Posts Tagged ‘UK’

Guest Post – ‘Lessons from the London Triathlon’ By Oli Davy

I was going to title this post “The Day I Ate a Whole Chicken On The Side of a Mexican Highway” and then I realised that whilst this was no doubt a seminal moment in my life and journey, it’s not a tale my followers would cherish, and perhaps I should ask a guest blogger to post. I’m short on stories – it’s not Mexico’s fault, it’s mine. I’m racing through the cunningly disguised Goliath of a country (one in which I will ride further than in the whole of the continental US, unbelievably) and I’ve crunched more miles this month than in any of the preceding thirty eight. Roast chicken helps.

So a guest post – a way to shine light on some talented soul in the blogosphere. This is the first Guest Blogger featured on Cycling The Six. I get loads of request for guest posts, though most go something like:

Dear Mr Fabes, I am offering some content for your health / sport / travel blog. I make home made placenta cakes from genuine human placenta and would like to share the recipe with your online audience. I charge 1000 US dollars, please deposit into my Nigerian bank account before you publish my award winning blog entry.

Bloggers who unwittingly obey all my rules for writing a GREAT travel blog are not welcome here. So I will headhunt my guest bloggers, and the most affecting, inspiring and mirth inducing collection of yarns I have read of late is I Run Things – the fact that the author is a good friend of mine is beside the point. He fulfils that seemingly simple yet rare ideal – he has a story worth telling and he tells it well. It’s about… well, I’ll let Olly Davy explain.

What I learnt from the London Triathlon

I sit by the edge of the water under a low September sun, squinting into the reflected rays at the swan gliding past between the marker buoys. I reach behind my back to undo my wetsuit and release the tightness of the second skin. Slowly, my breathing returns to normal as my body recovers from the sprint at the end of a 4,000 metre swim. I feel the blood pumping through my veins and the familiar sense of calm descending on my mind. Looking down beyond my dangling feet into the murky pond I see the face of my mother smiling up at me, and my eyes fill with tears.

One year earlier, in August 2011, I was standing at the baggage carousel in Gatwick airport. Fresh from a road trip around the lakes of southern France, I was suntanned and content. The simple pleasures of driving through the mountains, eating great food and camping in the beauty of nature had made for a memorable holiday. My phone rang. It was my sister and I answered in a cheery tone, glad at the chance to share tales of our happy trip.

“Mum has cancer”

Some weeks after the initial shock of that announcement, cancer had become part of our everyday lives. My mother fought bravely against the disease and endured wave after wave of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In the end, the cancer was too advanced and too strong and there was nothing anyone could do. The final reality was clear on the day, in June 2012, when the doctor advised her that now would be a good time to move into the hospice. Everybody knows that hospice is just another word for death. After only a week under the amazing care of the Marie Curie nurses my mother succumbed to the disease and my sister and I held her hand as she died. She was just one of the one hundred people who die each day from lung cancer in the UK.

Not long before my mother’s death I decided to sign up to the London Triathlon 2012. I was feeling powerless in the face of her hellish battle and I wanted to do something, anything, to take back some control. Once she died I threw myself into training with the kind of focus I have never known. Having a goal to work towards stopped me being overwhelmed with sadness. The triathlon became much more than a race. It was symbolic as a declaration of life, a victory for vitality over decay. By setting out to overcome a personal challenge I embarked on a remarkable journey. Here are some things I learnt along the way…

London is a great place to train

And even better during an Olympics year. Throughout that memorable month of Great Britain’s glory I was happy in the knowledge that once I got home from a run, a swim or a cycle, I could watch some real life superheroes take on the world and win in my own back yard. London 2012 was a non-stop drama of sporting prowess and my hometown was the stage on which it unfolded.

I was able to find everything I needed to train successfully for the triathlon within cycling distance of my flat in East London. Three times a week I swam at London Field’s Lido. This facility possesses all the qualities a great swimming pool should. It is outdoor, heated, Olympic size and glorious. In the entrance hall they posted the winning times of the Olympic athletes on a big board, encouraging users of the pool to put their own times too. For longer sessions, and to acclimatise to conditions closer to that of open water, I went to Hampstead Ponds. The pleasure of swimming through natural waters among the ducks and geese more than made up for becoming an embarrassed spectator on the sidelines of North London’s gay cruising scene. To run without fear of being squashed by a truck I headed to Regents Canal where I could fly along by the water all the way to Limehouse Basin and beyond. And when it was time to clip on my helmet and saddle up, I would ride around and around the outer ring of Regents Park, where I learnt the finer points of peleton etiquette from helpful strangers wearing Team GB jerseys. Or, at other times, I watched the deer grazing as I cycled laps of Richmond Park under a setting sun. And, If I felt the need to do some hill training to build the strength in my legs then I would ride up and down the Muswell Hill, and Swain’s Lane in Highgate. Never have I found London more relevant and useful than while I trained for a triathlon during the Olympics.

I love being in control (and need to learn to let go)

To prepare for the triathlon I followed a strict regime, training seven times a week for three months. My life was governed by the training diary blue-tacked to my wall and I did little else except go to work and train. A disciplined lifestyle was perfect for me at the time as it gave me the distraction I needed and kept me away from more unhealthy ways of dealing with grief.

The training was a useful distraction from my emotions but I tried not to bottle anything up. Thankfully, the physical training helped me to understand and express what I was feeling better than I would have been able to otherwise. The clear-headedness that a long run afforded allowed me to simply be with my grief. Not to fight it or hide from it, but to accept it and allow it to pass over me, like a wave. As a man, and an English one at that, I am embarrassed by public displays of emotion and so to avoid collapsing into a snot-bubbling mess at the supermarket checkout I chose private times when I could cry alone. I scheduled my grief like a training run. But despite my attempts to stay in control, there is no way to know if you will suddenly burst into tears while speeding down a hill at thirty miles per hour. And that can be dangerous.

Exercise helps with sadness

It well known by anyone who enjoys exercise that it makes you feel good. It can put the icing on the cake of an excellent day or take the edge off a crappy one. When we exercise the body recognises this as a time of stress. It thinks we are either fighting an enemy or fleeing from one and so releases endorphins to minimise discomfort, block feelings of pain and even bring on a sense of euphoria.

Humans have been managing their stress levels in this way for as long as they have faced challenges. There is even a Latin motto that sums it up nicely: solvitur ambulando, which means, “It is solved by walking”. Fascinated by the mood lift I experience after exercising, I began to look further into the relationship between the body and the mind and the effects they have on each other and articles discussing Descartes and dualism soon baffled me. I had opened a huge can of worms called the mind-body problem, but the basic fact remains; when I feel bad, I exercise, and although my circumstances will not have changed I am better able to cope with them.

I became a bore

Discovering a new world of triathlon training tips and equipment reviews filled me with a nerdy joy. But I soon learnt that people would begin crossing the road to avoid me if I did not at least try to maintain an air of normality in polite society. You will be amazed to learn that not everybody cares whether the wetsuit you are considering buying will ensure the optimum equilibrium for your swimming position. Or if the cells of foam positioned on the upper forearm sleeve area – to encourage a better arm position in the catch phase of the stroke, will offer increased power and reduced fatigue. Disappointing reactions are best minimised by sharing our pastimes only with fellow enthusiasts. Be sure to make guarded references to your extracurricular pursuit until you are sure that you are in safe company.

“Oh, you like collecting ironing boards too? Brilliant!”

It’s all about the journey

The London Triathlon was my goal but it was the experiences I had along the way that made the journey so worthwhile. I took every opportunity to train in unusual places. I ran on the Black Mountains in Wales, along the beaches of Sharm El Sheikh and North Norfolk, and took icy dips in the River Wye and the North Sea. I took up yoga to undo the tightness in my overworked muscles and spent wonderful Saturday mornings surrounded by beautiful women, stretching my body and soothing my mind. The journey was not only physical but mental and spiritual as well.

That may sound a little dramatic but the triathlon came at a significant period in my life and as I looked for an answer to the ultimate question, ‘Life, what does it all mean?’ I found myself in a group meditation workshop that took place over twelve nights in a living room in North West London. Guided by an experienced leader, twenty of us went on a reflective journey and bonded through the sharing of personal stories, breathing exercises and meditative visualisation. It was difficult to adjust each evening after work to this new environment but I was rewarded with an experience that was at times deeply moving. There were also moments that stretched my open-mindedness to it’s limits, such as when one member of the group, a gay Irishman, was invited to share messages from the other side and duly began to ‘channel’ an ancient Chinese warrior. I struggled to absorb his useful tips on negotiating the challenges of life because I was preoccupied by the strange accent he was talking in. I did not know what was more amazing, that he was communicating from beyond the grave, or that a Chinese warrior had learnt to speak English in the afterlife.

I need a challenge to feel alive

Sometimes I feel that progress moves too fast. If I had been born during the time of Copernicus I would have been at the front of the angry mob baying for his blood when he announced his blasphemous theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not the other way around. I am not what marketeers call an ‘early adopter’. I enjoy technology and I can see that it brings many benefits but it also scares me. As we play with our smart phones, attack targets with drones and transhumanists discuss the next stages of the human race’s love affair with technology (upload everyone to computers and head off in rockets to explore the universe, anyone?), I cannot escape the obvious fact that we are still animals. We have evolved over millions of years to interact with our physical environment, to run, breathe and be outdoors. Many millions of us now work in offices where much of our interaction is virtual. Our societies have developed quicker than our bodies and minds and we are suffering as a result. I believe we are struggling to cope with the demands that our complex modern societies make of us. I think there is something in the old cliché about people in developing countries living happier, simpler lives. Assuming someone is not trying to dig a mine under their village or recruit them to the local militia. But that’s another cliché.

To maintain my sanity, sometimes I need to shrug off the silly concerns of an urban existence and enjoy a raw elemental experience. It reminds me that I am alive. I find that I am most content when I react to my basic impulses. How fast can I cycle? How far can I swim? Can I run to the top of this mountain without passing out? Spending time outside of my usual metropolitan habitat in a challenging environment is restorative. When I am concerned with finding and cooking food, or sheltering from the elements, things like how many Twitter followers I have matter much less. Of course, I am straight back on the infernal thing when I get home. But I do not have to break a sweat to enjoy being outside. Just to stand on the edge of a mountain, or on the beach, or even in a park, is enough to make me smile. So next time you spot a beaming simpleton gawping at the squirrels, spare a thought; he’s replenishing his soul.

You can’t ignore your injuries

You can, of course, but they won’t go away. I began intensively training for the triathlon with a problem in my left shin muscle (excuse the technical terminology), a trapped muscle in my left shoulder and a right knee rendered dodgy by a car accident. I trained through all these injuries. I did not fall apart and after the triathlon in September 2012, I continued to run, swim and cycle regularly. My shoulder would give me pain occasionally but one day, when I could actually hear the grinding of ball in socket somewhere below my clavicle, I knew it would be a good idea to stop swimming and visit the physiotherapist. So, now I am spending time in the gym and following the physiotherapist’s instructions to strengthen my latisimus dorsi. It is a long time since I went regularly to a gym and I now remember what ludicrous places they are. Side by side, in silence but the for the urgent drawing of breath and the hideous racket of the machines, people run and cycle and operate other awful contraptions with great intensity, while rooted to the spot. Large televisions show muscled maniacs working themselves to the brink of death as the electronic beat pouring out of the speaker system encourages me to go “Harder, faster, better, stronger”. It’s a cardiovascular insane asylum where incarceration is voluntary and paid for.

Unfortunately, my body is not built like Haruki Murakami, the long distance running novelist who has run most days for thirty years and never been injured, or the 101 year old man who began running marathons aged 89 and will be competing for the last time this Sunday. If I want to continue enjoying sport for many years to come then I have to listen to my body and strengthen the weak bits. So, I dutifully perform one-arm rows, wall-squats, and inverted rescindicator crunches (I made that one up) in a bid to get myself ready for whatever the next challenge might be.

Death is an opportunity

When I stood at the doorway to the crematorium and welcomed mourners to my mother’s funeral for the first time in my life I truly felt like a man. Afterwards, at the wake, I spoke for hours with the friends and family who had come to pay their respects. People who I had not seen since I was a small boy were there and eager to catch up. Through my sister and I lay the only remaining access to our dear departed mum, and so we were much in demand. I did not cry that day. Somehow the rigours of hosting, and being so unavoidably on show, held back the wall of sadness that was waiting to crumble on top of me. The next day it hit me. Once we had cleared the empty wine bottles from the empty house I sat down at the kitchen table, surrounded by cards and flowers, and allowed myself to let go.

Losing my mother to cancer made me realise how precious, and brief, life is. It was a galvanising experience. It made me think about how many things there are that I want to do while I am still walking around on this spinning ball of dust. That does not mean that there are not days when I feel like hell and do not want to leave the house and would rather alleviate the sadness with the temporary respite afforded by alcohol, or ice cream. There is no escaping the finality of death; my life changed irreversibly when my mother died but what she left me in passing was an insatiable desire to go on and enjoy the world. If you will forgive me for adopting the tone of a bible-wielding evangelist who has turned up on your doorstep at an inconvenient time on a Tuesday evening, it is as if she has been born again through me.

Human beings are inspiring

Everyday, all over the world, people are doing amazing things. Felix Baumgartner skydived (skydove?) from the edge of space, Stephen Fabes is a medical doctor cycling around the world, Oscar Pistorius overcame his….oh, wait. But you catch my drift. I love hearing about the extraordinary limits that people push themselves to because it inspires me and distracts me from daily life, the huge gas bill or the family crisis.

While training for the triathlon, sharing the experience through my blog became more important than I ever realised it would. It was an opportunity to let people know what I was doing and feeling at a time when I did not want to speak to many people about what I was doing and feeling. The process of writing and posting online encouraged reciprocation from people and I learnt all kinds of interesting and inspiring things from their messages to me. One day, a complete stranger messaged me on Facebook. She had read an article that a local London newspaper had printed about me signing up to the triathlon as way to cope with grief. This is what she wrote:

“I lost my dad suddenly last month and have been finding it extremely difficult to carry on with day to day life and not expect the world to fall down at my feet but I picked up the Ham & High today and read the article about you dealing with your grief by throwing yourself into something that doesn’t give you time to stop and feel sorry for yourself. I just wanted to say thank you for inspiring me to do something I’ve always wanted to do but have been too unmotivated. Today I started my own fashion consultancy business.”

I was very moved by that message. I had previously thought I could only draw inspiration and I did not realise I could engender it in others. So, whatever it is you love doing, keep doing it, because it might just get someone through.

If you enjoyed this post please leave a comment and check out I Run Things, Oli’s excellent blog.

My next post will come from just across the US border and will include an interview with Karl Bushby, a British ex-paratrooper I tracked down in Mexico who has been walking around the world for 15 years. And I might even share some details of that now legendary gastronomic battle with the chicken, you lucky, lucky people.

Recovery, japery and some summer shenanigans

One much happier knee… check
One happy physiotherapist… check
One slightly happier bank account… check
One very haphazard idea of my route through Turkey… check
One hapless grimace for the photo on my Syrian VISA… check
One happy camper

I fly back to Istanbul in just seven days time to continue my world ride. I’m twelve whole weeks post op and my sun tan from southern Europe’s spring time has been fading in the British summer. My route takes me next across an Asian land-bridge of Turkey, Syria and Jordon before I reach Egypt and then begin to cycle down the eastern side of the African continent, number two of the six on my hit list. I celebrate my 30th birthday in mid-September, probably in Syria. I may be alone in my tent but as long as I’m making tracks, and my knee’s behaving, I’ll be content. With the temperature often into the 40s in this part of the world at this time of year, it may prove to be a gruelling come-back.

The surgery went smoothly and I even got the piece of troublesome cartilage to take home in a jar. I considered turning it into some sort of pendant I could wear around my neck to remind me that obstacles can be overcome but decided that this was a bit excessive. After the operation I spent six weeks hobbling around on crutches and getting to grips with a physiotherapy regime which involved performing various manoeuvres whilst watching the World Cup on tele, except if England were playing, as this would undoubtedly have resulted in untold damage to my delicate knee. The rest of my summer was spent working in the ICU and Accident and Emergency departments of Guys and St Thomas’ Hospitals, catching up with old mates and having the occasional, but not always literal, knees up. At the end of my spell at home my knee feels sturdy and I’m more than ready to return to the road.

My days at home were at times frustrating but all in all I’ve had a blinding summer. The highs definitely outnumbered the lows. Here’s the proof, in no particular order… some of the best and worst bits from my summer at home…


1. Post-operative morphine

2. The British Festival Season

I managed to get away to six fine festivals this summer, each a scrumpy-fuelled dive into a musical abyss. I even managed to gain access to a Rage Against The Machine gig in Finsbury Park by storming the fence… on my crutches. It proved good physiotherapy and my knee definitely felt better afterwards.

3. Crutch-antics

I think anyone who’s spent any time on crutches will appreciate that you get accustomed to numerous random acts of kindness from strangers, whether it’s on the tube, in the supermarket or at a festival. Tube station escalators were fairly easy to master but the art of “crutch-raving” was not. Whilst listening to music at a festival this involves hopping around with erratic enthusiasm on the good leg and waving both crutches high in the air in a vigorous and perilously wonky fashion. Crutch-raving works best to Old School Jungle, Drum and Bass or anything over 160 beats per minute.

4. The first time I managed to stand unsupported on just my left leg for a whole minute

5. Hitting the 10,000 quid mark raised for Merlin, 20% of the target.

6. Meeting a girl

7. School Talks

I got a great reception at Cokethorpe School and was delighted they invited me to speak. Thank you to both Cokethorpe and Abingdon for raising tons of cash for Merlin. The kids asked some great questions but “What happens if you injure your right knee? and “What if your bike’s not where you left it in Istanbul” did unnerve me a bit.

8. A brief get-away to Sweden and Finland

9. A new cycling buddy

I can now confirm that I now have a friend joining me for the African leg of my ride… the nine month adventure from Cairo to Cape Town. Nyomi Rowsell flies out to Cairo with her bike at the end of October. I always believed that it would take careful consideration if a friend decided they wanted to join me for such a large chunk of the expedition. Having Ny along was a no-brainer. She’s a friend and ex-flat mate and I think the perfect person to share the experience with… immensely positive, motivated, determined and physically up to the challenge, with a passion for cycling. She is also infamously frugal which can only be a good thing. When I first met Nyomi she was working full time at a charity for free, living off out of date sandwiches that she’d managed to blag from sandwich shops, sofa surfing to avoid rent and finding old discarded bikes on the street to bring home and repair. But instead of drip feeding you details I will let Ny introduce herself properly on this blog later on.

10. Catching up with friends and family and then discovering just how many people have been following this blog. Thank you for your support.

Low points…

1. Discovering six weeks after the surgery that my left leg had withered away and had become two inches slimmer in diameter than my right.

2. Having my bag stolen.

After months cycling through the wilds of eastern Europe with all my belongings intact, I returned to London to have my bag stolen in a Shoreditch pub. IPOD, passport, glasses and almost all of my clothes vanished into the villainous ether.

3. Getting one of my crutches stuck in the plastic mesh floor of a festival portaloo and very nearly falling in headfirst in a sort of Mr Bean-esque misadventure.

4. Putting 32 stitches into the head of a very inebriated and frustratingly mobile man at 4 am in the Accident and Emergency department of St Thomas’ Hospital.

5. The words of my Anaesthetist at exactly the moment he injected the anaesthetic for my operation “So do you think you’ll go back to being a doctor when you come home? I doubt it. Ha ha ha ha ha! Off to sleep now”.

So now that the blog and my knee are back up and running again please help me get more people reading… become a follower if you’re not already (check the right hand column of this blog) or spread the word on facebook. You can also give it a star rating on the network blogs facebook application. Please invite some friends to follow it too. The next post, complete with photos of a crispy, sunburnt and barely recognisable cyclist, will come from Damascus.

The humble fare

As a teenager, before I had enough money and time for exotic adventures overseas, I would hitch-hike wherever and whenever I could. For me this was a source of adventure. I would hitch to festivals and to visit friends, to go on holiday and sometimes just to see where I would end up. As any seasoned hitcher knows you meet many colourful characters along the way. Aging hippies, who are returning the favour after years of thumbing it themselves, are the hitcher’s staple. I have met my fair share of born again Christians who would often try to convert me en route. Some drivers want to talk, some to listen, some are comfortable with silence. Occasionally I’d be privileged to hear someone’s life story and at other times I would take on the role of a makeshift counsellor, my job would entail listening to the story of the driver’s latest relationship crisis. Once I was even privy to explicit phone sex when the driver’s girlfriend, who was on speaker phone, failed to realise her boyfriend had picked up a hitch-hiker. I have kept all my old cardboard signs to remind me of this time in my life… “M1 north”, “Glasgow”, “Glastonbury” and for emergencies “Anywhere”.

Hitch-hiking gets a bad press, there’s no doubt about that. Joe Public seems convinced that hitch-hikers are all potential axe murdering sociopaths. A quick survey of my friends and a unanimous verdict, not one would pick up a hitch-hiker. I can’t help but think that the demise of hitching is a symptom of the increasingly paranoid world in which we live. The sensationalist mainstream media (and American B movies) must be partly to blame but you probably have as much chance of meeting a sadist or psychopath on a social networking website or on the bus than you do when hitch-hiking. Only once have I encountered a problem on my travels around the UK when I got into a car, glimpsed a half empty bottle of whiskey in the foot well and quickly realised my driver was blind drunk. So clearly a small risk does exist and I am never afraid to refuse a lift if my instinct tells me to. Aside from the perceived dangers the other obvious reason as to why less people hitch-hike now is the ease of travelling around Europe via Eurorail or Easyjet and the ilk. Hitching may be a free way to get around the continent but I don’t hitch just to save money, it’s an adventure and dare I say it, I think you can learn something about human nature on the way.

I’d never hitched in Europe but I had heard that “autostop”, as its known, is an easier task than in the UK and I was keen to try. Although I was homeward bound I was also chuffed that I could cling onto some sense of adventure now that I couldn’t continue my journey by bicycle. I would swap my enemies… dogs, punctures and headwinds for boredom, the police and the ubiquitous axe murdering psychopaths that everybody at home knew I would encounter frequently en route. Due to the ash cloud emanating from the Icelandic volcano there was a huge backlog of passengers in Istanbul waiting to return to the UK and I would wait ten days if I wanted to fly home. I suspected I could hitch back within this time. I had no imminent deadlines, the operation on my knee is scheduled for the end of May, so I said goodbye to Belinda, my bike, glad that at least for her it will be an unbroken journey around the world, and set off. How long would it take? I honestly didn’t care.

The first challenge would be getting out of the immense sprawling metropolis that is Istanbul, the fifth largest city in the world. On my way in I had cycled for eighty kilometres, all within the city limits, just to find the house I was due to stay at. I started to thumb it from just outside the old town. After forty five minutes a car stopped and I jumped in. The occupant, Apo, was a perfume seller and producer in his late 30s, and he would be my first lift. The cloying scent of his perfume “Candy” filled the car and he told me his story. He was originally Kurdish but had left Turkey in his early 20’s to move to Germany where he had managed to work without a VISA for 10 years. Eventually he was discovered and deported but on arrival in Turkey the military police arrested him, this time for skipping his military service, and he was sent to the army for two years. After finishing this stint he had started up the perfume company with his brother and they were doing well. He brought me as far as he could and then bought me breakfast before I thanked him and moved on. In the end it took me eight separate lifts, each of just five or ten kilometres to finally breach the city limits.

In the neighbouring Turkish city of Tekirdag I had my first lucky break. Hussain, a Turkish lorry driver, stopped to offer me a ride. He chain smoked Winston’s and spoke to me in broken Italian whilst I replied in broken Spanish. Mostly we understood each other. That night I slept on the dusty floor of an old church near to a truck stop. I woke during the night to convivial shrieks and cheers from the inebriated Turkish drivers, who stayed up until the early hours drinking Raki. The next day I found Hussain and we continued the journey together but it was salt in the wound as Hussain drove down the exact same roads I had cycled along almost a month before. After waiting for three hours at the Turkish border whilst the lorry was checked we entered Greece and travelled the breadth of the country. For a reason I didn’t understand the Truck drivers were not allowed to drive me the last twenty kilometres to the dock where we would catch a boat to southern Italy so I began to hitch again.

The twenty kilometre stretch of road led to a port on the Greek mainland from which boats come and go to the party island of Corfu. ‘Boy racers’ sped past me, a brand of soul-destroying bland house music blaring from their expensive sound systems. When looking for a lift you begin to recognise your target demographic. The typical driver who stops is male, aged about 20-40 and usually on their own in the car. The exception to this is the ‘boy racer’. Young speedsters driving VW Golfs with blacked out windows. They virtually never offer a lift. They belong in the same category as mums on the school run and people who drive hearses, Ferraris or milk floats. They are a long shot. As I waited, thumb outstretched, they shouted abuse at me from the windows. One stopped, only to speed off as I approached. From another an empty plastic bottle was hurled in my direction. Most would put their thumbs up and flash me sardonic grins whilst speeding past. I was being mocked by idiots. And the worst kind of idiot. An idiot in white jeans, a Ben Sherman shirt and with terrible taste in music. Eventually I got a lift with an elderly couple to the port and took the nine hour ferry to Bari in southern Italy.

At Bari I spent most of the day in a lorry park where a couple of hundred vehicles were parked in rows. Turkish, Iranian, Polish and Greek drivers congregated, each playing music from their respective homelands at full volume and drinking copiously in the sunshine by the dock. The Turkish band of drivers found someone going to Naples for me. I got the impression that if I desired I could get all the way to the UK by being passed from one Turkish driver to the next at these lorry parks, but I had never visited Naples and I was curious, so I decided I would leave the truckers behind when I got there. I got a lift with another burly Turkish truck driver called Louis, a friend of Hussain. I knew only two things about Louis. First that he was driving to Naples and second that “he really likes Raki” as I was reminded again and again by the other drivers. Things would be fine, I decided, as long as his passion for Turkish liquor and the fact that he’s driving an 18 tonne truck along the Italian motorway didn’t get horribly intertwined.

I semi-reluctantly joined up with the tourist hoard in Naples and Rome and managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, although my attention was elsewhere. I found it hard to concentrate on all the museums, monuments and churches. The Colosseum was impressive but it had nothing on the Italian girls and I frequently found myself distracted. I began once again from outside Rome and hitched to a petrol station north of the city in the countryside just off the motorway. I ate strawberries as I waited for nobody to stop. I discovered that the strawberries had stained my hands blood red and that probably wasn’t giving off the best impression. That’s when the police arrived. I wasn’t sure if they had been called or if they had spotted me by chance, either way I began to think the world has it in for hitch-hikers.
One officer addressed me

“No autostop here. This highway” and he pointed at the section of tarmac on which I was stood, well away from the motorway.

“No highway. This petrol station” I retorted and pointed at the same spot.

“No. This highway” He replied with asperity.

“No. This petrol station” I chanced.

We were at a deadlock.

“Look” I said pointing to a vehicle ten metres away “He’s parking on the highway. Arrest him!”

Not even a smirk. They glowered at me before turning to leave. What could I do? I was in rural Italy surrounded by grassy fields, the highway and this petrol station. There was no chance to catch a bus or train. I banked on this being one of those situations where the police were forced to give me the official line, but knew I was in an impossible position and so would turn a blind eye if I continued. I had no choice but to keep hitching. Just in case, I mentally rehearsed my defence. I decided to pretend their instruction got lost in translation.

During a five hour wait for my next lift two questions swam around my head “What the hell am I doing?” And “why don’t I just fly home?” Eventually a car pulled in and I was heading towards Genoa. On my route through Europe I have made lots of friends, I remembered I knew some in Genoa who I could call in on. The day after the night before started with a vicious hangover and perhaps I was not hitching enthusiastically enough but after another five hour wait at the port I still hadn’t found a ride. To my shame I cheated this time I took a short train ride to Turin, not far but I wasn’t waiting another day, I had to move on. The next day in Turin was the 1st of May or “workers day”. A procession paraded through the town. It was a curious mix of union members, protestors, communists, anti-capitalists and out and out anarchists. There was a party vibe as they made their way down the main streets. Towards the end of the parade I watched a girl, dressed as the pope, stand aloft a large truck waving majestically from a giant model vagina at the laughing crowd below.

I waited again for several hours by the roadside outside Turin. The traffic eventually thinned out and I realised I’d missed my opportunity for catching the rush hour. Every time someone made a hand gesture to signal that they were turning off or turning around I began to think “I don’t believe you”. Hitching in Italy I realised is near impossible. People eyed me up and then actually began to take aversive action! They drove in wide loops around me, perhaps worried that if they got too close I would use my telekinetic powers to force them to stop or that I would actually dive in through their windscreens. As I waited I noticed a large poster looming opposite me. It was an advert for Easyjet. Flights from Rome to Milan for just 22 Euro it boasted. What the hell am I doing? I kept thinking. After four hours finally a lift. He was a Swizz 6 foot 5 inch ex-basketball player on a nine hour mission from Rome to Lausanne to deliver coffee machines. More often than not hitching a lift is less a blag and more of a trade. My role in this instance was to keep the driver awake so we chatted away in broken English and French for several hours.

I debarked, thanked my driver and began again, hoping to find a lift over the French Italian border. People gawped and stared as if I were an ancient relic on display or the start of some alien invasion. Perhaps they were looking for clues as to where I had concealed my axe. What’s more it was a Sunday and most of the cars were full of families with no spare seats. I prayed for VW vans and old hippies, but none came. I was losing my faith in humanity. People I decided were either paranoid or selfish or both. I was entering that hitcher’s vicious circle. The more I waited the more miserable I became, the more miserable I became the more miserable I began to look and the more miserable I began to look the less chance I had of getting a lift and the more I waited. Yet again I wondered why I was making life so difficult for myself.

Eventually a car stopped to take me across the border to France. In my mind this represented the Promised Land, a veritable hitcher’s paradise, and as it turned out France did prove to be easier than Italy. Men and women often stopped to give me a ride and then from outside Lyon another lucky break, a lift all the way to Normandy. I would probably be back in Blighty before midnight I realised. The swarthy, tumultuous sky opened up and it began to rain. I knew England must be close. Rain is never a good omen for the hitcher. You might expect that a dejected hitch-hiker clutching a sodden cardboard sign saying something like “M1 north” might inspire a smidge of sympathy in your fellow man but in reality people just don’t want the inside of their precious cars to get wet. Luckily there was a brief respite from the rain between lifts.

After the ferry crossing from Le Havre to Portsmouth I decided a train would be the sensible option as it was already dark and I thought my chances of getting a lift poor. But I decided to give hitching one quick last shot. Within ten minutes a truck driver stopped and offered me a lift to my mum’s front door in Oxford. He had a thick Yorkshire accent. When I asked if he’ll be watching the world cup on tele he replied “Maybe I will when one of them footballers comes to watch me drive my lorry”. Although not exactly glad to be home, his answer made me not too miserable about it either. On the way to Oxford I watched a film on the small TV he had in the cab and finally reached my destination, ten days after setting out from Istanbul.

I’ve returned home to deadlines and to-do lists and dates have already started to accumulate in my diary. But I am trying hard to avoid anything resembling my old life. I don’t want to feel that I’m moving backwards. I will return to Istanbul, probably towards the start of August, after England win the world cup. Thank you to the 23 drivers who stopped, took me in and helped me out. Thank you as well to everyone who has sponsored my mini-adventure home, and if you haven’t you still can, now that I have completed the hitch, by visiting my sponsorship page.

The beginning…

This will be my first blog post from the road and for those who were concerned confirmation that I did indeed survive the cold snap.

It was great to see so many mates at my send off on the 5th of January at St Thomas’ Hospital. It warmed my heart. The warm feeling didnt last long. As the coldest winter in almost 30 years descended on the UK I pedalled off on my trusty steed Belinda.

As I cycled out of London, a bit emotional I admit, I glanced upwards to see this sign. It must be an omen. Soon afterwards my first hurdle. Leaving Dartford… a puncture. On closer examination a three inch nail had penetrated my brand spanking new top of the range Kevlar reinforced back tyre. You can’t plan for everything.

The following day the snow began to fall and by the late afternoon three inches had settled on top of each pannier. I cycled past abandoned cars and the air reeked of burning rubber as vans and lorries tried to ascend inclines on the ice. By 7pm I still hadnt found anywhere to spend the night after turning my nose up at two roadside Premier Inns, a night in which would equal my entire weeks budget. It was late. I was getting progressively colder. No pub I passed offered accomodation and there was nowhere to camp. I stopped to ask a passing couple in Sittingbourne. I explained my predicament and five minutes later I was sitting on the couch, mug of tea in hand and the promise of a bed for the night. A kind act from total strangers and in miserable England as well.

The next day came with the biggest challenge yet. Frostbite? No. Exposure? No. This was far worse. The children of Kent. Across the county over 200 schools had closed because of the snow. Manic hoards of kids were running wild and hurling snowballs at anything mobile. This was not the occasional cheeky chuck in my direction. This was more akin to a military operation. They flanked bridges and underpasses and fired at will and without restraint. Occasionally an arial bombardment rained down from bridges over the A2. I wasn’t just a good target, I was the ultimate prize. Kids would immediately turn their attention from passing lorries to me. With little physical preparation for the trip and with four heavy panniers I was a large slow moving and exposed target. There was little escape from the onslaught and I was ambushed frequently from Dartford to Dover. Unusually on one occasion a group asked permission to throw snowballs at me. I cycled a fair distance past and then turned to shout “Yes” before pedalling off. I turned the next corner to be confronted by an steep ascent. Behind me I could hear them gaining and letting out hysterical shreaks. “He said YES!”, “Get him in the face!”.

After drying off I arrived at Dover. The woman operating the barrier for access to the ferry declared that it was a bit temperamental. “Just like my wife” remarked a passing lorry driver. I was going to miss England. On the ferry to Calais I prayed that I would encounter the same kindness and generosity as I had in Sittingbourne but also that children on the continent would be more forgiving. Still the snow fell as I made my way south to Paris, the coastal route resembling more arctic tundra than Western Europe. After a brief rest in the capital I moved on again, edging east through the Champagne region.

Whilst cycling through the countryside outside Troyes a small foxhound saw me cycle by and gave chase. Initially I felt nervous and quickened my pace, forever edgy when I see dogs after my experience of South American canines. But he didnt look aggressive. Perhaps he’s after the food on my bike, I reasoned, so after a while I threw him some ham from my pannier. He continued without hesitation. Five miles later, with the dog still trotting next to my back wheel, I came across this sign (see left). Soon after the little guy was called back to the hunt. Perhaps he confused my bike with a horse.

I had forgotton exactly how life on a bike can be. A bit older now I have a few fleeting aches and pains, absent when I was a young un, but my gastronomic obsession has returned. A day in the saddle can make you obsess about food. I even dream of it. Those who know me well will vouch for my chocolate addiction… up until now kept in check only by virtue of working sixty hour weeks in the NHS. Now unchecked and fuelled by my new active lifestyle I am in hyperglycaemic freefall. France, with a Patisserie on every street corner, is my nirvana. If you locked me in a room of a million Yorkies I would surely gorge myself to a chocolatey death.

I’ve already gone through a set of front brake blocks (two weeks… how did that happen?) but otherwise Belinda is holding up nicely. After thawing out in Besancon I leave today on a six day ride through the Jura mountain range before hitting Switzerland. I am running out of the handwarmers provided by my mum for Christmas… undeniably the best bit of kit I have discovered to date, but I’m loving life on the road and this will be the first post of many as I continue across continent number one and ever nearer the next obstacle… Les Alpes.

STATS so far…

Distance cycled – 950 km
Punctures – 1
Got lost – 3 times
Kg of chocolate consumed – incalcuable

For my current(ish) location and to see where I have spent each night see the map above (there is usually some lag). There are more photos on Flickr (cyclingthe6).

The Welsh 3000s

Last week, a few mates and I headed up to Snowdonia to take on the Welsh 3,000’s Challenge, a not altogether sensible escapade that entails bagging the 15 peaks in Wales of greater than 3,000 feet in 24 hours. To invest this hare-brained endeavour with some worthy purpose, we took on the challenge in aid of Merlin, the same worthy cause I’m supporting over the course of my 5 year bike ride which starts in January.

I quite enjoy pootling about on mountains and I hoped it would be easy to pull togther a sizable donation for Merlin. This afterall was not one of those irritating instances where someone asks to be sponsored for doing something pleasant on a Sunday afternoon, like when a crazy woman in my work asked me to sponsor her for walking two miles through an autumnal wood to provide cats with earmuffs during the firework season. There were 8 of us taking part and the combined generosity of our nearest and dearest enabled us to obliterate our collective target of £2K.

On the day, we scrambling and scampering over more than 30 miles of scree slopes and knife-edge ridges, incorporating a dizzying rise and fall of some 4,000 vertical metres – it’s the equivalent of walking from Charing Cross to Luton, and clambering over the Eiger in the middle. It seemed like a good idea in the pub.

None of us died, but there were times when death would have seemed the easier option.

We took wrong turns; we got a bit scared; we considered giving up; we bemoaned gelatine legs, wind-cracked lips and blisters big as the O2 arena; we each consumed approximately 8,000 calories-worth of German sausage-cheese sandwiches, Aldi flapjacks and Kitkat Chunky Caramels. All in all it was a magnificently amateurish effort, based on the entirley inaccurate assumption that two months spent walking up and down stairs at lunchtimes would prove adequate preparation for 24 hours of wading through peat-bogs and slithering down steep scree inclines on our backsides.
Alas, common sense did infiltrate proceedings at one juncture when, in deteriorating weather and gathering dusk, we turned our backs on the intimidating shark’s-tooth summit of Tryfan, reasoning that to continue upwards would have been tantamount to suicide. In the end, therefore, we came home with a mere 14 lofty hills in the bag. In an attempt to assuage the indignation some of our many generous sponsors may feel at the news that we only achieved 93.33% of our target, I should add that in spite of this hiccup the trip still fulfilled the principal criteria of the legitimate charity challenge in that it was, for the most part, wholly unenjoyable. We all came home pretty much hating Snowdonia and more or less despising one another.

Were it not for the fact that we were all labouring under the added sense of obligation instilled by the charitable flourishes of friends and family, we would almost certainly have capitulated at around 5am on Friday, as we stood shivering on the summit of Snowdon in a 40 miles an hour gale, stricken by the realisation that this was going to be really bloody hard.