The wheels that move the soul
There is always an adventure to be had
and I want to do more than just ‘exist’ -Addi
Life can change so fast, something as routine as commuting on a bike suddenly takes an unexpected turn. Accidents do happen; it’s human nature after all and in September 2016, I find myself in the A&E.
After the face stitches and scans the doctor instructs plenty of rest and physiotherapy. For once I accept this with no protest. The medication and good sleep allow my body to do exactly that. A month after, I get back on the saddle. It feels pretty traumatic being so close to cars again and the fear is real. I wonder at the person I’ve been all these years, cycling carefree; how bold and ambitious! My soul desperately wants to restore that sense of invincibility and confidence.
There is only one way to face fear and that is to be courageous, that's how my solo UK cycling adventure is born. In years to come I hope Athina thinks: ‘Despite the accident Mum continued to do some fantastic things with her life’.
Find your tribe. Love them hard
Everything of worth on earth, is there to share- I discuss with my good friends Anastasia and Alex my idea to cycle from Maldon (Essex) to Lands End (Cornwall). ‘By the end of the journey’ I explain ‘I will have written my own happily-ever-after cycling story.’ But my luck of planning for a route and any accommodation doesn’t go unnoticed. My argument for good daily problem-solving exercise goes in vain; they know me too well! That’s how my support crew is formed and before long Alex’s Dad, Jim (72 yrs.), an experienced world-travelled cyclist joins the crew too.
Three good heads and one enthusiastic heart form this formidable team- They plan the whole route, stock me up with OS maps, a Garmin, a waterproof backpack, a bag full of Snickers bars and introduce me to the wonderful world of Air B&B. For years now their blind belief in my sporting adventures has been the fuel that enabled me to do what at times seemed impossible even to me. I truly am in awe to these uplifting friends.
And as it’s often the case, we all like to be part of a feel-good project. Rob, Mike and Jade from the Chelmsford Halfords store generously sponsored a dozen inner tubes and bike lights. After the silver bike service, Wassabi was in top shape and ready to hit the road. These guys take road safety seriously and their help was paramount to me completing the journey in one piece.
Don't look back you're not going that way
There is no pressure to train for the just over 400km that lie ahead, I tell myself: Despite never having done this distance before, I'll be fine when the time arrives. My support crew urges me to go for a test-ride from Maldon to Chelmsford (20km). It’s unlike me to test anything but my navigation dependant on 'breadcrumbs' is a real concern to all of us. Ten minutes later it is evident that I am indeed helpless and feel like Hansel and Gretel lost in the Black Forest. I follow the road signs and get there in the end; think I need a back-up plan for tomorrow.
Good friends don't let you do crazy things alone; they join in the fun!
5.30am. Alex stands by the door dressed in shorts (he can't find his cycling leggings) my kind of crazy-friend who will discover how cold 'Cold' can be. We leave Essex in the pitch dark, immersed in heavy mist, it's -6 degrees. Soon everything freezes. From the hair sticking out my helmet, the water inside the water bottles and the hair on Alex's legs! This is what being alive feels like.
Don’t fancy a bike rack and everything fits in a single backpack, weighing around 8kgs. This includes: maps, emergency rations, a pump, a camera, spare bike gear, chargers, inner tubes, toiletries and one set of spare clothes. All my clothes can be easily washed and dried overnight. This is the bare essentials in an attempt to go as ultra-light as possible. But the load soon becomes uncomfortable. No matter how fast I ride on my daily commute and weekend runs into the countryside, the gear slows me down dramatically. So I manage my expectations and take more time to soak up the surroundings whilst tempering my enthusiasm for clocking up the miles.
The sun rises across the frozen and misty fields and the colours in the sky look like a painting. A family of deer only meters away from us; nobody moves. We don't capture it on camera, sometimes it's nice to take a moment and simply enjoy the view.
We reach Chinatown on time for breakfast. Having spent a large part of my childhood in Asia, I introduce Alex to Jian Dui: Fried sesame balls made with rice flour, filled with red bean paste. They don't look great but one must look beyond imperfections, they taste delicious!
Somehow we lose our tracks and can't exit London. We are going round and round in circles. Used to cycling in the Yorkshire Dales, London to me is a jungle. Buses, cars, taxis and people everywhere; I'm starting to feel anxious and desperately want to leave. The executive decision is made to ditch the 'breadcrumbs' and the good ol' fashion maps come out. Past Buckingham Palace the route becomes apparent, it's time for Alex to head back home. My solo adventure begins-
By 6pm I reach Windsor and come across a posh-looking footpath. I Facetime my Little Lobster to share all the exciting discoveries and tell her that really anything can happen in just one day! I show her where the Queenie enjoys a walk and we exchange a smile. My first puncture occurs right outside Windsor Castle. In the darkness I can still see a big cut on both my inner tube and bike tire. As it's important to enjoy this journey and hypothermia is not on my plans tonight I jump on a train to Reading and call it a day after 99km of cycling.
My first ever night in an Air B&B accommodation is a positive experience. A stay for less than the cost of a hotel room with everything except for a much-needed new tire.
Because I have tasted frustration and despair I value fulfilment and hope
9.00am. The doors of the local bike shop open and my happy anticipation is starting to wear thin. I lost valuable time waiting to buy a tire. I leave the store naïve enough to think nothing else can possibly go wrong. There is ice on the roads and cycling on a road bike this time of year comes with its challenges. Even with the gentlest manoeuvring I continuously find myself flat on the ground. In under 5 minutes I skid twice again. At the start I get up quickly, hoping no one has noticed. As the falls become more frequent, it no longer matters. The last one occurs inside a roundabout. My knee hurts and my road bike is scratched. The driver stops and asks if I'm alright. In the face of adversity and in a truly British upper-stiff-lip style I brave a smile and tell him I'm totally fine.
Finally there is a hard-earned 'break'. I opt out the bike lanes and choose the A roads instead. The salt will hopefully prevent the skidding even at the cost of a less scenic route.
Just when I'm about to enter the A road there's another puncture, this time it's the back wheel. It all becomes much, I am near to tears. Finding hope where there seems to be absolutely none at all leaves me with no option but to simply get on with it. With a heavy heart I bend down and release the wheel. Suddenly I hear a voice ask: Do you need any help? There he is, 'my Guardian Angel' dressed in lycra ready to be of service. My wise friend Anastasia once said to me: 'You give honour to people by allowing them to help you' so I reply 'Yes you can'. (Nothing wrong with watching a handsome man work on my bike either!)
He points the direction and I'm off again; my faith in the universe restored.
117km later I reach Bath tired, cold and hungry. Diverting to view the 18th-century Georgian architecture comes with plenty of steep hills. So steep in fact I struggle to keep my front wheel on the ground. I recall a British Journal from the 80s whose studies found that those who cycle regularly have the fitness levels of people 10 years younger; got to feel optimistic!
Too tired to search for food I plan to settle for a cuppa, a nice hot shower and a warm bed. The run down B&B doesn't look anything like the online pictures and the room hasn't got the heating on. The owner says the kitchen isn't accessible to guests and the heating will come back in the morning. That night I sleep wearing all my smelly layers trying to keep warm and hunger is no longer an issue. I let it go and remind myself my track record for getting through bad days is so far 100%.
New day, new strength, new page in my story
I wake up feeling weak and hungry, eager to find somewhere nice to eat. A quirky café in the heart of Bath looks like a place that does good breakfast.
Across my table a friendly looking couple examines their map. A reminder to take mine out too and see where next. It only takes a few minutes for the man to grab a chair and introduce himself. He knows the area well and offers me good routes options out of Bath. Before long Peter, Linda and I are exchanging outdoor stories, tips and giggles like a bunch of old friends! In the last couple of days and in several occasions when I stopped to check my map many passers-by stopped to see if I needed any help. It’s becoming apparent to me that a map is a fantastic ice breaker amongst strangers :)
I cycle to Bristol (20km) and hop onto a train to Exeter. Jumping on a train and starting afresh tomorrow. Yesterdays’ icy falls have taken their toll on my knee. There is no shame in being flexible and building a ‘rest day’ into the schedule to do something else; this isn’t an endurance event it’s a life experience.
The B&B in Exeter is a hidden gem where a lovely Australian couple and their dog live. That evening we chat about family and life back in Australia; it's exactly what I need. A lovely painting of a chicken hangs proudly on their living room wall. Turns out it's Robyn’s pet. But Robyn not only paints beautiful paintings she can also paint a beautiful mural of life lessons. She washes all my clothes, without fully appreciating how much it means to me. Being clean and smelling nice makes me feel like a human again.
Don't wait for leaders; do it alone, person-to-person
7.00am. A special, hairy, four-legged someone is waiting for me with a penguin in her mouth and a waggy tail! Holly is seriously cute- Her lovely nature earns her my last porridge spoonfulls. Robyn joins me for a coffee, then we hug and say our ‘Goodbyes’. I promise to return with Athina soon.
I cycle from Exeter to Plymouth, 90km. There are a few hills. I'm sweating and stripping off the lawyers on the climbs, putting them back on the downhills.
Plymouth is located on a natural harbour, with rich maritime history and a playful 1930s lido. A good place to reconnect with the sea and anything Naval takes me to a happy place, reminding me of my family. Near the lido there is a lovely café facing the sea and I spend the evening there. What an ideal place to watch the sun set for the last time in 2016.
My back lights are running low and the front ones are flat; they need charging. It’s dark and dangerous to ride without visibility or being seen. I jump on the train to Truro.
After knocking on two wrong doors (!) I find my B&B. Mr Mou from Calcutta, India welcomes me to their home. The place is great and the bed something of a 5 star hotel! The family invites me to dinner. Its homemade Indian Spicy Chicken soup. It tastes like heaven! Mr Mou insists I have not one, but two slices of bread to regain my strength :) Kindness truly is a universal language regardless where one comes from.
I Facetime Athina. My Little Lobster pulls funny faces and makes me laugh. Seeing her little face and listening to her voice fills my heart with joy. Oh how I wish she could be riding with me; Athina’s love is what inspires me every day-
Have faith in what will be
Using a bicycle to get around for part of my winter adventure enables me to travel under my own steam for days on end and discover places of stunning beauty. Exercising outdoors helps with remember where I've been: the sweat up the Cornish hills, the sunrise across the frosty fields of Essex and the coastal wind in Plymouth.
The weather is spectacularly bad with strong winds and an unforgiving rain. I had always consciously loved the feeling of being alive in every possible way and challenging the natural elements but now all my layers are soaked and I'm starting to feel cold and saddle sore. Another 72km to go.
From Penzane to Lands End it prove to be the toughest miles of my journey. It’s climb after climb. At 12.00pm on the 1st January 2017, I reach Lands End. The westernmost point of mainland England, where the coal-black cliffs plunge dramatically down into the sea. My phone battery is flat and sadly I can’t share this moment of triumph with my special ones. The strong winds and the tight train schedule urge me to leave.
This cycling adventure initially was a way to deal with the mishap, to gain some degree of control over my fear. But the journey did that and so much more. Above all it left me both humbled and enriched by the warm hearted people that became part of the story and the stunning UK outdoors that once more took my breath away. This journey makes me feel optimistic about our world and highlights how two wheels can move the soul-