie said. ‘Maybe it’s brought us all closer together.’
As I reached a beautiful beach to camp on, the rain clouds swarmed down. Scrambling the tent up in record time, I lay on my airbed in the gloom and unwrapped the tin foil: four neatly cut squares of a cheese and pickle sandwich.
Do you know what? I think Debbie might be right.
Philoxenia in action
Over the past three weeks I have been the grateful recipient of thousands of acts of philoxenia, large and small.
Huge thanks to the hospitable friends and strangers who have made the last seven days such a delight: Pandora, the Wickers family, Sarah and Chloe, John the ferryman, Lesley the artist, Debbie and Steve, Duncan of the incredible Dunx Cycles, Peter Langford the world record holder, and the extraordinary, expecting Matt and Lisa.
Thank you also to all the patient woodland creatures who put up with me wild camping in their homes. Even the ants.
But I reserve extra extra special thanks for my final hosts on this tour of southeast England: Documentally and his wonderfully generous family. Camping in a friend’s back garden was a celebratory end to this part of my journey and I was overwhelmed with too many kindnesses to mention.
Somewhere around midnight, Documentally captured this video of me attempting to pin down the difference between this cycle trip around Britain and the last, nine years ago.
I can wholeheartedly recommend Documentally’s own newsletter. You can read his take on my visit in the latest edition here. Cheers!
What were you doing nine years ago? Please, have a think. What’s changed? How have you grown?
I know exactly what I was doing: cycling around Britain. There is something physically, intellectually and spiritually potent about repeating a ‘once in a decade’ journey. The same routines of cycling and camping give ample space for reflection on how much has changed between then and now.
It’s the same journey, familiar, but by no means similar. As Heraclitus observed:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
On this day in 2011, I was cycling from Tentsmuir Forest to Perth in Scotland. It was a short day’s ride of 48 miles. By this point in the journey I’d already cycled over 100 miles on two of the fifteen days and taken only one day off—to replace my old bike with the new one I still ride today. On 31 July, I broke through the 1,000 mile barrier.
This time around, I’ve cycled 444 miles and already taken four days off. My longest day’s ride has been 55 miles—and that was only so long because I took ages finding a camping spot in the Mad Max wastelands of Sheppey.
The Isle of Sheppey: part industrial wasteland, part nature reserve.
Six in the evening, somewhere outside Basildon, forty miles around Britain. I’m hauling myself down the hard shoulder of a fast dual carriageway, the direct route to Southend-on-Sea, when there’s a popping sound. The weight shifts and slings my bike lurching into the road. A car swerves past, horn blaring. My feet hit the ground, skidding to a stop. I scoot myself to safety. I look back: my bag has slewed off to one side and is now dragging halfway down the wheel. One of the bungee ropes has given way. I climb off and fix it up again, double wrapping my spare bungee tight around the rack. I cycle away, heart shaking, checking the bags with every paranoid turn of the pedals. I wonder vaguely how close I was to death. If a bungee had caught in my spokes, if the wheel had locked, if that car had been closer…
I’d never done anything like this ride before—and I knew nobody who had. I knew nothing about cycle touring, nothing about bikes and bike repair, and nothing about wild camping except that it was illegal. I’d only started cycling regularly a year earlier and my most recent day trip had ended with a dislocated shoulder.
Half an hour later, the rack itself snapped. Some of my panic was justified.
Panic in large part explains why I finished that first 4,110 mile journey in 58 days, with only four days off in the whole two months. Scared of what might happen if I was discovered, I cycled from the moment I awoke in my bivvy at dawn to the moment I thought it safe enough to hide in the shadows at dusk.
I was also scared that I couldn’t finish the journey so was driven on, addicted to doing one more mile before nightfall. This meant I wouldn’t take detours and was frustrated whenever I got lost, sticking to well-marked Sustrans cycle routes or the B-roads between towns.
Worst of all, I was scared to speak to the people I passed along the way. I thought they’d be disgusted by a sweaty, stinky cyclist who clearly didn’t know what he was doing. I hesitated before going into cafes and kept my head down when I did. Thank god for the few, precious friends I knew who lived or met me along the way: Ben, John, Zoe, Dani, Patrick and my parents.
This time is very different. I have done plenty of cycle touring now, including the confidence-building community adventures with Thighs of Steel. Now I know loads of people who do exactly this sort of thing. We share stories, laugh about our mishaps and revel in the unexpected.
This time, I know that I can cycle long distances, lugging my home behind me. I know how to diagnose and fix the most common things that can go wrong with my bicycle. I’m confident wild camping and have faith that nothing bad will happen even if I am discovered.
This time, I can’t worry about getting lost because I have my phone. The app I use for navigation, Komoot, has an active online community of cyclists who recommend places to visit along the way. It’s how I’ve been finding beautiful woods to camp in.
This time, I know that finishing the journey is the worst that can happen. This makes me slow down and, in slowing down, find the detours and adventures that make the road worth travelling.
Best of all, this time, I have friends. I’ve already stayed or shared tea with friends in Brighton, Hastings, Margate and London. And I’m no longer afraid to make new friends and talk to the people I pass—like the Yes Tribe adventurers who I stayed with in Brighton.
Or like the man I met shortly after passing this sign:
I was waylaid in Sandwich marketplace by Mark Daniel, who spied from my baggage that I was a fellow cycle tourer. Mark had been forced by Covid-19 to delay his departure on a two-year around the world bike ride and we chatted for a while about our bikes, our kit and our plans.
It was this idle conversation with a stranger that helped me appreciate the value of the passage of time.
In the nine years since I last cycled around Britain, I could easily experience how much I’d grown. Not only in my confidence with cycle touring, wild camping and talking to strangers, but in almost every area of my life: the friends I have, the work I do, the hobbies I hob, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve helped, the lessons I’ve learned. The length of my hair.
But then Mark Daniel told me something that blew my mind. He told me his age.
He was 62.
That puts 24 years between us—or 2.67 times nine years. If I can have grown this much since 2011, then what growth lies ahead in the next nine years? And in the nine years after that? And by the time I’m Mark Daniel’s age?
And, after all those 24 years of experiences, adventures, friendships and growth, then I could still cycle around the world? That is a wondrous thing to contemplate.
For many people, myself included, lockdown seemed to collapse time and shut down the optimistic vista of future opportunities. This adventure is doing the opposite for me—and I hope you too will take a moment to reflect on how much has changed in the last nine years in your world and how much could still be done in the time you have left.
There is still time for action and optimism. But that optimistic future depends on something that my nan said to me before she died, shortly before I left on that first cycle around Britain in 2011:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
The Lord of the Rings is one of the great works of twentieth century travel literature and, cycling and camping over the Sussex Weald, I could very well be in Hobbiton.
Sunday was a mizzling day, so I was happy to fall in with the Yes Tribe tourers that I mentioned in last week’s update. They were riding to Brighton; I was riding to Brighton, so I switched off my phone and followed the tyre spray of fellowship.
Lockdown has opened up unexpected narratives for all of us and I’m still re-sourcing my conversational voice with company. At one point, over a menu in a Lebanese restaurant, it was gently pointed out that I was shouting.
In Fishbourne, I met a construction contractor who’s lost tens of thousands of pounds, with minimal support from the government, and has been forced to lay off his workers while trying to plant 76 lamp posts in 48 hours.
But I’ve also stayed with a fabulous Hastings-based performer/marine biologist who’s found a growing audience of kiddies and adults to introduce to sea creatures. In this video, I have a chat with the one and only David Annette-borough:
I’ve met adventurers, artists, office workers and people of all persuasions shrugging their shoulders and, by and large, following the one-way system of life.
While in Brighton, I stayed with fellow Thighs of Steel alumnus Rob Wills, a natural storyteller in multiple artforms: graphical and musical as well as conversational. He kindly gave me permission to record one of his songs for you.
So, without further ado, hit play on the audio up top and enjoy The Hobbit Song. Oh, and I’ve bought a bugle so you can also enjoy my bugling. If you’re subscribed to my Youtube channel then you can listen there too (sadly without my bugling at the beginning…)
You can get your dirty little mitts on Rob’s beautiful animal, astrolabe and poetry inspired art in the form of absurdly affordable giclée prints, greetings cards and story books on Folksy.
Finally: another huge thank you to everyone who has made the last week such a friendly place. Especially to Yes Tribe Michelle, Rob Wills and Annette Coppin for heartful hospitality in Brighton and Hastings.
At the precise moment this gentleman bestows ‘proper’ adventure upon my travels, I am picking sludgey flecks of porridge out of my jersey and arm hair. It’s not the most adventurous moment of the past two days, but perhaps sums up what really happens behind the scenes on even the most proper adventure.
Which, I hasten to correct, cycling around post-Brexit, mid-Covid and pre-Apocalypse Britain almost certainly isn’t. I’m only thinking one week ahead, so at the moment this bike ride still feels like a haphazard jaunt along the south coast, which is exactly what it is.
I’d been trying to cook porridge using an Alpkit Brukit (like a Jetboil, but cheaper) and, although technically successful, the clear up job was nigh-on impossible. Copious litres of graveyard tap water only served to turn the mutinous porridge into glutinous gobbets.
When I shook out my dishcloth, these turned into oaty missiles, which respectfully sprayed themselves across the cemetery, coating me head to foot in properly adventurous porridge.
I’m writing this now on the Hayling Billy cycle path. A steam train used to chuff up and down these tracks, with the wind blowing in its face and views across Langstone Harbour to the big city big lights of Portsmouth. They used to catch oysters here too. Now people charge up and down on their bikes—earlier I saw a guy pulling a surfboard on a trailer.
For more adventure stories, subscribe to my Youtube channel. I’m already getting better at doing these to-camera pieces. I think this one worked out pretty gud:
I’m now sitting atop a spectacular hill, moments away from sunset, with a vegetable jalfrezi sitting, in its turn, uneasily in my stomach. Next up is a short ride to my woodland campground, where I’ll sleep the sleep of the thoroughly windburnt.
In an alternate reality, right now I’m preparing to join Thighs of Steel on an adventurous detour through the wilds of the Carpathian Mountains as we wend our way from London to Athens.
In this reality, however, our epic fundraising adventure has long been cancelled and instead we spent May and June riding remotely, collectively raising over £110,000 for refugees hit by this thing called Covid-19.
I’m grateful that I haven’t been sick, that I’ve been able to continue working and that we’ve still managed to do some good for those less privileged. But lockdown does funny things to the brain and seeing my summer plans cancelled wasn’t a very nice feeling.
So back in April I promised myself that I would do Something Else. I drew up a few different options, which naturally depended on the state of the pandemic when July 2020 rolled around.
Top of the list was to cycle around Britain. Again.
2011 was the year of the Arab Spring. Barack Obama was in the White House (and ordered the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). Amy Winehouse died.
On 17 July that year, a few days after my nan’s funeral, I left home on a 58 day, 4,110 mile bike ride around Britain. It was my first huge bike tour and I knew next to nothing about bikes or the psychological challenges of riding so far. That ride gave me a wellspring of resilience that has stayed with me ever since.
Next Friday, exactly nine years later, I’m leaving home on my bike again to not cycle around Britain. Despite everything, I feel much better prepared. This time I know that this is not a bike ride. These are the tentative first pedal strokes into a physical, psychological and social unknown.
I’m not expecting anything. I’ll board my bike, fully laden with camping and recording kit, and do nothing more than turn the pedals to see what happens.
At the time of writing, cycling and camping in England is deemed safe by the government. How it will feel when I’m actually out there is a different question altogether: I’m acutely aware that camping in both Scotland and Wales is still forbidden.
2020 is not 2011.
It could be that the government, the virus or I decide that one day’s riding is more than enough and I come home on Saturday morning.
It could be that I enjoy cycling for a week, coasting between friends in the south, from my nest in Bournemouth to the concrete smoke of London. Maybe that’ll be enough. Maybe I’ll barely have time to catch a train to safety before the dread second wave winds through our communities.
It could be that I cycle on through East Anglia, pursuing the old roads to Lincoln and Durham and—if Scotland decides it’s safe—even onward to Edinburgh and Elgin. Perhaps the clouds will roll over and I will cycle on for six weeks and come back sunburnt in September with a sack of stories to keep me busy for another decade.
If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s to hold the future lightly. As the future tense in Arabic goes: insha’allah.
Under ‘pacing’ in my report card from 2011 you’ll find the words ‘could do better’. I cycled all day almost every day for nearly two months. I was permanently exhausted (my skin shrivelled up whenever I took a day off) and my encounters with Britain were more fleeting than I would have liked.
This year I’m taking the pace right down, concentrating more on the stories than on the distance. At a leisurely (!) 60km per day, six weeks is about enough time to trace half the country. If the tour is still safe and fun, I can continue with the second half in 2021. No rush.
The energy for this bike ride does not come from the physical challenge. It comes from a desire to understand the changes that have shaken this country. There’s a lot that confuses me in 2020 Britain:
What has lockdown done to our communities? What are we learning?
What state are we really in after ten years of Conservative rule? Are our politicians helping us build the society we want? Where are we succeeding and where are we failing?
How and why did we vote to leave the European Union? How are people taking this opportunity?
How awesome are bikes? What are bikes doing to bring communities together?
What, where and why is the north-south divide? And could Scotland thrive outside the United Kingdom?
Do Britons really believe that Black Lives Matter? Mark Duggen was killed by police while I was cycling in 2011 and I remember watching the news footage at a hostel in the Shetland Isles. Is this time different?
Are we turning the tide on climate change? Or is the tide turning us?
How has life changed since I last cycled this way nine years ago?
I hope to hear all kinds of interesting perspectives from people I meet along the way, which I’ll bring to you… somehow.
Although Covid-19 has made planning a last minute affair, I have been preparing the ground for more of a multimedia experience of storytelling this time around.
There will certainly be words; there may also be video and audio. Whatever happens, I’ll let you know right here.
Finally: huge thanks to everyone who is helping to make this ride feel even remotely possible. Special thanks to A.C. for the ideas and company, The Tim Traveller for disturbing Youtube AUDIENCE advice, the Thighs of Steel family for oodles of inspiration and for the Wahoo, Documentally for my birthday microphone, and, of course, thanks to the Charles Family for the sense of home to which I will return. Insha’allah.
I know this mailing list is full of awesome people. If you’d like to offer support, please please please reply to this email. Any cycle tour leans heavily on the goodwill of strangers and I’m grateful for anything and everything—from kind words up!
If you’d like to catch up on the story of my first cycle around Britain, I wrote a book about the journey called Life to the Lees. Get 10 percent off with code SAVE10 if you order today.
May we all lead responsibly adventurous lives.
Insha’allah and praise be to science-based risk assessments.
If you don’t know how the world’s longest (and bestest) charity relay bike ride works, then here’s a quick and dirty guide on How to Play Thighs of Steel:
1. Don’t worry – you’re not cycling the whole thing, this is a relay. Pick one week that fills you with butterflies of excitement rather than dread. There’s something on this route for cyclists of all abilities and we are totally non-competitive.
Historically, more than half of our cyclists have been women – I only mention that because cycle touring has a shit reputation of being lonely, miserable and macho. It’ll be challenging, but you’ll never be alone and, with smiles, songs and snacks, everyone helps everyone through. Most people only do one week of the relay – some crazies do two.
2. Do logistics. Book your time off work and your transport to and from the start and finish cities.
3. Train like heck. We have training rides every month in London and there are now over 200 current and former Thighs cyclists you can meet up with for beers and bikes. (In reality, you’ll probably only train a bit and then panic unduly. It’ll be fine. We all do this.)
4. Fundraise like heck. All the money goes to grassroots refugee organisations and we suggest you aim for a minimum of £500. We’re always on hand for fundraising advice. Putting on a party or a dinner is always a winner, but don’t forget the simple stuff like charity pots in your local cafes and pubs. Over the past four years, Thighs cyclists have raised over £320,000 for projects that are making a real difference to the lives of refugees in the UK and Greece.
5. Cycle a really long way. Wahay! Adventure and the unknown is our standard operating procedure as we wild ride, wild camp and wild swim our way across the continent.
People focus on the cycling, but what makes Thighs special is the people. Nothing bonds a campful of strangers like climbing a mountain in 40 degree heat, or getting sprayed down by a farmer with a power hose, or handing out a pannier full of figs picked straight from the tree, or mending a puncture in a thunderstorm, or just sitting by a lake at the end of a long day and watching the sun set in silence.
6. Come home with a suntan, steely thighs and stuffed full of stories to share. It won’t be the end unless you want it to be. Repeat with friends in 2021?
Signups open for real on Sunday 1 March, but you can get early bird access on Monday 24 February by joining a special mailing list. This is good because places go fast and no one wants to miss out!
My route from Athens to the UK was scheduled to take ~82 hours, but that includes about 9 bonus hours in Brindisi and 16 bonus hours in Paris. And does mean that I arrive in Portsmouth, which might not be everyone’s idea of the UK.
Leg 1: Coach Athens-Patra (€20.70)
They’ll take bikes underneath. I had to take off my front wheel, but otherwise left the bike intact.
Takes about 3 hours. Has wifi. More or less airconditioned.
Another option is to cycle along the Gulf of Corinth, which I have done before, in the opposite direction. 3 hours versus 3 days.
Leg 2: Ferry Patra-Brindisi (overnight)
It’s a 3-4km ride from the coach station to the ferry port. Ignore the one way signs and take the first ‘exit’ into the port, saving yourself a huge loop. There’s a handy AB supermarket just before you turn into the port.
Do you really need to arrive at least 2 hours before departure for check-in? Probably not. Did I? Yes. Passport control doesn’t open until 60 minutes before departure.
Don’t worry about boarding: the bike just rolls on and gets tied up. Easy.
I got the overnight ferry so that I could make full use of the cabin. Some people will think this is a waste of money when you could just sleep on deck. I think it’s worth every penny. I slept like a log from about 10pm until about 7am.
Plus it’s nice to have somewhere to dump all your crap while you romp about the ship. And I met a lovely chap called John from Poland.
The ferry arrives a short 3km ride from Brindisi town.
Leg 3: Train Brindisi-Milan (overnight)
Again, I booked an overnight train to avoid spending money on a hostel in Milan. That meant two things:
A full day in Brindisi to eat focaccia.
Only 90 minutes to get between station in Milan for my connection to Paris.
There was no problem getting the bike onto the train, but Brindisi train station doesn’t have a lift between platforms so be prepared to lug.
Try to book a lower bunk so that you feel less like a prick when you take up the entire floor space with your bike. You can’t squeeze the bike underneath the bed, so it has to fit into the space between the ladder and the window.
Woe betide you if there are two bikes.
Try to book a cabin near to the train door so you don’t have to carry your stuff so far. Alternatively, I simply moved my stuff up the carriage into an empty cabin about half an hour before Milan. This is only really important if you have a tight change, which I did.
I got a three bunk cabin, by the way. You will not be able to do anything in a triple cabin. The beds are comfortable, but there isn’t much head room. There are stools to perch on in the gangway, but you’ll frequently have to stand up to allow passage.
In spite of there being shampoo in your deluxe complimentary pack, I couldn’t find the shower. There is a sink in your cabin, but you won’t be able to get to it because your bike will be in the way. There are adequate sinks in the toilet.
Leg 4: Train Milan-Paris
I only had 90 minutes to get off the train, put my bike together, cycle to Garibaldi and pack up the bike again. Luckily, it only took me 45 minutes.
The Milan-Paris train left from platform 11 – useful to know, but only if it always does.
I got a hostel and stayed overnight in Paris, where I wandered around and ate crêpes.
Leg 5: Train Paris-Caen
Easy: just wheel the bike onto the train.
Leg 5.5: Cycle to port which is actually 16km away
Ooh – unexpected! Thank god I allowed plenty of panic time.
Leg 6: Ferry Caen to Portsmouth
Easy. The bike wheels on and, some hours later, wheels off.
So that’s it: Athens to the UK in four travelling days. It is possible to do the journey faster, but I was quite pleased with my free time in Brindisi and Paris.
I have circumnavigated both Britain and Tunisia on my bicycle (he has a name, Martin). Now I can add the mythological island of Ikaría to that illustrious list.
There are many myths attached to Ikaría, starting with the island’s very name – does it derive from an ancient word for ‘fish’, or was it here that the ill-starred Icarus crashed to earth?
There is the myth of the ‘long-lived’ population (a myth that goes back at least as far as 1677). It might be the calorie-restricted diet, it might be hard-working lives and no retirement, it might be close family, or the radioactive hot springs.
There is the myth of ‘Red Rock’, the island where 13,000 communists were exiled – quite possibly all of them ribetiko players (in spite of the disapproval of the Communist Party).
There is the myth of the Free State of Ikaría, with its own government, armed forces, stamps and, most importantly, flag. The state lasted 5 months in 1912; you can still see the flag flying.
Then there is the myth that Ikaría can make for a relaxing cycle tour, even in the dying embers of summer.
Ikaría doesn’t give up its myths easily.
The first warning landed on my deaf ears even before I’d booked my ferry ticket: ‘It is very hilly,’ my friend told me, ‘and the road isn’t too good in places.’
The second warning came moments after disembarking, met in a port-side cafe by an Ikarían friend of my friend. ‘It is very hilly,’ he said. ‘Mountains. And there is no road in some places.’
The third warning arrived at the end of an afternoon that had fair zipped along, fuelled by Popis’s aubergine in red wine, on rollercoaster contours where descents powered the climbs. ‘The road goes straight up from here,’ the painter under the tree said. ‘And, from Karkinagri, the road is impassable. You might be able to get through, but you’ll have to carry your bike.’
The fourth warning was a map. If it’s possible to have deaf eyes, then I had them. A circumnavigation of the whole island was less than 140km – a day’s work on Thighs of Steel – how hard could Ikaría be?
Turns out: really fucking hard.
There were plenty of moments, perched high up on a wheel-spinning gravel track, bike in hand, where I fancied an Icarus-like plunge into the sea rather than take another heave on the pedals.
It’s amazing how fast your body forgets the sweat-earned hills when you’re racing to sea-level at 50kph. Every day is showtime here: the sun playing in the waves, the clouds decorating the Amazonian canopy, the Ikarían rock, polished or volcanic, changing colour from bleach to blush to black.
Yesterday I took rest in the far east of the island. I walked over the headland to a cove where stone held the sea close, and the sand paddled underfoot. I dived from a boulder and let the current drift me out to the sunset.
I hiked up to the Cave of Dionysus, startling two bull-like goats into the thickets of gorse. The maw of the cave hung open, the walls melting with the crushed skulls and bones of thousands of years. A bottomless fear stalked me.
I climbed up along a trail marked with scarlet splashes of paint, chasing the falling light, cresting the hilltop as the sun bent itself into the western mountains I’d climbed two days before. The stars flicked on.
After more than 6,000km and 90,000m of climbing, Thighs of Steel is done and dusted for another year.
Over the past 9 weeks, more than 90 cyclists have covered every single inch of asphalt between here and London. As part of the core team for 4 weeks this year, I have cycled 1,670 of those kilometres (8.9 laps of the M25) and climbed 18,600m (2.1 ascents of Everest).
I also shared 7 van days, supporting the incredible sweat-work of the fundraising cyclists, finding wild camp spots, fixing broken bikes, cooking hearty dinners and generally trying to make everything run as smoothly as a transcontinental bike ride can be.
Two bikes arrived destroyed by airlines. On day one, another bike fell apart on the road. On day three, a fourth bike succumbed.
On the first night, the police broke up our beachside camp with hard stares and unveiled threats.
The starter motor on Calypso (the van) broke, leaving the van team stranded on a beach with hungry, tired cyclists rushing ahead expecting food and shelter.
At the tunnel under the Ambracian Gulf, the whole team were told that the shuttle service for cyclists had been terminated, they couldn’t cross, and should instead make a 100km detour.
We had our first serious accident: a gravel slip on a fast descent that left a bruising dent in an elbow.
After fixing precisely zero punctures in the past 3 weeks, this week I personally replaced three exploded inner tubes – other teams copped yet more.
On the final morning of the ride, a thunderstorm broke. Sheet lightning, thunder claps and hard rain laying waste to the camp we’d pitched among the stones of an ancient archaeological site.
But of all the weeks I have taken part in, this was the one I enjoyed the most.
Albania was the country I most loved cycling through, but this week gave me the sense – nay, the strong belief that no challenge was insurmountable for this motley collection of strangers that had come together to ride and raise money for refugees.
This disaster-filled ride most encapsulated the Thighs of Steel ethos: whatever troubles we face, we face together and we solve together.
It is testament to the resilience and generosity of the human spirit that, when we come together in common cause, anything is possible. I feel like the past few weeks, in the company of so many committed people, have filled me up with good faith in our shared humanity.
On Thighs of Steel we usually ride in two or three groups so that we’re staggered across the roads. It’s easier to manage smaller teams and groups of four or five dodge much of the ire of other road users.
But it was fitting that, after weathering the morning’s tempestuous thunderstorm, Thighs of Steel 2019 ended with the 16 cyclists gathering in a restaurant just outside Athens and riding into the city to meet the van team at the summit of Lycabettus, so that we could celebrate our ride all together.
Being part of the core team for Thighs of Steel this year is a very different experience to riding the full week as a fundraiser. Mainly because I spent two of the six days driving Calypso, the team’s support van.
That’s not to say that van days are easy. There’s an intimidating list of jobs that need to be done:
Pack up the campsite
Plan a meal and buy food for dinner
Drive ~120km (on the wrong side of the road)
Find the perfect wild camping spot for ~15 cyclists, not too far from the pre-planned route, but quiet, secluded, flat enough for tent-pitching, and ideally close to a river or lake for swimming
Cook the perfect camp dinner
A dozen hot and hungry cyclists depend on the van team getting this right. Oh – and you have to do all of this while feeling like absolute crap.
It is an unfortunate side effect of long distance cycling that your body mistakenly believes that van days are rest days. The body shuts down, the mind follows suit.
I felt like an extremely hot zombie. This was not great news, especially as I was driving and my French was in high demand to help secure us a wild camp site.
But on Thighs of Steel miracles happen. Indeed, the ride depends on miracles, almost every single day.
I’d been warned that finding wild camping for a dozen cyclists and a humungous van is the hardest part of the job. The plan is completely reliant on some kindly farmer, landowner or mayor taking pity on our ridiculous endeavour and letting us camp on their land.
After all, what would you do if you saw a circle of chairs, filled by dirty-faced foreigners, set up in your orchard?
But, in more than 20 weeks of touring, only once have Thighs of Steel been asked to move on. It is a daily miracle. Thank you, kind-hearted people of Europe.
With the help of my co-driver, I rang the doorbell of a likely-looking landowner, not far off route. We’d spotted a campervan parked in a closely-mown field behind his house.
With the help of his excitable dog, the owner was roused. He opened the door, and the dog bolted for freedom.
The man apologised, but couldn’t help: the owner of the field was in Belgium. He suggested that we ask the mayor, gave us directions to the town hall, and started calling for his lost dog.
We drove Calypso up to the quaint village Mairie. It felt like we were parking our tank on their lawn.
I began in faltering French: ‘We are 12 cyclists looking for wild camping…’ And, hallelujah, it was as if he’d been expecting us. ‘I have the perfect place,’ he smiled.
What followed felt like the oral part of my GCSE French exam: ‘At the crossroads go straight on and follow the road for 3km. You’ll see a low, white wall, with a gap in the middle. Go down this track, over a disused railway line through a wood, and then over a small bridge into a field.’
I follow the directions with apprehensive nodding. The mayor finishes by kisses his fingers: ‘And the river is perfect for bathing!’
We took his address to send a thank you card from Athens, and then drive out – slightly nervous – to our campsite.
To my astonishment, I’d understood his flawless directions and we found the field atop a tiny island, split by lazy turns of the river. Fishermen dabbled in the shallows and a paddleboard drifted past.
It was perfect (especially when the insects clear off).
We set up chairs in a circle, looking out at the sun dunking itself into the stream away to the west. We set the pot boiling with a vegetable curry.
Half an hour later, the cyclists arrive, stinking of joy, bells a-ringing. It’s only then that we notice the chairs are arranged in a perfect ring around a single, plump dog turd.
Thighs of Steel is Europe’s biggest charity relay bike ride, taking 9 weeks to cover the 6,000km from London to Athens, with a frankly silly detour via the Pyrenees to make it more than 90,000m climbing over three of the continent’s toughest mountain ranges.
So far, the cyclists and supporters of Thighs of Steel 2019 have raised over £38,000 £50,000 for Help Refugees.
Today is the final day of the epic seven week cycling relay fundraiser that is Thighs of Steel.
At about 5pm, the latest peloton of steely thighed cyclists will sweep into Athens, hot, sweaty and exultant after an 85km day’s ride – the culmination of a journey that started 4,600km ago in London.
The bike ride, and the 80-odd riders thereon, have already smashed their target of raising £50,000 to pay the bills at refugee community centre Khora – and are pushing on to beat the record set last year of over £100,000.
How do you sum up two weeks of doing almost nothing but cycling and refuelling?
We’ve cycled from Ljubljana in Slovenia, through the hills of Croatia, the plains of Hungary and the free ice creams of Romania to Sofia in Bulgaria. That’s about 80 miles a day for 12 days, with one day off in the middle to stumble around Timisoara in a daze and eat.
Sitting here now, in the cool of the shade of a fig tree, it’s time to wonder what will stay with me. Memories being what they are, what I write in the next 20 minutes may very well come to define my whole experience. So strap on your safety goggles and let’s see what comes. Continue reading Thighs of Steel: Ljubljana to Sofia
0505: Wake up needing the toilet. Hold it in.
0515: Alarm. Switch off with eyes tightly shut.
0520: Open eyes. Stretch out back in child’s pose on air mattress. Fantasise about a spa day. Search for glasses.
0525: Struggle into shorts from yesterday. They are damp. Start packing away unused sleeping bag. Keep searching for glasses.
0530: Pack away sleeping mat and other camping detritus in hope of finding glasses.
0535: Emerge from the tent into the morning dew. Wipe hands on grass and rub into face. Fetch shovel and biodegradable toilet paper from Calypso (the van) and find a suitable patch of ground for the morning constitutional. On the way back, make a cursory hunt for glasses.
0536: FIND GLASSES! Conclude that today will be a good day. Continue reading A Morning in the Life of a Steely Thighed Cyclist
Here I present to you a user’s guide to cycling (with a bicycle) in Athens, Greece. The guide is presented in no particular order and intends to offer bicyclopaedic information on Athenian attitudes, traffic, roads and even the mythical cycle lane(s).
Travelling by bike is a dream, travelling with a bike is goddam nightmare – if (like me a week ago) you don’t know what you’re doing.
This is a recollection of my ‘with bike’ journey from London to Patras in Greece, via Paris, Milan and Brindisi. The trip took 5 hot days in July 2018, encompassing 3 trains through France and Italy, and 1 ferry across the Adriatic. Along the way, I got to see plenty of Paris, a little of Milan, and probably too much of Brindisi’s gelaterias!
Before I left, I searched everywhere for information about travelling across Europe with a bike and, although I found plenty of Official Rules, I couldn’t find anything like this – a straight-forward guide written by a cyclist who’d actually been there and done it.
I was pretty stressed on this journey simply because I didn’t know how much to trust the Official Rules – will Eurostar mistakenly send my bike to Brussels? will there be enough space on the TGV in among justifiably irate commuters? will my bike bag be 12cm too long? and will I be sent directly to jail without passing go by an over-officious guard?
A bivvy bag is not much more than a waterproof sack for you to sleep inside. Despite that unpromising description, bivvying is a superb alternative to full-blown tent-based camping – especially when weight or discretion is important.
Without exaggeration, a bivvy bag could completely transform your vagabonding – as one did mine 7 years ago.
Instead of slogging across the M4 corridor from London to Bristol, I took a one day flying-cycle across three counties from Bournemouth to Midford.
If I needed any reminder of why Britain is the most beautiful country to traverse, then I got it. I haven’t always thought this way about our shores, always wanting to be elsewhere and ideally elsewhen. But what better place is there than right here? Continue reading Biking Bournemouth-Bristol
The sun will surely shine on Camber Sands, a beautiful strip of dunes on the south Sussex coast. It’s a moderately hilly ride from London on a mixture of country lanes and (hopefully quiet) A roads, through the beautiful High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s 70 miles from Greenwich to the coast, with an option to join the ride at Sevenoaks for a 45 mile ride. Continue reading Camber Sands ride details
So, the idea was to ride to the beautiful beach at Camber Sands on the first day of summer. A quick double-check of the return trains before we set off threw our plans into disarray with the dreaded words Rail Replacement Bus Service. Now, we’re tough, but not tough enough to cycle back after a 70+ mile ride. So we’re postponing the Camber Sands ride – keep an eye out for updates.
Our journey along the storm-swollen Danube threads through castle-and-schnapps country into Austria. The further we cycle on this ride across the continent, the more we see how urgently Europe needs a plan, not only to cope with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, but to deal with widening social divisions that have little to do with migration. Continue reading On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp
Since leaving London at the beginning of May, we’ve cycled about a thousand kilometres through England, France and Belgium, talking to residents and refugees about how their lives have been changed by migration.
It felt like France and Belgium (the less said about the UK the better) are socially and politically unable or unwilling to accept refugees wholeheartedly, but are trapped by international conventions into providing shelter and survival.
Boutiques serve coffee and fine art, grafitti scratches the medieval walls and students sit cross-legged on the cobbled squares, drinking Radler and slurping ice creams. After another thunderstorm, we see a young man in a wet suit surfing the engorged canals.
Kleinvillars in the foresty backwaters of Baden-Wurtemberg is a town founded by refugees who fled persecution in their thousands, finding new homes across the world, in Britain, the Netherlands, America, and here in Germany. Continue reading #27: Refugees Like It’s 1699
Heidelberg feels less a town and more a university campus. Arriving from the industry laden north, we’re suddenly in the land of bicycles, scrubbed smiles and yoga mats. Heidelberg has a population of 150,000, a third of which are students. In the summer, they’re replaced man-for-man by tourists, gaggling in the cobbled streets, selfying under the Schloss and monkeying around with the Heidelberg baboon. Continue reading #25 Heidelberg Helps
A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.
We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.