On 9th September 2021 I set off on the biggest, and toughest, cycling adventure I’ve ever undertaken. My plan was to cycle 1,500 miles across the UK over five weeks, with a route planned around where friends live. I was to cycle solo, with everything I needed packed in two panniers.
What inspired this madness? The pandemic and its lockdowns had made me more aware of the value of spending time with family and friends, and I had also been reflecting on all the friends I was connected with via social media but hadn’t actually seen in person for years, or even decades. Then in August 2021 I left the job I loved as a result of redundancy. Having worked over 30 years it felt like the time to finally have the gap year I’d never taken, and mark this new chapter in my life with an incredible adventure.
So, these things came together in my head, and my Freedom & Friends cycle tour was born.
Oh my goodness, the planning! I love to organise, but this was on another level. Having never cycle-toured self-supported before I had a lot of research to do. Fortunately there’s lots of great advice out there. I discovered Komoot, a super route planning app. It uses much of the national cycle network, and quieter roads. Packing was another challenge, as well as the best kit to use. How many sets of cycle kit? What maintenance tools? How can I minimise toiletries? (The answer was one bar of tea tree soap which washed face, hair, body and clothes). Hours of reading, online research, contacting friends, planning routes and accommodation. Then finally a massive spreadsheet with everything planned.
I bought new panniers, got my bike serviced and was ready to go.
My route took me out of London through Greenwich, into Kent. The first day was, in all honesty, too long (62 miles) and too hilly. My training had focussed on increasing mileage, but not enough on cycling with 15kg panniers. I used to commute to work with panniers, but was unprepared for how tough climbing hills is with the extra weight. It’s also difficult to manoeuvre the bike. At Greenwich I bought a take-out cappuccino (my daily morning treat when I could find one) and soon discovered I could not hold a cappuccino in my left hand and push my laden bike with my right hand - my bike toppled underneath me and I brought the traffic to a standstill as I juggled bike and cappuccino - not an auspicious start only 10 miles from home!
I was so relieved to complete my first day. I’d been incredibly anxious before setting off, with lots of tears and serious self-doubt about my ability and whether I should even be doing it. By the end of the day I was exhausted but adrenaline was coursing through my veins and a good night’s sleep eluded me. It took me about a week to really settle in to a routine so that I could properly rest.
My first week was along the south coast and Isle of Wight and it was truly joyous cycling. I was blessed with the most incredible Indian summer. Some of the scenery quite literally took my breath away. There’s no feeling like grinding and grimacing up a climb, to then have a view of the coast open up in front of you at the summit, to freewheel down, drinking in the view and feeling utterly alive. Such moments brought me to tears and my sense of gratitude was overwhelming. Part of my motivation to undertake this tour was to take time to process the changes of the last few years. I was treated for breast cancer four years ago, my dad died two years ago, then I lost my job this year (not to mention a global pandemic too). The tour was to provide the catharsis I needed, not just because of the physical and mental challenge, but also meeting with my beloved friends.
There were also awful days - only a few, but days and moments when I wanted to chuck my bike in a ditch. The weather was shocking at points and I had one day (Devon to Somerset) when I have never been so wet in my life. Torrential rain. You know when your chamois is soaked and your overshoes have been defeated? Thank goodness my jacket was truly waterproof. So there I was huddled in a bus shelter eating my squashed cheese sandwich lunch, shaking from cold and wet, knowing I still had 27 of the day’s 62 miles to cycle. I was bloody miserable. But I dug deep, pushed on and I did it. My friend that evening greeted me with two towels at her doorstep. I was sodden. A warm welcome, hot shower and cuppa have never felt so good.
I’ve reflected there were three sorts of days on this tour. Most were average days - the weather would be pleasant, the scenery interesting, drivers considerate, a nice coffee stop, the cycling a challenge but doable.
Then there were the days that blew me away with bucolic scenery and a fabulous route I’d happily cycle again. Such days had me smiling from ear to ear - Jurassic coast and Northumberland both come to mind. I also felt disbelief when I arrived at the Devon border, and then Scotland “really, I’ve just cycled by myself with 15kg panniers to Scotland?!” These were my happiest days.
The third sort were the toughest days. The weather was bad, or the cycling/scenery boring (how I hate a headwind, I will now avoid cycling through marshlands!) or the cycling was incredibly tough. And whilst these days did not make me happy, the sense of achievement was wonderful, making them just as memorable.
My friends were without fail amazing. Their generosity and hospitality humbled me. Wherever I stayed I was offered a hot bath or shower, a delicious dinner and breakfast, loaded up with snacks for the bike, my washing was done, I was given a dreamy bed for the night, and of course wonderful company.
For instance, one school friend (we hadn’t seen each other in 33 years) met me at the Angel Of The North. In her car she had deckchairs for us, a fleece to keep me warm, a flask of tea and an M&S lemon drizzle cake to fuel me on my way.
Such meet ups were a huge factor in my motivation to keep going through the darkest moments.
Seeing Britain from a bike, on quiet roads, felt like such a privilege. I have a very London-centric view of the world, so it was good to immerse myself in life outside London - the scenery, the people, the food, the history. All the strangers I met were curious, encouraging and often concerned for my safety. It made me wonder how many people don’t cycle because they’re fearful of the perceived dangers. Hopefully some of them will have been encouraged by my enthusiasm and reassurances to get out and ride.
Physically I changed and learnt more about my body. What I didn’t get right was having enough rest days - I pushed myself too hard at times.
Getting fueling right was critical and I settled into four meals a day, with on bike snacks. I don’t like gels so I always eat real food. Electrolyte tablets were needed - it’s amazing how much fluid, and hence salts, you lose when you’re cycling hard everyday. Despite eating huge amounts of carbs I lost weight and gained stronger legs and glutes. By the end I was actually tired of cakes, bread, pasta, quiches and craved huge plates of vegetables.
My respect for my body increased even more. When I finished I was probably the fittest I’ve been in my adult life - not bad at 52, or for someone who was always last to be picked for any school sports’ team. It’s one of the reasons I love cycling. I’m not fast, not naturally talented, but it doesn’t matter. Just being on my bike and turning the pedals makes me stronger and happier. And I’m a firm believer that our minds will often want us to give up before our bodies do - it’s amazing what we can achieve with a little grit and bloody mindedness.
And look where cycling has taken me. I’m still in shock that I’ve completed the tour. But I’m also thinking about where I’ll go next…