An Absolute Beginner, no practice, no experience, not even a regular cyclist! I must be crazy :)
Stephen Peel

Stephen Peel

Cycling Around the World

Making a Molehill out of a Mountain

Not being a regular cyclist before setting out on my first ever cycle tour, I had concerns regarding hills. I had been surrounded by hills and mountains in the Snowdonia National Park near where I lived in North Wales, but I had never thought about cycling them.


My view of a hill or mountain at the start of my tour was nothing more than a massive obstacle, a towering menace I needed to battle and conquer in order to continue on my adventure. It was something that would cause me pain and slow me down. But give hills are pretty much everywhere, and a part of what makes our world so beautiful, I considered climbing hills a necessary evil :)


I made quite a big deal of hills in my mind, but it was then time to take to the road on my heavy fully loaded expedition bicycle. Panniers hanging off the front and rear wheels, a handlebar bag, a bag on the rack at the rear, and me.


I cycled from my home and onto fairly bumpy but mostly easy roads. I say easy, but that’s looking back at the roads after what I have cycled through since then.


It was the first time I had taken my bicycle out on the road fully loaded, and on the very first day I would cycle almost as far as I have ever cycled before in my life, I cycled only 24 miles.


I camped for the night, but awoke in agony with pains shooting through my right thigh. Thankfully the pain had gone by morning, but I could not help but wonder if I’m like this on relatively flat ground, what are my legs going to be like when I encounter my first real hills.


Practice before I set out might have helped, but I just really wanted to experience this adventure as a complete novice in every respect. After all, it was only a little pain and I knew that my body and mind would adapt at some point.


On my way to Portsmouth I encountered rolling hills and bumpy landscapes, but then came the Chiltern Hills and South Downs in the South of England, and to me they were huge but I was ready.


After cycling through France where my route produced little in the way of big hills and was mostly flat, especially along the Atlantic coast, I entered Spain and hills got a little bigger.


At San Sebastian, my plan was to head to Bilbao, and work my way around the larger hills and mountains as I headed for Madrid, but as I stood there on a bridge in the centre of San Sebastian, I looked at the hills and mountains towering in the distance in the direction of Madrid, and decided against Bilbao and headed straight into those Basque Country hills and mountains.


It wasn’t easy, but even though this landscape was higher than what I had been through by that point, it didn’t feel any harder. My body and mind were obviously adapting to cycling with a fully loaded bicycle.


I would still stop to catch my breath and let my muscles relax from time to time on the really steep climbs if I needed to, and I might be wishing I had a few more granny gears, but I was now looking at hills very differently from when I first set out from Cheshire. 


I see a huge hill or range in the distance now and I hardly give it a second thought. I know that I’m not going over the top, there will likely be a road going through. Big hills appear to get smaller the closer I get, because before I have reached the steepest parts, I’m already someway up due to the increase in altitude I have gained on the approach to the very steep parts.


When I add directions to my navigation device at the start of a day, I pick a point on the map that I feel I can comfortably reach by mid afternoon, and as the device plots the line, I then take a closer look on my phone to see if I can see the contours of that line. If the line is taking me straight over a hill when there is really a perfectly good flat route I can take, I will take it. 


When deciding on where I am heading next, I have had people ask me why I would choose to go to a place that is fairly flat, and why wouldn't I go to the hilly parts. This sort of question would usually come from someone who loves cycling and cycles for a hobby. And I can understand how someone cycling regularly for the love of cycling, would love to cycle on hills and really varied terrain. 


But I'm not a regular cyclist and cycling has never been my hobby, and in truth, I couldn't imagine it ever being my hobby. I'm not cycling around the world because I love cycling. I'm loving cycle touring right now and I love the freedom the bicycle gives me while on this adventure, but I can't honestly say I love cycling. I chose cycle touring because of its perfect pace. Faster than backpacking and slower than a car. Being able to carry all my gear with me without it being on my back was a real attraction, and my wanting to circumnavigating the globe under mostly my own steam was also important. 


I have a start and finish to this tour, and I couldn't imagine continuing to cycle once I have completed this. The bicycle is the vehicle I have chosen for this adventure, and that's pretty much it really, so don't expect to find me seeking out massive hill climbs for the sake of climbing massive hills for the love of cycling. I might climb a hill because there is no other way around or there is something worth seeing up there, but that's it. 


I no longer have concerns regarding hills, or even mountain ranges such as the Sierra de Guadarrama that took me by surprise north of Madrid. More than that, I have grown to appreciate the beauty of hills and mountains, with the stunning views, wildlife and surrounding landscapes if I have found myself on or going through them.


I can tell you something else, a kind of strange side effect of my cycling hills on this tour is that I can't seem to watch a film or program on television now without looking at the terrain in the background. I find myself looking at the roads and hills more than the characters. Even when in a car, I now look at the terrain in a very different way. When once everything seemed flat in a car, there are now hills, bumps, tracks and trails. I wonder if other people have experienced this strange new view of the world after a cycle tour.


Hills and mountains are still not my best friends and I won't go seeking them out, but hills and I now have an understanding.