“Just another half hour”, I tell myself. It's pitch black, my head torch is sending a blurry white light into the driving rain and mist. It’s three thirty in the morning and my skin is crawling in the cold; I have to keep moving. I have every layer of clothing on that I have with me and I’m soaked to the bone. The wind cuts through the damp layers like a razor sharp knife. “Just another half an hour...”
I speak aloud to myself again, “just another half an hour.” It feels like Groundhog Day or night as the case may be. I knew when I started that this was going to be hard: that’s why I’m here. To test myself, find the edge, and break myself. This is living - but type two fun. I pray round the next corner there will be a climb - it’s the only way I can warm my body from the soaking wet clothes against my skin. Riding downhill is painfully cold and I shiver violently, hoping I will be climbing soon. The half hour ticks by, and I stop for a moment and have a quick drink. I fiddle with my top tube bag with stiff fingers to rustle out a Baby Bell cheese. I unwrap the red cellophane wrapper and lift the tag that cuts through the waxed coating, something I always find satisfying, even at times like this. I then fight to get the small circle of yellow goodness out of its red shell, shaking as I do so, wishing this whole process would happen quicker than it actually is. I push the cheese into my mouth, and I push the bike off again, wobbling as I go. As I chew, my eyes focus painfully slowly on the road again. I find my rhythm and I’m off again. “Just another half an hour Steve.”
At five am on Friday morning, Jonny G, Benda and I are standing outside the Manchester Velodrome. It’s cold and wet, and we are waiting for the film crew, Ed and his mate Mac, to arrive. I’ve roped these guys into this next epic - I’ve sold it as this incredible adventure, that everyone will have an amazing experience and learn from, about themselves, and my insane drive to push myself. Ben Watson, a fellow team mate, has come along to the start to ride with us for a bit. His infectious smile and good nature has us under way in good sprits. Jon Gildea, on the other hand is searching for something. Like me, he wants something more out of this ride. It’s not just another training ride that we are so used to as professional cyclists. For years, Jon has been interested in the way I go about my down-time off the racing bike - ‘this adventurous lifestyle of yours’. Given the chance, I’ll always go on an adventure that finds those edges of what I think is possible of myself. Jon likes the idea of what I do, what so many of us do, and this time I’ve bought him along to find his own path in adventure. This trip will test him beyond his boundaries and wildest dreams, and I’m excited for him, and can’t wait to watch his journey unfold.
We are riding the Second City Divide, a route from Manchester to Glasgow on a mix of terrain including tarmacked roads and hike-a-bike ankle-deep fells of bog. It’s a sporting route one might say, a route to test the skill sets of an adventurer. 660 kilometres long, and with its fair share of ups and downs. My plan is to try and ride the route in three days. Simply ride two hundred and twenty kilometres a day for three days, carrying everything we need to survive until we hit the Glasgow Velodrome, our finishing point. This isn’t a race, there are no rules, we don’t even have to do it, it’s just something I’m not sure I can do, hence the reason to give it a try.
After 50 miles Ben signs off, heading for the train, and an afternoon training ride with his girlfriend Alex. I watch Ben ride to the train and I feel sad for him. It’s never easy leaving a ride, and I know he really wanted to test himself and join us for the whole shebang. That leaves Jon and myself, and it feels like it’s business time. We plough on through the day making good time, until we hit the first hike-a-bike section. I’ve been told there are some bad sections on the route, and we are about to see if they live up to the hype. They do. For anyone, this is hard:pushing, lifting, carrying your bike over uneven ground, but for Jon, it’s extremely hard. Jon suffers from drop foot, caused by a mountain bike crash, which nearly cost him his leg. On the bike, which he was told he would never ride again, you wouldn’t know, however walking isn’t one of Jon’s strengths! Mentally I can tell he’s unravelling, cracked, as we call it in the business of cycling. We are up to our shins, dragging our bikes through a bog, atop a moorland with mist rolling by with the chilling wind. I’m happy - it’s uncomfortable, but I’ve been in worse. These are just the first layers getting stripped back, the ones that expose your true self. The bit where you start to question why? Why you do this to yourself? I feel the excitement growing inside me for what we are about to embark on. We push, ride, carry, and laugh at what can only be described as a riverbed as we descend off the moor, until we hit the tarmac again, Jon has passed his first test.
The next test comes in the shape of a lack of food and an increasing headwind. It’s late in the afternoon, and we’ve been on the move for over twelve hours. Jon’s phone has died in the wet conditions and we are a long way from Hawes, the closest town we can get food from. We have gone off route, as I know there will be nothing open in Bainbridge by the time we get there. As we roll into Hawes, Jon is on empty. As we shovel fish and chips down our necks while being interviewed by Ed and Mac who have been chasing us all day. Jon’s talking himself out of continuing as fast as he can eat. Negative thoughts running wild in his head as we order a sticky toffee pudding chaser. After an hour, I drag my tired heavy body outside into the cold and back onto my bike. We get a few miles down the road before hitting Askrigg, and a long twenty five percent climb. We crawl over this and down the winding sheep-filled road on the other side, where we bid goodnight to the film crew. My plan has always been to ride through the night - I think part of the sell to Jon was the romance of it all. Riding through the night, the big adventure. However that comes at a price, one that Jon on his first adventure, isn’t quite yet willing to pay.
At midnight it’s clear Jon is done, and fair play. After two hundred and twenty kilometres, we find a dry bus shelter just outside Kirby Stephen. The floor is covered in pigeon shit, however a wood bench seat will allow one of us a nice bed for the evening. I offer it to Jon. As I lay my three foot long, three-millimetre thick piece of foam down I’m gutted to not be riding on. I set my alarm for 5:00am and wished Jon a good night's sleep.
Part two coming next week...