When I started selling CycleLove t-shirts, I made myself a quiet promise: that I would deliver my first order in person, and by bike.
It seemed like a simple way of celebrating this small but important milestone in my new venture.
CycleLove is the first thing in a long time that I really care about. Something that I quit my job to do. And so making the effort to meet my first customer seemed like the very least I could do.
As I’m based in London, I figured this as yet nameless customer won’t be too far away. So you can imagine my mixed emotions when this email landed in my inbox a few weeks later:
Plugging the Peterborough postcode into Google Maps quickly confirms my hunch: to keep my promise, I must cycle over a hundred miles to deliver a t-shirt.
For a few days I chew the idea over in my head. I’ve completed the 120 odd miles of the Dunwich Dynamo overnight, and raced 80 miles in Scotland on the Etape Caledonia. How hard could a hundred odd miles on my own be? (First mistake: cycling long distances alone plays tricks with the mind).
Still not sure if I have the required huevos to do the ride, I email Peter to explain it may be a while before the t-shirt is delivered.
He fires back a quick response:
“I’ve purchased this tee for my brothers birthday (in November) so there’s a bit of time to play with ;) “
This was the sucker punch. The t-shirt is a birthday present *and* I’ve got two months to deliver it. I resolve to stick to my plan and deliver it by bike, whatever it takes.
Best-laid plans (or not)
I set myself a few ground rules:
(1) No training — this is not to be a race.
(2) No visible lycra — I am not, and do not intend to become, a mamil.
(3) No fancy gear, cleats or hi-vis — I will make the journey as a human on a bike, not a “cyclist”.
The first half of the route I already know well from my training for the Etape Caledonia — the quiet country roads and softly rolling hills between Epping Forest and Cambridge. The second half between Cambridge and Peterborough is unknown territory, and I decided to keep it that way. (Second mistake: always know your route).
Now it’s a matter of waiting for good weather. October passes. I am ill on and off. November rolls in, temperatures drop, and I start to regret leaving the ride so long. Had I left it too late? Would anyone join me on the ride? (None of my friends are that stupid, of course).
With time running out, I spot a full day of sunshine in the forecast, and the date is set. Sunday 11th November is the day I will become a one-hundred mile bike courier.
I arrange with Pete to meet him and his brother Rob in a pub on the Sunday afternoon, pack as light a bag as is possible with an SLR camera, and set my alarm for 4.30am.
It’s a cold, dark morning, but I’m excited to be starting my journey after weeks of planning.
Sunday at 5am marks an overlap of worlds. Revellers are heading home whilst workers head out. A young couple are scaling a fence into Brockwell Park, whilst sombre figures wait alone at bus stops. Traffic on London Bridge is reduced to less than a trickle. Drunken kids hang like monkeys from scaffolding in Leyton, howling with laughter.
After ten miles or so, I’m sweating, and stop to remove a layer. (Third mistake: cities generate heat. The countryside doesn’t, as I will soon remember).
As the light imperceptibly increases, I finally break out of Epping Forest into open countryside, and the temperature plumets towards freezing. I feel obliged to make use of the light by taking photos, even though it means removing both sets of gloves.
By this point I’m feeling the cold however fast I ride, and stop to put everything I’ve got in my bag back on.
I’m also cursing my decision not to wear overshoes. (Fourth mistake: extremeties suffer first). Luckily I have some spare socks, intended for the journey home, and put them on over my long wooly socks. A mouth full of chocolate and a sausage roll is no comfort to my toes but settles a now-hungry stomach.
Switching my camera-phone lens around, a blue face peers back at me from the screen. I wish I had the Michelin Man’s insulation to keep me warm.
I may be riding alone, but I know that a few people are following my progress on Twitter, and I realise they can offer the support that I need. I’m not sure if my phone battery will last the distance if I keep refreshing my feed, but it’s worth the risk. Sure enough, Twitter offers me some badly needed words of encouragement:
@cyclelovehq Oh. How are your feet doing then? :) How much longer have you got?
— Discerning Cyclist (@discerningcyc) November 11, 2012
@cyclelovehq keep going. Hope you warm up and have a great ride.
— Belinda Scott (@Condorbee) November 11, 2012
Belinda is right. The only way to get warm is to speed up.
I know this part of England well from training rides, and familiar place names are now flashing by: Roydon. Much Hadham. Little Hadham. Patmore Heath.
A handful of lycra-clad cyclists are already out for their Sunday spin, and I bob my head in acknolwedgenent, not really caring if they respond or not.
Two hours later, I roll over the M11 into Newport, twenty miles south of Cambridge, and can’t help but think: maybe this isn’t going to be so tough after all? (Fifth mistake: it’s not over until it’s over, James).
After a short stop in Newport, I head out north from the village.
Suddenly cars are buzzing by, uncomfortably close. The road surface is rough like three-day stubble, and my speed drops.
Confused I pull into the first layby to check my location. I’m on the fucking A1301! (Sixth mistake: avoid fast roads at all cost).
For the first time on the ride, I’m angry. What the hell am I doing? Why didn’t I plan my route better? Why didn’t I do some training?
Of course it’s too late to be asking these kind of questions, so I ease gently back onto my bike, and force myself to press on.
Fortunately, signs of civilisation have started to appear, in the form of cycle paths. They’re not marked on my map (thanks Apple) but I’m sure they must be headed to my checkpoint of Cambridge, and an hour later I’m there, tucking into what tastes like the best fish & chips in the world.
68 miles completed. 38 to go.
With a full belly, I start off slowly on the second leg of the journey. I’m under no pretentions that it’s going to be easy — especially as I have no idea how flat or hilly the road ahead is.
Each town and village on the route now becomes a target.
I memorise a few at a time, and chant them to myself on repeat, like a mantra, before stopping to learn a new batch of place names.
I’m taking another break for food when, out of nowhere, a recumbent bike appears, and I find myself smiling again. Looking at the photo now at full size, its owner seems to be wearing green wellington boots. Chapeau!
It’s now several hours since lunch, and my energy levels are flagging. Even the smallest of hills seem to grind on relentlessly.
Thankfully I have the cure for the problem, and am soon tripping on an awesome wave of sugar and caffeine. Time is running out though — I need to get to my destination before the hit wears off — and as if to heighten the sense of urgency, the sun is dipping towards the horizon.
At this point I get lucky, hitting the smoothest, straightest and flatest stretch of road I’ve ever seen…
If you’re reading this B1040, I love you. Let’s do it again some time soon.
With fifteen or so miles covered at top speed, I’m feeling more positive. The first road sign for Peterborough appears, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to make it.
I allow myself the luxury of stopping to get out my camera and document the last rays of sun for the day.
As the light fades, I hit the outskirts of Peterborough, knowing that Pete and his brother Rob will already be at our rendezvous point, a floating bar moored on the River Nene in the center of town.
By the time I arrive there, the novelty of the location escapes me — all I can think about is gettiny my lips around a cold beer.
Sitting down with the the pint that Pete has just bought me, I grab the packaged CycleLove t-shirt out of my bag, and search for the best words to explain to his brother across the table who the sweaty and exhausted-looking man sitting opposite is.
I turn to Rob and find myself saying…
“Well, I’ve got this blog about cycling… and…”
Distance ridden: 105 miles
Total time: 11.5 hours
Resting time: 2.5 hours approx
Photos taken: 112
Ales drunk: 2
Happy customers: 1
This was always about more than just a ride for me.
It’s a love letter to London: you’re crazy, and messed up, and worn down, but you give me energy.
It’s a thank you to my London friends: James, Neil, Jamie, Ranald, Jon and Paul for gently coaxing me onto a bike when I moved to London. To Kat on the LFGSS forum who sold me her beautiful blue Raleigh. To the cycling photographer Bill Cunningham, whose incredible story was the inspiration for starting this blog.
It’s a nod to the inspirational people I’ve met since starting CycleLove: people carving creative new businesses out of their passion for cycling: Ste Johnson (The Discerning Cyclist), Nick Hussey (Vulpine), Jenni Gwiazdowski (London Bike Kitchen), Will Stewart (MadeGood) and everyone else who is helping to forge what Nick calls “The New Cycling“.
It’s a way of expressing my gratitude to the people who have purchased CycleLove t-shirts in the past two months, and by doing so supported this blog.
And ultimately, it’s a mission statement for CycleLove: the humble bike can enable you to do big things. You don’t need special equipment. You don’t (most of the time) need lycra, or high visibility clothing, or carbon fibre bottle cages. You just need to get out there on your bike and enjoy the ride.