It has been one of those weeks here in Devon. For a start, the spring weather we all hoped was here to stay has left for foreign climes, leaving us basking in Atlantic lows and the rain they bring. That is basking in the sense of sharks, not sunshine, sadly. I had a good week last week, getting out riding and feeling that my fitness was improving. Then the strangest thing happened. I took it easy a couple of days at the end of the week, a chance to relax and let my body recover from my efforts. I went to bed on Saturday having had a gentle but enjoyable day that included fettling a friend’s bike and watching some TV. I woke on Sunday to find my legs incredibly sore.
It felt like lactic lock, something that happens when you overdo your riding, don’t warm down properly, or do too many miles. Lactic acid builds up in the muscles and doesn’t get washed out, leaving you with painfully sore legs and difficulty walking. Any of you who have run a long distance will know the feeling: one of being bruised and tender to the touch. I hadn’t done anything demanding to cause it, leaving me a little perplexed to say the least.
I guess that you can’t find answers to everything, so having discussed it with my therapist, I let it be and carried on as best I could. It’s Wednesday now and things seem to be getting back to normal. With a bit of luck I will be out and about again tomorrow, weather permitting. I have a raging appetite to ride my trike off into the distance but fate seems to be pushing my plans back further by the week. Originally, I planned to leave in May as I have said previously, but a fistful of health appointments and follow-ups has stalled the whole idea. With other people’s plans also altering, I have settled on going away in late summer rather than earlier.
At least this gives me the time to get myself back into shape before leaving in a couple of months. I have this idea in my head that I’m going to leave without a planned route. I can take a map book (or pages torn from one) and just head north. It has been a long, long time since I travelled with this level of freedom. Since my breakdown, all my long rides have been fairly meticulously planned before I leave.
The comfort I have gained from knowing where I will be tomorrow and all the following days, has made it possible for me to travel big distances. But now I want to drift, follow the grain of the land and the weather I meet on the way. If somebody points me toward a new sight or new landscape, I want to be able to just change direction and go. It’s so much more of an adventure when you feel able to do that.
I had a taste of this in 2013 when the Pyrenees were caught up in the worst storms in living memory. (See my book: Serentiy and Storm for a full account.) I had to live on my wits and detour several times whilst trying to avoid river crossings and low lying areas. It made my daily travels interesting, but it was so good to throw off the shackles and make it up as I went along. Even the element of uncertainty at what I might find around the next corner was manageable without too much panic.
I have never been a ‘collector.’ Some cyclists collect routes and feel the need to have travelled every inch of their chosen ride. By neatly ticking them off they seem to gain joy from seeing their list of accomplishments growing longer by the year. I often get asked have I done X or Y route and I usually have to answer “some of it.” I followed National Cycle Network route one all the way from the south coast to John o’ Groats when I circled Britain, but I kept leaving it to stick to the coast. I didn’t complete the final part to Shetland until I rode my All Around the Ragged Edges tour, the year after.
I’ve always been a dreamer. If my imagination is fired, there is little I can do but follow it until whatever it is that I have chosen to do reaches fulfilment I love to sit and think, look at maps and let my imagination roam. As a climber, I would often head off into the mountains to walk in places where few others trod. We had done all the big walks, certainly in Snowdonia, and would find as many different ways to the summits of peaks as we could. These often involved scrambling around in little known areas and the joy we felt from doing this was immense.
The same was true when my friends and I discovered mountain biking, way back in the late eighties. We had a thirst to know where we could go and what the limits were, for both us and our steeds. It was a period of pure joy and I can completely relate to bike-packing as it is now called. If I were a younger man now, fat bikes would have an enormous appeal, given their simple build and ability to be ridden in comfort through places where you couldn’t go on anything else.
Even Kermit regularly finds himself in places that surprise others. Fairly rough tracks that others have pronounced unrideable, often don’t seem to present much of a problem, although true off roading requires something a little more adapted for the terrain. If I had a pound for each person who has told me “you’ll never get down there on that,” I would be a rich man by now. It was the same with Trevor (my trailer). People have no idea what you can or can’t do with a two-wheeled trailer, so they try to look after you by trying to dissuade you from starting.
Last year, as I crested the top of a big climb near Bala, in North Wales, I was overtaken by a chap who was riding a huge (140 mile) route on his road bike. He announces that Kermit and I “were the last thing he expected to see up here.” Well, it was quite simple. Our route needed us to be on the far side of the pass, and the map didn’t make it look anything like it felt in terms of difficulty. Once started, I got my head down and kept riding. Eventually (and thankfully) the top arrived and we could breathe easily again until we plummeted down the other side, whooping with joy as we went. Yin and yang.
The worst thing that can generally happen is that you end up walking or having to unload and lift your bike over obstacles. If you do this, it will colour your adventures in your memory and give you many tales to tell to your friends back home. All the best stories seem to be about overcoming adversity. Of course, it goes without saying that your plans won’t always pan out well. You may have to detour a long way or deal with some pretty tough terrain, but if you invited it, then you surely have to accept the consequences.
As long as you have your tent, some food and a cooker, you can always quit for the day, relax, and wait for tomorrow before starting out again. You will be amazed how different things feel after a good night’s rest. One of my fondest memories which will remain with me forever, involves a man who seemed more than a little drunk, a boat, two bikes and a trip along a Scottish loch. Instead of rough-stuffing over a difficult pass, we had heard one of the local men would take us up the loch by boat for a small fee once the pub shut for lunch. We had a few beers, found the man and off we went without a second thought. Two bikes, eight panniers and three adults, all crammed in a small wooden boat which chugged slowly up the serene loch for the next hour or so. The bikes were laid across the bow of the boat. It provided us with one of the stand-out moments of the whole tour. On disembarking from the small boat, we found ourselves deposited at a traditional farmhouse where we ate freshly baked scones and a large bowl of Scots broth. Heaven.
If, like me, your health fluctuates daily, it is wise to wait until things feel more settled before heading out into the unknown. If you go to the mountain areas I love when you are suffering, they will most likely punish you harshly by testing your endurance, both mental and physical, to the limit. Be patient and go when you feel better. Leave with a positive conviction about your plans and break your journey into manageable bite sized chunks. Take plenty of rest days and set the bar quite low. It’s always easier to do more than you planned and it makes you feel good when you do. Most of the things that scare people about travelling are nonsense and most of the people you will meet will be fabulous. Remember that you can always rest for another day, eat at a restaurant or book into a hotel for a night. It shouldn’t be an endurance challenge unless you want it to be.
Until next time….