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The long road to enlightenment (by bike): VecchioJo's lessons from a lifetime of long distance riding

VecchioJo brings what he’s learnt on the road to his everyday life

I’ve done enough of what people might consider big distance rides in my time, some weighty audaxes and even a couple of what some could call 'ultras', in that it’s been day after day after day stuff with a bit of night thrown in... and while I’m no hardened, grizzled expert by a very long stretch, I’ve slept for not enough hours in the back of a barn after a long ride that had several long rides preceding it already, with several to come and in quite a few churchyards too, not quite managing the sleep of the dead next to the dead, remarkably balanced on a bench by the side of a shared use path when that was the only slumber option, or just ridden into the dark and out the other end because I’ve needed to.

I’ve wanted a decent shave midway through a ride. I’ve eaten half my body weight in petrol station food in one sitting, then stretched out a painful crunchy Achilles tendon on the kerb by the charcoal briquettes and stared at my snot, blood and dust-covered shoes, pondering my life choices more than once. While the discourse on these events always tends to focus on the sunken-cheeked hardships varnished with a monotone grittiness, I’ve found that once aches and hunger have subsided and despite the odd cold shudder flashback, I’ve emerged from such shenanigans with only positives.

Many of these have percolated into my everyday life and have made that particular long journey easier. Whether you're planning a huge multi-day adventure or just aiming to finish your first 50 miler, hopefully some or all of the below musings are applicable to you... 

Stop worrying

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It will probably be fine.

Preparing for longer rides does allow you plenty of scope to fret about all sorts of everything. Is my route going to be ok, and what bit is going to be an unplanned trudge through a field or crawl up a gravel mountain? Do I have all the right clothing, and which item am I going to regretfully don’t think I need? What bit of my bike is going to break, and do I have the tools and spares to mend the usual stuff, and more importantly the knowledge and intuition to fix something out of the ordinary? Am I just going to be staring at a broken bit of metal with zero options and a long walk in inappropriate shoes? Do I have enough emergency zip-ties and gaffer tape to maybe mend the what-ifs? What if I get lost and attacked by wolves?

There are a thousand doomsday scenarios that will flit darkly across your mind while you stare at the 3am ceiling, and all those you’ve fretted about beforehand are the things that never actually happen because you’ve prepared for them. Even the thing that comes straight at you from the outfield and properly smacks you in the bits will only stutter you for a short while before you conjure up a solution. It’s very, very rarely as bad as you might have imagined. It will be fine, crack on.

Be calm

Which leads us neatly to the next positive about dealing with things should it go wrong. While others might be flapping their arms around and making a lot of clucking clamour about what can possibly be done, it’s best just to step away a short distance, sit down, grab a snack out your bag (everything becomes a lot clearer if you sit down and chew on something whilst you’re mulling the situation over) and quietly ponder what the next course of action might be.

Panic, fluster and commotion always build up to bigger mistakes, snapped and broken things and bloody knuckles. Fixing something with a multi-tool and pocket knife knowing there’s no bike shop nearby or one-click next day delivery in case you need a spare is a remarkably focusing, almost zen-like situation. Calm is the virtue of the strong and all that.

Just Get On With It

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Procrastination can be a sign of uncertainty. Repacking a bag, fiddling with kit and checking up on any number of social medias while you’re meant to be on the move can be tell-tale signs of doubt and indecision, and it sucks merrily at the teat of time.

If you just clip back in and pedal forwards, things have a magical way of being what they will be, and everything works out as it should. I put this forward as a life lesson but I can still fanny about to an Olympic level on a daily basis, putting the Pro into crastination, and the farting about and avoiding it can take three times as long as the actual doing. Actually just do it.

It will change

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Riding bikes a long way isn’t always sunshine and buttercups. If the weather doesn’t get you at some point then fatigue, a sore bit and dark thoughts often will.

But... as quick as these things can descend upon you they will flutter away just as swiftly. That rain will pass over, that hill will stop, the pain in your left knee will ease, and at some point you’ll be cresting a summit to a glorious switchback descent into a sunset, or something similarly metaphoric.

All things will pass, swap from good to bad and back again, sometimes several times. Learn to accept both with equal grace, and that sometimes the only way out is through.

People are nice

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A broad statement here, but it’s easy to think that with the gushing sewer of news and endless doom-scrolling that the world is a fiery ball of hatred that’s wildly spinning towards imminent self-destruction... but IRL, on the ground and face-to-face, people are fundamentally kind.

Maybe it’s a consequence of turning up looking tired, dishevelled and a little vulnerable on a bicycle, but my interactions with strangers on the road have been nothing but affirming. I have been met with warmth, amiability and frequent laughter. There have been a few exceptions and I can list places I don’t need to visit again, but these have been more than outweighed by the memories of goodwill and generosity.

Just ask

This could be seen as an extension of the above. I am not the most gregarious of people, and combined with a very British sensibility of not wanting to make a fuss means that I’ll generally just make do and muddle on if something’s not available immediately, rather than be awkward and bother someone; but bikepacking and long travelled miles has taught me that it’s usually a good idea to just ask.

Stepping up to a stranger in their front garden in the blinding heat of the day in the middle of nowhere and asking them for some water is the most uncomfortable situation I could put myself in, but I’ve had to do it a few times. Every time it’s been fine and has been met with kindness and a chat. Extend this across the rest of your world and it generally makes your life a little bit easier. Be quiet, polite and smile sweetly and people will reciprocate, and if not they can only say no and you’ve lost nothing.

All food is good. Be appreciative

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Travelling under your own steam over many days and even more miles means that fuelling is a constant issue and concern. There are times when food doesn’t appear at the right time or it isn’t necessarily the food you’d want, but it is there and it is where you are, so you eat it.

If you’re on your bike, are out of fuel with a long way to go and you approach somewhere that serves food, then you stop. You never know when the next opportunity might arise, as the place that’s just up the road according to your notes and Google Maps may be shut thanks to the vagaries of opening hours, or might not even exist anymore.

Being in strange lands where the cuisine might not necessarily meet your dietary standards or foibles is common. There was the time I thought I was tucking into a cinnamon pastry, and the first mouthful revealed it had bits of pork in it instead complimented with a large contingent of fat. It was unexpected, but useful ride fuel nonetheless.

We won’t mention the time my travelling companion opened a can of what they thought might be a decent lunch but their involuntary gag had them walking across the grass straight to the bin, or the cinnamon not sugar sachet incident. It’s taught me not to be fussy and to be always grateful of food. Accept what’s put in front of you, don’t force your lifestyle choice dietary imperialism onto other people that might not understand it, or have the ability to meet it, and accept any food that someone has made for you with politeness and thanks.

Dirt is (mostly) fine

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Day-on-day riding brings with it a level of grubby that’s compounded heavily by sweaty miles, and you learn to get used to your own funk (eventually). The lack of decent washing facilities doesn’t help either, and a quick squoosh in a wash basin won’t get several hundred miles of effort out of a chamois.

You’ll develop a fine ambience of musty. You’ll only really get to notice this aura in the company of other people when you’re acutely aware that the world is full of fake scents. Everyone else smells gently of perfume, and you’ll realise that fabric softener scent is incredibly cloying; don’t get me started on the ones that advertise the smell of being dried outdoors.

Carrying this forward into normal life, I use the washing machine a lot less now. I’m not a total scuzzbag and I’m still acutely aware of my aroma, the sniff test as always is a good indicator. That said, when on the road it pays to take care of the smelly bits. A clean undercarriage is a long-term benefit, but wash those snotty, grubby gloves often too. Take the germ-ridden mitts off when eating, and rinse helmet straps whenever you can. When was the last time you washed your helmet straps anyway?

Be nice to your bike

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That’s about it. Life on the road means that your bike might not receive the mechanical and cleaning sympathy it might usually get, but do what you can. Perform your basic tyre, drivetrain, brakes and frame checks on a daily basis just to make sure nothing’s going to bite you in the arse later. You should be doing this already, but the habit of a pre-ride check is a good one to get into. If you do succumb to a mechanical then apply the calmness as mentioned above. It’s easy to make a bad situation worse by going in angry, ham fisted and snappy.

Less is more

Spending time on the road with all that you need (well, most of it) is a great way of realising what you actually really need. It’s not much more than a clean chain and a tailwind, and a snack, and a waterproof just in case. The rest is all filler.

That doesn’t mean you have to give it all away and live in a yurt in the hills, but after I’ve returned from every long ride there’s always been a hefty eBay dump and carry of bags down to the charity shop as I try to make a small tidy dent in my clutter of life.

You are better than you think

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One of the things riding a long way is great for is realising that you can achieve more than you might ever have thought. The furthest you’d ever ridden before? Well that was miles ago, and here you are still going.

If you keep pushing it and pushing it you might pedal into somewhere dark (and I don’t just mean sometime after midnight), but you’ll discover you’ll come out the other side to arrive in a special place of self-belief, and you’ll be gobsmacked by yourself.

Mine is creating a small rise at dawn as a flock of birds flew alongside me over a cornfield. You don’t have to push your boundaries to the point of sitting in the gutter having a brief weep to get there, but it’s good sometimes to just give them a little poke. As someone once said: “Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they're yours.”

I’m not the first person to spend time alone and undergo some self-imposed hardship to stumble into a level of enlightenment and understanding that can be applied to day-to-day life. Some have even made quite a big thing about it and invite people along to join in, but there’s no rigid tenet you have to follow religiously here. You just have to ride your bike...

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 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.

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Bezzard74 | 3 weeks ago

The Be Calm section -  100% 

Failed tubeless rear, then 2 pucntures on LWL 2023. Eventually found a nicely lit forecourt, sat down, took my time and found the sharp little bugger.


brooksby replied to Bezzard74 | 3 weeks ago

I hate it when I can't find the obvious source of a puncture.

SecretSam | 1 month ago
1 like

Excellent advice for anyone, although I'd have added that whilst dirt is OK, being dirty is not (in certain body parts, ahem).

Oh, and people ARE kind, unless they're Daily Heil readers, in which case, not so much.

Dogless replied to SecretSam | 1 month ago

Even those people are usually kind when you meet them face to face. They often just hate people with darker skin than pink because they rarely (if ever) meet them. I've family members with some of the worst possible opinions on the world, but they'd help someone out in a bind, whoever they were. The world isn't actually made up of goodies and baddies as much as social media tells us it is.

TheBillder | 1 month ago

Beautifully written (yet again). Thank you.

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