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 all the lovely people that I wasn’t going to be seeing for however many years I was away. I remember long lazy sunny days in my beautiful dining room (who knows when I will ever have a dining room again?), occasionally pottering through to the kitchen to check on the steady stream of bread and cakes and slow-cooked stews issuing from my oven (who knows when I will ever have an oven again?), revelling in the peace and the silence and the solitude, and the feeling of being at home, even though I knew full well that it wouldn’t be my home for much longer – in fact, precisely because I knew it wouldn’t be my home for much longer.

Even back then, when I hadn’t been on a big adventure before and everything was new and strange, I knew that this nesting instinct must be a psychological response to the knowledge that I was about to spend the foreseeable future without a place to call my own (or, to put it more optimistically, with nothing but the whole wide world to call my own).

And now it’s happening again. My memories of this last month in London will be of a messy desk in a sunny living room, of local pubs and my lovely neighbourhood coffee shop where they know it’s always a flat white, of long chilly walks and runs around Dulwich College and up to Crystal Palace park, of hot showers and clean clothes and all the little rituals and routines of being at home. Yesterday I spent hours in the kitchen, happily chopping and peeling and beating and whipping and stirring and tasting, and serving up hearty lentil soup, cheese scones, chocolate brownies and a gutbusting cooked breakfast to the siblings who had come down to London to bid me farewell.

Sometimes, momentarily, this orgy of homemaking causes me to doubt myself. Do I really want to give this all up and spend the next chunk of my life living under canvas, cooking up packet soups on a single burner and being a guest in other people’s houses? Yes, I do. Does my sincere and heartfelt enjoyment of home life undermine my love of living as a vagabond? No, I don’t think it does. I’m only properly happy when faced with the immediate prospect of both. Too long at home and I feel trapped. Too long on the road and I feel like I’ve lost my moorings.

And this time I’m only away for three months, which compared to my last adventure feels like just a slightly-longer-than-average holiday. There are close friends in South London with whom I’ve been trying to arrange coffee dates for longer than that. I know that my home will still be here when I return, much changed by my adventures, and yet also much the same as I ever was, ever will be.

My nesting instinct isn’t the only recurring phenomenon I’ve noticed. Last time I was building up to a big trip, I became increasingly nervous about the large pile of brand new kit that began to build up around my desk, partly because of the diminishing patience of my housemates, partly because I don’t feel my kit is really my own until I’ve taken it out, got some mud on it, worn some holes in it, and made it part of my story. Back then I fretted about “my clean new tent and as-yet-fragrant sleeping bag”. A year later, halfway across China, I gleefully reported how filthy and holey they were, how many spokes I’d broken, how bald my tyres were and how disfigured my chainrings were after several thousand miles of mud and dust and grit and snow.

There’s currently an even bigger pile of kit filling most of my living room (winter sleeping bags take up a lot of space).

It’s all shiny and new and sweet-smelling and complicated and very very expensive – and I feel like an absolute amateur in comparison. All the gear and no idea. I don’t yet know how long it’ll take me to do up the laces on those boots when my fingers are freezing at -40C. I haven’t learned the fastest way of folding my new tent up and stuffing it into its bag. I haven’t figured out the trick to strapping my bedding roll onto my handlebar harness without it unrolling as I let go of it to fasten the clips. Every now and then (usually to buy a little more tolerance from my flatmate by making her laugh) I practice putting on all my winter layers and getting into the two sleeping bags + bivvy bag that are hopefully going to keep me warm and alive through whatever Alaska can throw at me, and then roll around on the floor like a giant larva. This is the closest I can get to a dress rehearsal, until I actually get there. There’s no way of telling whether I’m making any mistakes. And, where I’m going, a couple of small mistakes and things could very quickly get serious.

It’ll be fine though. It will. And I know it will, because as well as all of this, experience has taught me that, just like Pre-Trip Nesting and New Kit Angst, Fear of What’s To Come is a natural and healthy part of the process. It has taught me that I will always rise to a challenge, that I will always manage to chew what I have bitten off, that I will always find the resources somewhere, somehow, to carry on. That the scariest part is normally just before you set off. That someone will always be there to help, and if they’re not, then I’ll be able to help myself.

Besides, as I discovered when facing up to the Turkish winter all those years ago, a healthy pile of fleece and merino and goose down is in some ways just a very expensive and hi-tech security blanket. Put another way, I am really only leaving one comfort zone and stepping into another.

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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 managed to wear them out. The day after a particularly long ride I can feel all their muscles purring, wondering when I’ll be taking them out for another spin, even though the rest of me is still exhausted.

It’s odd, despite all of the thousands of miles I’ve cycled, and the thousands of words I’ve written about it all, I’ve placed relatively little emphasis on my physicality. This is partly because – for all sorts of reasons – my actual body isn’t something I often want to make public. That’s why there are relatively few images of me sweating my way up mountain passes in lycra shorts (well, that and the fact that I usually ride solo, so don’t have anyone to take photos), and that’s why I seem to prefer expeditions where the dress code is more like this:

For Alaska: the 4xHoodie look

Or this:

Back in 2011: my visa photo for Iran

Plus, like most women, I’ve spent my life being told (directly when I was younger; now subtly, pervasively, constantly) exactly what’s right and wrong with my body, and how I should feel about it. The female form is never neutral these days – there’s always someone ready to tell you you’re too fat, or too skinny, or that you should celebrate your curves, or that thin is in, or that big is beautiful, or that strong is sexy, or that muscles are gross and masculine (ew!), or that cellulite is a fate worse than death, or that a bit of flesh is healthy, or that you should aim for ‘lean’ rather than ‘bulky’, or that ‘real women’ don’t have thigh gaps – or that we should be modest, or that we should be loud and proud and fabulous, or that we should love ourselves the way we are, or that we should flaunt our curves, or conceal them, or that we should wear whatever the hell we want, or that we shouldn’t attract the wrong sort of attention, or that liking the way we looks makes us vain, or that hating the way we look makes us neurotic and self-obsessed, or that we shouldn’t care so much about it all, and really, what’s the fuss about?

…and all the rest of it. You know what I mean, I’m sure.

My point being, it’s almost impossible these days to have an authentic relationship with your body (or any part of it), that isn’t mediated by the ongoing deluge of public opinion and assertion. No matter how you decide to feel about your body, your resolve will be constantly battered by all of the countless opposing views. It’s exhausting, and frequently demoralising, and I count myself very lucky that I haven’t ended up, like so many other women, coping with an eating disorder or an exercise addiction, or just an unhealthily unrealistic perception of my own figure. That’s not to say I don’t struggle sometimes. I suspect most women do.

Part of my strategy for dealing with this has been to opt out as much as possible – I think this is why I’ve ended up focussing so much on what I do, and how I feel and think about it, trying to leave my physical form out of things as much as possible.

But of course, my adventures over the last few years have had a gradual, incremental, transformative effect on the way I see my body. I still hate it some of the time, but with every year that passes, I love it more of the time. (Give me another 5-10 years and I predict I won’t ever hate it at all.) It may not look like much, but what it does, and how that feels, are amazing.

So it still feels deliciously subversive to admit that I love my legs.

It’s not a love I need or expect anyone else to share, though I know some will and many won’t. Perhaps it’s best compared to the love a bike nerd will have for the vintage steel frame he’s lovingly refurbished and built up with hand-picked components. I built these legs myself. I’m pleased by how they look (in fact, I love looking at them), but I don’t really mind if no one else thinks so, because it’s really all about what they’ve done, what I’ve done to them, and what they’re going to be capable of in future.

In this sense it’s an utterly private pleasure. I feel no particular sense of pride, or of vanity. They are my legs, and no one else’s. Even if I were told every day that they were unworthy, I would still love them. I love the way they hum when I’m storming along a London street, minutely adjusting the tension of my muscles to steer me in and out of the traffic. I love the way they burn when I’m wrenching my way up a steep hill. I love the way they throb and flex and glow as I lie in bed the night after a hard ride. I love the way they seem to get properly into their stride only after about 80 miles. I love the contours of them; their hardness; the way the grain of the muscles shows through my skin; the bulk of my thighs and the bulge of my calves. I love the way they look poking out of a pair of shorts, and I love the way they look on the rare occasions when I wear heels. (Cyclists’ legs look incredible in stilettos – someone should tell Team Sky.) I love how reliable they are, how they never seem to get tired, and how they’ve always done everything I asked them to. Sometimes, when I get to the end of a ride I thought was so far or so hard that I wouldn’t make it, I find myself wanting to thank them.

[Here they are, about 220 miles into one of last summer's rides, after a rainy muddy night.]

[And here they are, on Brewer Street yesterday, enjoying the temperate London winter. Scar on right shin is the remains of road rash from a crash three months ago.]

I’m careful not to think of myself – or my legs – as invincible. After all, there are more years, and more thousands of miles to come, and the road can be a hard place. But there’s a strange note of triumph that echoes through this love. Triumph that, quite by chance, I’ve ended up genuinely loving a part of my body even though almost every voice in public discourse is trying to persuade me that I shouldn’t. Not to mention the relief and happiness that, despite the many set-backs, emotional and physical, that life inevitably brings, I have something solid (literally solid) to rely on. My legs have never let me down. They have proved me capable of so much more than I ever believed I’d accomplish. I am so grateful for them. How could I not love them?

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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.

“Yes, being a cycle courier is loads of fun, and makes me happy every day that I do it – but am I wasting my life? Shouldn’t I own a flat by now? Am I just being self-indulgent and irresponsible? And what’s that funny noise my bike’s making?”

“Yes, being discovered by an agent and offering a publishing deal sounds like a fairytale – but the day-to-day business of writing a book is hard, and often quite boring, and involves much less sense of achievement than writing a blog, and what if in the end no one buys it, and I get lukewarm reviews, and all this work turns out to be for nothing?”

You’ll have noticed, I’m sure, if you’ve read much of this blog, that I’m a worrier and a doubter, with a tendency to overthink things, and to distrust my own good fortune. Well, not at the moment. Aside from the stress of still having thousands and thousands of words to write before I disappear on Christmas Day, all I’m really feeling these days is excitement.

I’ll be spending the first three months of next year cycling from Anchorage to Seattle – the longest period I’ll have been on the road since 2013 – and I can’t wait.

[My excitement is not visible in my winter kit]

And then…

Then for something completely different. To my surprise (but apparently no one else’s), I’ve decided to enter next summer’s Transcontinental Race. In case you don’t know what that is, which you may well not, it’s a non-stop, unsupported bike race from Belgium to Istanbul, roughly 4,000km in length. The winner will finish in (I estimate) nine or ten days. I will be aiming to get to Istanbul in time for the afterparty, which gives me 15 days. (To put this into perspective the 2015 Tour de France will cover ‘only’ 3,344km, over 22 days.)

There’s no official route, but to make sure riders don’t just pick the fastest and flattest roads, Mike Hall, a race director from the same sadistic mould as Henri Desgrange (his continuing mission: “to make the world less boring and more painful”), has written in four checkpoints, most of them at the top of high mountain passes.

The start will be on the famed cobblestone farm tracks of Belgium, the first checkpoint will be on the bald summit of Mont Ventoux. The second checkpoint will be on the Strada dell’Assietta, requiring riders to ride a 40km section of alpine gravel track on the French-Italian border. The third checkpoint at Vukovar will draw racers away from the comfortable Croatian coastline onto more remote Balkan roads. The fourth and final checkpoint before Istanbul will once again be on Montenegro’s Mount Lovcen [writes Jack Thurston on the Brooks Blog].

I have never entered a race before (apart from that unofficial one against the triathlete earlier this year). The thought of competing against other people, with nowhere to hide, and no means of rewriting the rules when things don’t go to plan (as I have frequently done in the past), terrifies me. (Perhaps this is why I’ve deliberately entered a race so awesome in its scope that even getting to the end is worthy of respect.) I have never been a particularly fast rider, and although I’ve done some long distances under difficult conditions, my experience is nothing compared to that of champions like Hall, two-time winner Kristof Allegaert, my personal hero (and beer buddy) Juliana Buhring – or indeed, any of the UK’s hundreds of Audax riders.

If I do finish in a respectable time, I’ll be more than doubling what I think I’m currently capable of. I have only once or twice ridden over 300km in a day – this summer I’ll be trying to do that for 15 days in succession, over a course deliberately designed to make as many riders as possible give up before the end. I have never ridden more than a mile or so on cobbles. I have never climbed Ventoux. I have never ridden on gravel. I haven’t been on a road bike for years. I feel a bit stupid for even dreaming that I might be capable of this. I may well have bitten off more than I can chew.

But then, biting off more than I can chew is something I’m used to. I was always a greedy child (and am still a greedy adult), and the literal sensation of finding my mouth so full of food that I have to gurn and grimace to manoeuvre parts of it between my teeth, so that I can slowly grind down the edges and eventually manipulate it into something I can swallow is extremely familiar to me. It’s very undignified, and you look stupid while you’re doing it, and the only thing that gets you through is the knowledge that if you give up and spit it out half-chewed you’ll look even worse – very much like bicycle racing.

And besides, I somehow still have the same sense of excitement about the Transcontinental as I do about my next meal. Don’t ask me why. Or, if you do, don’t expect a good answer. Maybe it’s just the kilos of baklava I’m going to reward myself with when I get to Istanbul.

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Winter in waiting

On the other side of the world, you pass the moon to me, like a loving cup, or a quaich. I roll you the sun. (Carol Ann Duffy) We don’t seem to get winter in London any more. Last year the weather stayed so mild that I carried on wearing my fingerless gloves all the

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On doing well

I’m not depressed any more. And hopefully I won’t be for a very long time, although I won’t be so naïve as to claim that I’ve beaten the disease into submission forever. And life with all of its colours and its contours restored is a very lovely place indeed. But it’s not all plain sailing.

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The opposite of paranoia

Over the years I’ve spent on the road I’ve got used to the fact that when I need help, help will appear – although I’ve never stopped marvelling at it. Sometimes it’s positively magical – I could tell you several stories of times when I’ve been cycling along, desperately fantasizing about what it is I

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Sponsorship: is there an alternative?

I am quite often approached, at networking events for wannabe explorers (like Explore at the RGS next weekend), or in emails via this website, by people who are planning a big ride of their own and, as well as building a bike and planning a route, are trying to figure out how to get sponsorship for

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I can’t go on, I’ll go on

I finally booked my flights to Anchorage the other night, so now, after two years of planning and dreaming (and rethinking and deferring), I am officially on my way to Alaska. It hardly seems real, but I assure myself it is. Strange, when something has inhabited the inside of your head for so long, to

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Less than a thousand words

In the middle of a brisk autumnal ride to Brighton last weekend, just after we lost sight of the two parakeets who had amorously followed my riding buddy’s yellow helmet all the way from Croydon to Reigate, she remarked that she’d looked at my blog the other day, and the top entry still opens with

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Whiteout

Summer’s at its height, and until a thunderstorm cooled the air a couple of hours ago, I’d been sitting sweatily at my desk for what felt like days, wishing generally that I could be out on my bike, and specifically that I could spirit myself back to the chilly wastes of Iceland, or forward to

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