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The Continental Way: Our Camino Part 1

It took me a week to arrive. Until I watched the sun sink and burst amber across the foaming surf, until I collapsed with five hundred kilometres of arm- ache into the cosy cocoon of my tent in the woods of La Crabasse L’Eau, my soul had been missing: lost somewhere in the tide that has swept me from racing to journeying, from athlete to adventurer. The tide that I have swirled in for a decade.

We began our journey in the tiny Breton village of Hopital-Camfrout, once home to a leprosy hospital and the beginning of others’ Caminos. In theory we are pilgrims, though I’m not sure what we seek beyond a quiet place to rest our bodies, clean water and food. Maybe that’s part of the mystery, not knowing what we’re looking for until we find it.

This is my penultimate quest, the penultimate continent. My eyes close to the lull of breaking sea, and I see a mosaic of places and faces of the last three years. I’ve been handbiking a rollercoaster around the world. Every lump and bump is recorded in my arms. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t raced fast. Every smile and kindness is entrained in my heart. Perhaps that’s why the heavy clouds that weighed on me after Paralympic success and all that it took have finally cleared.

As I lay shivering in the European autumn, I think of the last remaining continent, Antarctica. I wonder if it’s cold hostility is beyond me, beyond the physiology of my paralysed body, beyond my skills of survival. But deep down I know I will rise to it. It will just mean good planning, detailed thinking, lots of training, and a sponsor who aligns with the ethos of our expedition. I feel the familiar flicker of excitement and uncertainty, the unknown always more appealing than certainty and routine. I like not knowing, like the surprises of our Camino: we never know how the day will go, what we will experience, where we will sleep.

We roll to the beat of my friend Paco’s drum. He is Spanish, direct, fast. It is his tenth Camino over twenty-five years. He doesn’t like France so we are fast-tracking to the border to his call of “Vamos!” and promises of “comida y precios mejores” – better food and prices. We are four days ahead of schedule after only a week, and as we follow Paco’s ass up the road, he never seems to tire. “He’s a machine” Stephen comments, but I think Stephen is of the same mechanically strong ilk given he’s leapt from office chair to 100km plus a day without problem or complaint, and that he has never toured by bike before. We are a rare mix of characters, an unusual bunch. As with most of the Quests, we had never all met before we began. Not everyone can take weeks or a month away from jobs and commitments, and I muse that I am a tart to adventure, willing to journey with anyone who has time and thirst. This time we are two Spaniards and two Brits cycling through France; three men and more swear words than I ever knew, my head bursting as I flick between ‘Coffee Break French’ podcasts and Spanish or Spanglish obscenities.

The Spanish border has got closer and the sun has appeared at last. I have been layered up for the chill of France, but with blue sky finally blazing, I sweated yesterday in boil-in-the-bag style waterproof trousers. Tired beyond sleep, it seemed too much effort to stop and strip, and so I limped up the final hill into St Jean Pied de Port, thankful for the promise of a day to rest.

We’ve barely left the pilgrim’s hostel, cosy with mattress and unlimited coffee, luxurious after cold canvas and campsites. We have briefly ventured out into the rain. It drizzles onto excited pilgrims exploring the cobbled streets of the old walled town. The long queue from the old wooden door into the ‘Pilgrim’s office’ suggest many are here to begin their Camino, though some like us look too tired to be just starting out. We think back over our journey so far. The days have rolled into weeks, a conveyer belt of forest, lakes, waves and campsites merged into a movie. We try to take it apart. Which place had that cracking sunset? Where were we on that really windy night? Which was the campsite with barking dogs and what day did you get that massive bee sting?

I didn’t need to ask myself when the phonecall had been. It had been day one, a missed call, a bizarre twist to the start of my Camino. It was the British Paracycling team manager. I knew he was calling to tell me I was dropped, that fifth in the world wasn’t good enough. Paralympic handbike training has been the constant, the pillar of my life for over a decade. It’s hard to let go of something you love, especially when someone else deems it time for you to move on. And so for now I will keep riding, thousands of kilometres, towards unknown horizons. Whilst I have no religion, I have faith, and know that before the spires of Santiago, I will have find signs to indicate which path beckons next.

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