RIDE ACROSS BRITAIN: 970 miles. Nine days. One amazing experience.
It has been said that by riding a bicycle you learn the contours of a country best.
Ernest Hemingway said it. So, it must be true.
So, it was with that sentimental notion ringing in my ears that I signed up to the Deloitte Ride Across Britain challenge to cycle from one end of our kingdom to the other.
But, after nine days in the saddle peddling almost 1,000 miles from Lands End to John o’Groats, I can tell you the literary legend’s quote doesn’t begin to tell you the whole story.
Sure, you’ll learn an awful lot about the country.
It is far more beautiful than you probably realise, for starters. And it will surprise you again and again.
Oh, and it is hilly. Very hilly. Over the course of the nine-day adventure we climbed more than 50,000ft - that’s almost twice the height of Everest.
But, what the literary great’s quote fails to tell you is that the most valuable lessons you’ll learn will be about yourself.
I, like most of the riders on the challenge, arrived in Lands End a bundle of nervous energy, not really knowing what to expect.
I’ve ridden 100 miles in a day before but never back to back. Certainly never nine days in a row.
Our base camp in Cornwall was filled with hundreds of riders from around the world all thrown together in this most legendary of endurance challenges.
The first few days were amazing. I flew through Cornwall and Devon, seeing amazing sights and making new pals along the way.
‘That wasn’t too bad,’ I told myself knocking back a celebratory pint at our overnight base camp at Bath University after two days and 200 miles.
And then on the third day of riding, which they said was the easiest (a mere 98 miles) things changed.
It started to hurt. A lot.
I was awoken at 5.30am and found my wrists and hands ached so much that I struggled to pick up a spoon to eat my porridge.
Later that day, as we climbed through villages of the Wye Valley, my knees became so inflamed I could feel the fluid swishing around inside as I pushed the pedals.
By the time I made it to Ludlow, I’d spent most of the day peddling stood up because it hurt too much to sit down.
‘What have I done,’ I thought. ‘I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.’
It’s amazing how quickly you can go from loving life to being slung over your handlebars a broken man.
By the time I got to Haydock - four days and more than 400 miles into the challenge - I was surviving on a cocktail of ibuprofen, paracetamol, energy gels and scotch eggs. The thought of cycling another mile filled me with dread.
On day five, as I rolled into my home county, I remember pulling over to the side of the road somewhere near Scorton and contemplating what seemed like an insurmountable challenge.
‘I’m just a few miles from home’, I thought. ‘I could jack it all in and go home.’
I’d ridden hundreds of miles from the far tip of Cornwall to Lancashire. And I was still only half way. I was physically and emotionally shattered in a way I’ve never experienced.
But a fellow rider pulled up and dragged me along with him for a couple of miles distracting me with idle chat.
Before I knew it we were at the foot of Shap Fell - one of the biggest and longest climbs in the whole lung busting route.
And, in my exhausted state, something amazing started to happen. I started to find another gear.
I fought my way up the hill, slowly, and at the top was confronted with the most amazing panorama. I’ve driven over Shap Fell a dozen times but never really seen it. Not like this.
I paused at the top to take it in and I realised how lucky I was to be on this amazing adventure.
So, I clipped back in and flew down the other side and into Penrith to finish day five on a high.
From there I got stronger. Into Scotland and through some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes I’m ever likely to see, I rode into the challenge with open mouthed wonder.
The pain didn’t go away, far from it, but you realise it is a psychological battle as much as a physical one, as you go deeper and deeper into unknown territory.
Glen Coe, the Campsie Fells, Loch Ness, the Firth of Moray, the amazing Strathnaver road from Altnaharra. Everyday it got more dramatic. More epic. More amazing.
On our last night, before the final 108 mile leg to John o’Groats, Julian Mack, owner of Threshold Sports, which organises the event, left us with a quote by another literary legend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“A mind,” he said. “Once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”
He’s right. Ride Across Britain nearly broke me. It took me to the limits of what I thought I could do and then pushed me through the other side.
It forced me to challenge myself in ways I’ve never had to and in the end left me with an overwhelming sense of achievement. A belief that more is in me.