Since my last post, the initial shock of my daily life being flipped upside down subsided somewhat, and Liam and I made the decision to move to Sheffield as planned. Our lovely new landlords even brought the date forward for us because we began to panic that by our move date of 27th March, there may be restrictions of movement in place. Tonight we sit in our lovely new home, reflecting on all the changes in the last week!
Earlier on in the week, I began to fear, like many others, that food supply chains would be affected by the virus. Driven by worry about moving to a new city with zero pantry supplies and no knowledge of local shops, I started to ‘stock up’ (stockpile?!) on kitchen and house essentials, such as toilet roll, rice, herbs and spices, shampoo etc etc. Throughout the week, it became apparent that people were panic buying, and everything started to come into short supply. By the end of the week, eyes wide, I drifted down a bare supermarket aisle for the first time in my life, empty shelves staring hungrily. Today I went shopping in Sheffield (full shelves!) and experienced people really paying attention to social distancing. Awkward avoidance dances with strangers in the frozen foods, the shock of bumping into someone by accident at the end of an ailse, nodding your heads apologetically is the new currency in British politeness.
The Tory party
Perhaps the most disturbing change for me, having had my head buried in social policy since I was 20, is the changes in the Tory party. When Boris Johnson announced his package of support last week, I really stated to worry. If the Conservative Government was acting like it had finally located Corbyn’s magic money tree, then there must be real problems. I am not complaining; I am delighted. I am not going to waste any energy on being critical of how our Government is acting at this time, I just have to believe they have got this as right as anyone could get an impossible to predict global pandemic.
It makes me sad though… as the veil has fallen and the lies of austerity policies have been embarrassingly laid bare, caught in the act, for all to see. Teachers, nurses, public sector workers everywhere have gone on strike for months on end and endured bitter negotiations for minuscule pay rises. People have died from cuts to social welfare. Libraries, parks, public services have been closed down. Our society has been impoverished, our health and social services have been stripped out. And yes, after all that rubbish about reducing the budget deficit, it really is glaringly obviously true that you can actually just spend shitloads of money to improve people’s lives. Austerity was always about ideology. I hope people see that now.
That being said, I am happy just to hope that the Conservatives can learn a lesson from all this. I hope we all do.
Saying bye to family before the move
Moving to a new City… I always imagine these farewell drinks, hugs with family, last minute coffee dates with friends. Promises of ‘see you soon!’, ‘we’ll come and stay’ or ‘I’ll be back loads’. The absence of these social norms left a hole in my heart, and I had an emotional couple of days before the move. It wasn’t going to be see you soon. It wasn’t going to be, come and stay.
The reality of saying bye to my mum from a safe distance of two metres, popping her mothers day present and card in the recycling bin to decontaminate from my sister’s saliva when she licked the envelope…. for 48 hours…
The reality of running away from sister’s dog when it leapt out the house to greet me. Having a chat with my Dad through his living room window, whilst he tried to calm the dog who was waiting by the door for us to come in.Socially distanced walks in the park with Liam’s family. No cuddles with my niece and nephews.
The Bright Lights of Sheffield
So we wanted to move to Sheffield for the awesome climbing walls, the pubs, concerts, restaurants, cinemas and wide range of activities. We moved to explore the parks and be close to the Peak District, to be close to all the national parks in Wales. Instead, we find ourselves in a new city but we can’t explore it! Fortunately for Liam and I, who for the past two years have either been living in a tiny one bedroom attic apartment, or with Liam’s parents, or… on the side of a road whilst cycle touring, having a three bedroom house with a garden, all to ourselves, feels like a huge adventure all on its own! We have been enjoying being reunited with all of our possessions and spreading out across an entire house!
Unable to go out to eat or sample any of the local nightlife, we treated ourselves to a moving in takeaway. Liam is delighted at the enormous range you can get in Sheffield! The Just Eat options are much more varied and I even found one I liked. A delicious Greek!
The new landlords are also amazing, and greeted us to our new home with a present of a beautiful plant pot in the garden and a vase of flowers in the kitchen. The house itself is utterly beautiful and we feel beyond privileged to live in it. Within half a day of being here, we’d already met about five sets of our neighbours and introduced ourselves from afar! The area seems really friendly, and there is a local park a ten minute walk away down a river walk. We enjoyed an afternoon stroll in the sun, taking care to stay two metres away from passers by.
It is funny to begin our lives here in this manner, but I am appreciating the rolling hills, the views, the new house, the neighbours and the space.
Parcels, internet and supplies
One of the problems with moving in this time is that we have needed to buy items for the house! One of the weirdest moments for me was realising that Amazon Prime no longer means that your parcels will arrive the next day. Or at all. Funny that my benchmark for civilised society is based on Amazon delivery reliability. I had my first major breakdown of the Coronavirus Pandemic when my parcels, containing kitchen sponges and storage jars, did not arrive!! I started to question everything. Nothing can be relied upon any more. I felt unsafe.
We have a delivery scheduled for our Broadband Router in a few days time. Will it come? Will we have the internet? We need it because we both work from home, and also to stay sane in the coming months of isolation. Will it arrive? I don’t know. If it doesn’t arrive, can I really complain? Will there be anyone to complain to?
All of this post has been a general reflection on the move, and life in the time of Coronavirus. I have tried to keep it lighthearted, and to steer away from the topics that really trouble my heart, such as the health of my loved ones. I just wanted to add this in case anyone is reading this and thinking I need to address my priorities.
I am trying to stay as positive as possible, and take each day as it comes. To find the small joys, and do normal things, like setting the table nicely for dinner. It makes me feel safe and happy. Wishing everyone the best at this time. Available for Skype dates.
One year ago today, Liam and I were on our way to Heathrow Airport to board a flight to Nepal to start what would become a nine month period of travel. The game we were obsessed with at the time was called ‘Plague’; a game on our phones where you try to kill everyone on the planet through creating an infectious disease, spreading it and breaking down society. I can barely believe the situation one year later. I am living a reality where the aim is to do exactly the opposite.
Two months ago I thought Coronavirus was a problem far away . My awareness started with my Dad, who warned me back in late January that I might want to think about purchasing insurance for my wedding in May. I laughed at him (not just because our wedding is currently seriously low cost), and quietly questioned his logic. I should have listened, as he is a GP with incredible foresight into public health, among other matters. As he boarded his plane to Switzerland, trying to avoid people with coughs and sneezes and having purchased a mask, much of the rest of the world sat in blissful ignorance.
One week ago, I was sat in a meeting presenting the results from a project in Leeds that has sought to reduce isolation and loneliness among the over 50s. The project had been a success. The success of the project was the primary focus, but coronavirus discussions also took place. Will it affect the projects? Are you worried? Do you think it will hit us? By now, I had already accepted our daily life would change very soon. I felt like I was slightly further along than many in the room in the journey towards acceptance. I had already prepared a bag with a couple of weeks food in case I had to self-isolate. I had already considered cancelling my wedding. But, even I was not prepared for the speed in which life has changed beyond recognition.
The announcement that Covid-19 had become a global pandemic had come the next day, on Wednesday. Earlier that day, I had tried to be clever and purchased travel insurance to protect our honeymoon cottage deposit. However, I had not been clever enough. When I double checked following the announcement of the pandemic, I had not bought the right insurance and it did not cover pandemics. Now, no travel insurance company would be able to insure me. I cursed myself, but knew that it was the least of my worries.
By Friday, the situation became rapidly apparent. Life as we know it, is over. Isolation for anyone over 70 or with an underlying health condition. Working from home. Social distancing. Policies of increasing escalation to be announced in rapid succession. Suddenly, I was faced with a scary reality. The wedding being cancelled, least of our worries. We are more upset about whether we can still move to Sheffield or not. Bigger still, are concerns about job security, paying bills, and the availability of food and goods long term. Will society get through this? Will our savings be worth anything at the end of it all? Within two months, I have moved from a position of excitement and feeling secure in my place in the world, to feeling like I am sitting on a great big question mark.
Of course, the most important thing in all of this is people. I heard on the radio the other day, a presenter mocking someone for being upset about worrying about Premiership Football, when people are losing their lives. I do not care about Premiership Football, but we have to allow people to be upset about what they are upset about. Feelings matter. Of course, that individual is ALSO upset about people, but please let people be upset about what they are upset about.
I am upset about the world, wedding, honeymoon, not being able to buy what I want from the shop. But of course. I am most upset about people. I sit here knowing I won’t see my step-dad or sister for at least three months because they have underlying health conditions. I won’t see my mum because she is isolating with my step-dad. I won’t see my Dad, or other sister, because they work on the front line NHS and will be drafted in and reducing contact. I won’t see my friends. I won’t see Liam’s Nana or Uncle Ray as they are over 70.
I feel for my family members, friends and former colleagues who work in the health services. Their lives are about to change more than we can imagine. On the front line working long shifts, not seeing their families, managing resources shortages, not having masks for their faces, having to make horrendous decisions about who to help, witnessing so much suffering and trauma. Let us please think about them and do everything we can to help our NHS.
I have a lot of other feelings, concerns and worries but I will keep them to myself.
Speaking to an Italian friend Roberto earlier, he sent me an audio clip of some birds singing in the Italian mountains that I love so much. It made me feel calm. The water in Venice is running clear with fish. Humanity might be suffering, but nature is benefiting. The air is less polluted, industries are slowing. Air travel has ceased. We are being forced into a period of quiet reflection, brutally severed from activities we have all felt so entitled to for so long; travel, socialising, spending money, driving cars around. We really feel, at a time like this, that the only thing that matters is each other. Nature is winning at the moment. I really hope that we can learn from this situation and move forward into a better world with changed priorities.
One thing I have been reflecting on most is that we in Western Europe and other economically developed peace time countries have been born into utter privilege. Privilege that we did not fully appreciate. More than any other time in the history of mankind, we have been free of suffering, starvation, sickness, death from war and tragedy. I have read a lot of history books in my life and often contemplated the suffering of generations past. I have considered the hardships that they have faced. What does it feel like to not be able to feed yourself? What does it feel like to lose everything? Being faced with this pandemic is making me feel more human than ever, more vulnerable than ever.
In this state of mind, I read about the Government saying it will save the airlines. 7.5billion on Airlines. Wait. Aren’t they part of the problem? I hope we direct our resources instead into paying money to people who have no jobs, or who don’t get sick pay. I hope we save pubs, small local businesses, local construction, domestic industry, food, and not airlines. If we get through this crisis, have we learnt that AIRLINES are the most important thing? Or have we learnt that they are polluting and disease spreading and we should be limiting them. 7.5billion on Airlines. The priority should be PEOPLE. The priority should be creating a sustainable domestic economy and shifting our focus onto the things that really matter.
I am reflecting on this piece of writing and hoping the whole thing goes away and blows over, and life will return to normal in a few months. However, I fear the opposite. I just hope we learn from this, and move forward together in a positive and sustainable way as a species. I thought Brexit would cause disaster, I thought bush fires, flooding and climate change would. I didn’t think a Virus would. But now it is here. And all we can do is wait.
A lot has happened since we pedalled off from our Italian couch surfing refuge back in October. Dark nights have drawn in, along with storms, flooding, and Christmas festivities. Liam and I have made it, slowly, back to Hull, where this travelling chapter of our life has reached a happy conclusion. We are both returning to work in early January, and I am going to spend some of the remaining precious time off work writing about our travels. I have been fairly useless at keeping up the blog! It was so difficult to write whilst always on the move, and camping. Laptops and outdoor life don’t mix so well, especially when autumn and winter are keen to make their presence felt. Then, Liam’s laptop drew its final breaths, and died. It had lived a long and happy life, being dragged around the world for nine years on Liam’s extensive travels through Asia, France, and eventually… cycled to destruction. That brought the end to my writing.
Now I am back home, even though Liam and I won’t be ‘going places’ as much anymore, I am going to keep this blog alive as I have enjoyed writing it. For starters, I have the whole of our trip from Italy back to the UK to talk about! Liam and I are also going to try and implement everything we have learnt whilst cycling into our lives back home. Our perspectives, goals and priorities have grown and changed. We had both been infected by wanderlust, but the act of wandering together has healed that (a bit), and now we are excited to start a new adventure growing a life together in one place, not many places. I’m excited about the next chapter in our lives, and creativity, and writing, has a huge part in this next story.
We spent an amazing nine days being hosted by the amazing couch surfing Roberto in the Trentino mountains. I’ve said repeatedly that the highlight of our trip has been the people we have met. We planned to stay with Roberto when we were keen to explore the Dolomites, and looking for someone who could help us store our bikes for a while. We left having experienced so much more than we could have ever anticipated. We kept our minds open to all the suggestions Roberto gave us, and in doing so we had a much richer experience than if we had doggedly pursued our goal ‘to see the Dolomites’. I will summarise some of the awesome experiences we had!
Roberto introduced us to the Italian ‘Bivacco’, small mountain huts/refuges where you can rest, cook, or sleep for one or two nights in the mountains… for free. They range from very basic (a wooden plank in a WW1 fortification/cave) to absolute luxury (purpose built with all mod cons!). Liam and I could not believe the quality of the three bivacco we explored. Usually built and maintained by volunteers, sometimes with support from local councils/cooperatives, they can be warm, cosy spaces stocked with a place to cook, fire wood, and bunks or platforms for sleeping on! People leave food there and in one we found Nutella, wine and tobacco. This isn’t just leftover dry packet pasta and rice, although there is plenty of that too, you can find tins of olives, tuna, chocolate bars, biscuits, enough to survive on happily for quite a while. The bivaccos we saw were all exceptionally clean, and we left the one we stayed in even cleaner than we found it. I think everyone has the same attitude – lets maintain these beautiful spaces!
At one Bivacco we went for a day hike with Roberto’s friends and had an amazing feast cooked on the wood fired stove inside. This included a giant pot of Polenta and I lost count of how many different types of meats. Wine overflowed all afternoon, and dessert included Lindt chocolate bunnies and gorgeous Italian biscuits. Liam and I were treated like royalty, and served first, with multiple generous helpings of the most delicious food. We merrily waddled down the hill afterwards with bursting bellies.
Outside the bivaccos it is usually also possible to have a fire and sit in nature. We were there during the day so a fire was not necessary, but we used the gorgeous space to have a singing and guitar playing session. We swapped stories of child hood songs, Liam and I were treated to several Italian classics. I regretted not knowing many songs, but managed to remember an Irish drinking game song instead.
Reading the guest books in the bivaccos we stayed in, it became apparent that people not only use the huts for refuge on multi day walks, but also as places to socialise with your friends and family, have parties and eat communally together. We thought they were an amazing idea, and wish we had more things like this in the UK. And all for free!
A multi day walk in the wilderness
Liam and I were really keen on doing a multi day walk, missing our Nepali trekking adventures. Normally when we get recommended walks, we end up finishing them pretty early and with legs hungry for more. This was not the case with the three day walk Roberto recommended. If I had truly known what I was getting into, I may have been tempted to choose another walk. However, no part of me regrets the experience. It was the best walk I’ve ever done and partly because I was pushed to my limit.
The walk took in a ridge line across the Trentino mountains and finished with a spectacular view of one of the Dolomite ranges. It took in many passes, and was mostly over 2000m so you really had the feel of being wild in the mountains – what added to this was that we saw very few people. The walk actually only involved a very short bit of walking and then it was mostly a clamber over rocks, with some scrambling and some very basic via feratta (more like using ladders and cables). I never felt in any danger, but I was glad my mother couldn’t see me! Liam and I weren’t used to this sort of terrain, so it made it quite the experience.
Along the way we slept in one amazing camp spot, and one luxurious bivacco. The stars. The stars were incredible. We had mesmerising views of ever changing dancing cloud formations, rugged peaks, snow capped Austrian mountains, wildlife and tumbling volcanic rock scapes. We saw marmots and an abundance of mushrooms, grasses, wild berries and perfect little flowers. Sometimes we saw nothing at all, because nothing really survives above 2000m.
I had the strangest experience whilst camping at 2000m. I have never experienced, maybe in my whole life, such silence. I awoke during the night and felt complete sensory deprivation. I could hear *nothing*. No traffic, no water, no animals, no rustling, no breeze. I panicked at first until I realised what I was hearing: not death, but silence.
We also got to experience the panic of running out of water. When Roberto advised us to take water whenever we could, we naively didn’t understand that this meant we needed to take as much water as we could. There was a section where we had to ration our water, and although we never felt truly in danger, it was an interesting experience to not know when we could find more. When we finally found a spring out of the mountain the next day, we were very pleased!
We were lucky that Roberto met us during day two of the walk also so he could advise us that day three would be tough. Honestly, we nearly didn’t finish day three. We nearly took refuge in another bivacco as we were exhausted and afraid of becoming benighted on the unforgiving rocky terrain. Boulder field after boulder field awaited us, we moved slowly over the sharp rugged terrain at times at a painful pace of 1.5km-2km an hour. We didn’t fancy our chances negotiating the the terrain in the dark. Fortunately, we got faster, motivated by fear and gifted with experience.
When we arrived at the pick up point arranged by Roberto, he was blasting We Are the Champions out of his car, with open arms and his usual open smile to match! Although I could barely walk, he took us to see a waterfall on the way home, as we winded through the Dolomites as they were being bathed in evening sun.
I want to take a moment here to talk about Roberto’s fridge and cooking, and also discuss Italian food in general. Roberto’s fridge was stuffed full of amazing local meats and cheeses, jars of homemade pickles, sauces, miscellaneous items. He taught us about the simplicity of Italian cooking – the principle is that you use as few ingredients as possible, but each item has to be the best quality, and cooked really well. Italian carbonara doesn’t contain any cream, for example, instead Italian’s use the pig’s cheek (not pancetta), which is a really fatty and creamy part of the pig. When you fry the pig cheek, the fat breaks down into cream, and the taste is totally delicious. No need for any cream! I promise you!
We’ve had the Italian home made food experience before also at Eduardo’s house (a warm shower host). His mother made us a tomato salad which just contained the most amazing fresh tomatoes, and basil, with a drizzle of olive oil. You really needed nothing else, the ingredients sing on their own. Even Liam, who normally won’t go near a tomato until its been roasted, fried or blended to an inch of its life, loved the Salad and had seconds!
Roberto cooked us some incredible food whilst we stayed with him, and also said we could help ourselves to anything in his amazing fridge. It has been great to sample how the Italians eat, and pick up some more tips, to add to the ones in France. We really enjoyed a fish he cooked for us, fresh from the sea near Venice, and a pasta with a sauce from fresh muscles.
I am not sure I can get on board with Italian breakfast however, although Liam is loving it. Italian breakfast is basically just a creamy/milky coffee with biscuits or bread smothered in delicious chocolate spreads/nutella. I mean, I can and have definitely gotten on board with these breakfasts, but it goes against everything I have been taught about breakfast food! Imagine our shock when we turned up to a B&B and the breakfast was a large bag of chocolate biscuits with jam. We thought this was unusual, but have learnt it is typical.
And then we leave Roberto’s!
After Roberto picked us up from the walk, we spent a few days relaxing at his beautiful house. I really fell in love with the area he lived. I walked his little dog Baloo three times a day, and each time, the same path would appear different. The pine trees smelt so amazing, and their scent perfumed the air as the retired leaves of autumn crunched under your feet. Mushrooms and wild berries grew around you, and the colours were always changing in the different lights. The clouds rolled in the valley, dropped down as mist, and then rose out of the sky to reveal a beautiful sunshiney day. Spiders webs glistened in the afternoon glow. I could have walked around the crisp valley forever. I could totally see why Roberto never wanted to leave his amazing hometown.
Thanks so much to Roberto for being an outstanding, generous and funny host. We won’t forget him in a hurry. He rescued us from a tight situation, picked us up from the bottom of a mountain pass, welcomed us into his home, shared his space with us as if we were family, introduced us to his friends and local area. We really enjoyed all our chats, about life, spirituality, trees, food, spaghetti in tins, chocolate and travel.
We really felt we never wanted to leave. But. Leave we must. And we did. We cycled down the enormous hill Roberto had driven us up several weekends before, and rode off full of anticipation about our path ahead!
After leaving the Air B&B in Lake Maggiagore, the next month of our trip became very random as we’ve wrestled with what to do next, changed our plan completely several times (sometimes several times a day…no wait… hour), and worked towards a return to my full health. We’ve finally accepted that despite wanting to cycle in the mountains, it is actually just too difficult long term on touring bikes in Europe with a small budget. It is amazing for a month or so, but at least for Liam and I, you cannot maintain that level of exertion for very long. Even if you want to. Mountain passes drain you. So… what have we been upto!
We’ve cycled around Lake Como and stayed in four campsites, treating ourselves to some luxury rather than spending our time hiding in lay-bys! Highlights include a lovely Swiss-German couple lending us their tables and chairs one evening when they went out for dinner. We also took a Ferry most of the way across one part of the lake, and it was really fun to put the bikes on a boat. Then, we had a week in an Air B&B in the mountains where we did nothing but watch Rick and Morty, films, Netflix, read and have short walks. We enjoyed watching the first snow of the season falling on the surrounding hills, going shopping in the valley below and then hitch hiking back up the mountain, sleeping in, talking to each other a whole lot, planning our future and reflecting on our trip so far.
Warmshowers has also come through for us twice; we stayed in a gorgeous room in the Trento valley full of antiques, and met a lovely family who educated us about World War One fortifications in the Italian mountains. We also stayed with an amazing guy called Mike, an American studying for a MSc in Milan, but living in a lakeside town called Lecco. Mike kindly let us stay two nights and told us about an amazing day hike in the mountains near his house. We had a great day out scrambling up a ridge line, getting lost (classic Ruth and Liam) and then went out for an Indian meal with Mike in the evening. Mike also joined us for a cycle in the morning, which helped us back onto our route.
Just to experience something a bit different and have some city time, we spent one night in Verona, and a night in Venice. I had never been to an Italian city before! In Verona we stayed on a hillside at a great campsite, and we could hear a concert in the amphitheatre below. We ate grapes from the vine which were growing above our tent! It was great to wander round a city again, even though I felt out of place with my grubby trainers not matching my bedraggled dress. Venice was a particular highlight of the trip for me. I kept walking around with my eyes wide open with wonder! The canals and old buildings are so beautiful, and I kept thinking of Shakespeare, and the history of the place. We treated ourselves to some epic desserts, gelato, appertivos, dinners and well… whatever we wanted, for a change! Proper luxury, including actually staying in Venice itself at a quirky Air B&B. We visited the Biennale and got to see some very interesting art, finally actually doing a touristy thing rather than just cycling past it.
Then… we went home for a week because I had applied for a research job and got an interview (a very long story). During the week at home, I had all my blood tests done and was given the all clear for any health issues. It was really lovely to see our families again, and although I spent most of the week preparing for the interview (I didn’t get the job), Liam got to go climbing and to laser quest with his nephew. It was Liam’s sisters birthday too, so well timed to join in on a great family meal with a trio of desserts. Yum. We squeezed in a walk in the Peak District near Sheffield after my interview, and got excited about our plans to move there when we return home for good. I felt rejuvenated after a cuddle from my dad, mum and sister, and being back in the comforting familiarity of England. I also loved seeing a couple of friends! After a week we were ready to be home and carry on with the trip.
Boding well for continuing on, we enjoyed a couple of days of cycling through a valley to the Dolomites too, and pulled off our first 100km day. It is amazing how far you can go when you aren’t riding up successions of 10-15% gradient hills. A couchsurfing host picked us up just before we went to the UK, and looked after our bikes for a week. This is the second time we have been rescued by a couchsurfing host. This time, Roberto kindly drove us up the massive hill to his house so we could avoid cycling up that delight. Roberto is going to get a post all of his own as we’ve spent such a lot of time with him now…!
So, as you can see, we’ve been up to all sorts. It was hard for us to accept that we couldn’t cycle in the mountains anymore, but that decision has led to lots of different adventures. Sometimes travel is not easy. You have to make hard decisions, you get stressed, you become unwell, you want a change, you don’t know what to do. That is just life – you cannot escape from it – it follows you everywhere. And, what a life we are living. I am not complaining.
I am writing this post five weeks into a period of time (mostly) off the bikes, before we head onwards tomorrow. I will attempt to tell the convoluted story of why we ended up having such a long time not cycle touring. In a nutshell, we are not people who like concrete long term goals, and instead enjoy making loose plans that can be changed to both maximise our happiness and open ourselves up to spontaneous opportunities. All that being said, changing our plans has still been an emotionally charged, reflective and interesting experience for both of us. It can be hard to change your plans, and plans can change for hard reasons.
The first week we had off was planned – with Liam’s parents. They joined us on Lake Maggiagore and we were treated to a lovely Air B&B. After so many days living wild in non wild places, we basked in the luxury of the world of indoors; fridges, ovens, beds, washing machines, a roof, showers, a sofa, Wifi. We looked forward to getting some much needed rest, doing touristy holiday days out, having fun with Liam’s parents and then continuing on our mountainous cycle tour through the Dolomites to the mountains of Slovenia.
The first problem we noticed was our insatiable hunger. Liam in particular was absolutely starving and no amount of any food could satisfy his demanding stomach. We were confused because we had certainly not done without food on this trip! Prior to meeting his parents we had stayed in a campsite for a couple of nights, and at one point Liam ate an entire box of Krave chocolate cereal with 1/2 litre of ice cream, and milk! That was just the starter. I won’t go into detail on all of the other food we both consumed those two days, but it was a mountain in itself. Even that was not enough. We were absolutely starving. Liam found this difficult, but it was very challenging for me due to my history of disordered eating. The only other time I can remember being that hungry was in recovery. It made me seriously question what I had done to my body to deplete it so much.
The second issue we noticed was how exhausted we were; particularly me. I could not really move. I did not want to move. Anyone who knows me will attest – it is highly unusual for me to not want to move! I am normally someone who experiences the opposite problem; an inability to sit still. As the week went on, Liam gradually felt better but I did not. I was a little alarmed that by the end of the week I felt little difference in my energy levels. I felt guilty as even basic tasks such as offering to do the washing up felt like a huge challenge. There was also the issue that I had not had a period for three months, and maybe there was some underlying health difficulty to be investigated.
I decided to go to the doctors to hopefully have a blood test, but came across difficulty navigating the Italian healthcare system with no Italian language skills or even a basic understanding of how their system works. A long (and personal) story abbreviated, I ended up having some fairly invasive and quite unecessary procedures done in A&E, before being scolded by an angry doctor for wasting her time! Having worked in A&E in the UK, I *knew* A&E wasn’t the right place for me to be, but that was where I had been directed, and no one had asked me any questions about what I wanted or needed. I left feeling quite upset, experiencing what it felt like to be a patient when the healthcare professional does not want to listen, but instead only make assumptions. It was a low point. After a long talk on the phone, with family medical professionals, I decided that I was probably just exhausted, and just needed more rest and food.
It was quite alarming the state that both Liam and I had managed to get ourselves into, and Liam’s parents both expressed concern that we should look after ourselves more. We listened carefully. It was an emotional week as we realised that we both are guilty of pushing ourselves too hard, not admitting when we want to rest and also being very reluctant to spend money on ourselves or any “luxuries” (most people would consider them necessities) such as a campsite, air b&b or “fun” activities! We were so torn as we absolutely loved cycling in the mountains, bivvying, living wild and pushing ourselves, but had to admit that maybe we had pushed ourselves too far. If we wanted to carry on, it was time to change how we were cycle touring, but both of us battled with feelings about admitting ‘defeat’. We wanted to see ourselves as tough cycle tourers capable of endless mountain passes and bed times in lay-bys. Time for some emotional growing up, it seemed!
With these battles in mind, when we began planning our route onwards we started getting ourselves tangled into knots, as we realised we wanted to stay in the mountains, but that realistically, we couldn’t maintain cycling up them in states of exhaustion. We also knew we did not want to cycle through towns, cities and along the flat, because these areas are hotter, busier and more expensive. It was time to accept that maybe we needed a break from the bikes, to allow some time to explore the mountains without having to cycle up them! Liam’s Dad was exasperated by us; he kept saying why couldn’t we just treat our trip as a holiday rather than torturing ourselves! By the end of the week, we had booked another Air B&B in the mountains in the next valley. We planned to have a further weeks rest, enjoying the mountains, before re-assessing my health and deciding what to do next.
With the decision made, we had a lovely week with Liam’s parents, enjoying lovely meals out, boat trips on Lake Maggiagore, walks, meals together, Aperols, wine and ‘friendly’ debates about Brexit and Corbyn. Ahem! I was sad because I knew I was not myself all week, due to the sheer exhaustion I was feeling. We did not join them on half of their activities because instead we just laid in the house resting! Even more reason for self care! What happened next is for the next post!
Writing this from an Italian couchsurfing host’s house, and I am amazed at how much I have to catch up on. The blog has been very neglected! I found this post half written from August, and it is now October, so I will do my best to tidy it up and get onto more recent material.
Before this trip, I had been to the French Alps, and seen the Swiss Alps, heard of the Austrian Alps… but never really considered visiting the Italian Alps. Well, I have to say, cycling in these Alps have been some of my favourite times. A recurrent theme of this blog seems to be that the people we have met have made the trip, and this is no different for the Italian Alps.
The first Italians we met in Italy
Picture the scene, I am exhausted and shedding the first (of many subsequent) tears of the trip cycling up (what turned out to be) a 25% gradient mountain pass on a back road in the Italian Alps. I am sweating, I smell, I am hungry, I have not had a warm bed for over a week. I am however, very much looking forward to camping on top of this tranquil remote mountain at a picnic site we have located on our map. Finally, after a typically tough day cycling in the mountains, we reach the top. However, the elated jubilance oozing from my being is short lived. Still wiping away the last of my exhaustion tears, we can hear voices and music echoing ominously around the mountain in the distance. There is a party happening in the picnic area.
Downhearted, we were worried that we would have nowhere to sleep and we considered pulling our bikes into the hedges off the side of the track. Not being thrilled by this prospect, we decided to roll down to the picnic area and scope it out, hoping that maybe the group looked like they would move on soon. Approaching the picnic area, our visions of rowdy teenagers were quickly swept aside as we arrived instead at a gathering of locals similar in age to ourselves. The event turned out to be a spectacular birthday party! The friendly group were really surprised to see us, explaining that no tourists ever really came to Monti. They immediately offered us beer and wine and then poured us huge glasses of both before we could explain how dehydrated we were. They were very apologetic about the noise they were making, and told us to stay for dinner at least. A huge pan of chilli was cooking on the open fire. How could we refuse?!
We passed a lovely evening learning about Italian culture, swapping stories about England, drinking more wine and beer than I have for a long time, eating chilli and then Minestrone soup, being beaten at Italian-rules-beer-pong, laughing, singing, listening to anti-facist Italian music and then passing out in our bivvy bags. We awoke with terrible, nightmareish, soul crushing hangovers! Worse still, we had planned in our drunken state to spend a rest day recovering in peace on the top of the mountain, but were unlucky enough to be stirred by some forestry workers who, with the help of google translate, explained that they needed to cut down the tree right next to us. Of all the trees. Of all the picnic areas.
After packing up very slowly and clutching our heads, we cycled (fortunately) downhill to the next picnic area (1km away) and this one was even better than the last! We had shelter for the day, fresh water from a fountain and beautiful views. We very slowly recovered. Half way through the day we were joined by a group of 30 Italian men playing their version of boules. They spoke no English but were very friendly and came over to us to offer us pears, admire our bikes and offer us yet more wine. Too polite to refuse, and unable to explain our hangovers, we drank the hair of the dog!
The next day, we continued our cycling in the burning heat. When we cycled up a sharp 200m climb, we arrived in a sheltered water fountain area to find three men sat atop of resting horses, and a man stood by his car. Unable to communicate, we were given a beer procured them from the boot of the car. It seems in Italy that in the case of having no shared language, alcohol is a useful tool to communicate good feelings.
We’ve had so many other small moments of kindness from friendly Italians, including countless waves, cheers, thumbs up, bravos and attempts at conversation. These moments really kept me going on the mountains. Just when I think I can’t go any further, a cheer from a car, or a bravo from a local, can really fuel my spirit better than anything else.
Other highlights of Italian mountains.
Other highlights of our time cycling in the mountains of Italy included sleeping under a bridge and having a much needed bath in the lovely river, picking delicious sweet brambles from the roadside, enjoying delicious local meats and cheeses, seeing all the fresh fruit growing in endless orchards and vineyards, and admiring the picturesque Italian villages, churches and water fountains. We loved cycled through backstreets, smelling fresh Pizza and washing our clothes by hand in communal laundry areas. We have both been surprised by the diverse beauty in this area, from incredible pine forests and woodlands, to snow capped mountains, rivers and gorges.
One of the amazing things about Italy is their mountain water fountains; they are everywhere! Locals drive to water fountains and take litres of water home in huge containers rather than drinking their tap water. There are even machines in villages where you can buy mountain water, either still or ‘frizz ante’. I asked a local man about the availability of this water. He replied “What civilised society doesn’t have fresh water?!”. I grinned, thinking about our chlorinated water back home, being recirculated endlessly through sewerage systems.
I have really enjoyed cycling in Italy, and highly recommend visiting this part of the world! I don’t think many people from the UK have the Northern mountains of Italy on their radar, and I almost don’t want to give it away, but they should!
I am writing this from Air BnB number two in Italy. Currently we are enjoying week two of rest, soaking up the benefits of being indoors, cooking sumptuous food and charging our batteries in a comfortable bed. I have so much to write about but first some tales of the interesting characters we have come across over the past month.
Eduardo – a cycle tour through Iraq.
We met Eduardo through Warmshowers, a website that is a bit like couchsurfing but for cycle tourers. We stayed with him and his parents for two nights in the foothills of the Italian alps- of course his house was located up a mosquito infested 150m of 20% gradient ascent at the end of a hard day. We earnt our time with him! Our meeting with Eduardo and his family will always stay with us; it is not often you get to meet a person so extraordinary.
Eduardo had just returned from a solo cycle tour from Mongolia back to his home town in Italy. He was therefore very understanding of our filth, hunger, exhaustion and Liam’s need for beer. He was hosting cycle tourers at his parents home, keen to pay back his hospitality debt, we were the lucky benefactors of the kindness he had received on his travels.
Whilst staying with him, in addition to being fed, housed and showered, he treated us to a personal delivery of a presentation about his trip that he usually delivers in public. Liam and I were blown away by his adventure; Eduardo had not shied away from difficulties but instead was motivated by the opposite. He had deliberately chosen a route which would test his ability to survive and change his view of the world forever. He cycled through the recent war zones of Iraq and Syria. He braved physically challenging countries such as Mongolia, facing risks of becoming lost, starving or being dehydrated, completely alone. Despite nearly being killed and obviously traumatised in a hit and run road accident in Iran which destroyed his bike and most of his possessions, he found the mental strength to continue his cycle tour.
Eduardo’s stories were brought to life by a carefully selected array of visually impressive, rich and moving photographs. Portraits of the diverse range of people he encountered, snapshots of terrifying but beautiful barren landscapes framed to reveal his emotions, and snapshots of war, suffering and the challenge of existence. The journey had changed Eduardo’s life forever, his business degree left in the ashes as he prepared for a new career working in active war zones.
Eduardo was kind, humble, a talented photographer, offered intelligent, insightful conversation, and helped us clean our bikes. We won’t forget him.
A man in the “secret” beauty spot
After leaving Eduardo’s we cycled back to Switzerland towards our next mountain pass. We had, we thought, the bright idea to go and camp for night at a secret waterfall we had found during Shankra music festival back in July. The incredible valley of Bellinzona and Lostallo before the San Bernadino pass in Switzerland is home to plentiful spectacular waterfalls; we had enjoyed this particular one on the festival ground. However, during the festival, the beauty spot was was very busy with bathing festival goers, tripping swimmers and the loud rumble of Psytrance music. We bookmarked the stunning waterfall for a quieter visit post festival.
A month later we were back in the valley; not a trace of the festival remained. Eager for a rest, a long awaited decontamination swim in the waterfall, and some tranquility, we cycled up to the “secret spot” after a hard couple of days on the bikes. Immediately, we realised our mistake. Of course we were not the only people to “discover” this secret beauty spot during Shankra festival. As we pushed our objecting bikes up the last bit of slippery steep gravel, the pleasant cascade of water tumbling into the crystal clear mountain pool was not the only sight to behold. Our eyes locked onto a camper van draped in psychedelic looking throws, and a man with dreadlocks, playing with a kitten, enjoying an afternoon smoke amongst a bench carefully and artistically constructed from driftwood. His Shankra wristband confirmed our suspicions.
Now, sharing the spot would not have been an issue. We quite like having company. However, this man revealed his intention to set up a sound system and DJ Psytrance music later on in the evening. The man, incorrectly deducing from our having attended a Psytrance festival that Liam and I actually like Psytrance, assumed not only that we wouldn’t mind this, but actively enjoy it. We watched in despair as the man crafted a DJ booth from the driftwood before assembling incense sticks, crystals and other miscellaneous chi inspiring objects. Then came the diesel generator and an enormous sound system. Followed by the trip to the petrol station to buy fuel for the generator. The man was obviously set in for the night. So it came to pass that we were kept up until midnight at the tranquil secret beauty spot listening to terrible Psytrance music. We had to laugh, even though I felt like crying when he kept turning the volume up despite their being no audience!
Chris and Keith
Our second warm showers host of this part of our trip was Chris, his home was also nestling up a 100m climb but this time the gradient was manageable! Chris was not at home when we arrived, but, typical of Switzerland, he had left his house open for us with an invitation to treat it as our own. Which we quickly did. Chris’s house was absolutely beautiful, and he treated us to food so organic and so local that one minute we could hear the bell of the cow in the next door neighbours garden, and the next minute we were drinking coffee with the still warm milk that had been freshly squeezed for us!
We stayed two days with Chris despite initially only asking to stay for one. He had cycled around Patagonia with his then girlfriend, now wife, and also understood our need for rest. Whilst there, we also met his English friend Keith, who Chris had met during his cycle trip. Keith had completed a solo cycle trip and then taken up a job offer from Chris. We discovered with joy that Keith hailed from our part of England, Filey, and had lived just 50 miles away! We shared some amazing adventure stories and talked of home, the North and Yorkshire.
Liam and I had by this point ruminated on the excessive weight of the luggage on our bikes. Amazingly, Keith explained that his parents were visiting and due to drive back to Filey in a couple of days, and do we need anything taking back? Needing no encouragement, Liam and I quickly offloaded our slackline, plenty of unneeded clothes and unnecessary bike parts onto Keith’s unsuspecting parents. We thanked them, and look forward to driving to Filey in December to collect our abandoned belongings, last seen in a sleepy Swiss village.
Shelter in the chalet
We left Chris’s comfortable home to cycle in the rain up the Albula Pass to head back towards Italy. This concludes my tale of amazing people, for now. That evening, the weather came in pretty bad, with ominous swirling white mists foreboding heavy downpours. The construction of another railway line up the mountain had temporarily decimated most of the picnic sites that we would ordinarily have bivvied in, turning them instead into muddy rest spots for dumper trucks or housing portaloos for construction workers. We had nowhere to sleep or shelter.
Cycling up the mountain, I spotted a beautiful chalet with a large back garden, and decided to ask if we could pitch our tent in the garden. I knocked on the door but no one answered, but motivated by the ominous skies and the smell of a wood fire, two elderly ladies eventually appeared at the window. Despite speaking little English, we established it would fine for us to pitch our tent in their garden! We were saved.
Later on the ladies even gestured that we could shelter in the basement of their chalet. Then, they brought us an enormous pot of tea and two slices of cake. The next day, we rolled out of our tent, having stayed dry and warm despite an overnight onslaught of ear splitting thunder, lightening and rain. I had slept for an incredible ten hours!
Since leaving our workaway host in Switzerland, we’ve cycled across the French Alps into Italy. A question we’ve been reflecting on a lot apres-cycle, is whether or not our tour can be considered truly adventurous as we are cycling across the more developed parts of Europe. Many other cycle tourists move quickly through Europe to get to the “adventurous” countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, China, India or even Slovenia, Hungary, Turkey. So, can what we are doing really be counted up there with that sort of adventure!?? What defines an adventure?
It certainly feels like a wilderness adventure to us! Whilst being surrounded by luxurious ski chalets, mostly well paved roads, and being never too far away from a hotel, restaurant or bar, we have existed for the last two weeks in a self imposed wilderness, our minds, goals and wallets being the only true barrier to accessing all the comforts the world could possibly have to offer. It’s an interesting situation to place yourself in; we theoretically could sleep in a campsite, or even hotel, and we could eat at restaurants, but instead we choose to bivvy every single night and cook all our own meals. Even if we had enough money to have luxury every day (which we don’t, most people spend more than we have on a weeks holiday!), we would still choose to travel in this way, because this is where the adventure happens for us. Surviving in the wilderness, even if that wilderness exists only through the parameters we have chosen to live by.
We also certainly could have avoided cycling through the Alps themselves, sticking to well trodden (mostly) trusty Eurovelo routes which carve cycle friendly routes through countries avoiding unforgiving gradients. There was definitely no need for us two choose to cycle two Tour de France Mountain passes, including one which has been used four times for the ‘King of the Mountain’ part of the competition and includes 9% gradients that are utterly brutal for our heavy touring bikes.
We could also have travelled lighter, like the four other cycle tourers we have seen in these enormous mountains. There really (we are discovering) was no need to bring a slackline, a laptop, two 38 litre rucksacks, walking boots and loads of different clothes for doing workaways! The frame creaking weight of our bikes multiplies the difficulty, and adventurousness, of ascending 2087m mountain passes.
Our musings have led us also to recognise the ways in which the adventurousness of our cycle trip is more limited! Whilst braving the elements on a rainy evening, we *know* we could just book into a hotel. Whilst fearing dehydration in the baking sun, we realise we could just stick out a thumb and ask for help from a passing car. But we don’t. However, it provides a buffer of comfort knowing that we could immediately escape our situation from the simple act of sticking out our thumbs, or waving down a passer by, or reaching for a credit card… or phoning our parents. And yet… even in less developed countries the same is true! Sometimes more luxury is possible outside Europe as it is more affordable. Credit cards, or cash, work everywhere to bail you out. To some extent.
My thoughts are that whether our trip can be counted as adventurous or not, will remain an unresolved and interesting debate. Adventure is relative, and deeply personal. I will let the reader decide!
We left our amazing Swiss workaway hosts, who dropped us just outside of Lausanne in the midst of another 35 degree heatwave. After three weeks off the bikes, including one week at a festival drinking way more than we should have, we did not feel at our fittest. Oh, and Liam had a horrible cold. Our mission: cycle across the Alps to Italy, via a stop in Morillon to meet some workaway hosts for a potential job opportunity. Climb two Tour de France passes and wild camp the whole way.
The first days cycling was extremely hot, but despite setting off at 2pm, we managed about 50km as it was mostly flat. High point was having a lovely swim in Lake Geneva just past Lausanne. We found a quiet place over a stone wall so I felt comfy to swim wearing my amazing pants bought in Nepal. Unfortunately they are flesh coloured and completely see-through. Doubly unfortunate then that we were joined by a couple of guys smoking an afternoon spliff, an older couple having a swim and a young guy sunbathing. Oh well, I lost my dignity where nudity was concerned somewhere back in week one.
Low point was having to push our bikes through a seemingly never ending snake of street stalls set up for an enormous festival. Battling a tsunami of pedestrians not looking at all where they were going is not fun with a fully loaded bike.
That evening we found ourselves accidentally back on the Via Rhôna cycle track Eurovelo 17, the track we had followed for 500km to Geneva! We found a seemingly amazing camp spot tucked beneath the cycle track next to the river. All was going so well until the plague of mosquitos began. We were hit by hundreds of the things and bailed to set up a mosquito net and peg it down. Hot dinner plans cancelled, we sat gloomily in the mosquito net eating peanuts and cold chorizo, and watched the sun go down. We were treated to spectacular stars that evening, and we got by with minimal bites, even if our bellies were left wanting for more.
This was the first of nine bivvies – all perfectly adequate. Our worst one was the next night, sleeping in a lay by half way up Col de Forclaz. Liam was feeling really poorly and after ascending nearly 850m in a day with our dwindled level of fitness, we were both worn out. I had not so cleverly (as it turned out) treated us to some pricey marinated meat to cook, but unfortunately Liam in his exhausted delirious state couldn’t get the stove to work consistently with a new fuel we were foolishly experimenting with. In the dark, we couldn’t tell whether the meat disguised by sauce was cooked or not. I sat there, alone with a man down, in a dark layby 800m up a mountain, holding a bag of expensive, query cooked, Swiss meat in a zip locked bag, ready to throw in a bin lest it attract unwanted animal visitations in the night, ravenously hungry and seriously questioning my life choices. The tale has a happy ending. Motivated by both hunger and the repulsion boiling within at throwing away perfectly good and expensive meat, I managed to work with Liam to get the stove to work for just long enough to cook the meat to a crisp. Cremated- definitely. Going to give us food poisoning? Absolutely no chance. Winning.
The next day, after a restless night peppered with passing high beams of cars racing up the mountain, we slogged over two Cols at 1500 and 1400 metres, in a blistering heatwave. At the top of the first one, I pretty much climbed into the drinking water fountain to cool down! It took us an eternity to cycle up, pausing every 25-50m of ascent to dive into any shade, lay-by or non switch back we could find, catch our breath, rest our jelly legs and attempt to cool down. I prevented Liam from pushing the last 12metres of ascent, sniffing through his cold, and we got there and could claim some sort of victory. We had laid siege to the mountain. We had got there. After an expensive Swiss ice cream and beer to celebrate (both the ascent and leaving pricey Switzerland), we used our last Swiss Francs and cycled down to Chamomix to bivvy at the foot of Mont Blanc (highest mountain in Europe) in a spot recommended to us by a warm showers host that I had messaged to ask for advice about where to sleep for free in the bustling and pricey ski resort. Along the way, we whizzed through Argentiere, stopping to fill our panniers full of delicious French supermarket wares, to the sound of an outdoor Orchestra playing part of a Star Wars score!
As we pulled into the recommended wooded area on the outskirts of Chamonix, we passed loads of vans parked up for the night, and saw a woman doing yoga underneath a tall canopy of gorgeous pines twinkling in the evening sun. We tiptoed past her as quietly as we could manage with the unruly bikes, and later, after she finished her practice, she joined us for an hour to share her incredible story of cycling around the world with her two year old son! Now working as a mountain guide in Chamonix, she left us rich with some useful tips about local hikes, her phone number in case of any problems, and an invitation to stay in her flat down the road over the weekend as she was away!
The following day we left Chamonix and cycled through the valley drinking up the glacial scenery before sleeping next to a beautiful fishing lake, hidden from the public and the rain (but not the ducks) by yet more beautiful pine trees. We were kept awake some of the night by an incredible thunder and lightening storm projected over the snow capped mountains, and winds that kept changing direction blowing excitedly through our tarp.
By now, it was my turn to be poorly. Dosed up on cold and flu medication, we had another hard day slogging up hill again to Morillon, a skiing resort, to meet a workaway host and take some rest in their chalet. The heat wave was markedly over, replaced by unceasing torrential rain only the product of towering mountains. Our unfit and abused legs groaned and complained as we cycled on, and on, devouring an entire rotisserie chicken with mayonnaise on the roadside, navigating endless switchbacks and drinking litres of water. As we approached the chalet, we got lost in the middle of an exceptional part of deluge when google tried to direct us to cycle up a gravel walking track with a no entry sign on an impossible gradient. No thanks Google! Instead, we had to push our bikes briefly up a road with an impossible gradient. We became a spectator sport for people having a spot of luncheon on their covered chalet balconies.
At one point, white fork lightening struck the road very close in front of us, causing us to flee to shelter desperately under someone’s car port. Thunder boomed menacing around the valley crackling like artillery fire as we waited for the storm to roll over. The car port owners peered curiously out their window at us, and a very damp Liam and I mused at the unlikeliness of them venturing out to ask us what on earth we were doing cycling touring bikes up a massive hill in a dangerous storm. We barely knew ourselves.
Finally, we reached the chalet as the storm echoed in the distance, and soaking wet through we met Jean and John the workaway hosts. God knows what they thought of the two bedraggled red in the face creatures asking where they could store their life’s possessions in filthy panniers. Bless them for not complaining at us dripping mud and water in puddles through their lovely chalet. At least we knew how to use a mop!
We passed a restful couple of days recovering and waiting for the bad weather to pass before embarking on the epic journey to Italy.
The morning we set off for Italy was a glorious descent with beautiful weather- not too hot and not raining! We cycled down hill until we re-entered the foothills of the Alps and the gradients started gently changing. We wanted to find somewhere to sleep before doing any climbs, but everywhere was decorated with the friendly Private No Entry signs and electric fences typical in agricultural areas. Fortunately we found a walking track marked on google maps, and after pushing our bikes along a gravel track, managed to find a slice of quiet scrubland tucked innocuously behind a row of trees on the trail. Liam cooked up a feast as always, and we slept extremely well and remained dry under a tarp despite the evening rain.
The following days cycling to the base of Mont Cenis were a mixture of cycling up and down, but mostly up. We passed through some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip, through gorgeous Alpine villages and amazing panoramic views of valleys below. We swam in Lake Annecy, slept next to a river, cycled through gorges and over hills and through alpine meadows. We visited a market and tried some local goats cheese, being sure to choose the fresh stuff and not the mature variety! We both agreed it was the best scenery of the trip so far.
A low point was caused by road works. We were loving life, cruising along amazing quiet roads to our next destination, when suddenly it turned out that our road was blocked and we had to take a diversion. We ended up climbing a big ascent on a baking hot dual carriage way with very fast traffic zipping past us. Morale was sinking as there was no shade for refuge, and seemingly no places to sleep. However, that evening, we found a turn in the road that led to a slag heap, and a hydropower river section. The place was hidden from view from the main road, and whilst not being very attractive, it was actually a perfect place to spend the night. As I sat on the gravel facing a slag heap and a railway line, ants crawling all over me, to the sound of the motorway in the distance, I reflected that this was not what I came cycle touring for. However, it is the nature of cycle tour life- sometimes you have to take the horrible road to get to the good road. Some days you have to sleep in the lay by on the way to the beautiful spot.
On the day of Mont Cenis pass itself, we woke up only a tiny bit daunted about what awaited us. Yet another Tour de France Col, with sections of a gradient average of 9%. We’d cycled for 6 days in a row over some mountainous roads, and our legs were exhausted. As we crawled up the hill, painstakingly slow, 25m-50m sections at a time, there were times both of us didn’t think we would make it. However, as with most things with cycle tour life, you just have to do it! Pretty soon we were at the top, with incredible 360 degree panoramic mountain views all around us, and an exhilarating steep switch back descent to look forward to. We sat at the top with a beer and an ice cream, feeling thoroughly satisfied with ourselves, taking great amusement at watching people passing by stare in bewilderment at our bikes. Their faces said: how did those get up here?! Which nutters would cycle a loaded touring bike up Mont Cenis?!
That evening we passed into Italy and after one more painful ascent, we found a spot to sleep which makes you really appreciate cycle touring. It’s much easier to wild camp when you are hiking as you can wander into woods, get away from roads, and reach places far away from human activity! On the bikes, especially with cumbersome loaded bikes, we have to always stay near a road. Consequently, we don’t often get wilderness spots. So, the spot we ended up in was a real treat. On a very quiet road to a small village, we found a small turn around spot for cars, which led to a maze of mountain oak trees and rocky platforms with a spectacular view over Italy. It was warm, there were no mosquitos, barely any cars, no people and we really felt in the wilderness as we could push our bikes away from the road. That evening we sat out late, enjoying the sunset and the stars coming out, and felt we had really achieved something! We were in Italy, and over two mountain passes!
The only problems we had now were, we hadn’t bathed in several days, we had dirty clothes, no food and limited water. But they were tomorrow’s problems!
Not written the blog in a while, but I will get caught up! I’ve got loads to write, its just hard on the road on the iPhone, and when we are staying with other people and I could use the laptop, we like to make the most of the time with them. However, when I woke up this morning, all I could think about was writing. I have taken myself to sit on a rock bathed in morning sun overlooking the sun rising on the mountains. The sun is the only thing I’ve been bathed in for a while, but I am happy. Cycle touring is certainly not all idyllic mountain passes and waking up in quiet beauty spots, it’s often navigating busy roads, road works, and sleeping in laybys. However, through all of it, I am grateful and happy. This post is going to be a personal one.
When I was younger, my parents split up. The details are unnecessary, but I know as a family we all agree that the separation and subsequent aftermath were handled in a less than ideal manner. The result for my six year old self was growing up in an environment that did not fill with me trust in the world, and especially not confidence in myself. I had my brains, and I threw myself into academic work, becoming a perfectionist with little time for anything other than homework. I had no hobbies and I absolutely hated sport and exercise. So I thought.
My school reports stated that I didn’t attend P.E lessons, and I would have told you that the only sport I enjoyed was avoiding sport. The truth, as it always is, was a little more complicated. First, I had no confidence, and I couldn’t enjoy sport because the school cultivated an environment where sport was about competition and enormous praise was heaped on those getting into the teams, as well as criticism for those not performing well. Furthermore, I believed I was not very good at sport, and this caused mayhem with my perfectionism. Perfectionism is damaging as it prohibits your capacity to enjoy anything that you don’t naturally excel at. Which is, for most people, most things to be enjoyed in life. I wrote sport off as something I wasn’t good at, and honestly, I have yet to find out if I am good at team sports because I never tried to be. Over the past few years I’ve reflected a lot and realised that the version I have always narrated to people is “I’m not good at team sports”. However, the truth is, I just don’t know as I never had the confidence to make mistakes, learn and grow, and sabotaged all my encounters by not trying at all, thus protecting myself from failure by failing.
I remember being sat on the edge of Lake Ullswater on a family holiday watching my family on kayaks having fun. I had declined the opportunity to kayak because I said I hated sport. In reality, I was desperate to try and paddle on the amazing lake. However, the terror of not being able to kayak outweighed the desire to try it. Unfortunately not trying begets more self doubt as I didn’t allow myself to have any experiences to challenge the narrative of my being useless.
The third reason I didn’t enjoy sport was the clothes they made you wear; tiny shorts and skirts. Maybe OK for primary school children but for some teenage girls going through puberty, it was a nightmare. My perfectionism had already noticed my body didn’t look like the other girls, and especially not the ones people said were attractive, or so I thought. My thighs rubbed together, I had fat. I hated my curvaceous and naturally muscular legs. And above all else, I hated these tiny shorts I was expected to fit into to play sport. So I didn’t play sport.
There was a time where I would have wanted to give every detail about what happened next. But I am over it. In a nutshell, in my late teens I developed an eating disorder which lasted until my late twenties. It was a product of my lack of confidence, my perfectionism and my inability to emotionally mature or express emotions in a healthy way. I survived; it wasn’t easy. But I’m here now. And that’s all that matters.
Something happened during my twenties in that difficult time that set me off on this path that I am on now. The path of overcoming perfectionism and falling in love with all aspects of life, especially those that I’d written off because “I wasn’t good at them”. I discovered exercise. At first, it was incredibly unhealthy for me as I was unwell and used exercise primarily as a way to control my body size and shape. However, my love of the outdoors, moving the body and appreciating what my body can do rather than focusing on what it looks like, has helped me heal.
I remember the first time I went for a run, ironically the perfectionist eating disorder “lose weight” side winning over the “I can’t do it” side, I was amazed that I could run. Within a few months I was entering half marathons. Here was something I had told myself all my life that I hated, and I had been wrong! Yes, I wasn’t the fastest and that was OK.
Then, I discovered hiking, climbing and mountain biking. Climbing was a tough one was it involved learning complex rope work, and I had already written off in my mind that I was good at practical things. Climbing helped me challenge my internal narrative that I couldn’t tie knots, or learn practical tasks. It was really difficult because I had this story in my head that I was the last person in my class to tie my shoelaces and I couldn’t do things like ropework. In reality, I forgot to focus on the part of the story that mattered. I learned to tie my shoelaces. It took a bit longer than other people, and that was Ok. That was allowed.
Mountain-biking and hiking, and eventually cycle touring, made me feel like finally I had found the meaning behind life. Ruth that hated sport was now spending every weekend and most evenings being active. I felt energised in the mountains and surrounded only by nature and the company of people I loved and trusted, the voices of perfectionism and eating disorder altogether disappeared. Until I stopped the activity.
Yoga was an important milestone for me. I had always wanted to try yoga, but was terrified of attending a class and getting the poses wrong, or being too inflexible to even try. When I walked into my first yoga class, I had to fight memories of step aerobics at school where I was the only one unable to follow the teachers instructions. And yes, even now, after years of yoga, I struggle with copying poses off the teacher. However, now I have the confidence to be OK with that. And I tell myself, you will get there in the end. I am even able to laugh at myself, and my teachers learn how to show me poses in a way that works for me. After I learn the pose, I can do it just as well as anyone else.
Honestly, I will never know whether I really did have a problem with coordination and left and right as a child, or whether I just told myself I did and never tried to overcome it. I’m trying to overcome it now as an adult! You don’t have to tell yourself the same stories your whole life. Change is possible.
After overcoming the eating disorder, and continuing to work on the perfectionism, I was left with one further problem that needed to be overcome. I had damaged my stomach and oesophagus and needed surgery to repair it. This surgery left me unable to do any sport, running or cycling for 6 weeks and 6 months for any climbing or carrying a back pack. In reality it was nearly a year and lots of hic ups in recovery before I felt strong enough to engage in physical activity again. There were times in that year I felt I would never get there. I thought maybe I would never be able to carry a heavy back pack up a mountain, or cycle a loaded touring bike. Maybe I would never be able to run a half marathon or climb on rock face. It was an uncertain time, waiting to see if my surgery was strong enough for the activities I wanted to do. I made peace with my situation, and worked hard to suppress negative feelings about the chain of events that led to me having the damaged stomach in the first place.
As this blog shows you, I got there. I ran a half marathon in December. In March-April I carried my own rucksack over the worlds highest navigable pass and walked for 40 days. And I am cycle touring with the heaviest bike I have ever ridden, up the biggest mountains I have ridden!
The reason for this mini life history, and I feel a little ashamed at the self indulgence and self disclosure, was because I wanted to explain my emotions over the past few weeks cycling in the Alps. A week ago we cycled over Col de Forclaz (1517m), something I did on my own as a 23 year old. It was a huge turning point for me back then as my first moment of solo travel. I realised that despite the self critical narrative I had been beating myself with my whole life, I could read maps! I could cycle up a massive hill! It didn’t matter what I thought of my legs, they were incredible power houses to get me up hills! I was capable and strong!
Returning to Forclaz 10 years later, I was amazed by my body all over again. And, unlike 23 year old Ruth, I felt the enormous weight off myself because that critical voice is so much quieter than it used to be. I don’t live with the eating disorder to the same extent, I can manage the perfectionism, I can be happy. Happy was not always something I thought I could be.
Yesterday we cycled over Mont Cenis Pass, 2087m, and as I cameover the hill after an epic four hour struggle, greeted by amazing mountain lake scenery and people cheering and saying congratulations, I felt truly like I have survived. I’m really ready to leave behind the years of self torment and their memories. I’m opening myself to all new experiences, challenging myself to try new things, or things I’ve previously written off as ‘I can’t do that’.
I feel utterly privileged and grateful for my good mental and physical health, and all the luck in the world that has allowed me to be born into a life to have these experiences when so many other people cannot.