The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

England beyond the motorways - Day 1

Tandeming from London to South Devon: originally organised as a test of fitness and tandeming tolerance quickly became an adventure through the England of older and more romantic days. Taking 3 days and 1 morning to travel 280 miles proved this increasingly common concept of slow travel a triumph.
The first morning I have little memory of. A combination of the cold and some very slow releasing nerves must have numbed my mind. In hindsight the day was the most dramatic in terms of cultural change. From the bubble of frustration that is London's commute we quickly entered the world where the school run is dominated by 4x4-driving-designer-gym kit-wearing mums pulling out of electric gates into spacious, tree lined avenues. After crossing over the M25, the nondescript towns of the greenbelt gradually became more and more disperse until villages and their farmland welcomed us to rural England. To celebrate this victory, leaving the great smog with nothing other than our own power, we took a break for lunch. When stepping off the tandem it became instantly apparent that there has been some discrepancy in the distribution of effort. My exclamations of "Wow that was great. I hardly feel a thing and still have loads of energy. Its a bit cold though isn't it", were quickly crushed by just looking at Nick's sweat laden, red face. This was the moment I realised I had to assert some effort to contribute, it didn't just happen passively. Reassuring to know we'll still go somewhere if I don't though.

Once in the depths of Hampshire we became a more balanced team as I put in more effort, Nick started warning me of gear changes, I got to use my drag break on the downhills, we both sweated through some uphills and argued over map reading. The countryside also began to reflect our new found flow, as fields of green crops and brown soil spanned the horizon, only disturbed by clusters of old farming cottages, manner houses and church spires. We arrived in Winchester an hour ahead of schedule and after weaving into the town center, felt almost reluctant to dismount. Cycling a tandem is pretty high on the weird scale; walking down a pedestrianised high street carrying one is off the scale. Consequently we walked around Winchester looking lost and bewildered for about an hour contemplating what next.

Our first night was an introduction to what became a wonderful insight into the world of an English institution almost as great as the public house: the B & B. The routine was almost identical every night. Middle aged lady, room plenty, cash and/or company sparse, welcomes you into her beautiful home, makes you tea, gives you a comfy bed, laughs heartily at all your jokes (especially those from good looking younger male), cooks a whopping great fry up and sends you on your way feeling the warmth and tingle of home comforts.

Visiting a friend who works in Winchester College rounded our first day off perfectly, giving us a good reason to go out for a big feed, oozing the satisfaction of a days exercise. We turned up at The Wykeham Arms, where all the teachers of Winchester College congregate in their own side section of the bar for post (or between lesson) drinks, as if an extension of the staff room. Here awaited a captive audience for our tales of adventure over a couple of ales and suddenly London seemed a distant memory. Conversation was dominated by 'teacher talk' of nightmare pupils, dating other teachers and subject banter, but (to my great pleasure and pride) was interspersed with exclamations of amazement at our achievement and onward journey.

My muscles turned to lead just in time for bed and I was automatically fearful of how much harder the second day would be. Nick mumbled something about the importance of stretching before bed but passed out about 2 minutes later, so I decided to follow suit. We would probably regret this in the morning but with forecasts of snow, hail, head winds and a rather large blister forming on my right buttock I had the feeling a bit of stiffness was going to be the least of our worries.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The build up to the first big test

I'm not leaving the country, I'm only going for three nights, I'm not entering any form of unknown wilderness, I'm not going to be alone, but I'm still the most nervous I have ever been about a holiday. Its that type of anticipation that flits between excitement and nervousness so fast that you can do nothing but frantically smile or want to fall asleep.

Cycling 60 miles a day is nerve wracking for me. It might not sound much but that's six hours of solid pedaling for three days. When it was going to be in the sun, at least I could counteract the fear of sweat and pain with superb tanning potential. Predicted wind, rain, snow and hail is less appealing. Is it really true that I once thought this was going to be a holiday? How wrong I was. The constantly fascinating unpredictability of English weather has deemed this journey an adventure. And what better adventure is there to have? Traveling across ones own homeland with no engine or music to distract us from the sounds and smells of our ancient countryside, no speed with which to bypass hidden humble villages and no sat nav to replace thought and contemplation with efficiency. All this in tandem with my lover... literally.

The bicycle made for two is something that, until a couple of months ago, I would have left in a world of 1930s parades and musicals. Suddenly a tandem is a rather dominant part of my world. In fact for the next three days, it will be my world.

Laughter and bewilderment is the reaction you receive from most people when you tell them you have bought a tandem. People can't quite decide whether its a bit cool, in an edgy and alternative way, or completely nauseating, in a "lashings of ginger beer" way. Very similar, in fact, to the reaction I would expect to receive if I told people I was getting married. And so the metaphor begins...

"Who goes on the front?"
"Who does all the work?"
"Whose idea was this?"
"Has it created any arguments?"

Are the most commonly asked questions, as if the answer will somehow define mine and Nick's roles, personalities and sexual prowess. Nick goes at the front, he has total control of gears, direction, steering and stopping. I go at the back, I have total control of nothing but can chose to make Nick's life more or less painful, especially on big hills. In tandem speak Nick is the captain and I am the 'Rear Admiral' or the 'Stoker', both of which I think translate into 'smaller person looking at the bigger persons rear with lots of hidden control'. We are both secretly smug about our roles, which is the first hurdle over.

Now all we need to do is add 3 days, 250 miles, numb hands and toes and very sore bottoms into the mix for the first big test of many to come.