The first big stupid adventure: London to the west coast

In Cycle routes, London by Claire

Two years ago two of us got up at 4am to ride further than we’d ever ridden before. We headed out from London to a Grade II pier on the west coast of England, Pierdom, a photography series by Simon Roberts, eating our way across the countryside and screaming up and down the hills. I wrote about it for Boneshaker Magazine last year on the theme of how we remember the rides we go on. An alternative title might be: why wurdz are gud. It is a story. It is about 80% true.

It was my first big cycle with Lucy: finding someone else to be weird on bikes with is a totally magic thing, and we discovered a skill for bellowing “WE ARE CYCLE” like lunatics, then we did London to Paris in 24 hours the following year. It fills me with a lot of joy to now be able to look back on these things and feel like it was part of the start of something really good. You can see us (me) making some very stupid faces.

There is always more to a story than pictures can ever tell. It’s Friday night, Saturday morning. We rise at 3am and photograph the ‘kit laydown’. It’s an image that shows a weakness both for buying new gear and for folding lycra into retentively neat squares. Behind the photo, the process itself brings some peace of mind. Looking at the shorts that refuse to sit neatly, favourite water bottles and endless protein bars, we let the photo con us. Allow it to tell us that we’re definitely ready for the longest ride we’ve ever done.

Really though, peace of mind is long gone, replaced by wired nerves and a tenseness that empties and focuses the mind. In the 1920s there was an hour called a ‘watch’. A time when sleep came in two parts: the first that came when you hit the pillow, a second that came before the world woke. In the middle was an hour, sometimes used for planning or pondering. The room throbs with the morning silence. We’re in a watch now. We stride about, restless.

We have never ridden even half of this distance. This will teach us to point offhand at large maps of the UK, abruptly remarking “Why don’t we cycle to there?” We saw our destination in a photograph, and it has led to early hours and plans of more miles than we knew. By tour standards it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow: this is a distance ticked off by the Épernay to Nancy leg on one mere day for the pros. They probably didn’t stop for as many coffees as we will either but this twelve hour ride, 156 miles from London to Clevedon, Somerset – a tiny Grade II pier on the west coast – is no small feat.

It is the ninth of November and it is cold. The season’s weather has turned and is not made for the last wears of summer kit. Under our rain jackets, we’re wearing every layer we could find. Then, after what seems an age of waiting we’re finally there. The start line: a deserted Tower of London under the cover of darkness. It makes for a strange one with memorial poppies cascading down the side of the wall. As we glide off to log the first of many miles, it leaves us with a haunting appreciation for every pedal turn. In the silence, it’s hard not to think about the sheer number of red flowers. We hit the river, distracted. Pictureless, we ride, the wind cold on our knuckles.

4am-ish, outside Buckingham Palace

The sun rises. A train clatters past across the fields, and we pause on the winding lanes to take a photo, before continuing to grind our way up them. Three coffee stops later, we pass Halfway. Halfway is a small place of wishful thinking; it largely consists of a signpost that marks the midpoint between London and Bristol.  We’re going further than twice this distance, but luckily we’re ignorant to Halfway’s real meaning. We photograph the sign. ‘Halfway!’ we declare, Instagramming this news and ignoring the GPS display. A little cheer, thumbs up, jam some more rocky road into our mouths.

Morning

Breakfast

Villages with apt names

The A4 is endless. We spit and swear our way along it. The rain flies at us. Trucks rumble past, loud and greedy for tarmac. We swear some more.

Endless roads. Lucy shouted “fuck off wind” and “I hate this road” with a lot of gusto as we crawled down it.

When we break for beer and fish finger sandwiches, a man warns us that Bath is quite far – a good 15 miles. He doesn’t know if we’ll make it. We take this on the chin and mention that we’ve come from London this morning. He stops trying to give us directions.

Then we meet the hills of Bath. I have never seen such hills, and these after ten hours of riding. They are like cliff faces: tall and imposing. We brace ourselves. The grades are high, beautiful terrifying descents and blindingly sharp ascents. Had we been on form it’d have made for some of the most dramatic riding – steep and scenic and always scary.

It takes downing a gel working like an athlete’s shot to brave the ascents and face turning the pedals. I heave my heart into them, hang my head and use my bodyweight to ache the bike into motion. There are moments when I barely move. At the top, our heads are a world away from several hundred metres ago. We gasp. Our minds don’t function. We glare at the ground, and roll along the now-flat road.

The 100 miles face

Getting to Bath: the road to the left drops straight away

The final 30 miles from Bath pass in a strange blur. The pressure of the hills passed, we log them without thinking. Then suddenly, the signs to the coast appear – a surreal image that blows us away. Then, the sea. A view that we’ll only take in and process later on the train home. ‘The most beautiful pier in England’ stretches out for us. We clatter along the decking to the end, to our victory. We watch the waves slam below us for some time. We glow.

We sum up our ride with seven photos.

1. The kit. Clothes significantly less crumpled than at the end of the journey.

Travelling optimistically light. Lucy’s suspicious egg rolls not pictured.

2. Buckingham Palace at 4am. Beautiful, empty and deserted, lit only by traffic lights.

3. The sunrise. Silent but for the chuntering of a train in the distance.

4. Boy, do we show the food we eat.

5. A strange, alarming hill that rises up out of Devizes en route.

Strange scenery

6. A selfie, at 100 miles. Of course.

7. The finish line; the beautiful Grade II pier. Misty and murky in the November weather.

But the ride is more than these few moments. Beyond photos, there is always more. There are some stories that can only be told with words. Use photos to grab attention, to draw people in. Catch them with sharp shots of 17% gradients and empty roads and beautiful shots of Pierdom. Show the moments it was possible to capture. But save the words. Use them to tell the secrets of the ride that live only in the mind. Use them to make people understand and care. Down the pub, telling your mates about your strange adventures, it’s the words that will live on.

Individually these moments by themselves are like a police crime wall with strange line trying to make sense of everything that’s happened in the last eighteen hours. When you ride – long, grueling rides – it’s incoherent. You ride, and hours of scenes flicker past. But from all these endless pictures, finally, when the mind has a moment to reconfigure all the nonsense into something to comprehend and cling to, we build our books. For all the pictures and proof, the story is always what we make ourselves.

Beery triumph

Home again with glorious bike. Enjoyed coming back to Paddington station and a guy standing by the exit warning me that ‘It’s raining, you know?’ to which I got to say ‘that’s okay. I cycled from London to Somerset today, and it was a bit wet on the way there so I’ll be fine’.

This ride was inspired by Pierdom, a photography series by Simon Roberts. Spoilers: we made it from London to Bath. Read our second ride here: London to Paris in 24 hours, in which we actually make it and have time spare to fall asleep everywhere possible.

ClaireThe first big stupid adventure: London to the west coast