I’d thought I was going “into the wild”, but it turned out I was just going “into the gift shops”
Restored by 4 days staying in Edinburgh with friends, it was now time for my return journey to Newcastle. I felt confident that having survived the weather, rocks, mud and a police escort during my outward journey, I was both brave enough and fit enough to cycle from Edinburgh to Berwick-Upon-Tweed in one day. I had carefully measured the distance on Google Maps and at 62 miles, it would be the furthest I had ever ridden in one day.
I’d got a new smartphone since the old one had died (due to age, not damage) so I would have a more reliable phone-GPS than before. Even so, I felt that the best way to keep safe and to find my way, was to join other people if I met them. I’d been out there on my own and had had enough of that. During my outward journey I’d thought I was going “into the wild”, but it turned out I was just going “into the gift shops”. It was time to admit that the Coast and Castles path was far more densely populated than I’d imagined and I should just admit it and talk to people now and then.
The first person I met was called David. He was on a long journey to London and was aiming for Berwick by nightfall. Like me, he was wildcamping in fields and forests, but he had the most heavily loaded touring bike I’d ever seen! It was like a wheeled camel, with everything under the sun attached to it it, including a fold out chair, the kitchen sink and everything under the kitchen sink too. Each pannier had extra items dangling from it and a huge number of cords bungeed a pile of miscellaneous kit across the top of the rack.
David would tell you that whoever invented the caribena should be given a knighthood. He also said that whoever invented the bungee cord should be shot. This was something he would repeatedly mention whilst he was loading up his pannier rack after a rather nice lunch that he’d made for us with his extensive camping kitchen.
Unfortunately, David’s heavily weighted bike simply made him too slow for me to ride with all day without worrying that I’d never get anywhere. So I took his number in hopes of meeting up later when we’d both arrived in Berwick, and then cycled on.
Soon I met two more guys who were on their way to Berwick. It was the first leg of their Edinburgh to Derby Charity Ride, at 80miles per day. Learning that they were aiming to average 10-13mph (about the same as me), I was keen to stick with them.
Now we’ll have to call them, say, James and Matthew, because I simply can’t remember their names, neither could I find their Charity page on the Internet. However, if they are in fact reading, they should not be offended, because the only reason I can remember David’s name and not theirs, is because I took his number down.
The day ended up serving as a good way of comparing different sorts of bikes on the same route. James and Matthew were credit card touring – meaning they were taking the bare essentials in small panniers, staying in B&Bs and buying everything else they needed along the way. James had a hybrid with SPDs and Matthew had a mountain bike with plain pedals and no toe clips. I had my road bike in Single Speed mode rather than Fixed that day. I was using SPDs as always, and was carrying lightweight camping luggage in 2 panniers and a handlebar bag.
David, who I’d left to ride slowly some miles ago, was riding with 4 panniers, a handlebar bag, and seemingly had a magnet on the back of his pannier rack that attracted large metal objects which piled up on top of it. Having said of his sturdy touring bike “This is the heaviest she’s ever been”, I received a text from him mid afternoon, saying that he had buckled his front wheel and wouldn’t be seeing me in Berwick after all.
I felt sorry for the guy because I myself was only just realising how overambitious a solo cycle tour really is. The ideal situation for a beginner like myself would be to travel with someone who is experienced and good at fixing bikes. As it was, almost every day I had found myself searching for the nearest bike shop for one reason or another – a broken pump, an unexplained grinding noise, or a bit-that-has-fallen-off-and-gone-in-the-river.
I was grateful to have some people to cycle with that day.
On the Hybrid vs MTB vs Single Speed side of things, it was immediately evident that I was up every hill faster than the other two, but definitely appreciated having a rest at the top whilst I waited for them. Having only one gear my “strategy” had to be quite different to theirs. I couldn’t go slowly because I’d lose momentum, so I would sprint off as soon as I saw a hill coming up in the hope of gaining enough speed to make the climb easier.
James and Matthew would instead drop down to a comfortable gear and cadence and make steady uphill progress. It was clear that not only, was I faster, but I was also putting in more effort per hill than they were, and getting methodically exhausted. Matthew in particular could drop down to a low gear on his MTB and climb casually. In terms of stamina, he fared best throughout the day. The MTB also came out on top when yet again, marked cyclepaths that were supposed to be paved, turned to potholes held together by gravel.
After a few hours I had a blood sugar crash. It wasn’t exactly that I had forgotten to eat, but with so much up and downhill, it seemed like I just couldn’t eat fast enough on the short flat sections. We stopped for a break and James and Matthew rescued me with a high tech energy drink whilst I established that I was 2 chocolate bars away from normal bloodsugar. These guys were all about the high tech drinks, and I have to say, whilst they may not be any better than real food and water, it’s certainly easier to get the balance right with the electrolyte stuff.
“How far is it to Berwick?” I asked Matthew, who had both a cycle computer and a dedicated GPS.
“Well,” he said, looking at both “we’ve done 62 miles so far…”
“Hang on,” I said “shouldn’t that mean we’re there already? It’s 62miles from Edinburgh to Berwick”.
“No it isn’t. We’re doing 80miles a day, remember?”
It was then that I realised that Google Maps had failed me again. It was never 62 miles to Berwick – this was just an online map lie. Having already cycled the furthest I thought I could manage in 1 day, I was now going to have to do another 18miles.
Thankfully it turned out to be a little over 13 miles before I was bidding James and Matthew a fond farewell and returning once again to Berwick Youth Hostel, exhausted but happy. It was the steepest and longest day of the whole trip, but I had enjoyed the physical challenge, the scenery and the company, and felt tired but undamaged.
In the morning I discovered that actually I was damaged. I had taken good care of my legs the night before – massaging them with oil, and drinking a high tech recovery shake I’d received as a parting gift from James and Matthew, but I hadn’t considered that I might have worn out my arms. Yet in the morning it became clear that I had succumbed to the all too common “ulnar nerve inflammation”, characterised by the constant pins and needles in the last 2 fingers on each of my hands.
This can be caused by poor technique, but it turned out that in my case, it was most likely caused by riding a road bike with thin tyres on bumpy surfaces for long hours, and by riding much further than I was used to. It took me by surprise because I hadn’t felt any tingling during the ride, only afterwards, but apparently, that is how the inflammation usually manifests.
For all my worrying about taking a Fixed Gear bike on a cycle tour, my main problem turned out to be that my Fixed Gear bike was also a road bike with thin 100psi tyres. Having one gear was the least of my problems.
Since lots of UK cycle paths are not suitable for thin tyres (even if the map doesn’t specify) a road bike could just be the worst choice for a cycle tour that involves paths. I thought I was doing well because I didn’t break my bike. Turns out, I was just breaking myself instead.
I knew nothing about unlar nerve problems, but phoned a friend and learned enough to know that I shouldn’t ride with this injury for fear of doing permanent damage. I had to accept that this might be the end of my adventure.