I’m not a cyclist. But I really like riding my bike. I like the freedom that it gives me, and the ability to go wherever, whenever. And I like how you get to see so much more of the world than the snail’s pace of hiking or the speed of driving so fast that you miss it all. But I’m not one to spend time in the saddle for the sake of it, just to get in the training miles; for me, going on a bike ride needs to have a purpose. Be it time out in the country air to clear the mind, or to get to a certain landmark for a cracking view with coffee and cake. In my head, there needs to be a reason to get on my bike. And that’s why I don’t yet consider myself a true cyclist. But I ride my bike right? So what does that make me?
Recently I’ve had a yearning for adventure. I spend a lot of my time reading and writing about other people’s adventures and, although I find all their stories deeply inspiring, I wasn’t doing anything about getting off my backside and making my own story to write about. So I started dreaming up grand plans of spending weeks at a time paddling across Scotland or mountain biking round the Welsh coast (neither of which I do very much of, but I’m sure I’d be OK?!) I mentioned them to Rob, my other half, and he suggested in a very diplomatic way, that maybe I should try something a little more do-able for my first trip, before I go spending weeks on end in an uncomfortable saddle of a hired mountain bike. Then after that, plan a bigger trip. His response annoyed me to start with. “Come on, why don’t we just go do it? Other people do!” But when I got thinking about it, I realised that most of those ‘other people’, are already proficient bikers or paddlers which Rob and I are not!
OK, something more do-able.
Monsters in the night
At the beginning of the year I wrote an article about sleeping out under the stars, and how it was my aim for this year to do it on my own. It’s something I’ve done many times before with other people, but having not really done many exciting or adventurous things by myself before, the idea of solo wild camping was both exciting and really scary. I know how unlikely it is for anything to happen to me; no-one else is mad enough to be out in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. But the irrational side of my brain has a habit of getting the better of me and, if I were to go sleep out somewhere on my own, it would be a massive mental challenge for me to overcome.
I had just interviewed British mountain biker, Rickie Cotter, about her 3000km bikepacking trip in New Zealand. She crushed the route in just 12 days, sleeping out in the wild on her own, every night! Inspired by her brave and somewhat ballsy approach to her adventure, I decided that a bikepacking style trip was for me. I would embrace my solo camping challenge, and do a more ‘doable’ expedition across Wales.
A mini cycling adventure
Buoyed by Rob’s enthusiasm for the idea, and finding myself looking after a house on the Welsh border, I planned a route across Snowdonia National Park to the seaside, where I would face the monsters in the night and sleep on the beach, before cycling back to the border the next day.
Super exciting! Finally, a mini adventure – cycling across a country.
I contacted my good friend Giacomo, a seasoned bikepacker, to borrow some of his bike bags, and also to ask for some advice:
“Tire yourself out – you’ll sleep better. Take a beer or some wine – you’ll sleep better. Take some naproxen – you’ll sleep better!”
OK, I think I’ll be fine then!
Rickie’s advice to bikepackers is to keep the weight of your luggage under 5kg. Now although I didn’t have the added weight of a tent, there’s no way I was about to leave my insanely warm 1.5kg Alpkit Skyhigh 900 down sleeping bag, at home. My brother-in-law, an ex-paratrooper, swears he will never sacrifice sleeping warmth for weight. And, I’m inclined to agree. Cycling up hills is slow going for me anyway and a few hundred grams extra doesn’t make much difference for a non-performance cyclists like me. So my advice, which will definitely be contrary to the more competitive of adventurers out there, is to carry more if it means you’ll stay warm and sleep well.
So with my squeaky clean, well oiled bike all packed up and ready for adventure, I set out on my 70 mile journey across Wales to the seaside.
Within half an hour I was talking to myself; commenting on the gorgeous sunshine, the lambs and daffodils, beautiful houses and stunning views. And within three hours I was complaining to myself about my sore bum, the length of the hill climbs and the fact that I’d failed to pack my sunglasses! But not once, did I want to be anywhere else, or with anyone else. Totally happy with my own chat and thoughts, and buzzing from the immediate and ongoing feeling of complete freedom.
I knew the route was going to be hilly, but I didn’t plan it in any detail to either avoid the hills or have even a slightest clue as to how steep or long they were likely to be. I quite liked not knowing what was coming, and might have thought twice about the distances had I known! As it happens, the hills were very long, very frequent and often too steep to cycle up. And subsequently, there were times when I questioned whether I would make it to the coast by sunset. But what goes up, must come down, and with every hard slog uphill, there was the thrill, excitement and relief of a big long downhill, that although lasting only a fraction of the ascent time, was no less enjoyable as a result.
An epic sleep
And of course, I did make it to the coast before dark, with plenty of time for some post-cycle beach yoga. I found myself a sheltered and secluded spot in the golden sand dunes to sip my beer and watch the incredible sunset unfold. And with the bright moon rising behind me, I snuggled into the wonderful warmth of my ‘overweight’ sleeping bag with not a care in the world. No monsters were in my head that night. Perhaps my new-found independence and strength had flicked a switch in my wandering mind, to only dwell on the positives of it all, and not get drawn to fearing or over-thinking the possibilities of the unknown. Or maybe it was the combination of over-exertion, beer and painkillers that did it?! Either way, I slept like a baby for 9 whole undisturbed hours!
Many times during my trip, I questioned why I hadn’t embarked upon this sort of journey before. Laziness? Fear? Lack of vision? Probably all of them. But from my questioning arose the realisation that actually, it was approval that I needed the most. Rob’s belief and enthusiasm for the trip, Giacomo’s excitement and encouragement. For whatever reason, I needed that seal of approval from someone else, that what I was about to do was not only a good idea, but that they believed I could do it and that I would love it. And, they were right.
I loved cycling by myself. I’m not a fast cyclist and never will be, and to say that my approach to the hill climbs was slow and steady, would be an outrageous understatement. I stopped to take photos when I pleased. I pushed on further than I’d planned if I was feeling like it. I stopped for water if the need arose. There was zero pressure from anyone else but myself, and I liked that. I also quite liked talking to myself, and sometimes even found myself quite funny.
Lost and found
I don’t think I’m the sort of person who will ever ‘find’ myself. I don’t think deeply enough for that. I thought I might try to think more deeply whilst cycling for hours on my own, but it didn’t really happen. For a start, I had the last song of the morning radio stuck in my head for at least four hours – I really don’t care how I have my eggs in the morning, just kiss me! I was also very easily distracted by my surroundings and the heightened awareness of all the little things. The lack of a companion filling up the frame certainly helped with this.
But what I did come to think a little more about was my lack of self-belief. If Rob had said it was a stupid idea, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I would have missed out on not only an epic and really enjoyable trip, but also, a raised awareness of my own self-doubt. Maybe it was a journey of self-discovery after all!
The 126 miles were well within my physical limits (although easy to say that now), the hill climbs were just within my mental limits, and the sleeping solo on a deserted beach was a walk in the park. However, I now see the value of having a little more route knowledge, as a 126 mile flat-ish cycle is very different to what I did. I found the pressure of getting through a certain number of miles by dark, took away some of the enjoyment. There were numerous occasions where I wanted to stop and enjoy a waterfall, or talk to a sheep, or simply just listen to the silence. But there was no knowing exactly what the miles ahead had in store for me, so rather than pausing to enjoy, I pedalled on.
Of course there was no one telling me I had to get to the beach to sleep. I could have hunkered down anywhere, and there was no shortage of very appealing bivvy spots. But that would have taken the essential element of purpose out of my bike ride. It wasn’t the completion of a certain number of miles that kept me pedalling, but the lure of sleeping by the ocean as my end goal. And that is perhaps why I found day two slightly less enjoyable – all I had to do was get home. I knew what was there; a hot bath and spaghetti bolognaise waiting for me. Lovely, yes, but old hat all the same.
Regardless of how many miles I rode, how many hills I conquered or where I spent the night, at the end of day, it was just a big old bike ride in some stunning scenery. My initial feeling, on returning to the comfort of a cushioned seat, was that the trip was a little too far for me to really take my time and enjoy. But on reflection, a large part of the enjoyment came from the satisfaction of reaching my goals and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. So cyclist or not, I’m not going to fight the need for purpose on future trips, but embrace it’s necessity without neglecting the importance of enjoying the journey too. And so, somewhat enlightened by my mini cycling adventure across a small country, and full to the brim with self-belief, I intend to plan my next adventure with this in mind.
Top tips for your first cycling adventure
- To avoid saddle sores, get on your bike a few times in the weeks preceding your ride!
- Consider not wearing underwear – to avoid saddle sores.
- Add a spare gear cable to your repair kit and learn how to replace it. Mine snapped with 25 miles to go making the final push a bit of a struggle.
- Have an idea of where will be suitable to sleep. If you arrive late in the evening, you may not have time to find a suitable spot before dark.
- Don’t rely on technology for your route finding. My iphone died over night due to the cold. Luckily the route back was straightforward and I’d remembered most of it.
- Tell someone your plan, but don’t make promises of contacting them at certain times. When my phone died, I was really worried about calling home and rushed to find a phone box.
- Wear your padded shorts in bed – they’ll add an extra layer of warmth.
- Check your route for water sources to make sure you can top up along the way.
- Don’t scrimp on fuel to save weight. I took just enough alcohol for my mini stove to cook only one meal. I wasted lots of fuel struggling to light it in the wind and failed to heat my water up enough to cook my meal. Thankfully, I’d already feasted on chocolate and peanuts so it wasn’t a drama.
- Take lots of photos.
- Take the time to stop and enjoy your surroundings.
- Take more cash than you think you’ll need – including coins.
- Start riding early – it leaves loads more time for stops and to allow for mishaps.
- Choose a window of good weather to ride, but don’t make average weather an excuse not to do it.