Isn’t our mind a funny place? As I reflect on my most recent challenge, I find myself thinking about how much fun it was. It’s like my memory has removed the hours of me saying, “I hate this”, and instead replaced it with a compilation of only the best moments. In fact, had I not kept a diary of how much I was hating it on my social media, I’m not sure I’d be able to write a very accurate account of what really happened. Luckily, since I was cycling to Holland to raise money for Street Child, I documented it all, so there is no risk of my brain fooling me into telling you it was fun! Although, this adventure was the very embodiment of type 2 fun! The kind of fun that is not enjoyable until you have forgotten about it!
What's in this post:
Let’s start at the beginning: Why was I cycling to Holland?
Last year (2022), I went on a life-changing trip to Sierra Leone with Street Child. A trip I had booked back in 2019 while bored on Christmas Day. I had decided that it had been a few years since I had last done an adventure, and so as is normally the case, Facebook listened to my thoughts and provided me with a perfectly targeted advert: “Join us in Sierra Leone for a marathon of a lifetime“. I’m unsure why I clicked on it since I hate running, but the marketing powers sucked me in. Before I knew it, I had devoured Street Child’s entire website, decided it was a cause I could really get behind, and before I had time to think about it, the Christmas money I had just been gifted that morning had already left my bank account. My space was booked!
The trip to Sierra Leone was so much more than I could ever have imagined. Seeing first-hand Street Child’s work was inspiring and confirmed that I had chosen the right cause. But meeting the people of Sierra Leone was what was life-changing. Sierra Leone is like no country I have ever been to before. At the time, it was ranked the 5th poorest country in the world, and the poverty I witnessed was incomprehensible. Yet, despite this, I was met with such generosity and kindness. I met so many wonderful individuals, many of whom were tirelessly working to bring about change and development. I came home truly inspired to become a better person, but I also came away having learned so much about myself. I finally understood what gratitude really meant, and for the first time, I could truly put my hardships into perspective.
Before the plane had even landed on home soil, I knew I would be going back.
What does Street Child do?
Street Child works across 16 of the most challenging countries in the world, ensuring that the most vulnerable children have access to education. Sierra Leone is their spiritual home, as this is where it all started back in 2008. Tom Dannatt was in Sierra Leone when he pledged to help 100 children off the street and into education by supporting a local charity partner. Since then, over 900,000 children have been reached, and over 400,000 have been directly supported to access education.
However, it isn’t so much what they do but how they do it that has driven my desire to support Street Child long-term. Simply providing aid doesn’t solve the problem. The old adage, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for life”, is never truer.
Aid creates dependency. Developing countries don’t need dependency; they need entrepreneurialism, which is precisely what Street Child offers. Street Child gives families the tools to make a living, allowing them to send their kids to school, no matter how many kids they have. I met countless inspiring individuals who, thanks to Street Child, were now running successful small businesses and therefore were able to give their kids an education. One of the most memorable encounters was with Mami Yube. She was taking care of 10 kids, not all of whom were hers. Her business partner had passed away a week before, so she had taken in her friend’s children to raise them alongside her own.
Street Child had helped her set up a business selling firewood, coal, and palm oil. With these earnings, she was managing to support everyone and was in a position to be able to offer the next generation something she hadn’t had: the chance to choose their future.
Why do I care so much about education?
I had a very abusive childhood, one I may write a book about one day. The kind that gives you nightmares and that you wouldn’t wish upon your worse enemy. However, despite the hardship, I had something to hold on to: an excellent education and the belief that I could be whatever I wanted. Of course, I had a lot of other benefits too: a roof over my head, food on the table, safe drinking water, and a passport that allows me to explore the world. But above all, I had an education. I had the one thing that allowed me to escape the problems and build the life I wanted. Had I not known how to read and write, my current life would never have been able to become my reality.
And that is why I care so much about the power of education. Access to education is linked to fewer teenage pregnancies, less child fatalities, fewer child marriages, overall better health, improved care for animals, improved agriculture, more nutritious diets, and overall better prosperity for the entire community. But above all, it provides opportunities.
That’s all very good, but why was I cycling to Holland?
Having run the marathon in Sierra Leone last year, I decided to return this year (2023) to rerun it. However, raising funds was proving more challenging as everyone knew I could run a marathon, so they weren’t quite as committed to donating to the cause. It seems, after all, that my friends and family love to see me suffer!
So when Street Child reached out to let me know they were running a pilot 100 km cycle event in Sierra Leone at the same time as the marathon, I jumped at the opportunity of doing something different. I hadn’t sat on a bike for a decade, and I only had 3 months to train. Plus, I had never covered 100 km in a single day before, so I figured this would be the perfect challenge to help me raise funds.
It didn’t quite work out as planned though. Nobody seemed to think that cycling 100 km in the heat and humidity of Sierra Leone was particularly impressive. In fact, during a trade show dinner in February, my colleague told me, “100km on a bike is easy, much easier than a marathon”. I was heartbroken. How would I raise funds if nobody thought this was enough of a challenge?
And that is when the opportunity presented itself. That same colleague said, “You should cycle over to Holland for the next batch of customer meetings. That would make for great training”.
If I did, would you pledge £100?
At that exact moment, my sales brain sniffed an opportunity, and without missing a beat, I replied. “What a great idea! Tell you what, if you sponsor me with £100, I will do it”. “OK”, replied Rob, “cycle to Breda for the April meetings, and I will sponsor you £100”. Before I knew how far Breda was, everyone around the table had pledged to sponsor me. Suddenly, there was £500 on the line for Street Child, and all I had to do was cycle to The Netherlands. Only, at this moment in time, I hadn’t realised I’d just committed to cycling 400 km to Holland! Not only was this suddenly a much bigger challenge than I had envisioned, but I only had 2 months to go from zero to hero!
Cycling to Holland – 3 Days before departure
In this world, there are organised people and disorganised people. And then, there is me. Somehow, the two months from agreeing to this challenge had flown past in a blur of work, travel, and meetings, and I found myself staring at the real possibility of failure.
I had made grand plans to get ready for this trip. For starters, I had found the perfect training schedule, which involved multiple sessions on my bike each week, plenty of strength exercising, and of course, the very important stretching that would help keep me supple too. I had also worked out the perfect diet, which would allow me to shred some much-needed fat while giving me all the energy I needed to power through this challenge.
The reality was a little different. I had managed to ride my bike most weekends (but not all!), and I had managed to gain weight rather than lose it! I had done zero stretching, had missed most of my strength classes, AND still didn’t even know how to change a tyre. Add to it the fact that I was sporting a horrible cold, coughing up phlegm every few minutes and continuously needing to blow my nose. To say I was feeling unprepared would be an understatement. For the first time ever, I was starting a challenge unsure whether I could finish it. And worst of all, I appeared to have none of the adrenaline that would normally be swimming through my veins. Where was my mojo?
Cycling to Holland – 2 Days before departure
Two days before I was scheduled to leave, I managed to fit in a quick trip to the local bike shop to buy some inner tubes. The guy serving me looked at me incredulously when I said, “I’m setting off in two days on a 400km bike ride, but I don’t actually have any inner tubes for my tyres. In fact, I don’t know what size I need. Can you help me?”. I’m sure he had a good old laugh after I had left! However, he not only helped me get the tools I needed, but also gave me a two-minute crash course on how to change a front tyre… something that would come in semi-handy a few days later!
Cycling to Holland – 1 Day before departure
The day before my trip started, I was working away and didn’t get home until late. Doug, my long-suffering husband, had decided to panic on my behalf when he realised nothing (and I mean NOTHING) was ready for my trip. So he washed my bike and gave it a light service. He attached a water bottle holder (I didn’t even have that!), charged my lights, and figured out how the paniers that had arrived that same day attached. To say I had left everything last minute was an understatement.
Was this what failure looked like? Where was my “you can do anything” attitude that has sat on my shoulders all my life? Why had it abandoned me all of a sudden? Too unmotivated to really care, I went to bed and did something else that never happens before a challenge. I slept like a baby!
Cycling to Holland – Day 1 – Moreton in Marsh to Milton Keynes – 102 km
I woke up to a wet, gloomy day. Zero motivation to get started. I killed as much time as I could on social media before eventually giving in to the fact I would have to get going. I ate my breakfast as if in slow motion, staring out at the rain, my mind lost in emptiness.
Doug came into the kitchen, hugged me, and wished me good luck before leaving for work. His parting words? “This just seems so normal, you going off and doing a ridiculous adventure.” When had it become normal? I didn’t know whether to be happy that I had reached adventurer status, or whether to be upset that the impending challenge wasn’t being seen as one.
Before my mind could turn on itself, I decided it was time to get moving. I crammed my few belongings into the pannier, checked again that I had my passport, fastened my helmet, and started pedalling. I headed east along the familiar roads of the Cotswolds. The gentle rain soon gave way to sunshine, and with it, my spirits lifted. The first steep hill came and went, and soon I was in a rhythm. Pedal, pedal, pedal. The undulating green Cotswolds countryside rolled past me as I headed further and further east. I was following narrow lanes that rarely saw any cars. I stopped at the top of every hill to admire the view (and catch my breath), and enjoyed carelessly letting my bike pick up speed as I made my way to the bottom of the valley once more.
In search of water
The kilometres slowly added up, and eventually, I found myself facing a shortage of water and the realisation that I had forgotten to bring with me my water purification tablets. Only one option: to ask for help. My plan had been to stop at pubs en route and ask them to fill up my water bottles. Only when I planned my route, I didn’t check whether I was passing any. As of yet, I hadn’t seen a single one! So I kept on pedalling, aware of my mounting thirst. “Next house I see, I will knock on their door”, I thought. But the only house I passed was a large Manor House with imposing iron gates blocking any entrance. So I kept on pedalling, my mouth becoming increasingly drier.
Eventually, I passed a farmyard. I couldn’t see anyone, but I figured they must have a hose or tap somewhere, so at the risk of being done for trespassing, I cycled in. No sign of people or taps. I kept pedalling further into the maze of farm buildings, very aware that I shouldn’t be there but desperate for water. I pushed aside the image of a shotgun-yielding farmer and kept searching until I eventually came across a door that said “office”.
A Range Rover was parked outside with the boot open. “Surely that means there is someone inside?” I thought. And there was. A rather bewildered gentleman answered my call. He frowned at me as I explained that I was cycling 400km to Holland and that I was desperate for water. “You must be nuts!” – he exclaimed, his frown replaced by a mocking smile. “And you think you are going to make it?”. I know I don’t look like much of an athlete, but I do have one thing, and that is stubbornness!
“What do I know, but if I don’t try, I certainly won’t. And sitting on my backside isn’t going to help me raise money, that’s for sure!” – I replied, a hint of defiance in my tone. He laughed. “Bring me your water bottles, and feel free to use the loo. It’s down the hall on the right”.
We chatted a little more before I hit the road again. One empty bladder, two full bottles of water and the first donation from a stranger I’d met on the road.
A pleasant surprise
I continued cycling, my earlier mood now replaced with gratitude for the kindness of strangers. The sun was shining and I was feeling good. My legs were managing to get me up most hills. Admittedly, I did push up some too. My bum was still comfortable, and for the first time, I thought to myself, “You can do this”.
As I neared the 50 km mark I recognised the car driving towards me. A black Range Rover with Doug’s number plate! What was he doing here? He pulled over in the layby, and I did a quick U-turn to join him. “What are you doing here?” – I asked.
“I was stalking you, and since you were cycling so close to the office I thought I’d come out to see how you are doing!”. He had brought snacks and some extra water, both of which I gladly took. We exchanged a few more words before I hit the road once more, waving as I pedalled away.
Soon it was time to say goodbye to the Cotswolds and hello to HS2 construction. For anyone reading this not from the UK, HS2 is a controversial new high-speed railway being built to connect London with other major cities in the UK. It is the largest infrastructure project in Europe and a sight for sore eyes. Miles upon miles of beautiful British countryside turned to mud. The quiet existence of the morning’s ride had now been replaced by lorries, vans and lots of temporary traffic lights! These did not allow enough time for a cyclist, especially not a slow cyclist, to make it through!
My first middle finger
It is here that I experienced the first middle finger of my trip. A grumpy man in a BMW had decided to go once his light had turned green, despite the fact that I was clearly still pedalling head-on towards him. I was pedalling as fast as I could up the hill to try and be as little of a nuisance as possible, but to no avail. He sped towards me, slamming his brakes as he got to me and shouted some kind of obscenity at his closed window before giving me the middle finger. I kept my head down and kept pedalling, muttering “What a…. (insert preferred body part)” to myself.
My faith in humanity was soon re-established though, when I once again needed to fill up my bottle of water. As I cycled through a residential area, I spotted an older lady watering her plants. I stopped and explained that I was cycling 400 km to Holland and needed water. She kindly obliged.
She returned with her husband, who was curious as to what I was up to. They had 101 questions about my trip and were very interested in Street Child’s work. Unbeknown to me, some nearby labourers had been listening to the conversation too, and as I said goodbye to the lovely older couple, one of them called me over.
“Ay love, did you just say you are cycling to Holland?” – he asked in a thick Birmingham accent. I confirmed, to which he replied, “You must be nuts! How are you going to cycle across the channel?”. This made all of them chuckle. “You’re so thick Rob! She’s obviously not cycling on water” – replied the younger of the lads. They all erupted in laughter at Rob’s expense. Before I left, Rob handed me £10. “£5 for the charity and £5 for you. Av’ a drink on me when you get to Milton Keynes”. Before I could thank him though, he started bullying his colleagues. “What are you waiting for? Give her your beer money!”. I tried to protest that I did not want any donation to be given under duress, but Rob was insistent, so I cycled away once again filled with gratitude and another £25 for Street Child.
My questionable Airbnb!
Before I knew it was on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. I opened my Airbnb App, clicked “directions”, and followed Google to my final destination. As I got closer, I couldn’t help but question my location. There was a certain tension in the air. The old buildings falling into disarray and the litter-covered pavements were a stark contrast to the red brick new build estate I had just come from.
A man with a tattooed face leaned against a red, rusting Vauxhall Corsa. I could feel his eyes on me as I cycled slowly past, phone out, searching for my Airbnb. A stick-thin, pale-faced mother pushed a stroller, eyes downcast as she hurried on her way. A group of kids played football on the road, their laughter piercing the otherwise silent neighbourhood.
As I arrived at my destination, the stench of marijuana filled the air. A pink kids’ bicycle with tassels lay on its side. As did 101 cigarette butts. What had I booked?
My host had told me she wouldn’t be home for at least another hour, so as exhausted as I was, I plonked myself on the bench outside the door, replenished my electrolytes and settled down to wait in the afternoon sun.
I couldn’t help but feel proud of the 100 kilometres I had just cycled. This was further than I had ever cycled, and I was feeling surprisingly OK. I got my phone out to try and tell the world what I had just accomplished when suddenly the front door opened. A dishevelled man stared back at me. A rough beard of stubble covered his gaunt face while his old tattered clothes hung off his thin frame.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”. His sunken eyes stared back at me defiantly. I was as confused as him. “I…. I” – the words weren’t coming easily. “I’m staying with you tonight!”. His eyebrows shot up. “Well, that’s news to me!” – a smirk now appeared across his face. Before the words even left my mouth, I knew the answer. “Is this not the Airbnb?” – I asked in a sheepish voice. “Does this look like a fucking Airbnb to you?” – He had a point. It didn’t! In fact, the idea of finding a hotel had already crossed my mind!
At this moment, I realised I was letting my prejudices shape the interaction. I was reacting to him precisely as he expected me to. So I changed. I smiled and said, “I’m such a numpty. You’re telling me I’ve just cycled 100 km, and I’m not even in the right place”. I followed it up with a chuckle. It had the intended effect. His demeanour changed instantly. There was no smile, but his eyes softened as he asked me where I was meant to be. I showed him the address, and he sent me on my way with a “good luck” for the remainder of my ride. His farewell: “You are crazy, you know, cycling all the way to Holland”. As I cycled away, one hand in the air waving back at him, I could hear him chuckling. If nothing else, I had hopefully brightened up his day!
Cycling to Holland – Day 2 – Milton Keynes to Cambridge – 95 km
I woke up to the sound of heavy rain. At first, the pitter-patter of the raindrops hitting the roof and windows was soothing. I could go as far as saying it was nearly melodic! But then I remembered that I needed to cycle. What had moments ago felt like a melody now sounded like a cacophony.
I got dressed slowly, taking my time in the hope that the rain might lessen. I walked over to the restaurant for breakfast, the cool, fresh air instantly chilling me as the dampness seeped into my bones. I fuelled up on porridge, checking my app once again for a glimmer of hope. Would this rain pass? It suggested not. I had no choice but to brave the weather.
It wasn’t too bad at first. As I cycled out of the city along the bike paths, I counted my lucky stars that it was just gentle rain. If only I’d known then what was to come! Unfortunately, the rain got progressively heavier as the day went on. Despite turning on all the lights and donning my bright orange jacket, I was still not sure that cars could see me. A few passed far too close for comfort, making me very nervous for the first time on this trip. Was it even safe for me to continue in this weather?
No entry! Road Closed!
And then, as if by magic, the universe answered my prayers. A closed road sign. At first, a closed road filled me with dread, but what I had come to realise is that where cars might not be able to pass, bikes could. The result? No cars! And this was the perfect closed road as it cut out traffic for nearly 10 kilometres. Suddenly my sodden clothes didn’t seem to matter as I cycled along without being concerned for my safety. The sun even made a brief appearance during this section. Life was good, my legs felt good, and I felt like I was bossing it.
And this is the thing about type 2 fun, otherwise known as “adventure”. It is so hard most of the time, that even when it isn’t actually fun, you think it’s fun just because it is less miserable than it was a moment ago! So here I am, happy as Larry, a big smile on my face, cycling through the green countryside without a car in sight, and my brain has convinced me it’s all going to be OK, even if I still had 70 km to go!
That moment of bliss didn’t last particularly long though, as the rain returned with extra force, and suddenly I found myself needing to tackle a busy dual carriageway. There are some risks I am willing to take, but this stretch of road was not one of them. The spray was so bad that it would have been a miracle if I had made it unhurt. So instead of persevering blindly, I decided to find an alternative. Luckily, as is often the case, the solution was within easy reach: a bridlepath that would only add a kilometre to my route and would avoid all major roads. Perfect!
Well, at least it started off perfectly. Unfortunately though, the gravel path gave way to grass, which in turn, turned to mud. It was at this moment I was grateful for having started my biking career as a mountain biker. The mud didn’t phase me! I dropped down the gears and continued pedalling, ignoring the slipping and sliding. Although slow, I was making progress, and a warped part of me was even enjoying it. That is, until I reached the hill. A waterlogged, muddy, steep hill that I could just not get up. My tyres span in place, not moving forward, so I had no choice but to step off my bike into the ankle-deep mud and push.
I eventually reached the top and mounted again, ready to follow a slippery single-track through the woods. The path got progressively steeper, and my ability to slow my bike down increasingly harder. Every time I braked, my bike would go sideways, but not braking wasn’t an option either! There were too many trees in the way for an uncontrolled descent. Finally, with adrenaline pumping through my veins, I found myself on solid ground again and made my way into the town of Shefford, where I stopped off at the pub to refill my water bottles.
It’s the people that make the journey
I looked quite the sight. Drenched from head to toe, mud splattered all up my legs and face, and feet that looked like lollipops dipped in chocolate. As soon as I walked in the door, the chatter stopped as everyone turned to face me. The silence became deafening as I felt the local’s eyes on me. I smiled at the old man sitting by the window. He returned the smile. “Quite the look I’ve got going on” – I said, in a bid to break the ice. With that, the chatter recommenced, and I started a conversation with John.
John was an adventurer himself. He had hitchhiked all around Europe as a young man. A smile spread across his lips as he remembered his youth. I wish I could have sat down with him in the warmth of the pub to listen to his life story. But, alas, I needed to keep pedalling.
The rain continued to pour, and I continued to pedal. The kilometres passed by slowly as I etched closer to Cambridge. Navigation became increasingly harder in the rain, and with it, the number of wrong turns increased. I found myself cycling up a steep hill only to reach the top and discover I was meant to have turned left at the bottom. Another mishap left me on the wrong side of a railway station. The only way to cross? By carrying my bike up a flight of stairs and back down the other side!
At 50 km, I took refuge under a bridge while the torrential rain created streams around me. By now, I was soaked through to the bone. My waterproof jacket was no longer waterproof. Water ran through the vents in my hat and down my forehead, picking up salt along the way and depositing it in my eyes, rendering me blind. A steady stream ran off my nose and down my chin. I was not enjoying it. Although on the plus side, at least my trainers were clean again!
I continued cycling in the horrible weather, continuously worried that I would be hit by a car. I wasn’t sure if they couldn’t see me or just fancied a manslaughter charge, but cars kept barely scraping past me. It was terrifying. After one such incident, I decided to stop at the next pub.
Once again, as soon as I walked through the door, all eyes were on me. Two men in their thirties sat closest to the door. They both stared at me. I smiled.
“That’s the effect I have on all women” – said one of them, looking at me and then at the puddle on the ground. I raised my eyebrows, and a mischievous grin crossed my face. If there is one thing I learnt from working behind the bar, it is banter. I knew right then I’d be walking out with a donation.
That stop had the desired effect. A £23 donation and a smile to keep me going for the final 30 km. The rain didn’t let up, but at least as I neared Cambridge the cycle paths started back up again, removing me from danger.
After 95 km I finally made it to my Airbnb. I was a state. Every piece of clothing needed to be rung out. I felt terrible walking into my host’s immaculate house with her cream, fluffy carpet. Luckily, Afra was the best host I could have asked for. Not only was she waiting ready for me, but she made sure I had everything I could possibly need to help me recover from the day’s ordeal. Bath, muscle relaxing salts, Neurofen gel and best of all… pizza!!
Afra was the most wonderful host. From Damascus, in Syria, she had been living in the UK for a decade now, having left shortly after the civil war had started. She works as a conference translator, which has to be one of the most challenging jobs. You need to be able to translate live, therefore talk and listen all at the same time! I was in awe!
We had a wonderful evening sharing travel stories, from funny misunderstandings to radioactive semen. I also learnt that you shouldn’t ask for couscous in Syria (cous means clitoris!), and in turn, she now knows to be careful when asking for cheesy bread in Brazil! I wish Afra lived closer, as I know she would become a great friend! How do I know that? Because she shared her chocolate with me!
Lying in bed that night, halfway through my trip, I felt like I was finally living one of those adventures I had so often read about.
Cycling to Holland – Day 3 – Cambridge to Harwich – 116 km
I woke up early to find my clothes were still wet. I was travelling light, but at this stage, I still had a spare of everything, so I decided to pack up my wet clothes and post them home. Not only would it save me some weight, but it would also stop all my other belongings from becoming stinky.
Although grey and miserable outside, at least it wasn’t raining. I was hopeful for a good day, especially since it had started with homemade pan au chocolate courtesy of my lovely host Afra! If only I had known then what lay ahead of me!
Despite already having cycled 198 km, my muscles were feeling surprisingly OK. My knees and hips were a little sore, but I was feeling good. Once I’d ran my errands and stocked up on snacks, I set off on the cycle paths leading east out of Cambridge. The cycle paths gave way to small roads, and the gradual incline I had been cycling along became increasingly steeper as the kilometres went on. Not steep enough to need to push. No. Just a gradual, constant, never-ending uphill. A hill that continued for 30 kilometres!
Although in theory it wasn’t raining, there was so much flooding around that I was once again drenched, only today it was much colder, so I quickly became chilled. I started shivering about an hour into the ride, and no matter how hard I pedalled, I just could not get warmed up. My feet quickly became ice blocks, my hands were numb, and my mood was icy! The only thing making it worse was the wind that had picked up. It was wild! It constantly threatened to push me off my bike. I was not having a good time!
30 km in I stopped at a pub. Not because I needed water but because I was desperate to warm up. As soon as I opened the door, the warmth engulfed me. A wood fire burned in the corner, and the pub was heaving with Schöffel clad clientele. The couple sitting at the bar looked at me with an expression of incredulity. “You must be mad cycling in this weather,” said the lady. “I’m questioning it myself too,” I replied, doing my best impression of Elizabeth Bennet. Where was the plum when I needed to re-insert it in my mouth!
I had landed in a very posh establishment and felt very much out of place in my soggy, muddy clothes. However, the couple at the bar took an interest in me, and before I knew it, I was sipping a hot chocolate courtesy of them. They couldn’t quite comprehend why I was doing it, but they thought it was “jolly good” and sent me on my way with the most generous donation of my trip thus far: £50 for a good cause!
Reinvigorated and with feeling back in my hands, I continued on my way, finally enjoying some downhill time too! Grateful to once again have stumbled across the generosity of strangers, my mood was lifted. The following 20 km came and went without drama. The wind was still a pain, but at least the never-ending climbing seemed to be behind me. There were still plenty of hills, only they were short-lived and always followed by a fun descent. And it was as I flew down one of these hills that I rounded the corner to find the road completely flooded. I didn’t have time to brake, so I simply braced myself, hoping to stay upright. That I managed. But lurking in the deep water was a deep pothole about to ruin my day!
I wish I’d learnt how to change a tyre!
“Oh shit!”. As soon as I hit the pothole I knew I had a flat tyre. I wish I had taken the time to learn how to change one. “It’s OK”, I thought, “that’s what YouTube is for”. I pushed my bike up the road to a small grassy area and set my kit on the ground. Then, as if on cue, the rain started. “Great”. But worse still, I had no signal!
I methodically followed the instructions the guy at the bike shop had given me a few days before. “Start with the tyre lever opposite the valve. Pop it in and hook it to a spoke. Then insert the other lever two spokes further forward and run it around the rim”. The tyre came off easily, as did the inner tube. Success.
“This is not so hard after all” – I thought.
I continued following the mental instructions. Wrap the inner tube around the rim. Put a bit of air in it to give it some shape. Put the outer tyre back on. My confidence was growing. It was a little fiddley, but I was managing fine. I was impressed with myself. I wasn’t useless after all! Famous last thoughts!
All that was left to do was to put the wheel back on the bike.
This is where the problems started. I got the wheel on, but somehow the chain looked all wrong. For starters, the chain was now lopped in a figure of 8. Even I could tell that that was definitely wrong. I kneeled in the wet grass, rain pouring down on me, completely unable to make sense of what I was looking at. How could it be this difficult? I didn’t understand.
After half an hour of trying, I decided I would not manage to fix it without seeing a photo of what it needed to look like. The only way I was going to manage that was by finding signal. So I resigned to the fact that I would be pushing for some time. I collected my belongings and started up the road. For the first time since setting off, I was worried that I might be unable to finish the challenge. What if I didn’t manage to fix my bike? Would this delay mean I would miss my ferry?
For the next half hour, I pushed uphill and free-wheeled down, checking my phone continuously to try and find a signal. There was none. I was doomed. Where were all the helpful souls now that I needed them? I kept moving forward. It was the only thing I could do.
The highs and lows of adventure
Eventually, I found some 3G. It was slow, but with patience, a photo of the rear cassette loaded, and I was finally able to figure out what I needed to do to get my chain back on. I fiddled a little, and voila, I had a working bike once more! Relief washed over me knowing that I was in the game once again. Just as I righted my bike, a BT Open Reach van stopped next to me. The passenger window wound down, and a cheery chap asked me if I was OK. I explained what had just happened.
“I’m a cyclist. Want me to double-check it for you just to be sure” – he replied. “Sure, better safe than sorry”.
Chris confirmed that I had indeed put the bike together properly, but he felt I still needed more air in my tyres. So he kindly pumped them up while telling me about his wife’s upcoming London to Paris ride. It is these interactions that helped shape my trip. It was the kindness of strangers that helped lift me up time and time again throughout the ride. And so it was with Chris’ farewell still ringing in my ears that I set off to conquer the final 60 km of the day.
The rest of the day passed without incident. Just more hills, more wind and more rain. I got increasingly colder, and I lost all feeling in my feet. However, throughout the day, messages of encouragement were pouring into my inbox, and emails kept pinging up with new donations. Seeing these gave me the strength to keep pushing, and so it was with these words of encouragement that I finally cycled into Harwich port several hours later.
I had hoped to pass a pub en route to enjoy a nice dinner before boarding the ferry. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, I arrived in the grey, desolate parking lot of Harwich Port. I was ridiculously early. Within a couple of hours, every row would be completely filled with holidaymakers, their cars filled with camping gear and dry clean clothes. Meanwhile, I stood in the facility’s toilet, trying to warm myself up under the hand dryer. I didn’t manage to dry my socks, but at least warm, wet socks were better than cold, wet ones.
My guardian angel keeps an eye on me
There was nothing left to do now other than wait, so I ordered myself a Domino’s pizza and settled down. I chatted to Sam, my PT, who was telling me off for not taking chain lube with me. Apparently, this was the most likely reason why I could no longer change gears, a new inconvenient development that had happened that afternoon. But, as had happened all too often on this trip, the universe delivered.
As Sam and I chatted, another cyclist pulled up. I quickly moved my helmet from the chair to the table so that he could see that I too, was a fellow idiot riding in this weather. It did the trick. As he walked through the door, he clocked my helmet and came over to introduce himself. Paul was on a much greater adventure than me. He had taken early retirement and planned to cycle to Turkey over the next 6 weeks. He hadn’t planned a route and instead was simply going with the flow. Oh, how I envied him. Hang on?! What do you mean envied him? I was literally only complaining moments ago about how awful my cycle had been so far, and here I am already dreaming of cycling to Istanbul! That is type 2 fun right there! It catches you unaware.
Paul was full of stories of previous adventures, having travelled worldwide doing some pretty incredible challenges, including skiing to the north pole! The next hour and a half flew by and before I knew it we were boarding the ferry with a promise of chain lube the following day! What more can a girl wish for?!
Cycling to Holland – Day 4 – Hook of Holland to Breda – 90 km
I woke up to music playing. The ferry’s way of waking up all passengers. I was far from ready to be awoken. My eyes were glued shut, my face stuck to the pillow, and a trail of dried snot surrounded my now very sore nose. As soon as I sat up, I started coughing up phlegm. I was a mess!
I could barely recognise myself in the mirror. I took a photo. Not normally the face I’d ever want to show the world, but I figured if I was going to prove my suffering, that would do it! It worked! The donations started rolling in.
I went to the canteen for my English fry up. I had wanted porridge but was so tired that I didn’t even spot it on the board. I returned to my cabin, packed my stuff up and waited to be called down to the deck. I was surprised to see we had been joined by several other cyclists last night. A couple heading to Rótterdam for the weekend. Another couple embarking on a week’s cycling holiday around Holland. True to his word, Paul put some chain lube on my bike while I did my best to try and get some air in my front tyre.
The couple en route to Rotterdam made my day by telling me it was a Northerly wind. Since I was going south, I figured I’d have tailwind all the way. I was actually excited. Today might actually turn out to be a pretty easy day! Yeah, right!
As soon as I left the ferry, I felt it. The bone-chilling freezing wind. As I stood in line in the biting cold for passport control, I started to shiver. Not wanting a repeat of the day before, I got my last remaining layers on and put on an extra pair of gloves. It did no good. The cold had made its way to my bones already.
But as I set off, I saw the flags violently swaying in the wind… towards me. Directly towards me! In the complete opposite direction to what I was facing!! I stopped to check the map. Was I going the right way? Yes! This was no northerly wind. It was an easterly Siberian wind! Worst still is that my route wasn’t South; it was predominantly East! I was about to ride 90 km into Siberian headwind. My mood plummeted to the lowest it had been all weekend.
Have I told you how much I hate wind?
I had no choice but to push on, every pedal stroke harder than the one before. I looked down at my watch. I was only covering 10km an hour. I was putting every last bit of effort I could into pedalling, but I barely seemed to be moving. Head down, I kept pushing. 1 hour. 2 hours. 3 hours. Only 30 km covered, and I was now frozen to the core.
I took refuge under a bridge to try and warm up. I longed for the hot chocolate I had enjoyed the day before. I glanced at the map. I would soon change direction. I hoped that it would bring some respite.
I kept on pushing and eventually waved goodbye to the cranes and picked up a scenic path through a nature reserve which, combined with a shift in the wind, lifted my spirits as I finally started to make faster progress. I smiled at every passerby. Nobody returned the smile. Why were the Dutch so grumpy?
The following 20 km flew by until I finally reached my next ferry crossing. I arrived to no sign of life and a message board in Dutch. With the help of Google Translate, I deciphered what it said. “No ferries today”. It felt like a kick in the teeth. I’d already had to detour once because of a closed path. Now this?! A look on the map told me it wasn’t too bad, so I set off into the wind again, taking in the glorious industrial parks until I eventually found a bridge.
Sometimes all we need is a little perspective!
On the other side, I took refuge at a service station. Parked up outside was a bike laden with panniers, and as soon as I walked in, I was greeted by the first smiling Dutchman of the trip! Although he spoke to me in Dutch, I understood exactly what he said. “Are you not freezing?”. I was indeed the only person stupid enough to be cycling in shorts in this weather! Shorts and yesterday’s wet, frozen socks! The most foolish thing about the wet socks is that once I arrived at my destination, I discovered I’d had a clean, spare pair in my bag all along! I could’ve been wearing warm, dry socks!
I sat down with Johannes and warmed up with a mug of hot water. Disappointingly they had no hot chocolate, but I was so cold that I would take anything! Johannes had set off the day before on a 1600 km ride only to make it to Breda and have to turn back home because his phone had died in the torrential rain. His story made me realise how lucky I’d been that mine had endured two days of being soaked without issues. It reminded me of the 10 Peak Challenge I had done many years ago, where my phone died from the rain. No amount of rice was able to revive it!
Warmed up and re-energised following my chat with Johannes, I hit the road once more. I followed a busy highway for 10 km before finally crossing yet another river and arriving in the county of Brabant. Industry was replaced by greenery, and for the first time since setting foot in the Netherlands, I was somewhere beautiful. No windmills or tulips, but at least there was lush green farmland. The bad news was that I was heading east again. Into the wind! At least the views were worth looking at as I struggled forward!
I noticed that the people in Brabants were much nicer too. My smiles were now being returned, and cyclists passing in the opposite direction waved. The closer I got to my destination, the sunnier it got too. The miserable grey clouds were finally replaced with sunshine, and as I entered my final 10 kilometres, the wind died down too.
It is always the people
When I started I wasn’t sure I would finish. Now the end was in sight. No matter what happened, I would make it. Emotions began to bubble up inside. “You rock Bea”. I’m not one for personal praise, but at that moment I felt so proud of myself. I kept going when I really didn’t feel like it. I didn’t lose my cool when things started to go to pot. But above all, I’d had an epic adventure. As always, it was the people that I had met on this journey that flashed through my mind as the final kilometres ticked away.
I was on the final stretch when I saw Rob, the colleague responsible for this challenge. He was cycling hell for leather up the other side of the street. I called out his name, and he came to an abrupt stop. His face was red, sweat running down his brow. He looked confused to see me. Was he not expecting me? But then, he smiled. A big broad smile. “There you are! I went out to find you, but I missed you, and I thought you were going to get home before me”. I pushed my bike across the road and accepted the open arms waiting for me. I can’t tell you how much I needed that hug!
I choked down the tears as we pedalled the final 200 yards to his house, where his wife, Jolanda was waiting, bunting up and medal in hand. I couldn’t believe that my journey was over. Exactly 2 months before, I had done my first training ride: 20 km. I had just cycled 400 km, solo and unsupported. The text a friend had sent me the day before came to mind: “You are such a badass”. I smiled. Yes, I was.
A moment of gratitude
I want to take a moment to thank everyone who supported me on this journey. Together we raised over £2,500 for Street Child. This money could help train 8 teachers, provide the necessary learning materials for 28 whole classrooms, provide 42 business grants or send 83 children to school. That really does make a HUGE difference.
Although I may have been cycling alone, I never felt it. Whenever I stopped for a snack or breather, there would be too many messages to acknowledge. I can’t tell you how much you helped me through the ride. Your texts, videos, phone calls and comments on my posts kept me going when the going got tough.
But the thing that motivated me the most? Seeing that my challenge was inspiring others to do their own challenge!
All that is left to say is a BIG FAT THANK YOU!!
If you’d like to support Street Child’s amazing work, please donate below!