Plumb lines and cockpits The upshot of my visit, on a hot June day, to Neil’s upstairs studio was spending a penny to save a pound. Reader: I needed not a larger frame. I needed data.

Of plumb lines and protractors

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.

Data worth ~£400

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.

The first time I cycled around Wales, back in 2011, I used a road atlas for navigation and, with no digital Hermes to guide my wheels, I furiously spent many hours lost, as this extract from my bicyclogue of the journey reveals:

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?

~

Thanks to Dunx Cycles and Fit To Ride for their help putting together Martin II.

If you’ve got any recommendations of places to explore in Wales, then please let me know. Likewise, if you live in Wales and fancy joining me for a turn about the hills.

Spell It Out

This summer, I’ll be cycling about 2,400km with Thighs of Steel, following a route that quite literally makes REFUGEES WELCOME, while fundraising £100,000 for Choose Love.

This is the route we’ll be cycling

In a bold attempt to get loads of mercenary publicity for the cause, we’re also aiming to break an official Guinness World Record along the way.

You are invited to join us for 100km or more. I know of at least three readers of this humble newsletter who are committed. Together we can do more.

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

Brutal! Look what happens to a bike after 18,000 miles On the importance of stuff

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.

The first picture I have of Martin, only a few hours old. Look how shiny!

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…

Our first journey together, nine years ago, was around the coastline of Britain. Two months of putting one wheel in front of another, wild camping together in fields, under hedges, in forests and on canal towpaths.

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.

The largest salt pan in the Sahara: Chott el Djerid in south Tunisia. Martin took me there in 2012.

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.

Camping at Stift Melk, Austria. The abbey is famous for its 18th century frescos and the 11th century tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau, an Irish pilgrim mistaken for a spy, tortured and hanged. Martin took me there in 2016.

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.

Climbing up into the mountains of Romania with Thighs of Steel in 2018. Martin carried me there.

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.

Lands End 2020 (L) and 2011 (R). Martin carried me there—twice.

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’s a heck of a lot of money, but—get this—counting from the day I bought him to the day he broke down at the end of my cycle around southwest Britain comes to exactly 3,323 days. Martin cost me one pound for every day that I owned him. Or about 18 pence per mile.

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?

The same metaphysical question is asked of Abraham Lincoln’s axe, which needed its handle and then its blade replacing. It’s a question that could be asked of ourselves: we shed our skin every few weeks and every ten years we get a new skeleton.

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!

Philoxenia around Britain Huge thanks to everyone who hosted me or simply made me smile

Philoxenia is the Greek idea of generosity and friendship towards strangers. During my cycle ride around the south of Britain in the summer of 2020, I was the happy recipient of many, many acts of generosity. This page is so that I can thank some of them publicly.

Thank you!

Part 1: The Southeast

On departure

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.

Week 1

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.

Week 2

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!

Week 3

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

Week 4

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!’

Above: Three cycle cap models and, in the background, an okay cathedral.

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.

Week 5

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!

Week 6

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.

Cycling around Britain: Why is this happening? 2,210km DONE // Southeast and southwest Britain COMPLETE

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.

My round Britain rides since 17 July. You can scan more detail on Komoot

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:

Among bicycle mechanics, this is technically known as ‘a right mess’. The rear mech has twisted at a screwy angle to the chain: like it had melted under tension.

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.

Rant over.

Sorry—nearly over.

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.

A broken bike on a deserted bus

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!’

Cycling around Britain: Detours

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.

Views from the calm Camel Trail

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.

The reward for my morning’s detour

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.

 

Cycling around Britain: Leave no trace

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.

The Jurassic Coast at Sidmouth

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.

Doreen’s Garden, Branscombe

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.

Leaving no trace in an empty field in Dorset.

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.

I told you I’d lost a faculty or two.

Cycling around Britain: Bikes are horses too!

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.

It can’t come soon enough.

So please, if you’d like to see fewer human or animal carcasses on your roads (or bodies taking up space in your hospitals), take five minutes to respond to the government consultation here: Changes to The Highway Code: improving safety for cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders.

Cycling UK has summarised the changes that will protect cyclists, but it’s worth adding that the proposed ‘hierarchy of responsibility’ will also establish in law the duty of all road users to protect pedestrians—and that means cyclists should ride considerately too.

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…

Cycling around Britain: A cheese sandwich in a rainstorm Finding philoxenia in modern Britain

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.

Philoxenia.

~

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!

Cycling around Britain: Nine years

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.

My first cycle around Britain was largely undertaken in a state of mild panic. Nine years ago, very close to where I sit now, here’s one small example from the story of that first round Britain adventure.

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:

Do it while you can.

~

UPDATE: Throwing nine years ahead, Scott Ludlam has written us a letter from 2029 and it’s pretty exciting.

Cycling around Britain: Let’s go to Mordor

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.

Cycling around Britain: A proper adventure

‘That looks like a proper adventure.’

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.

This is not a bike ride Cycling around Britain again?

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.

How to play Thighs of Steel Joining the world's longest charity relay bike ride

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!

Athens to the UK with (not by) a bicycle

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:

  1. A full day in Brindisi to eat focaccia.
  2. 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.

As with any journey, things went wrong. I was never meant to go via Caen and Portsmouth – I’d booked for Cherbourg and Poole, but bad weather scotched that plan.

But that’s all part of the adventure and I’d much rather have these disruptions than the misery and suspicion of airport security and customs. Overlanding wins!

And if you’re worried about expense, then you might be surprised…

Cycling around Ikaría

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.

Thighs of Steel arrives in Athens, all together

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.

After the glorious hospitality of Albania last week, the final ride from Igoumenitsa to Athens was littered with unforeseen crises.

  • 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.

~

Thighs of Steel 2019 Fundraising Update: £67,736

£10,000 of your generous donations will help fund Pedal Power, a cycle training programme for female refugees in Birmingham. I’ve written a bit about Pedal Power and Thighs of Steel on The Bike Project blog if you’d like to read more.

Thanks everyone!

The Trials and Tribulations of Van Days Thighs of Steel 2019

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.

If you want to help keep the lights on at grassroots refugee organisations across Europe, you could do a lot worse than contribute to my page here.

THANK YOU. I promise all donors something delightful by the end of the year…

Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

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.

These are the numbers. On the face of it, they sound very impressive. But, let’s be honest, there are more efficient ways of raising money for charity. Continue reading Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

Thighs of Steel: Ljubljana to Sofia

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

A Morning in the Life of a Steely Thighed Cyclist

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

A User’s Guide to Cycling in Athens

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).

Last update: July 2018. Continue reading A User’s Guide to Cycling in Athens

London to Greece via Paris, Milan and Brindisi with (but not by) a bike

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?

Hopefully this guide will ease your troubled mind because this journey IS EASILY DONE. Continue reading London to Greece via Paris, Milan and Brindisi with (but not by) a bike

Brilliant Bivvying: The Mother Lode of Wild Camping Advice

The Top Line

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.

The following is the mother lode of lessons that I’ve learnt over dozens of bivvying adventures since 2011. Take all this advice with many pinches of low-sodium salt, and find your own way. Continue reading Brilliant Bivvying: The Mother Lode of Wild Camping Advice

Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!

In 2016 I embarked on the somewhat ambitious target of cycling from London to Syria, reporting on the refugee ‘crisis’ from the saddle of my bicycle. In 46 days, I got as far as Vienna, before rushing back to work on Foiled at the Edinburgh Festival. It was a busy summer!

I always said that I’d carry on the cycle some day. Well, some day has arrived. Continue reading Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!

Biking Bournemouth-Bristol

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

Camber Sands ride details

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

Engineering Work Stops Play

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.

On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp

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

From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany

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.

The result is an embarrassment for everyone: refugees packed away into buildings, containers or tents on the outskirts of towns and villages, with some eking out an uncertain existence in the asylum system for a decade or longer. Continue reading From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany

#34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

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.

Augsburg is exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Grandhotel Cosmopolis, where guests arrive with or without asylum. Continue reading #34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

#25 Heidelberg Helps

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

They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

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.

Continue reading They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Hospitality is a funny game. After stopping at a roadside fruit and veg stand, we set up our Campingaz kitchen in Weissach town square. As C boils some eggs, a young man approaches. In broken German he asks us, ‘Why you cook here? I have kitchen. Come.’
Continue reading Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Story of the Day #24: Industrial Germany

The stench should have been a clue. I couldn’t work out whether it was a really foul cesspit, or a really good cheese. Whatever it was, it was strong and it was wafting into our tent.

In the photographs, our camping spot under trees on the banks of the Rhine, water lapping feet away from our… feet, will look romantic. The reality was suffocating, as the effluent sloshed the sulphuric assault past the feeble defences of two lines of canvas.

The signs were clear. After a week of deer frolicking, river burbling, bird tweeting Teuton we were about to enter Industrial Deutschland.

And about time too. So far, I’d seen no evidence that Germans did anything to justify their reputation as Europe’s most productive nation other than their consumption of a prodigious amount of baked goods and ice cream.

The change was immediate and well coordinated, like when the school bell goes to end playtime and everyone starts belching noxious fumes into the air.

The only thing that I knew about Worms was that a treaty had been signed there in the eighteenth century. I assumed, therefore, that modernity had yet to arrive, as if a mention in a history book was sufficient to hold back the exploitation of saltpeter and the discovery of cement.

Scores of chemical laden lorries, a horizon pricked with chimneys, complexes cased in steel piping and a constant drizzle put paid to those ideas. There was even a warning that cyclists should wear helmets. We had breakfast in a graffiti spewed motorway underpass.

I suppose it’s all understandable: heavy industry demands a lot of water and the Rhine has been a faithful servant to the landlocked southwest.

But all is not lost for the passing tourist. On the other side of a four lane highway in the riverside town of Ludwigshafen sat an unmissable attraction, a must-see museum, a touristic temptress: the BASF Visitor Centre.

Ducking inside from the continuing drizzle, decked head to foot in Decathlon’s finest waterproofing and several local varieties of mud, we enjoy the appreciative attentions of a sixth form chemistry school trip. Ignoring the less politely stifled sniggers, we muster as much self-respect as the puddles under our feet will allow and present ourselves at the reception desk. ‘We are visitors and we are at the visitor centre. What happens now?’

What happened then was a very expensively assembled version of that bit in chemistry when your teacher tried to convince you that science was FUN. We learnt how to cook the perfect steak by exploiting the Maillard reaction, investigated the properties of cobalt with anti-radioactive gloves and set off a rocket by cleaving water into gaseous hydrogen and oxygen.

In among the fun and games, we learnt how BASF stands for Badische Anilin and Soda Fabrik (I even had a glass of soda water) and how BASF Ludwigshafen is the world’s largest integrated chemical complex, with over 2000 buildings covering 10sqkm. Their overground piping, arranged more creatively, could carry soda water from here to Seville.

We could watch archive footage of their history and swish interactive interfaces over their future as BASF heroically struggle with balancing the needs of the economy, the environment and society.

As we enviously watched a gaggle of US students (what were they doing there??) cooing over a console that showed you what you might look like with different hair styles, I started to wonder whether there was more to this outing than a three minute steak and a cut and blow dry.

A lot of money had been spent on this visitor centre. It had even won awards for its creativity. But there was something else in the air: not quite the gangrenous lung-stopper that accompanied our slumbers, but something not quite freshened by the fancy display panels and interactive modules. The faint but unmistakeable smell of greenwash.

The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
Continue reading The School Bus Project, Calais

Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different. Continue reading Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

51.00259782.1103972

Conversations in Calais

We are currently holed up in Petite Fort Philippe, equidistant from both Calais and Dunkirk, home to two of the largest migrant camps in Northern France. Yesterday we visited Calais, my first trip back there since the mass demolitions that have devastated the bustling shanty town. Continue reading Conversations in Calais

Cycling Towards Syria: Days 1-3

I’m writing this sitting on the beach front in Calais. A mother and two small children are scootched in the sand, and footprints mark where they’ve been playing. The wind and the waves come across the Channel from England. We’ve been pulling together a bench lunch, interrupted by an Englishman complaining about wogs and A-rabs, insistent on leaving the EU, while registering his van in Serbia for cheaper car insurance.
Continue reading Cycling Towards Syria: Days 1-3

Seacycles III: London to Brighton Night Ride

So we left at midnight from Monument. Kicking out time in Croydon. Kebab shops rushing with towered stacks of polystyrene boxes. Then breath down and sharp up into wilderness, a piss into the darkness and the wind. The city red white lights blink stupidly: What are we doing?
Continue reading Seacycles III: London to Brighton Night Ride

The Magic of Midnight

It’s the first overnight bike ride since SeaCycles began, and we meet at midnight at Monument, ready to cycle all night to the coast. I am feeling groggy after a brief two hour nap, David has been in the pub, and Paul has just arrived on a train from Brighton – for him, this is a cycle ride home. Continue reading The Magic of Midnight

Cycling to(wards) Syria

This May, I shall set off on a 3,000 mile bicycle tour, following the routes of migration from the safe refuge of London to the bombed-out streets of Syria. Don’t worry: safety is my first priority. I am fully expecting never to reach Syria, but that is my destination of the mind.

Along the way, I shall be collecting stories direct from the mouths of migrants, aid workers, government officials and local residents, using each interview to inform the course of the journey, and sharing these stories with as wide an audience as I can, in written word, photography, audio, and video.

Continue reading Cycling to(wards) Syria

Whitstable Ride

“There will only be three of us tomorrow, so we’re meeting at Cutty Sark at 10am”.

Thus Anna emailed me in response to my last-minute enquiry, to join her & David’s second monthly cycle-ride to the coast. I’d been on the first ride too with six other riders, and we’d pedalled through a great deal of cold & rain but with a tailwind to Southend, and then pranced around briefly in the chilly sea. Continue reading Whitstable Ride

Riding to Shoeburyness

10am, London Bridge. A motley crew of cyclists gathers, dressed head to toe in waterproofs. At least one of us was wondering why we’d bothered to come out on such a horrible day in order to ride 50 miles in the rain. But I had promised cookies, and was the only one who knew the way, so there was no option but to turn up dressed for the weather (meaning, TWO waterproof jackets). Continue reading Riding to Shoeburyness

February ride: Whitstable

Our next ride will be to the Kent coastal town of Whitstable, famous for its oysters, castle and boat-strewn beach.

Date: Sunday 28th February

Time: Meet 9.30am

Location: London Bridge, just outside Evans Cycles (corner of Tooley St)

Distance: 62 miles

Projected arrival time: Approximately 5pm

Return journey: Trains depart twice an hour and take an hour and a quarter to reach London Cannon Street or St Pancras / Stratford

What to bring: lights for your bike, snacks for the journey, togs for swimming, cash for fish & chips

What to expect: A small, friendly ride at conversational pace. The route is on a mixture of roads and traffic-free cycle paths. If we reach Whitstable at low tide we can walk out on ‘The Street’ sand spit. If it’s high tide we’ll swim in the cold cold waves!