It’s Sunday evening. An unwieldy road map of Britain covers the kitchen table and in the dim light I slouch over it, admiring the wiggly green and red lines. Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire to Staffordshire? Well, it doesn’t look that far. A freshly poured lager froths and fizzes; the beer fuels my ambition. Yeah… no problem.
Having decided to volunteer on a project in Africa, I needed to fundraise £4,000 to get out there. I confidently settled on my “original and challenging” charity stunt of cycling 150 miles to my gran’s house. The final destination was purely for somewhere to aim. This was a valiant project because at this point in my life I was no cyclist. And had no bike. The only cycling I’d done was on a rusty Triumph with rod brakes and three gears. Strangely I wasn’t put off by these fairly major threats to my bravado.
At the time I didn’t fully appreciate it, but my most useful preparation was to manipulate my cycling friend Zeb into doing this as well. He borrowed a ‘proper’ road bike for me, then I had to learn to use the 27 gears and the funny clip pedals which I was assured were helpful. In one ‘lesson’ I found myself in too high a gear slowly sliding backwards down a steep hill into oncoming traffic with my feet stuck.
And then there was the distance issue. One practice ride of 30 miles brought home the reality of my challenge: “But I can’t pull out now – I’ve received huge cheques.” The sinking feeling that I might not complete this washed over me. Little did I know that this first foray would be the start of many cycling adventures to come.
On a January morning, I crawl out of bed at 6.30am to less than optimal conditions: the sky looks like wet aluminium, there are high winds and driving rain. This dampens my already flagging enthusiasm; I’m cold and not sure that I fancy eight hours of constant pedalling. I force in some porridge before setting off at 7.30am. This is a less than auspicious start. No flag waving – just my mum.
There aren’t many cars around, which is slightly eerie. We warm up on undulating hills passing through sleepy villages; I enjoy this despite the weather and my usual morning grump. Also, my backside is bearing up well. Strong wind really is the enemy of cyclists, but perversely our strategy is to head west into the wind towards Banbury because right now we should be fresh and capable.
This quickly becomes tiresome; it’s a long, grinding, featureless straight road and the rain’s needles are hitting me directly in the face. On the plus side, we’ve made good time and the support team (my dad) is waiting at the garage with tea and sandwiches. Now off the bike, I realise how sodden I am and quickly get cold. Zeb’s suffering from chaffed inner thighs, so he throws off his clothing and dollops Vaseline over them, much to the bemusement of people filling up with petrol nearby.
Heading north out of Banbury the crosswind makes things easier and the next 30 miles are comparatively comfortable. Things feel positive; there are no problems and I’ve got some energy thanks to the fruity, chemical drink that’s strapped to my back. So we try to travel as far as possible and pedal into the darkness, eventually grinding to a halt in Burton-on-Trent. After 90 miles, I'm incapable of speaking and communicate only with a range of grunts.
Unfortunately there is a dearth of B&Bs in this town. After prolonged cruising in the car with patience long since departed, we check into a small ‘hotel’. Despite it being winter, there’s no heating in the bathroom. I still want to treat my butt cheeks to a hot soak, but there’s only tepid water dribbling out and the bath’s not grouted. As I sit in a chilly two-inch puddle, I notice the peeled paint dangling from the walls by cobwebs and that the toilet seat is hanging loose. In the bedroom, my wardrobe is two wire hangers suspended on the dado rail.
Meanwhile the lock on Dad’s room breaks, with the door shut and him on the outside. Upon inspection, the landlord decides that clearly the only sensible option is to kick the door down. Considering the facilities, we choose to eat elsewhere. At this point, food is becoming an urgent priority, so we agree on the reliable option of curry and beer. I then fall into a dribbling coma until 7am on Sunday.
It’s still dark and Dad rudely shakes me from my death-like slumber and cajoles me back into the saddle. My legs are pretty stiff but just about moving. However sitting down has become unpleasant; my bottom bones are incredibly sore. The next five miles are probably the worst so far. We also encounter a range of problems.
My knees are aching which makes progress slower. Stress sets in and Zeb and I start swearing at each other. A loud silence reigns and depressingly, we only complete 22 miles by midday. Along a quiet road near Uttoxeter, I deduce that my knees are aching because the saddle is too low, so we stop for adjustment. Unfortunately, the bolt holding it in place threads. Within minutes it starts raining and the phone signal disappears which means we can’t contact Dad for help. Our challenge threatens to collapse because of one small bolt.
Arms flap and the swearing gets creative while Zeb searches for a substitute bolt from a “less necessary” part of the bike. A nearby farmer notes our distress and wanders over to offer assistance. He reminds us that we’re “daft buggers” for cycling in this weather and questions “what’s wrong wit' sex ont' suunday mornin’… yer gon' off it or summat?” For the first time in my life I have nothing to say. He disappears off, scrabbles around in his tractor and produces a rusty, bent bolt coated in cow shit. He flicks off the muck and says, “here try this”.
Unbelievably, after a minor struggle, the bolt is fixed and we continue on our merry way. The next few hours pass smoothly; the northern rain persists and the hills get steeper, but perversely we have a strange sense of enjoyment and relief about being able to continue. Our buoyant mood even prompts a verse or two of some highbrow songs learnt at university: “She’s got a big fat, hairy **** twice the size of me; hairs on her chest like the branches of a tree…”
I keep motivated by not contemplating how far I have to go. Just keep the pedals turning and focus on chasing Zeb in front of me. I never aim further than getting up the hill ahead. I'm also entertained by finding new positions for my sore hands. We screech down the wet hills into Leek at a mildly terrifying 35mph; with the end in sight we happily speed alongside the picturesque Rudyard Lake and heave up Gran’s driveway by 4pm.
Wearily, I get off my bike and experience that post-final-exam sensation, not of elation but “huhh. Well, I’ll get in the bath then”. Gran brews us a nice cup of tea and while soaking my sore butt in piping hot water, a smile creeps over my face accompanied by a feeling of smug satisfaction and sense of achievement. While relaxing, I slip into thinking about that map and its wiggly lines. Hmmm, I wonder how long it would take to ride up to Scotland…