I’m not a great cyclist – I’ve done some long distance cycling in the past but in between charity adventures my bike tends to spend a lot more time in the garage than it does on the road. So, naturally, in the balmy summer of 2014 I jumped on my bike and cycled solo over thousand miles to raise money for the MS society. I spent two weeks travelling from one end of the country to the other, enduring bitter hardships and experiencing euphoric highs. Before I left I wrote about my reasons for doing the ride, as well as some of the preperations. Along the way I kept an (almost) daily video log. You don’t need to have seen those for this article to make sense, but they do go into more depth. The words which follow are dedicated to everyone who helped me out along the way, who’s love and support kept me going on the longest days.
Day One: Lands End to Callington (83.91 miles in 6 hours 44 minutes)
Relief. After days and weeks of preparation to be on the road was bliss. As I rolled through the almost urban car parks of Lands End I was finally at peace with myself, so happy that I could and did sing. When you start preparing for a big solo event like this (and I’d researched other long distance solo rides in preparation) the one big worry is how you will cope by yourself. Some people crave company, the constant back and forth of banter filling their sails and keeping them going. Others can exist without seeing a soul for months on end – and indeed thrive off the solitude. Until you are on your own you have no idea of how you’ll cope. I’d started preparing myself for this for the past few weeks, psychologically becoming more and more self dependent. In the final few days before B-Day I’d become almost restless in company, running over routes and itineraries in my mind. I’m not saying I don’t love those I was with… but to finally be free from the shackles of expectation and to know that I had nothing to worry about except getting from A to B was unbelievably cathartic. As I cycled past my dad, poised on top of an old lifeboat to film my departure, I waved once, and was free. You might be thinking that this would be a great place to show footage of those first few seconds. It would. Luckily in the battle between technology and my dad technology was the victor, and instead of having the camera in video mode he had it in still mode. Perhaps it is for the better – much as I felt philosophical I probably looked like a goon.
The first 10 miles to Penzance flew by. In my exaltation at being on the bike I whizzed down hill and up hill, with nothing to distract me from the sensation of positive travel other than the occasional early morning passing car. This end of the country is bizarre – geographically anachronistic almost. This windswept tip of Cornwall exists purely to be the far tip of the country – with roads that lead only to the end, tourists visiting just to say they visited. The landscape is wild
We’d left Saltash at 5am (5am!!!) to get to Lands End for an early start, this being a fairly long day of cycling. The Radio 4 farmers weather forecast on the drive down had delighted in forthcoming “useful rain”, but the start of the day was bright and clear.
The 7am traffic was slight, and the weight of my pannier existed only to push me faster down hills. Even with wraparound sunglasses the sharp wind forced tears from my eyes. At Penzance came my first junction – even glancing at the map and making a decision gave me a sense of power in these early days. Through the sleepy town I rode, quickly emerging out past the railway station through which so many other LEJOGers would arrive and leave, and out onto the duel carriageway.
Remember how I mentioned that Cornwall is really hilly? Like REALLY CHUFFING HILLY!?!?
The only way I had found to avoid the unending creases was to follow the path of the A30. Often I was able to take side roads which ran in parallel, but other times I had no choice but to go on the main road. I decided from the start that I would not shy away from major roads and dual carriageways if it meant adding shaving and minutes from my day – I’m comfortable cycling in a way I like to call aggressively defensive – and when I measured up the risks of cycling on big roads and damaging myself from not taking the most direct route it was clear to me that this was the right choice. Of course there is a chance of something going horribly wrong – but there was more likelihood of me doing damage to my body by overexerting myself.
So there I was, on the A30. It isn’t the busiest of roads, but traffic is constant. On dual carriageways I tend to either cycle in the hard shoulder if it is big enough for me to fit in comfortably (at least a metre wide), or I tend to cycle in the middle of the left hand lane, forcing traffic to pull right over to overtake me. When you hear of how many cyclists have been hit by people who think they can squeeze past (particularly by the mirrors of lorries which often sit at head height), and when you consider that all that lies between the cyclist and the road is a millimetre of lycra… well, what can I say? I like being alive!
The day took on a slightly surreal aspect on the road towards Hayle as I cycled past an accident which must have taken place minutes before I arrived. Everyone was safe but there was glass all over the road – and then top top it off my old man had left his car parked on the cycle path I was using to escape the road!
From Hayle up past Camborne and Redruth and towards Indian Queens the day passed as if a golden haze. The rain which had been forecast held off nicely, the choice of roads turned the devilish Cornish mountains into molehills, and I even found time to get a shout out on Pirate FM – Cornwall’s major radio station. All of this combined with the rapidly accelerating number of likes for a selflie I had taken at Lands End and posted on FB I felt invincible, and the jubilation I felt at being on the road carried me to Indian Queens. Then the rain came, slowly at first but stubbornly spreading. Having left my coat at home (yep…) I was borrowing a plum red coat from my dad – which was both heavier and significantly bigger than mine – meaning I billowed my way along the Goss Moor National Nature reserve (along the old A30 which has now been turned into a serviceable and well surfaced cycle path).
In dealing with the solitude I experienced on my ride I became very attuned to how my emotions affected my psychology. As soon as the rain came the positivity was washed away, and the reality of what I was going to face slowly sapped my energy. The rain was everywhere – coming through my helmet, dripping off my face, obscuring my vision, trickling down my legs… I passively observed a creeping cynicism, and suddenly I felt truly alone. To drive me on I arranged to meet dad at Lanhydrock House, a local NT property, for a cake and something warm. The 45 minutes it took me to get there felt an age – as I pulled off the main road the rolling roads became steeper and shorter, and time seemed to stand still. I had to fight my urge to keep getting distracted – to check social media, to stop for a snack, to take a photo – and instead keep my legs spinning. When I arrived at Lanhydrock I settled myself down into the restaurant by the car park, stripping off sodden layers and settling down. When I recieved a text from dad saying he was in the cafe by the house – down a fairly big dead end hill – I didn’t know how to react. To go the wrong way, to go down a hill I would have to re-climb – this all felt like a violation of my self control, like an alien force challenging my right to have complete control of my destiny. It seems strange looking back, but at the time I was almost angry – why didn’t the world revolve around me and respond to my needs?
To make matters worse the ride out of Lanhydrock towards Liskeard and Callington became even hillier. In hindsight I’m fairly sure I was bonking (a cycling phrase for when you run out of energy), but I pushed on. At one point I missed a turning to Liskeard as I hurtled down a hill – and my stubborn brain refused to correct the mistake and go back up the hill- leading to a long and hilly diversion. The road past Liskeard continued to climb and dive, putting me on edge down wet and slippery descents and then pushing my body to its limits on the next climb. The day ended on a final climb out of Callington, meeting my dad and his car an exhausted and sweaty mess. We loaded up the bike, returned to base, and then I probably ate some food before sleep. I say probably – the day had taken its toll and I barely knew what I was doing. All I can remember is climbing the stairs to bed – a slow and painful ascent.
Day 2 – Callington to Taunton (89.66 miles in 7 hours 40 minutes riding)
After a day with the security of having a captive family member only a phone call away, day two was almost a second day one – I was truly on my own. To up the stakes even more this was one of the longest days of the ride – a minimum of 85 miles according to my maps.
At this point, you might well be asking the question “Why did you have to go so far? Why couldn’t you just stop when you got tired?”… After 5 years of student life and funding a long distance relationship, my savings account sat quietly in the naughty corner, with my current account and me operating on a need to know basis – a monthly check to make sure that I was still clinging on to the black by the skin of my teeth. So bed and breakfasts – the most flexible choice – were out of the window. The other option for accomodation long favoured by long distance cyclists is the tent – complete flexibility to stop when and where you like. The only two downsides are that once your tent is wet there is almost no way of drying it on the road, and that going by tent means carrying sleeping bags, roll mats, cooking paraphernalia, and generally adding lots of weight to your bike. With my lack of training and need for solid nights sleep, I didn’t think that this was an option. Alongside this, the only way of getting a cheap train ticket home was to book early and get a non-refundable advance ticket for the one combination of trains that would get me from Wick to Plymouth in a day. I was booked on a train back and as there is only space for 2 or 3 bikes on most trains, which needs to be booked to confirm a space, if I got delayed, even by one day, I would be stuck in Wick until bike space became available – and standard tickets the length of the country are not cheap.
The combination of needing to hit a certain mileage every day and my desire to have decent nights sleep without spending a fortune meant only one thing – staying in people’s spare rooms. So I got to work contacting family, friends, friends of friends, the internet, old school contacts and anyone who would speak to me to plot out where people with a spare room were situated along my route. Some stages of the journey were easy to sort (the route to Chester being sorted almost straight away) and other parts took longer (Scotland’s remote population meant I was searching almost until the first day of the ride, and ended up having to stay in a bed and breakfast in Inverness). It wasn’t, of course, possible to have every stay exactly 70 miles from the last. Some stops were only 50 miles apart, whereas others were not far short of 100, including day 2.
The ride started later than planned – I wasn’t out of the house at 7 as planned, and passing through my home town of Tavistock I met up with my old boss and his recently born baby boy. It was lovely to have a little natter (and pick up some extra sponsorship from a mutual friend!), but it had already been a hilly start to the morning through the old mining hills of the Tamar Valley, climbing up out of the ancient town of Gunnislake, and leaving Tavistock meant climbing onto the outskirts of the tragically beautiful Dartmoor, with it’s twisting streams and unforgiving undulations. The ride along the familiar roads through Mary Tavy also happened to take me past a new farm shop now managed by an old friend. We caught up, seven yeas having passed since we last propperely wagged chins. Both vegetarian, both socially minded, and both as ginger as the rising sun on a crisp spring morning. I left later than I had planned, my pannier bag freshly topped up with pasties and fruit. Skirting the edge of the moor I hopped on to the Granite Way, a luxuriously level cycle path running for xxxx miles between the outskirts of Bridestowe (where I had played championship chess matches as a wee lad) to Okehampton, another historical gateway to Dartmoor,home to station toilets that are closed when you’ve been holding out for them, and traffic lights that deny passage at every turn for the longest duration imaginable. I’d never vaulted a gate before, but it’s amazing what your body will achieve when pushed to the limits. This wasn’t to be the only time I’d climb gates in a hurry, and it certainly wasn’t the only time I helped water the fields, but it was the most… Relieving.
By now it was almost 11am, and I was seriously behind schedule. I pushed on hard out of Okehampton, hoping to catch up on time and avoid the circling rain clouds. Passing through cullomptun??? (a slightly dirty and narrow town, ruled by a road) I paused for food and energy bars, and then pushed on past exeter towards Tiverton. Pulling up a surprisingly steep hill I passed two cyclists, carrying nothing but themselves, and felt slightly smug with myself as my heavy bike sailed past their professionally lycrad bodies. Woohoo! Yeah!
Then they started to catch up.
I wasn’t going to let them overtake me so quickly.
But the hill wasn’t ending.
They drew level.
Where you going?
And with that, they were gone, taking my pride with them.
Chased by clouds along the river exe I headed towards Tiverton, where I managed to jump off ring roads and join a gravelly railway path that led to the Great Western Canal. This mean several hours of level cycling – greatly appreciated as right knee was getting the occasional twinge, and my right ankle was also in a bit of pain.
On the canal path I bumped into two recumbent cyclists (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3f/U.S._Air_Force_Senior_Master_Sgt._Michael_Sanders_pedals_his_recumbent_bicycle_along_the_course_while_competing_in_the_10-kilometer_recumbent_bike_race_during_the_inaugural_Warrior_Games_at_the_Olympic_Training_100513-F-QE915-162.jpg). We had a little chat – they’d sussed out I was cycling the end to end, and it transpired that one of them ran a small business providing therapy for people with a range of physical disabilities. As the bicycles have three wheels they are very stable, and the tow path provides a great opportunity to move slowly at whatever speed the patient is comfortable at. A fantastic idea and a lovely person. I didn’t get much further down the path before my way was blocked by a horse towing a tourist barge. Turns out this is one of two remaining horse-drawn barges still being used on the canal – and this one had a lovely hyperactive dog patrolling along the roof at high speed. I was thoroughly enjoying the spectacle but once more time was my enemy, with rain forecast and another 15 miles to go. I pushed on along the canal, over ancient aqueducts and through picturesque villages still stuck in the Victorian times. One village had a small detour that took me past the church yard of the most wonderful medieval chuch and along a bubbling old mill leat. I was quickly falling in love. This ardour continued until I rejoined the canal, by this point well off the beaten track for cyclists. The path slowly narrowed until the foliage was gently brushing my knees. It got narrower – getting caught in my pannier bags and gears. Then it essentially disappeared. Nothing but a slight dip in the foliage indicated that there was a path – the only option was to drop down a few gears and rush it, hoping the underlying surface was still serviceable.
Once I left the canal things I had a simple choice – follow the busy A38 (running parallel to the M5), or follow the National Cycle Network of back roads. I chose the latter, and cursed the choice. I was quickly on a network of small backroads that barely showed up on my map, and so was stuck following the higgledy piggledy signs. Whilst they did succeed in keeping me away from traffic they took three sides of every square, went up hills only to go straight back down them, past muddy farms, and every which way but straight to Taunton. This meandering didn’t suit my route or my tempremant, and as soon as I found a signpost to Taunton I followed it eagerly, embracing duel carriageways and roundabouts over motorway junctions to get on with the business of getting from A to B.
Past Taunton I cycled slowly and deliberately towards my overnight stay with the schooltime friend of one of my Uncles. I arrived late, damp, and gently hobbling on my right knee. I was cold – I jumped in the shower almost straight away – but greatful for the time spent with them. Both now just entering their pension years they had decided a few years before to cycle LEJOG themselves – having never seriously cycled before. They did it over a number of years, cycling a few days each year and then picking up where they left off. I was humbled by their story – despite all of my lycra and energy gels I was doing no more than they had done. During some of the toughest moments I was to recall their story, reminding myself that anything is possible if you truly believe.
Day 3 – Taunton to Tintern Abbey ( miles in minutes riding)
Day 3 was another long day. I woke up fairly refreshed – everything felt nice and flexible and I had great instructions for the next part of the ride. The hills of the west country were now a thing of the past. Something wonderful and bizarre happens when you’ve got past exeter – you crest a rise and then the world fans out in front of you. The hills just… Vanish. I remember the first time that I cycled this far I panicked and turned around, afraid of this new non-lumpy geography. So the first few miles were fairly pain free – I was heading along the Somerset levels and the name is just so accurate. There were lots of quiet back roads following dykes – many of the, being dredged as a result of David Cameron’s assertion that this was the best way to combat the floods. Past long abandoned castles and through twee villages I went. I distinctly remember one section of road being so quiet that when Imagine Dragons “On top of the World” came on my MP3 player I sang with joy, with gusto even. I was on the road, doing what I had been dreaming of for months. The feeling was electric.
And yet, despite the easy riding, something in my knee was beginning to trouble me. After a lovely lunch in the Cheddar valley, consumed as a wedding reception was set up around my table, I sheepishly ventured to a doctors surgery. When the receptionist had finished a very long and circular conversation with a tourist who spoke little English she rounded on me. Before I could see anyone I needed to provide an address. Obviously this was a problem – I had no-one within 30 miles who I could put down. I was on a charity bike ride, I explained, and so I couldn’t come back later. I asked to see someone – even on their lunch break – just for two minutes. It wasn’t the pain, it was more a case of getting some reassurance that I wasn’t doing permanent damage to my knee. I begged, I smiled, but it was no use, and I had to limp out with my tail between my legs.
Next I tried at a cycling shop, explaining my situation and asking if they had any knowledge of the mechanics of knee injuries. Their advice was “you’ll probably be fine” It wasn’t much, but it was all I had and time was ticking away. Resigned to my fate for at least a few more hours I popped back on my bike and headed onto the bluebell line – an old train track that ran parallel to my route for a few miles. At the next village I popped into a pharmacy to see if they had some ibuprofen rub. That needed the pharmacist who happened to be on his lunch… In the next room. As he was going to be 20 minutes I rode on.
This afternoon was the first one where I knew something was wrong. My memory is slightly blurry but I distinctly remember struggling to climb gates to pit stops, getting slightly off track and getting angry at myself for making a silly mistake, and walking into a supermarket to get ibuprofen. I rang my godmother, who was putting me up that night, and explained the situation. I was at least an hour behind schedule and not looking to gain any time. Bless her cotton socks, she said she’d wait for me. Our rendezvous was outside of Bristol, just up the Wye valley at Tintern abbey. Not only was it beautiful, it was on the far side a fairly major hill which had caused me problems on my previous LEJOG attempt. It would be better to clear it now rather than face it first thing in the morning. As I edged into the outskirts of Bristol (one of the major bottlenecks for any cyclist undertaking the end to end) I decided to follow the signposted cycle paths to avoid the lorries which ply the coastal strip between the two Severn bridges.
This didn’t go well.
By now my pedalling was being slightly affected, and when I found myself at the bottom of a hill having obviously missed a sign I kind of lost my temper. The only option was a footpath leading in the right general direction – towards the old Severn bridge along the estuary. At this point I rang Lizzie, my girlfriend. I ranted – sodding cycle paths, sodding missing signs, sodding bumpy ground making me walk, sodding mud, sodding cows, sodding gates every 100 metres that necessitated lifting the whole bike and pannier kit off the ground, over the gate, and back down the other side. The last step was the worst – the weight of the bike and the bad angle threatening to pull me over. More than once I just dropped the bike to save the hassle. Walkers stared at me – either in contempt or in amazement – but I can’t profess I was in any mood to even contemplate conversing with them. When I eventually found a road I had walked for a good 30 minute, on what should have been a 5 minute ride, and I was in the shadow of the old Severn bridge.
As I cycled up to the Severn bridge I met two other travelling souls, fellow LEJOGers taking three weeks, stopping where they felt like it, and just enjoying themselves. My bitterness began to fall away and I was able to tackle the first hills of Wales with a smile on my face, even if I was overtaken by a jogger. Past the Chepstow race track, up the hill – this was a route I knew like the back of my hand having driven it with my dad many times as a child. I descended into Tintern at speed down a beautiful steady hill, and was welcomed warmly with drinks, chocolate and fruit. I had been steadily applying ibuprofen since before Bristol and this had alleviated some of the pain, allowing me to sleep soundly.
Day 4 started well. As I was driven back through rush hour Bristol towards Tintern Abbey I was able to think about how far I had come – about a quarter of the total distance. I was able to talk about all sorts of distractions, focusing on the motorway systems of Bristol and the evolution of modern theatre rather than worrying about cycling. It was a relief, a nice way of setting up for the day. When we got to Tintern I reassembled the bike, put on my coat and got underway. It was a chilly day in the shadow of the valley and the road danced playfully with the River Wye.
Everything was feeling fine through to Monmouth, where you cross the river past the historical School, dash over the A40, and whizz through the town (straight over the first traffic lights, right at the T junction, left at the roundabout, and you’re out). The day would be spent cycling a route I had travelled many times before, and the fluttering map on my handlebars existed only to confirm my presumptions. The journey to Monmouth had only been 10 miles, and I felt great as I arrived. The sense of freedom, nostalgia, and joy at my knee feeling better were overwhelming. It was not to last.
As soon as I started leaving Monmouth, I knew something was wrong. The previous day both knees had ached a little, but the pain had been worse in my right knee. This had felt muscular, and had gone away with Ibuprofen and stretching. Now, as I climbed up my first real hill of the day I felt a stabbing pain my left knee. It sat right at the top of my knee cap, and hurt more when I was cycling at a high cadence (ie spinning my legs faster) than when I was cycling gently on the flat or standing on the pedals up a hill. To leave Monmouth you must cycle up a long hill – it goes on for about 3 miles. It starts steep, ducking under an overpass for the School, then meanders up through the suburbs of Monmouth, before breaking into enclosed countryside – but always upwards. I had to stop twice, and reached the summit full of apprehension. I hobbled to the England sign just to give myself an excuse to get off the bike. At this point the pain was worrying, noticeable, but not overwhelming. I cracked on – there was no-one around to help me anyway, and so I might as well keep moving. I passed the point where on my previous ride a skip had shed part of its load of scaffolding poles around, above and below me, then I went down the road where an overtaking white van coming in my direction had come within a few metres of making my personal acquaintance at high speed, and on to the A49 – a trunk road for lorries heading from the South of Wales to the North. My knee was getting slightly worse all the time, and as I arrived in Hereford I could of nothing but stopping.
I pulled up at the first restaurant that I found, and was observing the menu when two staff, one in kitchen whites opened the door and yelled at me to get in. I wasn’t in the mood to be told what to do, and was halfway through responding before they pointed out that a bee hive had established itself overnight under the table against which I had left my bike. I yelped, and ran around to the back entrance with my tail between my legs. Shortly afterwards a well heeled couple sat at the table next to me – my post-lunch routine of ibuprofen, massage and suncream combined with the collection of insects which had chosen my exposed leg hairs as their final resting place doing much to put them off their food. It was at this lunch that I was first asked the question “are you following the Tour de France?” The race had kicked off from Leeds two days before I left Lands’ End, and the question was to become endemic as I traversed the country, my lycra and bike pointing to the fact that I might be a fan. In hindsight, perhaps people were just trying to make conversation. At the time, I pointed out that I was clearly spending 6-8 hours a day on the road, and had no time to follow the antics of people being paid for the pleasure – indeed, at the end of the day I wanted nothing less than to think about cycling.
Over lunch the pain dissipated slightly – I was to notice over the following days that it was very specific to the motion of cycling – but as I straddled my bike once more and pushed off it came back. I quickly stopped again at the local Halfords to refuel with energy gels and powders, having already extinguished the reserve I carried in an attempt to keep to schedule.
As I left Hereford I mentally worked my way through the pains in my body. First off was the stabbing sensation in my left knee that was getting worse as the day went on. My right leg was aching as it was compensating for the pain in my left leg by exerting more pressure on the downstrokes. This in turn was shifting my body, leading to the beginnings of saddle sore and bruising in my “sitting area”. My arms were also slightly sore – on hills I had been using my arms to physically pull my body forward, forcing my legs down onto the pedals. My neck was slightly sore – a constant complaint that has haunted me throughout my life but is exacerbated by mental stress and the requirement to keep looking up when I assume aerodynamic positions on my bike.
The situation wasn’t looking good, and I had a lot of miles to go. As I pushed Northwards along the A49 the landscape was dominated by the next big hill – Dinsmore. It stands almost alone in a plain, and the traffic up it was dual carriageway. I was pushing myself towards the hill, and yet was somewhat surprised when I eventually arrived to discover that I was already in my lowest gear. My speed was low – and I was starting to get scared by the passing traffic as I was unable to cycle assertively, my usual coping mechanism for busy roads. After descending the other side of the hill my speed also fell back to about 8-10 mph, which is the average speed of my lovely but chain smoking ex-housemate on an ancient and heavy bike with only front brakes on his first ride in 5 years. The traffic – cars, motorbikes, and most worryingly lorries – were whizzing past me at a tremendous speed. The road was of that width and a half variety, with enough space for 3 cars abreast, but only one lane in each direction. The hard shoulder was dirty and cluttered, and sometimes as one car came past you could tell the next hadn’t seen you.
The pain in my knee. Past Leominster I struggled, and I was having to stop every few miles as the pain became unbearable.
I stopped at Ludlow for cake – it was mid afternoon and yet I still had 30 miles to go. I was really struggling, and rang my Aunt Margaret (who was putting me up that evening) to let her know where I was. The pain was starting to effect me emotionally – I could not picture a world where I didn’t reach the end, but there was a nagging doubt starting to gnaw at my mind. Back on the bike I laboured up a hill, holding up a coach, and struggling with even a gentle incline. The A49 continued to be a house of horrors, and my speed was now rarely double digits even down hill.
I was now entering territory familiar not just from the window of a car but from personal experience – here was the castle where I had taken my grandmother for a day out, there was Much Wenlock, which has one of the greatest antique shops in the country. I knew where the hills and rises were, where the traffic would be heavy through towns – and how far I still had to go.
My knee was now so painful that I could barely cope with the movement generated as my foot sat on the pedal. It was agony – I ended up cycling with my left leg wedged on my pannier rack, cycling only with my clipped on right foot. Emotional turmoil was turning into blind panic. I was completely alone struggling to see how I could make it to Shrewsbury, let alone John o’Groats. I was texting friends and family in my frequent breaks but wasn’t able to cope with the responses.
I felt like giving up. I stopped again, by a wooden gate, and took to my phone. The facebook status I wrote in that layby was partially designed to soften up the many friends who were following my journey on social media for the possibility that I might have to quit.
“Really tough day. 25 miles still to go. Knee getting worse. Rest of body aching after having to compensate. Struggling to travel more than 500m without a stop. Planning medical help in Shrewsbury and considering options to get through the next few days.
Will try and post full video update tonight.”
I honestly thought at that point that the update would be that the ride was over for me. My mum had spoken to my Aunt about finding a doctors surgery in Shrewsbury, and her GP graciously agreed to be available if needed. I spoke to my Aunt, and an offer was made to come and pick me and the bike up – all I would have to do would be to say yes. One short, simple word and I could stop. The pain would end. It was so tempting, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I pocketed the phone, and got back on the bike.
I carried on not because I wanted to, or because I saw myself as some superhuman. I carried on because I thought about all the reasons I was undertaking this ride. Multiple Sclerosis is horrible – I’ve said it before and you can trust that I’ll say it again. And as I reflected whilst timidly pedaling – struggling for a few hundred yards, stopping at the side of the road, holding my breath as lorries squeezed past – I reflected on how what I was going through was all my own silly fault. At any point I could stop – I could call for help, and be getting professional treatment in hours. I would be able to Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate. I could take time to recover, and then continue with my life. But my mum can’t do that. My Aunt Francis couldn’t do that. Everyone I’ve met through life with MS has no option to put it on hold. It’s permanent, and its shit. How on earth could I say that I was giving up? As I rode I thought of all the pain and trauma and hurt that my mum has endured with nothing more than a smile on her face. I resolved that this was going to be something that I would only finish when I reached the end, or when I physically couldn’t ride another mile. I carried on, and slowly, gently, eventually, arrived in Shrewsbury. My Aunt and Uncle were heroes – they had food ready to go, frozen peas for my knee, and information about physio options in Shrewsbury. Straight away they told me – and rightly so – that my dreams of riding through Snowdonia to Bangor the next day were out of the question. I was due in Bangor on the Saturday to sit through the graduation ceremonies of students in the College of Arts and Humanities – my last role as Bangor, and I had been planning on cycling from Shrewsbury to Bangor, having a rest day, and then cycling Bangor-Chester. I was going to the graduation because Education has always been about more than the filling of a bucket, and to witness a graduation is one of the greatest priviliges of the role of any sabbatical officer. My other Aunt and Uncle, based up near Chester, were in agreement. My fate was out of my hands – I was in no state to organise logistics. They would meet me the following day, my Aunt would ride with me and my uncle would drive with the pannier and refreshments. It was only 35 miles – and when we arrived I was booked into a bike shop to try and ascertain what was causing the pain, and into a phsyio for an hours attention.
Ten years ago I found out that my Mum had Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis; a degenerative neurological condition which leads to loss of mental and physical capacity. This summer, after 5 years in Bangor (3 as a history student, 2 as Student Union President), I decided to dust off my bike and cycle the furthest distance possible in the UK – Lands End to John o’Groats.
During the last few months I spent in Bangor I spent most of my spare time preparing for the ride. I spent hours and hours servicing the bike, planning my route, sorting out accommodation, getting nutritional advice, organising fundraising events, and contacting people about sponsorship. Unfortunately, I didn’t put quite as much time in the saddle.
After a whirlwind last few weeks – including a last minute dash to see Les Miserables in London the day before starting – I was off! Hitting the road gave me an amazing sensation of freedom and excitement. I was spending 6-10 hours a day on the saddle with only myself for company, and after months of psyching myself up to be on the road was so liberating, even if day 1 through Cornwall was a bit wet. However, by the end of day 2 everything had changed. I started to get a stabbing pain in my left day that ice and ibuprofen wasn’t shifting. As I cycled up to Bristol on day 3 the pain was getting worse and worse, not helped by missing a sign and having to walk across a muddy field between the Severn Bridges. Day 4 was up to Shrewsbury, and the pain became so extreme that by the end of the day I was unable to cycle more than a few hundred yards at a time, and regularly could only use my right leg, which was clipped onto the pedal, with my left leg resting on the bike frame. Some crisis thinking overnight led me to cancel the planned ride to Bangor and ride the 35 miles to Chester with my Aunt – taking 5 ½ hours to cover a distance that would usually take me 2-3 hours. This was a long, hard, and painful day. I was really tempted to give up – fearing that something might give in my knee. So much planning, preparation and support seemed like it was about to go out the window.
In Chester I had a full day off, and spent time upgrading my bike to reduce the amount of strain put through my knee, and having my leg looked at by the first of what would turn out to be 3 physiotherapists. It turns out that I’d developed tendonitis – excruciating, but it wouldn’t lead to any permenant damage. I set off – gently – for Manchester, taking the very bumpy transpenine way, before shooting up to Halifax, and across to York, having lunch with my Mum and then staying the night with my partner. The next day saw me hit Newcastle on what would be one of the fastest days of the ride, followed by my entry to Scotland the day after. The next few days – Edinburgh, Pitlochry, Inverness, and Golspie – went by without major incident, if you ignore some torrential rain, taking part in a march against the war in Gaza, some knee twinges, climbing higher than anywhere on the UK rail network, and chatting up bouncers to keep an eye on my bike as I supped in a Wetherspoons.
The last day was a surreal but amazing experience. After months of preparation, 950 miles of solo cycling, and a “will he/won’t he” storyline to rival Friends I skidded my way to a halt at the end of the country to the lyrical celebrations of my Geordie landlord who had turned up to surprise me, her resounding calls of “Gae on me lad” dispelling any fears of ending up at John o’Groats on my todd. 16 hours on a train later I was back home in Cornwall, and able to start some gentle rehabilitation to prepare me for whatever adventure life brings next!
This bike ride raised over £7000, taking my personal fundraising total to over £12000. Not only was it an amazing achievement (and I can think of little to compare to the elation of gliding down the last hill to John o’Groats), raising so much money for a charity that supports the thousands of people suffering from the same condition as my mum has brought me to tears on more than one occasion.
During my time in Bangor I got
Why you should do charity.