The Calling: Gem Atkinson

The riding elixir

By Gem Atkinson

A recent graduate in a big city like London can be a tough place to be. I found myself counting those pennies; it seemed like one big, exciting struggle from one month to the next. I had at my disposal the chunkiest and most cumbersome of 90s mountain bikes. Its colossal tubes would made scaffolding poles look delicate and dainty.

This mammoth of a bike, this behemoth of weighty proportions, became my passport to saving the daily travelcard expense as I secured my first (and terribly paid) job as a photo editor.

“Every little helps” became the mantra as I slogged out the 6 km commute to the office, in somewhat of a brain fuzz, but happy to be away from public transport.

I realised that London wasn’t this vast, sprawling city, but in fact each suburb was relatively close and certainly manageable on two wheels. I found myself regularly riding a bicycle. It may have been austere and frugal reasons that initially saw me back in a saddle the first time since childhood, but as time went on, the bike became increasingly important.

Slowly and surely, this peculiar sport with these bizarre outfits and exotic looking bikes pulled me in. Further and further I disappeared down the wormhole of becoming a “proper” cyclist, its gravity too hard to resist. I found myself choosing to ride for fun rather than transport, I engaged in strange behaviour such as forgoing underwear under lycra shorts, mounting a Tour de France wall chart above my chair in the offic  and studiously checking weather forecasts for the weekend. By this point it would have appeared it was too late… the bug was inside me and I had segued into this curious sphere of discipline and focus, the need to behave ‘like a cyclist’. Out with the wild parties and evenings propping up the bar, and in with balanced meals, early nights and a weekly bike wash.

If I think back to try and remember one of the worst days I’ve had on a bike, it seems there’s been quite a few dark days, but I would genuinely struggle to say such bad days that I regretted heading out. Even the seemingly crappiest of days on the bike always ends with good vibes; I’m lucky that I can get out and taste it all.

I had a not-so-pleasant feeling recently on a 400km audax in Dorset. 22,000 feet of climbing and riding constantly through the night was quite tough indeed. My riding partner was suffering badly. A lack of sleep and the constant gradients were conspiring to turn him into a husk of a man. Early in the morning we split and I rode onwards, conscious that I was under some time pressure to get to the penultimate control. As I arrived alone, I presented my brevet card for stamping. Just the final 80km to crack and i would have done it. I sat down in the toilet and a huge wave of guilt came over me. I had left my pal (which he was totally fine with) and suddenly I was questioning if the achievement would outweigh the guilt and sadness of leaving my partner behind.

I went back outside toward my bike to the greatest surprise. There he was, beaming away! and only 10 minutes behind me! I was informed that a small 15-minute sleep roadside in a ditch was the miraculous cure, and he has gassed it to catch back up. Spirits were instantly lifted and I knew we were good to go. I should have a bit more faith and tell myself that it somehow works out in the end.

It’s funny. If I think about one of my most enjoyable and fulfilling days in the saddle, I actually spent it completely alone with myself and my thoughts. I’d had this idea that I wanted to just leave London on my bike and ride home to South Yorkshire, to my parents and the house I grew up in (around 275 km away, straight up England as the crow flies). Now… me being me of course, I never seemed to find the time all year with working such crappy shift hours and actually sitting down to plan the route, so it was early winter time in November before I finally got around to doing the ride.

I packed some weird snacks from the ethnic food aisle into my saddle bag (the food is way more interesting), popped on a rain jacket, fitted several lights like something akin to a gaudy Christmas tree on acid and away I went. Just like that.

I had at my disposal a basic Garmin without maps, and an actual paper map, but the breadcrumb was enough to point me on my merry way towards my childhood home. There was something so fantastic and liberating… Travelling all that way on my own by the power of my own two legs, with each seemingly insignificant pedal stroke helping me get from A to B.

I rode a good portion of the ride in the most beautiful darkness, with the final 75km through thick dense fog and drizzle, enhancing sevenfold this incredible sense of adventure in its purest form. I won’t forget that special ride, and I think as long as there are those kinds of rides possible in my future, I’ll be cycling for many years to come.

I feel like riding has actually proved to be a big reset button. As though by finding it, this button was pressed and effectively my life direction sort of shifted onto a different path. The incredible places I’ve been so lucky to ride in, to stand atop a mountain and feel like I could reach out touch the sky, it’s not only the sweetest of elixirs, but perhaps for myself, an addictive sensation.

The pure pleasure of riding a bicycle, it seems to restore within me this calmness and serenity. Its my coping strategy for stressful periods, and it’s also my escape. It my calling if you will.

Once I hit those country lanes, I feel as if I’ve found a refuge from the modern world.