A highly unlikely bicycle tourist
Published, Edited, and Cover Art by Stephen Peel
Many an incredible story may have been told about young courageous men and women cycling the globe in search of adventure, covering vast distances at speed each day with not a care in the world, sleeping wherever they could pitch a tent or find someone willing to give them a free meal and bed for the night, who intentionally looked bedraggled to resemble famous adventurers of old, with men sporting wild hair and beards that could clear dusty streets as they cycled through.
Well, this incredible story is a little different. It is an astonishing story about a 350-pound middle-aged disabled working-class husband and father. I was never a regular cyclist, and I knew nothing about bicycle maintenance and repair. And yet, without a single day of bicycle touring practice, I loaded up my shiny new bike with everything I thought I’d need and cycling out of Cheshire to see the world. Solo, self-financed, no support network, and without any fixed route plan other than “I’m going that way.”
What could go wrong? I wondered
To those who made me smile, laugh, took an interest in what I was doing, helped when I needed help, THANK YOU
Being soaked to the bone was no fun at all
Built like a brick shithouse as a result of decades of heavy manual labour in the building industry and weight training, and a bacon butty or two, cycling was never my hobby.
In 2016, my doctor suggested an occasional short bicycle ride would relieve some pain in my lower back. So I took his advice and bought a cheap, second-hand bike. I was 53 years old at the time and hadn’t owned a bicycle for decades. I lived near the coast in Tanlan, North Wales, where I started taking occasional short rides along a coastal promenade and pathways, avoiding roads as best I could.
I enjoyed cycling for a few miles to grab a coffee at a café on the prom and chat with a few people I met along the way from time to time. Every so often, I’d talk with young bicycle tourists who were following the coastline, and I loved to hear all about their adventures, as it seemed a great way to travel.
I started reading bicycle touring stories written mostly by middle-class, university-educated young people with support networks at home, few responsibilities, and even sponsorship in some cases.
Although I admired those young people for their achievements and bicycle touring contributions, I wanted to hear from parents and spouses and the middle-aged working class like me. After a little digging on some social media platforms, I found people of all ages and backgrounds were on incredible adventures all over the world.
There were people on unicycles, tricycles, bikes with trailers, and all manner of unusual pedal-powered contraptions. Some people were in their twilight years, and a few had disabilities. Others were travelling for just a few days or weeks, but some for much longer. Interestingly, a few were not only seeking adventure, but were hoping to find the reason for their entire being.
I hadn’t had my hybrid bicycle for long when my wife, Sue, and I moved to England. I was still 53 years old and couldn’t get the idea of riding a bike from country to country out of my head. So I decided to take my doctor’s “occasional short ride” suggestion to the next illogical level. I was between jobs and had saved enough money not to have to rely on the goodwill or charity of others, but I felt I wouldn’t knock the goodwill or charity back if offered.
I told my wife and daughters, Chelsea and Chloe, about my vague plan, which was to ride out of Cheshire and the UK, and just keep going. My daughters then asked, “But are you not going to practise, Dad?” They thought it would have been a good idea to take a shorter ride first, such as the length of Great Britain from Land’s End to John O’Groats. But I wanted to see how far and for how long I could ride without any bicycle touring or bicycle maintenance experience. I thought it would add to the adventure, and I was excited at the thought of learning as I went. A few people I spoke with said I wouldn’t get very far without a good deal of practice and some repair and maintenance skills. But that can’t-do attitude made me more determined not to have any.
I planned to keep going until something beyond my control stopped me, or I felt I had done what I wanted to do. I might have ruled out practising, but I would still have to prepare in other ways. I imagined a bicycle tour of just a few weeks requiring few financial risks and minimal planning.
In contrast, a trip of what could be many months or years, would be a completely different beast. I would have to write a will, get a new passport with plenty of extra pages, just in case. I’d need treatments against viruses and other illnesses, such as rabies, yellow fever and malaria. I had no idea where I might end up, so I thought it would be a good idea to be covered. I would also have to work out what clothing I might need, and I had no doubt the list of equipment would be lengthy.
I started looking at bikes I thought would do the job, and it was fun but challenging. I needed the equivalent of a Shire horse, not a racehorse. I needed a bike that could carry my bulk, and about 100 pounds of gear. It would have to be super strong to take all that weight over not just roads, but tracks and trails, and it would also have to be easy to maintain and reliable. I couldn’t find a single bike that had a weight limit compatible with me. After a lot of reading about the pros and cons of different bicycles and parts, I chose the KOGA WorldTraveller expedition bicycle.
I was inspired by Mark Beaumont’s video of his 245-day, record-breaking cycle around the world on a similar model KOGA to the one I had in mind. Mark told me in an email that “There is no better pace to see the world”, and from what I’d read, I could believe it. I loved the colour choices of the WorldTraveller, and the build looked masculine and capable of carrying my weight. But at more than £4,000 with the panniers and spares, it wasn’t cheap.
After ordering the bike from Cyclesense Ltd in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, it felt like an eternity before it was ready for me to collect. Though it didn’t take long at all, I was just so excited and itching to get going. I bought all the gear I thought I’d need, and then some. The bike and bags and all the gear weighed 143 pounds, and the total weight, including me, was just shy of 500 pounds.
The night before the first day of my tour, my mum was feeling a bit upset and worried. Sue and I were living in Liverpool, less than 20 miles from Mum, so I decided to spend the evening with her and leave from there the following morning. Chelsea and Chloe lived nearby, so I was also able to see them that evening too.
I had already said goodbye to Sue, which I thought would be a good idea, instead of letting her realise I was gone when the lawns had grown three feet deep. I promised her I’d phone each day if I could, and hopefully have her fly out to spend a little time with me at some point, somewhere. Sue wasn’t happy about my adventure, and she was worried something terrible might happen. She planned to keep herself busy, and I made sure she had a new push lawnmower, lots of new gardening tools, and a big toolkit and drill. What more could she need? I thought.
After a restless sleep on Mum’s settee, I carried out the last checks on the bike to make sure I had everything and that it was all secure. I had no idea how the bike was going to feel or handle with the bags fully loaded, and I couldn’t be sure all the weight wouldn’t buckle the wheels if I hit a pothole in the road. The bike with all the gear on looked ready for anything. It was the 1st of August, 2017, when I said goodbye to my teary mum as she stood in her doorway out of the rain in the dull early morning light.
Just one mile into my ride, I stopped on a footbridge, from where I could see the streets where my daughters lived, and I imagined them sound asleep. It upset me, and tears welled up in my eyes. I felt my chest tighten as I said “goodbye, I love you” under my breath before I cycled on with the rain hiding my tears as they rolled off my face. I had no idea when I’d see my wife and children again.
Less than five miles into my journey, I bumped into an old friend, Fran. I hadn’t seen him for decades, and he was crossing the same bridge but going the other way on his bicycle to work, and it was great to see him and chat for a few minutes. A little farther on, I passed a roadside café and the thought of a full English breakfast and getting out of the rain for a few minutes seemed like a good plan, so I turned around and filled up. That first day, I cycled 24 miles in the rain to Yatehouse Farm Camping in Middlewich. Once there, I eagerly set about pitching the tent and inflated the mattress and pillow.
It felt great to put everything together for the first time. I had previously set the tent up in the garden to make sure it was complete and undamaged, but I hadn’t slept in a tent for more than 15 years, so I was like a big kid. I also bought a gear-shed attachment, which was a small extra room that clipped onto the frame of the main tent. It added a lot of extra space to keep wet clothing and the bike out of sight when wild camping. It meant I’d have more room in the main tent area away from anything soaking wet. I had no use for the gear-shed on the campsite; the bike was given a place in a greenhouse locked to a table.
The campsite owner looked at the sign hanging off the rear of my Ortlieb rack-pack. It had details of JUMP, the charity I had chosen to support on my ride. It also had my website address and social media channels. He asked if I was going to cycle completely around the world. I told him I hadn’t ruled it out. He went on to ask how far I’d cycled, then burst out laughing when I told him it was my first day, then I burst out laughing with him because I must have looked like I’d been cycling for months. He then handed me a bag of fruit and said I could stay at the campsite free of charge, which was kind.
While preparing for my adventure, I felt that, because I was doing something so big, it would be nice to support my local charity at the same time. JUMP supports children with life-limiting illnesses. It arranges days out for the children and their families. Videos and book are created, so the families have something extra to remember their children by, if or when the children pass away.
The ground was soaking wet, so I thought it would be a great idea to pitch the tent under a tree for shelter. During the night, rainwater would build on the leaves before being released and shaking the branches. I drifted off quickly, despite the heavy rain. I soon awoke to what I could only describe as a feeling of someone pushing a long knife straight through my right thigh, and I yelped in excruciating pain. It jolted me so severely that I hurt my back in the process of sitting up too quickly in the restricted space of my sleeping bag. I was then feeling pain in my back, and cramp in my left leg, which just seemed to appear for good measure. Neither of those extra pains came close to the pain in my right thigh.
Once the thigh pain eased, I lay on my back for a few minutes, and it started again, and I struggled to hold my voice from waking other campers. I raised and squeezed my knee until the pain went away, but the pain came back. I thought I’d torn a muscle from doing far too much on my first day and had ended my adventure while still in Cheshire. I was devastated. I lay there feeling more than a little sorry for myself and soon fell asleep. I awoke the next morning in a large puddle of rainwater because my tent was in a dip but, on the plus side, the thigh pain had pretty much gone, so I decided to continue. My first day had turned out far harder than I thought possible, and all I could think about was my daughters suggesting I should have had some practice.
It was still raining as I set out, and the wind was coming hard at me. I managed 28 miles, which was a massive achievement for me, as I hadn’t ridden that kind of distance since my teens. I was so tired. I booked into a hotel because I couldn’t find a campsite within reach, and I was at least able to wash and dry some clothes and have a hot meal.
Being soaked to the bone was no fun at all, but only to be expected in England in the height of summer. My waterproof clothing didn’t help much because it was the type trawler people sometimes used out at sea: thick, heavy rubber. I was too big to be able to buy cycling or sports waterproof clothing or most other types of clothing, so I had to wear whatever I could buy online. My shoulder width resulted in long sleeves being short sleeves, and I was aware that being up to 5XL might cause all kinds of problems as I progressed through my adventure.
Trying to squeeze into Lycra was like trying to get 350 pounds of sausage meat into a 200-pound skin, which was not a pretty sight. I wore baggy shorts over the top to save people’s blushes and my own. I could picture towns like those hosting Wild West shootouts, with mothers dragging their children and pets off the streets and closing the shutters as I passed through. Maybe a little exaggeration, but I had myself laughing at the thought.
Soothing new-found muscles and getting into a big, sprung bed that second night was pure bliss. I had every faith that, at some point, my muscles would settle in, the sun would shine, and I would become less embarrassed about how I looked in tight clothing.
The following day, as I cycled along a canal towpath, I came across some young bulls stuck in the water up to their middles. The rest of the herd stood around, unable to do anything but stare. I pedaled on at a good pace for three miles in the rain until I came to a pub and approached the manager. It turned out she knew who owned the young bulls and told me everything would be fine, so I continued on my way towards a campsite I had located. The rain was relentless, and I was still suffering sore muscles, though I had another feeling I didn’t expect to feel so soon: a sense of real freedom. I had everything with me I thought I’d need to see my adventure through, and no time constraints.
I’d had nothing but horrid weather since leaving home, but finally, I had a day with the wind to my back and a few breaks in the clouds. I felt good, even taking into account the bone and butt-shaking experience of cycling on the mostly narrow tracks that made up much of the canal towpath. Later that morning, I cycled right through the middle of a beautiful wheat field on a flattened path a tractor had made. I stood the bike in the middle and snapped an image I thought would always remind me of my adventure. I also thought it would look good on a book cover although, at that time, I hadn’t written anything longer than a high school essay, and I was no poet either, as you will have no doubt guessed.
It rained all night, and in the morning I had to beat everyone on the campsite to the washroom dryers. If I hadn’t made it to the dryers first, I could have been waiting hours in a queue, or I might have had to hit the road with everything wet and weighty. Thankfully, everything was dry. A lady named Sue and her son Kai had set up their tent with some friends next to mine the night before, and they made a nice brew before I packed up and set off.
Wild camping was something I was looking forward to, though I didn’t expect to be doing it so soon, because I felt sure I’d have no trouble finding campsites. My problem was not being able to cover vast distances each day so, for me, campsites were few and far between. If my range had been between 50 and 100 miles a day, I would have stood a much better chance. That first night of wild camping was at the end of a very long and hard day; a typical day at that point. I struggled over my first bumps and hills, and eventually ran out of steam.
I stood at an opening in a hedge that led to a farmer’s recently cut field. I couldn’t see anyone nearby, so I waited for the last cars to pass before quickly pushing the bike through the gap and setting up my tent behind the hedge, out of sight. It felt nice to get out of my sweat-soaked, heavy clothing, followed by a scrub with a packet of baby wipes, before diving into a dry sleeping bag.