Never mind your legs, it’s in your head where it hits you the hardest.
Legs can keep going, see. All you have to do at the beginning of the journey is tell yourself that you’re going to get wet, that you’re going to be tired, and that you’re going to ache in places that you’ve never ached before (not Wolverhampton, I’m referring to your body).
But it’s your mind that takes the brunt of it, and although you can prepare yourself to fight the negativity, it comes upon you in ways you don’t expect.
Let me give you a case in point, right at the beginning of the voyage.
There were two items of my list of Things To Do Upon Hitting 40 that I’d been saving for when the time felt right. I’d been slowly making my way through the list, and using it to get folk to donate to Macmillan Cancer Care – I’d lost both my Gran and my Aunt over the last couple of years, and as I fuckin’ HATE cancer, I figured it was a fun, if a little crazy, way of helping myself through my midlife crisis and doing some good for others at the same time.
So these two were what I thought would be a grand gesture, and they were:
Item #9: Cycle the Trans Penine trail armed only with a tent.
Item #34: Pedal the length of the Lancaster canal in a Pedalo.
As I’d begun to make my way through the list, and pick up some attention, I’d caught the eye of the organisers of Preston’s Tringe festival, who were looking for ways to publicise their festival as much as they could, and as I needed a pedalo, one thing led to another. Like dominos toppling in pretty patterns, over many meetings, scratched heads, late nights and gallons of coffee, it was decided that the local university UCLAN would buy the pedalo, that the Tringe would find the sponsors, and that I’d be the whipping boy for the whole shebag.
My mission was to carry a symbolic torch from the Edinburgh Fringe festival to the Preston Tringe, to highlight a unity in the creative artistry between the two. Like an Olympic Torch, only more ridiculous. Since I’d need to strap it my bike for the first part of the journey, I hit upon the idea of making an actual torch, that could replace my front bike light, only we had no idea how to go about it. Eventually, I settled on the idea of using a guitar. It’s symbolic of creativity, I could carry it on my back in a gig bag, and I could get folk that donated or helped me out along the way to sign it.
People like a stunt y’see, and in my experience, the more ridiculous it is, the more they’re willing to sponsor. And if we pulled it off, this would be my most ridiculous one yet.
Sunday 1st Sept 2013.
At 5.43 pm I stepped out of Edinburgh’s Waverly station carrying the fully loaded, 30 – year – old racing bike that I call Trigger. The guitar was strapped to my back and on the bike’s pannier, over the back wheel, a sports bag containing a tent, sleeping bag, change of clothes, and video camera was fastened on securely by a couple of spider hooks. The whole thing weighed a TON, and it was a far from simple task to hoist it up on one shoulder and carry it up the station’s steps.
As I reached the main road, my piss full of vim and vigour, the first action that Scotland took to me was to blow my hat off and send it merrily along the road as I stood gawking at the architecture. Advantage, Scotland. A passerby got a foot out to it, and I wore it backwards as I fought my way up the hill in the middle of a gale, video camera in hand, documenting as I went. My phone whistled with a text – it was The Gaffer that runs my local texting me a photo of women’s breasts – ‘”to give you some inspiration for your journey”.
Edinburgh is a city that looks BEAUTIFUL. It is. It does. I know it’s a cliché, but it really is gorgeous. I walked the bike up the Royal Mile to St Giles’ Cathedral, which was to be my starting point, and by a stroke of good timing managed to catch the laird of the manor just as he was about to close the doors for a concert.
The raised eyebrow he displayed as I told him my story was something I’d soon be getting pretty used to. Still, he signed with a flourish, and I shook him warmly by the hand and made my way back down the steps.
The Royal Mile buzzed and beamed with jugglers, dancers, magicians, and far – out wigs, and I hung around a while, chatting to various acts and tourists and getting it all on tape. I was impressed to see that cashpoints gave out Scottish money as I filled up on nibbles and water at the nearest supermarket, and put a finger out to judge the wind before weighing up my options.
The original plan was to find a hostel and hole up for the night, then set out on my way at first light in the morning and head along the A7 to Galashiels. Still, it was 6.30 on a warm and joyous evening, I was fired up, and there were still a couple of hours left of daylight. I checked the bike app on the phone set into my handlebars. Galashiels looked around 20 or so miles away, and as it was all southbound, it would feel like I was heading downhill.
I kicked my legs out and took a last look around Scotland’s fairest city. The road called, and I figured I’d answer, and get myself ahead of schedule.
I think it was around 9.30pm that my head began to cave in.
I’d spent the first hour unsuccessfully trying to get out of Edinburgh along a road that looked suspiciously like a motorway, although my bike map told me it was an A road. The wind was gushing headlong right into my face, and I didn’t make it past the first junction before grinding to a halt by the side of the road and guzzling up some water.
I’d trained throughout the weeks leading up to the journey by cycling forty miles every two days in the hills around Clitheroe with a sack of spuds zipped into a backpack. That was nothing compared to the weight I now felt in trying to keep the damn thing going.
As a horn beeped for the zillionth time from a speeding fellow road user, I figured a change of plan was needed, and walked the bike back up the slip road to my left in the direction from which I’d come.
The wind at the top nearly blew me off the path and into the road, and I could only regain my balance by hopping onto the bike and taking the advice of Liam Gallagher. I rolled with it, and in a stroke of fortuity, found myself on the A7 south, with a gale blowing at my heels. I slipped into the highest gear I could manage, and settled into a rhythm as I made my way along. And soon, the miles began to eat themselves.
The suburbs eventually withered and died, and were replaced by waving fields of wheat, flowing along under the wind’s caress. Embankments rose and fell by the roadside, bristling hedgerows and brambles presented themselves, bowing forwards as I passed. The traffic filtered and thinned away, with fewer cars passing by, and more agricultural machines – tractors, threshers, gritters. Highway Maintenance vehicles joined them, and eventually, the lights of the city began to show behind me across a far – off valley, wrapping themselves in a thin drizzling mist to settle for the night.
The hedgerows gave way to thickets of trees, tall pines and small forests that lined the road and enclosed it, and the light began to wane. The road soon narrowed into a single carriageway on either side, and the cycle lane dwindled into a white line next to the kerb. Any trace of a path next to the road was now gone, replaced by a verge of lengthy grass, against which, the dark silhouettes of the trees stood sentinel.
The light escaped me completely. It was no worry, I had good lights on front and back that could be recharged after a minute of so of fast winding. They lit the road up like a car, and proved so when my trouser leg became entangled in my water bottle holder and I had to pull over.
There were noises in the trees all around me. I couldn’t tell from the bike computer how far I’d come, or even what time it was, but I stopped for a second and listened in the dark. There were the sounds of something settling, like the gentle popping of twigs on a pine leaf floor. I grunted and grappled with the twisted shoot of metal that my bottle carrier had now become, but although one end of it had come from its mooring, the other was still firmly in place. I twisted it and twirled it around, but the bloody thing was determined to remain attached, and stuck out from the side of the bike like the sharp end of a coat hanger.
I folded it and ran it to and fro, and on an impulse, wondered what the forest road looked like with my lights off. I flicked the switch, and was suddenly in complete darkness.
Have you ever been outside in total darkness in the middle of nowhere? In REAL darkness, I mean – no streetlamps, no light pollution, no moonglow. It’s DARK. It’s BLACK. It’s utter NOTHING.
And as soon as I thought my eyes may be coming adjusted to it, something in the forest right next to me went THUMP on the floor.
My lights were straight on again, even as the thought flew across my mind that whatever made the thump could now see me much more clearly. I ripped the useless wire from its mount and got going again as fast as my legs could pump, which wasn’t much at first, as I’d pulled over in a pretty high gear.
Still, 5 minutes later and I was back in the rhythm, flowing along the road like melted butter. And that’s about where my mind began to start showing its strength.
It comes upon you slowly at first. Just a stray thought, or maybe not even that. Just a feeling. Whatever it was, it sneaked it through a gap in the curtains. It was loneliness.
When you’re in the dark, pumping away for a couple of hours, not sure of what’s ahead of you but what you can see in the field of your lights, you become intolerably lonely. It shifts from comfortable, determined solitude, to something tearful and emotional. It hit me as I thought of my 7 – year old daughter, who I’d only seen 24 hours earlier as I dropped her at her Mum’s. It was the thought that she won’t get onto her big bike, the one without stabilizers, as she doesn’t have a helmet.
And that was the thought that damn near killed me. Why doesn’t she have a helmet? Am I that bad a father that I haven’t taken the time to go and buy her a little helmet so she can try cycling properly? I never had a helmet when I learned to ride, never did me any harm. Why should she need one? But she DOES, she DOES. And if that’s what she wants to help her ride, why the hell haven’t I got her one?
God, I wanted to kiss her cheek and give her cuddles. I wanted to hold her SO badly.
These thoughts were kicking themselves into my brain as I recognized them for what they were. This was negativity, come to stay unannounced in the hotel of my mind and kicking it’s feet up like an unwelcome guest. I threw its suitcase right back at it as soon as I recognized it, turfed it back into the corridor, cleared my mind, and grimly continued riding.
By the time I came upon lights ahead of me, I was ready to find somewhere with the nearest pub, announce my story to all within, and hope someone within would take pity and give me a couch for the night. It took an age for me to reach the village, and when I did, getting into the glow of the streetlights felt like getting into a warm bath. My legs were feeling it, aching at the knees, and the bike was getting heavier with each rotation of the pedal cog.
A white sign behind the first streetlamp announced that I was in Stow. And beyond a locked village hall, there was no sign of a pub. I cycled around a while, looked for life, but was still beyond knocking on random doors and throwing myself on the mercy of whoever lived there. One or two dog walkers greeted me with a cheery hello, and I smiled back. Just a pleasantry lifted my mood like you wouldn’t believe.
Pretty soon though it was time to give up the ghost and get back to the road. Right at the edge of the village, a stone bridge crossed a stream on the opposite side of the road to a beautiful 17th Century church, and it was here that I fought a dragon.
Right next to the church, the streetlamps stopped, and a national limit sign showed where the darkened A7 began again. And I just couldn’t no matter how I tried, bring myself to leave the warmth of the streetlights and get going again.
As if in answer, a light drizzle began to fall. I lit one of the cigars I’d been saving in my pack, and gulped down more water. And still the road stared me in the face. It wasn’t even challenging me, wasn’t even waiting, it was just there.
It took a full twenty minutes before I just pushed off into it and rode. I got my legs going back into their rhythm and was immediately rewarded with a roadsign that told me my destination was now 5 miles away. I put all thoughts out of my mind and focused on all the short journeys I do back home that are only 5 miles – the distance from my house to work and back, to the Continental pub and back. Two laps of the local park. And somehow, around 10.25pm, I pulled the bike to a stop in the warmth of Galashiels.
I basked for a while in the lights. It was a pretty warm night, and I didn’t mind being out in it at all, now that I was back in the light. There was no way I was going any further, and after a quick look around to find all the guest houses either full or closed, I cheerfully resigned myself to finding a nook somewhere and sitting up for the night.
A 24 – hour ASDA stood on the edge of town, and I filled up with fresh water and food there. I told the night manager my story and asked if I could maybe sit in their empty café for an hour and recharge my battery (both on me, and my phone). “The café’s closed”, came the reply, making it pretty clear they didn’t want me hanging around. Fair enough, not everyone’s charitable, are they?
I made my way over to McDonalds and found the complete opposite. The guys working the late shift gave me free refills, offered me somewhere to pitch tent, and became the second people to sign the guitar torch, deservedly so. The sight of friendly faces helping out picked me right back up again after the journey, and after a quick report into the video diary, I lay in my tent, unable to sleep, marveling at it all.
Feeling like I had a chance of pulling all this off.