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Reasons… part 2

Continued from Reasons… Part 1

Following on from my previous post, there is one more reason I’d like to make this trip. A reason outside of myself. For a cause that motivates me. In a way that people other than me might benefit. My personal reasons are valid. But I’m not sure they’re enough. I need something greater to motivate me through the hardest moments and darkest days. Something that will keep me going when I’m cold, wet, hungry, tired, scared, or all of the above. And here it is.

It’s Lee Robson’s second attempt to recover from leukaemia. As I write he’s just received his latest bone marrow transplant. Throughout his “conditioning” -a horribly euphemistic term for “very aggressive chemotherapy”- his humour, strength and love for his family has shone through. A tenth of that strength would get me to Spain and back, even if chased by a bear. (I’ve done my research, apparently they’re very timid. And aren’t they all asleep this time of year?)

I cycled with Lee, a lifelong friend, earlier this year as he struggled to complete John O’ Groats to Newcastle in aid of Bright Red, just prior to being diagnosed for the second time. Bright Red exists to improve the lives and treatment of people in the North of England who are dealing with blood cancers, through care, education and research. They give real help where it’s needed, and support real improvements in treatment. So look them up. Run or ride or trek Kilimajaro for them. Their facebook page is pretty good, and you can follow them on Twitter. Or reach for the justgiving button on my page and donate from there. Thanks.

I’ll also have to think of another reason to go, just so I can write a blog post entitled Reasons… Part 3, and become the darling of Ian Dury and the Blockheads fans everywhere. Can anyone think of any more reasons?


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Reasons… Part 1

I’m surprised that not many people have demanded to know why I’m doing this. Some have asked “Why now?”* but it seems most people who know me know what I’m like, and that this is simply something I need to do. Cycle 2500 kilometres to the edge of Spain in 26 days with only my tent and the Atlantic for company. Typical stuff. But despite the persona I like to portray, (that of a grizzled outdoorsman and expert cyclist) ’til now I’m merely an armchair expert. I really have never done anything like this before. And that is one reason in itself.

The challenge of the elements, coupled with the terrain appeals and frightens in equal measure. If I was making this trip in summer I’d start from Amsterdam, and cycle through Belgium and across northern France. As it’s winter, I start in Brittany and hug the Atlantic coast to avoid the severest cold and iciest roads. Yes, I know this means I’ll get wet. I’m fine with that. As my Dad says, (precious morsels these- he doesn’t say much…) “It only goes to the skin, then it runs off.” And there’s always the Human Condom to climb into at the end of the day.

The Human Condom

But it’s the Cantabrian Mountains which have me a little nervous. I plan to skirt them to the south on the way west to Cape Finisterre, and follow the coast back to Santander for the ferry. But there’s no doubt- there will be hills. One author at the highly useful Freewheeling France suggests parts of the Camino Di Santiago route I’ll roughly follow are closed November-March. Not to worry, I’ll leave the true mountains to the bears (yes, really, there are bears!) and ride round anything I can’t ride over.

The solitude of a long bike ride punctuated by stealthy wild camps really appeals to me. Time to think. Time to write songs (more of that in a later post)  Time not only to ask the big questions of life, but perhaps to answer them too. The luxury of so much time to replace that of a warm bed or the arms of a loved one. Time to go.

* Why now? It’s the time I have available. Between episodes in my life and my work. At a crossroads. On the bike, as in life I’m awful at crossroads. Indecisive. Instictively knowing the way, but lacking the faith to take it. Self-doubt wins again. I check the map with cold hands and a heavy heart. I tell myself that next time I’ll roll through with confidence and trust myself. Trust the road. But I never do. Now it’s time to learn.

Reasons… Part 2 is here.

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This is easy!

So, today I got my rail tickets, which completes the (admittedly straightforward) travel picture for my little expedition. My surprise has been how easy the whole thing was. Alastair Humphreys, round the world cyclist and microadventurer, advises in this lovely post, that when planning an expedition, do the difficult things which will commit you to the expedition first. Expensive stuff like travel tickets. Then there’s no way out. But a couple of mouse-clicks and a trip down to the folks at Chester-le-Street Station and I’m there already.

A word about Chester-le-Track (as they like to be called) There are no direct trains for me from there any more, I just cycle to Durham these days, but I always go there for advance tickets and complex journeys. They are real experts at getting the best fares and unpublished connections. I’ve even had First Class from Bristol cheaper than a standard ticket. So for Portsmouth, with a bike, for the most important journey of my life, there was nowhere else I’d go. And their improbably titled website, should be a World Heritage Site, if only for the animated map showing Chester-le-Street as the centre of the railway universe.

As I’m returning to no full-time work, this trip has to come cheap. I’m challenging myself to live as simply as possible. I’ve spent all I’m going to on travel, and Newcastle to St. Malo and back from Santander has cost me less than a return to King’s Cross for tomorrow morning. If I spend roughly the same while I’m out there, I’ll still be solvent enough to look for a job when I get back, but I’d have done something wonderful in the meantime.

The hard part about beginning this journey has been deciding to go. For me, when I’d told my loved ones I was doing it, it was to be done. Pipedream to pipeline in one conversation. And now it’s real. The proof is there on my kitchen table. Wish me luck.

P.S. I was chatting to the guy in the ticket office about my trip. “Don’t get lost.” he warned. My response was the pithiest summation of the trip I’ve yet to come up with.

“If I head South till they start speaking Spanish, then turn right, how can I get lost?”

Simple, right?

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Today I’ve had some interesting reactions to news of my trip.

“Are you set on France and Spain? New Zealand is much warmer this time of year.”

From an experienced bike tourist I asked for advice. He clearly has a bigger budget than I, but perhaps smaller horizons. Couldn’t countenance midwinter in a tent I call The Human Condom on account of its catherdral-like spaciousness. No, I am not flying halfway round he world to avoid exactly what I hope to experience.

“Are you sure that it’s sensible?”

This was my mam. Seems the unconditional support I’ve had from her all my life may be being stretched here. Used the stock responses, “Of course it’s not sensible, I wouldn’t be doing it if it was…” and “If not now, when?” But somehow it felt a little hollow. I must own up to the fact that this trip will be harder on others than it will be on me. Perhaps a telling reaction is the one I’ve not had: from my children. I’ve not explained to them yet what I’m doing, or for how long. To them I’m going on a bike trip. What’s new?

“If there’s anything you need, which I have, take it.”

I got this same response from two friends whom I value deeply.

So I must decide between my bodged, basic, budget gear, or the best I can borrow. And though I thought of little at the time, down sleeping bags, thermarests, drybags, GPS, and a proper (non-condomlike) tent with titanium pegs all sound like tempting items, generously offered from people I’d take with me if I could.

Finally, someone I love, who asks only that I wear one of these, inscribed with her name, who always knows just what I need, who makes me laugh every day and encourages me when I’m uncertain, sent me this:

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You find me…

You find me coming to the end of a job which I loved, though I muddled through. Still, young people began to enjoy cycling because of me, and the groups I helped will continue after I’ve gone, for example at Coast Cycling.

You find me uncertain and insecure of my future job or career. The need to live and provide and participate weighs heavily when I don’t know how I’ll do it.

You find me at the start of a beautiful relationship which I deliberately call time-out upon, so that on my return I might understand it better.

You find me planning a bike ride through France and into Spain, sleeping wild but not rough in the dead of winter, perhaps as pilgrimage, or purely as challenge; as a search of the soul as much as discovering a place.

You find me wondering about kit to take, borrowing what I can’t afford, (thanks to Davy for the 1990s Dawes Super Galaxy…) trying to remember if I have a passport, or where it might be.

I hope to realise that I deserve the happiness I feel. I hope to settle an unsettled mind and rest a restless soul. I hope I can feel my fingers and dry my clothes. I hope you’ll join me.