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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.