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Lessons Learned AKA How The West Was Won

I was going to write a huge post with pictures of our route, breaking down sections into bits of DANGER and bits of steep gradient, and generally show where we went, but I like Mei’s pictorial breakdown better. It’s more romantic, and ultimately that should be the most important thing on a tour. Not your average speed throughout (approx. 10mph), or how many miles you covered each day (40, 40, 55, 35), or even how many feet we climbed (5806). It might be how many calories you burned (9500), because that affects how much you should eat, but even then you should rejoice in the fact that you’ll basically eat as much as you can as often as you can, which is all any human being really wants.

Pictures, I know. Sorry. Here’s Mei outside of a random house we passed.

The house has no meaning. It doesn’t represent anything, we just happened to pass it after not passing anything for a while.

I don’t like planning routes too much when going on long cycles. The problem with having a predetermined route is, checking to see if you’re on that route involves stopping. A long ride on which you stop every few minutes is not a happy ride. Stopping should be saved for eating and weeing, not for aggressively checking your navigational device. It’s unavoidable that you will, but in the interest of keeping it to a minimum I recommend the following technique –

Choose somewhere about 30 miles from where you are. That is where you will be at the end of the day. What is the next town along the way? Go to that town. Any route you like. Then check for the next town, and so on. You need only remember a few towns and you can stay on your bike for ages. Hooray! You might sometimes end up on a scary road, or on a gravel track, but you’ll probably survive. By the end of your journey, if it’s anything like ours, you’ll reach where you want to go in about eight hours (having stopped for an hour to eat HUGE lunches) and you’ll have travelled about 40 miles in total. Or 55, because you decided to actively pursue the most roundabout route possible. But you’ll get there.

Have some kind of easily accesible bag on your handlebars. Store comfort snacks in there, like muesli bars and almonds and probably not chocolate but actually, who cares, some chocolate, with more chocolate for when you get a sugar low an hour later. You’ll probably need to eat twice as much food as normal, unless you already eat too much food. I’ll let you be the judge of that. Buy a battery recharging thing that you can use to recharge your phone if that’s your navigational device, because it’s probably going to run out of juice half way through the day.

This is us as close to lost as we got. Someone even stopped their car to check we were ok. That was nice of them. They probably didn’t deserve the punch in the face I gave them for questioning my navigational ability, especially since we were actually lost, but you need to let these country folk know who’s boss or they kidnap you and eat you.

Clothes! We brought several items of clothing to cycle in and only one item of clothing to wear when not on the bike. That was an error. Really, just have a merino wool top, shorts and spare undies and you won’t stink when on the bike. And even if you do smell a bit, that’s going to happen whether or not you change clothes every day, so bring some nice light clothes to change into at night and just accept that you will be incredibly unhygienic when cycling. There’ll be so many fields to roll around in and mud puddles to fall into and rain to ride through that even clean clothes will be ‘pure humdingin’ after an hour, so you may as well not bother trying.

We took locks. They seemed kind of unnecessary most of the time, but nobody stole our bikes. I think I’d take them again, but maybe not the really heavy D-locks that we took.

Racists! They are everywhere when you leave the city. Well, they’re everywhere in the city as well, but at least we have the common decency to pretend we’re not. Sadly, I don’t think United Colours of Bennetton has advertising in the sticks yet. We had two counts of people shouting ‘ching chong ching chong’ at us, which was quaint and funny (and not ironic that people will be actually talking like that when China has conquered Britain in WW3), and one count of a pub owner telling us that ‘those Asians will take anything for free’. For our American readers, Asian here means people from India and Pakistan, mostly. We call Chinesey people oriental, mostly. I know you don’t dig that, but be ready for it if you’re cycling here. I enjoy encountering this low level of racism. It reminds me that actually, it doesn’t really matter. People are, by and large, quite ignorant. That’s ok though, because people are also helpful, generous, talkative and willing to serve you plum crumble made from fruit picked earlier that day.

This was, without question, one of the best things I have ever done in my life. It was challenging, physically stressful and demanding, occasionally difficult, joyous, educational and life-affirming. It changed my already-intimate relationship with my bicycle, morphing it into something greater. It improved my relationship with the land around me, the people around me and my very wonderful partner on the road, Mei. And even if it didn’t do any of that, the physical hardship was entirely worth it for the exhilarating descents. Travelling downhill for almost two miles at around 40mph is one of the most exciting and terrifying experiences of my life. And the sense of accomplishment is tangible. I can’t recommend it enough.

Look how pleased she is. That’s the Severn Bridge in the background, our route into another country. Moments later we rode into Wales. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.


How We Rode To Wales – Part 1

Aka This Post Will Contain No Pictures

I know I should post pictures for stupid people and lazy people and people who can’t read, but I don’t have any yet. Because we’ve not been. We go tomorrow, and we’ll take so many pictures it hurts. For now I just want to give you a bit of background on what we’re about to do, how we’re going to do it, and then hopefully tell you whether or not it’s worth doing as well.

The plan:
To ride from London to Wales.

That was pretty much it. Yahoo! Answers (the stupid man’s Wikipedia) says it’s only 120 miles from London, and putting a ruler on my screen when looking at Google Maps confirms it. We regularly cycle around 30 miles on a Saturday around Richmond Park for fun (low speed, stopping for picnics), so we could do that in four days. Probably. Assuming there’s a quiet road that runs straight from London to Wales with no corners or hills. I can’t see one on any maps but I’m sure it’s there.

And so now here we are. The day before the trip. We leave first thing tomorrow morning, and we’re told it’s only going to rain half of the trip, and only one of those days will feature THUNDER STORMS. But nothing is going to stop us. We have bed and breakfasts booked that can accommodate our bicycles (converted townhouses will often have garages) and newly serviced brakes and gears. What can go wrong?

The semi-detailed plan:
To ride from London to Reading, sleep, Reading to Swindon, sleep, Swindon to Bristol, sleep, then ride to the Severn Bridge and cross along the cycle paths there. There’s a clear point where it tells you you’ve entered Wales, where I’m sure jubilant crowds will greet us with fireworks and energy drinks. We’ll do the whole trip along A-roads and B-roads, and not the ludicrous Sustrans Cycle Route 4.

We had previously rode the Sustrans Cycle Route 4 from London to Windsor and it wasn’t pretty. You are mostly on gravel paths (with road tyres, which is a no go) and it was uncomfortable, slow and pedestrian-ridden. It took forever. I recommend it if you have big knobbly tyres and want to see a lot of the canal without going anywhere fast, but our goal is to Ride To Wales.

We’re taking as little as possible. I’m going to wear my new permanently-on Rapha base-layers the whole trip and hope they don’t get smelly enough to need to wash them after one day. And anyway, smelling is OK when adventuring. I’ll have the same Surface shorts the whole trip, and different undies and socks. Mei will be running a similar set up. Flip flops in the bag just in case. I’ll have what used to be a waterproof jacket that’s a micron thick and easy to pack when (if) (when) the sun comes out. And then we have a spare tyre and two spare inner tubes each, and the tools needed to change them. That’s pretty much the limit of my capabilities. If something happens to the chain I won’t know what to do, but NOTHING WILL. And chamois cream, for our bits.

I have a battery pack that lets me recharge my iPhone at least twice. I’ll be using Runkeeper to track the whole trip, and I’ll post pics of where we went, and if there were any hairy bits. It’s also good to have a phone for when a tornado hits or China invades.

Oh yes, and we’re taking our locks, which are heavier than almost everything else combined. How else are we supposed to stop off at restaurants and pubs?

This is happening. The adventure is on. Nothing can stop us.

Dear bicycle manufacturers

Please make more bikes that look like this –

And not this –

Thank you.