This is going to be an odd ride. Already it feels quite subdued, and with something unsaid. There should be a level of excitement to it and an anticipation of significant mileage, but there is none of that. There is the sense that it is something just to be done. Out of reverence.
As part of the ongoing training for riding across a large fistful of Europe my Trancontinental team-mate Gavin and I are riding from one side of the UK to the other. Brighton to Bristol, 250km in one go, fully-loaded with 3 days of normal clothes and stuff for traipsing around the Bespoked handmade bike show. This will be an important test of how we are progressing in our prep, even though no-one is currently sure if the Transcontinental race will actually go ahead.
With the passing of ultra-distance racer and Transcontinental founder Mike Hall not even a week ago emotions are still quite raw and there is a quiet melancholy and yet discernable shadow to this day. The shock of Mike’s death will not only painfully affect his family and friends but the ripples have extended quickly around the world to bounce off those who had only briefly met him and further countless others who had merely read stories but were nevertheless inspired by all that he calmly and humbly did. You can include Gavin and I floating on the various waves of that spectrum, for without him we would not be doing this. Even if the Transcontinental doesn’t officially happen this year because of what has happened we have booked the time off and we’re both physically and mentally committed to it so we’ll just ride the route anyway, and we certainly won’t be alone. It’s easy to say continuing with the race is what Mike would have wanted, but I genuinely think it is.
As well as discussing both the immediate and long-term future of the race people are considering the rationale, safety and selfishness of competing in long distance races and the news has added further and not insignificant pressure and worry on the families and loved ones of competitors in this and similar endeavours. Purely by coincidence my I.C.E. (otherwise known as my sister) popped round the day after Mike’s death. I had been dreading what she might say should she hear the news and when her first question at the door is asking how I am I keep it vague and reply that as someone I know was killed on their bike I’m not so good. She knows, she has seen it all over her social media fed through mutual friends. Shit. There is a pause before she tells me that this is all the more reason for me to finish the race. Phew, thanks sis. The people that know you know that there are certain things you have to do, things that are you, even if they smile sweetly but don’t quite understand.
In the days preceding our Bristol ride friends have ended communications with a “Ride safe”, which is something that I don’t think has ever happened before, and each time it’s said it is both a small welcome caress of care and felt with a sharp punch in the guts of what could happen. While a tragedy is something that can potentially happen every time we leave the house on a bike recent matters and our current aim bring things into stark focus.
Packing is quick but measured, gentle and easy, I sort all that I need and it fits perfectly into my bike-packing bags, no discard, no overstuff, double-check everything, late-night shave, up at 0600, leave at 0700. Today I am tired and my body is still running rough after being clunky all week, the lingering after effects of a cold a short while back that mean whilst I’m generally fine the fallout refuses to shift from the furthest bronchioles, despite constant coughing out of the clear tacky bubbly residue. This sort of thing happens to me frequently enough to know that it’s not life-threatening but it is tedious, wearisome and just gets in the way. It responds quite well to being told that that I’m not listening to its wheeze and ache any more and I’m going to ride my bike regardless. Though there’s always a worrying whispering element of double-bluff and the threat of maybe collapsing further. More critical than my scratchy mouse lungs not being in the game today my head and mildly acidic legs definitely aren’t either. I have brief dissident thoughts about train stations. Once again I tell my body to shut up because I’m not listening.
Gavin sets off at his customary bit-too-fast pace which is usually ok but not today and I silently and diligently hang onto both his wheel and the fact that he usually slows down after 100kms or so. The slight nudging headwind doesn’t help much with my general grumpiness either. Nor does my puncture after less than 25kms, and then another one far too shortly afterwards. Sigh. One more and I’m going home. After I’ve hissy-fit thrown my bike in the hedge. Still, it’s a nice day for a bike ride and once we break out of the familiarity of our local cartography we’re traveling some lovely cross-country back-roads, and a bit of routing-error fun off-road.
Inspirational thoughts of what has become an almost celebratory hashtag and to #BeMoreMike don’t even enter my head, I just need to pedal and get on with it, it’s what he would have suggested anyway. It is just a bike ride, it is just a day, it is nothing amazing in the great scheme of what is to come, just a stepping stone, or what has happened. Shut up, pedal. It’s only a bike ride. The bags make the bike heavy and sluggish and there is no dancing on the pedals joy, just trudge. It is only a bike ride. Thinking positively there will be tired and plodding days like this on the Transcontinental, better get used to it.
At about halfway we dip off route into a pub that Gavin knows and break for a lunch that doesn’t touch the sides. Despite my reticent irritable mood at my body, its half-life of tiredness and lackadaisical legs I can’t wait to leave the collars over smart jumpers of here, the polite pub-garden conversations of nothing, the hesitant parking crunch of expensive cars on gravel, and be on the move again. With each long trip that we do I slip a little further into the intoxication of the stolen moments of this transitory life; the hours of silent almost secret movement, a bubble that unclips in and clips back out of other people’s lives, dipping into a world that you’ve never really felt a part of anyway. It’s taken a lifetime for forces to combine into something that I didn’t know I was made for but always was. And with each journey the come-down in the following days as we have to conform to a more normal and sedentary life gets harder and harder. Legs twitch under desks, windows get gazed out of, reliance on snacks is high. What isn’t normal becomes more normal.
After the eat-and-go no-second-pints learning-to-minimize-faff lunch the ride evens out a bit, Gavin has a post-food energy slump and slows to meet me speeding up as my body realizes that no matter how much it’s going to whine I’m still going to keep riding my bike and by the time we cross the endless whaleback headwinds of the Plain we’re riding better together and have bitten off a large chunk of the ride with just persistent chewing to finish it off. But chewing is something we do not do, we should have had something more substantial than the packets of peanuts and a Clif bar with pub tea and coffee in Pewsey because the tea-rooms was shut at tea-time. I knew this in the moment but paid little attention, we could have, should have, easily popped into a shop or petrol station for a sandwich, and now we’re paying the price for thinking we’d be okay. Progress has slowed dramatically because of this basic error and as we weave through Bath we have to stop for an emergency burger, to be fair it’s been mentioned as a possibility several times in the past and has been a food ear-worm but now it’s an absolute necessity. I want to fall asleep whilst waiting for the order, the Stereophonics – “Just Looking” plays over the speakers and a song that I’ve never paid much attention to before suddenly gains a specific pin-point in time and place forever more. As darkness slips over us we inhale our burgers on the pavement next to our bikes without a care to the glances and giggles of passers-by, the gap between bike-packer and tramp is never that great, but it gives us sufficient fuel to make the last 20km stretch along the flattish bike path to Bristol.
Little did we know that this dirty snatched meal would also have to see us to breakfast the next day as by the time we’d got to our hotel and cleaned up, typed a googlemaps search for restaurants and did that desperate walk around a strange city late at night looking for food, any food, we’d run out of options and all we could manage was three pints of beer as post-ride sustenance. Hardly ideal, but some essential Transcontinental lessons have been learned today; eat when you can, not when you think you might be able to. It takes Gavin and I several days to catch up with the deficit of a missed meal, this is a mistake we won’t be able to make in the middle of Europe.
I feel it prudent to txt my sister to let her know that I have arrived safely, it’s not something that I’ve ever felt the need to do before, and something I have never felt or been pressurised to do either for a quick spin round the lanes or a long week away somewhere. I come from an era when a phone call at an odd hour usually meant bad news, two rings once home was often all that was needed if at all and when far away a postcard at some point was the acceptable protocol, an oddly quaint concept in the current omni-contactability heavy-flow chatterglut world. Today it feels necessary just to let someone know I’m okay, Mike has cast an important shadow.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.