As we begin a new year, I am delighted to be able to feature a blog that could not be more inspirational. Written by Alison Carter, November’s phenomenal woman, it tells the story of her epic solo cycle trip around the UK. She looks back joyfully on the highs and she is honest about the lows. It is a full of courage, determination and strength…in every respect!
Thanks so much to Alison for taking the time to write about her experiences. What a fitting start to 2022. Over to Alison:
On 9th September 2021 I set off on the biggest, and toughest, cycling adventure I’ve ever undertaken. My plan was to cycle 1,500 miles across the UK over five weeks, with a route planned around where friends live. I was to cycle solo, with everything I needed packed in two panniers.
What inspired this madness? The pandemic and its lockdowns had made me more aware of the value of spending time with family and friends. I had also been reflecting on all the friends I was connected with via social media but hadn’t actually seen in person for years, or even decades. Then in August 2021 I left the job I loved as a result of redundancy. Having worked over 30 years, it felt like the time to finally have the gap year I’d never taken, and mark this new chapter in my life with an incredible adventure.
So, these things came together in my head, and my Freedom & Friends cycle tour was born.
Oh my goodness, the planning! I love to organise, but this was on another level. Having never cycle-toured self-supported before, I had a lot of research to do. Fortunately there’s lots of great advice out there. I discovered Komoot, a super route planning app. Packing was another challenge. How many sets of cycle kit? What maintenance tools? How can I minimise toiletries? (The answer was one bar of tea tree soap which washed face, hair, body and clothes). Hours of reading, online research, contacting friends, planning routes and accommodation. Then finally a massive spreadsheet with everything planned.
I bought new panniers, got my bike serviced and was ready to go.
My route took me out of London through Greenwich, into Kent. The first day was, in all honesty, too long and too hilly. My training had focussed on increasing mileage, but not enough on cycling with 15kg panniers. I was unprepared for how tough climbing hills is with the extra weight. It’s also difficult to manoeuvre the bike. At Greenwich I bought a take out cappuccino (my daily morning treat when I could find one) and soon discovered I could not hold a cappuccino in my left hand and push my laden bike with my right hand – my bike toppled underneath me and I brought the traffic to a standstill as I juggled bike and cappuccino – not an auspicious start only 10 miles from home!
I was so relieved to complete my first day. I’d been incredibly anxious before setting off, with lots of tears and serious self-doubt about my ability and whether I should even be doing it. By the end of the day I was exhausted but adrenaline was coursing through my veins and a good night’s sleep eluded me. It took me about a week to really settle into a routine so that I could properly rest.
My first week was along the south coast and Isle of Wight and it was truly joyous cycling. I was blessed with the most incredible Indian summer. Some of the scenery quite literally took my breath away. There’s no feeling like grinding and grimacing up a climb, to then have a view of the coast open up in front of you at the summit, to freewheel down, drinking in the view and feeling utterly alive. Such moments brought me to tears and my sense of gratitude was overwhelming.
Part of my motivation to undertake this tour was to take time to process the changes of the last few years. I was treated for breast cancer four years ago, my dad died two years ago, then I lost my job this year (not to mention a global pandemic too). The tour was to provide the reconnection I needed. Reconnecting with my mind, my feelings, my body and my wonderful friends.
There were also awful days – only a few, but days and moments when I wanted to chuck my bike in a ditch. The weather was shocking at points and I had one day (Devon to Somerset) when I have never been so wet in my life. Torrential rain, rivers of water gushing down the hills. I found myself huddled in a bus shelter eating my squashed cheese sandwich lunch, shaking from cold and wet, knowing I still had 27 of the day’s 62 miles to cycle. I was bloody miserable. Why on earth was I doing this? But I dug deep, pushed on and I completed the ride. My friend that evening greeted me with two towels at her doorstep. I was sodden. A warm welcome, hot shower and cuppa have never felt so good.
I’ve reflected there were three sorts of days on this tour. Most were average days – the weather would be pleasant, the scenery interesting, drivers considerate, a nice coffee stop, the cycling a challenge but doable.
Then there were the days that blew me away with bucolic scenery and an interesting route I’d happily cycle again. Such days had me smiling from ear to ear – Jurassic coast and Northumberland both come to mind. I also felt disbelief when I arrived at the Devon border, and then Scotland “really, I’ve just cycled by myself with 15kg panniers to Scotland?!” These were my happiest days.
The third sort were the toughest days. It might be that the weather was bad, there were relentless headwinds, I was tired or the cycling/scenery was uninspiring. And whilst these days did not make me happy, the sense of achievement was wonderful, making them just as memorable.
If we’re lucky, I think life is like this. Most days are average, with something good to be found if we take notice. Some days are dark and painful but our resilience and the support of others gets us through. Then other days we’re bouncing with joy.
My friends were without fail amazing. Their generosity and hospitality humbled me. Wherever I stayed I was offered a hot bath or shower, a delicious dinner and breakfast, loaded up with snacks for the bike, my washing was done, I was given a dreamy bed for the night, and of course wonderful company.
For instance, a school friend (we hadn’t seen each other in 33 years) met me at the Angel Of The North. In her car she had deckchairs for us, a fleece to keep me warm, a flask of tea and an M&S lemon drizzle cake to fuel me on my way. Such meet ups were a huge factor in my motivation to keep going through the hardest moments.
Seeing Britain from a bike, on quiet roads, felt like a privilege. I have a very London-centric view of the world, so it was good to immerse myself in life outside London – the scenery, the people, the food, the history. All the strangers I met were curious, encouraging and often concerned for my safety. It caused me to wonder how often in life we let fear curtail us.
Physically I changed and learnt more about my body. What I didn’t get right was having enough rest days – I pushed myself too hard at times. My respect for my body increased even more. When I finished I was probably the fittest I’ve been in my adult life – not bad at 52, or for someone who was always last to be picked for any school sports’ team.
It’s one of the reasons I love cycling. I’m not fast, not naturally talented, but it doesn’t matter. Just being on my bike and turning the pedals makes me stronger and happier.
And look where cycling has taken me. I’m still in shock that I’ve completed the tour. But I’m also thinking about where I’ll go next…