It’s been my intention to write the last blog about the Canada to Mexico ride for the last…errrr…well, it’s long overdue. Yesterday a journalist asked me “By the way, did you get to Mexico?” The final days were long, hot and sweaty in an unusually hot Californian autumn, but we made it to Mexico on the 29th October, 41 days after leaving Vancouver, 3000km and 38 days of riding. I’ve just calculated that is an average of 79km a day…WEIRD…it wasn’t planned that way to fit with Quest 79, but the mysterious magic of the number seems to have been at work! The border was an unexpected and moving experience. We followed a dusty trail that became dirt, alongside the imposing grid of the border fence. We’d heard there was a park at the border – Friendship Park. I’m not sure how a park located between double fences is a symbol of friendship, nor how the hundred square metre patch of dirt we found can be called a park. In border-land, the greenest things are the turquoise of the ocean that the fences extend into, and the uniforms of the military guys stationed to intervene with any swimmers or tunnel diggers attempting to cross from Mexico.
A young guy stood at the fence, immersed in its shadows with his head bowed, hands in his pockets, being with his loved one through the dense trellis. My eyes welled, imagining the separation and the tough choices made for dreams of a better life. It’s easy to question why you’d leave family and loved ones when we have more than we need to survive in our ‘western’ world, but then most of us have never experienced real poverty. It felt indulgent to have time and resources to spend 41 days cycling, to a border where I felt like a voyeur of heartbreak.
Later that day, we crossed into Mexico. It was a turnstile gate, impassable in my handbike, so Niall had to persuade US border guards to find their key, accompanied by grumbles of “You don’t want to go to that smelly country”. I found Trumpism shocking throughout the journey, and yes, we really did want to go to Mexico, with all its exotic smells, colour, smiles and kindness. We were waved through the Mexican nationals channel by their border control, with not so much as a glance at our passports. Our short time there was special. After explaining where we’d cycled from, local shopkeepers rallied together and produced a giant Mexican flag as a gift. The border queue back into the US was a different experience – very long and somewhat militant, but a Japanese tourist guide took it upon herself to accelerate our crossing – a little embarrassing, but we passed through in about an hour instead of five!
Tyre Tackling. ”What do you mean by telling me to ‘get a life’ Rich?” Niall asked in a belligerent tone as a tyre lever snapped on him. “Forget it mate.” Rich responded, and I felt myself cringe inside, tired of the tension. It was a hot afternoon on the shoulder of a busy freeway, yet another puncture on Niall’s rear wheel and too many kilometres still beckoning. In Southern California, the dusk doesn’t linger. We’ve rolled into camp in the dark a lot lately. I tried to stay calm, thinking how we may snap at each other on a journey like this, but we rely on each other to be there as team mates, regardless of our mood or tiredness. Team dynamics is always interesting, and this trip has been no exception. I feel like the glue between two very different personalities. Living and journeying together for six weeks, we have explored our nooks and crannies, our perks and quirks, and different facets and insecurities of ourselves and one another. We each have parts of us we don’t like and ways of escaping… maybe its to cider, a sweet treat, a chai latte or to just keep riding to the end of the universe. We are driven differently, by lack of life purpose, a desire for change, and I am aware that I’m always pushing with some inner clock that wants to squeeze more and more just in case life runs out soon. In our colourful dynamic I have wondered if and when our delicate threesome might fall apart, but it wasn’t until a few days later that I realised we have bonded not broken. A few nights later we slept bare to the stars, dehydrated and restless in the burning Santa Anna winds after a day riding in crazy heat, 45 Celsius and sandblasting headwind. We rose in the night for a dawn ride through Malibu and onto Santa Monica, early morning joggers and surfers sharing the beach with us. We took a sidetrip into Hollywood, and all agreed that following bike paths across the beaches was a nicer way to spend the day. But beach trails ran into urban sprawl and we were forced to traverse central Los Angeles in the glow of evening sun, navigating a maze of busy streets and three-lane highways. Niall punctured twice on the rear, and suddenly we had miles of LA to negotiate in the dark. A guy inexplicably spinning himself in circles with a heavy bag took a swing at Niall as we rode by, an explosion cracked the night air – gunshot or maybe just a firework – and sirens screamed in the distance. But we felt untouchable, riding the night, flying towards Long Beach, chasing to Mexico. Invisible potholes and street debris caused two more punctures and a broken spoke, but we were slick and calm, way more oiled than our chains. Much later we rolled into Long Beach, and the magic was palpable. The lights of cruise liners and Ferris wheel twinkled, the moonlight silhouetted palm trees, families and couples strolled in the hot night air. They say a team goes through different stages… forming, storming, norming, performing. The three of us do all of these things in micro cycles every day, but last night we definitely performed. And in our six weeks on the road, we are travelling those micro cycles within ourselves too, on a journey much greater than the physical one from Canada to Mexico. Niall has shed kilos in a Godzilla effort towing a trailer and wheelchair, getting lighter in spirit as he does in weight. He powers up hills that would previously have daunted him. Rich is a soldier at heart, and has reflected on life’s wars and wounds. He knows ways of healing, and maybe this journey will take him closer to that. Me? Well, I like myself more when I feel fit and healthy, and so I ride and try not to overdo it, or the chai. I am not restless or running. Its just that my DNA is wired to leave no stone unturned. I will always want to discover what is around the next corner… be that in the road ahead, in myself or those I journey with. With just a few days left to Mexico, I feel proud of the team we have become. The number of tyres we have tackled for punctures is like a metaphor for how we have adapted to our ways and differences. We have almost accomplished what we set out to. We are kind of perfect in our imperfection.
The past nine days have been a kaleidoscope, the wetter more gruelling experience of the north transformed by the vibrant colours, sounds and smells of the south. Our senses have been infused with the aromas and energy of things we’ve ridden through: the mystical Giant Redwood forests, the heavy wafts from hidden plantations of cannabis, the salty kelp piled in by the Pacific rollers and the smog of wildfire that has tinted the sky and filtered the sunlight. Add to that the endorphins running through my blood from long days and the physical intensity of tackling the rollercoaster ribbon of route 1 as it hugs the wild coastline. It is no wonder my dreams have been vivid. Sleep has been restless. Muscles were aching the closer we got to San Francisco and our rest day. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge I felt a surge of emotion, happiness we’d made it so far, appreciation for Niall, Rich, and new friends, Swann from France and Natalie from northeastern USA. They are both on long solo bike adventures, both kind and happy spirits who we were fortunate to share our journey with. We split a chocolate brownie in the centre of the bridge to celebrate and snapped photo after photo of the iconic entrance to San Francisco. After soaking up the modern vibe of the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ in the hippy streets of Haight-Ashbury, I find myself introspective on life and love. I think about the reasons I seek adventures like this, so filled to the brim with physical, mental and emotional challenges. I value my independence so much yet I eagerly trade chunks of it on a trip like this. The tunnel of experiences, people, uncertainty, interdependence and learning it provides is too compelling for me to decline. I sense acutely my dependence on my team mates and the cocktail of reliance and thankfulness it generates in me, and wonder what it creates in them – Niall towing my wheelchair etc., Rich eager to help me whenever he can. In this circus of give and take, it is clear to me what I receive, but I wonder what I give. I have to hope and trust there is something so as not to wound my soul. Instead of worrying too much, I take pictures of pumpkin fields and giggle at the road sign of a bicycle and the words ‘share the road’ that have been edited to ‘share the love’. Yep, we’re in California. The hypnotic effect of riding for hours keeps me musing. I realise I am comfortable out of my comfort zone and more restless when in monotonous routine. Perhaps I am eager to fill my days in case there aren’t many more, countering a fear of death, an inevitability that I have come close to far too often. Or maybe it is just my nature to crave the marrow of life, endlessly hungry for the nutrition it gives. Feelings of vulnerability, connection, challenge, compassion and love seem more intense in the laboratory of an adventure, a mega-dose of essential vitamins that make me feel better. Occasionally I am envious of those who are peaceful in the cradle of routine. I know I will be able to appreciate it again soon too, after this latest kaleidoscope. For now though, each day is a new adventure, nothing certain except the moment, that waves break rhythmically onto the shore beside us, and that the road ahead is blocked with a giant landslide! Navigating the Big Sur will be interesting. I look forward to the next chapter in the sunshine state. Follow my quest Here
As we sun-and dream-chase southward on our bikes, the smell of warm pine and layers of rolling forest stir childhood memories. I grasp at them tight, shutting out the roar of RV’s and juggernauts whose backdraft sucks us along or throws us into dangerous wobbles. I try to block out thoughts of being inches from death, and focus on the forest, or on the waves that roll in loudly from the gape of the Pacific. I think of being ten years old, of the year I lived in Oregon with my family, and try to be that same wide-eyed experience-soaking sponge. The Oregon coastline gets great reports. “It’s so quiet and wild over here” a couple of tourists from New York enthuse. We seek out that quiet, the State Parks dotted along the shore, the viewpoints where the ocean yawns, the harbours, the occasional village with wooden and trinket charm. Otherwise, we try our best to embrace the tinnitus of ambient America, the towns of fast food, overhead wires, hanging traffic lights and four lane roads when really, two would suffice. I am infused with a mild sense of fear. We have been lucky to meet some warm-hearted, welcoming people but in-between I feel a cold desolation. An old lady’s t-shirt pronounces ‘Karma takes too long. I will smack you in the face now’ and that seems to sum things up in this land of mega-consumption, everything from engines to burgers in giant proportions. Grab it now because it may not be there tomorrow? At times I feel a little sick. Yesterday we rode past the state-line cannabis shop and into California. It felt instantly softer and warmer, deciduous trees and agricultural land in the glow of a setting sun. It was another dusky end to a days riding, we have found a rhythm, rising with the sun and resting with the moon, lunch at marts or roadside diners, pedalling to America’s beat. Its funny how 80 to 100 km a day can feel so intimidating but then become so normal. Our bodies barely complain considering what we are asking of them. Towing the bulk of the load, Niall is shredding kilos and gaining strength, stalwart as the Giant Redwoods we’re about to ride through. I am scattered, toothache taking me out of the zone and on a U.S dental tour, but when the painkillers take effect I am present, enjoying the ride into the unknown. Rich, last minute to join our small pedalling tribe, rallies like a cheerleader and has become our local cider specialist. We are an eclectic mix: different perspectives and various vices, but that’s part of what makes it interesting. A quest. From the Redwood Gate to the Golden Gate the next episode awaits us. It’s hard to believe that we will be riding into San Francisco in eight days time. Follow my quest Here
“It’s far too early to stop yet,” Niall said, the sun still too high for long shadows or golden tints. I knew then he had caught the bug, the addictive virus of cycle touring, choosing to keep moving rather than kick back and rest up in a random American RV park.
We are on the first section of our long road from Canada to Mexico, following the Pacific Coastal Bike Trail from the American Adventure Cycling Association. From Vancouver to the state of Oregon, the freeways and highways have never seemed far away, pulsating traffic like blood, background America not really the oxygenating tonic we had hoped for. But punctuating that have been some surprising and idyllic sections of bike path, fields of fruit, state forest parks and the volcanic white crown of Mt St Helens, and we are here after all to experience the big US of A and all it’s facets. If we were seeking single track Hebridean peace we should have gone there. We are a diverse threesome thrown together by chance and opportunity. Niall, Herculean towing a full pannier load plus a trailer with my wheelchair on top, unsure of his physical ability but carrying off a feat of strength that most would or could not entertain. “Good luck sack-wagon man” a passing cyclist had remarked. Rich, looking for an escape or a new direction, an excited puppy with ADHD, with unwavering certainty that we’ll make it to Mexico and maybe still have time in lieu for an engine-powered road trip to tour inland at the end. And me, wanderlust, happy as long as my ass is moving and the sights and experiences keep coming, and if my body can stay healthy to cope with the extremes I ask of it. We’ll all learn something, though we may never know it.
The adventure ahead feels full of the promise and freshness of a new spring, yet the leaves turn autumnal almost quicker than the turn of our cranks, and I feel daunted by what lies ahead too. Will we make it? Will we become firm friends or drift apart with the miles and our differences? I remind myself it doesn’t matter where we get to, or even what unfolds. Take each day as it comes, bite-size chunks: appreciate my teammates and our multi-colours; and bank the special memory bytes, like watching the colony of sea lions in Astoria, barking and basking in the afternoon sun. Follow my quest Here
Number 79 showed up in my life last year. I have no knowledge of numerology, but the constant appearance of the number got me intrigued…
Gold is the 79th element in the periodic table. I spent three years as a geologist researching it, but never saw any – it was so tiny, in the lattice of the rock, that it was barely visible even with a super high powered microscope. Gold has eluded me most of my life (definitely in bike racing until last year!), and to be honest I would always choose silver as colour over gold. But ‘Project Gold’ took hold of me in the run-up to the Rio Paralympics and gold, at last, came my way ☺ Interestingly, the medal I won in Rio was the 79th medal for GB. I went straight from Rio to the Outer Hebrides for peace and tranquillity, where a ferry ran aground and stranded 79 passengers! I have also coincidentally taken significant journeys by handbike and sit-ski at 79 degrees latitude east (Tibet), west (Patagonia) and north (Greenland). Number 79 has now led to a new project.
As an ex-climber, I often hear about climbers doing the 7 summits – the highest summit on each continent, and so I’ve decided to create an alternative – a significant ride on each. Quest 79 will involve me travelling to 7 continents in 9 significant handbike rides. Nine rides not just 7 because the project will also include two Paralympic Games, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, embodying the ‘Spirit in Motion’ motto of the Paralympics. I obviously can’t guarantee selection for Tokyo, but I can guarantee to be there, doing a ride in some shape or form! The aim is to raise awareness and £79 K for the Spinal Injuries Association, a charity close to my heart who provide fantastic support and services to people whose lives are suddenly and drastically changed by spinal cord injury.
I also hope that other people will simultaneously take on their own Quest 79. I want people to try something new, and in the process discover themselves. Stretching our boundaries and doing something a little out of our comfort zone usually brings great rewards. We just need the courage to begin and perseverance to persist. It doesn’t have to be physical – it could be anything connected to number 79 – with the idea that people find a passion, bring friends and people together and perhaps help others at the same time by raising money for a good cause. I’m calling this ‘finding your inner gold’.
Where will the Quest 79 rides be? See the Quest 79 link on my website for more info about the planned rides.
What is the next Quest 79 journey? On the 18th September, we leave for ‘The Express Way’, cycling from Vancouver, Canada along the Pacific Coast to Mexico. It is 3000 kilometres, and we have 40 days, carrying everything to be self-sufficient including camping kit and of course my wheelchair. Coincidentally, allowing for a few rest days, we’ll need to average 79km a day on the trip! My friend Niall Urquhart is coming with me, and he is currently training hard whilst trying to lose 35kg (79lbs !) before the challenge – it will be the first time he has ever been bike-touring beyond short trips in Scotland. He was injured in March and until recently he was feeling so unconfident that he nearly pulled out, but with some patience, rehabilitation, route planning and gradual training things are back on track. We’re feeling a mix of nerves and excitement for the long ride ahead!
Who is coming on the other ‘Ways’ that are part of Quest 79? Different friends are joining different rides, and most of them are pushing their comfort zones but enjoying the process. Next year for the ‘Spirit in Motion’ way following the River Ganges from it’s source, my friends Christine Graham, Kevin Benstead and Lorna Campbell are coming along. Christine and Lorna haven’t ridden bikes since childhood until very recently, and Kevin just did his first bike sportive event in 2017.
In the autumn of 2019 will be the ‘Continental Way’: a ride from Britain to Spain, and we aim for Spinal Injuries Association members will have the opportunity to join this ride at some point.
What kind of challenges are other people doing with Quest 79? Michelle O’Connell has just given up driving to work, to walk 79 miles over three weeks, to and from work. She is now in the process of cycling 79 miles, and after that is planning to swim 79! In October 2017, coinciding with ‘The Express Way’, Catriona Macleod plans to try and run 79 miles during three weeks, then to progressively reduce the time it takes until she gets as close to running 79 miles in a day as possible. She is a busy working mum and hopes her kids will run with her sometimes. Catriona says “Long-distance running is an aspiration, far from a natural talent. I’m recovering from a stress fracture in my leg but I’m continually inspired by others feats of endurance and want to inspire myself – and hopefully my kids – by jumping into my stretch zone.”
In April 2018, coinciding with ‘The Water Way’, Mark Pitcher plans to run his first marathon, and in the process recruit 79 people to commit to donating blood. A child in his family has a rare condition called Myelodysplastic Syndrome, MDS (which coincidentally my mum also had!), a condition for which life expectancy can be greatly extended with frequent blood transfusions.
The Moray Scout group are planning a 79-mile journey through the Great Glen in Scotland, challenging themselves and raising money for the Spinal Injuries Association in the process. An Aberdeenshire scout also informed me that he plans to drum for 79 hours!
And if you are considering taking on a challenge for yourself… When I was first paralysed it was hard to imagine I could ever learn to sit up in bed without the use of my abdominal muscles or get dressed. The idea of cycling across mountains or winning Paralympic medals was no-where on my radar! Everything in life comes step by step. When we accomplish one small thing that we never imagined possible, then our mind extends to consider what next. I’m intimidated by the prospect of Quest 79 just now, but experience tells me that with belief in self, in the strength of our spirit, in our ability to overcome, and with the kindness of people, many things become possible.
Quest 79 free e-book I have tried to collate some helpful ideas in a collection of short stories from my adventures and experiences in sport. Each story comes with a positive psychology anecdote that will hopefully help you with your own Quest 79. This is currently at print and will soon be available, also as an e-book thanks to supporting from Awards for All. The e-book is available free of charge but we are asking you to consider a donation, all of which will go to the Spinal Injuries Association fundraising effort and can be made on my website.
A massive thank you to Adidas and BBraun for being principal sponsors of Quest 79, and also to the other companies who are helping with kit and support: Willams F1, Tiso, Alpine Bikes, Endura, Gerald Simmonds, Amba Marketing, Calico UK & Lyon Equipment.
This weekend was the official British Paralympic Association launch event. With less than 60 days to go until competition starts in Rio, we’re into the final leg of four years of hard work. It’s got me thinking about how I got here and why I do what I do. My Paralympic focus began in 2008. It seemed a crazy dream to try and get to the 2012 Paralympics in London; little did I expect to be here for another four-year cycle and heading for Rio de Janeiro. Since I began training in 2008, a handbike has become an extension of my body; when it’s missing, I feel like part of me is missing. It seems wrong that a bundle of carbon and aluminium – a material thing – can feel so profoundly part of me. However, since I fell off a cliff whilst rock-climbing and became paralysed from the chest down in 1993, over-sized pieces of equipment have provided me with mobility and the opportunity for adventure, be it a wheelchair, a handbike, a sit-ski, a kayak… My first ever handbike experience was in a spinal injuries hospital. I tried out a clip-on handbike that fits onto the front of a wheelchair. I hated it. It didn’t support my upper body and I found myself just wobbling around, not able to put any power down, and actually going slower than in my wheelchair. I knew though that I wanted to cycle. I felt sure it offered a ticket to something fun and free, so I had a unique handbike made: a giant Harley of a machine, a tandem, hand-pedalled at the front, leg-pedalled at the back, both riders in a recumbent position. It is a monster of a bike, weighing in at around 30kg, and almost 4 metres long (it’s currently in the Glasgow Museum of Transport!), but it was my freedom machine. In the beginning there were just short rides, on regular roads and lanes, but gradually my imagination took off. With whoever was willing to ride it with me, I pedalled into forests and over mountains, from the Cairngorms of Scotland to the Himalayas of Central Asia, from the Outer Hebrides to the length of New Zealand. The bike opened up a world of adventure. Trundling slowly through wilderness, lugging my wheelchair on its back, it enabled some of the life-changing journeys I had dreamt of. Hand-cycling wasn’t really a developed sport back then – but in the last twenty years it has exploded (well, relatively …amongst people who can’t walk or ride a regular bike!). My virgin experience of a racing handbike was at the first-ever European Handcycling Championships in the late 90’s. I turned up on a handbike a local Scottish frame-builder had made for me. It had a shiny red frame with a small ‘Made in Scotland’ sticker on the back, a purple fabric seat and chunky tyres. The other sleek racing cyclists quickly named it the ‘tractor-bike’ and I seemed to be the laughing stock. I was slow in comparison to them and felt kind of foolish, not to mention that I turned up on my own, my bed wherever I could find a space (the train station platform with a sleeping bag and bivvi!), whilst the others were ‘real’ athletes with coaches and masseurs. A lap of the 15km race circuit on one of their bikes was 10 minutes quicker than on my bike. Yes, training counts for a lot, but the right equipment adds a lot too. I was last in all the races and decided perhaps it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t single-minded enough to commit to racing. I wanted fun with friends, time for adventures. Ten years later, I was stranded on my stomach in bed for a few weeks with a small sore on my bum that I’d acquired on a sea kayak trip in Sweden with a too-hard seat. Pressure sores are the terror of any wheelchair user – the golden rule is to get off it quick until it’s healed. The chunk of bed rest coincided with the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. It also coincided with someone’s throwaway comment. “I wonder how good you could be at one of these sports if you just concentrated on one thing instead of everything”. I’ve always considered myself an all-round-have-a-goer, master of nothing. As I watched the handbikers race on the television in Beijing, a spark fired in my neurons. “I wonder if you focused, if you could get to race your handbike in the London 2012 Paralympics?” It seemed impossible: any races I’d entered, I’d only ever come last. As in, really last – the organisers were packing up, and in two races there had been no finish line left to cross! But the idea wouldn’t go away, and by chance I had a more racy handbike already on order. I started training more than ever, though I knew nothing about how to train properly. I didn’t own a heart-rate monitor, let alone know about zones, or power, or threshold, or lactate curves. Blissfully ignorant (oh how many things we’d never begin if we knew in advance what they would entail!), I embarked on this project – my ‘Olympic Experiment’ I called it – keeping it quiet because it felt too scary to tell any one: then I might have to commit and step up to the mark. Over the next few years I discovered that with good tarmac and a racing handbike, I could steadily cruise at 25-30kmph and if feeling edgy enough, I could fly downhill at ridiculous speeds! In a good climate a handbike resembles a sun-bed on wheels; in a wet climate it’s like sitting in a broken shower, water spraying in all directions. Regardless, I rapidly fell in love: freedom, a pumping heart, flowing blood, the elements sculpting me. When we find our passion in life, it leads us. It takes us on a journey, internal and external, to special places. So, eight years later, six of those as a professional cyclist (my ‘proper’ jobs in offices part of the distant past), one Paralympics and a silver medal gone, Rio beckons, big and exciting. I’m feeling a focus come over me like I’ve never felt before. It’s not a conscious decision – it’s as if my body is preparing me to be in the best form possible, on all levels, so that I can realise the dream I have: of this time up-grading from silver to gold. It seems though that there is always at least one athlete I compete against who takes on a goddess-like status, who seems to have gladiator strength and power. It’s an easy habit to diminish myself into the ‘underdog’: something I’ve been all too good at in the past. I’ve been a pro at putting myself on a psychological back foot, seeing my competitors as stronger, faster and more capable, side-lining the hard work and effort that I too have put in. This time though, I feel self-trust and confidence like I’ve never experienced before, that perhaps only come with experience, a solid plan, a great team and a lot of hard work. I’m pushing through training sessions that hurt – a lot – where strength of mind is possibly more important than that of body. As the Spartan Up saying goes “Bleed in training so as not to suffer in battle”. In these final weeks of preparation, I’m exploring that expression to the full. Bleeding in training means more than just pushing yourself constantly. It also means listening hard, so that we know when its time to quit the battle line and withdraw for the next round. Knowing when to say no, when to quit, when to stand up for what the quiet voice inside you is saying is just as important as knowing when to go out there and ‘bleed’. I’ve got quite good at listening, but not always at following through and acting on what I hear. A few weeks ago I felt quite overwhelmed by everything and found myself saying “I just feel like there’s too much pressure”. Yet I didn’t stop, change or cancel anything – I didn’t want to let anyone down. I just kept going, until I discovered another small pressure sore on my backside after a long, long training ride. I was forced to stop. So I’ve come full circle: from that moment in 2008 when, lying on my tummy with a small pressure sore, I first felt inspired to dream of racing my bike in the Paralympics; to here and now, lying on my tummy again, in enforced recovery before ramping everything up for these final seven weeks into the Rio Paralympic Games. This time I’m chasing my dream not just of racing my bike in the Paralympics, but of winning the race. I’m bringing all of the lessons with me: focusing on the possibility of my own gladiator strength and power instead of on that of others, knowing I’ve been a Spartan this year and bled hard in training (and in resting!), and the importance of my own inner warrior: listening to and acting on the quiet voice inside instead of over-riding what it tells me. Maybe if we all did that, we’d be capable of more than we dare imagine.
Sport is full of extreme contrast: one moment you feel indestructible, the next you are almost weeping; one day you feel amazing, the next you feel wrecked. A few weeks ago I became a Paralympic champion. I felt physically fit and mentally strong. Now I feel exhausted; my body the most broken and tired I can remember, and mentally everything feels discombobulated. My head has been spinning – actually a positive sign, as it means my brain hasn’t settled into the cabbage-like state it was so often in whilst training for the Paralympics. It also seems a good indication that I haven’t sunk into the POD (Post-Olympic Depression) state apparently so common amongst athletes after a major event that has absorbed them for a chunk of time. (Apparently, Michael Phelps struggled for two years after London 2012, with depression and rehabilitation from recreational drug addiction). However, it seems unbelievable that last month I won a gold medal, given that a few mornings ago my arms and shoulders felt so heavy and sore that I struggled to get myself out of bed. Sport and high performance are usually billed as good things, held in high esteem, presented as something to aspire to. And sport at an elite level may well begin rooted in passion and enjoyment, but at what point does it becomes a form of addiction or obsession? Training hard is a habit that is difficult to break. In these post-Paralympic weeks, the only way I feel able to give myself the rest I need so much is to go away somewhere, without my bike and with no easy access to a gym. If they are anywhere near me, I will surely be tempted. As I rest up, I reflect on the pros and the cons of my chosen path as an athlete, on the amazing journey it has been so far but also the more challenging aspects. On the good side, my job is to ride a bike every day. I am an active person and happiest when outside, and it is a privilege to be able to do what I love, and love what I do. Gone are the days when I was chained to a desk for forty hours a week. I get to ‘live my dream’ in so many ways. For the most part, sport keeps me fit and healthy, I get to see the world, and I meet people from so many different countries, cultures and backgrounds. I mean, how good can it get? How can there be any downsides? Well, I live out of a bag for most of the year. I am nomadic. Last year I spent approximately five months in rented apartments or hotel rooms. Athletes are relentlessly structured in their training but have little structure in the rest of their lives. Socially and in other ways, things have felt somewhat out of balance for a while. I’ve missed weddings and funerals, family occasions and special times with friends. What kind of person does this make me? I suppose that if we’re going to strive for anything good or surprising in life, then focus is bound to be required and some things will have to be sacrificed. It’s always going to demand hard work, perseverance, pushing through when we’d sometimes rather not. It’s always going to draw blood, sweat and tears alongside moments of passion, excitement and euphoria. How sustainable is it though, if our life is out of balance for too long? The same two questions are fired at me almost every day right now. “How does it feel to have won gold?” “What next?” These questions trigger an avalanche in me every time, though in truth they are already constantly tumbling through the gullies of my mind. I just don’t have answers to them yet. How does it feel to have won gold? That’s the easier one to answer. For a few hours, it felt fantastic. I experienced a cocktail of surprise, relief and happiness; a mission accomplished, a dream achieved. With that successful race, I became the guardian of a gold medal, and that is a special and privileged thing. It carries magical powers. People’s faces light up when they hold it. They want selfies with it. They tell me things they might not otherwise. It’s an honour to experience the magic of the medal at work.
I’ve heard an adventure called ‘a journey with an unknown outcome’. I seem to have an addiction to them; I’ve never been one for too much routine, certainty or predictability in life, hence the attraction of riding a very long gravel road to a dead end in the South American wilderness. It turns out that National Geographic has pronounced the Carretera Austral one of the top places in the world to ride a bike – but our trip was inspired by party games rather than a magazine of such acclaim. Christmas. 2016 was almost upon us, and with it a rising awareness of the pressure of the year ahead. We were all training hard to be selected for the Rio Paralympics; whether we would make it or not we didn’t know, but either way, we were pretty sure we’d need something to look forward to afterwards. A kind of ‘recovery’ plan, less for the body but more for the mind and spirit.
Our team came together without much effort, the idea hatched around tinsel and fairy lights with friends Steve and Caroline Bate. Team-mate Jaco van Gass was quickly on board too. Steve has no peripheral vision; when he was diagnosed with retinosa pigmentosa four years ago I had half-joked with him “Well never mind, you could qualify to race a tandem for the British Cycling team now.” He’d gone on to do just that and had successfully lined himself up for the Rio Paralympics. Caroline was new to cycle touring but keen to give it a go. Jaco was also new to it, but as part of the Paralympic cycling squad after losing his arm to an explosive device whilst serving in Afghanistan, he would have no shortage of fitness. All of us were focused so much on Rio, that we gave our Patagonian adventure little thought beyond booking our flights. The Carretera Austral is a Patagonian forest rollercoaster, a smorgasbord of gravel with stretches of blissful asphalt as an occasional reprieve from the bone-rattling terrain. Within hours of starting to ride we were coated in dust and spattered with mud – mixed in with our sun cream and vaseline, this became a grubby exfoliant for the skin and lips. Our days were soon measured in kilometres rather than time. 1,240km seems an excruciatingly long way when the average speed is 3km per hour. Through the worst of the gravel – grade 3, as we decided to call it – it would have been quicker to walk than cycle. Our efforts were lost to the spinning stones, a layer of marbles on sand. We would see no traffic all day, then when we reached a section of grade 3, trucks would come blundering by, sending up plumes of dust like volcanic eruptions, obscuring the real volcanoes and their conical white slopes that peek above the trees, and adding a touch of grit to our mayonnaise wraps.
Does that tempt you to cycle Chile’s Carretera Austral? It should. Amongst the gravel and the grind are many wonders. Everything is super-sized: trees reach for the clouds, valleys yawn wide and long leaves cast shadows big enough to shelter under. The bumble bees are obese. After rattling along the Carretera for 370km, we came to the small village of Puyuhuapi, the forest broken by a disarray of colourful timber houses and shops on the edge of a fjord. We filled our stomachs and souls with giant portions of homemade cod and chips, bread and salad. At Manuela’s there is one set menu, to be eaten with a view over the small harbour and the Christmas tree in the village square The warm evening sun was a reminder that we were in the Southern Hemisphere, a little different from the previous Christmas when wrapped up in woolies we had imagined ourselves in Patagonia. It seemed an age ago, the year absorbed by the intensity of training and racing, the uncertainty of making Paralympic selection, the mental pressure, disappointment for some at not being selected, and the final push for others of us that were. The escape to Patagonia was exactly the tonic we all needed to recuperate. The lack of pressure was palpable, a relief to body and soul, but now I was re-learning how to live without it. I had felt broken after Rio, the months and years of pressure physically embodied, and I had a date for shoulder surgery when I returned home. Watching the sunset over the lake, I thought about how slowly yet quickly we humans adapt to changes in our environment. Like landscapes. In a few years when the asphalt spreads, Puyuhuapi’s character will morph. More people will come. More traffic will pollute. Maybe nature will become less super-sized. The price of development. For now though, Patagonia has something pristine and unique. I could feel it breathing life into me again. At first it seemed impossibly far to reach Coyhaique, the regional capital, halfway along the Carretera. Two weeks later and having ingested a lot of dust, we were getting close. Our day began in a grassy clearing with the sounds of flapping tents, wind whispering in tall trees, exotic bird-call and the rush of a bulging turquoise river. We had journeyed from a wide rolling valley splashed with lilac lupins and yellow gorse, the occasional peak of a high white summit glistening bright against a flawless blue sky. But any delusions of having arrived in heaven were soon ground away by the joint-labouring climb. It is curious how far 14km can seem when the road goes relentlessly up and your limbs are weary; when a steep gorge flanked with high walls takes away the horizon; when you feel you are cycling in treacle, or its South American equivalent of dulce de leche. (The latter is pure, delicious, liquid sugar sold in kilogram bags, and soon becomes addictive to the hungry cyclist.) The others were spread up the road ahead of me, a relay team in formation, ready to hop off their bikes and turbo-boost me up the hill. It is not what I had imagined or wanted, this dependency on my friends to manage the steep or slippery hills. But I felt grateful for them and the way we had found to journey together, with our different physical challenges and circus of bikes and trailers. Steve was riding a fat bike, the wide tyres soaking up bumps and potholes and compensating for his limited vision, my wheelchair precariously balanced on a trailer behind him. Jaco had struggled to ride down the first hill we had encountered, the massive weight on his trailer tricky to control with one arm of carbon. Caroline was physically intact, though not so well trained as the rest of us and she too was balancing a full load of panniers along with pots and pans and washing tied to the back. I knew the ride was a challenge for each of us in different ways, even before the unexpected need to shove me up hills that my spinning wheel couldn’t gain traction on. I have spent years striving to be stronger, faster and more physically able than I am, but my arms will never match the strength of legs. Maybe that has left me feeling lesser at times; perhaps it has also led me to my incessant pedaling. However, I am nonetheless amazed by what my body sustains. I ask a huge amount of it and it rarely fails my will. For the journey of the Carretera Austral, I was asking my arthritic shoulders to pedal me through at least 60 kilometres a day of mountainous, gravelly Patagonian terrain. I reveled at the absence of pain or complaint from them, especially given how bad they had been after an injury I’d acquired just before flying to Rio; I had felt I had no option but to sign up for shoulder surgery on my return home from Chile. But something about this place, the people, the nature, was making my soul dance in a way it hadn’t been able to for a long time. I had felt suffocated by endless months of cities, hotels, treadmills and races in concrete jungles. They had robbed me of something vital. Here, cycling all day through forests and mountains, camping on dusty roadside verges, in gravel lay-bys or (if we were very lucky) small grassy clearings, I felt somehow at peace again. The rain fell as constantly as the gradient rose, from the moody fjords of Chile towards the yawn of Argentina, but we would turn south before then, to the black spikes and ice-crusted peaks of central Patagonia, deeper into region XI. Coyhaique had been the last significant town along the Carretera, and now it felt like the real adventure was beginning: the wilder half, the tougher half. There seemed to be many reasons why I should not be continuing, pushing on towards the festival of gravel ahead. I hadn’t been feeling strong or good, and was constantly challenged by one small thing or another: the worry about my shoulder; my bladder and catheter drama; enforced constipation to avoid my new-found dread of shitting in the wilderness; a broken tooth and emergency dental treatment. What was I thinking? Almost 700km of ‘el ripio slipio’ (my Spanglish slang for the gripless dirt road leading south) stirred up a cerebral cocktail of uncertainty, doubt and trepidation. But maybe it was this mix that inebriated me enough to continue, to travel a road that might be hard, to seek beyond the certain predictability of a comfortable life. My bike wheels flicked the heavy rain like an unruly showerhead, and despite my good waterproof jacket, I felt the drops running across my skin, seeping where they shouldn’t. Each incline forced me to push hard, made me hungry for gears – but there were no more and instead it felt like a gym workout, reps of a bench press. Was this body-building or body-breaking I wondered? Character-building or spirit-crushing?
We needed to stop, to make camp before dark, but ironically, despite being fed by the clouds all day, our drinking water was low. I felt thirsty, hungry and tired. And life seemed distilled to those simple basics. Water. Food. Rest. “You feeling okay?” I asked my team-mate Jaco. “Yep, kind of. There’s no choice not to is there?” There really wasn’t. But what is harder really? An elemental day on the road dictated by the crucial ingredients of survival? Or a day rich in comfort, choice and the crazy stress of our daily busy-ness? Despite our dry mouths, empty stomachs and weary muscles, there was nowhere else we wanted to be. The days passed and we adapted to moving ever more slowly. The forest became woven with lakes and rivers; startling glimpses of turquoise luminosity and rushing current, a surprise for the eyes after the kilometres of gravel and endless trees. Coniferous or deciduous, their personalities differed; the forest darker, more mysterious and forboding, the woodland warmer and more hopeful. I preferred it when the trees fell away to meadows and big skies, when rises in the road were crowned by white summits, where horizons expanded all around and I felt things expand within me as well. On long journeys with hours of riding, there is plenty of time to think. But mostly I don’t. That’s part of the attraction. Hours of emptiness are punctuated only by fleeting thoughts. What a beautiful valley! Is that really only 7km we’ve done so far today? It must be lunchtime soon… I wonder what it’s like in the UK just now? Probably cold and dark, since they’re approaching the winter solstice. At other moments I am transported, time-travelling from Patagonia to another place. My local café: the comfort of a sofa, a hot milky chai, good chat with a friend. Then a sip of diluted juice in some exotic South American flavour would burst my senses and I’d be back, on the road again, dodging potholes or navigating washboard that would rattle my brain and bones until I had to clutch the brake to make it stop. A brief moment of peace from the rumbling Carretera. A glimpse of my cap in the rear view mirror, its ‘Patagonia Sin Represas’ logo reminding me of the campaign to prevent damming of the pristine rivers and spoiling of the wilderness we were riding through. I felt happy to wear it, for its ethos of protecting the beauty of the place we were in as well as for the shelter it offered from the hot sun. I feared losing it every time a fierce gust of wind grabbed at its peak. But when I tightened the band enough to keep it, a headache would grow under its vice. So went our routine, and so passed our days on the road. Simplicity is bliss. Finally we were only 120 km from our destination: Villa O’Higgins, the end of the Carretera. As I lay in the tent, the rain pattering hard and the wind sweeping through the branches high above, it still felt like a thousand kilometres. A mountain pass of mud and gravel climbed immediately from our campsite, and since the previous afternoon not one vehicle had taken it. We were heading to the end of something. The road, the journey, maybe the earth… A place not many people go. Blue sky turned to grey, the temperature was almost negative, the gravel was back to grade 3. I reluctantly peeled the cosy warmth of my sleeping bag away. There was no time to waste – after 20 km there was a ferry to catch. We had allowed ourselves four hours. We would have been faster walking, except I couldn’t. So we began pedalling. “You should lie on a beach and relax for a month, not ride the Carretera Austral,” my brother had advised me. I had wondered if he was right, and for a moment I did again on the final day when the end seemed never to come. But lying around just isn’t me. I understood him, as I struggled to imagine how riding 1,240km of largely unpaved road would do me any good when already in a broken state. But somehow, somewhere along the Carretera’s torturous bumps and gravel, a bit of magic had unfolded. My mind had gradually emptied and time had steadily slowed down. Life had been distilled back to basics, had been invigorated by good energy. I hoped the others had had such a positive experience. In our different ways and for varied reasons, it was a journey we had all needed. On the final day, we lost Jaco. For days, the rumbling road had been aggravating his body– an old shrapnel injury – to the point where his pain was so intense that he had opted to cycle ahead that morning. He needed to stop and lie still as quickly as possible. We missed him during that last long day of cycling in incessant rain. The hours stretched out towards nightfall, and it was 9pm before, finally, we trundled through damp mossy forest into town, and gathered around the signpost that marked our arrival at the end of the road. The rain was heavy, every cell of our bodies was sodden and cold, but we were celebrating. It had indeed been a journey with an unknown outcome, but we’d made it. An adventure. A unique wilderness experience. I had no need for shoulder surgery anymore. I phoned to cancel it.