When leading up to my first cycle tour, there was one question that increasing bothered me: Why tour fixed gear?
Up until now, my fixed gear year has been going well. When it comes to general riding, the advantages of riding fixed, outweighed the disadvantages. But cycletouring? I hadn’t even thought to consider a multispeed bike for touring. I was taking my Fixie and that was that. This is because I’m still in my 1year challenge period and I also don’t have the spare cash to shell out for a new bike.
But the more I looked into it, the more it seemed like fully loaded touring (where you take camping stuff) on a Fixie had no advantages whatsoever. Touring fixed is like saying ‘I’ll do it with one hand tied behind my back’. Doing it loaded AND fixed is like saying ‘ok, BOTH hands’.
Why is that? Because with a heavy bike, uphill riding will require more strength and downhill stretches will be faster, meaning you have to pedal superfast with no option to freewheel. If there are headwinds or unexpectedly steep hills, there is no option but to climb hard. As a result, you can’t pace yourself or take it easy by shifting down a few gears. You have to ride the terrain as it comes and that’s that, possibly leaving you exhausted but with days left to go.
I asked a few cycle enthusiasts ‘why tour fixed gear?’
They said ‘Don’t!’
I searched the web for people who DO tour fixed gear – turns out they are all 100mile per day serious enthusiasts/nutters.
This news terrified me! I have no need to prove myself in this way and yet somehow I’d set myself up for what turns out to be a ridiculous challenge!
I spent hours checking the route’s gradients and weighing luggage, trying to take more and more things out until I had it down to a manageable 15kg including water. I was worried too about not bringing enough creature comforts to be able to sleep well on camp, leaving me tired for the next day’s ride. The weather forecast predicted rain every day of the trip. I soon realised that I would have to stay in B&Bs on some nights to recover, meaning I was going to do the somewhat silly thing of dragging along camping gear to use on only half the nights.
I had the bike fitted with a 68inch gear (a kind of low/meduim gear) and gave myself permission to flip to the freewheel if I needed to. I also gave myself a rule not to push myself at all unless I had to. In other words, I was to take it as easy as possible on the flat and stop often, in order to save my energy for any big climbs.
The route was Newcastle to Edinburgh along the coast. 140miles (a figure which proved to be largely fictitious) over 4 days.
The first two days were an absolute joy. I was delighted to find that they were very flat and along some beautiful coastal paths. It was hard to get as far as 30miles in a day, what with wanting to stop at every pretty spot, which seemed to occur at intervals of roughly 1 mile. People were ridiculously helpful, giving directions and filling up my water bottles for free. I call this phenomenon ‘fitness guilt’. Which is the invisible force that causes people who avoid exercise to help those who ARE doing exercise, in order to somehow improve their fitness karma. This is a little cynical – they could have just been nice people.
I pedaled leisurely through Whitley Bay (despite an early puncture), camped near Blyth and journeyed on through Ashington and Amble the following day. In a couple of places I was a little alarmed to discover that with no warning sign or marking on the map, short sections of the cycle path were gravel. Little did I know that these were nothing compared to what was to come.
I spent my second night in a field near Alnwick. The 3rd day was due to be longer (45miles) and hillier. I had slept badly, camped through a severe weather warning and caught a cold. That last minute decision to swap the bivi for the much heavier tent had paid off and I had stayed mostly dry.
Weather was bad in the morning and I was quickly soaked through as I rode off to Embleton. ‘We must be mad!’ shouted a cheerful and equally bedraggled couple cycling the other way.
Worse still I couldn’t find anywhere to have get any kind of food for breakfast. For the first hour, I stopped at every closed cafe (just in case) or little shop I could see, with no success. People had stopped being helpful – probably because I was now exhausted, starving, soaking wet and dripping from the nose. I found a post office that sold chocolate and coke. I bought a mars bar and a coconut bar that simply turned out to be a bar of icing! I took one bite and spat it out – horrible stuff.
Finally I found a cafe called Eleanor’s Byre, glowing in heavenly light and staffed by angels… Well no actually, it was just that it had tea and cake.
‘Did you get caught in the rain?’ asked the owner
‘Yes.’ I replied, ‘I’m very happy to see you.’
‘Would you like some tea?’
‘What’s the biggest pot you’ve got?’
Refreshed, I continued on my journey, hoping to hit Holy Island by early afternoon. But now, in absence of the rain there were 20mph headwinds. Later, nature would get creative and combine both.
Come 5pm, having ridden hard for hours and eaten almost all of my emergency chocolate, there was still no sign of Holy Island. Thinking I might be lost I phoned Berwick YHA. I told them my location and they looked it up on Google. I was assured that I was 12 miles from Berwick, but to pedal fast because the weather was forecast to get worse.
I pushed on with a new sense of resolve, only to almost immediately see a blue cyclepath sign saying ‘Berwick 18miles’. It suddenly dawned on me how wrong Google Maps must be when measuring distances on the cyclepaths. No wonder today had taken much longer than expected!
With 18miles to go, something fused in me. My mind and body came into complete alignment with each other and I knew that I wasn’t going to give up. I rode as fast as I could, knowing the weather would only get worse. The weird bar of icing I’d bought that morning suddenly and mysteriously tasted delicious. Even when the path turned to a waterlogged field of rocks with only a 6inch wide mud track to follow, I had no thoughts of giving up. In fact, determined not to lose time by stopping to eat, I got out my emergency pie and held it with my left hand so I could eat it while riding.
In the end, I spent about an hour off-road in the borderline hail. Having fallen over into the mud, I decided to turn inland and find a main road, but my phone (which was also my GPS) had died and I had no idea which way to go. I had an emergency battery charger, but it turned out the phone was actually broken and wouldn’t charge.
Somehow I was undeterred and in my mind, this worsening of odds only served as confirmation that I couldn’t fail. I had a guess at which way was inland and soon hit the A1. Unlucky. Soon the police stopped me to find out what the hell I was doing cycling in the rain, down the side of the A1. Not illegal as it turns out, but worrying. When I explained my situation they actually escorted me the rest of the way to Berwick YHA. When I got there I couldn’t even hold a pen to fill in their arrivals form.
After that day I didn’t care what happened next. I didn’t know how far I had cycled but it didn’t matter anyway. I had just done 8 hrs on a fixed gear bike, loaded, in tough conditions and through tough terrain. It was a challenge that I’d never meant to take on, but having done it I felt I could do anything. The sense of focus I’d been able to draw on had surprised me and I felt secure knowing that I had those kind of reserves to call on.
The following day I was surprised to find that my legs didn’t even hurt. I spent a couple of hours in a bike shop getting the damage repaired that I had caused by riding a road bike off-road the day before. I can highly recommend Wilson Cycles in Berwick: an amazingly helpful, expert and honest place. The staff there were able to confirm that the 4-day route I had chosen was not 140miles at all, but just over 200! And the route I had ridden the day before was not the mapped 45miles, but a solid 60!
With no phone, GPS or map and another day of rain forecast, I had NO problem with skipping a day and getting the train from Berwick to Edinburgh.
Thus ended the first half of my adventure.