Friday, February 15, 2008

Life at 9mph

On the morning of Saturday 9th February at 07:45 I left my house with my bicycle and heavy rucksack towards the train station to meet with Joe and Tim. I was feeling excited and happy to be beginning my first real adventure, the first of many I'm now sure.

The night before I had been packing my bag and trying to be ruthless with what I should take with me since I had limited space and I would need to carry everything on my back the whole way. Maybe I should have bought some panniers to carry some of the weight but it was too late. I only packed 2 pairs of socks, one spare jumper and a couple of pairs of underwear. Those and a set of waterproofs should be all I need in terms of clothes and besides, the weather was supposed to be good so hopefully I would stay dry.

Around 08:00 I met the other guys at the train station and we were all excited yet a little apprehensive about what lay ahead, none of us had ever attempted anything like this before. Our goal was to cover 75-80 miles both today (128km) and tomorrow, climb the second highest mountain the UK on day three and cycle home over the next two days.

The ride started out great with the sun heating up as we progressed and the roads stayed fairly flat, giving us plenty of confidence and energy. Shortly after, as we reached the 10 mile marker, we had our first technical problem when my back tyre was pierced and we spent a little time at the side of the road changing the inner tube for one of our spares. Here, a really nice guy stopped his car and offered to help us since he could sympathise with our bike problems after cycling all around the UK for years. He told us a few stories, wished us luck and went on his way. It was a unique and unexpected moment, his generosity surprised us all. We never did catch your name but thank you for stopping and offering to help.

Our plan from that moment on was to replace all of the inner tubes if/when they broke with our spares, then repair the broken ones at night when we set up camp. This would keep us moving forwards and save us time. It was a good plan but in practice it proved to be futile.

We were making good time and were moving forward at a good pace but I was finding the riding particularly hard and I didn't know why. I thought I should be fit and strong enough to at least complete the first day without any trouble but on the uphill sections I was really struggling. It wasn't until day 2 that I realised I had cycled the first 40 miles with my front brake half on! Halfords, having made the stupid mistake of actually selling my bicycle to another customer, had to build another one for me whilst I waited and they obviously didn't do a thorough service and check of my new bike. In their hurry they didn't set up the brakes properly and all this way I had been cycling against the friction of having my front brake rubbing on the rims. Since I wasn't an experienced cyclist I just thought this was how it was supposed to be and kept going as best I could.
By day 2 my gears had also shown signs of a poor setup and from this point on I was also reduced to 4 reliable gears, the others would make the chain grind and jump around... not great considering the hills we would soon face.

It wasn't long before we reached Penkridge - about 40 miles from Hinckley, where we left that morning. It was around 12pm by this time and we were feeling good when we faced our second punture. If you had told me we would also be repairing our 13th puncture here in Penkridge I would have laughed at you, but you would have been correct.

Joe had 3 punctures in the space of 10 minutes or less. This was pretty funny and we were laughing about it but just after we fixed those, we carried on down a country lane where some fallen stealth branches leapt out of nowhere and destroyed our morale and inner tubes yet again! Unbelievable.

By the time we found all of the holes and repaired them it was late afternoon and we hadn't had much experience setting up our tents and equipment before, so we decided we should make camp here, fix all of the punctures properly and get some food. We soon found some woods in a nearby field and thought it would make a great place to camp for the first night. It took us an hour or so to set up camp and build a small fire to keep us warm later on.

^The woods we spent the first night camping in.

Joe and I headed out for supplies whilst Tim stayed to watch the tents. We headed out and walked to the nearby village where we were told there was a garage 200 yards down the road, great news. 4-5 miles later, after more terrible advice and directions from locals, 2 cyclists who ignored us, a van that also completely underestimated the distance and even a police car ignoring us as we tried to ask him for advice - we finally came across a little shopping area with a garage, a Somerfield, a chip shop and everything else we could possibly want. We stocked up and after cycling all day then walking all this way, we were really tired and decided to get a taxi back to the field we were camping in. Nobody seemed to know any local taxi numbers but finally a really kind and generous lady offered to drive us to the town centre where we found a taxi firm and another chip shop. Here we bought fish and chips and then took a taxi back to our field. It was really funny to see the driver's reaction when we told him to stop in the middle of nowhere and as he watched us disappear in to a big field with purpose, he must have been wondering where the hell we were going.

When we returned to the woods we started the fire and ate our food which tasted so good! We used some water to look for bubbles in our inner tubes and after an hour or so we thought we had fixed them all, little did we know the next morning would bring yet more repair work.

We woke up early and packed up before realising our tyres were still flat and it was only then we realised my front brake had been on this whole way. Failing to fix it we just disabled it altogether. A couple of hours later and we just couldn't understand why our inner tubes would seem to be fixed then miraculously go down again just moments after we put them back in our tyres. It turned out there was the smallest thorn buried in the tyre wall that would pierce the tube every time we pumped it up to a certain pressure! When we finally got rid of this everything was fine and we got back on the road - but it was about 1pm by this time and we were still only 40 miles from home, already beginning day 2 where we were scheduled to hit the 150 mile mark that night.

13 punctures in one day!!!

We cycled as hard as we could but with only 4 hours of daylight and lots of uphill sections, we only managed to cover another 35-40 miles. We had covered in two days, what we had planned to cover in one. Not a great start.

That night we stocked up on food again and camped in a huge farmers field where we found more woods and set up the tents there. We failed to keep the fire alive thanks to all of the damp wood but just running around trying kept us warm enough and passed some time. I managed to zap myself on an electric fence designed to keep sheep out of the woods, much to the amusement of Joe. The previous night Joe and I had slept in my two-man tent and Tim had slept with all of the bags and equipment in the 3 man tent but tonight we tried two men in the bigger tent so Tim had some additional body heat to keep him warm.
So I was alone in my tent that night and it was absolutely freezing. I had all my clothes on, my hat and my sleeping bag zipped right up but the cold stopped me from getting much sleep. Every time I did manage to sleep I had the weirdest dreams that were really happy and colourful... it was a very long and strange night.

The next morning day three began well. We packed up and got back on the road determined to make it to Llanberis, which according to my map was about 65 miles away. We faced some monster hills today and when we reached the tops hoping for an fair downhill segment, we were simply faced with a long slightly uphill slope that forced us to keep peddling or face rolling backwards. It's surprising how much this takes out of you and I just tried to look down and push one leg forward, then the other and try not to think about it too much.

Entering Wales gave us a lot of hope as it was the first time any of us had ever travelled to another country entirely by our own power and effort. As soon as we got in to Wales we noticed sheep everywhere and began to be followed by fighter jets overhead flying around for training purposes. It was funny to see people moving so quickly overhead whilst we moved forward so slowly up these hills.

Tired, smelly, hungry and thirsty we hit the 40 mile mark and seemed to have been riding uphill the whole time. We stopped in a little town and stocked up yet again on food and gorged ourselves. I asked a really nice old guy who was on his way home from the pub if there were any public toilets nearby and he laughed, informing us there was not, but he then told us to, "Go to the pub and tell Mia that Richie said we could use their toilet!" Soon after he left laughing to himself and saying he would invite us to use his toilet but he lived too far away.

We headed down to the pub but didn't find a Mia working there, we just used their toilet anyway then got back on the road thinking we had only another 25 miles to travel. Since we were really sore and tired we decided to walk up any big hills we faced and ride the flatter sections. Many hours later we were cycling in pitch darkness along A-roads and the stars gave us so much hope and energy. Thinking we should fall on Llanberis very soon, we stopped at a late-night shop for more food and were devastated to hear my map was misleading and that we were still another 45 miles from Llanberis! Our morale and hope of completing the trip in the original time was shot to pieces and we were stunned to silence for a few moments before deciding to just keep pushing forwards in to the darkness and see what we could do.

That night we covered another 10-15 miles through complete darkness, with more punctures, my back brake failing completely and the cold biting at our faces. Finally we came to a halt having cycled for 11 hours with only 1 proper break for lunch. We were about to set up in a field when I shined my torch in to the corner and saw 50 little eyes staring back at us! The sheep looked like possessed dogs ready to devour our kneecaps and bikes. We moved to another field and set up as quickly as possible, using my tent for the supplies and bundling in to the bigger tent to share body heat. We were all completely exhausted and although we hadn't made it to Llanberis we were proud of our achievement that day.

Day 4 was a slow start, we were all tired and sore from our cycling but knew for sure this time we only had around 30 miles to cover. The day went well but we still had to face so many huge hills without any significant downhill stretches to rest. It was soon obvious that it was impossible to get home in time now so we decided we would still climb Snowdon but get a train home if possible.

^Snowdonia gradually coming in to view.

But half way through today's journey our luck changed when we came across the most incredible downhill stretch. It took us through a winding series of roads high up in the mountains and we zipped through the quiet roads with the trees and nature all around us. This downhill section seemed to last for ages and it was by far the most scenic and beautiful terrain we had met so far. Things were picking up!

At the bottom of this stretch we reached Betws-y-Coed and found a railway station where we would come back to after we climbed Snowdon. We had a brief rest here then began the last 17 miles of our journey to Llanberis. This was exclusively uphill yet again and took us a long time but we were happy in the knowledge it would be all downhill on the way back to the station. As we reached the last five miles or so we came across the road leading up to the Pen-y-Pass which is a long and winding road, uphill of course but by this time we didn't care. We just kept going and soaked in the inspiring views of Snowdonia, walking up the steep slope pushing our bikes. When we finally reached the top and arrived at the well-known Pen-y-Pass, we paused here for a moment to admire the summit of Snowdon, just visible over the mountains before continuing.

None of us were expecting the most ridiculous downhill section imaginable on the other side of the Pen-y-Pass. It was long and windy and such a relief, even after the slope finished the speed carried us in to Nant Peris and it wasn't long before we reached Llanberis, our final campsite due to its proximity to Snowdon and the Pen-y-Pass. Here we found a campsite near to the youth hostel and we should really have expected it to be at top of another long steep hill! Half way up the hill we met another local called Richie who was a drunken guy that lived in a caravan in the next field with his dog. He said he would go to the shop and get some beers and come and have a drink with us, we laughed it off and continued wondering if we would ever see him again.

After booking in for the night we set up our tents and sure enough, Richie soon kept his word and came up with beers, some cups and a torch/radio combo that he soon tuned in to Radio 1 and turned up loud.

Not wanting to offend him we spoke to him for a while whilst he tried to get us to 'rave' with him to radio 1, drink his beer and smoke with him! After we kindly refused all of the above, he sat down and fell straight in the pre-built fire in a drunken mess... thankfully we hadn't lit the fire yet but I had to help him get out and he soon went home. We never saw him again but I wish to thank him for making us all smile, we hope we didn't offend you by not accepting your gifts Richie!

^The final campsite.

We all slept well that night and the next morning we woke up early and headed in to Llanberis town centre to find a bus to the top of the hill we had rode down last night. At the top we walked over to the beginning of the Miner's path and decided we'd try the other first, the Pyg. This would give us the choice of tackling the toughest route on Snowdon, Crib Goch, should we feel capable.

The route started out easily enough and it's fairly well maintained. Despite cycling for 4 days we were overtaking most groups we met along the way which felt nice, all of our physical training seemed to help us to go on and on without too much trouble. About 40 minutes later it was decision time, either we continued on the Pyg track or we tackle the infamous Crib Goch.

In the end we chose the Crib Goch. It started off fairly simple but soon we were faced with steep climbing sections where slipping was just not an option and some proper climbing situations that were made harder with rucksacks and our depleted physical state. Nevertheless we pressed on again and again until we reached the first ridge.

^The group in front as we looked on at what was to come. The knife-edge ridge of Crib Goch is considered the hardest route to the Summit of Snowdon and I can fully appreciate why so many people need to be rescued and air-lifted off the mountain during these final stages.

^Another view of Crib Goch, I've highlighted the route we scrambled across to get to where I took the photo.

The ridge itself was quite dangerous. You need to scramble across the top of the ridge that is never more than a metre wide, often much less. Sometimes you find yourself using the top as a hand rail and looking for foot holds as you keep moving sideways, focusing on everything but the lethal drop either side of you. We had all experienced heights and moving at height before in Parkour training so this didn't phase us much at all, as long as our hands were firmly planted on a handhold then we knew we could hold on should our feet slip. After half an hour or so of moving across the long ridge we faced the first tower that was quite a challenging climb.

^Scaling this tricky rock tower with a massive drop just next to us proved one of the harder parts of the route. Failure was not an option and going back was out of the question. We just pressed on and kept going up, looking for hand holds and hoping they would hold - we had found plenty of loose rock sections so far.

Beyond the ridges and towers there were a few more tricky sections and steep or vertical climbs with big drops all around us, we had to stay fully focused and be careful as the wind sometimes picked up and threatened to pluck us off the mountain. Some of the sections had loose rocks and hand holds and at one stage a fairly large boulder began to slide as I passed it and I only just managed to get my foot around it to stop it dislodging completely and heading straight for Tim's head. A close call for sure.

Proud and happy that we'd conquered the hardest route on Snowdon we continued towards the summit. As we got close there were a lot of people all walking towards one of the highest places in the UK, second only to Ben Nevis in Scotland. It was strange to see everyone moving in the same direction towards a small stone compass in the distance on top of the peak.

^Hanging on to a rock face with the summit in the background.

The summit itself is special, on a clear day you can see England, Ireland and Scotland and today was a very clear and sunny day. For as far as the eye could see, everything was below us and we could even see a large portion of the route we had cycled to get to this point. It made it all worthwhile; all the uphill struggles, the punctures, the cold nights and the compromises. We had made it!

^Part of Crib Goch from the Summit.

^On top of the world!

The walk down from the top was long and hard as our quadriceps were really feeling the descent, trying to slow us down and stop us falling all the way down the Miner's track. A quarter of the way down we came across a stream running down the mountain face and filled out water bottles with the cleanest, clearest water I've ever tasted, it seemed so pure. We found the resting place of the stream near the bottom and it was a gorgeous blue-green coloured river surrounded by picturesque mountains and a view back up to the summit.

We pressed on and after another hour or so and we were back at Pen-y-Pass waiting for an hour for a bus that never came. Some other people had been waiting even longer and nobody knows what happened to the buses that night. Some kind driver stopped to offer some us a lift down to Llanberis and a guy who had been whining about the public transport and some woman who came past everyone shouting "I have a child!!" decided that gave her priority, and they got in the car. We were too tired to protest and didn't really mind. The woman later came back for two girls, an American and a Scot that we had been talking to and they promised to come back for us when they got their car! We were so grateful for that and after 20 minutes or so they kept their promise and showed up, giving us a lift down in to Llanberis.

That night I bought and ate an entire chicken and loads of snacks as we all tried to pack in the recovery food whilst we phoned every local taxi company in the yellow pages to try and get one to take 3 bikes and 3 people to Betws-y-Coed for 7am the next morning to catch the train. None of them were interested in running a minibus for that time so we were faced with getting up at 2am the next morning and cycling 17 miles to Betws-y-Coed.

After 5 hours of sleep we woke up and in the dark, disassembled our tents, packed up our gear and headed for the Llanberis pass through deserted streets and under the stars, it was eerily quiet. When we reached the pass itself there were no street lights and we were dwarved by the mountains all around us and feeling really insignificant under the beautiful stars. It was the last real test of the trip to get up the Llanberis pass, pushing our bikes with all our gear on our backs and fighting to put one foot in front of the other over and over. An hour and a half later we reached the top and had a 5 minute break before rolling down the long hill on the other side - which was interesting with a half-working brake - I'm just glad there was no traffic at the bottom as I veered on to the junction at 20mph with white knuckles trying to get the brake to work.

We spent the next hour flying down the hills in the darkness and really enjoying ourselves, reflecting and laughing about the 5 days behind us and lessons learned.

We arrived at the train station 30 minutes early and just tried to stay warm until the time came when our train should arrive - unfortunately it didn't. Faced with the thought of spending another day in Wales we were really disheartened and ready to collapse when we saw a light in the distance. It was the train! It was late and caused us to miss all our connecting trains but the main thing was we were sitting down and travelling towards home, it felt great.

We changed at Llandudno junction, then again at Chester, then Crewe, Birmingham and I left the guys at Nuneaton to catch a train to Hinckley as they continued on to Leicester.

^Tired and sore on the way home.

And so I arrived home around 1pm on Thursday 14th February. After 170 miles (273km) almost all of which was uphill, 18 hours, 9 minutes and 21 seconds of cycling, 5 nights camping under the stars, a maximum speed of 28mph and an average of around 9mph, I was at home and felt happy to have completed my first adventure but sad that it was over.

The trip was a real eye-opener and a taster in to a lifestyle I wish to live more of in the future; travelling and experiencing new things with friends, testing myself physically and mentally and seeing the world. I value greatly the ability to be self-sufficient and not only survive, but thrive in difficult conditions and situations. I learned a lot of useful things during this trip that will stay with me as I tackle future obstacles.

This was a just the beginning of my adventures and I proved to myself I could cope with this kind of thing. The most important result of this trip is that it has given me confidence and valuable experience for bigger and better things to come.

Thanks to Joe and Tim for coming with me and helping me laugh through the hard times, whilst giving me company to share the good times with. It would have been a lot harder without you guys.