I never really believed I could cycle from my home in London to Spain yet I had no doubt I would try. So just like that, I did.
Bike saddled with panniers, belly bursting with bolognaise, I was ready. Leaving the house I saw not the street, not the usual London scene but the world. The once familiar road was not the one I walked to the shops every day but a very small piece of a route that would guide me 1,000 miles south across three countries.
Girlfriend kissed, goodbyes exchanged, tears shed. I’ll see you real soon, I whispered, never more certain of anything. Fear and doubt, the leeches of old age not yet present.
Bike heavy and unstable, I clambered on. It seemed inappropriate to be undertaking such grand adventures dressed only in Lycra. For I was a knight about to ride off into the distance on my trusty horse.
I wobbled away. I’m cycling to Spain, I said to myself in disbelief. Not to work. Not even to return home the same day.
I smiled and watched the normality of the scene all around me. People busy with their days. I’m cycling to Spain, I wanted to shout, to feel some slaps on the back.
All I had to do was pedal. Easy. My cumbersome load lightened once I found my rhythm. Adrenaline pumping, legs spinning, I recall those early few miles through London more than any other road on the trip. The route led me along my commute, a road I’d ridden thousands of times yet was seeing now for the first time.
Goodbye London, I muttered as I crossed Tower Bridge. South I go. I’m not talking south of the river here, not Clapham nor Croydon. Oh no. Way south. Mediterranean south. Riding moments from my office yet I was already conquering new territories, my front wheel the bow of a boat, an icebreaker parting the ice to an undiscovered world.
My overnight ferry across the English Channel was still hours away and so I eased through the rolling landscape, narrow country lanes darkening as the sun slipped from the sky. At Newhaven I savoured fish and chips (what else?) as if eating my last ever English meal. Darkness. A sea to cross, an adventure to begin.
Must sleep, can’t sleep. The smell of stale coffee in plastic cups, the polite shuffling of other zombies all around me, trying to sleep where they shouldn’t, couldn’t. The ferry left port at 11:45pm. Four hours sleep before a seven hour day in the saddle.
My spirit of adventure, of not spending money, meant I had not booked a cabin and so I set about resting my weary head wherever I could find comfort. I was not alone. Others were curled up in seats or sprawled out on the boat’s floor, napping in dusty corners and hidden nooks, the lucky few already snoring. Just get me back on the bike.
Sleep did not come easy. The boat and I drifted through the night, floating off momentarily only to be awoken by waves of discomfort. I dreamed of sleep.
Breakfast arrived too soon, as usual. The coffee thinner, senses duller, sky darker.
The moon. I remember the moon. Bright white, not quite full. Four a.m. Moonlit roads and quiet country lanes. France, all mine. This lunar night is bleached bright on my brain, for I remember it more than any other moment of the adventure. More than the many moments of tiredness or elation, the amazing people and lovely French food, or the first sight of the deep blue River Rhône or the warm turquoise of the Mediterranean, or the high winds of the Pyrenees and the moment I crossed the French-Spanish border to my own internal applause.
Rolling off the ferry, sleepy, unsure of anything but how to pedal, I was surprised and happy to ride for the briefest of moments with a group of cyclists heading for Paris. They were very awake. Excited, squawking like seagulls at sunrise, lost already, shouting as they circled the sleepy town in search of breakfast, racing one another through the silent deserted roads of Dieppe.
Bonne chance, I whispered, to them, to myself. Moments later I turned right into a narrow corridor of silence, nothing but the sound of my own breathing and rubber tyres licking the hardtop, the empty roads a ghostly luminous grey, the moon guiding me like the light at the end of a tunnel, sucking me deeper into the country. Bon matin Monsieur Lune, I whispered, already talking to myself.
I passed a solitary building, the town’s last outpost, startled to find myself so gloriously alone. To Spain, I thought, smiling, not quite sure how I got here, unsure if this was actually happening. On I pedalled, eyes narrow, smile wide.
To the east the first hint of light, to the south the unknown, the horizon my beginning, middle and end.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious, except the protagonist. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is intended. The events are based on a true story of a ride from London to Spain in 2011. Names have been changed and emotions embellished. The moon was real.