08 Aug 2: The bummel begins (UK)
London – Bolney, UK (29th July, 2015)
Total miles cycled: 43 (69km)
Thigh status: Stable
Awake at 6am, then 6.15am, then 6.30am. Today’s the day! I try to ignore it, but I know it’s time. My arm doesn’t even hurt too badly anymore: my last surviving hope for delay. I had a typhoid jab a week ago and since then it’s felt like I’ve had nightly wrestles with Floyd Mayweather. For the past few days, I’ve had vivid images of me as that heroin addict in Requiem for a Dream, my bicep going mushy and gangrenous as I cry out deliriously, heroically, that I’m going no matter what – only to be dragged off by medics and sedated.
But sadly it isn’t to be. It feels fine. I feel fine. The weather is good. It’s all a complete disaster. The last time I had to cycle 80km was in 2009, when I was a young, lithe 20-something. That was also the last time I went up a hill, unless you count the slight incline by Tesco’s on Hornsey Road where the crazies hang out. I can feel my buttocks shrivel in anxious anticipation.
Luckily I am fully intending to start as I mean to go on: by cheating outrageously. After packing up the bike – two heavy front panniers, two elephantine back panniers, one lead-lined bar bag, one unliftable rucksack, one totally superfluous ukulele – and snapping a photo (see pic below), I take off all luggage except the bar bag and leave it for P, my boyfriend, to drive down for me later in the day. We are due to meet at my sister’s in Bolney before I jump on the ferry at Newhaven, so I’ve decided to travel David Cameron-style, with full support vessels and entourage.
As is now probably clear, this is not going to be a purist trip. While the saddle will be my primary companion, I’ll be quite happy to swindle, beg, borrow and steal to avoid it if the mood’s not quite right. Life’s too short. And what I mean by that is: I’m too lazy.
So having stripped down to my bare essentials (not actually me – I’m saving that for Iran), I hit the road. And except for a faint wisp of a hangover from last night’s bottle of celebratory Chateau Labegorce Margaux 2001, it feels pretty good. I power thunderously on, energised and invincible. This is bloody easy. Never mind the fact I am carrying about a fifth of the weight I should be. Chris Froome eat your heart out!
Then I reach my first hill. It’s in East Dulwich, and not particularly long or steep. I stop afterwards for a half-hour sit down and croissant, and ring P.
‘I just did my first hill,’ I say.
‘Really? How did it go?’ he asks.
‘I can’t feel my legs. I’m shaking. I think that typhoid has come back.’
‘Pull yourself together. By the way, I bumped into C (our neighbour) in the hall. She thinks you’re crazy to be taking all that stuff.’
‘And seriously – a ukulele? I’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous.’
I protest vehemently, knowing of course that he’s right. If this trip doesn’t already scream gap year tragedy meets mid-life crisis, that’s surely enough to tip it over the edge. But how else am I going to get in the practice to play at all four George Formby Society events next year, the Lancastrian music hall equivalent of the tennis Grand Slam? I know – it’s a good question.
I realise on that first hill that I have no idea how to change gear properly. London is so flat that I rarely have to think about it. I clunk through them clumsily, feeling certain that I’m violating this beautiful machine, as well as the skilful people who built her. ‘Sorry Kona,’ I mutter as another brackish squawk comes from the gear box. ‘I’m so sorry.’
I enter Croydon. And I hope I never have to say those words again. Does it ever end? It reminds me of Montana in the US, which I travelled through by Greyhound bus in 2005 and where time goes to die. I remember falling asleep on Tuesday and waking on Thursday to the same rusty pick-up truck and piece of rolling tumbleweed outside my window, and vowing never to leave home again.
Croydon has a similar effect. You also have to climb a god-awful hill to get out of it, which may explain why so many people end up staying there. Now I think about it, it’s a bit how I imagine Purgatory to be. Could this be the mountain Dante was referring to in his Purgatorio, with its seven levels of suffering followed by Earthly Paradise at the top? Probably not. But I challenge anyone to find a feeling more glorious than finally leaving this godforsaken borough on a bicycle.
I celebrate my escape with a wonderful swoop down Bug Hill, feeling full of the joys of the world again – before getting a sharp slap in the face in the form of the ominously titled ‘Long Hill’ just before the M25. I suddenly get a hint of what I’ve let myself in for. Halfway up I stop. I can’t go on. This hill is a menace, and even turns into a dirt track halfway up as if to really hammer home just what an unfit, decrepit little whippersnapper I truly am. I don’t need you to tell me that, hill, I’m quite well aware.
I assess the situation. Options are: go back down, return to London and sleep for the rest of the day. Tempting. Satisfying. Maybe a tiny bit shameful. Or continue. I neck an energy gel and suddenly feel the terrifying power of sugar over the weak human psyche. Twenty minutes later I huff and puff my way to the top, and allow myself to indulge in a truly humiliating sense of achievement.
The truth is, I’ve actually forgotten what a hill looks like since that last time in 2009. I wonder if it’s a similar phenomenon to childbirth, when a heavy dose of hormones helps women forget the intensity of the pain so they’re not discouraged from getting knocked up again. I mean, the two are pretty comparable, aren’t they? The pain and the release? The sweat and the exhilaration? Except I bet no amount of childbearing can beat that feeling of finally escaping Croydon.
I get beeped by a truck around mile 35, my first beep of the trip. I can’t believe it’s taken so long. I spend the next ten minutes feeling guilty for not waving. Maybe he’ll think twice about beeping next time and some poor soul will go completely beepless all the way down to the coast. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Gosh, the English countryside is beautiful, though. And cycling is the perfect way to appreciate it. Once I’ve wrenched myself clear of the M25 (see pic above), it opens up before me, plush and green and glowing in sunshine. I sink back contentedly to enjoy it and casually check the time: 1pm. Bugger! I’m meant to be in Ardingly by now to retrieve my bags from P and test out cycling with them for the final few miles. But I’m still a good five miles away, and there’s a bleeding great hill ahead.
‘Hello? It’s me.’
‘Hello. Where are you?’
‘Well, I’m going as fast as I can, but it could be another half hour before I get to you,’ I say, stretching out languidly in a patch of sun on the grass and tucking into my third Snickers of the day.
‘Half hour! We’ll never get to your sister’s by two o’clock. I’ll have to take you in the car.’
‘Er – yes, probably.’
‘You really haven’t thought this through, you know. Are you absolutely sure you want the ukulele?’
So I ride the final few miles to Bolney in comfort. P doesn’t, sadly, as he is hunched over the wheel with his knees around his ears to accommodate the bike in the boot of Green Betty, my compact but ever-reliable Nissan Micra. I glance back at the mountain of baggage and try to stay positive. At least if I give up now, I made it all the way to Bolney (nearly). And no-one can take that away from me.
We meet my sister, her partner and my parents for lunch, where I am showered with champagne, fish pie, last-minute gifts and advice on how to dislocate a man’s thumb if attacked. I feel immensely touched and grateful. This is what it’s all about! But how can I convince them to join me the rest of the way?
Sadly I can’t. So an hour later, emotional goodbyes over, P takes me to the dock to drop me off. We load up the bike and try it out for the first time in the car park. It’s just about ride-able on the flat tarmac, but completely impossible to steer (see pic above). I start working out how I can get from Dieppe to Tehran without turning any corners or plunging head-first into the Mediterranean. It might just be feasible, I reason, as long as I plot exactly the right trajectory to start with. I mean, Tom Hanks and his team managed something similar with Apollo 13, and Bill Paxton had a terrible cold at the time. P instead suggests repacking with the bulk of weight on the back, which I decide to try out first.
On the ferry, I tie my bike up alongside a couple’s and they ask me where I’m going. They seem impressed when I say Iran, but do I detect a note of concern or pity? It’s a reaction I come to know well over the next few days. When men go adventuring, they are seen as intrepid. When women do it, they are mad, perpetually single or recovering from a broken heart. I know they are thinking it; I can see it in their eyes. At the moment I happen to be neither of the latter — though let’s be honest, I may be shortly. Perhaps madness is not completely out of the question? (I am ruminating to myself here, so no need for outsider input.)
I sit down in a prime spot to watch the UK recede into the distance and conduct a thorough examination of my thighs. They are already conspicuously larger. It’s a worrying development. My biggest fear on this trip, other than being kidnapped by ISIS or running out of chamois cream, is developing gargantuan quads that render me unfit for society and make my already scrawny calves seem even smaller in comparison.
I buy a half bottle of 2010 Chateau Lieujean Haut-Medoc to put my mind off this and the long journey ahead. It’s really quite excellent for just €6. Settling back in my seat, tired and tipsy, I suddenly remember why I like France so much. Maybe things won’t be so bad after all.
To be continued…