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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.

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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.

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.

Back in the saddle

So we are off to the very first Cycle Touring Festival to be held in Britain, if not the world. No doubt it will be full of all the geeky nerdiness that is inevitable when a couple of hundred like-minded enthusiasts get together. I don’t suppose it matters whether it’s model trains, VW campers or steam engines, all these gatherings are much the same. If you aren’t at least a bit fanatical about whatever the theme is, it is probably better to stay away.

There will be much earnest discussion about tents, stoves, bicycles and far flung destinations whilst tales of past adventures will no doubt get taller as the weekend goes on and the beer tent gets busier.

Checking the tent in the garden

Checking the tent in the garden

For Gill and I it will be a very special weekend. The first time back on our bikes with all our kit since we returned from ‘the big one’ last year. Just printing off the packing list sent a shiver down my spine and now that everything is loaded into the panniers I can’t wait to get on the road. In many ways this trip will be the antithesis of last year’s. Thirty miles each way and virtually no route planning or discovering new roads as the venue is practically in our back yard. None of this matters though because we will no doubt be riding back down memory lane for much of the four days. It’s going to be great to catch up with old friends, some of whom we met on lasts year’s trip, and to meet some of the fellow tourers and bloggers that I have been sharing vicarious journeys with over the last few years.

Chaos before packing

Chaos before packing

Settling back down into any kind of normal life has proved ridiculously hard but we might be getting there. I suppose the point is that we didn’t really want to settle down to ‘normal’ again at all so finding an alternative way of making a living has proved extremely hard. I’m thrilled to say that I have achieved that as a fund raiser for the charity, Canal and River Trust.

Another day in the office for me

Another day in the office for me

Gill is going to give care work a try once more and most importantly, we will both be working just two or three days a week. Lots of time for mini adventures and day dreaming of bigger trips in the future. Which right now is looking pretty rosy. We just need to hang on to a bit of reality over the next few days as we are going to be surrounded by people enthusing about their latest or imminent adventures whilst we have to be patient and refill the bank account. Dream on.

Living with potatoes

I have decided that hills are better than flatlands for cycling and potatoes are boring but sometimes have to be endured.

I obviously have too much time on my hands at the moment. Gill has found a job and is out all day and I haven’t and I am at home. The days are long and it’s a challenge to spend eight straight hours looking for work. My thoughts turn to this time last year and I find myself recalling a blog I wrote about signs of spring. It was one of the most popular pre-tour pieces I published and it drew analogies between the life cycle of leaves on a tree and our forth coming journey. There was talk of the leaves nourishing the tree long after they had withered and fallen to the ground and our adventure nourishing us long after our return.

Signs of spring

Signs of spring

The final sentence however came as a crushing blow to my negative frame of mind. It read simply;“Who knows what we might be planning then?”

I am sad to say that then is now, and we find ourselves planning very little. In fact the situation I am in is almost identical to that of this time last year, but without the prospect of the most exciting trip of my life to look forward to. I feel as if our life changing journey has achieved nothing more than to provide me with some nice memories for my old age. Surely I must have learned something from it.

Time to go for a walk and do some soul searching.

As I walked I found myself thinking about a part of the trip when we were cycling through Lincolnshire. The roads were flat and rather boring and the scenery was potatoes. (I may have just used potatoes as an adjective but humour me for a moment). On both sides of the road were acres and acres of potatoes. Endless symmetrical rows just coming into flower. I recalled very clearly that all the flowers on one side of the road were white and on the other side they were pink. That’s about as exciting as it got.

There are lots of potatoes in Lincolnshire.

There are lots of potatoes in Lincolnshire.

At times like this it’s easy to become focused on negatives. You start to notice that your backside is uncomfortable, your wrists ache and you fancy a pint but it isn’t in the budget.  I even asked myself what on earth we were doing. What was the point of this trip? I found myself desperately trying to think of anything interesting to prick the boredom bubble. Aren’t potatoes related to tomatoes in some way? I’m sure I read that somewhere. And are the leaves poisonous or did I dream that? The sameness of the situation grinds you down. In this kind of terrain your eye is often drawn to the horizon, desperately searching for change. Anything to confirm that the whole world isn’t really made of potatoes. It may come in the form of a church steeple or the silhouette of woodlands on the skyline. These things give you hope but what you are really looking for is hills. Hills mean change. Hills mean variety and entertainment and a chance to stand on the pedals and relieve that aching bum.

Those hills or mountains will come of course. The land is never flat forever and no matter how far away they might be, you know they will appear eventually. When they do finally interrupt the flat, boring horizon you are presented with a choice. You can rejoice in the prospect of more interesting scenery or you can focus on how far away they are and how much longer you are going to have to put up with this drudgery. That is when I realised that I had learned something useful from what we did. Today’s lesson: Don’t focus on how far way the mountains are but on how spectacular they look and what fun you will have when you reach them. I became aware that I am sitting at home thinking about how many more fields of potatoes I will have to endure before I get to the mountains.

It also forced me to acknowledge that there are quite a few church steeples and woodlands on the horizon to focus on while I am waiting. I have an interview tomorrow and other work related irons in the fire. Further ahead there is the Cycle Touring Festival in Clitheroe to look forward to in May and beyond that who knows what metaphorical mountains we might climb.

I feel much more positive after that and now I am going to get the tea ready. Now what did I say we would have tonight? Oh yes, I remember. I’d better go and peel some potatoes.