A bicycle love affair

When I was in secondary school, my parents drove me to our nearest Decathlon store in France to get a bicycle of my own. I don’t remember how old I was, I don’t remember what I was wearing, and I don’t remember who exactly who was with me, but I do remember the bicycle. It was dark blue with yellow brakes and ‘Decathlon’ written in big letters across the frame. I couldn’t touch the floor of the shop when I tried it on. But I loved it. It was to be my bicycle. Even though I was too short for it, my parents bought it. The idea was I would grow into it and wouldn’t need another bike for a long time. They were right. The next bike that came into my ownership was bought from my own money as a grown-up with a proper job.

Now modified by my uncle for work in the fields of northern France

I did everything and went everywhere with that first steed. I knew nothing of bicycles. I couldn’t fix a puncture or even tighten a screw. So by the time I was 19, the handlebars were loose, the saddle was wobbly, and the brakes near unusable. But it worked. It took me from A to B. It wasn’t particularly safe but I knew the bicycle so intimately that it didn’t matter. I trusted it.

Then I moved to the UK and became an au pair. The family let me use one of their bikes but I hated it. So I remained on foot that year. But then, I got a job and began saving for a new ride. Little by little and with the help of birthday and Christmas money I purchased my first bicycle as an adult. It was a Brompton folding bicycle. It had a black body and white extremities . I couldn’t afford something that didn’t fold. I just didn’t have the room and my living/working situation almost demanded that I ride  folding. I took it everywhere, and like my previous bicycle, I didn’t care if it wasn’t fit for purpose. It took me to work, it took me to the shops, it even took me to Scotland.

I still didn’t know much about bicycles. I couldn’t fix a puncture (but I learned to tighten screws). But that didn’t matter. I could still get from A to B. That is until I got a puncture and spent an entire afternoon learning how to fix it with the help of YouTube.

Life changed again and I fancied a full-sized bicycle. I didn’t have a lot of cash to expand and just wanted something fun to ride. So I walked in a second-hand shop and bought a gorgeous dark blue Dawes Londoner. It only had one speed but that suited me fine. As I gained confidence in the streets of London, I kept the folding bicycle in the cupboard more and more and wheezed around in the capital on this new steed. It even took me to Cambridge once.

By then, the touring bug seriously got hold of me, and while I loved my Brompton, I wanted something more suited to the task. So I began to save, hatched a plan to explore Portugal from my saddle, and eventually bought a sky blue Oxford Bike Works. By this time I knew how to fix a puncture and how to change brake pads (in theory). And these were all the skills I needed to feel confident to set off in the Iberian Peninsula for four months. This bike has truly taken me places. It has taken me from A to B, but mostly it has enabled to be get lost and travel with no destination in mind. I trust this bike so intimately, it’s like an extension of my body when I get on it. And while it’s a delight to ride, it’s also very heavy. And today I fancy something lighter to nip into work, something easier to carry for day rides and week-ends microadventures. None of my bikes can give me that, so it was time to get a new one.

My single speed put up for sale, and with money from my birthday, Christmas, and job, I started to look around and found a red, white, and yellow old school Graham Weigh bicycle at a local second-hand shop. I hopped on it for a test ride and fell in love. My feet couldn’t touch the ground and my body was falling forward but I knew it was the bike I was after. I tweaked the saddle and stem, and it was perfect. I swapped saddle, I got new bar tape, I changed pedals, and there it is. A new bicycle. One that will stay with me for years to come. And this time I know how to fix a puncture, I know how to change the brakes (in practice), I know how to tighten bolts, and I even know about pedals, bottom brackets, chain, brake levers, bar tape, saddle, panniers, racks, tyres, inner tubes, and more. I still don’t know much about gears other than they can make you life easy or hard. But then, it doesn’t matter. I’ve lived this long without knowing about it, I can spend a few more years blissfully ignorant.

I haven’t ridden many miles on it yet and I don’t have the luggage I want for light touring, but that will come in time. The days are getting longer and I’m hatching plans. There’s a whole lot of Somerset I haven’t explored, most of Wales and a huge chunk of the Cotswolds I’ve never seen. But that will soon be rectified.


The day before Christmas

Where do you want to go? I texted my friend in mid-December. We’d arrange to meet up for a day ride on Christmas Eve, one of the only days when our calendar aligned and gave us both a day off.
Let’s go to Monmouth.
Sounds like a good plan.
And nothing more was said on the matter until the 23rd of December when I realised we didn’t have a route ready. I grabbed my phone and began texting. Do you have a route in mind for tomorrow?
The answer was no. I quickly hopped on Google Maps and Sustrans and perused our options. There were a few possibilities, all of which had escape routes in case the roads grew too busy to our liking. I closed the maps and went on with my day.

My alarm rang on the 24th and I briefly wondered why I was doing this. It had been over a week since I last woke up without the sound of my phone instructing me night was over. Blurry eyed and half asleep, I put on some clothes, prepared breakfast, and went out of the house, all my movements well honed by habits.

As I pushed the pedals and wheeled myself away from the drive, I felt my eyes open and a smile rise on my face. I forgot about the alarm clock and let the hill carry me down.

In no time I was at the train station where we had agreed to meet. I was early, having completely misjudged how long it was going to take me to get there. I sat on a bench and waited, listening to the shrill call of gulls. I had missed it. I use to cycle almost daily along a stretch of the Avon river where the gulls mingle and dance. But now the path is closed and I barely see the gulls any more. My eyes darted from one to another. They looked happy enough.

My friend arrived, taking me out of my reverie. We chatted for a few minutes. I disclosed the options of route for the day, and without much care we cycled away from the city centre. The route was known to both of us. We’d cycled it before and it was easy to follow Sustrans’ signs out-of-town. We pedalled side by side, talking about this and that, conversations stopped because of traffic, only to be picked up where we’d left off as the roads became ours again.

We weren’t paying too much attention to the road and missed a turn. It didn’t matter, we weren’t racing. Back on track we soon escaped the city for the neighbouring suburbs. Other cyclists passed us by, everyone waving, smiling, and full of Merry Christmas. It was good to be on the bike.

We encountered a collection of signs where cycle routes divided and decided to follow the quickest one to the Severn bridge. I could see it in the distance and pushed a little harder on the pedals, eager to cross the river to Wales.

Photo by my friend

We cycled on and the bridge began to disappear from sight. The road was unfamiliar, our previous foray into Wales having been via the longer route to the bridge. Since neither of us have a cycling computer we couldn’t say how long we’d been cycling since the sign to the bridge, but it felt like it’d been too long.

‘Do you recognise this route,’ I asked, knowing that my friends had cycled to Wales more than I have.
‘I think we missed a turning and are now going to Gloucester.’
We stopped and checked our phones. The bridge was south of the blue dot on Google Maps.
‘Let’s go to Gloucester then.’

We jumped back onto the saddle and followed the road ahead. It was easy to change decision. Monmouth had after all been an arbitrary choice of destination. All we wanted was a ride and we were getting one. Free of worry, we carried on, guided by Sustrans peppered signs in the countryside. Some of them were peeling of, others had faded completely and we took a few wrong turns as a result. It still didn’t matter.

We kept chatting about projects finished, projects to come, plans for the new year, features of the landscape, and this and that. The weather was grey over our heads but sometimes a break in the clouds would bring a spot of blue sky, a reminder that beneath the clouds, lay the promise of sunshine.

‘Bristol!’ I pointed ahead to the sign visible in the break between hedges. ‘Bristol, A38.’ I added as the sign became more visible.
We paused in front of the four lane road. We had clearly taken another wrong turn. Looking at our phone, Gloucester was still a good 11 miles away. It wasn’t that far but we were both starting to feel our appetite growing. I tapped on a few keys and found a pub nearby. We could decide what to do there. We parked the bikes, ordered food and drink and settled at a table. All around us people were wearing Christmas jumpers, Santa hats, and smiles on their faces. Our hair messed up by helmets, and clothes sprayed by mud, we looked a little less festive. But the feeling was there. For both of us, citizens of the European continent, Christmas celebrations were supposed to take place that day. There was a meal and drinks waiting for us back in Bristol. So with our bellies full, we decided to cycle back home. Gloucester could wait for another day.

Photo by my friend

Navigating our way back was easy, we simply had to do the exact opposite of what we’d done in the morning, minus all the wrong turns. Only now the wind had picked up, blowing directly into our faces, making us push harder on the pedals even though the roads were mostly flat. We tailed one another, the time for conversation ended by the wind and emerging drizzle. I didn’t mind much. Since I went away cycling in the Iberian peninsula for a few months, wind and rain had become things that happened outside of my control instead of an annoyance on my schedule.

‘Look at those colours.’ My friend pointed at a field. The green of the grass seemed to glow under the fluorescent grey of the clouds. ‘You don’t get such changes in colours so quickly anywhere else.’
I agreed. The UK wasn’t many people’s idea of beautiful, but when faced with the ever-changing palette of the sky, I couldn’t help but think many people were wrong.

We seemed to cycle faster than in the morning and soon we were within familiar roads. I spotted a sign for Wales. ‘Fancy going to Monmouth now,’ I teased. We didn’t. We were getting wet and cold, the movement of our legs the only thing keeping us warm.

Hills appeared and we lowered our gears to rise into Bristol. Once on top, we shifted back to standard gears and freewheeled most of our way to the train station. There, we followed roads I see almost everyday, roads that lead us home. We put away the bikes, changed into clean clothes, and hugged a well-earned cup of tea. And as the dark and cold descended outside, lights and warmth engulfed us inside.

Album – Passage – A cycle journey through Spain and Portugal

In March 2016 I left my home in the UK to cycle in Portugal. My panniers were full of camping gear, road essentials, and microphones. From the beginning of the trip I knew I was going to record a lot of sounds. I had no idea what I would produce out of those sounds. I imagined simply sharing the files, creating a sound map, maybe integrating them in a story in words. But never did I think, I would create an album.

When I came back home in July 2016, I was at a loss of what to do with all of my material. I wanted to share my story but I didn’t know how. Writing about it felt trivial. There was (and still is) nothing exceptional about what I did. I pedalled a lot of miles, slowly, and with a lot of breaks, in Spain and Portugal. I am one among hundreds of others.

Sharing the sounds as they were felt not enough. There was so much material, so many stories behind each sound. I wanted to give them more meaning, a way back into the world that was more than a dump of files on SoundCloud.

I struggled and beat myself up for not doing anything. Times was ticking on. I’d been on my journey, it was now time to share. But a friend reminded me that no, I didn’t need to share my story immediately. In a world that seemed dominated by the speed of social media and instant gratification, I forgot, I didn’t need to share straight away. I was allowed time to digest, time to forget and move on, time to come back to my memories. So I did.

I went on living life, creating a new home for myself, exploring new areas, building new friendships and stories. Until July 2017.

Out of the blue, Thaniel from Humanhood Recordings got in touch. His first message had nothing to do with creating an album but soon the conversation veered that way and I saw an opportunity, the possibility to find a home for my field recordings.

So I got to work. Evenings and commute time often taken by thoughts and questions about the album, days off spent staring at the audio editing software, moving files here and there, altering them, deleting everything, and starting all over again. Until late November. The album took shape, became as ready as I could get it, and it was time to release it into the world.

As I worked on the sounds, my sister worked on the booklet, and the album was complete. Get the booklet for free here.

There are no words in the album, albeit the ones from passer bys and friends from the road. The sounds are the story. But if you want something less metaphorical, the video below sums up four months in five minutes. All the photos can be found on Flickr. And if you want specific stories, you’ll just have to get in touch and ask.

Listen and buy the album here.*

*If the cost of the album really is a barrier, let me know. But before you get in touch, consider that your money will help a small label and me get more content like this in the future.

Exploring Somerset – A solstice microadventure

‘Do you want any specific days off in June,’ my manager asked as she prepared to write the team rota.
‘If I could have the 21st and 22nd off it’d be brilliant.’
‘No problem.’ She left the shop floor for the quiet of the stock room, leaving me grinning like an idiot at the idea of having the whole solstice off work.

Planning for what to do was a short affair. I had wanted to cycle south from my front door since moving in, following Sustrans cycle route 3 to Glastonbury. After that, I didn’t know or care very much. There were plenty of options. So on the 21st of June, I packed my panniers, pumped my tyres, and pedalled away from home, my skin lathered with sun cream.

My handlebar bag was full of camera and recording gear and my mind breaming with ideas. I had been wanting to film one of my journeys for a while but I didn’t see the point of filming me. There seem nothing extraordinary or worth recording about me, not on film anyway. So for a long time, I did nothing. It was only when attending the Cycle Touring Festival a month earlier that an idea had began to emerge. I had joined the ‘Filming your trip‘ talk and discovered another way to record cycling journeys. Most videos focus on a person, but Geoff Broadway offered another possibility. His film excerpt was about the place he had visited, not about him. It was a simple idea but one that, for some reason, hadn’t occurred to me. I kept thinking about what I could bring to a cycle touring video and this is my answer:

For photos of the trip, visit my Flickr account.

The Cycle Touring Festival – 2017 edition

Two years I ago I attended the inaugural Cycle Touring Festival. It was an experience of wonder and excitement, a realisation that I was not alone. Someone put it much better than me and said it was like finding your tribe. And they were right.

If you look online, you know there are other cycle tourists around, whether round the world cyclists or week-end and holiday cyclists. But when you step out of your front door and start pedalling, you don’t often catch sight of them. More often than not, you meet fast bikes adorned with a lycra-clad person on top. You share a smile, a nod, both happy to be on the bike. But it is not the same thing, not quite. But there, at the festival, people understand. They don’t think you’re brave, they don’t assume you’re fit, and they don’t ask at what speed you’re going. Instead we talk about the other stories like the pure joy of seeing the world from the saddle, the hard times of dealing with your own mind, or the fun moments with strangers and their warmth. We don’t need to dig out for words we never feel are quite right because the other person understand.

And if you’re new to the scene, it’s not a problem. No question is deemed stupid, and there is an eagerness to share knowledge. We’re a small tribe, any new member is welcomed with an embrace and encouraged to find their own way. Because at the end of the day there is no right or wrong way to go cycle touring. The only prerequisite is to have a bicycle and an open mind. The rest is up to you and how you like to ride and see the world.

If you’ve missed this year’s festival, there is always next year. And in the meantime, find a cycle tourist online and ask questions. We’ll all be happy to give you a hand and assuage your fears.