The Pacific Coast: an abstract and an epilogue

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Abstract

At the beginning of my journey down the Pacific Coast, I stood in my friend’s house in Portland, Oregon, and looked at the huge map of America he had on his wall.

I’d been used to seeing America on the miniature globe on my desk; but, on this large scale, only ever when split into abbreviated day-by-day chunks, on my laptop screen.

At this new, wall-sized, explosion, the distances suddenly looked all the more intimidating. Even my very first day’s ride, planned to arrive at a dot labelled “Manzanita”, looked huge. I could see a long list of towns I’d be passing through. What had seemed like a simple journey along a couple of highways, was now a patchwork of intersections, county and state lines, bays, borders and bridges.

I (again) checked the internet for last minute tips and weather forecasts and happened across the site of an adventure company offering organised tours of a similar route.

“93% of our riders agreed that this tour was “the best thing that they have ever done””

Ever?!

I baulked at the statement (it reminded me of similar claims I read when trying to find a wedding venue – “100% of our couples say that their wedding with us was one of the best days of their lives”!)

Suffering from the jeg-lag of my transworld flight, I set off in pitch dark the following morning. Almost immediately I missed a turn and found myself riding on a giant overpass as commuting traffic squeezed past me at speed.

Carefully does it…. a long way still to go.

The best thing ever? Let’s see.

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Ten and a half days later I slowly rolled up to the front door of my friend’s house  in LA.

I uncleated my shoes, stopped my ride computer and took a few deep breaths.

My arms and legs were buzzing slightly with tiredness.

My face was glowing with wind and sun burn, and I’d grown a wilderness beard.

I’d cycled 1,650 miles.

Along the coast. Through Redwood Forests. Across a desert. Over a mountain range.

My journey was now at an end.

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Epilogue

Now I’m back in Bristol; back at my desk; and back at work.

At this exact point in time, another cyclist will probably be setting out from the Canadian border, making his (or her) way South.

Another ‘me’ will be stopping to take another photo of the Golden Gate Bridge – probably from the exact same view point.

Somewhere they’ll be some other rider, leaning on their bike, trying to summon up those last energy reserves to ride that last 10, 20… 50 miles for the day;

But for 2 weeks, that was me. Living the dream.

Of course, my rolling up to a friend’s house in LA wasn’t “The End”. Nothing stopped at that arbitrary line in the sand

Neither was my pitch dark departure “The Beginning”. Before that there was the flight from Heathrow; the drive to the airport; and the booking of the trip some 8 months ago.

There was that trip to the USA in 2005, that I’d planned but never went on.

There was the map of the world on my bedroom wall when I was still at school – complete with pins of where I’d been; and where I’d wanted to go.

And a generation ago, there was my Granny, riding her fixed gear bike in the Cairngorms of Scotland – up the hill to Tomintoul. Before my dad. Before he met my mum. Before me.

And there was me in Southmeads Hospital in March 2015, digesting the fact that I’d just been diagnosed with MS.

Me, holding back my emotions as I tried to cycle down the hill to work, but barely with the strength to lift my legs; trying to cycle up the Col du Tormalet as my perceptions of dreams and reality blurred.

There was me, lying on the kitchen floor as my body swirled with vertigo, recovering from my second bout of chemotherapy.

And there was my nadir: being lifted to my feet by a cinema usher as my distorted senses left me unable to leave my chair.

Time existed before, and time will continue to be.

But those 2 weeks did feel like a moment apart.

A wash of memories and landscapes; emotional highs and lows that I will ring-fence as something special.

And – yeah – I’d tick that box.

It might actually have been the best thing I’ve ever done.

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So, back in Bristol; back at my desk; and back at work.

My friend recommends a book called “After the ecstasy, the laundry”.

The next day of now.

I look at some of the photos I took. Somehow none of them quite seem to capture the real essence of the trip – another beach; another view – snapshots in time that don’t quite describe the whole journey. I’ll try and piece them together into a longer ride diary blog when I have time.

1,650 miles of cycling – but perhaps the real challenge is when the riding ends.

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The Pacific Coast: a travelogue

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To some extent, America is a known quantity to us Brits.

My sense of the country has long been channelled by films and TV – so, to some degree, I knew what to expect when I arrived in Portland Airport.

From my first step through US Customs (warmly welcomed by a US cop, complete with gun holster and sparkling policeman’s badge) to the sight of the Hollywood letter boards (as I rolled into LA), this whole trip was to be a satisfying tick-box exercise of all that I imagined the US to be. One by one I was seeing the real versions of all those screen-based myths.

My arrival in Oregon kick-started this theory as “Portlandia” (the TV myth) seemed to be the perfect embodiment of the Portland for real (or vice versa). Tattooed hipsters served me coffee, gave me cycling advice and offered vegan, gluten-free alternatives to every dish.

It dawned on me that I could probably have a very happy holiday just chilling out in that one city…. but quitting my ride before I’d even started would have been the betrayal of a steady drumroll that I had been building up for many months.

I had an adventure to get done.

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On my first day, wide-eyed and fresh, I was enthused by every passing road sign, shop-front and vehicle: “Highways”; “Diner”; “Waffles”; “Pancakes”; “Gallons”; people carriers; 4×4’s. They were the US that I already knew – it felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend.

Actually my first day was a pretty grim route through Portland’s industrial hinterland – but I was far too excited to care. With a boyish excitement I was served free refills of coffee; paid small sums with big wads of single dollar bills; left tips; passed green and yellow road signs; and turned right (legally!) on red lights. After one, then two, visits it became clear that every diner would remind me of that scene in Pulp Fiction. The only shame was the Brexit-related devaluation of the pound that I was suffering… but enough politics for here.

 What soon became apparent was the extent to which life on the road had been so dramatically up-scaled. Rather than being squeezed onto the side of a UK road, I cycled, in what felt like relative safety, on a hard shoulder the same width as a full lane. Initially, I stuck to the main highways and, although the flow of passing traffic never abated, it passed with a cruising calmness I wasn’t used to – 40-50mph, rather than with a roaring acceleration nearer to 70. The theme of this ‘upscaling’ was everywhere, and remained for my whole trip: from the trees, to the food portions, landscapes and people.

 This was a country built upon road transportation. The highways bulldozed straight from A to B, through towns and over rivers – rather than dabbling around them like they do at home. Rather than peering round one turn after another, I got used to re-orientating myself at an intersection to see my route road disappearing off to the horizon – tarmac shimmering with hazy mirages in the sun.

 Upscaled too was what I was trying to achieve. My plans demanded ~250km of cycling everyday and, from the very start, I treated these distances with a nervous respect. Rather than racing breathlessly to my rest-stop each night, I cruised, rather more in keeping with the feel of the traffic, and stopped frequently, always aiming to carry more food and water than I could possibly need. I was racing no one, but was there instead to breathe in the sights.

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It took me almost most 100 miles of cycling to actually get to the Pacific Coast and then I smelt the sea before I saw it. One more small hill later, and suddenly it was there: The Pacific Ocean – out as far as the eye could see. It would become my orientating compass for the next 10 days; the huge, featureless mass to my right. Throughout my tour, a steady, inland breeze pretty drifted in from its waves.

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Each variation of landscape had in common this same sense of overwhelming scale – from the beaches, to the hills, farms, ranches and forests. Even the sky felt bigger as it played out its daily pattern of dawn mists followed by a steady rise in temperature to a deep afternoon blue. I wasn’t used to seeing so much of it at once.

These are the images that I imagined remembering: the photogenic and the ‘grand’. Every morning with my early starts, I enjoyed the pre-dawn air, seeing first the moon and stars and then the sunrise.

 It’s a paradox of cycling touring, though, that at the very same time my world was growing, it was also shrinking down to the minutiae. The road surfaces ebbed and flowed and drove my moods: from the sleekest of new tarmacs that I floated over; to cracked and blistered old road coatings that had been scrunched up and wrinkled by the elements. At its worst, every passing metre jarred my bike and rattled its frame. 

I wiped tiny grains of sand from my drivetrain each time I passed close to a windswept beach; and I eeked out my small tubes of suncream and saddle-cream so that they would last the trip. It was only on the 10th day that I, at last, could use with abandon what was leftover.

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In the early stages of the tour, I began to wonder whether I was destined to be stuck on the larger highways throughout. But those early thoughts soon became distant concerns. The ride took me on a sliding scale of minor roads, down to the far end of the spectrum where the tarmac disappeared and the surface turned to gravel, and then sand.

Early in the ride, I also began to wonder whether the closest I’d come to seeing some American wildlife was an exotic spread of road-kill. I slalomed through squashed raccoons, deer (one enormous one, I assumed to be an elk?), squirrels, possums, chipmunks, snakes and even skunks (which stank as much as I’d read as a boy). I went past what looked to me like large porcupine (do they exist in California?) and an armadillo (again, is that even possible?!). Slowly though, these cadavers made way for more uplifting sights – however, even these were only drip fed through: at first, I heard the raucous bark of some sea-lions; then saw the speckled dots of seals out on a rock (black dots even to my telescopic camera lens).

The sight of whales spurting out their plumes of water ended up being a rather deflating encounter: with the jolly tone of someone that had spent too long in my own company I gate-crashed a guided group of whale watchers. When asked if I knew what I was looking for, I quipped, “Something like a big fish….?!” My humour with met with such deadpan distain that I reversed my bike back out onto the road somewhat crestfallen that I’d lost the ability to communicate with my own species.

By the end of the trip, though, I’d had to cover my face as I rode through a flapping group of vultures picking food at the roadside; stood pin-drop-quiet within touching distance of a group of deer; and even accidently created a road-kill of my own as I rode straight over a sun-basking snake (despite my best efforts to jump it). I’d watched raccoons and chipmunks steal food from a veranda where I sat, as humming birds buzzed around them; and I’d photographed big herds of wild elk (although this did involve pushing aside other tourists to get a line of sight). The scariest wildlife was, perhaps, best left to hints and suggestion: road-signs revealed the presence of bears and coyotes – but the closest I got was hearing the tale that a cyclist had ridden into a bear only 2 weeks earlier and had a broken arm to show for it.

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Highway 101 was the main artery of the route and, at times, it was a big, brash speedway – but I was often grateful to it for sucking away some fast miles.

Highway 1 was its little brother. The not so big, not quite so brash, tributary, that often dipped closer to the cliffs and waves, and ducked through smaller towns with less brazenly.

Then there were all those other roads that weren’t deemed deserving of a number. These were nearly always the most scenic, but were also the most haphazard.

Navigation could have been made easy by just staying on the 101 but that would have meant 10 days on a dual carriageway so I took the detours in good humour.

 I only got badly lost once – predictably trying to escape the conurbation of San Francisco. I found myself, firstly, trying to climb a single track Mountain Bike circuit (as several riders descended at break-neck speed towards me); then, potentially more seriously, at the entrance to a long road tunnel having just passed a sign stating that “cyclists take alternate route”.

Following a tiny pink line of a cycling GPS computer has its own drawbacks (and bonuses). A couple of times I emerged from the deep cover of “inland” forests to suddenly find myself atop an ocean cliff (on one occasion, I did so at such pace that I almost found myself through the barrier before I could compute my surprise that I’d hit the coast).

On my first day, as if to dispel any danger of overconfidence in my whereabouts in the world, I rode past a concentration of tobacco stores – reminiscent of a tax-dodging border crossing, I mused – before I passed a “Welcome to Oregon” sign. All very well – although I hadn’t realised that I’d ever left that state…..

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 The towns, like the roads, changed in character the further South I went.

In North Oregon, the flatter coastal plain lent itself to enormously long bridges as the 101 traversed over one river mouth after another.

A couple of these constructions looked like a packet of drinking straws held together with blue-tack – and as though they’d be built by arguing factions, so dramatically their style changed half way across.

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The many inlets held towns trying themselves to bridge a gap – between half fishing industry; half tourist-chique. Some cafes were staffed by hipsters straight out of Portland; others, more aligned to the rough and tumble of industrial fishermen.

As the shoreline steepened into more pronounced bays, surfers, and surfing competitions appeared. I sat eating my morning porridge, amongst young athletes squeezed into their own versions of lycra cladding, and reflected on how much cooler surfers were compared to an equivalent set of breakfasting audaxers. The scene reminded me of “Point Break” and, later, I had the smug satisfaction of finding out that the film had indeed been shot there. Descending into such bays, the roads often became awash with sand and I tip-toed on my bike.

It wasn’t until I approached San Francisco that a new type of culture appeared. Roadside diners started to air their menus in Spanish and the oatmeal and omelettes of my early days were replaced by burritos and fajitas. The price of burritos plummeted from a $13 hipster snack to a $5 working lunch – served in a dense wrap the size of my own forearm. Fellow customers ordered in Spanish and smiled politely at our limited exchanges.

I was very consciously focussing my diet on proteins – yoghurts, shakes, bars (and chicken burritos) and as the days went past I grew in confidence that I’d get the mileage done.

Eat right, sleep right.

I was eating over 6,000 calories a day, and making sure that I slept for 8 hours a night.

Perhaps I’d learned these necessities the hard-way on previous tours – but, riding on my own, these were easy rules to follow. I could follow every whim of my appetite and body-clock when and as I wanted. After a few days, I’d built up a fairly dependable daily pattern consisting of a large breakfast, mid-morning coffee, early lunch, a mid afternoon sugar stop, then a large dinner, with further snacks after I’d found a bed for the night. During the course of my tour I actually lost 2.5kg- but overall I feel that this was a healthy weight-loss, rather than a physical deterioration.

Unlike the majority of other cyclo-tourers I met, I was not camping. Instead, I was holing up in the cheapest accommodation I could find each night, usually booked on “AirBnB”. The eclectic range of places I lay my head could be a blog onto itself – during the trip I checked in to a: campsite, mobile home, flat, condo, garage, farmhouse, motel, cottage and RV site. Some came with warm hospitality, others did not, but all I needed was a bed and a shower (although perhaps I’ll give some better reviews than others (!))______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Although the sea was the predominant feature, my route did have its other “chapters”: forests, farmlands and even desert (which I’ll come on to). And unlike the day rides I’m used to doing around Bristol – these were huge tracts of land that I didn’t just shoot past, but I rode through for mile after mile.

The Redwood Pines – and their national park – took me 2 days. Simplistically a day and a half of steady climbing, then one great, rushing descent. Much of this time was spent in the chasm between vast tree trunks (and through the famous ‘drive-through-tree’). The feel of the air was almost magical: windless, still and silent; the smell of the pines; and their dappled light. These trees did indeed feel like giants – “The Avenue of the Giants” an apt name. Here the roads were emptier too – on the morning of the long descent I barely saw another vehicle.

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As I passed through the forest on the tarmac, I pondered how magical the woods must have been just 100 metres to either side. I felt dwarfed even on my well trodden road.

For me, these were the highlight of my trip. I was moving from A to B at the pace set by my itinerary – but this was the area that most demanded to be revisited.

Even the intimidating passage of large logging trucks left behind, not the smell of polluting diesel, but the scent of resin and timber – not unlike a 5-star sauna.

 Whenever I left the cooling breezes of the coast, the temperatures quickly rose from the comfortable low 20s to above 30. Rather than the ascents being little and often, they became more substantial as I flirted with the mountain ranges parallel to the sea. Nearer to San Francisco, I passed through ranch country and saw groups of actual cowboys, riding actual horses, with actual lassoes. It crossed my mind that they were probably tourists on a ‘cowboy tour’ but I took a photo of the dusty ranchlands in the background, and a huge long chain of single file, brown cattle plodding across dry grasslands.

Only 30 miles inland and the feel of the country was very different.

I was served by a man wearing a T Shirt: “#1 gun safety rule? OWN ONE”; flies attacked me when I stopped, and for the first time I began to run out of water before I reached the next town.

I stayed the night in an “RV Site” on a simple mattress. My host’s vest read “My momma told me I could be whatever I wanted? I chose to be an ASSHOLE.”

I could tick-off a couple of Simpsons characters from my list of must-see America.

Tricky to articulate, but it felt as though the locals were used to tougher times, and had less indulgence for a cyclo-tourist visiting their town just for fun.

Where the inland was flatter, crop farming displaced the cattle. Enormously vast irrigated fields stretched as far as I could see.

Perfectly coiffeured rows of grapes, asparagus, lettuce, artichokes and sod (turf) filled the air with their respective scents. The roads here were incredibly flat, and remarkably straight. But, perhaps surprisingly, my speeds never seemed to rise on these stretches. There was no shelter from the winds and the surfaces were grainy compared to the highways, but in ~2 days of riding I never felt boredom at their repetition. I found myself fascinated at the never-ending rows of geometric precision and the sheer scale of production.

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As I type out these experiences, I reflect that these intermittent sights are the punctuation points which gave my trip structure. They are the chapter headers, the paragraph breaks and the full-stops. The binding agent, and the flow of the whole trip, was, of course, the riding of my bike. My itinerary comfortably allowed for detours and photo-opportunities; expresso-stops and shopping trips; but also demanded steady progress. I set my alarm at 5.30am every day and was on the road soon after 6. I typically would start to set up for the night around 12-13 hours later; get a shower; clean my bike; then chill out for barely 15 minutes before sleep.

Over and over again I’d do a mental checklist of body and bike:

Bike…. tyre feeling a tad soft; brakes perhaps slightly misaligned. A gear or two grating; a strange creaking – I think from the seat post? The headset needed retightening; the tri bars had come slightly loose; a bottle-cage was rattling

Body…. my right metatarsal niggled away; my left achilles began to grow sore. My calf muscles took turns in feeling fatigued and needing a stretch; and, by the end of my trip, both my knees were worsening with tendonitis.

A strained muscle deep in my right thigh caused the greatest concerns – early in the tour I strapped it once, then twice, and eventually added a third bandage before that pain started to subside around days 4 and 5. My right hip hurt periodically (probably linked) and my lower back during extended periods in an aero position. Shoulders and neck grew stiff and my biceps tired when the road surface was poor. The palms of my hands developed tender blisters and my wrists went numb. Despite slightly obsessive application of suncream, the back of my neck, cheeks and knees all burned in the sun, and the left side of my face and scalp bristled with an MS-tingle that felt like shingles. I got a toothache, and a sore throat. My saddle sores steadily worsened with each passing mile. On one day, I had to pick out a large fly from my right eye and smarted for hours afterwards.

I listened to them all. Adapted where possible. Assessed their messages, and split hairs between complaint and damage.

I don’t like drugs, anti-inflammatories or painkillers, believing that they distort what you hear – but on my final day did I succumbed to the whining from my knees took some ibuprofens.

This wasn’t a race. This was a quest for steady progress – I just had to keep my arms around the various risks at play.

As I planned my route, the one day that stuck out most ominously was just south of San Francisco. Because a landslide that had closed the coastal road, I was forced inland, through the desert from Salinas to Paso Robles. I was nervous about the distance (my longest day); the climbing (biased entirely to the end of the day); and the temperatures (which were likely to be in the mid-30s).

Although that day indeed proved to be the toughest, as so often with cyclo-touring, the greatest challenge was actually an unexpected one – and it brought me as close to quitting as I got.

Advised against the 101 for this stretch, I had picked a route on minor roads, but, although I diligently started very early to try to mitigate the day’s heat, their cracked and ruptured surfaces almost brought me to my knees. It felt as though I was riding over a sea of cobbles that went on and on, mile after mile, as the sun rose ominously in the sky and the temperatures rose. My speed on the flat dropped to 11, 10mph. On occasion I’d hit a stretch of resurfaced road and, with no greater effort, would accelerate up to 18, 19 – before hitting the cracks again and dropping right back down.

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I was breaking.

I stopped at a railroad crossing and to my delight ticked off another couple of my must-sees. Firstly, a steel Amtrak passenger train creaked past. Then a the huge long snake of a commercial goods train. It groaned and squealed past for carriage after carriage, perhaps a mile long. My resilience picked up.

Then, after I’d barely seen a car all day, a utility truck drove past – on its flatbed was a pile of inflatable rubber rings and 2 bikini clad women (one wore the stars and stripes – tick). They hollered at me – “Hey baby!!” – before leaving me in their dust (perhaps they were heading to LA as well?) That was enough to bring back the humour to my predicament. I pushed on to Paso Robles and was soon ordering a large iced coffee as I sat by its lush green, irrigated town square.

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If San Francisco hung on my experience of riding over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge [anything from Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ to Michael Bay’s ‘The Rock’], my arrival in LA was the procession of iconic place names and beaches as I rode into movieland.

The ocean road [fact] felt plucked straight from the opening credits of “Big Little  Lies” [myth] – and the seafront houses grew in glamour and glitz. I thought of Sharon Stone’s sea-top mansion from Basic Instinct, and I passed through Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice & ‘Muscle’ Beaches, and – yes – I saw the Hollywood letterboards. I can’t even remember which, or how many films, I’ve seen then in before – but the beach towers were quintessentially Baywatch and I took a photo of their wide expanses of sand.

I’d spent so many hours in relative seclusion, meditating and day-dreaming, that the busy LA roads felt pretty foreign and jarring.

For days I’d been able to smooth over all the many mental stresses of my life: I’d rolled them over and over in my mind – like pebbles in the Pacific swash – until their rough edges had smoothed, smoothed, then smoothed away. Some disappeared entirely – but none jarred anymore.

I’d got to a state of inner peace that I’ve rarely known before – left in the isolated bubble of my own devices, my yin and yang were more balanced than ever. Past regrets, future stresses, hopes and fears had all dissipated and I felt a sadness at having to leave this new equilibrium.

But the tour was coming to an end.

Car horns sounded in the LA streets and my reveries were about to be sucked back into the chaos of a shared, real life.

My old friend opened his front door and smiled.

I lent my black bike against the white-washed walls of his garage and took up his offer of a cold can of ginger ale.

This was where the cycling stopped.

  

The Pacific Coast.

Unforgettable stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planning

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This week I fly to Portland, Oregon.

I’m planning to cycle the Pacific Way, down the West Coast of the USA.

This has been a trip over a decade in the making – since I first sketched out a route and added it to my ‘bucket list’.

More recently, it has been 8 months in the planning. During which time I’ve booked flights, bought kit… and cycled over 10,000 miles in preparation.

It’ll be a testing tour – and will involve cycling some long distances over some very varied terrain, through some very varied weather conditions.

I hope I’m ready for it.

And, yes, I hope it’ll be fun.

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The first time I ever really rode a bike was ~20 years ago.

A Raleigh Pioneer bought for £195.

I bought it not to commute, nor to pop down to the shops (for which it was probably built), but to cycle from Lands End to John O’Groats – some 1,200 miles.

Never having ridden more than 5 miles in a day I wasn’t sure how long this might take – the local bike shop suggested perhaps 60 miles a day – so, being a young man, I planned on nearer a hundred, booked a train ticket to Truro and photocopied about 40 pages of my Grannys’ Road Atlas of the UK to stuff into my back pack.

I wore my running shoes, gym vest and tracksuit trousers and packed my bobble hat and golfing-waterproofs in case of rain.

On Day 1, I bought a 5-pack of Mars bars in case I needed boosts of energy along the way.

I didn’t pack a spare inner tube, nor a puncture repair kit. I didn’t even know that you could get punctures on a bicycle – let alone how to change a tyre.

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This year I mull over which of my wheels, and tyres, to take. Given that most of the route is likely to be on decent surfaces – albeit with the liklihood of rain – I opt for my lighter, “race” wheels coupled with winter tyres – more puncture resistant and with greater grip should the roads get slippy. I do worry that a broken spoke on this option will pose a significantly greater risk – but, on balance, I figure I’d be unlucky if that happened.

I’ve downloaded my route into my handheld GPS unit, and I’ve packed a spare.

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20 years ago, on my second day of riding, I started to feel dizzy with hunger and tiredness.

I had arrived at my first night’s hostel well after sunset and had eaten only a simple dinner of boiled pasta.

Mid-morning, barely 20 miles into the day, my bike had wobbled to the verge of the road and I’d been forced to lie down on the ground, unable to carry on. Eventually I found my way to a pub, waited for it to open, and then ordered two lunches and a pint of coke.

I hadn’t realised how hard this “holiday” of mine might beBy the end of Day 3, pretty much the whole of my backside was red-raw with saddle-soreness. I stopped at a chemists and bought an industrial tub of vaseline. It dawned on me that cycling with cotton boxer shorts was a bad idea, so experimented with going “commando” instead – which was no better.

That night, in Tiverton, my hands were so numb from their unfamiliar position of the day that I couldn’t hold my cutlery at dinner – and ended up having to shovel in my pasta, with a great deal of slurping.

But, despite all this, the trip was beginning to feel like a proper adventure. I was learning every minute… and was excited about what I was doing.

The close knit, patchwork fields of Devon and Cornwall, with their sharp, twisty climbs and tall hedges, slowly gave way to a less confined landscape as I rode up the Welsh borders.

I was learning what and how to eat more sensibly – and how often I needed to stop and rest.

 I made my way through the industrial (ex-industrial) heartlands of the Midlands – through towns I had previously only known through their famous football teams – and, by the time heavy rains came through Northern England and the Lake District, I was on a high. I had almost ridden the length of England, and I was no longer just surviving, I was enjoying

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My arm- and leg-warmers are lightweight and flexible enough for changing weather conditions. I’m going to pack a couple of protein bars and energy gels should I be caught short.

By much trial and error, I’ve lately been wearing my “Ale” shorts for long rides – combined with Assos cream they’re as good as I’ve found for avoiding any chaffing. Although they’re expensive, I long-ago decided that they were worth the investment given the amount of cycling I do.

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 It was only when I was half-way up Scotland that I dared to think that I might actually get the whole way to John O’Groats. Suddenly it began to seem actually within range.

But my bike was beginning to really creak and grind. The incessant rain, which had lasted a few days, and associated road-grit, felt as they were bringing me to a standstill. I stopped in a layby for shelter and saw that my chain was almost wholly brown with rust, and was almost locked to my touch.

By happenstance, at that moment a farmer appeared out of the rain on his tractor. I showed him my problem and, by way of a prompt can-do response, he opened up an oil can and doused the whole of my bike in thick engine oil before rubbing it in with a cloth. He asked where I was heading, and when I told him, he laughed uproariously before driving off, leaving me to the stench of diesel.

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This year, I’ve packed a miniature bottle of bike oil. Each night I’ll be cleaning my bike, re-indexing my gears and adjusting my brakes. As well as a pump, I’ll pack a few CO2 cannisters to ensure I can get my tyres up to adequate pressure.

I worry again about my choice to go with my lighter, less robust wheels

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When I got to John O’Groats it left like something of an anti-climax. I was alone. And it was still raining.

However, as I turned back towards my hostel for the night a small cluster of other cyclists pulled in.  They were proper cyclists – with road bikes, lycra…. and probably their own spare inner tubes. Then I recognised them – I’d seen them many days before near the Scottish Border. They seemed genuinely delighted to see me –

“- No way!

– Can’t believe you made it

– We never thought you would!!!

– The man in the bobble hat!

For the first time, ‘cycling’ offered some sense of pride too.

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I think back to me, 20 years ago.

I knew then that, through sheer youthful exuberence, I had managed to force a square peg through a round hole, and cycle the length of the country.

That night, I had celebrated with youthful exuberence and drunk (much too much) whiskey in the nearest Scottish pub.

On my return journey back South, I had met up with an old friend in Edinburgh, and through sheer youthful exuberance, we had stayed up all night drinking (much too much) whiskey in pretty much any Scottish pub we could find.

Now not so youthful, and perhaps not so much exuberence, but the lure of life still feels as strong as ever.

These last few months? They have been training for me. Training for my trip to the USA to come. The roads have been leading to here.

Time, if ever it were needed, for my MS to stay in its box.

To ride every road. The Coast of Wales 500

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The website ‘Strava’ can generate “heatmaps” – visual summaries of every road you’ve ever ridden.

For me, immediately around my house and work, almost every road is painted in red. Then, as the map expands, these red lines spread out and the cluster of colour dissipates into thinner and thinner tendrils of exploration, until they, too, turn back to whence they came.

There are other epicentres of activity around my other cycling-haunts: North London, the Cairngorms – and even the Alps. Red lines of memories which serve as a my photo albums and diary.

I’ve started to look at these maps as I plan my next rides – to fill in missing roads and find new ones.

On a recent ride with my local cycling pals, I got excited about a new left turn – and announced my goal: “to cycle every road”.

“What? ‘Every road’ where – in the Cotswolds?”

“No, no, my friend…. in the world”

Much still to do.

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This last week I did a multi-day ride around the coastal perimeter of Wales.

Although coastal cycling is exposed, and often with tough gradients, it certainly rivals mountain ranges for dramatic scenery.

I started in the South-Eastern corner, crossing into Wales via the Severn Bridge, before passing along the South Welsh riviera (the industrial conurbations of Port Talbot and Cardiff); through the summer holiday crowds around the Gower and St Davids; then up, North, along quieter and more rugged roads towards Snowdonia. The North-West was to see a much flatter profile along a sweeping floodplain all the way up to the Isle of Anglesey. Having gone all that way, I insisted on doing a loop of that island before heading East, back across the top of the principality to Chester Train station and a much faster (and motorised!) journey home.

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Riding across the South of Wales felt a bit constricted.

The roads were busy with chains of holiday traffic and every town was beset by traffic lights and queues at the coffee shops. All the cars seemed to want to be somewhere else, and to be getting there in a hurry.

I largely stuck to minor roads, but kept accidently finding myself on dual carriageways – where I felt obliged to cycle as fast as my legs could carry me to get away from the revs of impatient drivers.

I took photos of smokestacks, steelworks and industrial recycling centres. These ‘cycling-badlands’ were the same roads where I’ve had to swerve to avoid a dead horse; and had bricks thrown at me whilst a group of kids shouted “Go Forest!” [which, I guess, is pretty funny…].

Cardiff Bay did offer a bit more sheen with its fancy Assembly Building, boardwalks and tidal barrier – but the first real beach I came to was at Swansea, where misty rain was herding the tourists into steamy tearooms.

Tenby has a beautiful beach, but the town was bursting at the seams with visitors. It was only when I “turned the corner” at Pembroke, and started heading North, that the landscape really opened up. In the morning on my second day, the sunshine was desperately trying to burn through, and succeeded enough so that the beaches started to dot with multi-coloured bathers for my obligatory photos. Riding alongside the tourist railway at Aberdovery was a real highlight and, by then, the sea was glittering.

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A hint of a tailwind and even my route miscalculations started doing me favours – a wrong turn near Barmouth meant that I could catch a speedboat across the river whilst a gaggle of fascinated children asked me every question under the sun about my tri-bars and lycra (!)

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By the time I crossed the Menai Bridge into Anglesey, I had started to curse the buffeting cross-winds a bit. But I was where I wanted to be – in the great outdoors – and it felt a very long way from an office desk. The road came to an end in Holyhead, and I could go no further north.

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Heading back to the East along the top of Wales took me along a remarkable web of interconnected cycle-ways. They bobbed and weaved up, down, over and around the coastal road – at times, ocean spray dowsed my bike and windblown sand threatened a wheel-spinning skid. I was tired after a few long days of riding, but a steady drip-drip of beautiful photo opportunities kept me enthused: Llandudno castle, the oceanic wind farms out at sea, the spikey coastal defences at Penmaenmawr and the occasion tourist honey-pots of a pleasure beach. For lunch, I sat with my feet dangling in the huge seafront paddling pool at Llandudno, feeling quite as happy can be.

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The last 20km or so I rode on the extrordinary “concrete beach” along past Rhyl. The camber of this storm defence pulled me towards the surf of hightide; I wobbled a bit uncertainly in the gusty winds and cagily overtook dogwalkers.

I could see England again in the distance – and it began to feel like a good time to turn off whilst I was still ahead.

I stayed my last night with my sister’s in-laws.

I arrived pretty roughed up by the weather. And pretty tired.

The dad laughed, “I can’t believe you’ve done all that in 3 days – it’d take me that long to drive it!”

I was fed a delicious dinner.

As I looked in the mirror tonight I thought how tired I looked. My hands were buzzing with pins and needles – they were in my left cheek and neck too, which has become a new symptom of late. My arthritic knee felt particularly stiff and sore.

I am very much looking forward to a nice new, circular red line on my “heatmap”.

 

Why. NW Scotland.

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Why? 

I’ve spent the last few days cycling around northern Scotland.

I dipped my toes in the North Sea to one side, and the Atlantic to the other.

At times, the road across to Lochinver felt as if it were on the moon. Remote, desolate and windswept. A water-coloured and washed-out landscape dripping with drizzle and mists. The wind blew on and on – even when I fell asleep at night it still echoed in my ears, then in my dreams.

The skies were of every conceivable colour – all at once. From a single viewpoint I could see greys, blues, whites and blacks – and every combination in between. Parts of the landscape were bathed in sunlight, whilst, way off in the distance, I could see what looked like heavy rain.

It felt good for the soul.

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To a cyclist long-used to the pottering, enclosed country lanes around the Cotswolds, the scale of the Scottish landscapes were pretty breath-taking in grandeur. Mountains, lochs, coastal inlets and isles disappeared to the horizon.

These roads have existed for longer than I have, but an interesting phenomenon has taken place over the last couple: these roads have been packaged up and sold as a product ready for tourist consumption – “The North Coast 500”. Designed to boost the remote area’s economy, these beautiful roads have been given a name, T-shirts and memorabilia have been put on sale and sign-posts have appeared reminding foreign visitors not to drive on the right. In this way, this landscape, that isn’t ‘owned’, has somehow been boxed up (and gift-wrapped) for the hoards – and the impact has been remarkable.

All the locals I spoke to relayed an enormous growth in visitor numbers; and I was overtaken by a procession of foreign number plates: French cars; and German, Dutch & Danish campervans.

When I stopped at picnic sites, I overheard families chit-chatting in Italian, and tour-guides calling out in one, two, then three, languages. The hosts seem a bit begrudging of this ‘boost’ though as the roads have crowded up and litter bins have filled to overflowing. Even the hostel-owner I spoke to lamented that they were now fully booked all the time (oh no!).

Whilst acknowledging that this was peak season, some bottlenecks did feel at capacity. And some drivers’ patience with cyclists was wearing a bit thin.

“Why don’t you get a feckin’ car?!”

And, the slightly more constructive,

“Turn your feckin’ lights on!”

(I preferred the, “Go! Go! You crazy cyclist!”)

Cars drove from one designated viewpoint to the next. Coaches followed.

The hassle of disembarking proved too much for some – I saw one couple stop in the middle of the road as the driver filmed from his seat, and his passenger leant fully out of the window to take a photo.

Coinciding my arrival at one spot with a coach-load of snappers, I tentatively asked a rather rotund, friendly looking man if he’d mind please taking a photo of me,

“No, no, I’m not at work now.”

His “North Coast 500” T-shirt, replete with bus logo, barely covered his sitting-in-a-coach-for-500-miles belly.

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Luckily the area I covered was large enough so that much of the time I felt removed from the busy world. At one point, I came to a stop because a cluster of four stags were blocking the road barely ten metres in front of me. We eyed each other nervously for a minute or so before they slowly walked off and into the trees.

On my second night, I ended up cycling almost 30 miles to find anywhere that would sell me anything that I could eat for dinner (a can of bean-hash, and a bag of Scottish teacakes that had gone out of date yesterday).

And, the next morning, pretty hungry, I rode for over three hours before I eventually found an open cafe. At 10am, I was the only (rather bedraggled) customer.

“Hi. I could really do with a hot drink please.”

“Hmmmm.” The hostess looked hesitant.

“We are booked up for lunch.”

The neatly laid tables all had notes reserving themselves for the next coach party at midday.

I managed to twist her arm into a quick 10 minute window for a coffee and soup.

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If the first two-thirds of the trip were the joyous pleasure of a new landscape explored, the last leg was more of a battle as I was buffeted by wind and rain.

My right knee was hurting (and neck and back and metatarsel) and I was having to adjust my pedal strokes accordingly. I was feeling far from my best.

Increasingly thirsty, hungry and getting a few shivers – I wondered whether my snood, which was now wet, was still shielding me from cold, or exacerbating it.

Ruminations and concerns of earlier in the ride – mortgages, jobs & healthcare – had dissipated away and I was left with the basics of needing food and drink, and riding back towards my love for my family.

The meditation of cycling does mean that, when all else is stripped away, what really matters can step to the fore with an overwhelming clarity.

I considered how I must keep this perspective when I get home.

Maybe this isn’t “The Why” – but it feels like something important, worth writing about.

Love, life. Wind on your back, rain in your face, and fresh, clean air.

The glorious North Coast 500. Or 350 miles of it anyway.

 

 

 

Whey?

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It’s funny old game, cycling.

Especially cycle-touring.

Trying to do something bigger, faster, more adventurous, more exciting… more new… more “more” than before.

Seeing what you can do, and where you can go, seems to be an exercise in, bit by bit, identifying limiting factors, then one by one trying to overcome them.

Planning to do some high mileage adventuring this summer, my latest concerns have been calorific. The challenge was to try and take on-board, then usefully digest, sufficient foods, all in the right proportions, to keep me running steady, rather than slowly descending down & down until I hit empty (which I do sometimes find to be the case).

The issue appropriate “food intake” has got harder as I stubbornly stick to my self-prescribed “MS Diet” (simplistically, I avoid saturated fats (and dairy)). Having surmounted the initial hurdle of the logistics of new shopping lists, the biggest challenge for me has been taking on enough proteins to keep me fuelled. I’ve spent too much time eating bowls of delicious, fresh and nutritious salads, quorns, veg and pasta – but craving more building blocks before I go to bed.

I strongly believe that listening to your own body (as carefully as you can) is the best measure of what you’re eating too much of, or not enough of, but, in this regard, I haven’t best worked out a way to answer my own demands.

Given all the tablets that my MS condition has necessitated I’ve long eschewed any additional artificial supplements to my diet. I’ve been steadfast in the belief that I didn’t want to consume products born more from the science labs than from the countryside…. until now…..

My stubbornness was ultimately broken when I listened to an interview with long-distance cyclist extraordinaire, Mark Beaumont. In amongst countless other invaluable tip-bits, he was eulogising about the power of the smoothie. I have long turned to smoothie’s for post-ride nutrition – and, off my own back, completely unscientifically (just listening as best I can to my own body), I’ve long gone for milk (non-dairy), oats, banana, (linseeds) and cocoa. And this was a good as I could get it. But, in this interview, Mark was stressing the value of additional whey powder – for the extra protein that a tired body needs.

So, rather against my intuition, I bought myself one of those massive, industrial looking tubs of weight-lifters powder. The packaging even had a bodybuilder flexing his outrageously over-sized biceps on the front.

And I’ve started the course – 1 scoop before a ride; 1 scoop after.

And, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m now a complete convert.

That edge of hunger that I’ve had so often for my many years of cycling has had the edge taken off it.

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My cycling (hobby/habit/obsession) can roughly be described as doubling my calorie needs.

~4,500 a day compared to ~2,200.

Random google-searching suggests that I should therefore be doubling the recommendation of ~60 grams of protein, up to ~120.

The most common hard-hitters, protein-wise, in your average UK diet are red meats (10g per 100g meat). But, as my MS diet has abandoned these, I’d been turning to chicken breast (~8g) and white fish (slightly less). Quorn equivalents slightly less again.

A dinner-serving of each roughly multiplies these figures by x2.5 – i.e a helping of chicken being 20g protein), quorn more like 12-15g.

To get these levels of protein from pulses/beans/lentils you’d be having to eat roughly 1-2 (pre-cooked) cups in a sitting.

My main, and sometimes only, protein-boosts were coming at dinner – my other meals would major in carbs – grains, cereals, pasta, oats – salads and fruits. And lots of coffee.

These (extremely rough) calculations didn’t need too much finessing to see that I was suffering a considerable shortfall in proteins compared to the ~120 grams a day guess-timate I’d come up with. I was probably consuming half (if that) of that figure.

So, 2 scoops of whey protein a day now – that’s a protein-boost of 25 grams. Regards the remaining ‘shortfall’ I’ve been trying to look out for other more ‘natural’ sources to add to my diet as well.

Still trying to listen to you, body – but acknowledging that I sometimes need a nudge in a more sensible direction.

In anticipation of an amusing blog called “Whey? Wye”, I rode my bike over to the Wye Valley and tested my protein-filled legs on some hills. So far so good.

Come back in a few weeks and I wonder if my newly bulging biceps will still fit into my aero cycling tops….

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Footnote:

The cost of supplementing your diet with protein can be a bit prohibitive. I did a quick run-through of my kitchen cupboards and shopping lists – to get the cheapest gram of protein the results are maybe a bit surprising:

Food Type Protein (grams per 100g) Protein (grams) per pack Cost per packet (£) Protein (g) per £
Soya Bread 15.2 122 1.00 121.6
Skimmed Milk 3.6 82 0.99 82.6
Frozen Chicken 25 250 4.50 55.6
Fresh Chicken 31 310 5.79 53.5
Eggs 5.9 89 2.00 44.3
Quark 12 60 1.50 40.0
Baked Beans 4.7 75 2.00 37.6
“Protein” Bread Wraps 16 34 0.90 37.3
Tinned Tuna 26 166 5.00 33.3
Whey Powder 69 345 11.00 31.4
Skyr Yoghurt 9.2 41 1.40 29.6
Frozen Haddock 24 96 3.30 29.1
“Protein” Granola 13 52 2.00 26.0
Quorn Mince 14.5 44 1.79 24.3
Quorn Chicken 13.8 41 1.90 21.8
Quorn Sausages 8.9 22 2.00 11.1

 

La Maratona 2017

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Two years ago I rode a bike event called “L’Etape” – a hilly, mountainous stage plagiarised from the Tour de France. In the week leading up to it, my MS had been rumbling away with rising menace, and on the day itself I somewhat disintegrated on the bike, beset by cramps and issues with my eyesight. It occurred to me then that I might not ever ride a similar event again. Maybe this was something that  I was going to have to surrender to MS. Certainly I still recall most vividly those sensations of body malfunction, clear mental scars that beg future caution.

As I type the above, I consider again how far I feel as though I have come since that day. For last week I rode “La Maratona”. A similarly challenging parcours, this time in the Dolomites rather than the Alps. The total climbing was going to be more; and the hills were going to be steeper.

I may not have “raced” the course – I paced it more akin to a sociable audax – but I did complete it. My MS did briefly raise its head above the parapet, but it was barely a whimper rather than a battle-cry.

Cyclist 1, MS nil.

 

The Event

Road cycling can be a sport so beautifully pure in its simplicity: get on a bike. Ride it.

But, because one of its pleasures is the experience of landscape, I often lift-up the whole process, just so I can drop it down again into vistas anew. Of late: Wales; the Cairngorms; and, on a few memorable occasions, overseas.

Entering “events”, especially abroad, is another matter again: it feels as though you’re transporting the whole circus of bike, bike bag and equipment – like almost moving house for one brief weekend of riding.

Getting to the Dolomites was this to extreme: our party of 5 converged from our far-flung homes via plane and car – with disassembled equipment, wardrobes of kit (“for every season”), bags of energy gels, bar and pills, suncreams and gloves.

We checked into an apartment. We ate pizza at the nearest restaurant we could find.

We spent hours building our bikes back up again from flat-pack – testing brakes, gears and re-inflating tyres.

Registering for the event entailed an hour long queue amongst hoards of fellow cyclists. It meant copies of passports, doctors certificates and insurance forms.

All this just to ride a bike.

The travel, queuing and stresses were exhausting – MS or not. My friends must have been mystified as I slept over 10 hours both the first 2 days. My MS was pricking away; and I had left home without the catheters I sometimes need.

On the morning of the event our alarms went off at 4am. (yes…. FOUR am!), but, when we got to start, we were far from early – and had to join the massed ranks of queuing bikes as we shivered in the pre-dawn cold. I was underdressed; veterans around us donned winter jackets and beanies.

My limbs and muscles felt a bit washed up and tired.

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When the ride did slowly crank into action, my core felt cold, but the roads were too busy to get up any pace or rhythm. The first climb was clogged with cyclists – many tutting at the frustrations of slow progress. At several hairpin bends an approaching wave of clicking sounds washed down the road towards me – cyclist after cyclist clipping out of their cleats as they came to a congested standstill.

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By the time I reached the first summit and started to descend I was still grumpy with cold, and the downhill had to be ridden with the hand-brakes on, as swarms of bikes edged and wobbled round the sharp bends. On one tight turn I had to lock my rear wheel amongst the clutter.

The dark skies were threatening rain. God forbid. I was already wearing my every garment and any rain would have pushed me over the edge. With surprising clarity of logic I realised that if it started raining I would need to give up.

Upon completion of the initial circuit, a large number of riders left the road onto the shorter course – and the tarmac freed up. At last I developed a rhythm on my pedals and my body warmed up. Bit by bit, my muscle aches began to loosen up.  And the temperature was lifting at last – arm warmers even rolled down on the ascents. The next downhill was an exhilarating pleasure and my grumpiness began to melt away into smiles.

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Rather than slaloming between a forest of bikes, I began to look up and soak in the views. The stunning valley-scapes and vertical outcrops of rock. Local residents out to support, rang colossal cow bells as we passed, and I fell into amiable conversation with a young lad from Dublin who was riding at the same pace as me.

Some 50 miles in, I hadn’t needed a food-stop and had the two largest climbs still to go.

I was difficult to gauge how much energy I had initially burned up just staying warm; against how much energy I’d have saved riding at a jogging pace for the first hour or so. I decided to gamble and to hit the penultimate climb without further provisions – little did I know what an absolute beast of an ascent it proved to be.

After the first few kilometres of steepness I grew more and more convinced that it was about to flatten out (it had to?) – but, if anything, it kicked up even more – and I could no longer hide from the fact that I was going to run empty (the dreaded cyclist’s “bonk” when the body’s fuel dramatically runs out). It hit me with about 3km to go – and those last 3,000m were ridden through desperately gritted teeth at barely walking pace. My new friend from Dublin overtook me again, and after a brief chat, kindly handed me an energy gel and joked that he didn’t want me to overtake again before the top.

At the summit’s food stop I drank a litre of coke and sparked up as though I’d be given a shot of adrenalin to the heart.

I hurtled down the last descents, and rode the last long climb (and the final, short one) at, what was for me, race pace.

I effectively time-trialled the last 20km and finished with a sprint alongside a couple of other riders – as we lunged for the line…. (in 1423rd place….)

Upon finishing my body coursed with endorphins and I was buzzing. Over the last miles I had asked my legs, again and again, for more and they’d been able to provide.  I had felt strong, and capable.

I was so invigorated I could barely sleep that night with flushes of excitement, caffeine and sugar-highs.

That, I realised, is why they do it. Those crazy cyclists who transport their lives to the Dolomites just to go on a bike ride.

 

It can make you feel so alive.

 

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After the long, long journey back home my back ached. So did my knees. And shoulders. And muscles and bones.

As I unpacked my bike from its box, I discovered that the rear derailleur (which shifts the back-gears) had snapped off in transit.

They’re not easy, these so-called events. This so-called life.

But if you don’t do such things, your life would just be a straight-line…. I quite like the bumps, and the hills.