Five things cycling around Britain taught me
It’s possible to cycle round the world. I haven’t done it myself, but I know plenty of people who have (including Al Humphreys, whose map this is). The world might seem impossibly huge – but keep the pedals turning and the miles soon pass. It’s true of any distance – my biggest bike ride do date has been 4000 miles around the coast of the UK. On day one, it seemed an insurmountable, impossible distance, but day by day the miles accrued and soon I was into the thousands. I recently cycled 60 miles to Brighton with a friend – she was worried she wouldn’t make it because it was further than she’d ever cycled. But as we descended the final hill she was smiling widely and said, “Now I’ve cycled here I can cycle anywhere!” Approaching any task is just like cycling – take it one step at a time and eventually you will get there.
I moaned a lot about the weather on my round-Britain trip: It’s too cold / it’s too wet / it’s too windy. None of those things would change. The only thing that could change was my outlook, and only once I had stopped moaning could I deal with it. All I needed were appropriate clothes to keep me dry and an acceptance that the wind would make me go slower than expected, so I needed to throw my timetable out of the window. Once I did that I could relax and enjoy it. Though it being Britain, I never once complained about it being too hot!
Mileage was also a distraction: at one point I passed a sign for the next town which read 8 miles, and the next said 10. I almost cried – 10 when I thought it was 8?! Then I realised that the distance to the next town was the distance to the next town, whatever the sign said, and it would take as long as it took, and I calmed down and started to enjoy the journey rather than focus purely on the destination.
I’m a plan kind of girl, and for my circumnavigation I route-planned to a T. Sometimes I couldn’t go the way I wanted, and it took a lot of courage to let go of my carefully-laid plans and plunge into the unknown. But had I taken the route I’d intended, the ride itself would have been wildly different: I would not have seen what I saw, would not have met the people I met, would not have the memories I had. Each path taken led to the next path – whether I knew it or not. So it is with life. The decisions we make can change the path of our lives massively, and each decision influences the next.
When we take on any challenge we pace ourselves so by the time we reach the end point we have used up all our energy. So it is easy to assume that, on reaching the end point, you couldn’t possibly have gone any further. But distance is psychological; you go as far as you’ve set yourself up to go. When I reached John o’ Groats on my round-Britain trip I had cycled over 1000 miles, and I wasn’t remotely tired. I was less than halfway there, and this was simply one more day in my long bike ride. Yet everyone I met there was at the very end of their stamina – this is the end of the famous Land’s End to John o’ Groats challenge that takes cyclists from the bottom left hand corner of Britain to the top right. The people I met had cycled a shorter distance and spent less time on the road than me, and were absolutely exhausted. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t cycle 4000 miles if they tried. They just weren’t expecting to.
I have never been an ‘athlete’ – I was quite good at school sports but never excelled at anything. I don’t have the build of an athlete nor the drive to become one. But anyone who cycles 4000 miles by themselves is strong. Perhaps not in the conventional sense, but there are many types of strength: not only muscular strength, but also mental strength and tenacity, and while none of these are things I thought I had before, I realised I do have them simply by virtue of doing what I did. Doing something every day for 72 days makes you very good at it! I returned wonderfully muscular – which didn’t last long, but at least I experienced it! And when the physical strength faded, I could still do things that should be beyond me, simply because I told myself I could.