Monday, 17 October 2011

How I deliberately cycled 35 miles

Exactly one year ago, when the Crew Chief was away for the weekend, I packed a rucksack and fairly spontaneously ran 18 miles along theWater of Leith on my own. I don’t know where this impulse comes from, but when left to my own devices I seem to get an uncontrollable urge to go on some sort of self-supported adventure. Perhaps it’s because the Chief would point out the obvious flaws in my (lack of) planning. Or maybe just that I’d rather spend my free days with her when I can.

Whatever it is, it’s happened again.

This time there was slightly more planning, mostly because I recruited another person to join me on my frivolous jaunt – Will Wright. If Will had been born in the early eighteenth century, he would have been some sort of swashbuckling pioneer, discovering new lands and claiming them for floppy-haired Welshmen everywhere. Since he was born in the late eighties he has to make do with a lot of travel, mad business ventures and cycling all over the place instead. I also needed to make more of an equipment plan, as this was to be a cycling adventure. Since I know nothing about bike maintenance I ended up spending eleventy billion pounds getting my bike serviced before daring to use it over a significant distance. So slightly more planning, yes. But not much.

Having never cycled more than about 10 miles in one go, I didn’t really have a frame of reference about what was achievable. So instead we picked a route, the towpath that runs alongside the Union Canal, and a vague destination, the extraordinary Falkirk Wheel, planning to get the train home afterwards. The canal runs all the way from Edinburgh to Glasgow, and Falkirk is a little under two-thirds between the two. 

Ready for the off.
And so it was that at precisely 10.38 a.m. on Sunday that Will and I set off – the pedals on his mountain bike held together with duct tape and the narrow, brand new tyres on my hybrid entirely inappropriate for the varied terrain ahead. We cycled the early miles through the heavily-populated part of the canal’s path, where cheerful barges share the canal with rowers and kayakers, calm suburban gardens back onto the water and almost everyone seems to be walking a small white terrier. There was very little chance to pick up any speed, as this carefully-maintained part of the route is neatly tarmaced and often crowded with walkers, runners, cyclists and children. But no matter – it’s a lovely place to be. Once we had crossed the aqueduct over the Edinburgh bypass, we were deposited into beautiful green countryside. We were making good time and enjoying the freedom of a day on the bike, by and large, and I was waiting for some tiredness to kick in so I could get on with the ensuing endorphin surge.

We managed a little over six miles before needing a pit stop, when Will had to remove his rear mudguard to stop it angrily rubbing against the back tyre. Will is the kind of person who never goes anywhere without an adjustable spanner, a multi-tool and a roll of duct tape. He is a useful person to have around if things move when they shouldn't or don’t when they should. Five minutes later we were back on the trail, speeding though countryside.

Then more countryside.

And some more countryside.

Then, suddenly, even more countryside.

In fact, 15 miles in, we were getting a little bit bored of countryside. With the canal always on our left, a quickly-deteriorating trail under our wheels and fields spread out everywhere else, the view was beautiful but monotonous. Those few landmarks that did pop up quickly receded into the distance, leaving us to continue contemplating the fields. The trail was becoming an issue too. Perhaps when it was built by some bearded Victorians it was carefully laid down and relatively smooth, but in 2011 the majority of the path is either hard earth or broken stones, which my unforgiving tyres juddered over for miles on end. My hands slowly shook to pieces as the handlebars vibrated viciously in my grip. As I watched Will sail off into the distance, smoothly riding his mountain bike on chunky fat tyres, I conceded that I had brought the wrong tool for the job...

Two hours after setting off we arrived in Linlithgow, our nominally-designated lunch stop, and cycled into town in search of sustenance. We had covered just over 21 miles. I was utterly starving and starting to tire, with sore knees and a few other niggling complaints. Weirdly, I seem to have missed out on the endorphin surge that I would have expected from two hours of non-stop exercise. Maybe I was doing it wrong, but I know for certain that after running for two hours I am always exhausted and elated – two hours into our bike ride I was just exhausted.

After lunch, the trail got worse. Large muddy patches posed a serious skidding risk, as I frequently lost what little traction I had. In places we were cycling on what looked like a thin forest track, very far removed from the smooth, broad path we started the morning on. Weaving around puddles was turning into a dangerous activity too, as we swerved pointlessly away from the mud and water. We ended up covered in a thin layer of mud and Will’s lack of a rear mudguard made a predictable mess of his back and trousers. 

But as it deteriorated the route was getting more interesting. At one point we cycled through the most extraordinary tunnel, probably a mile long and bored directly through an enormous hill. The roof of the tunnel was lit up every 20 metres or so, showing the rough rock edges and giving the impression of some sort of underground boat ride at Disneyland, looking almost too spooky to be real. All we could do was focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, as in places it was so dark that when I looked down I lost my balance, unable to distinguish between the wall, the ground and my wheels. Veering off course here would have ended very badly indeed – specifically, in the canal, in the dark, with a bike.

The miles kept ticking along, albeit rather slower than they had earlier. We were both pretty tired, and happy to bimble along side-by-side where the path allowed, discussing the monotony of the landscape and generally putting the world to rights. Just a mile and  a half from Falkirk, Will’s duct-taped pedal finally snapped in two and he made the rest of the journey with his foot resting on its broken shaft. Closing in on the last mile we passed a lock, the first we had seen after the miles and miles of perfectly flat water, and suddenly we were cycling along a heavily developed section of canal, including going through a modern concrete (and mercifully well lit) tunnel. As we broached daylight at the end, the Falkirk Wheel popped up in front of us, an impressive and very welcome sight.

Mission accomplished. And before you shout at me, I took my helmet off for this photo.
Otherwise I wore it all day, promise.
We had a very brief look around (disappointed not to see the wheel in action) and then meandered into Falkirk in search of the train station. After having cycled over 35 miles and spending most of the day travelling under my own steam, it was quite depressing to find that my train fare home was less than £4, for a journey of just 25 minutes. Such is life.

I have concluded a few things from this cycling initiative. First, that cycling is much more efficient than running. If I was even capable of doing it, a 35 mile run would probably take me between five and six hours, and I would be struggling to walk for weeks afterwards. On the bike it took us less than 3 ½ at a leisurely, comfortable pace. Second, that my bike is really not suitable for all terrains. Third, and probably most importantly, I’ve concluded what I long suspected: that cycling, for me, lacks the magic that makes it so hard to explain the appeal of running. Cycling feels like a means to an end – just a way to get from A to B. Running isn’t about A or B, it’s about the journey. If I had run 35 miles yesterday I know I would have finished the trip forever changed by the experience. Instead I’ve just got some mud on my trainers and had a nice day out. Cycling lacks the magic.

Unless, of course, I just didn't cycle far enough...

Happy locomotion


2011 to date: miles: 1020.62, parkruns: 6, races: 6, miles biked: 155, metres swum: 1225

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