Evening along the Taw estuary
Evening along the Taw estuary

Spending time contemplating what you might do during the coming summer months is one of life’s great pleasures. It’s often done at a time of the year when even the faintest hope of a day outside spent cycling seems a long way from reality. Pawing over maps as well as exploring routes on App’s, laptops and GPS units is great fun. You can sit in comfort and plot where your wheels might lead you under the warm glow (we hope) of the summer sun without putting a foot outside in the winter rain.

This winter has been pretty kind to us. For the last couple of weeks a massive high pressure system has settled over the country bringing cold air, the merest sprinkle of snow, a little ice, and fresh winds. Little rain or other precipitation has fallen on the south west of the UK making for pleasant cycling conditions. Frosty, clear, mornings are how we imagine a good winter to be in our minds eye, rather than deluges of soaking, driven, rainfall that usually govern our existence. I normally refer to this time of year as monsoon season due the constant barrage of low pressure systems that hit our shores from the Atlantic to batter us during winter. But this winter hasn’t been like that (yet!)

The sunshine has drawn me from the house like a moth to a flame out onto the lanes of West Devon. To be honest I didn’t need much of an excuse to get out and about and this was the perfect one to escape for a few hours. Recent rides have been a real bonus as I’ve been struggling a little with what I want to do this year and how to go about it. Going out for a ride has at best been helping me to make some difficult decisions providing clarity and at worst provided me with a metaphorical blanket to pull over my head so I can’t see what’s going on.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the sunshine we have been receiving has been of benefit to my health. I don’t get on well with short, dark, wet, winter days and interminably long nights and there has been a marked and noticeable difference in my state of health since the sun returned to Hatherleigh and my Christmas virus slowly ebbed away.

Four months without cigarettes has seen me gain a few kilos but nothing that won’t get shaken off during the spring and summer. I’ve allowed myself more treats and stuff to help get through the horrible withdrawal symptoms that are attached to nicotine addiction. I’ve used some of the multitude of products that are now available to help shake the habit and I’m now at a point where I rarely use anything. I’m starting to notice how much better I feel physically, especially during those hard, hilly, Devon rides that make up most of my cycling.

Typical Devon scenery
Typical Devon scenery

I struggled for a while early on this year. I sensed that all of my physical and emotional energy had drained away overnight. There were times when I was out riding when I thought I couldn’t do it anymore, such was the extreme nature of the, thankfully relatively short, deep episodes of depression, anger, and worthlessness I was experiencing. Their ferocity meant there was little energy spare to ride a bike, trike, or anything else and I just had to learn to accept it as being how it was and play the waiting game.

They say that good things come to those who wait and the cold clear weather has helped me to get a jump on my fitness for the year. There has been nothing I would describe as training, which is how I like it, but I have gradually built up some riding without ill effect and now feel I have a base level of fitness to work from. Recent rides have seen me grinning like a mad thing despite the multitude of ludicrously steep hills that lie in wait whichever way you turn on leaving the town that I live in. Greater distance will come over time and with patience.

For those who don’t know me I should add that pre-programmed training regimes don’t work for me. There are simply too many variable times when, due to my state of health, I can’t go and do what I should be doing. I have to make decisions that ensure my continuing health rather than training for a single purpose. That means that I don’t progress as expected and the regime of training gets broken up. This can leave me feeling as though I’m failing and what should be a positive process becomes a negative one. It’s better for me to be relaxed. I get out when I can and use the rollers when I can’t and leave it at that. Let’s face it, at the age of 55 years enjoyment is the priority over any fitness or achievement goals. I’d rather look at rainbows than chase them these days.

The lanes leading away from my house. Note the buzzard, captured by accident.
The lanes leading away from my house. Note the buzzard, captured by accident.

This year’s riding is limited by several factors. The most obvious is finance. I don’t have any spare cash at all but it hasn’t stopped me before so it’s Ebay to the rescue along with wild camping and such like to keep the cost down.

Warmshowers is an organisation through which people host cyclist’s overnight to help keep the cost of travelling to a minimum. I’ve avoided it to date, even though I am a host myself, as I worry about being restless at night and don’t want to disturb other people but I may well give it a try depending on how I feel at the time.

Then there are the powers that be: The Department of Work and Pensions. They told me last year that I couldn’t be away for more than four weeks, even with permission, as I could be secretly working. I tried explaining that I would love to be working but it isn’t yet possible, but government paranoia won the day and I lost out big time financially. No, it doesn’t make any sense to me either as I could be working while at home. Nobody checks up on me as far as I know but that’s the rules apparently, and I don’t want to lose any more income by treading on them unnecessarily. I wouldn’t mind but I was told something quite different the previous year.

Instead of one long continuous journey I’ve decided that this year’s ride will be in stages, four to be exact. This suits me on several levels. It means I miss less therapy sessions. Missing sessions hampers progress but is positive in other ways so it’s important to find the right balance. The stage approach also means I can also rest and recuperate between stages, something that can only be of benefit physically and mentally. As previously mentioned, it fits within the rules as laid down by idiots in Westminster who believe the best way for you to get better from mental illness is to sit at home doing nothing week in and week out.

The thing I’ve struggled with most is whether or not to fundraise again. My last three rides have all been fundraisers and deep-down I think I felt that I ought to be fundraising. It’s also the twenty year celebrations of the opening of the National Cycle Network and I felt that this was also compelling me to do something for Sustrans again. I’m now at a point where I’m seeing the benefits of riding for myself and leaving the added stress of fundraising behind for a year. I’m sure I’ll let you know if I have a change of heart on this.

So what is it that I’m going to do? My intention is to make a therapeutic journey. I’m calling it The Ride of My Life. The idea is to visit all those places, along with the people and events that shaped who I am as a person. The last five years, the time I’ve now been running my Riding2Recovery project, have been some of the most challenging and interesting of my entire life.

One of the new chicanes that replace the old gates on the Tarka Trail, Devon, UK
One of the new chicanes that replace the old gates on the Tarka Trail, Devon, UK

My life has altered beyond recognition since the breakdown in my mental health some eight years ago. Everything I knew is no longer there. That crucial and pivotal time has now led me along the path to the start of this chapter in my life.

Thinking about this I began to contemplate other milestones in my life. What would the places and events I remember from my childhood look like nowadays? Which events made me into the man I am today? Could these places, events and people help me to move forwards by eliciting memories that might help release the trauma jammed firmly in the folds of my mind? I wouldn’t know unless I made this ride.

It’s an intensely personal journey and one that at times it could well be daunting. When we open cupboards that have been long shut we don’t know what we will find, do we? The irony of that statement is that the cupboards in my mid are so full that I can’t function properly and I’m still holding it all in, frightened of really letting go.

If I had lived in one village or town for the whole of my life this might not be too interesting or take very long. The fact is that I’ve lived all over the country: north, south, east, and west. I’ve been influenced by the mountain scenery of Scotland, Wales and The Lake district, the flatlands of Norfolk and Suffolk and the warm gentle coast of Dorset. These combined with a thousand other things along the people I’ve met along the way made me who I am today. While it would prove impossible to revisit everything that led me here there are enough places that I feel are key moments in my development to make for a good and interesting journey along with some interesting perspectives over time that I hope to write about afterwards.

The aforementioned four stages will look something like this:

1) South Coast: May 2015: I will ride from where I live in Devon to Southampton taking in old flying, climbing and camping haunts in Dorset along with friends in Hampshire and Southampton. It will include the world heritage site in Dorset called the Jurassic Coast and the New Forest National Park.

I lived in the Hampshire area from the age of 18 to 26 and later from the age of 32-42. Many of life’s great events happened while I lived here along with a huge rupture in my emotional health.

This is the shortest stage and I will ride it during the last couple of weeks of weeks of May.

Soon be doing this again :)
Soon be doing this again 🙂

2) Scotland: June 2015: Massively influential in my life from the age of 18 years to date. The place I love most in the UK. This stage will lead me from Loch Lomond to the far North West using parts of the West Highland Way, Arisaig’s white beaches, Skye, Bealach na Ba to Applecross, Ullapool, Achnahaird and the wilds of Sutherland. This section is also relatively short and will include a tour of Skye with Michele (June).

3) East of England: August 2015: Born in Peterborough, I grew up in Northamptonshire where I lived until the age of eighteen years. Along with my family we almost always holidayed in Norfolk and Suffolk with forays elsewhere as we grew. I still have family in both places that I haven’t seen for many years.

This circular route will see me revisiting my formative years. I’m still in touch with many of those I went to school with etc via social media and would love to meet some of them again. After exploring the area around Weedon Bec, where I explored as a boy, I will ride out through Northampton and Peterborough to the Norfolk coast before following it south past my parents resting place to Southwold where we camped as children. From there I’ll return to Peterborough before linking westwards to:

4) Wales and Bristol: August 2015: Having lived in Snowdonia for eight years and having attended Bangor University, Wales is highly significant to me. My daughter was born here and I spent many years climbing and exploring, especially in the north. It was the place where I came close to killing myself paragliding in 2000 and also the place where I rode mountain bikes for the first time in the 1990’s. For many years I considered Snowdonia as my spiritual home.

On my return to cycling it was Wales that provided the tour that I used as a springboard, inspiring me to ride the entire UK coastline in 2011, the centre piece to my project.

Bristol has been significant from early days climbing exploits and throughout the more recent years of my illness. My connections with Sustrans and other charities in Bristol have seen me giving many talks there. It had a central role in my ride around the UK coast as well as the build up to it and marked the arrival of friendly territory as I returned down the west coast to complete the ride.

With a link from the East of England section I can ride stages 3/4 back to back. It will take most of August to ride and I’m still working on the detail.

So there you have it. The Ride of My Life: in outline at least. I have completed most of the planning other than the welsh section and that’s coming together as we speak. I shall be riding Kermit and more than likely towing Trevor.

The main purpose of the journey will be to talk openly and honestly to those I meet along the way about living with poor mental health. This is the foundation of Riding2Recovery and something that I want to carry on with having received many messages saying that my efforts have helped people in some small way.

I’m sure there will plenty more to say on this venture before I leave in May.

Until next time………………………..