Wednesday 25 July 2018

I Just Want to Say ...... Some Reflections After the Event

It’s 5:15 in the morning and my alarm, a rather annoying rooster that’s crowing, has just gone off. I roll over, fumble around in the dark trying to locate my phone to silence the alarm. Gradually I open my eyes and look around. For a few brief moments I am not entirely sure where I am. Then I realise that I am in the Hilton Garden Hotel in Burlington, Massachusetts, and I will soon be setting out on Stage 43, the last stage of my USA tour. Forty-seven days ago, along with a group of other riders and a support team I left Los Angeles to ride the 3,400 miles to Boston. Barring accidents today on what is effectively a short parade lap to the beach, I am on the threshold of achieving Every Foot and Inch (EFI) status. By then I will have pedalled every single mile between LA and Boston.

After so many mornings like this, my start-up routine is well tried and tested so I have a few minutes to spare and I’m using them to look back over the tour and reflect on some of the places I visited, the people I met and the rides I have experienced. This feels like a good time to try and make some sense of what has certainly been both an exciting and also a challenging ride. Riding a big tour like this has left me feeling cocooned from the outside world. It’s a bit like being in a bubble which had been relentlessly rolling forward eastwards, clocking up mile after mile. It’s been a strange sensation. I am in and connected to the real world, yet in many ways I feel disconnected from it. Almost like a spectator gazing down on a planet and its people.

Desert heat
I cast my mind back over the riding. Some of it was hard, very hard indeed. The western deserts of California and Arizona with the intense heat. More heat in the east with the addition of high humidity. Lots of Interstate highway riding too, none of it particularly fulfilling yet, in the absence of other roads, the only way to cover the ground in a reasonable span of time. I recall how riding on the Interstates brought us together, a disparate group of riders most of whom didn’t know each other at the start of the tour, to form a team of mutually supportive friends. The memory of one particular incident makes me smile.

Apart from the general unpleasantness of riding on the shoulder of a busy interstate the major downside is punctures. The shoulders are strewn with truck tyre debris from blowouts. Unfortunately, the debris includes a mass of very tiny fine wires which get stuck in our tyres inevitably leading to punctures. This becomes a very common occurrence. In one afternoon I had more punctures than I had in all my rides over the last three years. I heard that the groups’ puncture count for one day was over 40!

Team building masterclass
The memory that makes me smile is a photograph I took of one of the team dealing with a puncture. That rider is surrounded by six others, each of whom is helping their friend to get going again as quickly as possible. The group is like a well drilled Formula One pit crew. Everyone has a part to play and everyone is playing their part. This supportive ethos develops organically and as we progress it becomes one of the tour's defining features. Riders supporting each other – sometimes by actions, sometimes with a friendly word of encouragement or a joke, or often with just a friendly look or a nod to say: “I know where you’re at; I’m there with you.” Businesses often spend large sums striving to achieve such a high level of teamwork. Fixing punctures in the heat of a desert afternoon established a new benchmark for team working. By the end of the tour I felt that the support amongst us, the riders, far surpassed that provided by the tour company. There was a level of understanding and empathy between us that I have rarely felt on other tours.

The Red Hills of Sedona
The riding itself was certainly challenging and also very rewarding. To take one example from many, the stage from Prescott to Flagstaff was stunning. Truly stunning. Looking ahead of me as I rode along in the early morning I could see a low-lying line of rock, probably over 10 miles distant. As the sun rose and the rock line grew it transformed itself into a wall – the Red Hills of Sedona with their wind‑eroded sandstone rocks forming wonderfully abstract shapes, columns and pillars which towered over the surrounding land. The wall gave few hints as to the route beyond until I arrived at the city of Sedona. There a long deep canyon opened up and I followed it gently upwards for several miles until I reached the head of the canyon. Then, with very little warning I could see the road twisting up above me through a series of hairpin bends to the summit pass. It was almost as if I had been given a ladder to make my escape. The views from the top were breath-taking in every direction. Below me I could see back along the road that I had spent the last hour riding on. Ahead of me lay the remnant volcanoes that in the aftermath of a massive eruption 200,000 years ago, had created today’s landscape and the setting for the first rest day in Flagstaff below me. The smell of the Ponderosa Pine resin added an almost intoxicating dimension to the scene. The raw splendour of this landscape did as much to raise my heart rate as the climb itself.

The desert reclaims the land
The harsh landscapes of the western deserts and mountains contrasted markedly with the softer, more manicured and managed landscapes of the east – in Ohio and New Hampshire for example. As I rode eastwards, and especially along the old Route 66, I was struck by what I was seeing – a battle between humans and nature. To the west, nature gave the appearance of having the upper hand. Largely I guess because of a lower population density, a harsher climate (lack of water) and an inevitably more extensive approach to using the land. In some places I could see abandoned farms and homes literally slowly dissolving back into the sand.

Waiting for the end
Further east humans seemed to be on the front foot. More intensive farming, irrigation, a greater population density and more infrastructure. There was much more greenery in the fields, hedgerows, woods and forests. This was softer countryside, almost seeming manicured in Ohio though New York state had a greater and more pleasing 'couldn't care less' look. Managed certainly, but with an element of randomness which made the riding much more stimulating. In between were the extensive cattle lands of Texas which we cut across briefly. The sight of forlorn cattle standing in pens waiting their fate was haunting. It was as if I had stumbled across a bovine concentration camp. But as one of my riding colleagues observed, many of us enjoyed steaks for dinner that evening.

We enjoyed incredibly good weather. By my count we had had about two and a half days rain. I had only needed my rain jacket on two stages. The winds mostly blew in our favour too. Tailwinds enabled us to roll along at a good pace and on one stage I set a personal best for 10 miles (22 minutes, equivalent to about 27 mph). Only on one day did we have to ride into strong headwinds and on a couple of others we had to contend with strongly gusting sidewinds. Had we been facing headwinds this tour would have been so very different.

Maize as far as the eye can see
The sheer scale of America was a revelation. I always knew I would be in a big country, but I never understood just how big. Individual states here are bigger than the whole of the UK. That, for me, added a totally new dimension to the riding. Riding in the desert was a humbling experience which as I passed through it, a tiny speck on a massive canvas, made me feel quite humble. The same was true when we rode through the maize and soy fields of Indiana and Illinois. The crops stretched away to the horizon uninterrupted for miles in every direction. The flat land with few opportunities to get higher up made it very difficult to gauge the scale of what I was passing through. I felt like I was afloat in a small dinghy on the ocean.

How far!?
The long straight roads became quite a mental challenge. To pass the time I sometimes played what called the Garmin game. Pick out an object the horizon, like a water tower and guess how far away it is. Then I looked at my present mileage and tried to avoid looking at the Garmin again until I reached the object. I regularly underestimated the distances – often by several miles. So, in addition to the physical challenges, the mental challenges were also quite a factor.

With a few notable exceptions I was unprepared for positive and welcoming reception I received from the people I met along the way. I have always found American people to mostly be very polite: “You’re welcome” and “Have a nice day”. In many cases these responses seem, in my experience to be automatic and somewhat robotic. What surprised me on the tour was the sincerity and interest that I encountered with the people I met. If you are ever looking for a tactic to break the ice with strangers I can wholeheartedly recommend the sweaty lycra approach! It worked for me – every time. Here’s how it goes.

Lycra - an ice breaker!
Arriving at a store or a gas station I would find somewhere to prop up my bike. Then after removing my helmet, skully and mitts and giving my face a quick wipe with a flannel that I always carry in my back pocket I would enter the establishment concerned and have a quick look around. Where were the cold drinks – chocolate milk was always welcome (for the protein)? Where was the restroom and was it locked? Did I need to ask for a key? Were there other people in the store? By this time my ‘arrival’ had usually been noticed by anyone in the store and I was being given the once over. And not always discretely either. Pretty soon thereafter I would usually be engrossed in a conversation. Mostly about me, where I had come from and where I was going (more of that later). But I also found people were very happy to answer my questions. And I ask a lot of questions! It would be easy and very tempting to stay and chat for a good while but always conscious of the need to make progress I rarely had the time to spend more than a few minutes with my new ‘best friends’. Wherever possible I made a point of plugging my blog and I can see from the stats that I picked up quite a few followers this way. So, if anyone who joined the virtual tour is reading this post then I would just like to say: “Thank you for your interest, information and support. It really did enrich my rides.” Even casual roadside encounters, for example when I was snagging a photo, passing drivers, especially in the countryside, would often stop to check that I was okay. That inevitably led to a conversation. Oh, the kindness of strangers.

Scrambled eggs - again!
One of the things I found tough was the constant succession of one-night stays. I rarely managed to properly unpack and lived out of my two kitbags for the duration of the tour. Over the seven weeks of the tour this became quite wearisome. I longed to spend more than two nights in the same bed and had to wait until the end of the tour to achieve this. The constant succession of Hiltons, Holiday Inns, Best Westerns and so on, all built to the same formula were largely functional, as they needed to be. Their food offerings, particularly at breakfast, were very much a case of providing fuel rather than anything more exciting. I have now eaten enough powered scrambled egg to last the rest of my lifetime! This was never intended to be a gastronomic tour so there were good reasons for what was laid on. Nevertheless, I grabbed the few opportunities to ‘eat out’ with gusto and jumped at the chance to eat some ‘proper food. Food that specifically cooked to order. I vividly recall a lovely dinner with Mary, one of the tour crew and a good friend, in a small restaurant in Wooster, Ohio following another appalling whitewashing incident (see below).

The location of the hotels, on the outskirts of the towns and cities we overnighted in, meant that we rarely got an opportunity to explore and learn more about where we were staying. The rest days by contrast were wonderful and I had memorable times in Santa Fe, Abilene, Champaign and Erie. Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that I haven’t mentioned Flagstaff. Well, I didn’t spend my rest day there. Instead I went to have a good look at the Grand Canyon. And it looked pretty good too.

Robin and Mary - gone yet never forgotten
Underpinning the tour was a support system to ensure that we could focus on our riding as much as possible. One of the big factors in choosing to do the tour with CrossRoads Cycling was their promise of good back up. Although this appeared to be the case at the start and there were eight people listed on the contacts sheet, things degenerated as the tour progressed leading one rider to describe us as participants in a failing experiment.  One of the support crew, who I never met, ‘disappeared’ in the first few days. To lose one crew member over seven weeks is perhaps understandable. To lose several suggests that something more fundamental is wrong. Bizarrely, the tour crew seemed to be airbrushed out of our script by the tour company owners, never to be seen or spoken of by them again. Even more strangely since my riding friends had nothing but praise for the ‘lost’ crew members and their empathy with us. What this did mean was that as the tour progressed eastwards the level of support dropped significantly and in my view below safe levels in some cases. Even during early stages of the tour, the support organization was patchy. On a long hot day in the Arizona desert we arrived with virtually no water at the aptly named settlement of Hope to find that the expected gas station was closed for the afternoon and there was no sign of any support vehicles. We were saved by a passing RV driver who seemed to have a limitless supply of bottled water and was more than happy to share it with us. Refusing any and all offers of recompense his wife said that they would get their reward in heaven! Without them it would have been a choice between abandoning and losing my EFI or riding on and risking heatstroke. Once again, I experienced the kindness of strangers.

As the tour progressed I found that one day blurred into the next. So much so that I had difficulty sometimes remembering my geography. Arriving one afternoon at a gas station in New Berlin I got chatting to Bridget, who ran the store. When she asked where I had come from I paused and then said: “I’ve forgotten”. Bridget then asked me where I was heading to. Another pause and then: “I can’t remember”. By now the two ladies were looking at me as if I was an idiot. Suddenly in a flash of inspiration I blurted out: “I’ve come from Los Angeles and I’m going to Boston!” Well I don’t have the words to describe the looks on their faces. But whatever, they were happy to have their photograph taken with me. I emailed one to Bridget later that evening and she replied a couple of days later wishing me well and thanking me for the picture. From then I always tried to ensure I knew my locations before going into any more stores!

Leaving aside the interstate riding, most of the stages were on good well-surfaced roads with not too much traffic. This meant that I was able to take in a lot of the scenery that I passed through. Most of the stages had their own rewards too. The stage from Chillicothe to Kirksville in Missouri with the 148 rollers was outstanding. Very hard and very hot but also very rewarding. Reaching the top of each crest and looking down before descending to start the next steep ascent was very satisfying. It got quite exciting seeing how fast I could go downhill and then how far up the next rise my momentum would carry me. The stage from Abilene to Topeka in Kansas that I rode with Robin one of the tour crew, who was inexplicably airbrushed out of the tour the very next day, was pure pleasure – just a perfect day in the saddle. One of the high points of the tour too.

Celeste Victoria ('CV')
my partner in this grand adventure
My bike, who I have nicknamed ‘CV’ was outstanding. As readers who are familiar with my writings will know, all of my Bianchi’s have personalities and names. I spend a lot of time in their company and we have a unique relationship. I won’t try to explain that here – if you want to know more then read my book, Passione Celeste. Suffice to say that I regard them as my second family. CV rose to the challenge of the tour magnificently and despite having to cope with some punishing conditions she coped admirably. There was only one issue with the hydraulic brakes which was more of a design fault than a performance issue. She has been a great companion for me. Our one-to-one conversations in our hotel room immediately before the start of each stage, provided great comfort and helped us to clear our minds to be ready for whatever lay ahead.

What really made this tour special were the people I met, especially my fellow riders and the tour support team. Our team of riders was a very diverse group covering a wide age range from mid-twenties to mid-seventies with a great range of experience.  Whatever our individual motivations for taking part in the tour, we all shared the delights and the sense of freedom that cycling enabled us to have. Within a very short time it seemed as if we were one large extended family who had gathered together for a reunion. As one of three overseas riders on the tour I was touched by the way my American counterparts welcomed me into their fold and the information and explanations they willingly shared with me over the seven weeks of the tour. Everything from information about the places we passed through and their history to unveiling the mysteries of some of the food we consumed.

Although over the first few days we naturally formed into smaller groups there was no sense of being better than some or not as good as others. I really enjoyed the times when we were all together – at SAGs or dinners when there were opportunities to chat over the past day’s ride and look forward to the next day. All carried out with lots of good hearted banter and ribbing. The levels of chatter and laughter at these times were the best measure of our enjoyment. And on the few occasions when we were a bit subdued I did a little dance to raise the spirits. It never failed me. Well I don’t think it did!

My new family - the class of 2018
I have made a lot of friendships that I hope will endure, even if only virtually over the social media in some cases. Pete and I, the two UK members, met and rode together before the tour started and virtually every day thereafter. By the end of the tour he felt almost like a brother. And there is one very special friendship which has defied all the odds, including airbrushing, and which I am particularly excited about for the future. Good rides need good routes. Great rides need great people. It would be an honour and a privilege to ride with any of these people again. But only with a different organisation.

My goodness is that the time! Enough of this reminiscing. I’d better hurry up and get downstairs. I have an appointment at Revere Beach, Boston. EFI is within my grasp…

If you'd like to hear a bit more about my tour recollections you can listen to an interview I did for BBC Radio Suffolk by clicking here.