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A peaceful retreat in Northern Ireland, 2012

It’s been a quiet week in Hatherleigh. Not because I have been quiet myself, but because the weather gods have finally decided to let the sun shine and temperatures rise. Last week was the first week since last years tour that I rode five days out of six. I wanted a barometer, something to gauge where I was and what would happen when I asked more than I usually dare in the winter months.

I alternated hard riding with gentle days, the easiest being the last. All week-long I felt strong and ready to gear up for a different challenge, a challenge that’s seeing me look hard at previous efforts and how to change the way I’m riding. This years projected ride is quite different. It’s the kind of ride that would suit a road bike and travelling with a credit card in your pocket. As I’m sure you are all aware, that isn’t the way I want to make my journeys. I prefer a slower pace  with time to absorb my surroundings and time to enjoy the places I stop overnight.

I can’t stop thinking about the sixty-six kilometres of vertical height gain that this route demands. I have to take that seriously, and prepare myself to spend most of everyday climbing. My last two journeys had a lot of climbing, but the length of these climbs and the altitude involved make them quite different.  Nothing to date comes close to what I will face this year in terms of endurance, so my training reflects that. It’s a strange coincidence that in my youth, Scotland was considered a training ground where a young climber would learn their trade in the mountains  before moving on to the greater ranges.

I’ve climbed many hills in Scotland now, and the challenge was as much as I could have endured at the  time. This ride will see me spending far more time climbing over passes than anything else, so it requires a different kind of approach. The limits of my ability to train are governed by my illness, and the last thing I want to do is push myself too hard in order to try to make big fitness gains. My riding has always been a balance of both working-out, and enjoying being out. Being mindful is more important to me than clocking miles, increasing thresholds, and building power/endurance, although I have to do some of that too.

I have little desire to regularly ride more than 100km a day, as the consequences of trying to do that would not be beneficial to me in the long-term. That doesn’t mean I won’t be as fit as I can manage before I leave, but it does mean that I accept that I won’t be as fit as I could be. I think of my life as a high wire act, and I don’t want to ask too much and take a fall, something I have done in the past.

Leaving the campsite, en route to Malin Head, 2012
Leaving the campsite, en route to Malin Head, 2012

What I’m taking a long look at is the way I travel. Up to now I’ve used, and enjoyed using, the trailer and box. They raise my profile to those who don’t ride. They draw people in to see what I’m up, and have led to important conversations that have helped me challenge the stigma attached to mental illnesses. Given  levels of equipment I used on the Round Britain ride, the trailer and box provided a great way to travel. Last year I also used a box, upgrading to an aluminium one for security, ease of travel and packing, and a level of insulation from the weather. This year, faced with so many mountain passes, I’m wondering whether that is the best way to go. My confidence around travelling is much improved and what I consider to be my base needs are less than they were.

Losing weight from my equipment list is going to be of great benefit. Fewer calories will be used hauling it all along, and the saving over so many mountains/miles would, in turn, reduce fatigue considerably. I’ve always been a fan of ultralight touring. I used to do something similar in the mountains as a mountain biker. I would pack light and head out for a night, travelling faster and much more easily than if laden with all and sundry.

I don’t consider myself to travel heavily now, but age, and a need for a little more comfort over the long periods I’m on the road, has led to my baseline equipment weighing more than it would have twenty years ago (given the same availability of light gear). I could just go to rear panniers and what I can fit in them. That would leave me with one problem to solve.

When I tried this last year, out of necessity, I found I just blended into the scenery. It became difficult to be visible as a charity rider whose aim it is to talk to people and share experiences. Using the trailer has always been paramount to being seen and being different. I could overcome this by attaching a board to my rack that tells people what I’m up to, and then sticking to the twin panniers approach. Alternatively I could lighten the trailer down as much as possible, maintaining visibility, and decreasing the overall effort. As yet I’m undecided, but I have to make that decision soon in order to progress towards the ride.

Another alternative would be to use my other trailer, the City trailer. It also emerged from the Carry Freedom stable. This trailer has a bespoke bag that clips on like a giant courier bag. It would certainly be excellent for the train journeys, as it folds completely flat, but I would still have to find a way to advertise on it.  I use this trailer to haul my shopping around every week. It’s robust and clever construction make it easy to live with and use. The bag isn’t too clever, as it isn’t waterproof, and the low profile of the trailer means it gets plastered in gunk in bad weather. I have toured with it, and previously used a  rain cover designed for a backpack to cover the top surface.

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Avec panniers and Michele, 2012

However I look at this I come back to the same argument as when I began to cycle again three and a half years ago. The trailer adds a little weight, but the bike feels much nicer than when loaded with panniers. On level ground you don’t notice it’s there at all and when climbing it depends on the weight you are pulling as to whether its worth the effort. Nick from Carry Freedom believes that once you pass fifteen kilograms of luggage the trailer is more efficient than panniers. This knowledge is the result of extensive research that he did when working with the Post Office.

Fifteen Kilograms is a fair amount of luggage to carry, especially for a tour like this. Ultralight travellers carry less than that including the weight of the bike! However, I’m not going to travel ultralight, just lighter than previously. You will have realised by now that I’ve answered my own argument. If the gear is less than fifteen Kilograms I should use panniers for better efficiency. That still leaves the question of visibility. Answers on a postcard please.

Aside from the hills there are two other aspects to this ride that I have to think about. First is heat. I could be spending a large amount of time in hot conditions. I’ve visited the south of France and the Alps on a few occasions, and both times it was sweltering hot, or wet, with little in between. It’s unlikely to be a cold ride, aside from those times when I’m at altitude. Not wanting to divulge too much information, I lose a lot of fluid when exercising. It isn’t about fitness, it’s the way I am. This means dehydration could be a real issue if the weather treats me to lots of heat. If you add in the long and frequent hills, there’s a disaster waiting to happen unless I find a way to stay hydrated.

Even in the UK I struggle with this. I’m learning to drink more often as I ride, but I find it hard to get enough fluids even then. Losing just 5% of fluids can lead to a 20% reduction in performance, so I need to get this bit right. If you add in the effects of altitude I will need even more fluid. My bike has a standard bottle holder and a large one that takes Evian type bottles. I could also use a Camel back hydration system, or something similar, but I don’t particularly like them, finding them uncomfortable.  Most places I will visit are not by any means remote, so this shouldn’t be too big a problem as long as I top-up where and when I can.

Altitude is the second new factor. Some of these passes are getting on for 3000 metres high. I have to allow for that in what I have available to wear in bad or cold weather, and I have to recognise the effect that altitude could have on my own physical performance. Most alpine passes don’t open until June, and can often be subject to severe weather, even throughout the summer. The drop is temperature with altitude gained is another thing I have to consider. What is a nice day in the valley can be a freezing experience higher up, especially when descending.

Touring heavy. Jack's kist for his 12 month tour.
Touring heavy. Jack’s kist for his 12 month tour.

The altitude itself can be a problem for anybody. Some years ago I  walked up to an alpine  refuge in order to start a climb the following day. I’d been in the Italian Dolomites for around ten days at the time. That evening I felt ill. I was sick, weak, and just like I had a bad virus. By morning I felt very ill and could hardly walk at all. The reason was simple. I had walked too fast up the approach route. My body hadn’t adapted to the higher altitude and I had altitude sickness. I had to abandon any thoughts of climbing, dropping down several thousand feet and recovering  quickly. There was no further reoccurrence during my stay there, or later on in the holiday, when we climbed on  the Austrian/Italian border at greater altitudes.

My plan to tackle the heat is simple. I will force myself to rise early and cycle during the cooler morning. This will also help me avoid both the strong valley winds that prevail most afternoons in the mountains, and the hottest part of the day. This won’t be easy, but having cut down the amount of anti-depressant I’m using, I find the morning a little easier to manage. I will only do this when in the high mountains, reverting to more normal starts during the rest of the ride.

One decision I have made is that I’m going to take the four-season tepee that I helped design with Arapahoe Outdoor in the USA a couple of years ago.  A small problem saw my leave it behind at the beginning of the Round Britain tour. This was more due to anxieties at the start of that journey than any insurmountable issue. During last years ride I was often cramped in the Hilleburg Akto during long periods of bad weather. This didn’t help my morale at all. I also believe that the tepee adds to my visibility, being different from any other ultralight tent that is usually seen in these areas.

Arapahoe Outdoors ultralight teepee.
Arapahoe Outdoors ultralight teepee.

At 2.2 kilograms, and with enough space to keep the bike inside, it’s a revelation to use. Despite being single skinned, the clever venting system prevents condensation from getting out of hand. Adding a mosquito net takes it to almost three kilograms, but that’s still light for what you get in return. The tepee attains this low weight by being constructed from siliconised nylon, with all the major seams being bonded together rather than stitched. Sil-nylon doesn’t allow water to soak into the fabric, which in turn saves you carrying all that extra water when you pack it wet. It’s a little fiddly to pitch, but you soon become accustomed to that, and taking it down is a breeze. The increase in weight may seem to fly in the face of the rest of the ideas I put here, but having a space where you can, rest and work, or a group of people can sit around and talk, could be beneficial.

With regards to the fundraising, the first week and a bit raised £330.00, a great start. Michele and I have now finished the first edit of Riding2Recovery: all around the ragged edges. I have a fair bit to do still, including adding appendices and diagrams, but it’s coming along nicely. I’ve also been preparing articles and press releases that should boost interest in the project and hopefully add to the coffers. Please do share the link below and help me increase the number of people visiting the donation page.

Should you wish to, you can contribute at www.gofundme.com/21d2eo Thank you.