We interrupt our irregular blogging

to bring you this important announcement.

To make up for being distant, out-of-touch, bad at updating my blog and worse at keeping up with my inbox (and because I was invited), I’ll be doing a series of talks around the UK on my return, hosted by Ellis Brigham and sponsored by Osprey.

If you want to hear about this winter’s adventures while the frostbite’s still healing, the cities and dates are as follows:

Tuesday 14th April – London

Wednesday 15th April – Bristol

Thursday 16th April – Manchester

Wednesday 22nd April – Cambridge

To find out times and addresses, and to buy tickets, head over to the Ellis Brigham website, by clicking here.

And then, over the May Bank Holiday weekend (1st-3rd May), I’ll be speaking at the inaugural Cycle Touring Festival in Lancashire, organized by the inestimable Laura Moss, and featuring celebrities like Tom Allen, Helen Lloyd and Stephen Lord.

If you’re completely new to cycle touring, but vaguely thinking that you might like to cycle round the world sometime, this is the perfect event for you – a chance to cycle  and camp among people who’ve been doing it for years, to watch and learn, to make all your mistakes in a place where they can be easily fixed and corrected, to ask all your stupid questions – and to be reassured that you’re not stupid really, that we were all new to this once, and some of us not all that long ago, and that no matter how fearful you are about what lies ahead, it will all be fine.

And if you’ve been doing this sort of thing for years, this is also the perfect event for you – you’ll get to hang out with like-minded souls, swap stories, make connections, and meet people in person whose blogs you’ve been reading for years. I confidently predict that at least one pair or group of people will end up planning a big bike trip together after this, and wouldn’t be at all surprised if one or two people meet their future spouse.

I’ll be seeing there, I take it?

Leave a Comment

Bringing out the worst

The first day after I left Tom’s place I was even slower than the day I arrived, and the following day, after camping in a gap between two deserted houses next to the highway that turned into a wind tunnel overnight, I covered 20 miserable miles in seven hours. The road at this point was unforgivingly wrapped around the spurs and tributaries of the Matanuska Valley, undulating constantly in both directions, so that I crawled painfully up hills, only to turn a corner and see that the road fell right back down to  river level, crossed whatever creek it was, and then climbed back up and around the next spur.

At one point I had to get off and push the bike up a hill – not so much because of the gradient as because the stronger gusts of wind would sometimes edge my front wheel to the right and threaten to send me tumbling down the unfenced slope into the icy river, far below. A lot of people in Anchorage had warned me about this first section of the Glenn Highway, suggesting that I hitch a ride for that part, or even detour several hundred miles to take the Denali Highway instead.

The road was no worse (and indeed much better) than many of the rougher segments I’ve covered in Pakistan, Kosovo, and even Wales, but anxiety clouded my head as I pedalled slowly along. It wasn’t fear of the road, I realized, or the unfenced cliffs to my right, or even the proximity of the traffic, since all of these were things I’d spent many hours growing accustomed to. For better or for worse, I can ride a lot closer to a thundering juggernaut than most other people, and think nothing of it, thanks to my years on the streets of London and bombing up and down dull-but-fast British A-roads.

What was scaring me here was the growing sense that I was riding into the unknown, that the buildings were thinning out, and that even when I did pass one, every hour or so, it was usually shut up and deserted, tucked away among the trees, its driveway clogged with two feet of snow and its owners very clearly spending the winter in more temperate climes. I had been told that there were relatively few services along this road, and that most would be closed for winter. I was carrying enough food for several days, and two stoves with which to heat it, so this shouldn’t have been a problem. And it wasn’t a problem, I told myself. The worry nibbling at the edges of my mind wasn’t based on any concrete concern, but on the nebulous fear of knowing that I was all on my own, that there were no other people here from whom to seek comfort, even if only in the short quotidien exchange of buying a Snickers bar and asking where the toilets were. I couldn’t talk myself out of the fear, I realized, because you can only convincingly reassure someone if you’ve been there before, and know it’ll be OK. I hadn’t been here before. I didn’t know if it would be OK.

As I crept north, the temperature crept down – and sometimes plummetted several terrifying degrees as I rolled down a hill, since as you know, cold air is heavier, and sinks into the valleys. The grey clouds that had swaddled Anchorage were long gone and the sky was a sharp, brilliant blue. I’m often struck by the fact that you can’t discern temperature visually. Photographs of the coldest places on earth are often bright and sunny. My father once took a photo of me splashing out of the Pembrokeshire sea after a frigid Boxing Day swim and, but for the expression on my face, I could just as easily be romping through the waves in August. Here in Alaska, the brightness and beauty of the blue sky and the shimmering mountains on either side of the road seemed to heighten the cruelty of the cold, which gnawed viciously at my feet, despite their several layers of wool and felt, froze my nostrils and eyelashes together, and implanted a visceral fear, somewhere in the primal depths of my mind, that this cold was a predator, that it was out to get me, that it was hunting me down.

Early in the afternoon I topped a hill, rolled down the other side into a landscape just as beautiful and just as empty of people as the one I’d left behind, and felt the air cool suddenly, the way it does when you walk into an air-conditioned shop on a hot summer’s day. The road disappeared entirely under a crust of compacted white snow, and my fears crept closer to the front of my mind. ‘It’s the end of the world’, my subconscious muttered insistently – and true enough, it was as if all signs of life were slowly being sucked out of my surroundings. First the people were removed – I hadn’t seen a house for ages, and even the cars passing me were separated by long miles and minutes of silence. The reassuring warmth of human colour was draining away – no people, no houses, fewer and fewer cars, and now even the road was almost invisible. And the cold was deepening with every hour that passed. The only thing I could rely on was my own fragile warmth, defended by a few flimsy layers of wool and gore-tex, and fuelled by an unreliable MSR stove and a handful of packet soups.

To keep my water from freezing, I was carrying it in a bladder strapped to my back, with a hose down my sleeve and a nozzle tucked into my right glove. By the time I felt thirsty, the hose had become a solid snake of ice, which cracked as I rubbed and twisted it, but remained stubbornly frozen. As the day wore on and the temperature sank, my body began to groan with thirst, and there was no obvious way of satisfying it. Anywhere else in the world I’d be able to rely on finding a service station or shop of some sort, where I could stamp the snow off my feet, buy a cup of tea, and stretch my frozen fingers out above a wood stove or an electric heater. Here I’d have to wait until evening, clumsily put up my tent with my numb fingers, coax my stove into action and tend it with alternate hands, keeping the free hand inside my two sleeping bags for warmth. Attempting to unpack my panniers and boil up a pan of water by the side of the road would involve too great a sacrifice of body heat – by the time I’d unloaded the bike, fiddled my way through the cooking process and got everything strapped back together, I’d be so cold that even a warm drink and another few hours of cycling might not bring my extremities back to life. I resigned myself to carrying on.

A few miles down the road I passed a sign for a lodge, allowed my heart to leap for a few seconds, and then firmly reminded myself that whatever establishment it was would almost certainly be closed for the winter. I briefly entertained the thought of camping out somewhere among its deserted outbuildings, for shelter from the wind and the comforting delusion of human proximity, but it wasn’t even 2pm. I had another couple of hours of daylight, and I was well aware of how far behind I was.

Two miles later, a small and very widely dispersed scattering of buildings on either side of the road suggested that I was entering what in any other part of the world might be a village. None of the houses showed any sign of life, beyond that they were there, and must have been put there by people who were once alive. Across the valley, the snout of the Matanuska glacier glowed an almost iridescently pure white through the steely air, and I dimly rebuked myself for not being more awed at its icy beauty. (The only other glacier I had passed this closely on my travels was the Baltura, which terminates mere metres from the Karakoram Highway, but it was a dank, muddy-looking beast, like the piles of grimy snow that decorate city streets a few days after a blizzard.)

Finally, to my left, I found the turning for the lodge. And – oh heaven! – the snow was flattened by vehicles coming in and out, and a couple of snow-free vehicles were parked outside a large golden log cabin, three stories high, with stained glass windows, a wide veranda, and smoke pumping energetically out of the chimney.

I abandoned my bike and stumbled up the steps to knock on the front door, holding my (solidly frozen) Nalgene bottle in my hand, as a pathetic token gesture of my thirst. The door was opened by a girl in her early twenties. I guessed she must be the daughter of the owners, but later found out that she and her boyfriend were caretaking the lodge for the woman who usually ran it, but spent her winters in South Carolina.

“Hi – I’m, umm, really sorry to disturb you,” I stuttered, only then realizing that my lips were so numb I could barely speak, and slurred my words like a drunk, “but could I possibly get some water?”

Of course I could. Caitlin ushered me in, watched patiently as I struggled out of my boots, and my helmet, and my jacket, and my gloves, and my backpack, and offered me a cup of coffee and a chance to warm up for a bit beside the fragrant log fire that faced me as I walked in, like a happy ending. I could tell instantly that this lodge was a labour of love and luxury on the part of the owner. Every chair was differently shaped and vividly upholstered, as if it had been salvaged and then stitched back to life. I sank in amongst a pile of brightly coloured cushions, each one fringed or beaded or frilled or otherwise adorned, and admired the polished logs that knitted together to make the cabin walls, gradually noticing, as my mind warmed up and my curiosity rekindled, that the place was hung with what must have been a lifetime’s collection of whimsical signs, on wood and canvas, in a variety of fonts and colours, celebrating friendship, wine, dog ownership, and sundry human quirks and failings.

“Cleaning the house while the children are growing is like shovelling snow while it’s still snowing.”

“Please ring the door bell – the dogs need the exercise.”

“A friend is someone who when you’ve made a fool of yourself doesn’t think you’ve done a permanent job!”

“Wild women don’t wait till they’re old to wear purple.”

“Some people are like slinkies. Not really good for anything, but they still bring a smile to your face when you push them down a flight of stairs.”

“Friends welcome – relatives by appointment.”

Caitlin and I got to know each other as I grimaced through the pain of defrosting toes. She and her boyfriend were both originally from Colorado, but had lived in the Matanuska Valley for several  years now, him working as a glacier guide, and her doing logistics for the same company. He was currently an hour or two’s drive back the way I’d come, studying welding in Palmer, but due home that evening. She was about to head out to the lake behind the property, for a couple of hours of cross-country skiing, but I was welcome to hang around as long as I wanted to to warm up – and, she added, visibly reaching a decision as she spoke, if I wanted to stay in one of the rooms that night, free of charge, I’d be very welcome.

It only took me a few seconds to say yes. Despite my worries about how I’d ever make it to Seattle at this rate, and my faltering urge to use every last minute of January’s scant daylight to push myself forward, I knew I couldn’t force myself to leave this warm, peopled haven and head back out into the cold. I remembered a snowy day in London, years ago, when I stormed desperately into Condor and spent £50 on a pair of gloves, because the agony of cold fingers has a way of rearranging your priorities, no matter how careful you are with money, and how much you might struggle to pay the rent as a result. I remembered afternoons in Eastern Turkey where I prayed that none of the truckers would stop to offer me a lift (as they quite regularly did), because I was suffering so much there was no way I’d be able to bring myself to say no. I remembered how extreme cold brings out the worst in me – my lazy, cowardly, pathetic, grasping, undisciplined side – but also how it brings out the best in other people. I thanked Caitlin, with tears of gratitude in my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked back out into the cold for just a few more minutes, to unload my bike and bring my bags into the warm.

Leave a Comment

The first day

Things are not going to plan. They never do really, do they?

The plan, you see, was for this to be a tough, difficult, challenging expedition, where I’d ride for many days without seeing another person, let alone finding a warm bed and a hot dinner. I was looking forward to the suffering and the solitude, and the constant nervous edge of fear that I was taking on more than I can handle – or, worse still, that I could handle what I was taking on, but that it would nonetheless be more painful than I ever imagined I’d endure. I had never experienced cold below -30, and there was no way of preparing myself for that, beyond stocking up on warm clothes and hoping for the best. Venturing into the unknown is always the scariest part of any expedition, and I had no way of knowing how my body and mind would react to extreme cold.

And, I realized, as I pedalled laboriously along the cycle path that follows the highway between Anchorage and Wasilla, where a friend-of-a-friend’s spare room was waiting for me, that I hadn’t anticipated just how slow a fatbike is, with its super-low gearing and its four-inch tyres that roar and rustle through the crispy snow, sounding almost  as if the bike has an engine. I tend to average about 80 miles a day when I’m touring. Anchorage to Wasilla is about 45, and it took me from 7.30am, a couple of hours before dawn, till just before it got dark, at around 4pm. So the second half of the ride was filled with doleful mental calculations of distance and mileage, and slightly panicked reviewing of my schedule. I’d worked out a couple of months back that, in order to get to Seattle in time for my flight, I’d need to average 40 miles a day, and since I’m capable of riding much more than this, that I’d have a great deal of spare time for rest days and detours. Now it was looking as if I’d have to ride from dawn to dusk (and longer for the first few weeks), and take almost no rest days.

For the whole week I’d stayed there, Anchorage had been muffled under a blanket of thick grey cloud. But when I got on the bike there were stars above me, and an hour or so into my journey I began to notice the looming black silhouettes of the Chugach mountains to my right, as a pale blue glow spread slowly up into the sky from behind them. The air was sharp and icy, and several degrees colder than it had been so far. The sun eventually climbed above the horizon, but stayed close to it, as if ready to duck away again at the first sign of trouble. In the distance, a long way ahead of me, an even higher line of mountaintops began to glow lilac and apricot, while down at road level I was still in the shade and, close as I was to the Chugach, looked like I might stay there for the duration of the ride.

Halfway through the ride the valley opened out as it reached the confluence of the Matanuska and Knik rivers, and suddenly the road was clear of snow. I could immediately tell why. A brisk wind rushed straight down from the north, pushing me insistently back the way I’d come. And I realized the road wasn’t quite clear – it was coated with a thin sheen of ice. ‘Riding a heavily loaded fatbike into a headwind, on ice’,  I thought to myself, not without some wry amusement. ‘If this continues, it might take me something more like six months to get to Seattle.’ As I left the bridge behind me I rode into a tiny patch of brightness – the only direct sunlight I’d see that day: the product of a slight elevation and a notch in the opposite mountain range. It lasted all of five minutes before the sun slipped back down behind the rocks, the temperature dropped a few degrees, and the light began to drain from the sky.

There was no relief when I reached the sprawling suburbs of Wasilla. In this part of the world, suburbs sprawl so capably that as you ride through them there’s very little to see, and you feel just as alone as if you were still out on the highway. Tom’s house was on a long leafy road that looked more like a country lane than a city street. Every now and then, as I struggled north on the ice, drawing closer and closer to the base of the tall snowy mountains that I’d been following all day, I’d pass a turning, numbered with some confusing logic in the high thousands. (Alaskan houses all have four-figure numbers, even on the shortest streets; I’ve yet to find out why.) Some of the turnings weren’t even numbered, and I worried that I might have to ride several laps of this long lonely road before I found my home for the night, when I was already limp with tiredness (and alarmed that I was feeling so wiped when it was only the first day of my trip).

But to my great relief, Tom’s house was only halfway up, clearly numbered, and hidden away among  the trees down a very short, snowy driveway. And there was Tom himself, standing in the brightly-lit kitchen window, waving with an excitement entirely disproportional to my arrival.

Tom is a veteran of several long bike rides himself, so his welcome was note-perfect. He gave me a huge hug, wheeled my heavy, dirty, snowy bike straight into his warm, bright living room (where it sat next to the dining table and made a muddy puddle on the floor, which he didn’t seem to care about), pointed me towards the shower, and handed me a pint of gin & tonic to take with me. When I emerged, glowing and grinning, we polished off plates of pasta,  and stayed up far too late, energetically swapping stories about our bicycles and adventures, and experimenting with my panoply of stoves.

The next day I lingered at Tom’s house while he went to work, waiting out my last day of period pains and anxiously unpacking and repacking my bike, very much aware that I was trying to assert some semblance of order, and therefore control, over the still frightening and chaotic prospect of my so-called expedition. Tom works for the fire department in Anchorage, so his daily commute is exactly the length of my entire first day’s ride (though he tends to cover in 45 minutes what took me a whole day), which struck me as excessive before I realized that an hour’s drive is fairly modest by Alaskan standards. All day long he emailed me, encouraging me to empty his fridge into my self and panniers, suggesting various other ways I could ransack his cupboards and facilities, and offering ominous reports of how far the temperature was set to plummet over the next few days. He arrived home with a spare pair of liners for my boots,  insisting that I’d need them, as it would be impossible to dry out my existing pair overnight at sub-zero temperatures. I had tried to convince him not to bother, but he was right, of course.

And then we waved goodbye, both attempting to conceal our anxiety about my welfare over the next few days, and I pushed off (slowly, laboriously) along the Glen Highway, along the Matanuska Valley, away from all the comfort and friendship I’d found in Anchorage and its environs, my next hosts several hundred miles along a very cold road, in Tok.

Leave a Comment

Welcomed to Anchorage

Oh, where to start, where to start? When I’ve been on the road for three weeks, and so much has happened, and so many people have told me they’re eagerly watching my blog for updates? I’ll start at the beginning, of course, in Anchorage, just a few hours after I stumbled exhaustedly off my third

Leave a Comment

Home away from home

The road is different every day, but much the same as it ever was – which is to say: wonderful; endless; like coming home; just as I knew it would be. And I’m remembering all the little quirks, charming and infuriating, that I forget as soon as I stop – among them the constant exhaustion,

Leave a Comment

Happy New Year

I’m here, in case you were wondering, ‘here’ being Anchorage. And I start riding north tomorrow. But I’m fed up of rehashing all the usual pre-trip highs and lows and nerves and fears. It will all get much more interesting once I’m on the road, and so my next post will just have to wait

Leave a Comment

On the eve

Just over 24 hours to go. And, just like when I was waiting impatiently for my last big adventure to start, back in 2011, I can’t wait to get going – not so much because I’m excited, although I am, but because the waiting has become intolerable. I won’t go into too much detail, because

Leave a Comment

Nesting, and other pre-trip neuroses

Long ago, during the summer of 2011, as I counted down the weeks and days until I set off on my Big Round-The-World Adventure, I noticed that I was spending a lot more time at home than you’d expect, given that by rights I should have been rushing around making the most of London and

Leave a Comment

Legs

You know what? I absolutely love my legs. They’re amazing, and I’m so lucky to have them. No matter how unreliable my tyres, the weather, the road surface, my brake pads, the nerves in my hands, my route-finding, my nutritional input or my strength of will, my legs just keep on going. I have never

Leave a Comment

Biting off more

I am really really really really really really really really really really excited. It’s a lovely feeling, and not one you’re treated to very often as a grown-up. Even though my life is, by some people’s standards, a lot more exciting than the average, it’s often difficult to see it that way from the inside.

Leave a Comment