Categories
Book Serialisation

The ups and downs had depended far more on attitude than altitude

‘Tell you what,’ said the red-haired girl behind the bar, ‘I’ll give you these three on the house. And then the rest … well, you can decide for yourselves.’

‘Wow!’

‘Thank you!’

We were perched upon barstools, Andy to my left, Mark to my right. Thick dark liquid began sliding into the second glass, tilted expertly to allow a steady build-up of foam atop the beer. The result looked like a pint of Guinness in an oversize wine glass: we were about to take our first sip of the famous Belgian Trappist ale.

‘Mmm … that’s delicious!’ Andy took a sip from the first glass; a golden brew with a warm sweetness and a touch of fizz.

‘You like ale, yes?’ the lady asked Mark, putting the second glass in front of me.

‘Yes!’

‘OK – wait.’ She paused, raising a finger. ‘I have something special for you.’ She turned and headed purposefully in the direction of the fridges at the back of the bar.

‘She’s going to open the vault!’ joked Mark as she rummaged amongst clinking bottles and returned with a dusty-looking specimen.

‘This,’ she announced, parading the label in front of us, ‘is really one of the strongest. You see,’ – she pointed out the wording – ‘this one is a “double”. There’s a “triple” here, too. It’s, like … seven percent.’ And she reached for the bottle-opener.

I raised my glass victoriously: another long day of riding into stiff winds had been conquered, and country number three had rewarded us with friendly people and a place to sleep, as well as the most welcome free beers ever dispensed! We toasted to the day: to the simple joy of celebrating the end of a hard slog with a couple of good mates.

Andy grinned. ‘Why bother eating when you can drink beer?!’

We hadn’t even seen a signpost to announce our arrival into Belgium, another small step in our mission to cycle the globe. Lost in the early-evening drizzle and with nowhere to sleep, we’d flagged down a trundling motorist and asked sheepishly if he had any idea where we might spend the night. The elderly man had shrugged off decades in an instant, hopping back into the driver’s seat as if finding accommodation for three foreign cyclists were his very raison d’être. And so, having desperately chased the born-again boy racer through the suburbs of Maastricht, we’d arrived at a countryside park visitors’ centre where the kindly manager, on hearing of our quest, had set us up on a patch of grass outside the kitchen door – and was now treating us to a well-earned drink.

Mark took a small sip, replaced the glass on the bar counter, closed his eyes, clasped his hands on top of his head and leaned back. A smile widened into a laugh. Perhaps it was the hunger and the tiredness of a full day on the road. Or perhaps it was that Belgian monks really did brew the world’s finest ale.

‘I’m going to order some food,’ he said shortly, opening his eyes. ‘Anyone care to join me on that?’

I looked at Andy, who was sat to my left in his matching sponsored T‑shirt. ‘What do you reckon?’

‘Erm … we could have a look at the menu?’ he said.

‘Mmm,’ I mused. ‘Depends on the price, really.’

Mark passed over the menu. It was filled with descriptions of food that made my salivary glands ache. But giving in to temptation would set a precedent – one which could easily leak funds away and sabotage our carefully planned budget, which was to spend as little as physically possible.

‘Basically,’ I said, unable to look up from the menu, ‘I really can’t afford to do this while I’ve got perfectly good food in my panniers.’

‘I’m sure we could afford this kind of thing occasionally?’ suggested Andy. Mark sat quietly, admiring his glass of beer.

‘Well, go for it, then,’ I replied, closing the menu and putting it back on the bar. ‘But I reckon I’m going to cook something back at the tents.’

‘Right … so what about the food budget? I mean, we’ve all paid for that food, too,’ said Andy.

‘I dunno, mate. But I can’t afford to splash out every time Mark wants to eat in a restaurant.’

Andy had brought up a difficult point, which was that we’d pooled our cash to cover our basic costs. This had been averaging just under five euros a day for each of us, which had required dedication and effort to stick to. We’d been sleeping rough since Amsterdam, picnicking daily on supermarket groceries and boiling up variations on the theme of ‘pasta with sauce’ in the evenings. But if I cooked and ate alone from this shared food store, I’d be eating a meal that the others had subsidised. And if Mark used the shared money to buy a restaurant meal for himself, then we’d be subsiding that. Unless we stuck to a regime, attempting to share our cash would cause more problems than it solved. And each of us feeding ourselves alone would take three times as long, and put the group dynamic strangely off-balance.

‘Well – what are we supposed to do, then?’ I asked, half-rhetorically. The others were silent. This was frustrating. Andy was clearly quite happy to shell out for a home-cooked lasagne. Or a massive burger. Or a juicy steak. Or a delicious pizza. Or a big bowl of soup.

‘Look, guys,’ sighed Mark. ‘I’m going to eat here. I’m not on as much of a budget as you two. So I can happily afford a blow-out meal every now and them. If you want to go back to the tents and eat what’s there, that’s cool … I’m quite happy sitting here. I’ve got my book …’

‘Right, well I’ll eat with Tom, then,’ sighed Andy. ‘But I want to finish my beer first.’

‘Yeah … of course! I honestly don’t –’

‘Fine, OK,’ I interrupted. ‘Well, I’m going to start cooking before I get too pissed to walk straight!’

‘See you in a minute, then,’ said Andy, watching me as I got up.

Since I couldn’t remember how to get round to the bikes, I took a shortcut through the kitchen where Mark’s dinner was being prepared. Stepping out into the failing dusk and hunting amongst the bags, I discovered that our gas stove was buried at the bottom of Mark’s giant cargo sack. Finally, after arranging all of the ingredients and cooking apparatus in a neat little circle, I sat down by the light of my head-torch to open a tin of tuna and realised that we’d brought along one of those multi-purpose penknives with a built-in can-opener, yet I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to use it.

 

We grew stronger as summer matured. It was a tangible, measurable feeling of strength; a growing confidence in the capability of our bodies to handle hours of exercise every day. Our regime, and that of every other cycle tourist on the road, would have had personal trainers the world over up in arms, bemoaning the complete absence of recovery time, of stretching routines, of cross-training, of good nutrition, and all the other things that the exercise industry proclaims to be right and proper. Instead, we were hacking our bodies, bludgeoning them into performing the task at hand, learning the effect of calories eaten upon energy levels, the relationship between hydration and general wellbeing, exertion and rest, clothing and climate; things which could not be taught but which gradually came to be understood through observing the effects of our experiments upon our bodies.

Belgium morphed into France, and a happy routine emerged of long mornings in the saddle, games of ‘who’s got the biggest baguette’ at lunchtime, two-hour siestas in the sun, and relaxed afternoons among the charms of rural Alsace-Lorraine, where the French land still retained hints of its German past, memorials littering the hills and valleys as a reminder of how that particular disagreement had been resolved. Only the frequent appearance of rain threatened to dampen our spirits, and these hours were whiled away in village lavoirs – ancient stone bath-houses – where Andy experimented with the camera he’d bought for the journey, I filled jars with jam I’d cooked from scavenged fruit, and Mark practised his juggling routines.

‘Basically, I wanted to ride to Spain, and then Gibraltar,’ Mark was explaining into the video camera, ‘because – er – I’d been to Greece in the past, and I wanted to go somewhere that was also similarly sandy and beautiful, and find lonely mountain retreats, and fish.’

We’d been on the road for three weeks, reaching the alpine foothills of the Jura in eastern France. Spain, it had to be said, still felt a long way off.

‘But the last couple of weeks, we’ve just been meeting loads of really interesting people from different walks of life,’ he continued as I thrust the camera in his face. Like all of us, he was still uncomfortable before the lens. Thoughts which would be freely expressed amongst friends flattened out into dry exposition as soon as a camera was introduced. We’d never realised what a challenge this would be: presenting ourselves and our journey as we would like them to appear to an anonymous audience.

‘And I think that if we … head east,’ continued Mark, trying hard to loosen up, ‘we’re more likely to go to a number of different countries that I know nothing about – I’ll know nothing about the people, their way of life, or what they eat. And there’ll be more of an opportunity to find out about the world.’

The delivery was stilted, but the idea itself was interesting. Heading east, as Mark had indicated, would be a radical change of tack, and in my mind’s eye I saw weeks of route-planning disappearing into thin air. I expected to feel a pang of regret. Instead, it was almost a liberation to watch the hard-line itinerary dissolving away.

We hadn’t been able to follow the plan closely, anyway. On several occasions we’d attempted to head off-road through the hills – attempts that had invariably ended in failure. One particular afternoon, the two stronger bikers had bitten into a particularly rough climb with gusto, leaving me to drag my bike up the track on foot. Fuming about having been left behind, I’d found them waiting for me about ten minutes’ walk up the trail.

 

‘This is completely and utterly pointless!’ I shouted from a distance, feeling a nice big argument coming on.

‘We’re here now, aren’t we?’

‘Well, I can’t ride. I’m going back.’

‘What the hell?’

‘If you hadn’t buggered off I’d have told you that ten minutes ago!’

‘This was your idea, Tom!’ shouted Andy.

‘What do you mean, my idea?’

‘Well, I never decided to turn off that road and follow these blue triangles!’

‘I thought you didn’t know the route!’

‘I did know the route! It carried on along that road back there!’

‘Erm … so what do we want to do … ?’ enquired Mark, trying to bring some diplomacy to the exchange.

‘If we’re supposed to be on the road,’ I continued, ignoring him, ‘then why the hell aren’t we on the road?’

‘Because you said, “Follow the blue triangles!”’ shouted Andy.

‘No, I said that the tourist office said that the mountain-biking routes were marked with blue triangles!’

‘Fucking hell! What a dick!’ muttered Andy, loud enough for me to hear it, wheeling his bike round to face me. ‘So why did we suddenly start following them?!?’

‘Because there was no-one telling me that there was any other bloody route to go!’ I raged.

‘Well, we don’t normally just randomly turn off the road onto a track, do we? Why put a random route into the equation?’

Because nobody said we were going any other way!!!

 

It was the kind of verbal brawl that felt immediately pointless. Andy and I found ourselves sheepishly apologising to each other on the roadside. It wasn’t the first time; nor would it be the last. But through discovering the limits of our off-road abilities, we’d found that it was possible to travel more quickly – and to meet more interesting people – by stitching together a new route on minor roads and cycleways. Given that, maybe a change of tack wasn’t such a bad idea.

I wandered over to Andy, who’d been listening to Mark’s monologue into the video camera, sitting in the sun on some wooden steps that led up the hillside.

‘I’ve been wanting to head east most of the time anyway!’ he said, flashing a wry grin in Mark’s direction. He’d been suggesting this since Amsterdam, and now, I grudgingly conceded, it seemed that he might have been right all along. Heading east now would lift all the pressure of having to circumnavigate Spain and be back in Central Europe before autumn. It would mean that we really could relax into the journey instead of feeling constantly in debt to this big detour we’d promised to make.

‘I wasn’t going to get in anyone’s face,’ insisted Mark. ‘I’m not really like that! I’m a pretty flexible soul …’

‘I was hoping Mark was going to go to Spain, though, because he’s starting to annoy me,’ smirked Andy into the camera.

Mark looked on with obvious amusement. ‘You two would die without me! You’d be fighting the first night!’

Which was almost definitely true.

The decision had been unexpectedly amicable. It was probably the encounters of the previous weeks that had made notions of route and direction seem less of a concern. The ups and downs had depended far more on attitude than altitude. Gibraltar, then, was off the map, and a new target drifted into view: Istanbul. Though always part of the plan, it sounded so foreign, now; so impossibly far away.

Mark hefted his bike upright and began to pedal slowly up the long incline. Andy was already disappearing out of sight behind the shoulder of the hill. Tomorrow, then, we would pass into Switzerland and begin to pedal east. I would contact my friends near Geneva and let them know that we’d be dropping by rather earlier than originally planned.

Billowing grey clouds were forming intricate landscapes of their own above the valleys of the Jura, hinting at the nearing of the Alps. The ground where we’d rested was cast into shade, the western horizon growing orange and brooding in the late afternoon, a band of pure colour cutting across the sky. Amid darkening lands a few wooded hilltops still glowed, touched by shafts of illuminating sunlight – too far away to make them out in detail, yet carrying some strange hint of promise.

Categories
Book Serialisation

‘Cycle on the right, cycle on the right, cycle on the right… or die!!!’

Dumping our bikes on the grass in Deenethorpe, we nervously unpacked our tents and tried to remember how to pitch them. We’d chosen this particular model of tent for its natural shade of green that would blend into the foliage, and I had been looking forward to putting them to the test. I hadn’t expected the reality of it to be so fraught with worry. Looking up from the instruction manual with a mouthful of left-over party cake, I saw with horror that a passing middle-aged couple had noticed us.

They slowed their Sunday evening walk; muttered something to each other. Then the wife quickened her pace while the husband crossed the road and marched onto the green with a look of intent.

I gulped down my cake and hissed a warning at the others.

Shit.

We’d been busted on our first attempt, and were about to be booted out into the night!

The idea of wild camping had been a fantasy for years, but I’d never had the balls to actually do it, at least not outside a few TA training weekends as a student. This was not for want of trying. On one memorable occasion, Andy and I had set off across the fields near my home with a backpack containing a knife, some firewood and a six-pound salmon, intent on finding a spinney somewhere, lighting a fire, roasting the smelly fish and sleeping in the shelter that we would build with our bare hands. Having failed to find any trees in the dark and become entirely lost and covered in mud, we’d trudged all the way back to the village before cooking the salmon in the oven at two in the morning and going to sleep in Andy’s dad’s trailer-tent.

Well! This time, things would be different. Wild camping, after all, would be the ultimate expression of freedom. It would be the exercising of our natural-born right to sleep on land which had once been owned by nobody. We would spend weeks – months – at a time under canvas, living a monk-like existence, sitting round campfires, quoting philosophy, learning constellations, and putting the world to rights as we gradually pedalled round it. Oh yes.

‘Just here for the night, are you?’

‘Uh. Yes. Hopefully. Or something. We’re – uh.’

Ridiculous!

‘We’re cycling round the world.’

‘Right …’

A pause.

‘So when did you start?’

‘Erm … this morning …’

‘Well, I guess you’d better come in!’

It was with more guilt than pleasure that I found myself sitting in the newly renovated kitchen of Mr Look-Of-Intent and his wife. As it turned out, the lady who had hurried away from the malevolent-looking bicycle-gypsies was none other than my primary-school teacher Mrs Chamberlain, who I hadn’t seen since I was eleven. She slid another helping of strawberry pavlova under my nose, while a nearby platter of assorted cheeses eyed me in a seductive fashion. Despite being wracked with guilt at yet another wild camping failure, I couldn’t quite believe our good fortune.

We did manage to salvage some kind of credibility as adventurers by politely refusing an offer of sleeping on the conservatory floor, Deenethorpe Village Green being far more appropriate for our first night in the wild.

 

‘Cycle on the right, cycle on the right, cycle on the right … or die!!!’ hollered Mark as we rolled off the ferry and onto the European mainland. There was no turning back now: we had escaped the British Isles and set foot and rubber on the soil of the Netherlands, five days after my parents’ driveway fell out of sight in my rear-view mirror. It was staggering how little time it had taken to cycle to another country – just five days! How small England suddenly seemed – how silly that I’d never thought to cycle more than a dozen or so miles away from my home until now. It seemed so ridiculously easy to hop on a bike and ride it into the great unknown, and I tried to remember why it had taken me an entire year to work out how to do it.

I knew why, of course: the real mission ahead was a true epic, rivalling some of the greatest journeys undertaken by man. The surface of the earth now lay unbroken in front of us, from the Hook of Holland to the tip of Singapore eight time zones to the east. At my best guess, we’d be riding for more than a year before reaching that impossibly distant point, tackling extreme conditions and passing through wildly foreign lands. This winter we’d be battling searing heat in the deserts of the Middle East; as spring broke next year we’d be crawling through the mountains of Central Asia, or perhaps India; meandering through China and South-East Asia as the following year drew on; and we hoped to reach Australia by the end of the second year. Some time later would come the Americas. There was no way such a mission could be accomplished without careful preparation. And my heart leapt at the image of such a line snaking its way across the surface of a globe. What a thing to do!

Page Divider

Yes – that was the plan, wasn’t it? A line, so simple and straightforward. It is impossible to recall how it could have seemed so clear. The miles between then and now have clouded the road to a point where I’m riding into a never-ending dust storm.

The end of each day looks the same as its start, the rubble of the Nubian desert extending endlessly in all directions. Only occasionally do I catch sight of palm branches to the west, rows of green asterisks on the horizon line, reassuring me that the set of tyre trails I’ve chosen to follow is the right one, or that at least it’s heading in the same direction as the Nile. It’s not much on which to base my progress. But it’s all I’ve got.

My tyres roll through bulldozed rubble. They sink into patches of sand. They bounce over the furrows that emerge from the passage of trucks, hammering at the corrugated dirt. Gusts of hot air carry grit and dust through the channels of this rugged landscape, sometimes from the side, sometimes behind, but mostly from ahead of me – from the south. Only the wind has the power to make a mockery of my best energies. The going has never been harder than this. Yet, in a way, riding is still easy. Any act of endurance is nothing but one small action, repeated. Press down once upon a pedal and I move forward a few feet. Do it again and I’ve travelled a little further. Another million repetitions later and I’ll have cycled to Cape Town and the end of the African continent. On a physical level, it really is as simple as that – given enough motivation, which is where things have become more complicated.

Right now, I cannot say what I’m trying to achieve by taking this on. I’ve been telling myself that searching is not going to produce any answers. I don’t need to focus on a goal, navigate with precision, or reach some destination. I need to do exactly the opposite. I need to let go of myself, and get completely and utterly lost. Only by doing so can I hope to find my way. This is easier said than done, given my particular menu of personality defects. I find myself prone to wild flights of introspection, harangued by warring voices in each ear: one telling me how great everyone’s going to think I am for cycling across the Sahara desert; the other reminding me that I’m a self-absorbed bastard for doing what I did in order to be here. I need a way to switch these voices off. And so I’ve developed a technique. It’s very simple.

Devote one hundred percent concentration to the simple act of preparing breakfast. By doing so, everything else ceases to exist. Extract, with undivided attention, a bag of bread from the right-hand pannier. Break off the black mould around the edges. Squash a banana into a floury wrap. Devour. Taste the moist, sweet banana; feel the brittle graininess of the bread. Squint briefly at the horizon. Mount bike in a manoeuvre of acrobatic grace. Press down once upon a pedal and move forward a few feet.

 

I’m hiding behind my bicycle for a couple of hours, because there’s nowhere else that I can get any shade in the middle of the day. I don’t know how long it’s going to go on for. Luckily there’s the occasional truck going by now, so if I do run out of water I should be able to get hold of some more.

And I was also just thinking about what we mean when we say that we want to go somewhere hot and sunny. And I was thinking that what we actually mean is that we want to go somewhere hot and sunny, and that we can escape from … erm …

I’ll try that again.

When we say we want to go somewhere hot and sunny – on holiday, for example – what we mean is that we want to go somewhere where we can escape from it being hot and sunny whenever we want. (Oh – a ladybird. Hello.) So, yeah. It’s like people who say that they like cold weather. It’s not really that, it’s the fact that they can enjoy it whilst being protected against it.

And I guess it’s the same for any kind of extreme, isn’t it? I mean, really – it does get boring, being out in the sun. It does get very unpleasant, if there’s no way of getting away from it, as I’m now finding out in the middle of the Sudanese desert at midday.

There’s no air-conditioning. There’s no water-cooler. There’s no shady little hut, or anything like that. No, it’s just burning desert, and nothing else! Not a pleasant place to come on holiday – that, I can promise you.

 

Towards the end of the day I come across a second group of road-workers, blasting their way through rock and pounding reddish foundations. They wave and shout greetings when they see me bouncing past in the distance, and I head towards the huddle of ageing canvas tents pitched in the desert, because given the choice between two options I might as well take the more interesting one.

I drop my bike on the sand and greet the workers in a flurry of handshakes and as-salaam-alaikums. One of them gives me a tour of the camp. It doesn’t take long: a circle of tents, each lined with flimsy bed-frames, tatty mosquito nets held together with masking tape, and a few blankets. In the centre of the circle is a rough quadrangle of stones dragged from the desert and a couple of small rugs, grey and indistinct in the dusk, but oriented in a familiar direction: the camp’s mosque. A cylindrical water tank squats on a trailer, dropped off by a tow-truck. I refill my plastic bottles with the tepid, rough-tasting water. Then I sit on the ground in the largest tent, and the half-dozen workers and I share the evening staple of bread and stewed beans. Illuminated by a dim light bulb and entertained by the growl of the diesel generator outside, there seems little need for conversation, and the evening passes quietly.

Early the next morning I depart with thanks and continue to pedal south. After a jittery start in Sudan, that all-important momentum is back and I want to make the most of it. I stop mid-morning to watch an earthmoving machine crawling along the trail, reassigned to pave an indistinguishable section of Nubia that I have already passed. This entire stretch of road, from Wadi Halfa to the capital, will be complete in less than a year; the final leg of a paved route running the full length of Africa. Although it’s futile to think in such terms, I can’t help wondering how long it will take me to reach the end of the road, and what might happen along the way. And I can’t help thinking back along that same road to the early days of my journey. How impossible it would be to invent the story that led here!

As the vibrations subside and the dust begins to sink back towards the ground, I feel another rumble. But there are no vehicles to be seen. This rumble is coming from within. And I panic, stupidly, because – despite being in the middle of the very definition of ‘nowhere’ and probably the only person for miles around – it seems inappropriate to drop my pants there and then. So I dash around in agony, trying to find a human-sized crevice in the landscape, where I discover that there is something green in the desert after all. And this leaping from the saddle settles into a pattern that continues for the rest of the morning. It is a huge relief when, with the sun overhead and the furnace at its hottest, I spot buildings in the distance, and I veer off the track and strike out across the bare earth towards them. Palms rise up behind the little village, reminding me that the Nile is just beyond. I wonder what I’ll find in my first Nubian settlement. What does a Nubian home look like? How do its inhabitants make a living? What kind of food do they eat?

After all this time, I love the fact that I still have these simple questions. The answers are not really the point.

Page Divider

It was on Day Six of Ride Earth that we rolled down the metal ramp and onto Dutch concrete, sniffing the air of a brand new place, allowing the unfamiliar to flood our senses – the cute interlocking pavement tiles, the slanted bicycle-friendly kerbs, the low brick dwellings that lay scattered across the flat and featureless plains. But the colourless fog overhead served as a reminder that we weren’t yet so far from home.

Before we’d set sail, Mark and Andy had found an Internet terminal and mail-ordered bicycle parts to be sent to Amsterdam’s main post office, from where we would later collect them. Andy had been suffering from back pain and sore wrists, and in his wisdom had diagnosed a case of wrongly sized handlebars. Mark was still struggling to fit all of his kit into the hold-all that he carried on a cargo trailer behind his bike, and had decided that a saddlebag was in order. It made complete sense to have these items posted from England to Amsterdam, the cycling capital of the world, rather than to buy them from a shop there. What if they didn’t have saddlebags or handlebars in Amsterdam? It was a risk we couldn’t afford to take.

In the meantime, Mark needn’t have bothered worrying about which side of the road we cycled on – the Netherlands sported a fantastic crop of cycle routes, winding among coastal dunes, weaving along old railway cuttings and delving through leafy forests. Soon it started spitting with rain. Lightly at first, then with increasing zeal, until by the time we emerged from the tangle of bike paths into the industrial outskirts of Amsterdam it was positively torrential. I donned my serious-looking army poncho. It collected rain in large quantities and channelled it into my boots. Back in the saddle, the poncho acted as a massive parachute, billowing superhero-style behind me and wrapping itself around my torso whenever I tried to gather speed.

We stopped beneath an overpass and I put on my sponsored waterproof socks and neoprene over-boots. Their performance was astonishing: never had a product so effectively stopped the water already inside my boots from escaping! Things continued to go downhill through the grey, drenched flatness of Amsterdam’s suburbs. Reaching the centre, we found a youth hostel, marched in swinging our video cameras, claimed we were from the BBC and demanded a generous discount.

I lay on my back in the dormitory, alone and deflated. We’d been defeated by a bit of bloody rain. What had happened to this heroic adventure I’d spent so long imagining? All we’d really done was make a stressful dash out of England and then grind through the rain all the way to Amsterdam (where we didn’t really need to go), before handing over precious cash in exchange for one night in a youth hostel (in which we didn’t really need to stay). Even the hostel had a torrent of rainwater pouring through the ceiling into a bucket on the floor.

The next day we got up early and set off to find the post office. It was closed. Today was Saturday, and it wouldn’t reopen until Monday. We would now have to spend the weekend in the city, putting us several days behind schedule. At this rate, we wouldn’t even make it to Gibraltar before winter set in, let alone all the way across Europe!

Bike safely stowed in the hostel’s backyard, I wandered into the city to calm down, finding that Amsterdam was just as I remembered it: brick, canals, bicycles, charm; a happy, circular city of trams, pedestrians and pedals, and a welcome change from the traffic-clogged roads and miserable commuter towns of England. I returned to the hostel buoyed up by the novelty of being in a foreign land. I found the others in the laundrette next door, Mark gazing absently into the distance, Andy drooping towards the floor, half-asleep, as the machines clinked and churned around them. They were obviously feeling the same homesickness that I’d experienced during the first couple of days on the road, and they both wanted to remain at the hostel for the whole weekend. I told them exactly what I thought of that. What a waste of money! Far better to find a park, crawl beneath a clump of greenery and sleep there, heroically. After some wringing of hands we came to a grumpy compromise and pedalled off to a campsite on the outskirts of the city, passing several good wild-camping spots in the process. We pitched our top-of-the-range tents in a neat row next to a hundred cheap and cheerful vestibules. Then we hung around in the communal kitchen eating instant mashed potato, while happy European families cooked elaborate dinners, sat down to eat on the opposite side of the room, and carefully avoided eye contact with us.

On Monday, after a protracted wild-goose chase, the errant packages were found in an out-of-town parcel depot on the wrong side of the city. And thus it was mid-afternoon on Day Ten by the time we left Amsterdam, where we’d expected to stay no longer than a night. But our collective woes were forgotten, and all was smiles, because we were finally on our way to cycle round the world.

Categories
Book Serialisation

‘This’ll be nice for picnics. In the Himalayas.’

Searching the countryside for a place to hide three tents and three very conspicuous bicycles, we finally found the perfect spot: Deenethorpe Village Green. As well as being surrounded on all sides by the mansions and meticulously tended gardens of the local gentry, we were also clearly visible to anyone passing through the tiny village. Despite Andy’s complaints, Mark and I decided that the green was absolutely ideal. A fantastic find – I’d been looking forward to wild camping for so long.

 

‘We’d be looking for two tents,’ I’d said. ‘We basically need to be independent, because we’re thinking we might ride separately for some of the time. And obviously we’d each like a bit of privacy from time to time!’

With a few months to go before departure, Andy and I had found ourselves selling our grand idea to an outdoor equipment retailer. We’d got as far as their meeting room by cold calling every outdoor equipment manufacturer and retailer in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. After weeks of rejections or non-responses, I’d become frustrated by how little interest these companies seemed to take in our project. I couldn’t understand why any marketing manager would pass up on the publicity our journey would generate for the sake of a few quid’s worth of gear.

Then one day, Andy – who had been emailing sponsorship proposals to companies for weeks – received a reply from an outfit who asked us over for a chat. We designed a logo, ironed it onto a couple of cheap T‑shirts, printed out some important-looking lists and rolled up to their office in Coventry.

‘Well, lads, I have to be honest,’ said Jeremy Burgess, leaning back in his chair with a squeak of leather, ‘when I first heard about this from Martin, I thought you guys must be complete idiots.’

The two of us smiled nervously.

‘But I think you’ve convinced me that you might actually do this.’

Finally somebody was listening to us – the managing director of an on-line outdoor gear retailer, no less! A simple contract was drawn up: we’d wear their T‑shirts, put their logo on our website, sticker the heck out of our bikes, and plug their brand whenever we could. We’d also send them a monthly report by email, which they would send out to their subscribers to demonstrate how generous they were with support for noble expeditions like ours. And, in return, we’d be given essential items of equipment – tents, camping mats, sleeping-bags and various small accessories – free of charge, which of course was what we wanted to get out of the whole thing.

At this point we still didn’t have any actual bicycles to ride. But we’d finally got our sponsorship drive out of the starting blocks, and we felt sure that other companies would follow in this supplier’s footsteps. We set a departure date for the early summer, put a bundle of leaving party invitations in the post, and I set to work on publicity for the project, which by now we’d branded Ride Earth after a brainstorming session with Andy. Playing to the circumnavigation, the cycling and the off-road nature of the journey in one catchy slogan, Ride Earth rolled off the tongue far better than Pedalling To Purgatory, Circum Gravitation, and A Wheelie Long Way, which had been some of his other ideas.

Physically extracting the equipment from Jeremy and his merry band of outfitters proved easier said than done. With only a few weeks to go until the big day, I was parking the Astra outside Andy’s house, having just returned from Coventry where I’d had an unexpectedly brief encounter with the company’s marketing manager, Dominic. But I had managed to retrieve what I’d gone for, and, dumping a big cardboard box on the lawn in Andy’s back garden, I ripped it open and began inspecting our haul.

‘Did you see anyone apart from Dominic?’ asked Andy, pulling a bundle of tent material from its carry sack and sniffing it curiously.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I didn’t actually go into the office at all. No Jeremy, no nothing.’

‘You’d think they’d be a bit more enthusiastic.’

‘I dunno. I don’t understand either.’

‘Bloody hell!’ exclaimed Andy, wrestling with the elasticated tent-poles as they unravelled. They seemed to have taken on a life of their own and were now in danger of causing serious facial injuries to his dad, who had come to watch from the safety of the kitchen doorstep.

‘That’s absolutely ridiculous!’ I laughed, ducking out of the way of the whirling mess of poles. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it! Is it fibreglass? Or some kind of bizarre metal?’

‘Metal, I think. Aluminium or something, with a bit more spring in it. Bit of extra elastic!’

‘Now, that’s good, isn’t it?’ remarked Andy’s dad as the poles clicked together and began to behave. He was a mechanical engineer and loved all things functional and cleverly designed. The family’s little garage had not contained a car in several decades; instead it was filled to the brim with arcane machinery and projects in stages of semi-completion, stinking of rust and oil, every surface littered with drill bits and bolts and jars of important-looking coloured fluid.

‘My god – I feel rough,’ I muttered, coughing. I’d caught a cold and was trying my best to ignore it and continue ploughing through our ever-growing stack of to-do lists.

‘Yeah, I noticed that on your Facebook,’ said Andy. ‘Oh yeah – I started a group for Market Harborough Swimming Club …’

‘Yeah, I saw that.’

‘… and loads of people I used to know started joining it!’

Andy had always been a natural athlete. I had not, and this was slightly concerning. I worried that as a dismally below-average sportsman I’d be unable to keep up; that I’d drag the ride down by being slow and unfit. But these were small hurdles. We’d find a way round them, just as we’d find a way round anything else that got in our way. Once we set off, we’d have no choice.

Returning to the task at hand, we inspected the semi-constructed tent, smooth and humpbacked like a fat green slug. It was my first encounter with this stratum of outdoor equipment, the type that gets displayed prominently in shops like Millets’ and Blacks’ with price tags that make you feel guilty for even looking at them.

‘You have to bend these quite a lot, don’t you?’ said Andy, having consulted the instructions, now clipping the tent’s body onto the naked pole structure. ‘I mean, it’s quite spring-loaded. But it is very straightforward. Hopefully.’

‘Andrew, did you want this ice cream and peaches?’ called his dad from the doorway.

‘Yeah, in a minute,’ he replied, not looking up. He draped the waterproof flysheet across the tent and it finally began to resemble the illustration on the front of the booklet. He groped through the fabric for the pole structure and lifted the entire thing off the ground with one hand. It seemed to float weightlessly into the air like a pointy green wind-sock: my home for the next few years.

‘That’s pretty damn light!’ he said, putting it back on the grass and stooping to unzip the door. He crawled in on all fours, lay face down with his socks sticking out of the doorway, folded his arms by his sides, and ceased to move altogether.

‘That feels good!’

‘Nice.’ A sudden image came into my head of this exact scene played out at forty degrees below zero, deep in the Siberian tundra.

‘Did you want these peaches and ice cream, then?’ came his dad’s voice.

‘Yes, for god’s sake!’ snapped Andy, irritated at having his crowning moment disturbed by a parent.

‘Do you want it in the tent?’

‘No …’ replied Andy, wearily, extracting himself.

‘Aerodynamic!’ remarked his dad, stepping out onto the lawn. ‘If the wind’s blowing, which way d’you pitch the tent?’

‘Erm … well, that way, don’t you?’ replied Andy, drawing a line in the air from the rear of the tent to the open door.

‘Well, yes, I would say so. I mean … basically, that’s how it’s designed,’ continued his dad, going into demonstration mode and pacing about on the grass, gesticulating at the construction, ‘because you’ll be camping in hurricanes sometimes, and obviously – if the wind’s blowing this way – it’ll make it calm here, won’t it?’

Andy seemed embarrassed at his dad’s sudden display of interest. He pulled another plastic wrapper from the box and shook out the contents. ‘I guess this is the floor protector,’ he said to me. ‘Does it go underneath the tent or inside it, d’you think?’

‘I’d guess it went underneath,’ I replied. ‘But then I’m only a novice at this kind of thing.’

‘Well, I’m only a novice as well. I don’t know any more than you.’

‘I love how it comes in its own special “sac”.’ I pointed at the little bag on the ground.

‘Everything comes in a “sac”, doesn’t it, when it’s to do with the outdoors?’

‘Yeah.’

‘It’s never a bag, either. It’s always a “sac”.’

‘Yeah.’

‘A “sac” with a drawstring.’

Andy unrolled the groundsheet on the lawn in his parents’ back garden. ‘This’ll be nice for picnics. In the Himalayas.’

 

Of the many reasons why I was happy with the idea of working with Andy on this epic mission, foremost was his off-the-wall sense of humour – the ideal temper to my hard-headedness and ruthless sense of justice. If anyone could keep spirits up when the going got tough, it would be him, and for that I was thankful.

He’d always been a creative mind – a maligned genius, holed up in his bedroom until the early hours, producing artwork and musical compositions of marvellous complexity that nobody could understand. On one occasion, answering an unexpected knock on the door late in the evening, I’d been confronted by Andy, who’d run several miles across the fields in the dark, taking shortcuts through people’s gardens and hiding in their hedgerows to avoid being seen, for no other reason than his own amusement. He had just popped by for a cup of tea and to ask if I wouldn’t mind giving him a lift back home.

Andy cared little what anyone else made of his behaviour. He had once turned up for a big night out in his mother’s horse-riding jacket, insisting that it was perfectly appropriate attire, yet to this day I’m not sure whether he was being ironic. For Andy, the world was a place in which to experiment and to defy convention, and he was just the sort of lateral thinker you’d want along on a journey round the planet.

As Ride Earth grew in scope and ambition, respectable brands from the cycling and outdoor industries became attached to the project, and we found ourselves attending a series of newspaper, radio and television interviews. Sponsors expected to have their brands promoted in return for the freebies, so we were obliged to seek the kind of attention that would keep them happy. Our crowning achievement was a short feature at the end of the regional news on BBC One, in the slot that would normally be filled by some feel-good tale of local eccentrics and their quaint little projects.

The significance of what we were about to do was confirmed when we were invited to a meeting with one of the owners of Kona Bikes, a long-established manufacturer of bikes for true cycling enthusiasts. The meeting would be in Switzerland, naturally, in a posh chalet overlooking Lake Geneva with a cracking view of Mont Blanc. Andy and I flew out one morning, touched down to find central Europe bathed in an unseasonal warm spell of weather, and spent an enjoyable day chatting on a sunny balcony over wine and pizza, impressing our prospective sponsors with the detail and subtlety of our research. Finally, we were offered whatever we liked from the company’s product catalogue, driven back to the airport, and arrived back home in Northamptonshire in time for tea. Even though Kona didn’t actually make off-road expedition bikes, we’d chosen two bicycle frames upon which to build our own, together worth several hundred pounds! The meeting’s organiser had asked if Mark was coming too, but – without bothering to mention this to Mark himself – I’d told Kona that he wasn’t part of our core mission, so there wasn’t really any point. I didn’t want someone piggybacking on all of my hard work if they were only coming along for the easy bit of the ride.

Following Kona’s involvement, interest in Ride Earth snowballed. Although we thought we knew exactly what we were doing, we decided to attend an expedition-planning weekend within the ornamental halls of the Royal Geographical Society in London. There we sat as part of a small audience in a workshop dedicated to the planning and logistics of long-distance bicycle journeys. A woman and two men sat in a row at the front, looking laid-back and unimposing. They almost looked normal. This was not the kind of impression I’d expected from three celebrated expedition cyclists who, having collectively pedalled several times round the planet, were clearly anything but normal. One of these two guys had recently wrapped up a four-year epic of more than forty thousand miles, yet now seemed more interested in doodling on his notepad than impressing the budding adventurers who positioned themselves expectantly before him.

And I wondered just what these three individuals had been through on their adventures, and how their experiences seemed to have humbled them, rather than helping them to grow confident and outgoing. My own return to England, of course, would be far more heroic.

Categories
Book Serialisation

Norwegians, I’d heard, called this moment ‘the doorstep mile’

There were no more emails to send. No more questions to answer. The stack of to-do lists remained to-be-done. And it no longer mattered, because we were finally on our way. Norwegians, I’d heard, called this moment ‘the doorstep mile’ – the first step of a long journey, and the most difficult to make.

Resting on a roadside verge a few miles east of my village, I tried to suppress what I supposed was the ache of separation, pretending to Mark and Andy that everything was fine. They were in high spirits on what was turning into a pleasant English summer’s day, adrift with the fragrance of flowering broad bean and rapeseed. I didn’t want to disturb this by complaining about homesickness while still a stone’s throw from my own bed, so I kept my thoughts to myself. Mark and I sat in the sun while Andy rooted through his bags to find the tools to adjust his saddle position. Then we stopped again so that I could tweak the angle of my pedal clips, and again for Mark to dig out his sun cream. But the pace was unhurried, and we chatted together about this and that – the music at the party, the sensation of wind on our freshly shorn bonces, the crawling slowness of climbing hills with all this weight on our bikes. We trundled through limestone villages of receding familiarity, and in the mid-afternoon I checked our progress on the newly installed odometer.

‘You’ve got to be kidding.’

‘What?’

‘What’s the mileage, Tom?’

‘Well, according to this, we’ve done seven and a half miles.’

‘Jesus …’

‘Is that all?’

‘Maybe there’s something wrong with the connections …’

‘My thighs are already killing me.’

‘Perhaps we should have done some kind of training?’

Then Ben and James, the filmmakers, turned up in their car, talking enthusiastically about setting up a big cinematic shot with Harringworth viaduct in the background. I put on a fake smile and did a lot of nodding.

Our route out of England had been designed as a quick getaway. The nearest port being Harwich, on the East Coast in Essex, I’d photocopied the relevant maps and planned a fairly direct three-day route on cycleways, bridleways and public footpaths to the port. Resuming our ride, it wasn’t long before we reached the first unpaved section of the route, which had been marked as a footpath on the map. This represented the beginning of the off-road ambitions we’d spent so long fostering. Off the road we finally turned, and along the edge of a freshly ploughed field. By the time we’d arrived at the far end of the field, our tyres were caked in mud, and we’d had a rough time trying to haul our heavily loaded bikes along the rutted trail. Why was dashing down these tracks so much more difficult than on a normal mountain bike?

Reaching the stile that led to the following field, we realised that to cross it would involve taking all the luggage off the bikes, detaching the three trailers, and repeating the process in reverse in the next field. And the same would need to be done for every gate, fence and stile thereafter. For the entire circumference of the planet.

This hadn’t seemed a particularly big deal while I’d been studying maps and guidebooks in my bedroom, but it was clear that doing so would demand an enormous amount of time and energy. It would take us weeks to even leave England, let alone reach the south of Spain.

‘I’ll go and have a look at the next field,’ volunteered Mark, ‘and report back. And then we can decide what’s best.’

As he climbed the stile and disappeared through the undergrowth, I looked down at what had begun life as a mountain bike. It was now a cumbersome machine with an extra wheel, fat tyres and beefy suspension forks, piled high with all the equipment I thought I’d need for an off-road expedition round the world. It was about as nimble as an elephant. It weighed almost as much as me.

‘It’s even worse over there,’ said Mark, coming back into view.

‘Right, let me have a look,’ I replied, striding over. Andy remained quiet. I climbed the stile and pushed through the mass of thorns and saplings blocking what was supposed to be a public right of way, and emerged into the daylight to find that the next field was precisely that. A field. There was absolutely nothing about it that screamed: ‘Ride across me!’ It was just a boring, empty field. To drag our bikes and kit through it would be completely pointless.

We hung around dejectedly for a couple of minutes before picking up our bikes, yanking them round, and starting the long push back towards the road, in silence. And we set off once more down the tarmac lane. We would reach Harwich much more quickly by road, anyway. And once we left the familiar confines of England, we’d press ahead with our carefully laid plans. After all, it would be within those unknown lands that things would start getting interesting.