At the start of Bike Week 2016, Sarah Hendrickx shares a tale of cycling derring-do, Barcelona, lost marbles and the correct length of pubic hair.
It was essentially a midlife crisis that resulted in me cycling alone from England to Barcelona at the age of 45, never having cycled more than 30 miles before.
My partner and I had gone to the Adventure Travel Film Festival, a wonderful low-key August weekend where one sits in a field drinking Pimms and watching videos made by intrepid fools who ride a Honda 90 to Thailand or canoe to Alaska. I was inspired and came away determined that I too needed an ‘adventure’ and since walking is beyond me (dodgy Achilles) and canoeing is out of the question (sea monsters), cycling seemed like a sensible way to go.
And given that my non-existent video camera skills would have resulted in several hours of footage of sobbing and feet, I decided to write an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show about it instead and perform it for 22 days in a row, like you do.
Barcelona became the destination of choice because it was there, in 2001, that I lost my marbles, some of which have never been seen since. After a traumatic few months (death of my mum, homeless with two kids, marriage ending), I had a breakdown up one of the towers in the Sagrada Familia and ended up having panic attacks and agoraphobia for 12 years, making being alone and travelling anywhere extremely uncomfortable.
What better way to face my demons than to travel alone for three weeks back to the source of my troubles? It seemed like a good idea at the time. The faces of my family suggested otherwise.
I launched myself enthusiastically into preparing for this epic adventure. I bought a bicycle from eBay and called it Gérard after Monsieur Depardieu (my bike was old, tired, French and struggled to get up hills).
I did some research on Google about the ideal length of pubic hair when long-distance cycling (short, but not shaved, with the ends buffed with a soft cloth). I bought a book on cycle training, which I read (phew, exhausting) and set off through France, last seen by my beloved crying at Portsmouth ferry port.
It is fair to say that no one thought I’d last more than a couple of days given my general mental and physical state, and that included me. When Gérard fell to pieces on day two, it could have been the end, but along with some hidden inner bloody-mindedness and a hatred of other people being right; I found a bike shop, bought the cheapest bike I could find and carried on.
I had a few bad times, such as the night I spent in a chambre d’hôtes with carpet that appeared to made out of human hair, causing me to become so freaked out I convinced myself that the creepy owner had a Silence of the Lambs end in store for me.
“I cycled more than 500 miles and survived. I discovered that I don’t mind getting wet on a bike as much as I thought I would and that sobbing with pain every time you go over a bump in the road is a normal reaction to a badly chaffed thigh/bum crease.”
I was unable to leave my room to use the loo in the hall for fear of certain death. Weeing in the sink was more difficult than it looked. It was only when morning came and the owner’s friendly wife greeted me, did I realise that my anxiety had got the better of me, again.
Mostly, it was wonderful. I found the daily routine of getting up and getting on the road incredibly liberating; I had nothing else to do in my day but cycle. I loved being alone in the countryside and passing chateaux and villages. Cycling is a great means of transport: quicker and less stressful on knees and legs than walking but slower than a car.
Things don’t just pass your car window; you are out there among them. You can stop anytime and self-propulsion is incredibly satisfying. I felt safe, strong and formidable on the road. I even found myself swearing at motorists in French and considering entering the Tour de France.
I cycled more than 500 miles and survived. I discovered that I don’t mind getting wet on a bike as much as I thought I would and that sobbing with pain every time you go over a bump in the road is a normal reaction to a badly chaffed thigh/bum crease. I discovered that I was brave and could cope with all sorts of things, all by myself. Did it cure me? Did it heck. I’m as anxious as I ever was, but now I just do stuff anyway.
My partner, who is a lifelong cyclist, was so jealous of my trip that he made me do it again the following year. This time we cycled from the UK to Santander, Spain, and it was much nicer with two. I blogged the whole trip (www.bicyclesandbiscuits.com). The chaffing was the same, but the nights in weird B&Bs were nowhere near as scary and I had someone to moan at about the hills.
Next year in 2017, he and I plan to cycle the perimeter of Portugal which will take us about six weeks. I’ll be 49 and no fitter than I was first time round, but it’s surprising what you can do when you put your mind to it – even if your mind is in a world of human hair carpet of its own.
*Please see title of this article – in my humble opinion, the best gag I have ever written, but it’s fair to say I am alone in that.
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Sarah Hendrickx is a writer, author, autism specialist and occasional standup comedian. She lives part-time in rural Portugal where she tries to make friends with geckos and grows broad beans. Her book about moving overseas, How to Leave the Country is available on Kindle/e-book. She blogs at www.bicyclesandbiscuits.com.