(A grey road bike with orange bar tape and white lettering reading ‘cervelo’ set against a backdrop of rolling countryside. This shot was taken in celebration at the top of Ditchling Beacon, the great stinking East Sussex hill in the blog post below.)
If you follow my posts on FFI, or follow me on my teaching blog, The Activist Classroom, you know I’ve been a bit low lately: not resting enough, feeling frustrated with work, unsure about my fitness commitments.
I’ve had some significant change in my life over the last handful of years, but now that I’m more settled, in a wonderful new community, I’m realizing that my emotional upset isn’t just keyed to all the changes: it’s also more.
I’m at midlife, so there’s that. I’m looking into the next 20 years of my career, and wondering what it is I really want to do. I’m in a new relationship, which is fantastic but also makes for the adjustment of well-loved (and relied-upon, and sanity-saving) routines. And… and… and…
It’s an emotional cul-de-sac. And I’m in it.
Usually, when I’m not in a great place, I’m cheered immensely by getting on my bicycle. There’s incredible freedom in just rolling, sometimes punching a hill and coasting down the backside, letting thoughts pass in and out, engaging in some supportive self-talk. It’s like meditation for me.
(Another glam shot of my orange-and-grey road bike, this time set against a tree trunk in a forest setting. I put a filter on this shot to make it look a bit nostalgic; I miss my bike these days.)
Lately, though, jumping on my bike has not been as regularly possible as in the past. I’ve made a commitment to row quite frequently with the master’s squad at my new local club, and that’s eating a lot of free time. (More on my vexed relationship with rowing in a post later in the summer. I’m still working it out.)
With up to 10 hours per week at the rowing club – and practices scheduled directly against the group rides organized by my cycling club – I just can’t find the saddle time I’m used to. And I’m really quite bummed about that.
I had a chat with Cate about all this over breakfast a couple of Sundays ago. She said: you know what? You need to do what nourishes you.
Forget about the rowing club commitment for a bit; nobody is going to die if you say you can’t make it to practice. They’ll work around you. And you need to work for you for a while.
Very shortly after this breakfast chat I was packing for a work trip to London and Belgrade. I had 10 days in the UK ahead of the conference I was attending in Serbia. I was going to just spend it with friends.
Then I had a brilliant, spur-of-the-moment, idea.
Why not carve out a couple of days just for riding? Someplace wonderful! Someplace I know, but haven’t been in ages. Someplace restful, scenic, where I can be alone and at peace on the bike all I want.
(A black-and-white photo of an iron sign that reads “Best Kept Large Village in East Sussex, presented by the Sussex rural community council”. That’s Ditchling, my cycling home for two days in early July. And what a fine little town it is!)
I always travel to England with my road bike; I first learned to cycle properly there, and I know the ins and outs of the home county roads well. So I was always going to have my bike with me already. (NB: traveling with a bike is easier than you think! You need a good bicycle box for airline travel, but otherwise it is not that complicated.)
The morning of my flight, I sat in my garden and arranged two days in Ditchling, East Sussex. It’s a short train journey from central London (about 50 minutes), but a world away, in the rolling South Downs just over the hills from Brighton.
I have cycled there twice before – riding the “Puncheur” cyclosportif (aka, a gran fondo ride), which happens every spring in the area – and I’ve stayed at the wonderful, picturesque Bull inn too.
The Bull team told me I could park my bike in their locked shed overnight, and accommodated all my cycling needs (ice water constantly on tap; friendly faces telling me about their own cycling adventures). I arrived on a sunny Monday afternoon, dropped everything, and headed into the hills, GPS maps for my bike computer downloaded from the Puncheur’s website.
Then, the next morning, I retraced the race route I’d last cycled in 2014.
(A group of four photos from my long ride in Ditchling. There are rolling hills with parched grassland – there was a drought going on – and copses of greenery dappled throughout. In one shot we see the roadside sign for The Crown freehouse in Turner’s Hill set against a bright blue sky. In another I’m smiling into the camera with my helmet and glasses on; I look pink but that’s the filter. My kit is actually green. Oh, and there’s a sheep chilling behind me. I’m in the Ashdown Forest.)
It’s a pretty tough ride, at 101.5km and almost 5000 feet (1560 metres) of climbing, including a brutal 3/4 mile category 4 climb (Ditchling Beacon) at the end.
But hey, I wasn’t actually doing the race! I reminded myself, when things started to get iffy, that this ride was just for me, and I was in charge of how it went: nobody was watching, and nobody was timing me. (OK, I was timing me. But that’s a little bit different.)
When I saw cows and sheep in the road, in the pretty Ashdown Forest, I stopped to photograph them. When I felt drained and like I probably couldn’t go on much longer, I stopped at a public footpath to eat my lemon drizzle cake, purchased from the sweet Green Welly cafe that morning, and take in the view.
And when I got to the bottom of the bloody Beacon, really drained from a long day on my own in the sun and wind, I said: you know you’ve got this. Just spin nice and slow; you’ll get there.
And I did.
At the top I snapped some photos of the view, cheered my achievement, and noted that I had beaten my 2014 route time by almost 20 minutes. That means that, even though back then I was 4 years younger and 15lb lighter, since then I’ve obviously grown stronger, and even more able.
The lesson for me? Although things feel a little bit crap at the moment, and I’m not quite sure what’s ahead, at the top of the beacon I knew: my bike and I have got this.