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’s the mileage, Tom?’
‘Well, according to this, we’ve done seven and a half miles.’
‘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.