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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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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The kit list to end all kit lists

Here’s a treat for all you gear nerds.

A few weeks ago I found myself with a spare morning (or at least, the disinclination to fill it with anything more useful), and decided to spend it clearing out my panniers, going through all my stuff, tidying, itemizing, editing and repacking it all.

I was staying with a couple who have almost a century of hiking and bike touring between them, and who have, over the years, whittled down the amount they carry to almost nothing. The contrast with my bulging panniers couldn’t be greater, and I’m quite embarrassed by how many duplicate pieces of kit I’ve been carrying, unused, for the last thousand miles – just in case. Of course, I didn’t know when I started this trip exactly what I’d need to keep me alive, and was terrified of the thought that I might perish somewhere along the lonely wastes of the Alaska Highway for want of that fifth baselayer. For future winter rides, I reckon I’ll be able to carry about two thirds of my current load.

So here’s a peep into my panniers. I haven’t edited the contents in any way – I just emptied out what happened to be in them on that particular day, so you’ll get an authentic snapshot of what I might be carrying at any given moment, food wrappers and all.

Sleeping system

Here you see (l-r) a large bivvy bag (Alpkit Hunka), an inflatable mat (Thermarest), with a foil-backed foam mat (Mountain Warehouse) underneath it and my down booties (REI) on top. The yellow sleeping bag (PHD Hispar 600) is meant to be good down to -21C, and the orange one (PHD Hispar Combi) down to -6C). Together, I was informed, they provide a sleep system suitable for -45C, though I’ve found I get a bit shivery anywhere below -40. (Not necessarily an inadequacy in the bags – it could also have something to do with what else I’m wearing, how tired/hungry I am, how much moisture the bags are holding (if I don’t get a chance to dry them for a few days, they end up losing a lot of their loft) and how long I spend sitting around cooking and eating after getting off the bike and before getting in the bags.)

To pack this up, I put the booties at the bottom of the yellow sleeping bag, put the yellow sleeping bag inside the orange one, and roll the result up with the (deflated) Thermarest inside the bivvy bag. That way it’s all very quickly accessible in an emergency, and also makes for minimal faffing in that tired period after I get off the bike and just want to be asleep. The foam mat rolls up separately and sits on the top of my rear rack.

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The final part of my sleeping system, I suppose, is my tent – in this case a Hilleberg Soulo, of which I’m very fond, because it’s robust, cosy, freestanding (vital in conditions where the ground’s frozen solid and you can’t hammer in pegs), vents well and goes up and down very quickly. It packs into a neat bag which I strap onto my Alpkit handlebar harness.

IMG_1344

Rear left pannier

This is my more accessible pannier (since I always dismount on the left side of the bike and lean it on the right side), so it contains everything I’m going to need for a night in the tent, meaning that in many cases I can leave the other pannier attached to the bike. (Let’s pretend this is motivated by efficiency rather than laziness.)

Here you see (roughly from top to bottom):

  • spare boot liners (courtesy of Tom in Palmer)
  • blue drybag containing (far too many) chargers and batteries
  • studded rubber soles for boots (courtesy of Richard in Iskut)
  • miscellaneous Ortlieb spares, elastic straps, plastic bags and puncture kits
  • small bag containing pens, and an eyeliner pencil I’ve never used
  • net bag containing titanium cooking pot, silicone bowl and cup, spork, and miscellaneous cooking stuff
  • firelighters
  • drybags, cotton bags and the stuff sacks from my sleeping bags and Thermarest
  • file of Important Documents
  • Heet for alcohol stove
  • MSR fuel bottle (currently empty)
  • MSR fuel bottle with MSR pump attached (currently half full)
  • stove (MSR Whisperlite Internationale), in bag that also contains spare pump (broken), spare matches and foil screen
  • spaghetti
  • pile of letters, photos, emergency LRB and other mementos

You probably want to know what’s inside the drybags, don’t you? Of course you do.

Here’s all the chargers I’m carrying. I hate the amount of space they take up. This is one of the things I most urgently intend to address for future expeditions.

Roughly from top to bottom, left to right, this is:

  • spare battery pack for front light (Light & Motion)
  • charger for L&M batteries
  • handful of assorted USB connectors
  • USB converter
  • complicated universal charger for camera
  • dictaphone
  • external battery charger (for iphone; courtesy of Tom in Palmer)
  • small torch
  • iphone charger
  • charger for other front light (not currently working)
  • laptop charger
  • two sets of headphones I never use
  • spare batteries (AA and AAA)

And here’s the contents of my cooking pot.

Moving left to right, we have:

  • a tacky pink hipflask (thanks brother) containing emergency single malt
  • a scourer I bought in Toudeshk, central Iran, three years ago
  • collapsible silicone bowl (rarely used)
  • spork (indispensible)
  • packet soup
  • fire steel (Light My Fire)
  • Whitebox alcohol stove (thanks Iain!)
  • collapsible silicone cup (also rarely used)
  • titanium cooking pot (unwashed; capacity 1300ml)
  • lid
  • sachet of hot chocolate
  • matches

Rear right pannier

This is the stuff I’m less likely to want to access every day; mostly clothing. It is currently so full I’m having trouble closing it, which means that once it is closed, I’ll go to great lengths to avoid opening it again.

The Paddington Bear keyring was a present from my sister when I was in Pakistan.

  • green drybag full of clothes
  • orange drybag containing case for GoPro (which usually lives on helmet)
  • notebook
  • chemical hand warmers
  • case for sunglasses
  • vacuum flask (rarely used)
  • laptop (cheap, disposable and infuriating)
  • spare bungees (unused)
  • canvas tote bag (unused)
  • PAC tool pouch
  • spare inner tube
  • non-latex gloves

And what’s inside the green drybag? Far too much…

I try to pack in order of usefulness – i.e. things I’m less likely to need, like my swimming costume, are at the bottom; things I’m more likely to need, like a warm fleece and spare socks, are at the top. On reflection, I could have done without almost all of this. Half the baselayers I’m carrying have never seen the light of day.

In order of emergence:

  • fluffy white fleece (66 North)
  • handknitted socks (from a Finnish genius)
  • handknitted socks (from H. Outen)
  • merino boxers (Icebreaker)
  • merino baselayer (Howies)
  • merino baselayer (Icebreaker)
  • merino longjohns (Icebreaker – thank you S. Outen!)
  • merino socks (Pearl Izumi)
  • merino longjohns (Howies)
  • waterproof hat (Sealskinz)
  • bamboo cotton tshirt (Swrve)
  • handknitted gloves (thank you H. Outen!)
  • synthetic neckwarmer (Alpkit)
  • merino glove liners (Icebreaker)
  • swimming cap and goggles
  • 2 x cotton boxers (unused)
  • waterproof gloves (Sealskinz)
  • swimming costume
  • thermal baselayer (Pearl Izumi; unused)
  • synthetic baselayer (Helly Hansen; unused)
  • waterproof socks (Sealskinz)
  • cotton trousers (Swrve)
  • travel towel (Lifeventure)

What do I actually wear then?

Here’s my typical on-bike attire. (Obviously it varies according to temperature.)

From the top:

  • winter boots (Sorel Caribou)
  • hydration backpack (worn under jacket to stop contents from freezing)
  • helmet, with GoPro camera (not mine; property of PHD)
  • ski mask (Mountain Warehouse)
  • neoprene face mask (here be icicles)
  • windproof gloves (acquired in Gorgona in Veliko Tarnovo, autumn 2011)
  • merino buff
  • merino cycling cap (Swrve)
  • Swrve Milwaukee hoodie (an old favourite)
  • hi-viz tabard
  • merino mid layer (Mountain Warehouse)
  • fleece gilet (courtesy of Loretta at Jake’s Corner)
  • Rapha deep winter merino baselayer
  • Swrve winter trousers (on their fourth season)
  • merino longjohns (Icebreaker)
  • merino/silk boxers (Kathmandu)
  • sports bra
  • merino socks (Pearl Izumi)
  • woollen hiking socks (from my grandmother)

I don’t have front panniers, by I do have a couple of drybags attached to the Salsa Anything Cages mounted on my front forks.

Originally they were both red (from Alpkit), but the one containing food didn’t strap on so well when only half full, and fell off one day when I was preoccupied with riding through a blizzard, so I had to replace it when I got to Whitehorse.

The red one contains a down jacket (Alpkit Filo).

The yellow one currently contains two sachets of instant mashed potato, a bag of home made porridge mix (usually there are 3-5 of these), a box of halva, a small bag of dried fruit and a bag of glove liners and hand warmers, given to me by a very kind man near Kluane Lake.

My Alpkit fuel pod (on the top tube) contains:

  • snacks
  • tissues
  • chewing gum
  • hand warmers
  • spare rear light
  • temperature logger
  • electrical tape
  • Shewee
  • pen
  • emergency cigar (chocolate)
  • spare spoon
  • Reese’s peanut butter cups (i.e. crack)

My Alpkit frame bag contains:

  • sausages (garlic flavour)
  • butter (old; needs to be binned)
  • spaghetti
  • assorted energy bars, cereal bars and protein bars
  • hand warmers
  • chocolate
  • packet soups
  • easy-cook rice
  • battery pack for my front light
  • bag of chocolate almonds
  • two pumps (Lezyne and ?)
  • dog-earred map of the Cassiar Highway

My pogies – the thermal hand-protectors that cover my handlebars – tend to be used as nosebags, or just useful places to stash things I might want to grab quickly, or can’t be bothered to put away. Here’s their current contents, unedited.

That’s a couple of pairs of mittens, hand warmers, assorted snacks (jerky, seasame snaps, peanut butter cups, an orange), and a spare headtorch on each side, for some reason.

Bungeed to the back of my bike I usually have a slightly worn-out carrier bag, containing yet more food – some of it things I’ll want readily accessible during the day; some of it things that have sifted to the bottom and been lying there for many week (just in case of emergency).

IMG_1371

Here’s what’s currently in the bag.

IMG_1372

Contents of the bag would appear to be:

  • Three vacuum-packed chunks of pecan slice (from Miche in Whitehorse)
  • Assorted mini-packs of peanut butter and jam (from Linda at Rancheria)
  • Three tortilla wraps, rolled up with cheese and meat
  • Assorted sausages and jerky
  • Discarded wrappers and spare ziplock bags

Alongside the bag, tucked under another bungee, there’s my Nalgene water bottle, with its thermal cover, which stops my water from freezing even down at -30C. This is one of my happiest discoveries of the trip.

IMG_1374On the front of bike is a small zippered pocket that contains things I thought I might want in an emergency, but in reality have rarely looked at.

IMG_1376From top left:

  • disc brake divider thingies (for when bike is dismantled for flying)
  • duct tape
  • whistle
  • instruction manuals for recently purchased lights
  • space blanket
  • Mooncup
  • matches
  • painkillers
  • pen
  • hand warmers

IMG_1373That would be:

  • worn-out glove liners (silk; from Decathlon)
  • iphone
  • matches
  • tissues
  • lip balms (thank you, Tamsin and Michaella!)
  • lucky charm from a man I met in Ankara, three years ago
  • Dogtag insurance ‘document’
  • miscellaneous screw
  • wallet

And that really is everything! I am very very interested to hear everyone’s comments, feelings, advice, and even (for once) criticism, since I’ll be looking to reduce this load significantly for future trips. (I reckon almost my entire wardrobe could have been left behind, with only minor inconvenience.)

And here’s what it looks like when I put it all together, and add a rider.

LE6A6896Photo credit: John Rusyniak

 

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