It’s a tribal thing

We have bought our tickets for the second annual Cycle Touring Festival in May. The first one was a resounding success with about two hundred like-minded, two wheeling nomads coming together to share tales of misery and delight over beers, brews and a small mountain of cake. At that time we were not long back from our big trip around the coast of Britain which we thought was quite an epic adventure until we listened to some of the speakers at the festival. It turned out that what we had done was like a bit of a warm up for some of the odysseys that others had undertaken. Phrases like “that was our twenty second country” or “it was just towards the end of our third year on the road” were bandied about with a casualness normally reserved for discussing the weather. There were, of course, plenty of cyclists there who had yet to embark on their first multi week tour and even some who had never strapped a pannier on a bike or even sniffed a pair of socks to determine whether they would do another week or not. We were somewhere in the middle I suppose.

P1020947_compressed

What was brilliant about it though was that we were with our tribe. It didn’t matter whether you were a grizzled old warrior of the road or still dithering over which Swiss Army knife you should choose, you were one of the clan and as such safe and protected and in the right place. When people with a common interest and passion come together there is a real genuine feeling of warmth and support; especially if the common interest is a bit wacky and not really understood by other people. I’m sure there is exactly the same cosy sense of being wrapped in a protective but fluffy blanket at model train conventions or a velology festival. I’m not sure whether it’s because of a deep rooted ancient yearning to come together with others that share our passions and beliefs or simply a desire not to feel weird. It doesn’t really matter, it’s fun and it gives us purpose and place in a confusing and crowded world.

Being with ‘your own sort’ is easy and relaxing. It’s so refreshing to be able to emerge from the tent in the morning and talk to your nearest neighbour about the relative merits of synthetic or natural sleeping bag fillings as if it was the most normal thing in the world. When we share a campsite with the public at large we are often greeted by concerned caravaners who want to check that we survived the night without succumbing to hypothermia. We were even asked on one occasion if we would like them to boil a kettle for us. I don’t know if they thought that we might be desperate for a hot drink or a good wash but we assured them in the nicest possible way that we did actually have the means of boiling a kettle ourselves. When you are with your tribe you don’t have to explain the obvious and you can just get on with laughing hilariously at the shared memory of being wet for three consecutive days or making dinner from a spoonful of rice, a chicken flavour cup-a-soup and a lump of cheese that has been lurking in the bottom of a pannier for several weeks. Of course you both know that you are exaggerating wildly but that’s all part of the fun.

Most conversations will, at some point, turn knowingly to the non-tribal members of the population who are missing out on the true meaning of life and the route to ever-lasting happiness by not going cycle touring. But that’s the whole point isn’t it? We come together and celebrate our eccentricity. We revel in our difference from the masses and look to each other as living proof that we and we alone, have found the answers. Just like the train spotters, the sequence dancers and the cheese rollers probably do when they attend their annual tribal gatherings. The sense that we are a part of something is important, even vital, to our well-being so I for one can’t wait to gather around the camp fire once again and remind myself that I’m not the only weirdo on the block.

Virtual adventures

I seem to be spending a lot of time on virtual adventures at the moment. It is something I have always done since I was a teenager but today’s media makes it so easy that there is a danger of overdosing on armchair adrenalin. Back in my youth I read just about every account available of people climbing Everest or trekking to some pole or other. I attended lectures and slide shows given by the likes of Chris Bonington and Doug Scott and waited impatiently for their next book so I could conquer another unexplored peak vicariously. My own adventures were always a little less daring or exotic but they still fulfilled that deep rooted desire to explore both the world around me and the me, inside me.

With the profusion of TV channels now available and the blossoming of the internet there is no longer any need to wait for the next book to be published. There are countless tales of journeys available covering every corner of the globe, using all modes of transport and based on an ever increasing range of themes. In the last month alone I have followed Sean Conway’s run from John O’ Groats to Lands End, Emily Chappell’s ridiculous winter bike ride through Alaska in impossibly cold conditions and most recently Richard Reeve’s delightful odyssey as he visits a hundred British micro pubs by bicycle. Talk about a child in a sweet shop, the choice is endless.

Right now I am sharing adventures past and present both in the form of a good old fashioned book and various web sites. Anna Hughes’ book, Eat, Sleep, Cycle, is the account of her whirlwind ride around Britain, as is the blog of the same trip by Bill Honeywell back in 2011.

Moidart in Scotland, time for reflection

Moidart in Scotland, time for reflection

I read these things for lots of reasons. Reading an account of a journey I have made myself, like the one around Britain by bike, is a chance to compare and reflect and if it’s a blog by somebody I have actually met it lends another slant to the story. It is sometimes possible to fill in gaps in the tales based on a little knowledge of personality and circumstances. Dick Edie was a lovely host in Scotland that Gill and I stayed with last summer. He is riding across Canada worrying about bears but fulfilling a dream and James Harvey that we met at the Cycle Touring Festival has just left the northern most point of Norway at the start of a six month cycle trip that will take him to southern Spain and on to Istanbul and maybe beyond. Sometimes it is just the sheer audacity of what some of these people are doing that fills me with awe. It really doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the trip itself appeals to me personally. Following Sean Conway as he ran down the length of Britain covering up to thirty miles in a day was fascinating in a “you wouldn’t catch me in a million years doing that” sort of way. Likewise, Sarah Outen, who is about to put to sea in a rowing boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean on the final leg of her round the world, self-propelled  journey. James’ bike ride through Europe on the other hand sounds delightful, something I would genuinely like to do. Whether I am tempted by the trip or not, I can drift off to another world for a few minutes or hours and dream of future adventures of my own. I do find myself pondering what it is about other people’s fun and games that is so attractive though. What makes these journeys so fascinating and why people do them?

When I think back to those early pioneers that went to unexplored places I wonder how different it was for them. When the likes of Columbus set sail or Mallory set out from base camp they were literally going into the unknown. That is surely exploring in its purest form. Now it is almost impossible on this small planet to go to places no one has ever been to before so did they experience something that was fundamentally different from what James or Dick will? Maybe not. You see whilst I am a little bit jealous that they were the first to discover, conquer, summit or whatever, I suspect that the element of being the first was probably quite a small part of the overall experience. I am sure it is very satisfying to go down in the record books as the first person to stand on a particular mountain or complete a triathlon of the length of Britain (Sean Conway had cycled and swam the whole thing before he ran it!) but surely the journey is the real essence of the experience rather than the record.

It would be easy to think that there is nothing left to explore these days when you dig around on the internet and see so many amazing journeys taking place. Surely every ‘first’ has been claimed. Or has it? There is one goal that remains unconquered and will always stay that way. The goal of understanding yourself. That is what I suspect these adventures are ultimately about. All my reading and viewing of other people’s far flung challenges leaves me prodding and poking at what it is that makes me tick but I don’t get many answers. They only make me thirstier for knowledge and understanding. The answers start to come when I embark on the real thing. When I take the first step on the trail or ride the first mile of the road to somewhere I have never been before. That is when the exploration starts and that is when I learn a little bit more about myself. That is when I climb a little bit closer to that elusive summit of self-knowledge.

Reading other peoples stories is a little bit like smelling the Sunday dinner cooking. It gets the juices flowing and hints of something delicious to come. The blogs and books keep the excitement ticking over at a low simmer. For now the necessity of things like earning a living have to come first but the reading confirms that it’s only a matter of time before the pot comes to the boil and the next adventure into the unknown will begin. Until then I will settle for travelling in a virtual world and say thank you to all those that make that possible. Enjoy your journeys and keep those wonderful words coming.

It’s all about compromise

I have thought of a synonym for partnership:  Compromise. Because essentially that is what a partnership always is. Whether it’s marriage, a business partnership or two people cycle touring together the greatest challenge to success lies in the level of compromise that can be achieved.

Gill and I spent last weekend at the first ever Cycle Touring Festival at Waddow Hall near Clitheroe and it was amazing how often this topic popped up in conversation. There were many touring couples there, some of whom gave inspiring talks about journeys half way, or even all the way, around the world. Nobody talked about falling out, though obviously we may have been missing those that did, but they all agreed that touring as a couple is not dissimilar to marriage or a partnership in that it’s a long learning curve and it ain’t easy.

By the time we got back to our starting point on our tour last year there was some question as to whether Gill would ever get back on a bike again and this caused me to think long and hard about why that was and if I was in some way responsible. It was obvious that she had become exhausted after 3,500 miles of riding and coupled with a lot of pain she experienced in her hands it was all just too much for her. Why didn’t I have these problems? We talked a lot around the issue and eventually we came to the conclusion that we hadn’t managed to compromise enough. Or to be more honest, I hadn’t managed to compromise enough. Day after day I had been enjoying what to me was a reasonable and not too arduous pace and distance whilst Gill had been pushing herself just that bit harder to keep up. My compromise was probably waiting regularly at the top of hills whilst Gill’s was riding harder than she really wanted to all the time. It wasn’t fair or balanced.

Re-grouping at the top of the hill.

Re-grouping at the top of the hill.

We met a cyclist at John O’ Groats who had completed the ‘end to end’ ride of around a thousand miles in eleven days.

Not learning lessons at John O' Groats

Not learning lessons at John O’ Groats

He was totally exhausted and bitterly disappointed in the experience because he hadn’t enjoyed it. It turned out that having originally conceived of the idea as a solo effort he had subsequently agreed to ride with a younger friend who had totally outpaced him every day. Rather than split up or compromise this chap had pushed himself to the limit day after day and as a consequence his dream ride from Land’s End to John O’ Groats had been ruined. What a terrible waste of a dream. Sadly, even listening to his story a third of the way through our trip we were completely unaware that we were doing the same thing, albeit to a lesser degree.

Loading up our bikes to cycle to the festival last week couldn’t have made me happier. The fact that Gill is now talking enthusiastically about another big tour is music to my ears but I am more conscious than ever of the need for compromise. The answer may lie in a tandem but I am not yet convinced. Just about every aspect of a cycle touring trip is a compromise, from which route to take to what to have for dinner at night. We seem to manage about ninety percent of it really well so if we could just crack the pace and distance conundrum I think we would have a winning partnership. We have managed sixteen years of marriage, surely a few thousand miles of cycling together in harmony can’t be that hard can it?

Somebody at the festival thought a good solution would be for me to carry a lot more of the heavier kit on my bike to reduce Gill’s load. I’m not convinced. You can take this compromising lark a bit too far you know.

I'm not convinced this is a good idea.

I’m not convinced this is the answer.

There are no immediate plans for a long tour so we have plenty of time to get it right. The kit from last week has been cleaned and sorted is ready to go. I’m looking forwarding to finding our solution. It’s all about balance, in more ways than I thought.

A Cycle Touring Festival. Really?

Pendle Hill

Pendle Hill on route to the festival

A Cycle Touring Festival? Really? It does sound a bit unlikely doesn’t it? In actual fact though it proved to be a huge success and very enjoyable indeed.

I’m not really surprised. Whenever we meet other tourers when we are away it inevitably leads to great conversations and many wonderful evenings in pubs or hostels swapping stories and sharing tips about gear and locations. The idea of bringing over two hundred cycle tourists together in the same location for a weekend could only ever result in much, much more of the same. Add to that some great food, a stunning location on the banks of The River Ribble in Lancashire, tales of amazing journeys by bicycle from all around the world and a couple or three beers and you have a heady recipe for a memorable weekend.

Two hundred cycle tourers on a hill and not a bike in sight.

Two hundred cycle tourers on a hill and not a bike in sight.

Although most of the speakers and slide shows revolved around amazing journeys, often around the whole world, there was no sense of feeling second class if your longest tour was a week or two in the Dales. I loved the fact that when you started talking to somebody you really didn’t know if you were going to end up discussing bikes on Virgin Trains or running out of water in the high Andes mountains. I particularly enjoyed the various snippets of conversation that I overheard as I wandered about. Things like; “then we ran out of money in South East Asia” or “we are touring novices, we’ve only done one trip. From Chorley to Istanbul”.

It’s tempting to make reference to the high points of the weekend but to be honest that implies that there were contrasting low points but there weren’t. Apart from when it was hammering on the tent in the middle of the night I wasn’t even aware that it rained for most of the first twenty four hours. Such was the quality of the entertainment and conversation all day long.

We have come home with a real feeling that we are part of a genuine community. We have made new friends, caught up with old ones and enjoyed some great laughs, mostly related to the ridiculous predicaments that cycle touring tends to generate. As a measure of how outstandingly friendly and generous people were Gill and I expressed an interest in trying out a tandem for touring and before we knew it we had not one, but three offers of a loan of one from tandem owners. The trust and generosity were truly moving.

Dinner with friends old and new.

Dinner with friends old and new.

The same message came over in talk after talk and in countless conversations; the world is full of kind and generous people, all you have to do is ask.

Pendle again but on the way home.

Pendle again but on the way home.

There is only one way to measure whether such an event was a success and that is to pose the question would we go again. The answer is a resounding yes from us, as it was from everybody I asked during the weekend. Well done to Laura and Tim and all the folk who helped to make it such a great weekend.

No reflection on the extremely well organised festival.

No reflection on the extremely well organised festival.

image_pdfimage_print