The plan was sound. I needed to get home from Derby Station and my wife – my usual taxi-driver – was going to be in away Lancaster. I would take a train home from Southampton and cycle home. The journey was only 18 miles on good cycle routes and relatively flat. I would get my weekly thighs and calves exercise in a fairly straight line, rather than the usual confines of a circular ride.
My train was due in just after 5pm. I should be home by 6.30 with a fair wind and a good pedal, well before it got dark. The main risk was the weather. Heavy snow was forecast in the midlands. My boss said I should just drive home early. No way, I had come this far, I was going to see it through.
The logistics had been complicated. I had driven to Southampton earlier in the week. Packing had been more complex than a Sodoku. I had to pack for the cycling, a night in a hotel, a day at work, a night in my flat and for transporting my bike by car and then by train. Some possessions were required in several of those categories, and I needed to ensure I didn’t end up with too many things to carry back in my rucksack. This part all worked out perfectly. I made it the station without my suit abut with all of my necessary cycling bits and pieces.
I had never taken a bike on a train before. I had parked my car and delivered my trusty bicycle from the boot where it had laid pregnant for the last 3 days. I had a piece of paper with my “bicycle reservation number”. Wheeling it onto the platform I realised I had no idea which door of the train I was meant to use. The platform was bereft of helpful staff, and I certainly wasn’t going to press the “need assistance” button on the wall. I positioned myself at the front of the train, where the guard would get off and adopted my best “little boy lost look”. The train glided in. He was unsure, he thought it was towards the back. The juxtaposition of people trying to get off and on a train at the same time is always an interesting insight into human behaviour (selfishness normally triumphs over the pretense of courtesy). Weaving through this mayhem along the length of the platform with a bicycle is a journey in itself. I found a door with a bike symbol on it and lugged my steed on board like some reluctant child. The compartment for the bike was clearly too shallow. That was until I released you have to hang the thing up on a hook like a carcass in a butchers. All its dignity was lost.
The train journey was three hours. As we left Birmingham, I sneaked into the toilet and changed into my cycling-man outfit. I was lycred up and ready to go. I have a well-grounded theory that all weather forecasts are wrong. Unfortunately it was snowing as predicted.
The train was a little late into Derby and it took more time than I had planned to squeeze my gear into my rucksack and apply my helmet and cycling shoes. These are special shoes with hooks on the bottom which clip cleverly into the pedals. These would prove to be my literal downfall.
By 5.30pm I was riding along Station Road. Two minutes later I had fallen off. An unexpected right turn in the road forced me to stop. I twisted my feet in the usual fashion to release them from my pedals. Nothing. Stationary and unable to extricate my feet, I fell over sidewards. The trick is to keep your elbows tucked in, accept the inevitable and tipple to the ground as gracefully as possible in the circumstances, prayinging that you wont fall in front of a fast car. Hopefully your knees and elbows won’t hurt more than your pride. They rarely do. The imperative is to get up and on your bike quickly, in denial that anyone has noticed.
I cycled on> I was on a lovely smooth cycle path alongside the River Derwent, round the back of the station and Pride Park, my own pride just about salvaged. This is when I realised what I was letting myself in for physically. It was absolutely freezing. Freezing rain-sleet flew off the river and was cruelly lashing my face, like small nails. Cycling itself creates 15mph wind damage, without the need for assistance thank you. My gloves were already wet and cold – they were never to dry out. I pedaled forth manfully through the elements. There were a few other lunatics on two wheels cycling the other way. I suspect they were almost home. I had 16 miles to go and already longed for warmth.
I hangered right, staying on the cycle path through Derby and being very careful to take at least one foot out of a pedal at any suspicion of the need to stop. I wasn’t moving fast – although I did overtake an old bloke on his bone-shaker. I was on national cycle route 6 – the path was smooth and I made good progress despite the conditions.
After 6 miles I reaching the Trent and Mersey Canal. I paused to take a photo of the snow before rolling down onto the muddy tow path. The next two miles were tricky. There were more puddles than path. The rain was driving off the canal. My glasses were splattered with rain and steaming up. The light was fading. I really could not see very well, despite havng been to Specsavers. I knew if I stopped or skidded suddenly I would be unable to get my feet out of my pedals and I would fall inevitably over into a muddy heap. That’s if I was fortunate enough to fall to the right. A metre to the left was a cold black canal of freezing water.
By the time I got to the end of this assault course my feet were sodden inside my shoes with the splashes from the puddles. My fingers and my toes felt like frozen plasticine. As I pushed up a steep slope to the start of Cloud Trail I was relieved to have survived so far and comforted that I was now on a familiar route. I decided to stop on the bridge over the Trent, drain my shoes and wring out my gloves. This proved to be entirely counter-productive – it just made my fingers hurt.
As I climbed back on my bike, I was unable to click my left foot into my pedal. I stopped several times and tried to do it whilst stationary. There was no way I could get home performing as the one-legged cyclist. I dismounted again, took off my shoe and looked at it accusingly. The piece which slots into the pedal was frozen with ice. I needed to scrape it out. I had a spanner in my saddle bag. My fingers were numb. Unzipping the bag and extricating the spanner was like a schoolboy trying to undo his boot laces after a mid-winter game of football. I felt like a surgeon conducting a delicate operation with someone else’s hands. I replaced the spanner, painfully zipped up the bag and tried again. Still no comforting click and grip. I repeated the whole painful exercise.
This time, to my great relief, it worked. I set off determinedly down the path. I wriggled my fingers constantly to maintain circulation and tried to protect them from the wind behind my thin handlebars. I had given up on my toes.
In the summer the path is strewn with other cyclists, walkers, dog-walkers and horse-riders. Nobody was insane enough to be on the path tonight. Which was lucky for all of us, as I would undoubtedly have taken a few of them out without even seeing them.
Since my initial collapse onto the road, I had been fortunate enough to ride off-road and stay in my saddle. The final stretch was to be all roads, and now it was completely dark with no street lighting. I was well-equipped with double flickering and non-flickering front and back lights, which meant I would be seen, even if I could not see. I pushed up a long steep hill past a quarry. I changed down and changed down until I had run out of low gears. I wanted to stop and push – after all nobody would see me. But when I tried to wiggle my feet out of the pedals I couldn’t. I had no choice but to force my thighs to burn a while longer.
Finally, having conquered the hill, I reached a main road, pitch black and in driving snow. Headlights of a carsbehind me shone past me and I just hoped the driver was not distracted by a phone call. later, another car tracked me for almost 5 minutes, unable to see ahead and unprepared to overtake me on the narrow country lane. Normally I would have felt pressurised to cycle faster – but it felt more like a kind escort. Or maybe it was a Focus.
Again I thought about stopping – but my feet were clearly glued to pedals.
Finally I reached Belton, a small village 3 miles from home. I felt like some weary Dickensian traveller returning to civilization. Never have street lamps and a bus-shelter felt so welcome. I finally managed to loosen my feet from their shackles. I texted home – my wife might just be worried. I was almost there.
Or so I thought. I left the village and was about to join the main road to Shepshed. There was a car coming. I had to stop. I fell left this time. onto a cold wet bank in an undignified heap. I pulled myself up. There, out of nowhere, stood a man in a long grey coat and a hat with two dogs on two leads. He was tall, upright and suitably dressed for the conditions. I was in very wet lycra, picking myself up from a muddy bank. I could hardly hear what he was saying to me, as the frozen rain rattled against my my helmet. I assumed he was asking me if I was alright, although he could equally have been asking me which asylum I had escaped from. More likely, he thought I was drunk. “I am fine thank you, THANK YOU” I said, wanting him to disappear. He crossed the road and I climbed back on my bike, my shoes sliding off the pedals until I finally clicked them back in whilst maintaining a semblance of forward motion.
In a second I was back on the floor. And then, as if by magic, he was stood next to me again. The same man, with the same dogs, asking me if I was alright. “I am fine thank you, THANK YOU”, I repeated. Was it ground hog day? Part of me wanted him to disappear, part of me wanted him to carry me home and sit me by the fire with a hot toddy, before drugging me and cutting me up into small pieces. I think I was starting to hallucinate.
Third time lucky – and I was flogging my legs down the final stretch, like some latter-day Scott of the Antartic determined to get home or die in the attempt. I missed the very familiar turning into Shepshed – that is how little I could see. But finally I was there – stood outside my front door pressing the door bell with the frozen carrot which had previously been my index finger.
There was no answer. For the first time I felt despair. I had keys, but they were in a zipped pocket in the back of my lycra top. I struggled to feel the zip, never mind open it. I had fatalistic visions of having to remove my clothing to access my keys, and being found, tragically the next day, slumped in front of my own front door, my faithful steed faithfully by my side, its lights still flickering in vain hope of rousing me.
But, I survived to tell the tale. Undressing for the shower took ages. My skin was red, my fingers and toes were blue and unconscious. As I stood under the water, I was unable to tell whether it was cold or hot. I turned it down just in case. As the feeling returned to my feet they throbbed painfully. Later, I was incredibly hungry and thirsty and unable to get warm.
I turned up the heating. My son made a fire. I ate pizza, grapes and yoghurt. I drank tea and coke and a glass of wine. I fell asleep in a warm bed at 11.30 muttering incoherently. I was finally back to normal.
I could have driven home from Southampton in the same time it had taken me to get off the train and cycle from Derby. I would have returned home warm and dry – my dignity intact. A man reaches an age where he no longer has to set himself new challenges, to stubbornly carry out a plan regardless of common sense, to stop risking safety and health to prove something to himself or others. I feel I may just finally have reached that glorious age.