Graham Hutson is editor of The Times On Your Bike cycling page.
You know you’re in trouble when you start asking yourself “what is the point?” This applies to life in general, but has a particular significance in cycling because when it boils down to it, you’ll actually find it a difficult question to answer.
Obviously there might be the necessity of a job to get to, or a place to be, but as a rule, we get on our bikes and ride just because. It is ultimately folly, pointless, and we love it for that very reason.
This is fine 90 percent of the time, when we’re within a stone’s throw from the front door, a brisk ride out, a quick slurp of coffee or a nibble of cake, and back in time for elevenses. That’s what it’s all about – getting out and seeing the countryside, a few trees.
But then one day someone will say, “Fancy riding from Manchester to London in one day?” and you say, “Yeah alright then”, because it seems like a good idea.
Then you look at a map and it doesn’t seem too far, really. Especially if you compare it to, say, America. But you forget that maps are a 1:25000 scale representation of the real thing and can therefore be deceiving.
You realise this around 100 miles into your 220 mile ride, when your group has gone ahead of you because you still had to use the loo and you’re all alone on a road with nothing but sparrows to keep you company, and all these little arrows to look out for to show you the way.
To this day I’m still uncertain which part of England I was in when existential angst hit and I started asking myself what the point of it all was – but I know it was during the solo part of my ride.
I hadn’t been having the most comfortable time of it anyway. Some sort of virus had hit me a couple of days before and was causing all sorts of discomfort. I was as miserable as sin for the the first few hours of the ride, as my companions would attest.
We had set out well before dawn from a Manchester velodrome thick with fog, heading south towards the Peaks in little packs of a dozen or so. The first few miles of gentle undulations gradually gave way to bigger and punchier little climbs, culminating in an absolute hound of a hill called Cowlow Lane. Such an innocent name for a climb that rose out of the mist like Godzilla. I was smug when I passed the first riders pushing their bikes, but that thing just kept rising – the limited visibility fostering a sense of foreboding hopelessness. It was a bleak place, both mentally and physically.
In my mind it was all downhill from there, but in reality we probably went over quite a few more humps. Then, more or less exactly 60 miles in, the sun heralded the beginning of the Midlands, which stretched out like a great, Serengeti-like plain ahead of us. Birds sang. They were right, I thought. It really had been grim up north.
You couldn’t have wished for better weather to cycle the length of the country. It was a warm and bright September day when the mist cleared – with barely a cloud in the sky. And if there was any wind at all, it must have been blowing in our direction. It was the sort of weather that would make you want to get on your bike and just keep riding until the sun set if you weren’t actually in the process of doing just that. We’d already ridden 60 miles before most people sat down for breakfast. It was a nice feeling, even if we were still facing the prospect of the 110 miles ahead of us.
This is when you realise the importance of the people you’re riding with. We had a good bunch; friendly, chatty. Many miles were eaten up just admiring the view and nattering away about nothing in particular, all the time someone making sure we were still together, and that no one had dropped off the back or been otherwise waylaid.
That could be why the angst bit hard when I found myself on my own. It took 25 miles to catch up with the group, far in excess of what I could ever have imagined. I might never have seen them again had I not jumped on the back of a chain gang of seriously driven individuals with fixed, lifeless expressions, who weren’t so much enjoying the view as affording it a passing glance while they burned through the countryside like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I never once spoke to any of them in what must have been a good ten mile journey together, and when I spotted my little crew laid out on the verge I couldn’t jump off that train fast enough.
For me this kind of ride is not a challenge of Strava-like achievements. It’s hard enough to cycle that kind of distance without half-killing yourself in the process. Things got surreal as it was coming down through the wooded lanes towards London, and don’t even get me started on Tottenham.
By the time we limped into the Olympic Park in Stratford I felt like I’d been riding my bike at least ten hours too long. My energy gels were threatening to make a multicoloured reappearance and I was communicating via hand signals and crazed mumbles. But we were cheered across the finish line like heroes, I will always remember that.
And therein lies “the point” to it all – the answer to the question. It might not be the most comfortable of experiences some of the time, but you will remember the day you cycled from Manchester to London long after the pain subsides.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll want to do it all again.
Graham Hutson completed the Manchester to London ride in just under 16 hours, and can still remember almost every minute. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @ghutson