It’s Downhill Forever

bikeA re-post from my personal blog from 2013.

Someone in my hometown of Blairgowrie, mid Scotland, said in jest that I couldn’t cycle to London.

Challenge accepted.

Obstacles? Time, money, resources, commitments. The life that get in the way of doing amazing things. I didn’t even have a bicycle at the time. I booked two weeks off my uninspiring Pharmacy job, bought a £50 second-hand bicycle from a man in a nearby town who couldn’t physically cycle any more, borrowed some panniers from a friend, and set off.

I didn’t tell many people I was doing the cycle, I think because I was trying to claim a bit of the world for me. I think that’s what a lot of people cycle alone: they want to do something amazing by themselves, for themselves. The only people I told were the friends I was going to see along the way – my brother in Edinburgh, my friend in Newcastle, my Grandmother and Cousin in London.

I cycled Blairgowrie to Edinburgh on the first day after work, cycling from 5.30pm til 11.30pm, complete with a sunset over the Forth Road Bridge. When I got to my brother’s, he looked at me: “do you want food? Of the actually edible kind, or of the GIVE-ME-CARBS-NOW kind?” I was eating the pasta as it was cooking. Half-cooked pasta is delicious when you’ve just cycled 70 miles after a full day at work.

The next day, I left about 3KG of stuff at his, deciding to travel with as little as possible. He accompanied me cycling for a day. Scotland lives up to it’s mountainous stereotype. We were pulling up one steep hill for about an hour, including one break. I was thinking WHY THE HELL AM I DOING THIS, particularly when overtaken by motorbikes – that’s the way to travel.

And then I heard my brother, cycling in front of me, giggling. I looked up. We were at the top. Rather than being a steep downhill descent, there was a long slightly downhill road, miles long, disappearing into the horizon. He was cycling no-hands, shouting “IT’S DOWNHILL FOREVER!” Giggling like children, it was no-hands it the whole way down.

The most interesting day was in Newcastle. There, I met a friend who I’d known about a year. And when I say known, I mean spoken to online. That was surreal, and I felt weird meeting up, but it was impossible not to suggest it: we’d skyped a lot, and he was also a long distance cyclist. There’s no one I admired more. We clicked instantly. It was amazing how comfortable I felt around him. He asked if it was weird meeting him. I replied it wasn’t, for me, and asked the same back of him. “No, but I have to keep imagining a Skype box around your head to normalise myself…” was his unforgettable reply.

The worst part was the third day. The road felt sticky. The last six miles made me physically sick. But thereafter, my body seemed to accept that my brain was going to make it do this, like it or not. I met wonderful people in Youth Hostels – the volunteers who had opened a bare YHA hostel in the middle of no-where in Lincolnshire just ’cause I had requested a room, and the cyclist from Bradford in his yellow lycra who saw my panniers in the hostel and said they were good ones. Did I have a very posh bike? He asked. I borrowed them and had a second hand bike and was cycling to London, I explained. “You’re cycling to London in a summer dress?! I’m just going to Leeds and I’ve spent a fortune on padded shorts!” he shook his head. “Your stupid. I admire you so much!”.

The most magical moment was in Ely. I had written a university history dissertation on the monasteries of Ely and Ramsey two years previously, although I’d never been to either. They were both fairly en-route by the time I got to Cambridgeshire, just adding 12 miles to the day’s track. Ramsey was forgettable – none of the tenth century monastery was visible. Ely, however, was incredible. I had studied the tenth-century monastic reform, and a part of that study had included the musical developments of both places. When I got to Ely, there was a choir assembling to sing Evensong. I’m not religious, but it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life: sitting in a place I knew so much about historically, but had never seen before, listening to the songs that would have filled the place in the tenth century.

My Newcastle friend and I texted throughout, which was great support, having someone virtually by my side throughout the journey. That was until he decided I couldn’t be in his life as “just a friend” any more. I think he expected me to pull the brakes and cycle back to Newcastle. Sweet, but not right, at the time. A week previously, this would have upset me.  “I’m sorry for spoiling your trip”, one of his last texts read. But instead of upsetting me, this made me smile – it was impossible for one person to spoil this trip. Throughout my journey, I re-discovered the world, and travelling, and history. I re-fell in love with independence, and opportunity, and with so many people I’d met along the way. Of course, there are still what-ifs and maybes. But for a life-long love of cycling and completing a journey, it was a worthy trade-off.

And seven days later, I was in London. I decided to cycle on to Portsmouth, to reach the south coast, after a rest day. One of my closest friends lived near there, but I didn’t know if I would cycle onto meet him, so I hadn’t told him that I was cycling. I told him to meet me at the train station, requested he bring a bottle of water, and cycled there in two days. He was very surprised to see me cycling up to meet him. I have never let him live down the fact that I cycled 691.3 miles to see him, and that he wouldn’t even buy me a bottle of water in return.

That day, I had an email from Leeds Metropolitan University asking me for a job interview. I got the job. I don’t know why, but for some reason, that cycle seemed to kick-start me into living again. Next time, the road will be even longer.

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