I can’t technically say that we’ve broken the world record because the ride isn’t over yet (nor the record verified), but Thighs of Steel have definitely surpassed the previous record and, with every day that passes, the world’s biggest bike-powered GPS drawing gets even bigger.
Since I last wrote, we have rounded off the ‘f’ in Exmoor, cycled the Jurassic Coast of the ‘u’ and passed the world record distance out on the Somerset Levels of the ‘g’.
As we crossed into Glastonbury, Mayor Jon Cousins met us to sign the logbook and mark this momentous occasion with a nice cup of tea. Georgie had Guinness — what else?
Speaking of tea: if you ever have the fortune to be cycling across Exmoor, make a stop at the Poltimore Arms to meet publican, politician and raconteur Steve Cotten. He looks and sounds a lot like comedian Bill Bailey.
Georgie had only stopped at the top of the hill to wait for me to catch up, but we were soon sitting down for a hot drink with Steve and the pub cat, Frederick Albert Hitler.
‘I never charge for tea or coffee,’ Steve told us. ‘Some call it bad business, I call it good manners.’
As we arrived, Steve had just received a parcel containing white jodhpurs and a pair of leather riding boots.
‘They won’t let me drive — I’m half blind — so I got myself a crazy horse,’ he explained. ‘Everyone says that horse will be the death of me, but I know all the local elite dressage trainers so I’m going to learn dressage and win Olympic gold at the next Paralympics.’
He must have seen the doubt in our eyes because the next thing he said was: ‘I’m serious. People don’t believe me, but they didn’t believe me when I said I was going to run for parliament and see what happened there.’
He points behind us to a massive canvas poster of Steve on the campaign trail: ‘A vote for Steve Cotten is a vote for North Devon’.
‘I set out to fail,’ he said, ‘and I nearly ended up winning.’
I’ll restrict myself to three other highlights of the past week: homemade tiramisú, campfires and unbridled generosity. These recurred with pleasing regularity along the ride — or all together at once in the case of one memorable evening with Laura and Jon at Bulstone Springs.
Open hearted generosity is a feature of cycle touring. Not only from our wonderful hosts who welcome us into their homes, but also from many of the people we meet along the way.
Yesterday, six friends-we-hadn’t-yet-met donated in cash quids, fivers, tenners and even twenties. This makes Wiltshire by far and away the most generous county we’ve cycled through and it’s inspired me to spend my day off making a donations bucket to strap to the front of the bike.
I’d better get cracking actually — my bike suffered a mechanical yesterday and I don’t fancy testing the limits of my frayed gear cabling on the White Horse hills. With fair winds and good fortune, the next time I write, we will have finished writing ‘Refugees’.
We are now 4 days into our 27 day bike-powered GPS drawing of Refugees Welcome and it’s no coincidence that all the roads around here incorporate the word ‘Hill’.
Copstone Hill, Cuckoo Hill, Polson Hill, Beech Hill Cross, North Hill Lane. (There’s also a Cockrattle Lane, but that’s a different story.)
Since our departure from St Austell on Tuesday, we’ve climbed over 6400m: coast to coast to coast through Cornwall, followed by a loop-the-loop of Dartmoor.
For those of you catching up, Thighs of Steel (of which I am a mere cog) are attempting to create the world’s largest bike-powered GPS art by riding a serpentine route around the south of England that spells out the words ‘Refugees Welcome’.
If we are successful, it will break the current world record by a completely unnecessary 1500km.
But, as they say, it’s all for a good cause. We are fundraising for Choose Love, a charity that re-distributes donations to dozens of grassroots refugee projects in the UK and abroad.
These projects have been hit hard by the pandemic and would be completely unable to offer any services at all without the generosity of hundreds of individuals making small cash donations.
What’s great about Choose Love is that they can send the money wherever it is needed NOW.
As you may have gathered from the news, forced migration happens suddenly and it’s often the small grassroots projects that are best able to respond fast enough to help people when they need it most.
Thank you for all your donations – they are powering both our thighs and (more importantly) the work of these refugee support projects.
These first four days (we hope) will be the toughest of the whole tour, certainly in terms of distance and elevation, and I would be lying if I said that, at times, I have not reflected unfavourably upon my life choices.
Such as on Wednesday, when we cranked our way up two irrelevant hills to form the inlet of the ‘R’, only to return over the same exact same hills to finish off the tail.
And these are not hills in the sense that you might imagine if you live in the Home Counties, East Anglia, or even Scotland. These are Devonshire and Cornish hills. Road builders here seem to delight in driving you perpendicular to the contour lines. Not a zig-zag in sight, just a sheer wall of asphalt.
But the consolation in those absurd moments of repeated routing is not what we are doing, but why.
At the end of our hill reps on Wednesday, in the very butt of the R, a man called Ray Christmas signed our logbook. Ray Christmas!
Wait – the logbook? Ah, yes, the logbook! Every World Record Attempter’s nightmare – literally.
I swear, two nights ago, I dreamt that Philip Schofield agreed to sign our logbook in exchange for sexual favours.
Schofield, aside, the logbook is the evidence Guinness need to verify our record. Every time we stop, we have to write that information into the logbook: date, time, distance travelled, location – and get that information signed off by an independent witness.
It’s a lot of admin. Stop the GPS, check the time, check the distance, enter the time, enter the distance, add up today’s distance to yesterday’s total distance, eat half a flapjack, cast around for a human being who looks like not-a-dick.
Then we launch into The Spiel – ‘Sorrytobotheryoudoyoumindmeaskingafavourwearetryingtobreakaworldrecord’ – all the while gauging their eyes and frown lines for signs of curiosity and generosity or suspicion and derision.
No, this logbook is more than admin – it’s a total ballache.
But, I confess, these witness signing ceremonies are often the highlight of our day.
The vicar of Holy Trinity, St Austell, who prayed for our steely thighs.
Luke and David at Bodmin steam railway, who donated £5 and a Thomas the Tank Engine flag.
The family in the wind and rain who donated halloumi fresh from their barbecue.
The woman wearing the Choose Love t-shirt in Boscastle – how could we not stop her?
The inestimable Janet Downes who carted us from R to E and donated homemade cheesy flapjacks.
Margitta and Nick and Lee and Laura and Pippa and Rolf and Bri and Penny who have hosted and roasted us in their warm homes.
Ian the accordian player from Of Stone And Earth in Chagford.
Debbie and Rob from the village shop in South Brent, who insisted on doing a Facebook Live with us and donated £10 and a bag of dark chocolate gooseberries.
The volunteers at Spreyton community shop who donated two pieces of Bakewell Tart.
Wait, what? Yes – TV celeb chef Gordon Ramsey. Spotted by Naomi out on a bike trail, enjoying a quiet cup of tea. At least he was enjoying a quiet cup of tea until Naomi fell off her bike in shock and I went up to him shouting ‘Are you Gordon Ramsey?’
To be fair, he took it pretty well – better than I would have done if someone had come up to me and shouted ‘Are you Gordon Ramsey?’
He signed our logbook, wished us well and gave me a fistbump. What more can you ask?
So, the logbook: yes, it’s a chore, but it’s also given us the moments that make this bike ride like no other bike ride.
This experience has made me want to make a logbook, a sort of a guestbook, for all my future rides too. How wonderful to make these connections as we pass through these villages and towns, how lucky.
I suppose it’s all about how you look at the world, isn’t it? My feelings about this baleful world record lurch, moment to moment, from admin to admiration.
Through the window, as I write, I can see rusty-coloured containers, rusty-coloured cranes and rusty-coloured clouds. We must be approaching Southampton Central.
This week I’ve transitioned from bikes to trains, clocking up over thirteen hours on one or other of these coupled carriages, entertaining myself by reading books about Trainspotting and Breath, or estimating the proportion of mask-wearers in the population.
(FWIW: Mask-wearing varies wildly depending on time and location, from about 30 percent on the morning platform at Bournemouth to an impressive 80 percent on the London Underground in rush hour, before crashing to 5 percent on the train home after kicking out time at the pubs.)
Thank you so much for all the lovely comments on the last two weeks’ worth of stories from Wales. Stories in the Lamplight is already the ninth most-read post in these archives, so thank you to those of you who shared it around.
I’m glad the stories resonated: it feels like passing on the chain of connection, from the lives I crossed in Wales, through my brain, to yours—and after that? It’s up to you.
I passed along a few morsels of bike touring advice to Documentally this week. Tomorrow, he’s setting off on the longest ride of his life and asked me a few questions about route planning and lightweight tents.
As always, my advice feels like nothing more than reassurance that the dream still fits the plan. Quite simply: the more people do this sort of thing, the more people do this sort of thing.
Besides: the student has already outdone the master (ha!) with both the title of his tour—Cycling Hertz—and the generous fundraising he’s inspiring throughout his network.
Documentally and about fifty other cyclists who give a damn have managed to raise over £22,000 for Choose Love with Thighs of Steel this year. That’s enough love and solidarity to run a refugee drop-in centre for three months, or to pay for an expert caseworker to support unaccompanied refugee children for a whole year.
At a time when proposed changes to the asylum system are at risk of criminalising humanitarian organisations like the RNLI—our seaside lifeguards—it is important that we show the whole world that Britain still welcomes those fleeing persecution, conflict and terror.
This money is precious. This money sends a message.
Together with co-conspirator Georgie Cottle, I’ll be cycling more or less the whole 2,400km world record route, all the way from Holy Trinity Church in St Austell on 16 August to the Port of Dover on 18 September.
We leave in less than ten days so I’ve been frantically calculating elevation stats, ordering crates of chocolate and ginger flapjacks, and panic-phoning bike shops trying to source a 22T chainset.
The first four days’ cycling are each over 100km, with more hills than you’d get climbing from the sea to the summit of Ben Nevis. I thought Wales would prepare me. I was wrong.
The white-haired woman across the aisle announces to a disembodied ear that she’s on the train, on the way back from a funeral. A young man in headphones confirms the next stop to the dark eyes, dark curls peering over the seat in front. Two more bikes, belonging to unseen, potbellied cyclists, are strung up with mine in the vestibule, swinging on their meat hooks.
Hiya everyone! This is your onboard catering crew, Angela and Adam. If you’re feeling a bit hot and clammy, we’ve got a selection of cold drinks available. Water, wines, OJ, beers, Prosecco. We’re also happy to have a little chat if you’ve been watching Love Island or the Olympics—with one person at a time in the buffet car.
A funeral, an ear, headphones, dark eyes, potbellies, lifeguards, cold drinks, sweet dreams, used tickets, worn tyres. The seams between all these lives run like laughter lines across the face of our experience.
A couple of weeks ago, I thought I needed a whole new bike—or at least a whole new bike frame. The Dunx chassis that I’d driven a ridiculous distance to collect came out bigger than my old Marin and I worried that my pedal position was more torture rack than action settee on a thousand-mile ride.
Knowing the knee-clicking importance of a well-fitted bike, I was fully prepared to drop another undisclosable sum of money into the laps of the aluminium founders.
But first, fearful of returning to square zero, I needed confidence on exactly what size of metal triangle would best accommodate my thorax, levers and abdomen. So I booked a professional fitting with Neil of Fit To Ride, Poole.
The upshot of my visit, on a hot June day, to Neil’s upstairs studio was spending a penny to save a pound. Or spending £110 to save at least £500. Reader: I needed not a larger frame. I needed data.
I perched astride Martin, fixed in place to a roller with a fan blowing hot air into my hair, distracted by a motionless wall-sized panorama of the Alps; Neil tinkered around me with plumb lines, rulers and protractors.
He’s used to tuning up road bikes for max power. I warned him not to laugh.
The most important thing I learned from Neil, however, was that frame size is much less important than I thought. In the hands of a professional, dramatic micro-adjustments of the seat post, saddle rails, handlebar stem, angle and rise can admit even the most monstrous of riding positions.
I ride upright—a position so unaerodynamic that I must be at least twice as fit as Mark Cavendish. I had managed to achieve my absurdly erect posture by cranking an adjustable handlebar stem way past its vertical limit for the utmost rise and utleast reach.
The effect was, in Neil’s words, cramped and hunched; in my words, relaxed and comfortable. Although, now he mentioned it, a folk memory arose from tours past: a shooting stiffness in the shoulders that only hypodermic massage could relieve.
After raising the seat post an inch and shuffling the saddle back a few mill, Neil proved his point with a protractor. My lower back was indeed of the military persuasion, but my handlebars were so close to my belly that, from the fourth thoracic north, my vertebrae had no choice but to volte-face, kink and plunge.
The results of such a posture are not only painful in the neck, but also, Neil assured me, inefficient in the muscle groups engaged in forward propulsion.
Neil’s response was to exchange my over-wrought stem for one that did the diametric opposite, one that pushed my fingers far over the front wheel. The knock-on effect was to straighten my back and edge the angle between spine and shoulder closer to its biomechanical sweet spot.
I’ve been riding with this new setup for the past couple of weeks, but Neil warned me that it could take five hundred miles before my body works out its new muscle memories. I haven’t had knee pain while cycling for many years: any change to my pedal practise, even change dictated by protractor, is a gamble.
Tomorrow, I leave for a thousand kilometre ride around Wales. Soon I will learn whether the gamble has paid off.
Of cockpits and cash
As anyone who owns a bicycle well knows, the goddess of the highway giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. The money I hypothetically ‘saved’ by not buying a whole new frame, was spent with thrilling liquidity on an array of instruments for what Neil persisted in calling my ‘cockpit’.
Ever since I’d been struck dumb in Romania by the enviable cockpit of a moustachioed Steely called Bertie, I have wanted aerodynamic tri bars on my touring bicycle. Goaded on by Neil—‘All the long distance cyclists have got them these days’—I have finally taken the swallow dive.
As the owner of a flat-bar touring bike, my life has already been transformed once by the addition of end bars (credit to John in Newcastle for that innovation). Could it be transformed a second time with these sleek arm rests? Time shall tell.
But that is not the only new member of my cockpit crew. I have also succumbed to bikepacking fashion and acquired a handlebar bag—supposedly of ten litres, but I’m not about to waste perfectly good drinking water checking that. In my case, this handlebar bag is nothing more than a robust dry bag zip tied to my bars.
The pièce de résistance of my pimped up cockpit is a brand new GPS computer—the admirably typo-ridden Wahoo Elemnt Bolt. This frighteningly loseable piece of hardware is a tiny, yet incredibly detailed world atlas, onto which I can superimpose the turn-by-turn instructions for my intended route.
Through Harlech, with its men, to Barmouth, where I cross the mouth of Afon Mawddach. Happily swishing through the fields and woods of the hills, I’m expecting to hit the seaside again soon. I’m constantly looking ahead, around this bend, over this hill, through this wood, soon I’ll hear the swish of the sea, soon.
Then I hit a town that shouldn’t be there. I cycle along vaguely, bewildered by my map. It’s a pleasant enough town, with grey slate and flint buildings and a few people enjoying the gap between rainstorms. It’s just that none of it should be here. Eventually, after dawdling through the town, trying to find a comprehensible road sign that might indicate where the hell I am, I find a bike shop. I tie up and go inside.
‘Excuse me,’ I ask the vigorously tanned bike mechanic. ‘You couldn’t tell me where I am, could you?’
In fairness to him, he would be well within his rights to look at me now as if I’m insane. But he doesn’t. He just says something like: ‘Dththgththaye.’
A look of panic flickers over my face. I check my map. ‘Erm, where?’
‘Dththgththaye,’ he repeats, patiently.
I panic again. He takes pity, turns the page on my road map and points: Dolgellau. There is no way we can be there.
‘Are you sure?’ I ask before I can stop myself.
Now he is looking at me as if I am insane. Somehow I have managed to cycle north-east, when I should have been going south-west. For eight miles. After all my anxiety about avoiding Anglesey and other diversions, I feel strangely liberated from the tyranny of Knowing. Not Knowing, I’m not worried about where I am, where I’m going or how fast I’m going wherever it is that I’m going.
That was then, but how now will I suffer this year, at the mercy of the all-knowing Wahoo? A Wahoo that, all being well, shall, by the end of the summer, be a world record holder, no less. Will I pass muster? Or will I long for the days of unknowing?
If you’d like to donate, then go ahead and click here (put your solidarity archetype into the comments!). Your money will go straight to grassroots organisations offering refugees the warm welcome that our whiffy government withholds.
£10 could pay for culturally appropriate food supplies (including fresh fruit and veg) for a family of 4 for a week
£50 could pay for destitution support for an asylum seeker, helping with essential costs like food, sanitary products, bus tickets and a phone top-up
£250 could pay to run a drop-in centre for a day, providing vital, free legal support to asylum seekers
£500 could contribute to the salary of an expert caseworker supporting unaccompanied children as they start to rebuild their lives in the UK
Spell It Out is a 2,400km bike ride along the south coast of Britain that follows a quixotic route which will spell out the words—well, I’ll let you see for yourselves:
The ride, organised by Thighs of Steel (obvs), is a direct response to our government’s creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for refugees.
Priti Patel is right now rushing through an overhaul of UK asylum law that will put us in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, closing down legal routes to the UK for those fleeing political and religious persecution as well as those who are trying to join family and friends already in this country. What does she think these people will do instead?
It’s a complete horror show.
We need to tell Priti Patel and this pettifogging government that our country will always stand for tolerance and compassion and that we will continue to offer a safe haven for those fleeing their homes. We are stronger together and the tide will turn.
Join us any time—12 June to 26 September
If you would like to join Spell It Out as a fundraising cyclist, then hop on over to the Thighs of Steel website. You can sign up to ride any of the letters (100-240km each), with anyone you like, at any point between 12 June and 26 September. The more people who take part, the bigger our voice and the bigger our positive impact.
If you would like to show your support, then please share the website or crack open your wallet / PayPal and donate to my fundraising page (live now!). All of your money will go directly to organisations that offer refugees the warm welcome that our government withholds: legal advice, psychological counselling, vocational training, language lessons and more.
What’s this about a Guinness World Record?!
The 2,400km route will also be the world’s biggest ever GPS drawing by bike, smashing the previous record by about 1,600km.
We’re still thrashing out the logistical details, but please reply to this email if you’re interested in helping us break a world record—we’ll need cyclists, van drivers and overnight hosts across the south of England. Watch this space…
It is with some pride that I announce that Martin, my 2011 Marin San Anselmo touring bike, has finally met his match. At some point in the last few months, the chain stay of his frame cracked and snapped in two.
The fact that neither I nor a professional bike mechanic noticed anything wrong apart from a strange skipping in the chain is testament to how amazing bikes are. Martin was literally snapped in half and I was still more or less happily pootling around.
It’s impossible to say how far Martin and I have travelled together since I bought him in 2011, but a rough estimate using data from various bike computers suggests somewhere in the region of 18,200 miles—more than enough to qualify as a ride around the world.
Martin: A timeline of adventure
Note: if you’re not at all interested in bike touring or my holiday snaps, then feel free to skip ahead to the next subtitle…
A year later, we repeated the trick in Tunisia, cycling through olive and palm groves, between salt lakes, past Roman ruins, and through two different kinds of desert to the sand seas of the Sahara.
In the wet summer of 2016, Martin (now officially christened Martin) rode in duet with a vintage racer called Joy from London to Vienna. We matched tracks from the South Downs to the Bavarian Plateau, from the banks of the River Thames to the vineyard sprawl of the Danube. Our accommodation, still wild, upgraded to hilltop castles and monasteries.
More recently, Martin found true companionship in the community of bikes that is Thighs of Steel. In 2018 and 2019, we covered over 2,000 miles together across Europe, discovering new countries, new friends and new talents. Martin got himself a chainring downgrade which helped us over the mountains. In Athens, he even got himself a blue tattoo, of which he is still very proud.
Finally, in our swansong year, Martin learnt the healthy pleasures of daily rides during a catastrophic pandemic, playing his part in the incredible Around the World project that raised over £130,000 for refugees. And, of course, in the lockdown-lifted summer, Martin came full circle: imprinting the south coast with his tyre tracks exactly nine years after he last toured Britain.
Consumerism gives stuff a bad rep
I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: we’re living through a pandemic. My old bike is broken. I’ll get another one. It’s no big deal. But I’ve never had nearly as much fun with any other object as I’ve had with Martin.
When I flipped him over and saw the thick black crack against his mud and sand-flecked white skin, I felt like I’d slipped into an alternate universe.
A broken frame was nothing more than we deserved: nine years of high-impact, heavyweight touring caught up with the partnership. It was bound to happen one day or another. I was lucky that it didn’t happen while I was out touring—although, on reflection, maybe it did.
Throwaway consumerism has, I think, dirtied the purity of possession. Many people, myself included, have hankered after ascetic minimalism: a glorious rejection of the waste and want that modern capitalism has brought us.
But it’s worth remembering why certain convivial objects are precious to their owners—and perhaps to hold all our purchases to a similar standard of value.
What did Martin ever do for us?
A bicycle extends our human frailties. We become bionic, able to move many times faster and further than we ever could on foot, and much more efficiently. I have done things with Martin that would have been unimaginable without him.
I’m thinking, of course, of the life-altering adventures I mentioned earlier, but I’m also thinking of our day-to-day. Martin made it possible for me to live an expansive twenty-first century lifestyle without ever needing a car or taking an aeroplane flight.
Every week, without complaint, Martin lugs my heavy shopping bags five kilometres across town. Together we’ve visiting sixteen different countries, excluding England, Scotland and Wales. Every day he teaches me something about perseverance, self-reliance and community.
Martin’s made me oodles of new friends and ridden me to work, school and social events—especially during my years in London, where the cost and patchy provision of transport makes travel in the city such an unequal battle. (Hence why The Bike Project gives free bikes to refugees.)
But at what cost?
You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve run the numbers… The original Marin San Anselmo cost me £488.99—still the most I’ve ever spent on a single item. But I’ve spent many times more on maintenance and spare parts over the years. To be precise, over his entire lifetime, owning and maintaining Martin has cost me £3,323.
That, to me, is incredible value. There aren’t many other possession that have given me so much. Certainly some of my books, my Alphasmart Neo2 typewriter, yoga mat, guitar, teapot, plants and running shoes. Not much else that I can think of.
What about you? What possessions bring outsized value into your life? I’d love to hear from you—especially if you hold all your purchases to this standard.
On the naming of things
It is only right that we celebrate our most highly prized possessions—and, yes, give them petnames. I never loved Martin so much as when he was baptized Martin and grew a personality. My girlfriend at the time misread the brand name ‘Marin’ and contrasted his blocky functionality with the sleek lines of her own vintage racer.
Giving names to inanimate objects might sound silly, but I think it helps combat throwaway consumerism. A name and a personality is the beginning of a story and, when we tell stories about our favourite possessions, we honour, not only their service, but also the ingenuity, engineering and natural resources that went into their construction.
And this ingenuity and engineering is what’s so beautiful about the design of a bicycle. When Martin’s chain stay snapped, what did I lose, exactly? Why didn’t I feel this way after the rear mech sheared off, or all those times my chain snapped or wore out?
Indeed: what is left of that 2011 Marin San Anselmo that I bought from the Cycle Surgery in Camden Town nine years ago? Nothing more than the handlebars, forks, frame and rack. Everything else has been replaced—even the name.
Stuff has a soul
This reminds me of the ancient philosophical conundrum known as the Ship of Theseus: if you replace, one by one, all the planks of a ship until there are none left of the original, is it still the same ship?
But as well as posing an insoluble philosphical question about the persistence of identity over time, the Ship of Theseus prompts us to think about what happens at the end of our stuff’s life.
Aristotle decided that the fully-replaced ship was indeed still Theseus’s. And if a yes is good enough for one of the more practical ancient philosophers then it’s good enough for me.
A great ship is a great ship forever. A great axe is a great axe forever. A great bike is a great bike forever, even as the parts are replaced one by one. Because well-designed stuff has something about it that endures. We could call it a soul.
So I’ll keep what I have of Martin—the original handlebars, forks and rack, as well as all the other components I’ve bought more recently—and replace the broken frame as I have replaced bent wheels, snapped chains and worn brake blocks.
The bike is gone, long live the bike!
What now for Martin Jnr?
Thankfully, a friend has very generously leant me her spare bike to ride (thanks GC!) until I’ve found a new frame for Martin Jnr. One of the more alluring options is the idea of spending this lockdown building my own bamboo bike frame.
I first came across the Bamboo Bicycle Club ten years ago, when I had neither the money nor the cycling experience to justify investing £300 in a wooden bike. But now… Now they do ‘home build kits’—surely it’s meant to be!
Huge thanks to everyone who is helping to make this ride feel even remotely possible. Special thanks to A.C. for the ideas and company, The Tim Traveller for disturbing Youtube AUDIENCE advice, the Thighs of Steel family for oodles of inspiration and for the Wahoo, Documentally for my birthday microphone, and, of course, thanks to the Charles Family for the sense of home to which I will return. Insha’allah.
Huge thank you to everyone who has made the last week such a friendly place. Especially to Yes Tribe Michelle, Rob Wills and Annette Coppin for heartful hospitality in Brighton and Hastings.
Thank you, thank you, thank you this week to my hosts and hospitable friends, old and new: Tom and Claire, Anna, Thom and Anna, Claire, Naomi, Ben, Annie and Poppy, Fern and Beth and Lucy.
Major major thanks to Anna Hughes, who not only guided me to a peaceful sleeping spot in Epping Forest, but also took the time to record a great interview about Flight Free UK—only for me to mess up the recording. Sorry!
Huge thanks to the hospitable friends and strangers who have made the last seven days such a delight: Pandora, the Wickers family, Sarah and Chloe, John the ferryman, Lesley the artist, Debbie and Steve, Duncan of the incredible Dunx Cycles, Peter Langford the world record holder, and the extraordinary, expecting Matt and Lisa.
Thank you also to all the patient woodland creatures who put up with me wild camping in their homes. Even the ants.
But I reserve extra extra special thanks for my final hosts on this tour of southeast England: Documentally and his wonderfully generous family. Camping in a friend’s back garden was a celebratory end to this part of my journey and I was overwhelmed with too many kindnesses to mention.
Part 2: The Southwest
Huge thanks this week to: David and Margaret, esteemed parents of The Tim Traveller, for a lovely cup of tea – only nine years delayed. David, a retired Anglican vicar, told me how Covid-inspired Zoom services are now spreading The Word to people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a church. In every crisis, an opportunity.
Thanks to Will and Daryl, the two tourers from Lincoln, who brightened my day with enthusiasm for life on the road. And then slagged off Exeter cathedral: ‘It’s not fit to wash Lincoln’s boots!’
Mighty, mighty thanks to Exeter Paul, a truly generous host who saved me from a thunderstorm and revealed the true meanings behind what I called ‘the racist elephant’.
Thanks also to the many other people who have shared fleeting wisdom and encouragement along the track. You enrich my days.
Finally, and above all, to the family Charles for a mid-cycling holiday in the heat.
Enormo-thanks this week to Andy and family for hosting me in Mevagissey and for keeping me company on an eventful ride to Helston: two ferries and a change of tyre.
Gigantic thanks also to the Granvilles of Helston for two nights of warmth and record-breaking hospitality. As ever.
Thanks also to the highways and byways of this southwest corner of Britain. We’ve been safe together so far – long may it continue!
A short list of deep gratitude to the people who were inordinately kind to a lost and bedraggled stranger:
Ricky the first-day-back otherwise-empty bus driver who took me and a very sorry-state Martin from Chew Magna to Keynsham.
Paul and Annie (and the two dogs) for goose-field camping, nettle wine, a pick-n-mix feast, with cups of tea looking out into cloudbursts. I found this loving home on Warmshowers.org—a community of legends who open up their doors to touring cyclists all over the world.
Peter and family (and two further dogs) overlooking the stormy Somerset Levels, who shared their medieval banquet and gave me a night’s dominion over their piano room and airing cupboard.
The wondrous people of Tudor Road in Bristol who warmed my cockles and combed my hair when all was tangled.
Storm Francis also made me feel welcome, blowing me all the way up the north west of the country to refuge. Bus shelters, cafe awnings and spreading oaks became dear friends.
Final thanks to the Granvilles, who teach me more about philoxenia every time I bugle my way into their presence. Big love.
Every single day I’m on my bike there are moments when I think: ‘I could have been killed there.’
Cars passing at speed too closely is the most common one. Yet, every now and again, I come across a horse and rider enjoying the same country lanes as me and watch in awe as these same lethal cars slow right down, pull over to one side or stop until the horse has passed.
I wish that our nation’s car drivers understood that cyclists are as vulnerable (and as unpredictable) as horse riders. We sometimes swerve to avoid potholes that you can’t see; we sometimes are blown around by wind that you can’t feel. And our flesh tears as easily as any horse’s, I promise you.
While riding, I daydreamed of starting a cycle-protection campaign: Bikes are horses too!
Then I learnt that the government are currently consulting on a raft of changes to the Highway Code that would recognise the vulnerability of cyclists, pedestrians and horse riders to inadequate or inattentive drivers.
Finally, if you see someone driving dangerously then please (when safe) make a note of the vehicle’s registration, colour, make and model (a quick photograph works well) and report the incident to the police on their non-emergency number 101. It takes a few minutes and your phone call could save lives. The AA has more information on how to make a report.
I don’t know why drivers think they can get away with dangerous overtaking manoeuvres when their numberplate identifies them so conspicuously. It’s like a bankrobber politely presenting their passport to the teller before pulling out an uzi and screaming, ‘Open up the safe, bitch!’
If only attendance at the Ogmios School of Zen Motoring was compulsory…
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.
Who would spend 86 hours and about £300 travelling from Athens to the UK when a four hour flight costs a third of the price?
The answer is, of course, me – but I was rebuking myself with this question yesterday afternoon when I found out that my ferry crossing from Cherbourg to Poole had been summarily cancelled because of what can only be described as British weather.
As I scrabbled to find an alternative route that wasn’t disgustingly expensive (Eurostar topped £200, the train from Dover was nearly £90), unhappily time-tabled, or, indeed, already fully booked, I was annoyed at myself for choosing the slow road home, horrified at the mounting expense of two extra train fares, and disgraced by the choices we’ve made as a species that put such a high premium on terrestrial transport.
Then I remembered the people I left behind in Izmir, Samos and Athens: the Afghan students I’d taught the days of the week, the Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi chefs who’d cooked for me, the friends of many nations with whom I’d hiked to the beach – the thousands of people who would give anything (their life savings, their youth, their life) for the chance to travel across the continent so charmlessly.
At the port, as police swept the underside of lorries for desperate stowaways, all I had to do was dangle my passport and cycle aboard. For me, there’s only the merest whiff of a border, and a delay of an hour or two is no delay at all.
As it happens, I feel very lucky to be on board – and not only because I’m winning the passport lottery.
Yesterday, after frantic re-routing analysis, I finally settled on the Caen to Portsmouth ferry as the least painful option. I booked the same, swiftly followed (naturally enough, I thought) by the booking of a train from Paris to Caen.
I agonised over the timings: should I book the languorous early train which would leave me a yawning two and a half hours of footling around in Caen, or should I book the dynamic later train, with time for a leisurely lunch in Paris and a snappy arrival 45 minutes before departure?
Eventually, my cautious nature won out and I booked the early train.
Good thing too – because the Caen and ‘Caen’ of my tickets are two completely different places. In fact, one of them isn’t called ‘Caen’ at all.
Caen, the actual Caen where my train arrived, is a landlocked town some 16 kilometres from the English Channel.
The spurious ‘Caen’ of my ferry booking is actually a place called Ouistrehem, which might look less catchy on the brochure, but has the singular advantage of being geographically accurate.
Good thing I had that spare hour for a rapid bike ride through the misting Calvados rain.
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.
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.
I’m a slow traveller. I’ve taken only one return flight in the last 8 years – and that was to prove to myself that I wasn’t not flying out of pride or habit.
So while the other Thighs of Steel cyclists packed up their bikes and drove out to Sofia airport for a three-hour flight home, I cycled down to the bus station for the first leg in a journey that took three days.
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?
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.
For those of you following closely my twitter feed (ahem), you will know that yesterday I took an unmarked country track from el-Jem to Sfax. This was a slightly risky move, I thought, because the track did not appear on my map and I had no idea where I was or – aside from a vague notion that south was good – where I was going. Continue reading Cycling to the Sahara: On Killer Guard Dogs and Courage