As many of you will recall, this weekend I set out to do the first ever challenge of the week. The idea was to cycle from my home in Banbury (Oxfordshire) to my good friends house in Brixton (London). Sounds pretty simple right?
125km (according to google) to Brixton, 125km along the same route back home. And that was it. I didn’t really plan anything else. I simply looked at the estimated time on google maps (6 hours 54 minutes) took away an hour or so and presumed the route would be easy enough to follow. I then rocked up to my dads house on Friday morning (around 30 minutes later than I had originally planned), changed the pedals on the bike he was kindly lending me, pumped up the tyres and sank a few coffees. We left the house at my planned time of 12pm – about 3 hours later than any sensible person would have planned to leave – but where is the fun in being sensible?!
For the first hour or so, everything was going well. Dad had agreed to ride out with me for the first few miles and we covered the 30km to Bicester in just over 90 minutes. Not rocket speed, or anything remotely close to rocket speed, but better than I thought I was capable of. To celebrate we stopped for a quick sugary coffee in Bicester, checked out the cheese stall at the local market (have I mentioned my love of cheese before?), and then parted ways – dad returning to Banbury and me following his instructions to head towards Thame.
Now what I probably should have done at this point was whack on google and use it to navigate the rest of the way. However, knowing that the google route was directing me down a fairly large road, I decided to chance it and follow the smaller road to Thame that my dad had mentioned – happily avoiding traffic but all the time adding distance to my route. Somewhere along this road, I had a sudden switch in attitude. One minute I was cycling along, feeling content and smiling at the scenery, then the next I found myself struggling, swearing under my breath and only looking up when I heard a vehicle approaching. This feeling was all too familiar and I knew there was only one cure.
Food. I needed to find food quickly to stop this downward spiral into grumpiness. Cheered on by the revelation, I told myself to keep peddling to Thame, where I would treat myself to a sandwich. Sure enough, a couple of miles on and I was sat in a cafe, eating a delicious houmous and roasted vegetable sandwich and sipping on that beautiful thing that is a double espresso. The cafe operated on a cash only basis, naturally I wasn’t carring any cash (that would be far too organised) and I explained that to the cashier. She smiled at me and said, ‘Why do you serious cyclists never carry any cash?!’ Far be it from me to correct a stranger, I popped across to the shop across the road and giggled to myself. I don’t think there has ever been a less serious cyclist than me. I was the walking definition of ‘all the gear, no idea’.
Moments later (or so it seemed) I was back on the bike, this time heading for Princes Risborough. Although the aim was to skirt around the edge of the town, a few moments of lapsed comcentration later I found myself in the town centre, sitting on the wall and having a drink. At this moment my phone buzzed with a message from Shreeya. ‘What time do you guys plan on getting here?’ I quickly googled how far there was left to go – I had been moving for around 4 hours at this point, and expected to be at least two thirds of the way into the 77m route.
Ohh… Not able to believe the result I got the first time I did the search again. According to google I still had 41 miles to go.Not quite sure how I’d managed to add quite so much distance on already I text back – explaining that I still had 41 miles to cover and would likely to be at least another three hours. Probably four. I also sent a few choice words about cycling and how stupid an idea this whole thing was. Although the cycling was still coming fairly easily – I was sat at the foot of the chilterns, I had already covered 40 miles and the sun was already beginning to set. I had been planning on cycling the last bit in the dark – but I was hoping to be within the M25 (and so street-lit) by this point, not in the middle of unfamiliar countryside with narrow winding roads and over-confident drivers who plainly did not anticipate sharing the road with cyclists.
Up and over the chilterns I went – suprised at how suddenly such a huge hill can appear from a relatively flat area of the country. I had to stop to take a picture on the way up (okay and maybe to have a little rest) because the colours were simply stunning. Having only ever passed through the chilterns on the M40, I wasn’t quite aware of the sheer beauty of this part of the world. From the motorway it looks pretty good, but one thing you can’t see from there is how heavily forested these hills are. The autumnal colours of the leaves, coupled with the rosy light from the setting sun made for a beautiful mix at the start of the hill, dimming by the time I stopped for a picture to create a kind of haunting light, making me keen to make it to civilisation before the light from the sun had completely disappeared.
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, and about 30 minutes later I found myself cycling in the dark along the same narrow country roads. As I drew nearer to Great Missenden (my next marker) the traffic on the road began to get heavier. Each time a car passed from behind it felt just a little too close, and every time a car came from infront I was temporarily blinded, not even able to see the ground directly in front of me, making the risk of hitting a pothole increasingly likely. A few times the cars were taken by surprise and tooted, which not only made me jump and swear each time, but also did absolutely nothing to help the situation. Drivers – don’t toot at cyclists! It would be much more helpful if you just slowed down a little and kept your eyes peeled. Growing increasingly terrified and ragey all the time, I began to weigh up the risks in my head. Not being one to not do something which I set out to do I was determined to keep going. However, as I am also not one for having suicidle tendancies, I also thought it was probably better to take the safe route. As Great Missenden had a line running to Marylebone, and an adult ticket was just nine pounds, I made a new plan to take the train into Marylebone and then cycle acrosss central London to Brixton. After all, there can’t be that much traffic in a city centre right? And there will be bike lanes and street lights so it must be okay?
It wasn’t okay. If I thought that cycling along country roads in the dark was bad, London was an absolute nightmare. From the moment I left the station it was clear that everyone was in a rush to get somewhere. I mean literally everyone. The cars, the bikes, the buses and the pedestrians. I have a number of issues which each of these things but let me limit it to one moan per type of transport.
Cars, first of all. If you live in London why on earth are you using a car? The traffic is in a constant state of gridlock, nothing is really far away enough to warrant driving and there is a perfectly good public transport network which would be even more efficient if you just left the car at home. Same principle for taxis too, only they are perhaps MORE unnecessary. Going somewhere in a taxi is meant to be quick and efficient – it is neither of these things in London because it is just too busy. And the worst thing of all? Despite all the cars and taxis knowing that there is going to be a tonne of traffic on the roads in central London, they all see to have zero patience or tolerance when waiting for longer than one second at any given obstacle. IT WAS NEVER GOING TO BE FAST SO STOP TRYING TO GO FAST. And stop tooting. And no, you will not get there any quicker if you rev your engine before the lights change – so stop doing that as well.
Buses. The demon of all transport. Fine when you are riding one (if you can tolerate the occasional odd smell, lack of personal space and a driver who seems personally offended if you so much as smile at them whilst getting on) but as a cyclist, simply terrifying. Whoever had the idea to lump cyclists and buses in the same lane around a busy city, has clearly never ridden a bike near to a bus. Buses want to kill cyclists. It is as simple as that. They rush around, cut infront of you and pull in, without a care as to whether its really annoying and dangerous or not. In fact I’m pretty sure they do it on purpose just to spite the cyclists of the world. And the worst thing? Surely buses have no reason to rush??? They have a set of times to get to each stop – presumably based on how long it takes to reach each stop. There is no gain to be made by them moving any faster if the times on the timetable are correct. And if they are not, ALTER THE TIMETABLE, don’t drive like a maniac to make it up. Add in the fact that the other cyclists using these lanes with you also seem to be in a hurry and willing to sacrifice you to the underside of a passing bus to save two minutes on a commute home, and to the cars and taxis who are in a constant race against one another and blind to their surroundings, and you begin to get a picture of cycling in London.
Finally add in the pedestrians. Normally, people are able to walk and be aware (and considerate) of their surroundings. In London this does not appear to be the case. On a mission to walk wherever they are heading as fast as is humanly possible, pedestrians don’t take time to look for bikes when crossing the road. I am guessing the risk is not enough to justify breaking a commute long’s eye contact with the tarmac. This means that as a cyclist not only do you have to keep one eye on the traffic, but you also have to keep the other on the pavement. This meant that for someone like me who needed a sat-nav to find my way around, there was a constant blind spot and many near misses with both animate and inanimate objects alike.
It was madness. Utter madness.
The adrenaline rush was great – I think there is something special about being that close to danger – but I’m not sure I could do it every day. The city seemed so bound with progress that nobody seemed to be living. It made me sad to see so many people locked in routine, but it also made me appreciate not being part of it. By the time I reached Brixton, I felt wired. My heart was beating fast and I felt a similar feeling to that you get when the suspense is building in a horror film. Like I said, brilliant, terrifying, and probably the thing your doctor would tell you to avoid if you were suffering from high blood pressure.
So, in a round about way, by 7pm I had successfully made my way to Brixton. If I’m honest at this point I wasn’t looking forwards to cycling home and considered the train. But I wasn’t going to think about this just now. I’d just cycled almost 60 miles in total, my friends were waiting and a slice of pizza and a glass of wine (okay a whole pizza and a bottle of wine) were much higher on my list of priorities than worrying about tomorrow.
As always, Saturday morning came round super fast and after initially declaring I would leave earlier, I found myself sitting in Brixton market enjoying a coffee at 11.30am. Still, when one has cycled all this way to see friends, one does not simply leave abruptly the next day. Plus have I mentioned that I love coffee?
Midday crept up on me again and I decided I should probably leave, determined this time to follow the planned route to give myself half a chance of making it. Central London seemed easier to navigate in the daylight. The traffic had eased slightly, there were less people and bikes to contend with and I had the added bonus of being well rested. After negotiating Marble Arch for a second time, I found myself on Edgware Road, heading North towards Hemel Hempstead. It was a fairly stressful few miles, with a constant stream of traffic and buses that pulled in about every kilometre. After an hour and a half however, I pulled over on the path for a drink, where I made the decision that I wasn’t going to make it all the way home. As a result, I googled potential places I could reach, to see which had the cheapest trainfare back home. Turns out that High Wycombe, 37 miles from where I stood, was the most economical option, so High Wycombe it was. Having headed out of London in the wrong direction to reach High Wycombe, I made a left turn and began to cycle across the back roads of North London. Grateful for my Google and also delighted to be discovering entirely new places.
A few k’s later down the road, I was directed onto the canal towpath. At first this was a novelty and great fun. I was so glad to be away from the traffic and the water offered a welcome change of scenery. I saw swans, geese, ducks and the occasional Heron, all of which were thriving even inside the M25 – a contradiction to many people’s assumptions I am sure. As I travelled further and further down the canal however, I started to wish I was back on the road. My bum now so sore I couldn’t sit down and my wrists were sore from taking the brunt of an increasingly deteriorating path being ridden on a completely inappropriate bike. I began to get fed up and tired. After about 15 miles of tow path, the tarmac disappeared completely, leaving a slippery, muddy mess that was riddled with puddles. I had no choice but to get off and walk the majority of the last mile. Although I was now soggy, muddy, tired, sore and a little bit cold I couldn’t help but smile to myself. I was in my element. I could tell that most people would think – how on earth did you manage to cycle down there, on that bike? And I love making people ask that kind of thing. Achieving the percieved impossible.In reality I was doing nothing out of the ordinary – but it challenges people’s perceptions of normality, and that makes me happy.
Back to the cycling and eventually I reached Slough, where I was grateful to rejoin the road. I had a look at the satnav and was pleased to see it was just 14 miles to High Wycombe. I treated myself to a couple of energy gels and carried on, keen to make good progress as I was losing light again, and at serious risk of iPhone death. After cycling through the delightful (sorry but yes, that is sarcastic) Slough I found myself back in the countyside, bathed in light from an absolutely stunning sunset which once again was accentuated by the mass of golden leaves. Had I had more battery left on my phone I would have stopped for a picture, but instead as my phone beeped at me one more time, I found myself just looking up and enjoying my surroundings in the moment. Moments later ny phone died, leaving me in the middle of nowhere, with no idea of where to go next. Luckily, this time I was prepared, and I grabbed my spare phone out of my back pocket. Switching it on and feeling smug, the first thing it notified me of when I turned it on was a low battery. Drat. It clearly hadn’t charged the night before. Still, I was only 8 miles away now and I had 20% so it was worth a shot. Off I went again, cycling fast to try and make it before the phone died.
Luckily, by the time it died it’s inevitable death I was on the road to High Wycombe, bathed in darkness and praying for the traffic to be kind. After the terror of taking on London the previous evening, High Wycombe was a relative breeze, and I even survived the mad roundabout composed of roudabouts which seems to be all the range in this corner of the country. Moments later I was pleased to have made it to the train station where the first thing I did was buy a sausage sandwich and a can of sugary drink. I had genuinely enjoyed cycling so much today that I had forgotten how hungry I was, but as soon as I stopped it hit me and I ate the sausage sandwich in 3 seconds flat. I then bought a ticket (eleven pounds – bargain) and proceeded to make my way to the platform. Tired, and not in the mood to find another route through, I attemted to go through the normal barriers with my bike. Carelessly I pushd the bike through in front of me – only to find the gates shutting around it, making a terrific bike stand, but not helping me on to the platform. I swore and I laughed at the situation, gutted that both of my phones were out of charge so I couldn’t take a photo. I tucked my tail between my legs and went to tell the operator, who thankfully had a good sense of humour and just laughed with me. He opened the gate and this time I passed successfully through it, saying thanks and making the platform just as the train arrived.
The journey home from there was fairly uneventful, with the steep hill back to my house from the station being the trickiest climb of the day. I got in the door and smiled. Nothing had really gone to plan, but it had still been a great couple of days. I had originally tweeted about failing the challenge, but I don’t think I can class it as a failure really. In total I amassed over 100 miles in two half days. I had also saved around thirty pounds on train tickets and managed to fit in a decent amount of exercise in a social weekend.
But more importantly I had been lucky enough to get completely lost in some beautiful scenery and I was reminded of both the need to plan and the need to be willing to divert from a plan when necessary. An important couple of lessons to take with me on the next challenge – no matter what that may turn out to be.
PS. The second #COTW will take place either this weekend or early next week. I may start a job in a warehouse this weekend – which is a pretty big challenge in itself but probably won’t make for a very good blog post. Therefore if anyone has any ideas for a small challenge which I can fit around work – let me know as it would be idea!