Bicycle Diaries: One woman’s solo cycle from London to Tehran: Stage 1
Awake at 6am, then 6.15am, then 6.30am. Today’s the day! I try to ignore it, but I know it’s time. My arm doesn’t even hurt too badly anymore – my last surviving hope for delay. I had a typhoid jab a week ago and since then it’s felt like I’ve had nightly wrestles with Floyd Mayweather. For the past few days, I’ve had vivid images of me as the heroin addict in Requiem for a Dream, my bicep going mushy and gangrenous as I cry out deliriously, heroically, that I’m going no matter what – only to be dragged off by medics and sedated.
But sadly it isn’t to be. It feels fine. I feel fine. The weather is good. It’s all a complete disaster. The last time I had to cycle 50 miles was in 2009, when I was a young, lithe 20-something. That was also the last time I went up a hill. I feel my buttocks shrivel in anxious anticipation.
Luckily I am fully intending to start as I mean to go on: by cheating outrageously. After packing up the bike – two heavy front panniers, two elephantine back panniers, one lead-lined bar bag, one unliftable rucksack, one totally superfluous ukulele – I take most of it off and leave behind for P, my boyfriend. We are due to meet at my sister’s, in Bolney, before I get on the ferry at Newhaven.
Having stripped down to my bare essentials, I hit the road. And except for a wisp of a hangover from last night’s bottle of celebratory Chateau Labegorce Margaux 2001, it feels pretty good. I power thunderously on, energised and invincible. This is easy, I think to myself. Chris Froome eat your heart out!
Then I reach my first hill. It’s in East Dulwich, and not particularly long or steep. I stop afterwards for a half-hour sit down and croissant, and ring P.
‘I just did my first hill,’ I say.
‘How did it go?’ he asks.
‘I can’t feel my legs. I’m shaking. I think that typhoid has come back.’
‘Pull yourself together. By the way, I bumped into C (our neighbour) in the hall. She thinks you’re crazy to be taking all that stuff.’
‘And seriously – a ukulele? I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.’
I protest vehemently, knowing of course that he’s right. If this trip doesn’t already scream gap year tragedy meets mid-life crisis, that’s surely enough to tip it over the edge. But before I can dwell on this too deeply, I enter Croydon. And I hope I never have to say those words again. Does it ever end? It reminds me of Montana in the US, which I travelled through by Greyhound bus in 2005 and where time goes to die. I remember falling asleep on Tuesday and waking on Thursday to the same rusty pick-up truck and piece of rolling tumbleweed outside my window, and vowing never to leave home again.
Croydon has a similar effect. You also have to climb a god-awful hill to get out of it, which may explain why so many people end up staying there. It’s almost exactly how I imagine Purgatory to be, and I wonder if this could be the mountain Dante refers to in his Purgatorio, with its seven levels of suffering followed by Earthly Paradise at the top. Probably not. But I challenge anyone to find a feeling more glorious than finally leaving this godforsaken borough on a bicycle.
I celebrate my escape with a wonderful swoop down Bug Hill – before getting a slap in the face in the form of the ominously titled ‘Long Hill’. I suddenly get a hint of what I’ve let myself in for. This hill is a menace, and halfway up I stop. I can’t go on. Dismounting, I assess the situation. Options are: go back down, return home and sleep for the rest of the day. Tempting. Satisfying. Maybe a tiny bit shameful. Or continue. I neck an energy gel and suddenly feel the terrifying power of sugar over the weak human psyche. Twenty minutes later I struggle to the top, and allow myself to indulge in a truly humiliating sense of achievement.
The truth is, I’ve actually forgotten what a hill looks like. I wonder if it’s a similar phenomenon to childbirth, when a heavy dose of hormones helps women forget the intensity of the pain so they’re not discouraged from getting knocked up again. I mean, the two are pretty comparable, aren’t they? The sweat and the exhilaration? The pain and the release? Except I bet no amount of childbearing can beat that feeling of finally escaping Croydon.
At 2pm, I finally pull into Bolney. My sister, her partner and my parents shower me with champagne, fish pie, gifts and advice on how to dislocate a man’s thumb if attacked. I feel immensely touched. This is what it’s all about! But how can I convince them to join me the rest of the way?
Sadly I can’t. So an hour later, P takes me to the ferry. We load up the bike and try it out for the first time in the car park. It’s just about ride-able, but completely impossible to steer. I start working out how I can get from Dieppe to Tehran without turning any corners or plunging into the Mediterranean. It might just be feasible, I ponder, as long as I plot exactly the right trajectory to start with. Tom Hanks and co-managed something similar with Apollo 13, after all, and Bill Paxton had a terrible cold at the time.
On the ferry, I meet a couple travelling by tandem and they ask me where I’m going. They seem impressed when I say Iran, but do I detect a note of pity? It’s a reaction I come to know well during the following few days. When men go adventuring, they are seen as intrepid. When women do it, they are assumed mad or recovering from a broken heart. (At the moment, I happen to be neither – though let’s be honest, may be shortly.)
I sit down to watch the UK recede into the distance and conduct a thorough examination of my thighs. They are already conspicuously larger. It’s a worrying development. My biggest fear on this trip, other than being kidnapped by ISIS or running out of chamois cream, is developing gargantuan quads that render me unfit for society and make my already scrawny calves seem even smaller in comparison. I buy a half bottle of 2010 Chateau Lieujean Haut-Medoc to put my mind off this and the long journey ahead, and suddenly remember why I like France so much.
I spend the night in an overpriced Dieppe B&B, and wake up refreshed and ready to embark on my first proper day’s bummel. First things first, I think: load it up. I’ve repacked my bags with all the heavy items in the back two panniers, but physically getting them onto the bike proves a challenge. First I rest it against a sturdy-looking tree in a plant pot, which promptly collapses. Then I try the hedge. But hedges are prickly, hateful things, and not to be trusted. This one gives a veneer of helpfulness, before rearing up on its bushy haunches and swallowing my bike whole.
I curse and dig it out dejectedly. My legs already look as if I’ve recently escaped from a local correction facility, mottled and tender to the touch. It’s fortunate I turned the hotel management against me so swiftly and unequivocally or I’m quite sure I’d still be there now, eating croissants and flashing smokers in the car park.
By noon, just four hours later than planned, I’m finally off. Hot, bothered and depressed, I veer violently across the road, up onto the curb and onto someone’s front lawn. I look around quickly; thank god nobody seems to be watching, except for a herd of enormous cows. They stare at me disdainfully. I try again, and stagger with inevitable futility into the path of an oncoming car.
I stop for a well-earned rest and take stock. It’s exhausting. I’ve made progress, at least; about ten metres, to be precise. I do some calculations. At this rate it will take me the best part of 500,000 hours, or 57 years, to complete the full 10,000km of my trip. By the time I finish it, I’ll be a mad, wizened 90 year old, comprising just hair, thighs and a colostomy bag, wheeled out at parties to recount traveller’s tales from life in the saddle. It doesn’t sound too bad, actually.
Finally, many failed attempts later, I get moving. Unsteadily and slowly, but at least in a semi-straight direction. This is it, I think! I’m officially bummelling!
Then the noise starts: a loud, guttural yet piercing scraping that cannot be ignored. My heart sinks. Can I really have destroyed this beautiful machine so soon? I stop, get off and stare at various parts of it, occasionally prodding them tentatively. This doesn’t seem to help, and I think ambitiously about getting out one of my tools. But which one?
Fortunately a male cyclist appears at this moment, looking helpful. I show him what’s wrong and he nods sagely and starts prodding too. That’s the wonderful thing about the current halfway house era of equality and sexism, I reflect; women can do exciting, independent things like cycle around the world, while still relying on men in times of distress. God help us when it gets to the stage when we’re actually expected to carry out menial mechanical tasks ourselves.
This particular chivalric knight seems very determined to fix my mudguard. It’s clearly not the source of the problem, but I feel bad interrupting his work after he stopped so kindly. He finally cycles off, rather pleased with himself, and I recommence my prodding. It’s not the brakes, I conclude after a little experiment. It’s not the panniers or chain. It seems related to the gears, and as I trace the cable back I see the end has come loose and is trailing against the tyre. I slip it back into place and start pedalling. Quiet. Problem solved!
Meanwhile, clustering in my sight-lines looms problem number two: a succession of hills. Hills, I discover, are in many ways like hedges. At first glance they seem friendly: soft and green and matronly. But as you get closer, their demeanour changes. Their brows furrow, and that expression you took for kindliness morphs into a kind of smug, sadistic smirk.
It soon becomes apparent that there are specifically five different types of hill – which are:
The bun-burner: the most common type of hill; a long, hot slog that sears the arse like a fire-brand.
The false friend: a hill that doesn’t seem like a hill, until you realise you can’t feel your legs and are weeping silently.
The masochist: a hill that gradually, imperceptibly gets steeper, like the anecdote of the frog in boiling water, until all you want is to crawl into the foetal position crying for your mother.
The redeemer: a hill I can actually climb without too much trouble; more like a ripple in the road.
The up yours: basically a vertical wall with the words ‘up yours!’ scrawled on it.
By mid-afternoon, just as I am ready to jack everything in and return to London, I finally hit the fast road I’ve been aiming towards. I make up some time, and pull into Forges-les-Eaux – a charming little town seemingly best known for its history of mining, thermal waters and seigneurs killed in battle by the British – around 6pm. Finding several restaurants and cafes closed, I retire to a bench with a loaf of bread and Camembert, before setting off to find somewhere to sleep.
On the outskirts of the town, I follow a small country lane and discover a large patch of grass bathed in sunshine, hidden from the road. It’s beautifully peaceful, and I listen contentedly to the buzz and chirrup of unseen critters. Then a thought hits me: what if this is like that part of Life of Pi, where the boy finds what he believes to be his perfect island, only to discover it turns carnivorous during the night and starts devouring itself? It seems unlikely, but I find it hard to shake the thought from my mind.
I distract myself by putting up my tent: a Lightwave G15 Raid. Then, as I hunker down inside, I realise with no small amount of distress that I haven’t brought anything to toast my first night in the wilderness. With my Bolney support team nowhere in sight, I am all alone, parched, tired and inescapably sober. It’s a rookie error, and I vow not to make the same mistake again.