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Heading Home

Heading Home

Marcel Proust
“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

Day 430 – 22,503 miles / 36,216 km

It took 1,500 miles and 25 days from arriving at Lisbon Airport with my bike in a cardboard box to arriving in London being surrounded by my friends and family.

I could have cycled quicker, I could have taken detours to see other European countries, I could even have headed south and ventured towards Morocco. And that’s one of the beauties of solo travelling; there is no imposed timetable and no itinerary: just freedom. Your only limitation is your own imagination. And yet I chose to do none of those things. Instead, I wiggled my way through Portugal, Spain and France before arriving in Newhaven for the final ride back in the UK.

There are a great many reasons why one chooses to embark on these grand adventures and an equal number of reasons why one chooses to return. This is not the time to express either in any great detail but suffice to say, when you know, you know.

A Tourist Again

I thoroughly enjoyed cycling across the USA, just as I did New Zealand and Australia before. All provided amusement, kindness, beauty and a common language. And yet, despite those similarities, they all felt slightly unfamiliar. I have found that the further one gets from what they view as home, the more tenuous and important the common link becomes. Random encounters with Dutch, Belgian, Swiss and German travellers in the Australian Outback, all using their second language, made me feel more aligned to my own culture than the English speaking nation I was in. I was hugely excited to meet a French cyclist when I was in Nevada. The fluidity of conversation between us was far exceeded by those I had with any American I met in the 4,000 miles between San Francisco and New York. Yet there appeared a common cultural bond between us Europeans who had ventured far from our homelands to countries bigger than our continent.

Arriving in Portugal, therefore, felt uplifting. Not just because the physical distance to home was relatively short now but rather because there suddenly seemed a relatability not present before. I don’t speak Portuguese and my Spanish and French, although workable, displays the linguistic capability of a local toddler rather than a 30-year-old man.

I was surrounded by nattering locals whom I could not understand, labels and packaging I regularly misinterpreted and spent far too long in my head attempting to pronounce road signs I knew I was getting embarrassingly wrong. It suddenly appeared to be more like a holiday. The kind of enjoyable holiday where one’s mind is pleasantly distracted by the goings-on around them, the pace of life seemed more leisurely, the days long and people more beautiful.

You don’t know what you actually miss until it’s back again. My mind was preoccupied with the age and character of the architecture as I merrily bounced along cobbled streets. I stopped in small cafés in small towns and cherished the sunshine/espresso/cigarette/book combination. My panniers developed their own inimitable scent stocked high with local cheeses, salty butter, chorizo and freshly baked bread. Fiendishly steep hills, lakeside camping, small cars with frantic drivers, immense castles overlooking dainty towns and a sense of proud unpretentiousness. We in the UK, and indeed the whole of Europe, are immensely fortunate to have such a diverse culture, language and history at such proximity. It was great to be back and exciting to be edging ever closer to the end.

Two of Us

I was joining the dots between capital cities: Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and London. I was also trying to coordinate the logistics of returning home with who and when others could join me beforehand.

Having spent over 21,000 miles cycling alone on this trip, it’s reasonable to say that I’ve become quite accustomed to my own routine, speed and company. But I don’t believe life is meant to be spent alone on a bike for that long. From the comfort of my café – sunshine, espresso, cigarette and book included, of course – in a small town in the south of France, I watched someone hauling a cardboard box down the steps of a train station. My perspective shifted almost immediately.

The impact of friendship has been integral throughout the journey. With 600km and five days between us and Paris, Harry and I would likely be having a different kind of trip to the one I had been on. When alone, there is constant internal processing: checkpoints, rest stops, food/water supplies, navigation, camping spots, potholes etc. You can relax but only up to a point. We’ve done plenty of trips together over the years so with him ahead, I could happily take a back seat for many of those decisions. It was liberating. I had someone I could trust and openly express a lot of the inane thoughts that often overwhelmed my mind. The danger of overthinking when alone for that long is a very real one and having somebody to bounce opinions off was important. It wouldn’t work with everyone, of course, but he provided a perspective I needed and valued.

So through the Dordogne we pedalled with more hills, bigger castles and some tasty weather before heading up through France and edging closer to Paris along winding rural roads. A few decent meals and good sleeps were appreciated. More than that, it was the shared experience of the little things. The small encounters that inevitably happen when touring are more amusing when shared. The morning espresso stop or afternoon beer isn’t just temporary respite before hopping back on the bike and being consumed by one’s own thoughts. Instead, they become a chance to talk and laugh.

A few long days enabled positive progress before the increasing number of traffic lights and buildings represented the outskirts of Paris. We were distracted by our own wager on how far away we could see the Eiffel Tower: I lost badly. Excuse the nauseous management speak about seeking a positive from failure but it was a defeat that still felt celebratory. I could happily part with a few Euros for us both to sit with a beer under blue skies and have the Eiffel Tower rise majestically overhead. Paris truly is a glorious city!

Harry, thank you for flying out and spending your holiday with me camping in a field, evaluating the salt content of French butter and being mistakenly identified as “mon petit copain.”

Two Becomes Five

9am at the Louvre. That was the plan and with the morning sun glistening over the ancient buildings, I met with four friends: Jack, Jilly, Will and Emily to begin our ride towards Dieppe. Anticipated difficulties navigating through the capital were just about managed, minus a selection of bananas which fell foul to the Parisian pavé. But the countryside and open roads of northern France awaited our merry bunch. And indeed it was a merry bunch, all of whom are very capable cyclists, so I was gratefully drafted along and we began to make dents into our 180km ride.

A plentiful supply of viennoiseries and espressos – a theme has emerged you might have spotted – kept morale and energy levels high. Unnamed bikes were the recipient of a christening they neither craved nor loved, but alas, Dorothy, Freddie and Claude were soon joined by Cosette and Colin. Our groupetto of five finally rode into the sunset, along empty cycle roads – the French passion and understanding for cycling is just beautiful – and into Dieppe.

A strong pint on ravenous stomachs combined with an endorphin rush made us all the merrier. And then we just sat outside a church munching on our pizzas having had a long and satisfying day. It simply felt good to be with friends in a foreign city.

A little nap at the ferry terminal followed by a little nap on the ferry and suddenly we were awoken by a loudspeaker. I went outside and saw the coastal cliffs of England under grey skies and felt quite emotional. I remember seeing them disappear when I headed to the continent last August. I knew this needed to be savoured; an extremely brief period of solitary reflection between episodes of disorderly riding. The country I’ve missed and thought long about was suddenly right there. It was a bleak and damp morning but I expected nothing less; it felt reassuringly British.

Chaos and Calm

“So, between us, how many punctures do you reckon before we get to London?”

I asked the question as we disembarked from the ferry. Our groupetto of five was about to transition to a peloton of more than twelve. Within the first half-hour, a snapped derailleur, two punctures and three separate groups was probably a sign of things to come. One then had to take the train into London with an unworkable bike, two more headed back to Cardiff. Simultaneously, the main body of sodden riders accumulated an additional four bodies from a pub in Surrey around lunchtime.

A few packs of crisps and a pint later, this initially giddy and disparate group set off into the rain once more and headed through the Surrey Hills. Traffic lights, roundabouts and unpredictable cycle lanes ensured the group erroneously fractured three ways once more. The experience and capability of the riders were as varied as the outfits being worn and the steeds below them. We were generally met with positivity on the roads as well as the familiar white van driver mouthing off and giving us a few generous gestures. Those incidents just cracked me up. It was good to be back!

WhatsApp live location was enabled for everyone under the inevitable assumption that a wrong turn could misdirect anyone at any time. Somehow, we ended up together once more and rode through Central London as the enthusiastic, chaotic and (vaguely) cohesive peloton I hoped it would be. We gained one extra man a mile from the end as my dad met us on his folding bike on the edge of Clapham Common – it only added to the absurdity of the situation.

Finally, I rolled into Battersea Park and entered the Pear Tree Cafe. For a number of reasons, that spot was somewhere I had thought lots about and reminded me of safety and genuine love: two things that are often lacking when alone on a bike in a foreign country. I hugged my family and shared drinks with old friends who were awaiting my arrival. Blue skies and a pink hue provided the perfect backdrop as the sun was setting not just on London but on my own vogage.

For such a solitary and strenuous solo journey, it felt oddly fitting to be surrounded by friends and family in the city I was born in and the city I view as home. A juxtaposition of experiences but in the best of ways.

The Small Things

Chapeau and thank you to my friends for spending their weekend alongside me on their eclectic array of bikes.

As for the little party when I returned…I’m especially grateful to my sisters for putting in so much effort to make it what it was for their annoying little brother. I’m also so grateful to all those great friends who made the effort to come along, have a beer and say hi. Honestly, it was a day that will remain with me for a great many years and grey hairs to come.

I’ll write some thoughts on the trip as a whole in due course. For now, I’m just happy sitting at the kitchen table at home in a t-shirt and jeans with a cup of tea knowing that a shower and my bed await. It’s the small things I’ve missed and the small things that matter most.