That was it. Bugger this, I was getting off and walking.
I’d got up to the peak of the hill after a ride that took it’s toll on my hips almost as soon as the road began to rise, stopped off at the top, done a quick report into the camera, took a leak against a tree, then joyfully continued on. My bike felt like it was getting heavier with each and every passing inch of road, and it was a relief to find the road had begun to go down again.
So I hopped back on, and wheeled down a little, only to find it all leveled out, then began to rise again. I gritted my teeth, dug deep down inside myself some more, and forced myself uphill once more.
And up. And up.
There were two lads sitting amongst the drab, dull – brown heather by the side of the road, their mountain bikes lying next to them. “Was that not the summit”? I grunted as I got up close.
“Bloody hope so, we’re fucked” came a cutglass Scots accent in reply.
I nodded, stood up in the stirrups so my nose was over the handlebars, found the lowest gear I could take, and continued on. And up.
Eventually, my breath coming in gasps and fits, my hair drenched in sweat poking out from under my cap, the road leveled out once more, and I pulled over at the peak and gulped down some water in a frenzy. I figured it would help make the bike lighter, too.
I fished the camera from my pack and filmed the vista. Apart from the trees ahead, there was almost a 360 degree view of everything, well worth the journey up here to the top. To the left, way in the distance under a grim grey sky, the occasional lorry revealed the presence of the M6. There were no birds, no signs of life but the wind whining through the trees. I wondered how high I was, and how far I’d come, and spent a while feeling the breeze chill the sweat on my back, under the guitar bag.
No time to rest too long, though – I was on a schedule, and here came the fun part. I kicked my legs out, moved up the final part of the crest, and looked forward to wheeling my way back down again.
Only to find the road turned a corner, and began to go up. Steeply.
“Aw, for FUCK’S SAKE”! quoth I, in obvious delight, and began to pedal slowly onwards.
This was Shap, ladies and gentlemen, about 7 or 8 miles north of Kendal, and the biggest obstacle I’d had to face on my journey so far. Hard enough to tackle at the best of times, and especially not with a fully loaded up bike that seemed to weigh as much as my car.
I made the ride as best as I could, and when the pain stepped up a level into agony, I got off and walked. The road rose, turned corners, and continued to rise further. Just walking up and pushing the bike was hell in itself.
The guys with the mountain bikes caught me up, back in the saddle as I wheeled the bike along the road.
“Taking a break”? one greeted me cheerfully.
“Just done 160 miles in the last couple of days” I offered back, in between gulps of air.
They nodded, and we high – fived as they drew level.
“We’ve just done 500”, the Glaswegian accent continued. “We’re doing John O’Groats to Land’s End to raise money for the baby unit”.
For a country moment, we all stopped and stared at one another, and at the wind whipping over the desolate surroundings, halfway up to heaven in the centre of the big X that marks the middle of nowhere.
“Are we all bloody mental, or what”?
“You’re fucking mental” continued the random passerby, quite of out the blue, blurring past me as I filmed in the grounds of Carlisle Cathedral. Proof, if it were needed, that you never need take a dickhead with you on a journey – one will always present themselves when you get to where you’re going.
Coupled with my experiences of the previous night, and knowing that you can’t judge an entire place by the presence of one or two vocal tosspots, I decided there and then that Carlisle was not a town for the likes of me. I popped the camera back into the pack and headed south, stopping only to stock up on chocolate at the last garage I found before the open road.
It’s a very obvious thing, the attitude between driving habits between England and Scotland, when you’re out on a journey like this one. Maybe I’d just been fortunate in my time in Scotland, but it really seemed as though everyone up there was more supportive and friendly towards cyclists. Back in England, there was a much larger preponderance of people cutting me up, beeping their horns, and gesticulating as they passed me in their cars. And as I’m also a motorist, I’m very respectful of cars when I’m out cycling. You know those double yellow lines at the side of the road? I ride with my tyres in between ‘em.
The journey to Penrith was long, rough, but pleasant enough, and without incident. The day was fresh, with the first throes of Autumn in the air, that kind of fresh air that cools the back of your throat and makes you tuck your shirt in for warmth. I found my rhythm pretty quickly, and the bike sauntered along, almost without need for my control.
As I pulled into the main road through Penrith a couple of hours after setting off, the sound of a three piece jazz band was striking up across the town square, and I hopped off to watch. It was a hell of a nice way to arrive anywhere, and I found a place that served a mean bacon butty and put my feet up as they ran through some standards, before getting them to sign my guitar.
“Thirty miles to go, then I’ve a rest day”, I told the singer.
“You’ve got Shap, yet. You’ll have fun, there” came his slightly foreboding reply.
Penrith’s a nice place, and it even has a slight Arthurian connection, so I would have liked to have spent some more time there. I was hoping to wander around and find the locations where they made the film “Withnail & I” (hey, I was a student, once), but a quick google on my iPhone revealed that the majority of it was shot around Milton Keynes. Nix to that, I sighed, and gunned Trigger onwards ever further south.
After seventeen or so miles, and about three north of Shap village, my bike suddenly refused to change gear. The big cog held the chain, and the gear lever wouldn’t move anything. Up ahead, a few hundred yards away, stood a bridge over the motorway, and I made for this with a mind to fix things.
By the time I got there, my rear wheel had come loose and was rubbing against the frame. Fair play, I told myself, all just the Universe’s way of telling me to give the bike a once – over before we got to the hard stuff. I propped the frame against the bridge’s railings above the carriageway, and pulled the all – purpose, fix – anything tool from my pack as traffic whizzed along below.
And that’s when I noticed that the bicycle computer, the one that tells me how fast I’m going and logs all my miles, had stopped recording. I checked that the stud on my front spoke was still attached, jiggled the sensor around that was fixed to the frame. Nothing seemed to be out of place.
For a moment, I felt a wave of despair wash over me, sweeping upwards from the lower part of my face. I’d made a point of wiping my computer on New Year’s Day, so I could record all the miles I did this year. Now it had missed some off, and more to the point, showed no sign of recording any more. Gutted. It had recorded 138 miles for this trip, 564 overall. Sayonara, fair technology.
I put the wheel back on straight, clipped the top from some extraneous gear wire and tightened it all up again. I clicked the cycling app on my phone, the one that uses up the battery a lot, and figured I could use that to log the rest of the journey, and charge it up in Kendal.
And so it was thus that I found myself licking an ice cream in Shap village, not twenty minutes later, wondering exactly what I’d done to upset God that morning. I mentally retraced my steps, reminded myself that all I’d done had been in the name of charity, and figured that this was all some kind of biblical test, or something. Although things seemed a little bleak, Karma would surely recognize all the good I was doing and send its rewards along to help. The universe loves those who help others, I muttered to myself, making a paper boy on his round glance up at me in shock.
And that, right there, was the precise moment that my phone chose to die. Simply blink itself off and refuse to come back on again. The phone I’d been using to document the journey all over the internet and get that money coming in to help fight cancer. The phone that had just been recording my miles.
The one with everybody connected to the pedalo leg of the trip’s numbers on it.
Do you remember that scene in Lethal Weapon, where Riggs and Murtaugh are coming under fire and Murtaugh looks at Riggs and says “God hates me”? Then Riggs looks him square on and replies “hate him back. It works for me”.
I tossed the newly bricked phone into my backpack, rammed my right foot down into the stirrups and set off towards the mountain that lay on the south side of the village – Shap Summit – as fast as I could.
Fuck you, Karma, I’m gonna do this with or without you, you bitch, I chanted to myself through gritted teeth. I flew past a motorway junction, and the road began to sharply rise.
With or without your bloody help.
And that’s where you came in, earlier.
What I found most heartwarming, when I finally pushed Trigger up to the summit of the 5 miles of steadily rising tarmac, was not the view, which stretched out for miles in every direction, as catch – your – breath – in – your – throat – beautiful as it was of the sky as it was of the patchwork quilt landscape. It’s wasn’t even the greetings from the workmen that were dangling out of a cable car between pylons a hundred yard or so to my right.
It was a small marker stone, just less than a man’s full height, that’s set there on the plateau of the summit. And on it, are some words to this effect (I paraphrase here – you can probably google it or something):
“Remember the brave souls who made the journey across Shap on a daily basis, to bring supplies to the villages to the North, in the days before the M6 was built. Remember too, those who gave them food and shelter against the elements, as they made their journeys.”
I felt humbled, and reinvigorated, too. People did this all the time, only fifty or so years ago. It was a good reminder of what people can do, by themselves, with no technology, just the assistance of others.
I stayed long enough to get my breath back, and cool my head by hanging my cap on the handlebars and allowing the breeze to blow my hair. Then I got back on, and pointed Trigger’s nose downhill.
I drifted for almost four minutes without pedaling, whizzing along at a rate that threatened to knock me aside, my fingers never far from the brakes. I wished to got I still had my computer so that I could see my top speed, but alas, it was not to be.
A couple of miles from Kendal, I waved again at the scots guys, taking a water break at the side of the road. They shot me hopeful smiles of camaraderie that seemed to say we did it – we can do anything now.
Then I was in Kendal, with just enough change in my pocket to call my parents, and earn myself some home – cooked food, and a good day’s rest.
Things I learned today
– There’s a lot of roadkill on the Carlisle to Penrith road – 9 today, as opposed to 5 yesterday. Are these creatures just throwing themselves into the road? Animal suicide. Don’t make a role model of a Lemming.
– Have you used a public phone box lately? 60p to make a basic call! I remember when it was 10p, and ten cows for a farthing.
– No matter how hard you find something, someone else has done it every single day. Chin up, you can do it.