Seeing Mark Beaumont’s ‘Around the world in 80 days’ tour last night, I was interested to hear him talking about the context for him cycling and why he does what he does. Much of what he talked about gelled with me – a lack of interest in racing someone else on his shoulder, but more a pursuit of finding his limit, the point where he’d laid it all out and couldn’t give any more. It got me thinking about my own journey and in the lead up to my next challenge, why I do these things solo and whether that actually matters.
Whether you cycle as a commuter, a sportive rider, a TT racer or an ultra-endurance cyclist – you will, inevitably, saddle up and head out alone at some point. Some of us prefer riding alone, some prefer the chain gang and some sit somewhere in between and that is the beauty of cycling, that you can just get on your bike and ride it.
I’ve cycled some amazing challenges in what has been a relatively short cycling career – since 2017 I’ve cycled from John O’Groats to Land’s End in 9 days, I’ve cycled the 400 miles from Dover to St Austell in 2 days and last year I cycled the National Three Peaks in 3 days. However for all that distance, I can count on one hand the number of social rides I’ve been on, I’ve got zero Sportives or TT races to my name, all of this despite living in an area where there are a proliferation of cycling clubs and cycling events.
So, why cycle (and run for that matter) alone?
My Miles for Wishes journey started as a way to better manage my mental and physical health, for two reasons really. Firstly, I wanted to make sure that after my marriage broke down I didn’t simply sit at home moping or worse, drinking. Secondly, I wanted something that would give my life a focus and meaning and an outlet to work through the stresses of the day, or life in general.
Riding solo has fast become my time to do that, its time away from the real world. Cycling on your own for 10 hours or more leaves plenty of opportunity for you to lose yourself in your thoughts. Although, you might see this as both being a positive and a negative factor.
First the positive – The ability and the time to self-reflect is signiﬁcant and it matters. At the end of my JOGLE challenge I was cycling in tears, 9 days alone contemplating all the feelings of guilt about my marriage and my children came out. It was a cathartic. I unleased some of the anger and frustration through each pedal stroke and the time allowed me to let go of some of those feelings and accept that maybe, just maybe, I am and can be good enough.
I’m not sure I ever really switch off but cycling allows a different bit of my brain to fire better, so when I’m not working through my issues the journey breeds creativity. As the miles tick by the creativity ﬂows and thoughts of new challenges and adventures are created. Despite what my parents will tell you, I think this has to be a good thing.
Of course it’s not all positive, the ability to suffer is a huge part of any endurance sport. For me it starts on that section after the excitement of setting off has dissipated, when you’ve settled in to the long run and things are starting to really hurt. Whether you’re on a bike or on your feet, it’s that the same mental battle, the inevitable creep of those negative thoughts that make you want to stop because it’s just too hard or because your brain is simply saying “what the hell are you doing?!” These are dark thoughts, bred in the hurt locker, are enough to grind you down – I’ve stopped on a number of occasions and led down in fields or on roadsides wishing it to end.
Sounds crazy doesn’t it – to put yourself in place where you are in so much pain. But, for me this is often one of the most appealing parts of this journey. A moment sat on a knife edge, gold on one side, dull on the other. It is a battle only with yourself in order to see what the mind can overcome – a search for your own limits. Mark Beaumont wasn’t the first person to speak about this. I’ve been lucky enough to meet Peter and David Ford, in 1981 the brothers were part of a 5 man team who set the current record for relay running the National Three Peaks, I asked Peter recently if there was anything he wished he’d done (in respect to races and challenges). His answer was dangerously simply “If I think about it, it’s not an event but I don’t think I ever really found my limit.”
I’ve got a full time job, kids and a girlfriend and life, therefore, quickly becomes a precarious juggling act.
Training time is therefore condensed in to small windows of opportunity and my commitments mean that I can’t always make social or group rides. Similarly, when you’ve got a structured training programme to work to, it’s hard to do that with others, for fear of dropping them or leaving them to complete specific intervals.
My long rides and challenges are something that are a challenge to me – I set the pace, the distance, the way points and toilet stops and when I, ultimately, call it a day. I really like that freedom and again I’m not sure I’m ready to give that up yet!
Fear of missing out (or FOMO) – so despite all the things I love about cycling alone, there are some things that I think I’m probably missing out on.
When cycling solo conversations tend to be when you break for food or arrive at pubs and hotels at the end of the day. In my experience these tend to be pretty formulaic conversations, where talking to people becomes a script against very similar questions. I’m not moaning, because I am always grateful people are interested and that I can have the opportunity to talk about the challenges and my WHY, in fundraising for Make-A-Wish UK. Indeed, part of the fun of the conversation is the reaction to what you are doing – mind you nothing gets a reaction like running though Birmingham dressed as Batman.
However, this is one of things I am envious of with the group and club rides. Riding solo is lonely and its almost inevitable for this to affect you mentally. Never more true when you get those tough sections, when your deep in the hurt locker, when your tired and hungry and you’re riding into a never ending headwind. When solo, there’s no one there to help push you along, to lift the spirits or to crack a joke about how shit this really is or how stupid you both are. It’s probably deeper than just conversation though, it’s the camaraderie of a group ride, being in that moment together.
Without the group or a team around you, memories become very similar to the conversations – its all a bit one sided. I’ve seen some amazing places on my bike, even at speed your tuned in to your environment and you see so much more than you ever could in the car. Still, recounting your tales of daring deeds, near misses and amazing places can seem a little less impressive when the people you’re telling weren’t there.
For example – I ended up cycling down a Scottish lane with a herd of sheep, they had nowhere to escape so I was cycling slowly behind them. It was hilarious – I was there behind them shouting “Hey you guys…” (a Goonies reference) – until they went back in to a field via an open gate, they’d presumably where they’d got out from. It’s funny to me and a nice little memory, but its lost on everyone else (even writing it its not funny).
Does a group make you a better cyclist?
To echo a question raise by Ryan, of Recycle Yourself fame, would riding in a group make me a better, faster rider? This I’m not sure, clearly there is the team pulling, riding on someones wheel and benefiting from the draft. But then your always going the speed of the group – my lack of group rides doesn’t help me balance the argument here.
For me, it ends with the challenge
Ultimately I just like the solo, unsupported challenges. I think it makes the planning and logistics more interesting. Importantly success, and therefore failure, rests on my shoulders alone. I don’t need to trust anyone else and therefore I only have myself to blame.
Last year I set out on two different challenges, both ended very differently;
In June I cycled the National Three Peaks solo in 3 days, averaging 150 miles and a mountain a day – coming down from Ben Nevis southward. The success of the challenge was only heightened by how it finished – sat at the summit of Snowdon watching the most beautiful sunset – a moment and a feeling that I am unsure can ever be repeated, it was pretty perfect.
Just 3 months later, the next challenge ended with a whole lot less glory, as a cycled down Parisian back streets sweating profusely and vomiting what little breakfast I’d eaten. I had set out to ride 1000 miles across 5 European Cities in 5 days, but stopped in Paris after nearly 300 miles of cycling. I was under fuelled, I was suffering from a stomach bug and I just couldn’t go on, I had nothing left. I made the sensible decision to end in Paris – the lack of planning, a foreign country and bad luck all showed up.
Very different challenges and very different ends. It can’t all be about success, but ultimately until I learn to trust others with my dreams I’ll carry on searching for my own limits, in my own way. Just a final word, on the 80 days talk – Mark Beaumont’s around the world record took 3 years of planning, everything that could be worked out was before the pedals were even turned. This lesson is so important and something I left Paris determined to get better at.
I’m not sure it matters how you ride your bike, what is important it that you ride it at all and hopefully you do so with a smile on your face!