The more I see, the more I realise that it’s just fantastic
Before all of these trips, I always have that fear: ‘What if I hate it?’ But that never happens. I always love it. More and more, I’m trusting that this is what makes me happy
And greetings from the Gipsy Palace, where I’m typing on laptop number seven of the summer* — finally, cautiously, I’ve found one that plays nice with my fat fingers!
For those of you new around these parts, welcome 👋 My name is David and I’m a writer, outdoor instructor and cyclist-at-large with Thighs of Steel. In this newsletter, I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better.
For the first time ever in these pages, this week’s story is an INTERVIEW with another HUMAN. So I won’t waffle on in this intro because it’s a nourishingly long read.
I’m excited, though. I really hope you enjoy this — please be sure to tell me if you do because that’ll encourage me to interview more wonderful enthusiasts like Alice.
Welcome to edition 378.
*I’m absolutely not letting go ☀️
This is Alice Baddeley
It’s 2021 and, in this photo, Alice has just arrived in Camber at the end of a long bike ride around Sussex, her home county.
It wasn’t the bike ride she’d had planned for that summer, but you remember — that wasn’t really the summer for best laid plans, was it?
I was meant to be doing the coastline trip [cycling around the whole coast of Britain], but it was Covid and obviously I had to keep postponing it. And, you know, we had this message of ‘stay local’, stay in Sussex…
So boy did Alice ‘stay local’ — in the most extreme way imaginable:
This is the story of how Alice ended up on a one thousand mile bike ride that passed through every single city, town and village in Sussex. Every. Single. One.
Even though it was on my doorstep, it was a real adventure. And the great thing about doing things locally is that now, when I’m a bit bored on a weekend, well, I know pretty much every pub in Sussex.
And, thanks to Alice’s obsession with map-making, now you do too.
Clearly, this is a very silly route to cycle. And I’m no stranger to very silly bike routes myself: in that same summer of 2021 Thighs of Steel rode out the words REFUGEES WELCOME in GPS artwork across the entire south of England.
Crucially, however, I did none of the route planning for that ride. I graciously let Georgie take that task. It sounds like a total nightmare.
Not so for Alice:
It did take a long time, but I love route planing so it was sort of like a hobby during the evenings — time that most normal people would spend at the pub.
The west to east zigzags were actually version two of her route: a pattern of north to south rides wouldn’t work because, Alice quickly realised, that would mean cycling up the steep hills of the Sussex Downs over. and over. and over. and over. again.
Instead, by going west to east and east to west across nine switchbacks, each day Alice got to see the same landscapes at different levels: yesterday’s ride followed the contours below her; tomorrow’s ride will follow those above.
It was a bit psychologically exhausting because you go from one end to the other, and then you have to go all the way back again.
Ah, yes. The psychological torture of the arbitrary cycle route!
For no good reason, Alice made her goal of cycling through every habitation in Sussex twice as hard with the entirely arbitrary rule that she would neither leave her home county, nor cycle down the same road twice.
Why, Alice, why?!
It was like being in a video game
Golf, it has been said, is a good walk spoiled. And it’s spoiled by some very silly rules about tiny balls, long sticks and holes.
But the same thing that spoils a walk for some is considered sport — and even a profession — by others.
Likewise, cycling means many different things to all kinds of different people.
Besides a universal love of whooshing downhill, what Alice and I do has little in common with what those folk on the Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes do.
And I love how Alice is bringing playfulness back to cycle touring. By introducing silly rules, Alice turns the art or drudge of riding her bike into a challenge and a game.
(And, as a Collections Editor for Komoot, now her profession too.)
It was like being in a video game. I find cycling a bit pointless if I don’t have rules — I’m not in it for the pedalling. Physical exercise is a good byproduct, but a lot of people do rides to really punish themselves. Imagine — that’d be hell!
I didn’t realise it was possible to do massive long distances
Alice got into cycle touring back in 2008, when she rode Land’s End to John O’Groats with her friend, er, Alice.
I’m always really interested in what first moves people from Not Doing A Thing to Doing That Exact Thing. In Alice’s case: what inspired her to go from Not Cycling Long Distances to Cycling Long Distances?
What triggered the notion that this would ever be a good idea?
A long time ago I remember overhearing a group of men talking about cycling Land’s End to John O’Groats and I remember at the time thinking, wow, I’d never be able to do that. Like: that’s not something that is possible.
But something in this overheard conversation stuck with her. She shared what she’d heard with Alice 2 and together they started to wonder aloud: ‘Hang on, wait… Maybe we could?’
They pulled out some maps (this was before the whole world had smartphones) and started to break the journey down, day by day, until ‘maybe we could’ morphed into ‘fuck it, let’s try!’
So they did.
(The self-help aficionados among you will have spotted an absolute classic of the genre: Alice and Alice broke down something that felt intimidating and abstract into smaller concrete and achievable pieces. The technique works, people — use it!)
From that first Land’s End-John O’Groats ride, Alice got obsessed, following up with two more ‘end-to-end’ diagonals of Ireland and New Zealand.
I knew that I loved cycling, but I didn’t realise — I think a lot of people still don't realise — it was possible for a normal cyclist to be able to do these massive long distances.
Actually, once you do it, it does become a bit of an addiction. I felt such a high. The combination of daily exercise and constant adventure is like an actual drug.
But the one place that keeps Alice coming back for more is the place she calls home: Britain.
The more I see, the more I realise that it’s just fantastic
Starting with her Sussex ride in 2021, the past three years have seen Alice take on three massive long British rides that form an impressive body of work.
I think cycling in Britain is so underrated. The more I see of it, the more I realise that it’s… it’s just fantastic. Some people would say they want to do Europe or travel around Asia, but I feel content with this island — and I suppose I’m on a bit of a mission to see all of it. I want to be able to say I’ve done it all.
And she’s totally on track: the following year, Alice cycled around the entire coastline of Britain.
Round Britain is a ride that we both have in common — although Alice rode 700 miles further because she didn’t do any
cheating island hopping AND she did it ‘backwards’, starting instead of finishing with the toughest cycling in the whole world: Devon and Cornwall.
I won’t dwell on our shared love of coasting round Britain because, in a way, those rides make the least interesting stories: impressive, sure, but so dense with experience that it’s hard (for me, anyway) to process and package the whole into a beginning, middle and end.
Besides, Alice’s trip is sumptuously documented on her Instagram, including Very British Observations, such as this analysis on the three species of Co-op:
Tiny Co-op: ‘All pastries gone by mid morning. Most customers are on first name terms with the staff. You can leave your bike unlocked outside.’
Medium Co-op: ‘My favourite type. Well stocked, quick to get around and a choice of humans at tills.’
Too big for its boots Co-op: ‘These stores are so big that you have to manually pause your GPS recorder in case it thinks you are still active. All self service check outs. I often get stuck for ages over an item that confuses the system. Usually a banana.’
So let’s skip her 80-day coastal epic and fast forward through to this summer, when, with very little forethought or planning, Alice rode the full length of the country from south to north — wait for the twist — in as straight a line as possible.
And shockingly hard (at least once she’d chugged through the first few days of commuter land).
From the Midlands to the Borders, central England is dominated by the Pennine Hills: the backbone of Britain, the English Andes. And, when you’re trying to cycle in a dead straight line, there’s no question of following the gentle, but meandering, dales.
No: Alice was cycling the more direct Pennine Bridleway: ancient drovers roads and packhorse trails over grassy gravel and stone setts.
I say ‘cycling’ — there was actually a lot of walking, a bit of a first for Alice and Cindy (her new mountain bike).
It’s opened my eyes to what’s possible by combining hiking and biking. A great invention would be a ‘comfort handle’ that could be clamped to a seat post.
Alice kind of enjoyed this hike-a-biking — she wasn’t in any rush and didn’t have a rigid schedule, unlike previous tours — but it wasn’t the pedestrianism that was the problem.
The problem was fuel:
It was very remote in stretches. You think you’re just gonna find a shop, but there were times where I didn’t have any food and I was like, ‘Oh god!’
It turns out that the middle of Britain is far less inhabited than its edges — a fact that makes sense when you remember that we are, by and large, a lowland people.
Roughly 85 percent of people on the British mainland live south of the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors and the North Pennines.
North of that famous band of national parks, people tend to be concentrated in the cities — Middlesborough, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Inverness Aberdeen — while inland village communities are spread further and further apart, meaning fewer and fewer Tiny Co-ops and fewer and fewer bananas.
Unexpected hunger in the biking area.
The upside of cycling through quieter country? Random encounters with generous strangers, especially those who dole out massive slices of vegetarian lasagna from the back of a colour-coordinated campervan, lime green inside and out.
Ahhh, the joys of cycle touring!
I always have that fear: ‘What if I hate it?’
I’m curious to hear how Alice’s mindset has changed off the back of three consecutive years of epic British cycle touring.
Out of all of the rides, the straight line was probably the most physically challenging, but also the one I was most casual about beforehand. That’s the great thing about pushing your limits: it makes big things seem less daunting.
And big things do feel daunting:
Before all of these trips, I always have that fear: ‘What if I hate it?’ But that never happens. I always love it. More and more, I’m trusting that this is what makes me happy.
And what makes us happy is such an important thing to learn about ourselves.
It is good to acknowledge that doing big things is hard, but equally to remember that we have chosen that path and to know ourselves well enough to trust that, one day, maybe not today, we’ll look back and see how this path guided us all the way to happy.
For me, for many years, the fears of failure, unknown disaster and hating the whole experience would only ease as the finish line came into view and I’d realise that it’s all going to be okay.
Then, before I know it, it’s over.
Nothing good ever ends well
And so here we are: at the end.
Gosh. Endings can be a bit weird, can’t they?
I always have a little bottle of wine or something to celebrate finishing, but I tell myself don’t expect to feel really good because it’s kind of the saddest bit, isn’t it, when it all comes to an end?
There’s this great line I heard earlier in the year that’s been rattling around my head ever since: ‘Nothing good ever ends well’ — and I love it because it sounds so horribly pessimistic, but is in fact wonderful.
The quote starts with the joyous recognition, so easily glossed over, that this Thing that’s happening right now is actually good; and it ends with the Stoic acknowledgement that, in addition, this Good Thing shall soon pass by, as all moments and feelings have passed before.
It reminds me to cherish what I have now.
When Alice finally rolled onto the beach at Oldshoremore, onto the ‘roof of Britain’ after twenty days of hiking and biking, technology and landscape conspired to create ideal conditions for an eminently cherishable ending:
I didn’t have any mobile phone signal, which I think was really good because otherwise there’s a real temptation to get on my phone and start texting people. Instead, I found this lovely spot on the beach to camp and just had a really nice evening.
That’s one thing I will always do at the end of these trips now: have that moment to myself and soak in the atmosphere.
Alice’s Three Take Homes
1. Don’t underestimate yourself
My one big thing is don’t underestimate what you’re capable of.
The worries you have are really normal, but they’re kind of pointless because most things that you worry about don’t happen on the trip. And if they do happen, or if something else happens that you haven’t worried about, there’s always a way to overcome it.
2. Make your own way
Route planning is a real part of the whole trip.
A lot of people think that they have to stick to ‘official’ paths or do a route that's waymarked. But there’s a real joy in making up your own trips. Often the roads I've cycled are not part of a cycle network or named route.
Discovering stuff: that is the joy of touring — and there’s loads of undiscovered turf in Britain so don’t be shy.
3. Don’t underestimate Britain
Don’t always think that you need to go abroad for a big adventure. Don’t underestimate the value of things on your doorstep. Don’t underestimate Britain.
And not every adventure has to be loads of days in a row or wild camping every night — there was one night I stayed at Champneys health spa!
As backpackers or bike tourers, we can be a bit hard on ourselves. We think we have to do everything on the rough. Touring with a bit of luxury is also an option.
Tonight, Alice will be telling stories in Bournemouth at Profesional Amateur Story Time, run by The New Forest Off Road Club. This evening is sold out, but check out their other fantastic storytelling events, running throughout winter.
As I said up top, this is the first (?) in a series (?) of interview experiments.
If you enjoyed this post, please remember that I have NO WAY OF KNOWING 😱 unless you like, comment, reply or share. So please do all of those things and I’ll rootle around for more fantastic humans to talk to.
Heck, why not go the whole hog and become a paying subscriber? That’s how this thing works.
If you would like to put a friend / colleague / worst enemy forward for the David Charles interview treatment, then please let me know in a comment or email reply. I’m particularly looking for ordinary people who’ve done an awesome thing that not enough people have heard about.
Thanks for your eyeballs, thanks for your support.