Over-reaching myself

Do you ever realise you’ve become a very different person? And perhaps that you’d been this sort of person for quite a while, and everyone else was fully aware of it, and you were the last to know, as ever?

IMG_5352No one was surprised that I entered the Transcontinental Race. No one except me. Turns out I’d been in denial about my ultra-distance ambitions for quite some time. I virtually ignored all the social media fuss about last year’s race, pretending I wasn’t interested. This, of all things, should have alerted me to what was about to happen. I always feign disinterest right before I fall head over heels in love.

I’m still not really prepared for this race in many ways. I don’t yet have the bike I’ll be riding, and I have only the vaguest idea of the route I’m going to take. (There’s just over a month to go.) And unlike many competitors, I haven’t spent the past few years cycling insane distances as fast as I possibly can. I’ve never done a race of any length. Until last month I had never completed an Audax. I am not, as everyone has hastened to remind me, entirely inexperienced – but I couldn’t say for sure whether the experience I did have would come in particularly useful. When I took stock at the beginning of my audaciously short three-month training period, it seemed to consist of:

  • Six years of couriering, in which I got used to spending the bulk of each day on the bike, and carrying on through rain, cold, blisters, sunburn, injuries, hangovers, saddlesore, period pain and utter exhaustion.
  • A couple of years of touring, during which I learned to go for long periods without washing, and got pretty good at finding food and shelter in countries where I don’t speak a word of the language.
  • Three months spent hauling a fully loaded fatbike from Anchorage to Port Townsend, which I optimistically reassured myself would have built a lot of strength, if not the fitness required to outsprint the men on the way up Ventoux.

I may have talked this experience up a little bit when I entered my application for the race. It was very oversubscribed this year, so the organisers had asked entrants to give some indication of their suitability for the event, as one of the ways of weeding people out. It only occurred to me long afterwards that I probably got in purely on the strength of my gender, since there are only about seven other women racing, out of almost 250 cyclists.

The fact that I’d signed up to this terrifying event sat in my head like a benign tumour throughout my winter travels. I occasionally told people about it, with the calm composure of someone who has plenty on her plate in the immediate present, and no energy to worry about whatever daunting things she might have set herself up for a few months down the line. Wrapped up as I was in my day-to-day survival, I rashly assumed that by July I’d have magically become someone who was strong, and fit, and fast, and capable, and ready for the Transcontinental race.

And now it’s late June, and I have.

I expected this to be a lot harder. In fact, a cornerstone of my training plan (a plan which otherwise consisted of little more than ‘ride long distances, and go to yoga sometimes’) was to try and cram as much suffering as I could into the period before the race, my reasoning being that this would lessen the amount I suffered on the race itself. And there was no way that learning how to cycle 300-400km a day, including as many uphill sections as possible wouldn’t be painful.

I was wrong; it’s been wonderful. In fact, the only really scary bits have been the first outing on the new road bike (which was terrifyingly fast after the fatbike, and felt like it was going to blow away the first time I went down Anerley Hill with a side wind), and the hours immediately before long rides, where I undergo crises of confidence much like the one I took with me on my first club run a few weeks ago.

I managed to get myself a place on the Bryan Chapman Memorial ride last month. I’ve been regarding this event with awe and respect for many years – cyclists start in Chepstow on Saturday morning, ride the length of Wales, cross the Menai Bridge onto Anglesey, then turn round and ride all the way back, arriving before 10pm on Sunday evening if they want to make the 40-hour cutoff. It’s one of those rides, like the Transcontinental, that the organisers have taken great pleasure in making as difficult as possible. It’s 619km long, and goes over as many hills as can be found – even once we’d cleared the formidable climbs of Snowdonia (twice) and  dropped back down to the rolling hills of Powys and Herefordshire, the route wiggled itself delightedly in and out of steep river valleys and then along the A446: one of those unforgiving A roads that takes you relentlessly up, and down, and up, and down, and up again, in straight sharp climbs that don’t look like they should be that hard, but are, and persistently bleed the last dregs of energy from near-exhausted legs.

I spent the eve of the Bryan Chapman sitting on my own in a Wetherspoons in Chepstow, being ignored by the assembled crowds of red-nosed alcoholics and under-dressed teenagers and fretting miserably about what lay ahead of me. (Incidentally, Wetherspoons is an ideal fuelling station for the hungry cyclist. The food is cheap and plentiful, and arrives promptly, and the menu has prominent calorie counts, so you can make sure you’re getting enough in.) One of the unexpected lessons I’m learning during this ‘training period’ is that although you’re physically capable of what you’ve undertaken, the way you feel – physically and mentally – will change numerous times before, during and after a ride. And the night before the Bryan Chapman I felt simply awful. I’d been tired for days, the bike and I hadn’t been getting on well lately, my cycling shoes were so full of holes that I was worried I might actually wrench my feet out of them on some of the climbs (not to mention the fact that my cleats were worn down to little nubs of metal), and I was horribly nervous about lining up against the gruff powerhouses of Audax – a corner of the cycling world that is as male-dominated as any other, and characterised by its toughness and lack of pretension. This isn’t a sportive, where you’ll pay massive amounts of money for a medal, a tshirt and a goodie bag full of cheap energy products. Your modest thirty quid entry fee covers a succession of cheap fry-ups and baked potatoes at the various controls, a timeshare in a youth hostel bunk near Dolgellau (I was kicked out of mine after two hours, to make way for the next wave of exhausted cyclists), and the chance to watch confused and sleep-deprived old men in lycra staggering into each other, dribbling into their tea and being efficiently bossed around by a squad of volunteer soigneurs.

I was intimidated by these men right up to the moment we all got on our bikes. And then, as if by magic, it was all alright. I wanted to stop and text all the friends I had moaned to the night before, to tell them that I had been wrong, that it was nowhere near as bad as I’d feared – that in fact it was wonderful – but I couldn’t bear to stop even for a moment. It was a beautiful day. We were over halfway up Wales by lunchtime, and despite my being convinced (by one of the no-longer-intimidating men) to take a alternative (much hillier) route between Rhayader and Devil’s Bridge. I couldn’t get enough. As I crested the ridge that separates the gorgeous Elan Valley from the coast, and swept down into the Rheidol Valley to rejoin the pack (who had spent the last 30 miles or so breathing in traffic fumes on the A44), I burst into song, and Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ accompanied me the rest of way up to North Wales, over the magnificent Pen-y-Pass, with the sinking sun blazing through the notch between Snowdon and Glyder Fawr as if they were the gateposts of heaven itself, and down through Llanberis and over the Menai Bridge under a vivid sunset.

1*PbqLu01QSOY4c1Z0w-vErAPhoto from the wonderful Gem Atkinson, whose excellent write-up can be found here.

Occasionally I would worry that I was riding too fast, or climbing too hard, burning up all the power that I should have been holding in reserve for the ride back to Chepstow. But the energy kept flowing, and the burning in my legs and lungs felt delicious, rather than torturous. I kept overtaking people, especially on the climbs. Now and again I’d get talking with another cyclist in passing, or at one of the later food stops, and several commented on how strongly I was riding. It seemed barely credible. Where had all of this power come from?

I’m learning, gradually, what everyone else already knew – that if you cycle this much, and for this long, you will automatically be fit and strong. That no ride is wasted. That all of those days I struggled along into the Yukon’s icy headwinds, feeling weak and slow and pathetic, were actually building towards this day’s sense of triumph. That every adventure contains the seeds of many more to come, even if you don’t know it yet.

IMG_7522This is what I look like after 619km. (Thanks for the photo Harry.)

And I’ve also learned that, despite my frequent fear of other cyclists, and instinctive preference for cycling alone, it is sometimes only when riding alongside others that you realise just how much you’ve progressed – that although you often felt slow and weak, in reality you were getting faster and faster.

Last week I cycled up to Edinburgh for the Festival of Cycling, in the company of the great Juliana Buhring. It took us two days, and again, it was a lot less painful than I thought it would be. In fact, it was a joy and a pleasure, and I realised (again) that I really am ready to ride the Transcontinental. Juliana’s been called “the world’s strongest female ultra-endurance cyclist“, and I managed to keep up with her over the whole 750km ride. This doesn’t, of course, necessarily mean I’ll do well in the Transcon, where the winner will be the one who can not only ride fast, but who can keep riding fast for over 4000km, through all the pain and suffering and exhaustion that will entail. I don’t yet know if I have it in me to do that. But now I think I have a fighting chance.

(Juliana’s also racing in the Transcon, and we have a gentleman’s agreement that whoever makes it to Istanbul first is buying the beers. As far as I’m concerned this means free beer for me, which is just as keen an incentive to keep going as the tenuous prospect of victory.)

And then when I was up in Edinburgh I took part in Markus Stitz’s excellent Capital Trail ‘Ride’ (he insisted repeatedly that it wasn’t a race, but fooled no one).

IMG_5317I don’t think Markus realised, when he signed me up for it, that I’ve only spent about four hours of my life mountain-biking. I think he just assumed that someone with as much cycling to her name as I have would be perfectly capable of surviving whatever a 230km off-road ride with 6000m of climbing might throw at me. Until a few weeks ago I might have disagreed with him. But 2015 seems to be, at least so far, a charmed year for me. In everything I have attempted, no matter how frightening or over-ambitious it seemed, I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. The winter ride was, as you know, something I planned for over two years, mostly assuming that this would be the thing that finally broke me. And it didn’t. I’m nearly at the end of writing my first book. And it’s not all that bad. I’ve done the Bryan Chapman, a ride I always happily dismissed as impossible. And I enjoyed it.

As things turned out, I ended up scratching from the Capital Trail 70km in, when the borrowed bike I was riding started to fall apart. I didn’t really mind – it would probably have been foolish to attempt the whole ride, and risk injuring myself on some of the later technical sections, as well as knackering myself for the ride back to London. And 70km was enough not only to double my MTB experience, but also to jolt me out of my denial and disinterest and force me to admit that this is something I really want to do. Even though it feels ridiculously late in life to be getting into an entirely new discipline. Even though I probably won’t be very good at it for a while. Even though I’m not sure I’ll ever get over my fear of going downhill.

As I sat on the beachfront the following morning, welcoming in the riders who had managed to complete the whole course, I looked down and noticed a small scar on the inside of my right calf. It’s been there since I was sixteen or seventeen, and I can barely believe I still have it. In fact, I think I looked for it a few years ago and couldn’t find it, or even remember which leg it was on. The skin stretching across my swelling calf muscles (after the Bryan Chapman, my proud father pointed out that I actually have stretch marks where they join my knees), along with my deepening tan, must have brought it out of retirement. And it was almost implausibly apt that I noticed it just then, because it dates back to my very first mountain biking excursion.

The school I went to for sixth form was just a couple of miles from a set of trails, and if you so wished, you could spend one afternoon a week mountain-biking, instead of playing hockey or netball or rugby. There was even a female instructor, a competitive cyclist with a world ranking. I was quietly fascinated by this woman, having seen her one day waiting for her charges near the school reception, her sleek muscular calves covered in mud and scratches. The boys who did mountain-biking usually spoke of her with awe and pride, although I did one catch a couple of them passing around a magazine in which she appeared, wearing a bikini and standing under a shower. “Nice body, shame about the face,” one of them said, with a smirk.

The boys didn’t seem overly thrilled when I decided I wanted to be a mountain-biker instead of skulking at the edge of the netball court, hoping no one would throw the ball at me. They regarded me suspiciously as a pick-up drove us towards the trailhead, sitting there in their full-face helmets and baggy shorts, with their full-sus bikes. I was wearing my school PE kit, and had brought along the old Muddy Fox hardtail I’d stolen from my dad. The female instructor was off competing somewhere in Europe, so we were accompanied by a teacher, who was only in his mid twenties, and seemed to relish the prospect of escaping the normal teacher-pupil hierarchy, and being one of the lads for once. Jokes flew around that clearly dated back to previous rides, races they had done together, trips I hadn’t been on. I couldn’t have felt more out of place.

I did manage to keep up with the boys once we hit the trails (to all of our surprise), but the damage had been done. By the time we skidded back into the school grounds I knew that the following week I’d be back on the netball court, and they’d have the woods to themselves again.

“Uh, I think you’ve cut yourself?” said one of them as we got off our bikes.

Unable to decide whether his tone was closer to admiration or contempt, I followed his gaze down to my right calf, where a couple of lines of blood were creeping down towards my sock. One of the struts that held my front mudguard in place had come loose and gouged itself into my leg without my noticing.

All of a sudden this tiny scar is one of my most treasured mementoes. It’s been with me for almost half my life; sixteen years in which I have gradually, oh so gradually, begun to believe that I might really be capable of becoming the sort of person I had always admired, envied, secretly wanted to be.

I am, as you might easily guess, extremely sceptical about the side of adventuring that consists entirely of inspiring quotes and motivational maxims. Because life is usually far too messy, complex and beautiful a thing to be reduced to such neat platitudes. But right now, halfway through one of the most successful years of my life so far, rejoicing in this sense of being at the height of my powers, but maybe having higher still to go, all I can think is…

What if you were that sort of person all along? What if you were capable of so much more than you ever imagined?


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On chasing men

Don’t ever get the impression I’ve got it all sorted. Just when you (I) think you’ve (I’ve) got life figured out, and it’s all plain sailing from here, you either discover something completely new that you have to get your head round, or simply realise that you’re not the master you thought you were.

Both of these things happened to me this weekend. As some of you are already well aware, since I got back from North America I’ve swapped the fatbike for a skinny carbon road bike (and it would be hard to think of two bicycles that are more different, so that was quite the transition), and I’ve started doing 400km training rides (not quite forgetting that the one time I got up to 200km on the fatbike, it took me 24 hours). And, for the first time ever, I’m starting to take my fitness seriously – rather than just considering it an enjoyable side effect of my cycling habit.

So I’ve joined a cycling club. Financially, it made a lot of sense – for £50 a month I get a bikefit, pedal stroke analysis, free servicing, all the yoga and pilates I can eat, and an open invitation to go out on club runs. And I was hoping for another, somewhat less tangible benefit. You see, I’m terrified of roadies. I joke about it, but I actually am. They are almost invariably male, older and musclier than me, dressed in immaculate team lycra (and the right sort of shoes and helmet), and riding bikes that cost more than I earn in a year. The few times I’ve walked through Cadence to buy an inner tube or go to a yoga class, I’ve felt like I was running the gauntlet of the Velominati, each of them casting a casually critical eye over me and my bike, and totting up the manifold ways in which we were failing to conform to The Rules. Or, worse still they’d glance briefly at me, decide that I wasn’t a real cyclist, and was therefore not worth bothering with, and go back to their espressos and race strategies. The man who signed me up seemed to hold the same view. He gazed intently over my head and out of the window as I asked him about membership, took my money without comment, and handed me a timetable of pilates classes.

This was all part of my plan though. The plan was to tackle my fear and their judgement head on – because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, over my years of adventuring, it’s that the only way to get over your fears is to face up to them; in fact, to charge bullheadedly straight through them, because once you’re on the other side it’ll all be fine, and you’ll wonder what you were ever afraid of. There will be a lot of roadies on this summer’s race. I might as well get used to them now. Also, it wouldn’t do me any harm to up my speed a bit. After all, the faster I can knock out my daily 300km, the more sleep I can get.

My first club run combined my roadie-phobia with a much older fear – that of walking up to a group of people I don’t know and introducing myself. It’s my least favourite kind of socialising, and one I’ve subconsciously rearranged my life to avoid. The night before, and over my porridge that morning, I kept wanting to back out, thinking that perhaps I could just go out on a ride on my own and that would be better, or that I could turn up at Cadence, walk past the roadies as usual, and go to a pilates class instead. It felt curiously like the first few days of my Alaska ride – I firmly wanted to stop, wait, rest, and not go on, but I also knew that the only way to get where I needed to be was to continue.

Along with the nervousness of meeting new people, and being judged on my (very old and worn-out) cycling kit, came the sudden realisation that I hadn’t been on a group ride (except one with a pub at the end of it) for several years. As a solo rider, I have nothing to follow but the rhythms of my own bicycle, body and inclination. What would I do if my cruising pace turned out to be 5mph lower than that of the other riders? What if I were hopelessly out of my depth?

When I’d checked the start time of the ride the day before, I’d also asked what the average speed might be like (“sixteen or seventeen” he said; “kilometres?” I asked; “miles” he said; “oh … ok” I said), and checked whether they had a ‘no man left behind’ policy, emphasising that I was happy to find my own way home if I got dropped. The man behind the desk was friendlier than the one I’d originally signed up with. “You’ll be fine”, he said.

When I arrived at the shop it was very clear that the bunch of beefy lycra-clad men lounging at the front table were the club runners. I hovered on the outskirts, and was quickly joined by the only other girl (slighter than me; pink cycling top; pigtails). I struggled to understand why I wasn’t more grateful to have someone to talk to. Perhaps it was because, by instinctively creating our own group, we had decisively excluded ourselves from the main group. Now the men definitely wouldn’t talk to us. And now I’d have no incentive to try and join their conversations and pretend I wasn’t afraid of them.

She told me about the 95-mile sportive she was training for in a couple of months time, and the 100-mile charity ride she’d organised from her home-town of Ipswich the year before.

“Have you heard of the Dunwich Dynamo?” I asked. She had. “It would be great for you, because you could just cycle home afterwards. For most people, getting back to London turns the whole thing into a nightmare.”

“It’s overnight, isn’t it?” she asked dubiously, and I could already tell from her tone of voice that she’d never even consider it. She asked if I was training for anything in particular.

“Yes, I’m doing, umm, a race this summer.”

She chuckled.

“I love how you call it a ‘race’! It’s always just a ride with me.” (‘But it is a race…’ I thought.)

I realized I’d forgotten my helmet. Not that I couldn’t ride without it, but drove yet another wedge between me and the rest of the group, whose shiny Kask and Catlike lids were currently lined up on the table in between their coffees and energy gels.

Before we set off, I located one of the ride leaders and repeated my assurance that I didn’t want to hold anyone up, and that I was perfectly capable of finding my own way home if I got dropped.

And we were off. Down Anerley Road, out through Elmers End and West Wickham, down Corkscrew Hill and over the roundabout onto Layhams Road – a route I love, because within 15 minutes of leaving my flat in South London I can be out in what appears to be open countryside (though is in reality more of a green finger poking into the sprawling suburbia of South East London). Not wanting to get in anyone’s way, I stayed close to the back of the pack, though at one point one of the men tried to usher me through so that I could ride next to the other girl, assuming we were together.

We stopped to regroup just before we hit Skid Hill Lane. “So we’ll go straight over this junction,” announced one of the leaders, “and then left and up Beddlestead, and when we’ll get to the top we’ll divide into a faster group and a slower group.”

Beddlestead Lane (tackled from the north) goes sharply down and then slowly up, and is one of those hills that always hold a little more in reserve – even when you’re over the worst, there are still a few more ramps, a few more bends, and a couple of fiendish false flats. Of course, everyone left me behind as we set off on the descent (I have always been an over-cautious descender), but as the gradient reversed and the climb rose up ahead of us, something unexpected happened. I caught up with the riders at the back, dutifully crawled along behind them for a moment or two, and then realised my legs would be happier going faster than that, so hesitantly pulled out, somehow worrying that they would think I was showing off, or committing the cardinal sin of leapfrogging (overtaking repeatedly at a pace you then fail to hold). The same thing happened with the next few riders I passed. I’d sit behind them for a bit, wondering, for reasons I couldn’t even fully explain, whether it was appropriate for me to overtake, and then pull out, pick up the pace, and plug on up the hill.

It was a lovely climb. Eventually the only riders ahead of me were the two ride leaders, one of them tall, lean and broad-shouldered; the other smaller, stockier, and explosively energetic.

“Thank you” said a voice from behind me as I pulled over at the top, breathing deeply. I turned round to find that a couple of the men had been drafting me up the final section.

“I thought you were a tourist when I saw that bag” said one of them, indicating my seatpack. “But you’re good – you’re strong, and you’re smooth.”

“Oh …thank you!” I said, not quite knowing how to respond to this.

He introduced himself, and offered to give me a few tips on drafting when it became apparent I’d never done it before. And when the rest of the group had reached the top of the hill, he insisted that I join him and what turned out to be only four others on the faster ride. As we rode off to the right, and the others disappeared to the left, I overheard him saying to one of the leaders “that one … tourist … but she’s actually quite good”.

I remained slightly worried that I’d fail to keep up, or that perhaps I’d have exhausted myself on that one hill, but as the man in the shop had predicted, I was fine. I occasionally got left behind on the descents, but I more than held my own on the climbs, and I was actually disappointed when, on the way back to Crystal Palace, they took a detour that avoided Corkscrew Hill.

You’d think perhaps I’d have felt relieved? Well, I did and I didn’t. I rode away from Cadence waving at my newfound friends and knowing I wouldn’t be rejected if I ever chose to go back there (which I will). I was no longer frightened, which had been my main aim for the morning.

But, as I ended up musing at length over a lunch with my sister – why was I so self-effacing in the first place? Why had I managed to convince myself that I’d be the slow one, that I’d be unwelcome, that I’d get dropped, and the peleton would ride off without me, probably having a laugh at my expense as soon as they were out of earshot? I know I’m not that bad a cyclist – I know it – so why did I so readily fall into that role? Why did I take pains to reassure the men on the ride that I knew my place, that I’d find my own way home, that I wasn’t going to intrude into their boys’ club more than I absolutely had to?

Partly, I think, I can blame road cycling for not being welcoming. It’s a common enough complaint. But really I feel that I myself am at just as much at fault. I recall Solnit’s 2012 essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me‘ (you should read it, if you haven’t already), where she recounts an (ultimately satisfying) encounter with what we now know as a ‘mansplainer‘, and talks about being “caught up … in my assigned role as ingénue”. That’s to say, the man patronising her about a subject on which she is an acknowledged expert decides to talk to her “in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice”, and she decides to accept that power dynamic. In my case, I actually encouraged the power dynamic, by suggesting to the ride leaders that I was out of my depth, and priming them for my eventual failure.

And I still haven’t quite figured out what was going on here. As a couple of people have suggested, part of my motivation might actually have been a covert ego-trip – i.e. by deliberately lowering people’s expectations as much as possible, I was setting myself up for an even more impressive triumph when I turned out to be an OK cyclist after all. But that doesn’t explain the cringing sense of apology I genuinely felt when warning the leaders of my potential slowness, or wondering whether it was appropriate for me to overtake other cyclists on the way up a hill. Was my nervousness also, somehow, a reluctance to upset the status quo, to rock the boat, to disrupt the assumed hierarchy?

My sister spends a lot of her time in gyms, and recently trained as a fitness instructor. She also has a degree in anthropology, so almost can’t help herself noticing people’s unconscious rituals and hierarchies and peccadilloes. In her current gym, she’s usually the only woman who uses the weights section, and frequently has her workouts interrupted by men offering her unsolicited advice, or criticizing her technique – so much so that she now spends a lot of her exercising time rehearsing responses, and keeping an eye on those around her, so that next time someone tries to intervene she can say “actually I’m a fitness instructor, and you’ve been doing it wrong, let me show you.

After lunch we went out for a walk and came across the outdoor gym in Norwood Park, where she decided to show me how close she now is to being able to do a pull-up. Within no more than a couple of seconds a nearby man had rushed over, and without even bothering to introduce himself he started coaching her attentively, advising her on what grip would work best, and suggesting she move to the other side of the apparatus, where there was a counterweight that would help her to develop the relevant muscles. This went on for a few minutes, with her politely thanking him, trying to explain that she already knew how to do a pull-up, that she’d been building up these muscles for a while, that it was a work in progress, and him brushing aside each assertion with yet more advice.

I held her handbag and held my tongue, determined to let her fight her own battles, but wishing I could tell him just how wrong he was getting it. Eventually I could bear it no longer, and said “she’s a fitness instructor!” at the same moment as she finally said “I’m a fitness instructor, I know what I’m doing”.

“I’m a fitness instructor too” said the man. “A fitness consultant. At a gym in Wandsworth.”

“No he’s not” she whispered as we walked away, leaving him to it. “He’s just making it up.”

We briefly debated whether it was better for his ego to have remained unscathed, although we all secretly knew he was bullshitting, or whether we should have taken him down more decisively. It didn’t really matter, we decided, and carried on with our walk.

But I can’t stop thinking about this, and feeling disappointed with myself. Why didn’t she or I challenge him directly? Why do we so readily go along with a situation where we are right and someone else is wrong? Why was I so apologetic on that morning’s ride? Why, despite thinking of ourselves as proud and confident feminists, are we still colluding with these roles that we don’t really fit? We know better than this.

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How to host a cyclist

I quite often get to the end of a ride and say to myself ‘that’s probably the toughest day I’ve ever had on the bike!’, and then remember all the other times I’ve said that, and briefly try to figure out which day was actually the toughest, and then decide that I don’t really need to know, that there’s no point trying to rank my experiences so strictly, that a tough day is tough in itself, without needing to be compared to any of the others, which were all pretty tough as well, in their own way.

And the same goes for the people I stay with. There were a lot more of them on this trip than I anticipated (leading to constant low-level guilt regarding the sleeping bags I was supposed to be testing), and practically every time I stepped into the Warm Glow Of Arrival, or rolled away the following morning with a wave, a tear and a backward glance, I said to myself ‘these are probably the best hosts I’ve ever had’ – and then guiltily remembered all the other hosts I’ve thought that of over the years (practically all of them, if I’m honest), and realise again that superlatives are largely redundant here.

I’d like to write a 2,000-word blog post singing the praises of every single person, family and household that has taken me in on this journey, because to single out only some of them feels like a betrayal of all the others, but I don’t have time, and if I’m honest, the accounts would probably end up getting rather repetitive, even though the love and admiration and gratitude I felt for all these wonderful people was just as sincere in Seattle as it had been in Anchorage. So a few of them will make appearances in the posts I have yet to write, in the talks I’m soon to give, and in the anecdotes I’ll be telling over dinner for the rest of my life. Others may not, but I hope I’ve been a good enough guest that I was able to make it clear to them in person just how much their generosity meant to me.

Perhaps you’d like to know what these people did that was so wonderful? Well, as my friend Nhatt says, it’s not rocket surgery. Touring cyclists ultimately have pretty low standards. If you’re able to offer them a warm shower, a dry bed and a hot meal, you will, for the next 24 hours, become their very favourite person in all the world. If you want to go a bit further than that, here are a few useful tips:

How to be a truly excellent host

1. Feed your cyclist, feed them again, and then feed them some more. Particular credit here must go to Hector and Miche in Whitehorse. When I arrived I was so weak I could barely hold the bike up, and had lost so much weight that I could fit both fists into the waistband of my trousers. Worried as I ever am about eating people out of house and home, I kept a stash of my own food in the kitchen, which I could fall back on if the gaps between meals proved too long for me. Hector and Miche took this as a challenge, and saw it as a sign of failure if they heard me opening one of my packets of tortillas. Every couple of hours one or other of them would initiate a sort of feeding frenzy, handing me bowls of soup, plates of pancakes, toasted cheese sandwiches, hearty salads, homemade cakes, succulent morsels of local fish and meat, crudités, canapés, tapas, titbits, nibbles and morsels, and would stand watch over me, placing plate after plate in front of me until finally my gorging slowed. And then two hours later they’d do it all over again. After a week of this I had grown back into my trousers, and built up a useful buffer of body fat to see me through the next thousand miles.

2. Send them away with more food. Just about everyone I stayed with loaded me up with sandwiches and energy bars when I left. Rion and Rebekah in Tok went one better, and sent me off with a goodie bag of jerky and sausages, from the moose they’d shot and butchered a few months back, as they did every year, to see themselves through the winter.


3. Give them some alone time. Amie and Ollie got this exactly right. Having spent three years on the road themselves, they completely understood that sometimes your social faculties are as exhausted as your legs, and you want to sit in a cave on your own and ignore the world for a while. Initially, their plan had been to move themselves onto the sofabed in their living-room-cum-workspace, so that I could inhabit their bedroom and be able to close a door behind me when I wanted some privacy – but in the end their neighbour went on holiday and left them the keys to his apartment, so that became my cave while I was there, and I was enormously grateful for it, as I was for the fact that Amie and Olli so clearly understood and had experienced this feeling that I didn’t need to feel guilty about it.

4. Give them access to your workshop and your spares shelf. Credit here obviously goes to John Rusyniak, and also to Dee Jay and Kerry, who I stayed with in Houston, and whose toolkit contained everything a cyclist (and bicycle) could possibly require, including a wide variety of substances that Dee Jay insisted on rubbing into my chain, boots, zippers, saddle and panniers, to keep them going long enough to make it to Seattle.

5. Offer them a lift. Because not all cyclists are entirely scrupulous about riding every inch of the way – especially if they’re nearing the end of their journey and you live at the end of a 10km dirt track that winds steeply off into the mountains, as Tyler and Naomi did. Tyler very kindly picked me up from the main road and dropped me back at the same spot the following morning. Special mention here must also go to Amie and Olli, who not only picked me up from Port Townsend, but also drove me to the airport, saving me from the nightmare of navigating public transport with more luggage that I can carry.

6. Give them something to do. In some cases all your cyclist will want to do it flop pallidly around your house for a day or two, catching up on their email and sleep and laundry, and eating almost constantly. But in some cases they’ll be tired of living a life that revolves entirely around themselves and their journey, and especially of answering the same questions again and again and again about where they’re going, why they’re doing this, and whether they’re crazy. When Judy invited me to volunteer at the Chistochina checkpoint for the Copper Basin 300 dog race, I jumped at the chance to get involved in someone else’s project for once, and to move away from the centre of attention for a while.

7. Lend them spare clothes. Dee Jay and Kerry have been cycle touring together for over 35 years, and it shows, in their phenomenal attention to detail as hosts. One of the touches I most appreciated was the drawerful of clean tshirt and hoodies and tracksuit bottoms – so that I could wash everything in my panniers, not just my cycling clothes. (By this point my off-bike outfit was beginning to smell almost as bad as my on-bike outfit.)

8. Don’t forget to rehydrate your cyclist. Because she may well forget herself. I am very bad at remembering to drink enough, and all too eager to accept the chilled beers and pints of G&T that many hosts would thrust into my hands on arrival. Tammy and Don got this exactly right. From the moment I arrived they kept up a steady stream of juice, water, and various herbal teas. I could almost feel my body sighing with relief.

9. Remember to take as well as giving. In Lillooet I stayed with tandem enthusiasts Ken and Mary Jane, and we got into the predictable (lengthy) discussion of our kit strategies and preferences. They were kind enough to ask if there was anything they could give me, but at that point what I needed most was to get rid of things. Owing to the wonderful (and very welcome) generosity of almost everyone I’d met along the way, I now had a lot more kit than I’d started with, including several items I knew I wouldn’t use again, since I was now only three days’ ride from Vancouver. So I left Mary Jane and Ken with the majority of my fuel, and a few other odds and ends, assured that they would either dispose of them accordingly, or press them into use on one of their own tours.

10. Offer them an escort. Especially if you live in a town or city that’s difficult to navigate. Meeting Dee Jay and Kerry on their bikes at the top of Hungry Hill was a supremely happy experience, and Brek Boughton earned my eternal gratitude when he not only guided me into Vancouver, patiently tolerating the vastly different speeds of our two bicycles, but also got up at 5am the day I left, in order to show me an intricate back route through the industrial edgelands of the city and south towards the border.


11. Make them part of the family. Oddly I was more homesick at the beginning of this trip than at the end – but the wonderful Cameron family absorbed me into the tail end of their Christmas celebrations, and provided me with a warm, raucous crowd of adoptive parents and pseudo-siblings, very much like the ones I was missing back at home.

12. Practice your skills on them. Particularly if you happen to be a qualified massage therapist, like Christine in Quesnel. Thank you Christine!

13. Take them by surprise. I wasn’t planning to stay with Yojiro and Miho in Pemberton – in fact, I wasn’t planning to stay anywhere in Pemberton, and just hoped that I would be able to find somewhere convenient and unobtrusive to pitch my tent, eat my instant mash, and sleep off a challenging day of rain, headwinds and 13% gradients. Instead, I was ambushed by Yoji, who was packing his fishing things into his car about 20km out of town, and ended up making two wonderful new friends, who washed and dried my filthy clothes, made me up a bed in their spare room, cooked me the best Japanese meal I’ve eaten since …Japan, and made me wish I could stay up all night listening to their stories.


14. Put them in touch with other hosts down the road. Pam and Jim in Whitehorse were particularly good at this. I met up with friends, relatives and former students of their all the way down to Vancouver, and by the end of the trip they had spawned a family tree of several generations of hosts, each contact begetting one more, a little further along the road. Special mention also goes to Terry and Joanna in Smithers, who put me in touch with so many people that I couldn’t stay with them all!

15. Share your books and music and recipes with them. Susan in Marsh Lake gave me a blank sheet of paper and asked me to recommend all my favourite travel books and novels, then sign and date it as a souvenir of my visit. Her husband John had the most zany, eclectic and delightful range of music I’d ever come across. When I stayed with Kate and Kate we spent the whole visit firing book and film recommendations at each other. Christine in Quesnel gave me the recipe for her incredible granola (full of nuts and ginger and maple syrup), and I’m looking forward to making it and then thinking of her every time I eat it.

16. Encourage them to deviate. A week or so before I reached Quesnel, I received an email from a couple called Kate and Tim, who had met cycling across Canada a couple of years previously, and were now married and running an organic bakery in the tiny, artsy, picturesque and isolated community of Wells, a day’s ride up the hill from Quesnel. Kate’s email admitted that I might not consider it worthwhile making a detour that would add an extra 160km to my journey, not to mention over 1,000m in altitude, but, as I informed her in my response, she had offered me three things I find it very difficult to resist: 1. food, 2. a good climb, and 3. the company of other cyclists. And I didn’t suffer a moment’s regret. After a lovely long climb, on the last properly snowy road I’d experience on the trip, I rocked up at Tim and Kate’s beautiful house, was fed all the leftovers from the previous evening’s pizza night (three whole pizzas), followed by dinner, and spent the evening listening to their stories as I slowly fell asleep. (If you ever find yourself in the Quesnel area, make sure you find The Bread Peddler and eat some of their bread, because it’s delicious.)


17. Look out for the signs of exhaustion they may not have noticed themselves. I found out from a later host that Jenny in Watson Lake, when I rolled up at her house after (as I said to myself) ‘my toughest day on the bike ever‘, being a trained and experienced nurse, had taken one look at me and decided she was going to keep me there for at least a couple of days. I thought I was fine, and that a hot meal and decent night’s sleep was all I needed to be back to normal. I didn’t realise until I rode out of Watson Lake a few days later, finding the whole thing so much easier than I had when I’d arrived, that I’d been quite so exhausted, or that those two quiet days of sitting and eating and reading had been so desperately needed.

18. Give your cyclist cake. Cyclists love cake. Diane in Soda Creek got a lot of things right as a host, but I think the crowning glory was the great big sticky lemon drizzle cake she baked for my arrival (along with a chocolate cake and an apple crumble, both of which I polished off with alacrity).


Seeing how much I enjoyed it, and how voraciously I ate it, she produced another one the day I left, and even included a couple of birthday candles, just in case it lasted that long.


19. Let them know they’re welcome to stay as long as they like (unless of course they’re not). I was immensely grateful, when my seat post snapped on the way out of Stewart, that Maria’s parting words to me that morning, as she drove off to Terrace for a hair appointment, had been an assurance that if by any chance anything went wrong, I was welcome to come back and stay an extra night or two. And Jef, the wonderful man whose spare room I colonised for a week in Port Townsend, was entirely tolerant of my constantly evolving departure date, and regularly told me I could stay as long as I liked. He even emailed me just now to say “you are welcome back anytime for as long as you want”.

20. Geek out about bikes. Because, despite spending every waking (and sleeping) minute on one or in very close psychological proximity to it, your cyclist will probably still want to talk about gear inches and punctures and tyre lifespans and steel versus alloy and headsets and bottom brackets and Brooks saddles and old-school British framebuilders. I particularly enjoyed staying with Ann and Ivor in Williams Lake. She and I started planning a ride up the Karakoram Highway we’d like to do one day, and he introduced me to his beautiful 1970s Roberts, which he rode across Canada on in his youth, and which was built just a couple of miles from where I’m sitting now.

21. Take a chance on them. Here I must thank Mary, the school bus driver who just happened to pass me as I was inspecting a potential camping spot on my last (freezing) night in Alaska, and even though I was a strangely dressed foreigner she’d only just met, invited me back to her cabin for caribou stew and her amazing homemade bread, kept me company all evening, and sent me off with an enormous cinnamon roll in the morning. And Mark and Michaella in Anchorage who, despite the fact that I was only a distant internet friend of an acquaintance of their daughter’s, invited me into their home without the slightest hesitation, treated me like a queen, and followed my journey (via Twitter and my YB tracker) all the way to Seattle, as proud as if I were one of their own.


But this is all very well; what I really want to know are the equivalent guidelines for how to be a truly excellent guest, since I am much more often on that side of the equation. I’ve figured a few things out over the years, but there are probably loads more little touches that haven’t occurred to me yet. So, if you’ve ever hosted cyclists (or anyone else for that matter), and can give me some ideas of how to make my hosts as happy as they always make me, let me know in the comments.

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