Cambridge to Bristol. Popping my 200km+ cherry.

On Sunday I rode 245km from Cambridge to Bristol. On my own. In a headwind. In the rain. I feel like I have permanently remodelled my lady parts from so long in the saddle!

https://www.strava.com/activities/848934314#kudos

Why?

  1. My friend Caroline had got engaged, my friend Jo had an offer accepted on a house, Ellie had just finished a round of exams and I had passed my PhD defence. We had a lot to celebrate and a catch up was required.
  2. Because of the aforementioned PhD defence I hadn’t spent much time riding my bike in January and I was feeling training guilt.
  3. I was aware that TCR training would conflict a lot with my social life. If there is even the possibility of having my cake an eating it then I’ll try my hardest. I love cake.
  4. It came up at a nice round distance of 150 miles. Longer than I’d ridden before. Not far off the sort of miles I should be putting in on average per day on the TCR.
  5. I’d missed out on doing any sort of proper Audax ride in January. I’m one of those ‘start as you mean to go on’ sort of people and felt that I needed to do one epic ride this month.

Why not?

  1. It is quite far.
  2. It is winter.
  3. The forecast wasn’t good.
  4. Due to aforementioned time off the bike I wasn’t exactly in peak winter form, far from it. I was actually feeling quite tired and exhausted and nearly cancelled on the weekend.

I spoke to Caroline on Wednesday evening, offering my congratulations and precocious apologies incase I didn’t make the weekend. Then I did a 30 minute HIIT session on my new turbo (more about that another time). I felt better from speaking with her, and better for having done some exercise. Mentally, I started making a kit list.

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Hanging out with great friends and baking ugly yet amazing cakes is essential pre long ride prep!

I’d only be cycling one way, so I could travel very light. I could borrow things like jumpers. My saddle pack was so light I could still bunny hop (important in winter when the roads are full of potholes!).

I set off at 6.30 am from Cambridge on Sunday morning. I had meant to set off earlier but with so much to celebrate with the girls I had drunk quite a lot of wine, not had much sleep and my head was sore. One day I will start behaving responsibly, that day was not today! Fuelled by a banana and with an emergency flapjack in my pocket I pedalled off into the darkness.

Oxford was approximately half way, I really wanted to make it there by lunchtime to meet my old friends from the Condors for lunch/coffee/cake. Cambridge and surrounds were dead flat = speed but there was a pretty constant headwind = not speed and my garmin was having difficulty = faff. I managed to find a coffee and a waffle for breakfast and purchase more flapjacks. I ate a flapjack an hour to keep fuelled.

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Tired and having drunk a bit too much wine the night before, I was so glad to find coffee!

La la la off we go. I had a suspicion that I wouldn’t make Oxford for 12. Probably more a late lunch. In spite of the hangover, wind, garmin faff I was maintaining an average speed over 14 miles per hour, which felt comfortable. I’d had a bike fitting with Tony Corke ((FYI this man is a bike fitting genius (in preparation for my custom Quirk frame)) and he had made a few modifications to my trusty Bianchi which had already been fitted to me but made it much more comfortable for endurance riding. My legs were spinning happily, feeling strong. My back felt good. Kit worked out well for the conditions and once the sun was up I felt comfortable temperature wise.

Somewhere after the turning off to Milton Keynes it started to rain. Lightly at first, but by the time I cycled in to Oxford it was pouring. I stopped at Peloton for a coffee, hoping that the Condor ladies might have been running late but alas. Nevermind, there was cyclocross on the telly and coffee and cake. Unfortunately they had been busy and run out of all substantial food, I’d need to pop to a supermarket to get some sandwiches later.

I was travelling light, this meant that I’d just chucked everything in a seat post bag and got on my way. I didn’t have the fuel pod I usually have on longer rides. So despite having a power pack, there was no way of charging my garmin while riding because there was no way of keeping the power pack wired in to the little GPS unit. Error. I had to wait about an hour in Oxford to recharge things. Still, I was glad of the chance to dry off and chat to a guy who built his own frames.

I left Oxford, stopping quickly to grab a supermarket sandwich, sausage rolls and supplies. Laden with emergency hot cross buns. I head out on the old familiar roads south east from Oxford a little after 3pm. The emergency buns are important. Firstly, the plastic packaging was waterproof. Secondly, although I didn’t quite manage to eat enough on this ride I do always like to have more food than I think I might eat. Nothing worse than running out of food, and therefore energy.

It was pissing it down. I can’t comfortably wear contacts all day. My glasses were beading with rain, misting up, and visibility was pretty poor in the rainy dusk. I managed to maintain my average speed until Farringdon (about half way between Oxford and Swindon) until my garmin crashed again. B*gger. I sheltered from the rain under an archway and tried to un-crash it and check the route on my phone so I knew where I was going. By this point not a single bit of me remained that wasn’t soggy. Luckily, thanks to primaloft socks and merino linings in my gloves, I was still warm. Just damp warm, like the warm water that pools in a wetsuit. My bike wasn’t enjoying the weather either. My gears were starting to crunch a bit but trying to clean the chain was futile.

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Night riding. Not always comfortable but a skill I need to work on.

Onwards! It was pitch dark by now. Night riding isn’t something I’m hugely used to or comfortable with, but I know that being good in the night will be key for the TCR. I’d turned off the A420 and the minor roads had very little with which I use to help me see what the road ahead was doing i.e. no road markings or cats eyes. With rain, fog and my glasses reducing visibility this wasn’t ideal. I turned my garmin off battery saver mode and kept the map displayed, at least now I could see the shape of the road and get early warning for any large bends.

The rain got heavier and heavier. I was so drenched I was starting to get cold and my glasses were fogging so badly I really couldn’t see very well. I rode past a pub and made a snap decision to stop, it was around 17.00 by now. The snap decision pub was amazing. There was a roaring fire, I undressed and tried to dry off what I could. Grabbed my battery pack to top up my lights and my garmin and drank sweet tea (a comfort thing of mine). Pubs are the best thing about the UK. Even in a tiny village, on a Sunday evening you can find somewhere warm and welcoming! I’d missed this in the French countryside.

Here I had a hilarious conversation with a family in the pub. The lady told me I was mad, crazy and why didn’t I just get a lift home. The man told me I was very brave to be out cycling. Then I told them I was riding to Bristol – even more batty. Then I told them I’d ridden from Cambridge. Jaws hit the floor! They were very supported and said they admired my courage. I don’t think it is necessarily courageous, or brave. You just need to be stubborn enough to not back down once you’ve put the idea into your head. Whatever the weather.

However, I did get a message from my amazing friend Janine letting me know that she was a bit concerned and would be up late working and if I needed her to come to my rescue then she would. What a mega babe.

On we go.

What followed was slow, wet and painful. Struggling all day in the wind and rain had taken its toll on my body. My hands and feet were water logged. My arse was in agony (more on saddle issues another time). My back was starting to hurt (related to saddle issues). My bike was a little unhappy. My stomach was unhappy and I felt sick. It was pitch black, rainy and I still had 50 miles to cover.

I made more frequent stops. Rode more slowly. Huffed and puffed my way up the smallest incline. Stopping every 30-60 mins to send a few messages to Janine. Me to moan about how difficult this was. Her to offer amazing words of encouragement. Malmesbury was about half way from my pub stop and home. When I got there I popped inside a hotel for the loo (unhappy stomach) and checked my garmin. 26 miles to go. Easy. Well, easy on fresh legs (and arse!). The temptation to call Janine and bail was there, but I was so close. I got back out on the pitch black country lanes, riding ever more slowly, struggling to keep warm. Maybe I should call her? Just keep going legs. What would happen if I gave up now? I’d be really annoyed with myself, I’d still not forgiven myself for my Paris DNF. But I was finding it tough. Tough is what I’m made of right? Hard as nails. That’s what my friends tell me, even if I don’t believe it myself. A few miles of pep talking myself and I had less than 10 miles to go! I started seeing road signs for the areas of Bristol in the north. I could see the light pollution. I have never been so glad to see light pollution. I rolled in to civilisation. Arse screaming, legs aching, bike complaining.

I turned up at my house minutes before midnight. Stopped my GPS (I had to recover it from one last crash first). Text friends to let them know I’d got back safely. My awesome housemate put the kettle on and I had a warm shower. I fell asleep without eating anything, I was too tired and I had work in the morning. This in hindsight was an error and I don’t think I’d eaten enough fuel all day.

I’ve spent all on Monday grazing and I’ve only just stopped feeling hungry after some tuna and quinoa but I’m still dehydrated (despite being soggy to the core yesterday!). I got home from work and sorted out my kit and cleaned my bike. I missed out on the pub quiz I normally do with work friends.

This year will be full of compromises. Social life vs bike life. Good things rarely come without hard work and compromise. You’ve got to want it. Luckily I also have amazing friends who will tolerate and support me through this. Cheers folks! I’ll dedicate a few night miles to you when I’m in a dark place!

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So glad when I made it home safely having not given up!

Kit:

1x bicycle

Alpkit seat post bag containing : casual clothes (a dress, pants, tights, shoes, toothbrush, Northface thermoball (upgraded from my Patagonia down because primaloft is still insulating when wet, lesson learned from Paris!), power pack and usb cables).

Wearing:

On my lower half: velocio fly bib shorts (the fly makes for easy comfort breaks and the chamois is the best I have found), madison thermal leg warmers (purchased after I read a review on Total women’s cycling that they didn’t give sausage legs (I have massive thighs)), primaloft socks (again, warm when wet), my usual fizik shoes plus neoprene toe covers and overshoes.

Upper body: M&S sports bra (just the right level of support), Aldi merino (wool keeps you warm even when wet and yes Aldi! It doesn’t need to cost the earth!), Rapha deep winter jersey – this jersey is amazing and toasty, my As Bold As reflective gilet, Rapha merino headband a FDI cap, Giro helmet and a pair of Madison gloves to top it all off.

Front light: Lezyne super drive plus 2 spare batteries.

Rear light: Moon something or other I bought in Winchester when my lezyne rear broke from too much mud and moisture.

Navigation: thanks to Gareth Baines for the route, Garmin Edge 820 supplemented by my phone when it froze.

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Beautiful riding out of the sunrise as I left Cambridge at the start of an epic and challenging day.
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Transcontinental El

After the adventure, misadventure and worsening of my lungs after Bristol to Paris I decided to get the train on my return from Paris to Dieppe on the 2nd of January.

The 2nd January was also the day that 850 adventurous cyclists from 52 countries all around the world were frantically refreshing their emails and jumping at every ‘ping’ of a new message appearing in their inbox. It was the day that applicants to the the Transcontinental Race No5 were finding out if they were successful in gaining a place on one of the most brutal bicycle races around.

The Transcontinental isn’t like any other race. There is no set route but a number of checkpoints and riders must navigate their own way between these. The race requires riders to be completely self supported, using only resources that are commercially available. No getting your mum to visit you half way with a fresh supply of inner tubes and some welshcakes! Riders pedal to cover an average of 250km a day (and more) to try and make it to the checkpoints before the cutoff. This year is pretty special as it will see the strongest and largest women’s field take to the race with around 50 female entrants and there are some real superstars in there!

So here I was waiting at train station for a connection in Northern France. Frantically refreshing my email. There is a facebook group for this race and I knew from the posts on there that unsuccessful applicants had been notified. Still I had no email. Does this mean I’ve got in? And then… ping!

Now Mike Hall the race organiser clearly has a sense of humour. The email read

Once again we were very heavily oversubscribed, and this year more so than ever.

We had over 850 entries from 52 countries and even though I have increased the amount of offers again as much as I dare, there are still a lot of people that we’ve had to disappoint.” 

Oh so maybe I haven’t got in….

However, congratulations are in order:


Your application has been successful and we would like to offer you a place in Transcontinental No.5″

Now I wasn’t wearing a heart rate monitor but I could feel my pulse quicken and a surge of adrenaline accompanied with butterflies moshing in my stomach. I was happy, excited, terrified.

Why?

This isn’t straightforward (sorry if you expected it to be!).

I wasn’t sporty as a child. I was active and outdoorsy but loathed lycra and PE lessons. I discovered sport at uni and embraced it. I discovered these amazing communities of supportive, friendly and rock-solid friends for life sorts through rowing and rugby. I also learned that I liked pushing myself. I’d always pushed myself mentally but physical challenge added a whole new dimension. It also turned out that once I’d become active it was very bad for me to stop being active. When I let physical activity take a back seat (exams, heavy lab schedules, injury etc) I found that a mental health ‘wobble’ was never far around the corner. More recently tough times both in my academic and private lives alongside starting my first real job I’ve found it harder and harder to cope. Work life balance went out the window. I fell back into old self destructive habits of serial dating and binge drinking. Surprise surprise! That is not the answer.

Long solo trips on the bike and finding a new community of friends through cycling has been instrumental in helping me regain my feeling of self worth and get the upper hand over some of my anxieties.

Six pretty intense years at university had forced me to put adventure (mostly) on the back burner but I carried on reading. I read about a 600km audax through Wales (the Bryan Chapman Memorial which I will be riding this summer) and I discovered the Transcontinental race and inspiring women like Dervla Murphy, Emily Chappell, Juliana Burhing and Laura Scott. When I started riding my road bike more regularly and with increasing confidence I knew riding a race like the Transcontinental was a goal, I didn’t know if it was achievable and I never gave this goal a timeframe.

OK, the Transcontinental isn’t a team sport but there is this brilliantly supportive and welcoming community around the race to offer advice and encouragement. You might be racing solo but you’re not alone. You’re sharing the roads with 200 or so other nutters. In addition, friends, family and internet randoms will be watching your dot from the GPS tracker and sending encouraging messages as called upon.

Why now?

Because if not now then when? JFDI and all that.

Do I say yes?

Applying to race the Transcon is one thing. I’m not sure what I thought my chances of getting a spot were. Now it was real. My friends (both cycling and non cycling) seemed to be split. Most were full of congratulations, encouragement, excited for me and eager to join me on training rides (bunch of nutters I love you all). I also got the impression that some think that this is something I’m not capable of, whether physically or mentally. This is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done times a million, squared and then times a million again.

I have a lot of work ahead of me in terms of mental and physical preparation. If I tried to ride it tomorrow I’m not sure I’d get anywhere very far or fast! Luckily, I’m not riding it tomorrow! But no matter how prepared you are, the only thing to prepare you for riding the Transcontinental is…. riding the Transcontinental.

I’m going to give this everything I’ve got. Yes, I’m not an experienced ultra long distance cyclist. I’m not even that experienced when it comes to cycling. Or travelling. I’ve never even been backpacking or interrailing through Europe.

So can I do it?

Fundamentally no one knows the answer to this question until after the fact. There are some things that will not play to my advantage. I had surgery on my right knee 2.5 years ago and that will constantly be playing on my mind. Lots of pilates please! I am less experienced, there is no beating about the bush on this one. I need to be careful not to go out all guns blazing trying to prove myself, exhaust myself and have to scratch from the race.

There are some things that will play to my advantage. I’m optimistic and determined. In the first year of my PhD a friend asked if I wanted to join a team that was going to try and swim a relay of the English Channel. I’d never done long distance swimming before. Never done outdoor swimming besides swimming in the river on a hot day. Few days before the channel swim I fell off my bike and ended up swimming with a bin bag gaffa taped to my leg to cover up a reasonably sized gash. I was in hospital the next day for stitches! You can argue about whether or not that was the most sensible thing to do (sorry mum!) but I know that I don’t give up and that when called upon I can find this reserve of mental and physical strength to get a job done.

Oh… and the best advantage in the book by a country mile… I’m Welsh!

Bristol to Paris – Liberté, égalité, stupidité

In true ‘El goes on a bikepacking adventure style’ this story starts off with me being a bit under-the-weather. The classic work up until Christmas, run yourself ragged, stop and get ill. Except that I’m asthmatic and anything I come down with ends up going to my chest. It was so bad my mother vocalised that she thought that I shouldn’t go. Like the good daughter I am I ignored her advice.

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Bike ready to go! Tinsel is compulsory on festive bikepacking trips!

Day 1. Bristol To Winchester https://www.strava.com/activities/813987308

This was glorious. Out of Bristol on an crisp and frosty morning.

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Crisp, frosty and bright on the Bristol to Bath bike path.

The route took me along some lovely Wiltshire lanes. I was taking it easy, deliberately to save my lungs. I stopped to talk to wildlife and to enjoy the views. It was sunny, I was warm, I was on my bike. Life couldn’t get any better. I’d planned to stay the night with my friend Josie in Winchester. I turned up, had a lovely warm shower and then her and her partner decided we were getting takeaway for dinner. A sunny day on the bike and a curry. Life doesn’t get much better than this. The only downside to day 1 was that my rear light stopped working, a little too much mud and rain me thinks.

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The beautiful Wiltshire countryside made day 1 so enjoyable.

Day 2. Winchester to Newhaven. https://www.strava.com/activities/815105243

When I planned this trip I saw that there was an overnight ferry option. This seemed to make sense, it maximised daytime for riding. I would just sleep on the ferry. Right?!

I must have been apprehensive because I stalled all morning. Not wanting to leave the comfort of the sofa bed. I got myself up. Josie and I had agreed to go to this new local yoga cafe for breakfast. I went downstairs to start attaching my bags to my bike which had been left indoors under the stairs in the block of flats. Something didn’t look right about the front tyre. Flat. Not just flat, a massive hole in the sidewall of the tyre. I have no idea how that happened.

Luckily there was a local bike shop right next to the yoga cafe. A new rear light and new front tyre. Today was already expensive! In the bike shop Josie was picking up the energy gels ‘this is what I expected you to have on you, not haribo!’. Clearly she didn’t approve of my nutrition! I found that one haribo strawberry per half hour was about right.

By the time I actually got going it was nearly lunchtime. Not to worry, I’d had a big breakfast and would make up some time by not stopping for lunch. Except that my route out of Winchester to the South Coast took me through the South Downs National Park. Rolling hills sap my energy, especially when I’m ill and carrying luggage! Slow day. Then a puncture. Luck was not on my side. To boot it was ROASTING! So warm and sunny. I had not prepared for warm weather so I took off as many layers as I could and unzipped my winter jersey.

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The puncture pixies at it again.

I made it to Brighton pier where I stopped for some fish and chips before heading off to Newhaven to catch the ferry. By this point it was getting cold. All my layers were on. Except for my down jacket (found by my mum in a charity shop) which was for emergency warmth and for sleeping. I would be so thankful for this tomorrow.

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Fish and chips in the glow of Brighton pier.

This was my first time every getting a ferry by myself and not with a coach trip. I wasn’t really sure of protocol. Apparently as a cyclist you count as a car and have to wait in a queue with the cars. Not likely. I went indoors, changed to a clean pair of bib shorts and leggings for warmth and got some rest until they started boarding. Remember the plan? To sleep on the ferry. Ha! I had forgotten how loud ferry engines are! And despite the floor being quite comfortable I got approximately zero hours snooze.

Day 3. Dieppe to Neuilly-en-Thelle https://www.strava.com/activities/816406451

This was something else.img_2483

I got off the ferry at 4am and stood shivering in the customs queue (I don’t understand that they think a person with a bicycle should be treated the same as people sitting comfortably in their cars with the heating on). It was SO COLD. I’d brought a down coat with me for sleeping in and I wasn’t taking it off any time soon! I thought to myself, cycling through this at 4am with 4-5 hours until cafe’s start opening is a bad idea. I don’t mind cycling in the cold if I know I have options open to me to go inside and warm up. I did not think it would be wise to be stuck in outside in -silly figures with no escape. I asked the man in passport control if there was something that was a 24h McDonalds or similar nearby where I could go and wait out the wee hours. He said not close but that I could wait in the ferry office. This worked, until 6am when they were closing the ferry office. Damn. Luckily, with my limited French I managed to learn of a cafe in the town that was open in the early hours. Win. I cycled over, teeth chattering. Found the cafe and wasted time until 8am. I was really questioning what I was doing. I had never cycled in France before, it was cold, dark and I was on my own. Some lovely encouragement on twitter from Audax legend Steve Abraham and I decided I wasn’t giving up yet.

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Early early morning coffee to shelter from the cold. 

I was taking the Avenue Verte, a mainly traffic free cycle path from Dieppe to Paris. It was beautiful in the frozen morning mist. Sadly, I don’t have many photos because my phone got so cold it stopped working. My garmin got down to -8. I found it very difficult pre trip to find much information on the French side of the Avenue Verte but had found a route on Ride With GPS which I had uploaded to my Garmin. It was pretty well signposted and I stopped needing to follow my Garmin and just followed the signs.

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Cold and slow but still going.

One thing I realised pretty quickly, the route goes through some beautiful countryside but it was sparse. I tried to stop every 1.5h to go find coffee, food and warmth but sticking to that quickly went out the window. I ended up eating my emergency malt loaf for breakfast and I didn’t find anywhere for lunch until around 14.00. Oops. At this point I was cold and tired. My down jacket was getting damp from the freezing fog and my hair had frozen. I was feeling pretty bleak. I wasn’t half way yet. But not one to give up I headed back out, this time with emergency croissants.

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Bleak and cold but beautiful.

Belly full of Pizza obviously benefitted my mind and my legs, and I got some good pace on. Whizzing along the Avenue Verte to Beauvais …. where it ran out. No more path, no road markings, no signposts. SHIT. This is when I bothered to look at my Garmin and realised I was pretty far off course. How? I managed to warm my phone up and checked google maps, I rode into the town of Beauvais where I found…. A LOCAL BIKE SHOP! HURRAH! The owner of the LBS didn’t speak much English and I was too cold and too tired I couldn’t remember much French. Eager to help, he went to fetch his daughter from upstairs, she spoke English and could translate for us! They had a little tourist map of the Avenue Verte. It turns out it splits after Gournay en Bray and there are two possible routes to take to Paris. The other route was clearly the one I had uploaded onto my Garmin. The LBS owner and his daughter were very helpful and I left with a list of every town on my route, including which ones would have trains to Paris. So even without the GPS and the signposts of the avenue I knew which roads would be quieter and a plan that would get me to Paris, somehow.

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This was my view for most of the day.

It was now getting dark. With the frozen fog I was glad I had a high vis vest in addition to my lights. I made it to Mouy. This seemed like a lively town so I decided to stop and recharge my phone, lights and Garmin. I found a bar, the locals were welcoming and interested in my trip. They helped me with the remainder of my route, recommending roads. They also helpfully pointed out that it was now too late for trains from any of the larger towns but said if I got stuck there would be hotels in Chantilly. One helpful Frenchman tried to insist that it was too late for me to be cycling and I should sleep on his sofa and get back on my way in the morning. I wasn’t sure about this and decided to keep going.

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Friendly locals to warm my heart. Whisky to warm my cockles.

Cycling through the dark, foggy night in the sparse countryside I thought ‘this would be a really bad time to have a mechanical’ and this was quickly followed by ‘don’t think about that, it’s scary’. On and on we go. Singing ‘All I want is a room somewhere‘ from My Fair Lady to myself to try and keep the mood upbeat. Then, that familiar feeling of a flat rear tyre. I’d not long gone through a village, so retraced my steps. It was so cold that if this was anything but a straight forward flat I would be screwed if I was on my own. From this town my friends (waiting for me in Paris) insisted that it was now time to call it a day, at 11pm in the countryside outside Paris, with a flat tyre and sleep deprived. They managed to persuade an Uber driver to come pick me and my bike up.

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Frozen hair

 

No one likes to scratch, but I was so close to Paris and the conditions had been far from ideal. It’s hard not to be hard on yourself when you fail to finish something that you set out to complete.

I suggested to my friends that I would get the train back out tomorrow to finish the job from where I’d been forced to stop. They were having none of this!

It turns out that talking to them on the phone that night I wasn’t making much sense and they were concerned that I probably wasn’t far from hypothermia. Thank goodness for friends! Steph helped me out of the Uber and we carried my bike up to her flat. They made me some soup, a hot water bottle and I had a warm shower. The cold had got to my lungs and my cough was worse. It was a good thing that I stopped when I did.

My lessons learned page is now full. From cycling through the most glorious British winter sun to freezing French fog it was a strange and challenging trip. Not the easiest introduction to solo bikepacking. I’ve always known that I’m an optimist. That was confirmed. Even in the freezing dark I kept my spirits up. But sometimes realism needs to take over. I was lucky that I was close enough to Paris for rescuing and that my friends are awesome. We celebrated NYE in Paris with ice skating, amazing food and champagne in the street at midnight!

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Hurrah! Happy New Year!