The Fear

Or, how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

I’ve just about accepted that, since this trip is something big and new that I haven’t done before, there’s no way I can avoid making stupid mistakes. Well, of course. One of the many reasons I want to cycle round the world is that my learning curve as a cycle courier has just about levelled out. And the exhilaration of doing something really really well is necessarily built on the embarrassment and public humiliation of picking it up from scratch, and learning things the hard way, with everyone watching and laughing at you when you get something wrong.

And anyway – friends keep reminding me that people have set off to ride round the world in far worse shape than I am. For a start, couriering means that I’m used to cycling 60 miles a day, five days a week, in all seasons and all weathers, and not being able to wimp out and take the bus, or stay in bed if it’s raining. Tom Kevill-Davies realized at the start of his trip that “seven years of a nine-to-five existence in London had left me completely unsuited to the hardships of life on the road.” Well, that’s one problem I won’t have. (Which is not to say that riding over different terrain, on a fully loaded tourer rather than a track bike, won’t take some adjustment. But at least I have a good basic level of fitness, and I’m used to keeping going when I have a cold/saddle sore/period pains/a storming hangover.)

Another thing: I was in Stanfords the other night, planning my route through Europe, and felt the now-customary wave of oh-my-god-I-can’t-do-this sweep over me. Because, the moment I’m out of France, I’ll be riding through countries I don’t know, and having to communicate in languages I don’t speak. Never mind Afghanistan – I’m terrified of Italy! But then I went to the pub, and met up with Daniel Bent, who assured me that he managed to ride all the way to India speaking nothing but English. And again, I realized that it could be a lot worse. I can get by in French and Spanish, I have a smattering of German – I even speak a bit of Urdu and Hindi! So, with practice, and probably a lot more public embarrassment, I should be fine.

Yet another thing: What if my bike breaks? Well, here I can take comfort from the late great Anne Mustoe, who happily reassures me that:

You don’t have to be twenty, male and an ace mechanic to set out on a great journey. I’ve cycled round the world twice now. I’m not young, I’m not sporty, I never train, I appreciate good food and wine and I still can’t tell a sprocket from a chainring or mend a puncture!

Suddenly I feel a whole lot better. I fix punctures all the time, and can tell you all about sprockets and chainrings. And, although I’m a far worse mechanic than most other cycle couriers, and in the lazy habit of going to bike shops rather than mending it myself, I’ve picked up a fair bit over the years. I’ve even built a couple of bikes. And so, although the thought of replacing a spoke or relinking a chain in the middle of the Turkish mountains fills me with dread, I think I know enough at least to be able to guess, improvise and bodge my way through most repairs.

But all this experience has a downside as well. The early posts of long-distance cycling blogs are often full of excitment and optimism about puncture-proof tyres, waterproof jackets and the brave new world of clipless pedals. But I’ve been riding 60 miles a day, five days a week, in all weathers, for the past three years. I’ve worked my way through all the brands on the market, and discovered that, no matter how much you spend, all tyres will puncture eventually, and all jackets leak after a few hours of heavy rain. And no pedal system is without its flaws. SPD pedals fall apart. Crank Brothers cleats wear down to nothing within 500 miles. Time ATACs are the best of a bad lot, but I wear through them too, several times a year.

I’ve also blown out rims, snapped forks and cranks, ground down the bearings in hubs and bottom brackets, cracked headsets, broken chains, split seatposts, bent handlebars, snapped axles, and worn through sprockets and chainrings quicker than anyone else on the courier circuit. I’m a running joke in most of the bike shops in town, and a fellow courier recently commented:

“You know Emily, you and bikes are really not a good mix.”

He may have a point. I’m not the fastest or strongest courier in town, but when it comes to breaking bikes I’m a leader in my field, with extra points for frequency and creativity.

And I think this might be the main source of my fear. No matter how much I (or other people) spend on the very best, top-of-the-range kit for this expedition, it will all fail at some point, and probably when I’m at least a week’s trudge from the nearest bike shop. Last time I blew out one of my rims I had to carry my bike from Harrow Road to Leather Lane. But that was ninety minutes shouldering an aluminium track bike – ninety miles pushing a fully loaded tourer will be a different matter altogether.

So I’m afraid. But it’s not fear of the unknown. I sometimes wish it was.

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One Comment

  1. fionakmann@gmail.com
    Posted August 4, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    I can relate enormously to this anxiety, however that that I felt I was totally unprepared for and occurred only as encountered various dilemmas. I decided to hitchhike semi-solo around Europe and it wasn’t until I was in Bosnia/Albania/Croatia (I wasn’t even sure at this point) that I realized what I massive task I’d set myself. Anyway, once the proverbial pickle is averted, no feeling can compare to that of triumph and pride of getting oneself out of afore mentioned pickle. Best feeling on earth.